100 Facts About Sharks – Quick Review

Shark Facts

David O’Doherty, Claudia O’Doherty, & Mike Ahern

Random House (2012), 208 pages

Irish Cancer Society Charity Shop Phibsboro – 50c

100 Facts About Sharks contains 100 facts and 100 photographs to illustrate the facts.  Some nuggets include, “Dwayne Tandy is reckoned to be the only person raised by sharks.”  “A group of 12 hammerhead sharks with over 12 members is called a toolbox.”  “The sello shark is the world’s most adhesive shark.”  Unfortunately this book isn’t waterproof so is not recommended as an emergency guide if you ever have the misfortune to drunkenly topple off your skiff into shark infested waters.



UFO in Her Eyes – Quick Review


Xiaolu Guo 郭小櫓  China.png

Vintage (2009), 200 pages

SVP Charity Shop Rathmines, €1

Guo’s satire takes the form of intelligence files prepared during the interview of rural peasants following a UFO sighting in the village of Silver Hill in 2012.  Guo exposes the fault lines in a supposedly classless society.  Although China is ruled by a totalitarian government my impression is that many Chinese people are not afraid of speaking their minds (I spent seven weeks in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet a few years ago).  Their speech is not quite as rigorously suppressed as we are sometimes led to believe in the West.  Rural Chinese are increasingly speaking their minds as they realise that they have been left lagging behind in China’s economic boom.  They no longer receive the benefits of communism, such as free education, but still must suffer under the rule of a corrupt, and sometimes violent, bureaucracy and police state.  The right to universal rights such as freedom of speech are increasingly finding voice in a society that can, despite the Great Firewall, find information on the internet regarding basic rights.  Chinese peasants are increasingly standing up for their legal rights too and challenging, in some cases by force, blatant examples of government abuse.  Government abuse has taken the shape of blatant land grabs or the building of factories that pollute farming land and cause health problems.

Even the idea of a UFO is a Western one, a modern version of a religious vision which can grant meaning to the life of someone overlooked by society.  Unmarried, thirty seven year old Kwok Yun, lives with her father and is the only person who sees the UFO. She is suffering from menstruation pains and is dizzy shortly before she sees, “…a large silver plate appeared in the sky and flew towards the Hundred Arm tree.  At first I thought it must be a daydream.  But then I realised that the noise was coming from the enormous metal plate.  I stared at it terrified.  It was as if I was a tiny insect, exposed on the soil, about to be eaten by a big bird.” (p. 21)  Immediately after seeing the UFO she finds an injured foreigner who she helps.  Kwok Yun, although initially disparaged for being unmarried and plain looking proves herself to be kind and intelligent, with a poetic streak.  In contrast the investigative agents sent from the city clearly regard the peasants as beneath them.  Beijing Agent 1919 complains that the locals can’t understand him (he blames this on the peasants as he doesn’t feel that part of the problem might lie with him) and says the local policemen, “aren’t the brightest of people” (p. 25).  The peasants make repeated references to the disaster of the Cultural Revolution which resulted in famine (with some being forced to resort to cannibalism to survive).  It’s clear that their suspicions of central government are in part based on an unofficial history based on folk-tales, family experience, and gossip.  The peasants are quite conservative in their approach to life and this can have an unpleasant side in their suspicions of the migrant bicycle mender.  Kwok Yun is the only one who strives to understand him as a person.  But the peasant’s xenophobia is mirrored by the Chinese government which sees foreigners as a potential threat.

Xiaolu Guo’s tale highlights the challenges faced by the Chinese government and its agents as they attempt to keep the Chinese population compliant through coercion and promises of economic rewards.  Xiaolu’s book pokes fun at a Chinese regime that is not known for its sense of humour.  The Chinese regime are portrayed as lacking in creativity and imagination and is unable to cope with the quick witted maneuverings of its citizens.  Historically the Chinese regime has faced down the threat posed by challengers with violence.  It will be interesting to see if the violence that Chinese rulers have unleashed on their own people in the 20th century will be repeated in the 21st.


