An Irishman’s History of Everything

By Brian Fawcett | October 5, 2007


An Irish History of Civilization, by Don Akenson, McGill-Queens Press,
2005, 2 volumes, 1524 pages, HB, $39.95 apiece.

First things first: An Irish History of Civilization is a global literary event, constructed by a remarkable intelligence and a fine writer, and everyone ought to read it. Yes, it’s two volumes and 1500 pages. But it’s completely readable, and it’s hard to find a dull or even dry moment in it. Don Akenson is an anecdotist, and within the broad structure he’s given himself to work with, follows a thousand fascinating tracks through his narrative, which is both competent historiography, and excellent story-telling.

An Irish History of Civilization is therefore many books, but one kind of book it is not is ethnic propaganda of the sort that is becoming altogether too common in this era of ethnic prides and chauvinisms. This is no wailingly righteous enumeration of Irish victimization across the centuries, or even an argument that the more-than-passing acquaintanceship with misery and oppression the Irish can legitimately claim constitutes a moral superiority that cries out for redress. For Akenson, the Irish are a multi-faceted lense through which to view, in its complexities, the collective human enterprise of which the Irish are a part.

“Taken together,” he writes in his preface, “this Irish history of civilization is a micro-Talmud of humankind: for, ultimately, we are all of the one stock, and what we learn of one of us tells us something about each of us.”

An Irish History of Civilization is organized into four “books”, starting from the beginning of the “Common Era” within Western Civilization, and ending, sort of, at a Billy Graham prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1970. But the incidents and figures cited implicate human doings before that, and thoroughly penetrate the currents of 21st century culture.

Book One, “Downpatrick is the Butterfly Capital of the Universe” begins in the ragged overlap between historical time
and barbarian prehistory, moves along its uneasy edge, which still excludedmost of humanity well past the middle ages, and excluded most of the Irishuntil at least the 20th century. Necessarily, it covers events andcharacters far beyond the cultural boundaries of what is commonly thought of as “Irish”. The section takes us, nominally, to 1785 and the eve of the French Revolution.

Book Two, “Kings of the Wild Frontier?” covers Irish doings during the period between 1785 and the cataclysm of the potato famine, the effects of which reached its apex in the late 1840s, touchingoff a deluge of forced emigration, and the beginnings of Ireland’s quest for political independence.

Book Three,  “Half the Globe’s Our Home”, takes us from the famine to the 20th century, with special sections on the impact of Irish immigration in Canada and the U.S.

Book Four, “America’s Century,” begins with a re-sorting of the characters and events that led to Irish independence–such as it was–and follows the evolution of the diaspora across the world, ending, appropriately,
in the
U.S., where the diaspora arguably gained its greatest influence.

* * *

So, who is Don Akenson? He’s Donald Harman Akenson, Professor of History at Queens University at Queens University since 1974. He got there via a Yale BA and a Harvard PhD. If he’s not well known within Canadian literary circles, he’s well-respected in academia,. He was the 1995 Canada Council Molson Laureate in the Social Sciences and Humanities, has four honourary degrees from Canadian universities, and a list of other awards far too long to enumerate here. He isn’t short on literary distinctions, either, with a 1995 Trillium for his biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien, a 1998 GG non-fiction nomination for Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, and a
nomination in 2000 for the Writers Trust Non-fiction Prize (now called the Pearson Prize) for Saint Saul: A Skeleton
Key to the Historical Jesus
–and these are just the highlights. Depending on who you’re talking to about him, he’s the world’s leading expert on the Irish diaspora or the planet’s most innovate non-devotional scholar on the subject of Christianity’s prehistory and early history. He’s published 16 non-fiction works and five novels, and is a founding editor and one of guiding spirit within the remarkable McGill-Queens University Press.

And yet, he’s more than all this. Even with a basketful of university degrees, he’s a autodidact, with a range of interests and intellectual expertise wider than I’ve encountered in many years. Maybe that’s what has given him the confidence
to crunch historiography and fiction into a form that plays common sense vernacular and scholarship on the same surfaces. He himself describes what he’s made as “a collection of fictive short stories or, if you prefer, Aggadah
[rabbinical stories, legends, history, and witticisms that lack the authority of doctrine]
.” He derived it partly from decades of Talmudic investigation, and partly from the model provided by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s three volume Memory of Fire, which was first published in English in 1985. Akenson freely acknowledges both debts, even dedicating the work to Galeano.

