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‘Unconventional epic’

March 21, 2018

By

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

When historian Breandán Mac Suibhne was born in Dungloe, his father went to a neighbor, Denis Gallagher, to ask him for a lift into the hospital to see his wife and new baby, “and off they set in the Austin Cambridge.”

In “The End of Outrage,” Mac Suibhne reports that “Denis, happily, is alive and well and his extended family and my people, and the other families in Beagh, have all, in living memory, been good neighbors to each other.”

Denis, though, is the great grandson of the man of the same surname mentioned in Mac Suibne’s summary below. The historian has no inhibitions about telling this in part because the ancestor “was simply on the side that in time prevailed.”

He adds in the book’s prologue that this story “illuminates differences in feeling and understanding, not simply between people in that distant time, but between the long dead and their lineal descendants.”

Mac Suibhne told the Echo: “Most histories of Ireland’s Great Famine focus on what was done to and for the poor, by landlords, charities, and the state. I am interested in what the poor did to and for each—good and bad. ‘The End of Outrage’ tells the story of a west Donegal schoolmaster, Patrick McGlynn, who in 1856 betrayed a secret society, the Molly Maguires, ostensibly to protect a man named James Gallagher, who had been targeted by them. Gallagher had acquired land from his neighbors in sordid circumstances, both during and immediately after the Famine, and he had further riled the Mollies by clearing some subtenants.”

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The book is a history that “becomes something of a memoir as it considers how the rural poor came to terms with their loss, how their outrage ended.”

He added: “Although it is very much a story of a small place in west Donegal, it has resonated strongly with people from other parts of the west of Ireland who grew up hearing whispered histories of land-grabbing and informing—and people interested in genealogy have been using it as a guide to the archives as they try to put some historical flesh on the bare bones of births, deaths, and marriages, passenger lists and the like.”

Mac Suibhne said: “From before the Famine through until the early 1900s, people were emigrating from west Donegal to the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania, and the book is alert to the impact of those movements on society and culture back home. It has been really gratifying for me to see the level of interest in the book among people whose forebears settled in Pennsylvania.”

Back home, “The End of Outrage” has been a hit. In what the Irish Times described as a “bit of an upset,” readers in a competition voted it Irish Non-Fiction Book of 2017. And in the same publication reviewer Christopher Kissane, a historian at the London School of Economics, wrote: “It is impossible not to be moved by the humanity with which Mac Suibhne writes of his ancestors and their neighbors, or to be provoked by his unconventional epic. From a local row he has crafted an extraordinary work of history that makes its own importance.”

 

Breandán Mac Suibhne.

PHOTO BY RICHARD WAYMAN

 

Breandán Mac Suibhne

Date of birth 1969

Place of birth Dungloe, Donegal

Spouse Kathryn Kozarits

Children Nóra Rose and Sarah

Residence New Jersey

Published works “The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland” (Oxford, 2017); “Subjects Lacking Words? The Gray Zone of the Great Famine” (Hamden, 2017); as editor, John Gamble’s “Society and Manners in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland” (Dublin, 2011); as editor, with Enda Delaney, “Ireland’s Great Famine and Popular Politics” (New York, 2016); as editor, with Seamus Deane, “Field Day Review (2005–10)”; as editor, with David Dickson, Hugh Dorian’s “The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal” (Dublin, 2000; South Bend, 2001).

 

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

Where I can and when I can. Ideal conditions? More time. No internet.

 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

For academic writers, there is no point writing it if what you write cannot be read.

 

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

Kerby A. Miller’s “Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985) is a magisterial work—a must-read for anybody interested in the making of Irish America.

Susan McKay’s “Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People” (Belfast, 2000) is one of the most outstanding books on Ireland written in the last 50 years.

Cormac Ó Gráda’s “Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, its Past, and its Future” (Princeton, 2015)—a highly readable reflection on famine in general by the grandmaster of Famine Studies; it deserves a wide readership.

 

What books are you currently reading?

Paul Lynch’s “Grace: A Novel” (London and New York, 2017) is a beautifully crafted story that has received richly deserved plaudits at home and abroad. I am also re-reading two classic studies of death—Drew Gilpin Faust’s pitch perfect “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” (New York, 2008) and Vincent Brown’s “The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery” (Cambridge, Mass., 2008),

 

Is there a book you wish you had written?

 

“Stalingrad” (London, 1998) by Anthony Beevor—I would now drive a better car.   But if motoring issues were not a concern, maybe Angela Bourke’s “The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story” (London, 1999)—a stunning book on the cultural world of late 19th-century Tipperary, where a young woman was burned alive by her family and neighbors.

 

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

Roy Foster’s “Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923” (London, 2014) was a surprise—one thinks one knows “the story” of the fight for Irish freedom but Foster, by focusing on the private and social lives of young people who became involved in republican politics, produced a most absorbing and insightful book.

 

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Theobald Wolfe Tone with Thomas Russell—in Belfast.

 

What book changed your life?

James G. Nourse, “The Simple Solution to Rubic’s Cube” (London, 1981). I have never looked back.

 

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

West Donegal—it puts the wild into the Wild Atlantic Way.

 

You’re Irish if …

You identify with the underdog—and never forget that not all the Irish do.

Breandán Mac Suibhne.

PHOTO BY RICHARD WAYMAN

 

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