UFO China

Credit: ufosightingsdaily.com

Ambiguous Republic, Ireland in the 1970s – Review

Ireland in the 1970s

Diarmaid Ferriter  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Profile Books (2012), 823 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €16.99

Irish History & Politics  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Ambiguous Republic, Ireland  in the 1970s is a comprehensive survey of the political, cultural, and social life of 1970s Ireland.  The 1970s really was a seminal decade in Ireland’s history.  The relative stagnation that followed independence was overcome through an ability to look beyond the traditional outlooks that had dominated the previous decades.  Diverse opinions had always existed in Ireland but, for the first time since independence, these voices weren’t censored or marginalised, in fact some were allowed to flourish.  The 1970s marked Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community, the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland (and the Arms Crisis), the death of Éamon de Valera, a reduction in economic protectionism, the beginnings of the of the gradual decline in the power of the Catholic Church (despite the visit of Pope John Paul II), and the creation of an authentic Irish pop culture.

There has been recent controversy about Ambiguous Republic and its representation of Labour TD and Government Minister David Thornley.  Ferriter is critical of Thornley’s approach to Northern Republicans and claims Thornley never visited Northern Ireland (p.216).  David Thornley died in 1978 but his brother, Edward, wrote a letter to History Ireland magazine (an article also appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper) refuting this claim and requesting that a corrections slip be placed in all copies of Ambiguous Ireland.  While I understand Edward Thornley’s wish to defend his brother’s name I suspect that the request to insert a correction slip into the book is somewhat vexatious.  Ferriter has admitted his error and says he relied on an incorrect secondary source.  Whilst Ferriter has made an mistake his error doesn’t wholly alter the impression he wants to convey about Thornley.  As an avid reader of history books I don’t expect every single fact in a large book to be correct (although an accumulation of errors or errors used to support the thesis of a book would be more serious).  Indeed two authors could use the exact same set of facts and reach completely different conclusions.  I suspect if Ferriter had shown David Thornley in a better light then the factual error might have been overlooked.  A similar case involved Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky where those opposed to Service’s conclusions about Trotsky picked at, arguably minor, factual errors in order to undermine a point of view they disagreed with.

Perhaps Ambiguous Republic is overly long (the actual text is almost 700 pages) as Ferriter covered 100 years of Irish history in The Transformation of Ireland with a similar number of pages.  For my money The Transformation of Ireland is marginally more enjoyable but Ambiguous Republic is unbeatable for an in-depth look at the 1970s.  Controversies surrounding the Garda Síochana, questions about how the Irish State should commemorate republican uprisings, the urban/rural divide, and the role of the Catholic Church are all issues which have a resonance today.


Thomas Clarke – Review

Tom ClarkeHelen Litton China.png

The O’Brien Press (2014), 272 pages

Book Launch, Hodges Figgis, €13

Thomas Clarke is part of the 16 Lives series about the 16 men executed following the 1916 Rising.  Clarke was the first signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and was the oldest man to be executed after the Rising.  Clarke’s belief in the necessity of the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland resulted in him joining the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  In 1883 Clarke (under the alias Henry Hammond Wilson) was sentenced to penal servitude for life for his part in a plot to blow up London Bridge.

Litton’s description of Clarke’s time in prison is eye-opening and partly explains his lifelong hatred of the British state (although being a member of the  IRB it’s arguable that his hatred of the British state had already been fully formed).  Litton describes a prison system based on a combination of separation (solitary confinement for a certain period) followed by silence (mixing was allowed with other prisoners but absolute silence was enforced).  Prisoners were allowed visitors every six months, but this privilege was withdrawn for breaking prison rules.  I’d never heard of the silent system but its mental effects seem similar to those of solitary confinement, “The ‘silent’ system came very hard on the prisoners, with its complete ban on the most trivial of chat, or even the exchange of a wink.  Gradually several of the Fenian prisoners, notably Gallagher and Whitehead, began to show signs of mental derangement, but this was denied by the authorities.  Clarke states that he and others did all they could to draw attention to this, but that Governor Harris would not listen to them, and any letters mentioning it were censored or suppressed.  Tom quotes a letter he wrote to Redmond [a leading Irish politician] in 1895, which of course never got to its recipient, in which he describes Whitehead eating crushed  glass in the carpenter’s shop” (p. 50).  Clarke remained sane by performing mental calculations and using the paltry supply of reading materials to learn shorthand and then translate the Bible into shorthand twice!  Clarke was released in 1898 after serving 15 years’ imprisonment.