McGill-Queens is to be commended for its courage in publishing a book–two books in this case–with this heft and scope. It isn’t the first time it has done something like this, either. Two years ago it published Gordon Sheppard’s astounding 865 page tome Ha! A Self-Murder Mystery, which was a reconstruction of the life and 1977 suicide of Quebec writer Hubert Aquin, which got acclaimed notice around the world if not in Canada, and pushed the boundaries of what books can accomplish into new cultural territory. With these two projects alone (not to mention the rest of its heteroclite publishing list over the past few years) it has demonstrated a willingness to do what Canada’s literary presses no longer have the courage or resources to do: support unorthodox literary and intellectual projects with its full resources. In that sense, McGill-Queens is a model for what university presses ought to be doing in the 21st century, andusually don’t have the vision to attempt. They’re doing it, and it has already made them the country’s most interesting publisher–of any kind.  

* * *

There’s no way to give an encompassing review of An Irish History of Civilization, except to say that it is marvellous, can be read successfully by a dozen different strategies and with as many intents, and that it is worth every penny of the stick price because it will educate and entertain for years. What I can do is try to open it for readers by examining its relation to the two figures to whom it is dedicated: Sir Walter Raleigh, who Akenson says somewhat cryptically, “should have known better” and Galeano, who he says “certainly does.”

His handling of Raleigh is spread episodically and intermittently across just 40 pages of the book. It does not constitute a conventional biography, because Akenson’s narrative method is anecdotal, epigrammatic, and granular,
and he’s not very interested in pageantry or costumes. Most of us know Raleigh as a handsome privateer who brought tobacco back from the new world, behaved like Errol Flynn in a Hollywood pirate movie, and curried favour with the virgin Queen Elizabeth–and unaccountably fell out of favour and was beheaded. Akenson barely touches on these clichés, instead offering several gritty anecdotes about his behaviour in Ireland, provides an insightful prison cameo that explains not only why his five volume History of the World ends in 168 CE, but illuminates, pretty much, why he
“should have known better.”

Before that, he offers several aspects of Raleigh’s character I didn’t know about, including this one, taken from his Irish sojourn early in his career:

“…In August, 1580, makes his first impression upon his superiors in Ireland and ultimately upon the Queen. Sir
James Fitzgerald, brother of the earl of Desmond was captured and brought to trial. Raleigh, who held the rank of captain and a second man of equal rank, Captain Sentleger, were constituted a legal commission to deal with him. Upon the recommendation of this drumhead jury, Sir James was hanged, drawn and quartered. His body was spread above the city gate of
Cork, there to desiccate for weeks and to communicate a moral lesson to all who passed beneath.

The other brother of the earl of Desmond, Sir John Fitzgerald, was killed in askirmish during the following year. At that time Raleigh was acting governor of Cork. He commanded that the corpse be beheaded and the body suspended, hanging upside by its heels, over the River Lee. There it hung for three years until it was a skeleton.

The head of Sir John, however, was not used so prodigally.

Raleigh sent it to the Virgin Queen, describing it as ‘a goodly gift to her Highnesse.’”

A few pages
later, we catch a chilling glimpse of Edmund Spenser, the author of The Faerie Queene.

Spenser, like
Raleigh, was a man whose hard and instinctive brutality was constantly being overlimed with a wash of chivalry; and that wash was then enhued into a mural, one so graceful that the viewer forgotthat the artist had used a pigment whose fixative was blood.

“I shall arrange you an audience with the Queen. You shall read those words to herand she shall fall before you as a swan before a golden arrow.”

Spenser and Raleigh had first met at Smerwick, County Kerry in November, 1580. Raleigh was one of the officers whom Lord Grey de Wilton, lord deputy of Ireland, had commanded to massacre the Spanish, Italian and Irish garrison after it had surrendered. Spenser, newly-arrived from England, was secretary to the lord deputy. He watched the slaughter with the eye for detail that was to be so useful to his poetry. On his path to Smerwick, Spenser had observed a harvesting of seals by a crew from a coasting barge and he was struck by the similar techniques
employed in each massacre.

All of these vignettes have a singular and highly unusual character. For Akenson, Raleigh’s life, despite the brutal
incidents and the high drama, is also like any one of our lives: contradictory, inter-cut by opportunities seized or unseized, and by misadventure and happenstance.

Here and throughout the two volumes, he implies that a one-dimensional, lineally coherent human life–the kind that conventional historians mostly trade in, is, when it is not pernicious fiction or the creation of distorting essentialization, at least an extreme rarity, a privilege, and most likely to be deadly boring. In his grainy view, all of us, even stars like Raleigh, are cast members in an assemblage, and individuals rise to visibility and /or significance unpredictably and frequently not in the parts of the play they have authored and expect to be part of.

Akenson, I think, doesn’t believe in either the mystical formalities of fiction that, at its best, simplifies human reality into an essentialized coherence, and at worst, separates historical figures and events from recognizable motives–and
thus makes both history and literature uninteresting and/or incomprehensible to non-specialists or non-accolytes. For Akenson, there is “fact”–which he handles as if it were a whisk and not a sledgehammer, and then there is the
fantastication of fact: sometimes self-serving embroidery on what is known and knowable, and sometimes–more rarely–true flight of imagination that enlarges and illuminates factation without falsifying it. He doesn’t, in other words, think that the 12 disciples of Jesus after the crucifixion were much different as a group or as individual beings than a hockey team in a locker-room after a game, or a group of professors meeting in a faculty committee room after a government budget cut. All are going to be doing the same things: trying to construct an understanding of the process they’re inside, but also worrying over their private concerns, being hungry, thinking about their girlfriends or boyfriends, and needing to go to the washroom.

