Eyewitness to Irish History

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Author: Peter Berresford Ellis

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

ISBN Number: 0-471-26633-7

Publication Date: 2004

Reviewed by: Morri


Peter Berresford Ellis holds both Bachelor and Master degrees in Celtic Studies, is a Fellow in both the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland and the Royal Historical Society, has served as chairperson for several groups including the Celtic League, Scrif-Celt, and the London Association for Celtic Education. His combined interests in Celtic Studies and journalism have made him one of the most prolific writers of Celtic history and biography, having published 33 books and 5 pamphlets to date. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Irish Democrat and for the Irish Post., authoring numerous articles and academic papers, Ellis has written over 50 novels and 70 short stories under the pseudonyms Peter Tremayne and Peter MacAlan. In 1987, Peter Berresford Ellis was made a Bard of the Gorseth Kernow in recognition of his work "The Cornish Language and its Literature" (pub. 1974), which is still regarded as the definitive history of the language and was a set text in the Cornish Language Board's examinations. Ellis took the Bardic name Gwas an Geltyon, ('Servant of the Celts'). It should be noted that Gorseth Kernow is a non-religious organization and does not affiliate itself with Neo-Druidry or Paganism.

Eyewitness to Irish History is an unusual, yet refreshing, historical account of Ireland from the pseudo-historical myths of ancient Ireland to modern day autobiographies. Ellis provides an Introduction that gives a general summary of Ireland and its wealth of historical documentation as well as his reasons for presenting and organizing the book as he does. The book is divided into chapters based on significant events in Irish history such as the Tudor Conquests and The War of Independence. While Ellis provides some commentary to provide context, the book is a series of excerpts from manuscripts, letters, personal journals and publications drawn from a range of people including clergy, politicians, poets,and  journalists. What was most interesting for me was that, with the exception of the manuscripts concerning the chapter on Ancient Ireland, the excerpts were written during, or immediately after, the events described.  As a reader who has often been frustrated by histories because the fact and the interpretation of those facts by the historian seemed incongruent, this book gave me a clear view of the source material and the interpretation of the historian regarding its relevance. It also offered me the unique opportunity to view the source material on its own merit and draw my own conclusions. What I appreciated most about this book was the opportunity to hear the people who were impacted directly by the events, and to understand what they felt was important and relevant. Not only did this give me better insight into the history, it also gave me a glimpse into cultural perspectives (both Irish and foreign) and the changes in those perspectives as times changed. 

This is not a book that will appeal to those who are interested only in ancient Irish writings and history, in fact, there is very little offered in this section of the book. It is a valuable resource for any one who is interested in a full history, particularly as it relates to the invasions and conquests that shaped the culture and history of the Irish people, and as it relates to Ireland's struggles for political and cultural autonomy which is still at issue for many today.  If nothing else, Eyewitness to Irish History provides a list of original source material that easily identifies when it was written as well as why it was written.

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