Following Clarke’s release he married Kathleen Daly and moved to New York for a while.  However he returned to Dublin in 1907 and opened a tobacconist’s shop in Parnell Street.  In 1913 the Irish Volunteers were formed and secretly the IRB took a leading role.  The Irish Volunteers were a nationalist organisation aimed at counteracting the threat from the Ulster Volunteers.  The Irish Volunteers, although organised along military lines, was supported by John Redmond’s respectable Irish Parliamentary Party. The Irish Volunteers reached a peak membership of 180,000 but the outbreak of World War I was a disaster for physical force republicans like Clarke.  Redmond implored the Irish Volunteers to join the British Army and the vast majority of them did, leaving the Irish Volunteers with only about 11,000 men.  The full details of the confusion surrounding the Easter Rising, the destruction to the city of Dublin, the surrender of the rebels, the execution of 16 of them, and the public reaction which created the groundwork for the successful War of Independence have been retold elsewhere.  Clarke, because of his age and general ill health played little role in the actual fighting but was an important father figure to the rebels.

Sackville St. (O'Connell St.) after the 1916 Rising Credit: Wikipedia

Sackville St. (O’Connell St.) after the 1916 Rising
Credit: Wikipedia

Although Thomas Clarke doesn’t go into details the book does mention the allegation that a British soldier, Percival Lea-Wilson, stripped the captured  Clarke in public in order to humiliate him.  This story has a curious link to how Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Taking of the Christ, ended up in Dublin.  Apparently the IRB took note of Lea-Wilson and the treatment he meted out to Clarke and other rebels after their capture.  In revenge the IRA shot Lea-Wilson in Wexford in 1920.  Lea-Wilson’s widow, Marie Lea-Wilson’s confessor was a Jesuit priest.  In gratitude for the priest’s support she donated The Taking of the Christ to the Jesuits in Dublin in the 1930s.  It was only when a Jesuit brought the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland for cleaning that its true value was recognised.  It is strange to note that had Lea-Wilson not humiliated Clarke on a Dublin street after the Rising it’s possible that a great masterpiece might no longer be in Dublin.

Clarke was executed by firing squad at about 4.15am on Wednesday 3rd May 1916.  Clarke, in his final visit with his wife, left her a message, “I and my fellow-signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Freedom.  The next blow, which we will strike, will win through.  In this belief we die happy” (p.208).  Clarke’s words proved prophetic as within less than a decade Ireland would have gained independence from Britain.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising there has been much debate about the role of the Rising and whether it was a necessary step towards Irish freedom.  Former Taoiseach John Bruton caused much controversy when he suggested the Rising wasn’t necessary.  Much of the reaction to Bruton’s comments showed a certain lack of maturity.  I disagree with Bruton’s comments but he is entitled to make them and in making them he is no less Irish than others who hold an opposing view.  British actions following World War I showed that they were unlikely to grant Home Rule to Ireland as they had promised.  The 1916 Rising was, in hindsight, a necessary step in winning the War of Independence.  That is not to say that the methods used by Clarke in 1916 are justifiable in other times.  To say that you agree with the 1916 Rising does not necessitate that you agree with republican violence in the 1970s (or indeed loyalist or British violence) or dissident republican violence in the present day.  Thomas Clarke provides a clear picture of one of the Rising’s most important figures and the motivations for his actions.


