Friday, January 02, 2009

Review of "Finding Ireland"

William Birdthistle:

Mr. Tillinghast spends little time considering whether the millions of 19th-century Irish who starved in or fled from Ireland would have needed to construct a national consciousness in order to despise and distance themselves from their imported overlords. Similarly, he neglects to consider that disproportionate literary production of the Anglo-Irish might have owed something to its disproportionate wealth, education and leisure.

The more one reads of Mr. Tillinghast's argument, the more it appears to betray an uncritical reverence toward the ruling classes for whom he believes sympathy is warranted. He dismisses as ahistorical the late Conor Cruise O'Brien's charges of snobbery against certain Anglo-Irish writers, though he has no qualms about celebrating their contemporary with the garden, Edith, the seventh Marchioness of Londonderry: "Surely a more remarkable woman never wore a diamond tiara, sailed a yacht, or rode to hounds." Mr. Tillinghast confesses to pilfering a 19th-century boot-blacking bill from the Gore-Booth estate as a memento to be framed. One senses that he would much prefer to be within the demesne wall than without it.

Mr. Tillinghast is a wonderful writer with great depths of knowledge and powers of analysis, but this particular collection might better be titled "Finding Anglo-Ireland -- and Loving It." Finding Ireland in such a way is akin to finding India in the writings of the Raj. Perhaps Mr. Tillinghast, like the excavators of Celtic artifacts he disdains, is simply drawing conclusions based on the curious habits of the elite alone.

Mr. Birdthistle, a native of County Cork, is a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.


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