I've been fascinated by English history since I first watched Ivanhoe as a young boy. They've got knights and barons and druids and archers and juries and parliaments and roses and Roundheads and Romans and Robin Hood. They've nefarious hunchbacks and mad kings and warrior queens. Who could ask for anything more?
And, despite being Australian, I think of British history as my history. Well, at least up until 1788, and maybe even up until 1901. This partly comes from my mother & her family being British emigrants and partly from consuming lots of British media, like the aforementioned Ivanhoe.
Of course, technically I'm not British, I'm Irish. Mum was born in Dublin, and thus I'm an Irish citizen. When we were young she used to talk about her Irish granny and her thick Irish brogue and what not, but if ever our family talked about the Old Country (we didn't) then really it's Middlesex, England. I ended up with a vaguely English accent, which has only got worse (better) since moving to London.
Certainly I didn't know any of the stories of Ireland, at least not beyond St. Patrick. I could spin you a yarn about Captain Cook discovering the world, or Elizabeth I defeating the Spanish armada, or the noble, Christian Romano-Celts bravely failing to hold off an invasion from the smelly, pagan Germanic tribes, or the Jacobites toasting the King over the water, or Saxon peasants farming cows in order to serve the Norman lords their boeuf, but precious little about Ireland. So for a long time I was on the lookout for a book about Irish history, one that would give me an overview of the whole thing.
The closest one I've found wasn't exactly about Irish history, but was a fascinating book nonetheless. It's The Isles by Norman Davies, and it aims to be a history of the British Isles spanning from the dawn of time to the present day. There are three unusual things about it that are worth calling out.
The first is that Davies is deliberately setting out to redress an
imbalance in the way British history is taught. According to him, what
is currently called British history is really English history. This
seems true enough to me. The Magna Carta, Boadicea and Cromwell all
have next to nothing to do with Scotland or Ireland [availability
heuristic]. Hence the title, which
specifically avoids labelling the archipelago on which your correspondent's posterior is now comfortably planted. It is the central conceit of the book: he tries to tell an Irish history together with an English history, a Scottish history and a Welsh history.
He takes it further though, seizing every opportunity he can to point out this confusion at the heart of British identity. In his discussion of the Victorian era, he even goes to the lengths of referring to an English "inner empire" which forms the blueprint for the British "outer empire". He points out that Shakespeare got his geography wrong when he called England "this scepter'd isle", and that the thing that makes Land of Hope and Glory work is that the land in question is conveniently left unspecified.
The second quirk is in Davies's nomenclature. He insists on trying to spell the names of people and places the way they would have. Thus, William the Conquerer is always "Guillaume" because he was French, you know. It does not work at all in the pre-historic parts (the "Midnight Isles"? Really?), but works surprisingly well once history actually gets going. You can't help but think of King James I of England differently when you are reminded every time his name is mentioned that he always signed himself "Jacques".
Third, he bangs on about Europe. Instead of keeping his island history properly insular, he is constantly referring to how political and economic forces on the mainland – I mean, the Continent – have driven events in Britain and Ireland. It's almost as if he thinks that the Sleeve – sorry, the Channel – is small enough to swim across.
It's these three things that make The Isles what it is. Whether people praise it or condemn it, they generally do so for these three reasons. Otherwise, the book is entertaining and well written. Since I was reading it to cure myself of ignorance I am the worst possible judge of its accuracy. The best I can say there is that whatever fibs Davies tells are at least plausible. It is colossally heavy though, so if you can get an electronic copy, do so.
If you don't have the time, may I suggest 1066 and All That instead?
Next week's word: island.