Related Links

easter1916.ie – Excellent Griffith College website on 1916 Rising

National Library of Ireland – NLI 1916 website

johnbruton.com – Text of speech about the 1916 Rising and why Ireland should have stuck with constitutional nationalism

Irish Independent article on John Bruton’s remarks about the 1916 Rising

Irish Times article on John Bruton’s remarks about the 1916 Rising

Irish Examiner article in which Gerry Adams criticises Bruton’s remarks

Percival Lea-Wilson article from a blog critical of the War of Independence

1Q84 – Quick Review











Haruki Murakami 村上 春樹  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Books 1 & 2 (2009), 624 pages – Translated by Jay Rubin

Book 3 (2010), 368 pages – Translated by Philip Gabriel

Books 1 & 2 Christmas Present

Book 3, Charity Shop, €1

I received Books 1 & 2 as a Christmas present in 2012 but it took me until 2014 to eventually finish 1Q84.  I love Haruki Murakami’s novels but, frankly, I was underwhelmed by 1Q84.  Murakami’s characters are well drawn and have all the quirkiness you would expect from a Murakami character.  Unfortunately the plot lacks enough of an engine to drive it over 3 books and almost a thousand pages.

The book is set in 1984 and includes a hitwoman, Aomame, who can kill her victims without leaving any evidence.  Already I was left with a slight lack of credibility that Aomame would be able to kill people without leaving any cause of death on the body.  If Aomame had used some special power to kill her victims I could suspend my belief to accept that but I find it hard to believe that she can physically leave a body with no signs of death.  The story surrounding the young author Fuka-Eri and her relationship with her editor Tengo (who actually has to rewrite part of Fuka-Eri’s novel to make it a bestseller) is good even if the lust he feels for her smacks slightly of an older man’s fantasy (and their sex scene is bizarrely horrific even if the purpose of their sex isn’t sexual pleasure).  Tengo’s terrible relationship with his father is excellently described and is unresolved by the end of the book.  The main plot revolves around a religious cult (something Murakami knows about if you’ve read his non-fiction book Underground), the cult’s sexually abusive leader, Fuka-Eri’s link to the cult, and a group of fairy-like creatures called the Little People and their creation of an “Air Chrysalis “.  The Little People and the Air Chrysalis are vital cogs in the entire plot but, for me, they were completely inadequate (in terms of their explanation and function) to keep me fully engaged for three books.  By the end of the book I didn’t really care what happened just as long as it finished soon.

Over almost a thousand pages 1Q84 lacks the meat to sustain a reader.  The length of 1Q84 results in a thin plot spread out so thinly that instead of enjoying the usual Murakami feast, you are left with a bowl of watered down gruel.  Nonetheless a below par Murakami is still better than many novelists out there.  1Q84 has been an international bestseller and had plenty of positive reviews (although sometimes I think book reviewers fear to give world renowned authors a bad review) so I presume some of 1Q84‘s readers enjoyed the books more than I did!


James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner – Quick Review

Joyce Graphic

Alfonso Zapico  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

The O’Brien Press (2013), 235 pages

A Present

I don’t buy many graphic novels but when I get one as a present I always enjoy them.  James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner is a straightforward biography of James Joyce.  It starts around the time of his birth and ends with his death.  The drawing is excellent and superbly captures Joyce’s various homes in Dublin, Paris, Trieste, and Zurich.  Zapico pulls no punches in describing Joyce’s tempestuous relationship with Nora Barnacle or in describing Joyce’s difficult personality.  Joyce was a genius but his arrogance and eccentric behaviour could leave a lot to be desired.  Zapico also graphically illustrates the effects of Joyce’s alcoholic drinking habits on his family, especially Nora.  Nonetheless it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Joyce.  His artistic genius was never fully appreciated in his home country.  He struggled to make ends meet (although when he did get money he frittered it away) and was forced to move across Europe by two world wars.  His daughter, Lucia, struggled with mental illness, a mental illness that possibly wasn’t helped by her parents’ chaotic lifestyle.  Towards the end of his life Joyce suffered the debilitating effects of trachoma and he died in Zurich on 13th January 1941 at 2.15am.  Joyce’s works stand as a worthy testament to his genius but Zapico’s graphic novel provides a great introduction for those who want to find out more about his life.



Sackville St Dublin (before being renamed O’Connell St. in 1924)