He didn’t invent this for An Irish History of Civilization, either. His other works exude the same refreshing sense that
even the most fabulous doings are as likely to turn into slapstick as portend–and are mostly to contain elements of both. Take this clear-headed passage from a discussion of the geneology of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, and its
relationship to the four Gospels of the Nicene Bible:

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas is from the second half of the fourth century. The tiny fragments of the Greek version are dated 200 CE, or a bit before. However, within the scholarly community there is analmost-magical belief in low numbers, and this despite the existence of the well-known fact in secular history that later texts are often more accurate than earlier ones. However, in biblical studies, setting the date of a document as early as possible gives it more heft and, not incidentally, thereby helps one’s career.

It takes a singular intelligence to penetrate a weighty debate cluttered with hordes of believers bent on hagiographic imperialisms, and to do it with this sort of élan requires a singular kind of intellectual confidence. But Akenson’s
confidence is backed by a unique-to-my-experience brew of common sense and encyclopaedic erudition, and it bears startling insights almost on a page-by-page basis throughout the work of his I’ve been able to find. Together with his ability to efficiently elide a story from its raw materials without inflating it, it is the guiding device that makes An Irish History of Civilization unique, and, well, so damned interesting.

Akenson’s homage to Galeano is of a more formal nature. Galeano’s Memory of Fire was a revelation to a generation of writers, and more than a few have employed–or tried to–Galeano’s technique of setting his narrative through an elastic combination of vignette, tableau, prose poem, and often all three at once. No one that I’m aware of has redeployed it as successfully as Akenson has, or with as many improvements.

Akenson, unlike Galeano, is in no hurry, perhaps because it is his discovery that civilization is in no hurry. Galeano, at least in Memory of Fire, is in the Marxist hurry, always, to prove injustice and to demonstrate the superior, poignant beauty of the victims of Imperialism. Even the most glorious and startling of Galeano’s portraits/historical tableaux
are purposive: the Revolution is coming, and if not, why not?

Influenced by his understanding of Aggadah, Akenson plays his stories for what’s in them. They are thus less ideologically inspiring, but they are no less awe-inspiring, the brutalities are no less awful, and the ironies revealed are just as sharp. If Akenson has a political agenda, it is to get us to read smarter, and to lose our fear of history’s utter, uncompromising complexity. This is a step beyond where Galeano took the historiographic method he invented. Akenson goes straight for the wilderness of swirling causalities and opportunisms that he regards as the circulatory conduits of human enterprise. What’s amazing is that nearly always, he brings back something valuable, and more often than not, something surprising. There are hundreds of possible tracks to explore within this work, all of them revealing something about the Irish, and about you and I, that we didn’t appreciate fully, or didn’t know was there. And there are thousands of vignettes/anecdotes/ that will startle, educate and entertain.

My personalfavourite concerns an encounter between Novelist James Joyce and poet W.B. Yeats. It is an accurate emblem of Akenson’s characteristic blend of slapstick and historical economy:

Dublin, November 1902: Battle of the Network Stars

Near the entrance to the National Library occurred the most mythologizedintersection in Irish literary history since Grainne’s head met the rock.

Neither genius remembered accurately anything the other said. And each several times re-invented his own words.

Yeats and Joyce were awkward acquaintances not only because of their age difference–seventeen years–but because they repaired to a
Harcourt Street café and ordered chocolate and sticky buns, an aesthetic mistake. The treacly icing on the buns made little crumbs of bran stick to the fingers. Yeats kept wiping his hands with his
pocket handkerchief, as if he had recently been in a particularly nasty public lavatory. Joyce let the crumb s and icing accumulate and looked longingly at them. He had not had breakfast and if he were alone he would have licked his fingers.

While moving their lips in discussion of serious matters, each lets his mind wander:

–How can anyone have such long and filthy fingernails?

–Christ, I wouldn’t even want to be hanged in such a silly-looking tie.

They agree to keep in touch.

Akenson gives us drama, deadly accurate social history, character portraits of the two greatest Irish writers—and some delicious slapstick. What more could be asked a 180 word vignette? And he does this with nearly equal economy and penetration three or four hundred times through the two volumes. He’s written a major work of history, and he’s given Canada a major work of literature.

An Irish History of Civilization will be a global classic, even if no one figures it out for a decade or so. My advice is to sacrifice those three or four 2-4s it’ll cost you, buy both volumes now, and get in on the ground floor.


  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

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