Review: An American look at Irish history

Printed from:

“There are two kinds of people on St. Patrick’s Day: Those who are Irish, and those who wish they were.” As an Irish-American, I have always been proud to count myself as part of that first group. Growing up, however, I did not know much of the history of the Irish and the Irish-Americans. When I was younger, I learned pieces of the story and heard details about my own ancestors’ lives.  I then acquired further chunks of Irish history in my studies of the ancient and medieval time periods. However, like most Irish-Americans, I have never encountered the full, overarching narrative, such as the one Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents in “The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans.”

As Osborne-McKnight explains in the afterword, the book is meant to “fly like a space capsule high above the long sweep of Irish and Irish-American history,” so she could write the “big-picture book” she had been unable to find. And the author succeeds in that attempt, giving her fellow Irish-Americans an understanding of their past. She offers an explanation for the pride they have in their ancestors—a pride that has often been “a little vague” for most of them. Her book is written for both Irish-Americans and anyone else interested in the story. Osborne-McKnight paints the panorama of Irish and Irish-American history in broad strokes: Ireland’s ancient and mythological roots, the medieval Irish Christians, the invasions and starvation the Irish endured or escaped from, and the suffering they underwent to become American.

This book, however, is not simply a “history” or a list of facts; rather, it is a story described by a masterful teller. The most helpful way that Osborne-McKnight makes the work come alive is by weaving in her own pieces of historical fiction, so that each particular time period becomes more meaningful. For example, the story of Kathleen, whose starving father perishes by being blown over a cliff, evokes both horror and admiration when it is likened to the tragedies Irish ancestors endured so courageously.

Despite the limited parameters the author chose for her tale (thousands of years of history in only 250 pages!), Osborne-McKnight shines as both a storyteller and a teacher, and the roles blend beautifully throughout the book. She includes enriching details. For example, “[early] Irish battle attire was spectacular to the point of narcissism. The warriors’ hair was coiffed and often limed, their long bushy mustaches drooping past their chins…” And later she recounts that the Brooklyn Bridge “had to be built by going under the water of the river in ‘caissons.’ These were iron ‘rooms,’ shaped like jars, that were dropped below the water and pumped full of air so that the men could work under water. Many developed nitrogen narcosis in this environment, the agonizing condition that scuba divers call the bends.”

Not only does Osborne-McKnight weave in anecdotes and details, but she also includes brief definitions and pronunciation guides for the Irish words. The author’s distinctions are also helpful in describing the many and varied conflicts that occurred. For instance, she is careful to point out the economic roots of what appear to be racial or religious conflicts.

The annotated bibliographies after each major section of the book are delightful treasures, as are the contents, which provide a valuable guide for further reading and study. Visually, the book’s pages are appealing, since they are interspersed with photographs and illustrations by her daughter, Mara McKnight. The occasional typographical errors are distracting, but only slightly.

The most appreciable feature of the book is the way the author’s voice enlivens each page. The voice is humorous at times. In one instance, after describing St. Brendan’s wicker boat and its cowhide covering, salved in (“of all things”) butter, we are told that “Brendan put sails on this questionably seaworthy vessel…” The author is often reflective: when describing the interaction between the natural and the supernatural in the stories of the saints, Osborne-McKnight gently reminds us that, “Before we scoff, with our modern minds, we might be wise to consider whether we have simply lost or abandoned our own ability to see and hear.” We also share her passion and righteous indignation when, for example, she describes the prejudices against Irish Catholics in America, or tells of the shame and horrors of the Famine years.

As part of her storytelling approach, the author does at times interject her own perspective, such as the implication that the Catholic Church today is sexist and exclusionary. Nevertheless, most readers will appreciate her thoughtful and clear approach to a long and complex history, and will relish the “heroes and villains, music and stories, joys and sorrows.” The book is, indeed, “a feast—a huge buffet celebration,” and one that will inspire readers to delve more deeply into their past while carrying their ancestors’ stories forward for future generations.