A History of a land without a country

The Basques; whether you believe them to be part of a region of another country, or, as some do, to be a country within a country, certainly have a unique identity. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, seeing Basque flags in republican areas, this strange banner which, to you appears like a union jack with different colours, certainly does make an impression on you. This particular reviewer has had an admittedly bizarre fascination with this strange land for many years which, in turn, lead to a fascination with Spanish history, particularly the Spanish civil war and the parallels with the Irish civil war a decade earlier.

This particular reviewer also became aware of the unfortunate and morbid parallels of the Basque Country and ETA’s terrorist war with the Spanish government and the history of “the troubles”. Originally this book had been purchased prior to a trip to that self same disputed piece of land, and having leant it to someone who did not return it, only recently became reacquainted with this excellent book when it was given by a friend as a birthday present.

The Basque History of the World tends to, for the most part, stay away from the modern day conflict and the hard edged subject of ETA’s campaign against what it might see as it’s Spanish oppressors. And indeed it is all the better for this. Instead the book looks at the impact that Basques, both collectively and individually has had on the world. The areas covered tend to vary from the fishermen who it is claimed discovered America long before Columbus to the saint who the Basques can claim as their very own; namely the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius de Loyola, to symbols which are important to the Basques including the ancient symbol of the old oak tree which lies in the middle of the town of Guernica. Indeed it was no coincidence that Franco chose the town of Guernica to unleash the horror of, the Luftwafe bombing.

The book stretches back at various points throughout to the earliest evidence given to the existence of the Basque, with reference to the ancient laws known as the Fueros, which most Irish people can draw parallels with the Brehon laws. Without getting into much detail about the laws themselves Mark Kurlansky pinpoints this as the moment that Basques lost their autonomy and, despite gaining control over them to various degrees thoughout history, have never fully gained autonomy like they had during this time.

One of the more interesting aspects of the the book states that during the negotiations when setting up Spain’s most recent constitutional Congress every province in Spain was granted two negotiators, save for Catalonia and The Basques, perhaps sewing the seeds of more recent disputes in both areas.

For the most part quirky and light-hearted throughout, The Basque History of the World is a fascinating and informative read that both entertains and informs from cover to cover. There are even a few recipes to try out from a proud tradition of Basque cookery. Despite having been published more than twenty years ago and some of the more political aspects of the book being now outdated, The Basque History of the World is still an important piece of text and this magical and curious piece of land.

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Troubling times told by those who witnessed them

We all know about the troubles, or think we do. Everyone the world over has some sort of opinion of how the troubles started or who was at fault. As someone who was born in the midst of the chaos, this particular reviewer, when asked about the troubles always explains it as different versions of the same truth. That is to say that each person who lived through the troubles will have experienced the events from a certain point of view and that particular point of view isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s simply the version that that particular person has come to think of as the truth given their own unique set of circumstances. That is not to say that everyone doesn’t come with their own particular set of prejudices but it is up to the interested and impartial observer to listen to each point of view and make up their own mind. Among those observers, who often put themselves in harm’s way in order that you the public were informed of events, were the journalists and reporters who reported on the numerous tragic events so for this to happen. Reporting the Troubles: Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict, does exactly what it says on the tin so to speak. With participation of well known international journalists such as Kate Adie, Martin Bell, Robert Fisk along with lesser known hacks who lived among the people about whom they reported. Each one has their own perspective, their own memories of a particular person or incident which occured during the over thirty years of violence. Each one is heartfelt and sincere and tries to bring attention to some of the many victims of the troubles, it also does what every journalist is often told not to do – it makes things personal. The strength of the book is as has been mentioned already, in the wide variety of reporters who have been asked to contribute. Perhaps where the book falls down is in a way in which the reporters themselves would critique their own work, it highlights one particular incident over another. Another point worth making is that once you read about an incident you have yet to come across you are fairly certain that the next is linked in some way, there isn’t enough of a variety. With that said it is indeed hard to remember every terrible incident, to pick one victim over another. What the book does do well is explore the human, private side of the reporters involved. It allows them to open up to an audience like perhaps not permitted at the time about the events and personalities involved. As someone who grew up during the troubles it is perhaps difficult to look at these events totally objectively, however at times the perspective of the intervening years and unawareness of some events certainly helps. A book best for those with a distant perspective on events perhaps

Review of Holding by Graham Norton

We probably all know Graham Norton for his quirky, sharp-witted, fast-paced chat show, some of us may even remember him for his role in Father Ted as the erratic and chaotic Fr. Noel Furthlong. To his list of many talents and achievements Norton has also added novelist with his debut novel Holding

Holding is set in Duneen where we find P J Collins, a hapless, overweight Garda who has never had much ambition and who people have never expected much from until a body is unearthed on a building site. It turns out that the body isn’t the only thing from the past that has been dug up as this one single event has a domino effect and uncovers the secrets of many of the villages residents.

For a debut novel, Norton’s characterisation is vivid and imaginative. Given his upbringing he has managed to capture the essence of small town rural Co. Cork masterfully and created characters which spring to life off the page and which we are all familiar with, be it the local Garda in the sleepy village with nothing much to do, of the alcoholic whose a shadow of their former self, of the housekeeper who makes a house a home with her cooking and fuss and gossip.

If you are planning on a late holiday in August, you would do worse than taking this gripping novel and welcome the residents of Duneen into your life