Sean Sexton and Christine Kinealy, The Irish: A Photohistory 1840 — 1940 (Thames & Hudson, 2002)

Until very recently — In spite of my mother's maiden name being Flattery — I knew embarrassingly little about Irish history. "Ireland? That's where potatoes came from, right?" Oh, and, thanks to the Irish we have a perfect excuse to have parades, throw raucous parties, and get roaring drunk on whichever weekend in March falls the closest to the 17th. Such was the scope of my knowledge.

Actually, I'd been meaning to learn more about Ireland for quite awhile now. In recent years, when my husband would hear something about the violence in Northern Ireland on the news, he would come to me and say "What's that about? How could they let things get so bad over there?" Since I'm the reader in this family, he always seems to expect me to know these things. Though I'm a few years too late to answer all of his burning questions about The Troubles, it was still to that end that I agreed to review The Irish.

In a mere four chapters, The Irish sketches a basic view of Ireland during the first 100 years after the advent of photography. The photographic portion of this book is truly fantastic. Before reading a word of it, I quickly paged through and just looked at the photos. Because I didn't have much real knowledge of Ireland's history, my expectations and preconceived notions were few and I was therefore surprised by my own emotional response to the images.

It's unfortunate that the text is not as effective. Certainly, since this is a photohistory, I understand that more importance would necessarily be placed on the selection and arrangement of the images. Still, it's disappointingly obvious to readers that this is the case. The text of The Irish is informative without being interesting. It reads a bit like a term paper that plods along and touches on all of the important points, but fails to inspire, entertain, or provoke emotion from the reader.

If you know next to nothing about Irish history, and haven't the ambition to read a hefty tome, The Irish isn't a bad place to start. With 271 photographs and an adequate, but not overwhelming, amount of accompanying text, it's a nice big book to lay on your coffee table and leaf through whenever you have a free moment. In a casual way, you'll get a basic feel for Ireland and its people.

[Christine Doiron]