The long, bloody road to peace

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Ireland: A Graphic History, By Morgan Llywelyn and Michael Scott Element Pounds 9.99. 1 85230 627 0. Graphic history is a powerful medium, well-suited to this particular perspective on Ireland which intends to brings out the drama and intrigue, cruelty and compassion, humour and spirit.

The term "cartoon" would be inappropriate, categorising this book alongside Asterix and The Flintstones. What Llywelyn and Scott have achieved is pictorial history without the whams and pows but with a visual impact which stirs the emotions, awakens the thinking process and compels you, after finishing one chapter, to start the next.

Between the aptly named Prologue and the brief final chapter on The Troubles there are 12 tales, each grown from a key episode or turning point in Irish history. Five are from the seminal pre-Tudor period, the first based on the great ritual centre of Newgrange. Here we meet Eolang, whose act of desecration in pulling down the stones of this symbol of a tyrannical and ineffectual priesthood provokes the curse that he will "walk this land, to live time and time again until this land is at peace". So Eolang and his lover Brigante, whom we now recognise as the victim of the radio bomb in the shopping mall from the Prologue, begin their walk together through a history of conflict and bloodshed with little warmth.

The succinct historical introduction to each cameo does nothing to soften the impression of an unrelenting struggle in which any progress was either accompanied by or resulted in slaughter. Patrick's mission caused bitter division with many clinging tenaciously to the old ways; Brian Boru, "the first to envision an Ireland in which the various peoples would flow together like many streams to form one river, was hacked down when victorious at Clontarf; in the last gasp rebellion of Munster under Donal O'Sullivan Beare after the Battle of Kinsale in 1602, of the thousand of south westerners who set out to seek help, only 36 returned - "all hope died . . . as did Gaelic Ireland". With this as history who needs legend?

Eoin Coveney's graphic style is reminiscent of the strong caricatures associated with eastern European political art with deeply contoured faces and a feel for expression and gesture which can transmit savage brutality and moving tenderness; the feelings of the girl for a wounded soldier after The Boyne make both indifferent to Williamite or Jacobite loyalties - "What are you fighting for?" "I don't know"; "What side are you on?" "It doesn't matter". Text and illustration work well together, avoiding the trap of uniformity of treatment for every subject. The well-documented atrocities of the 12th century adventurer, Richard De Clare (Strongbow) and Cromwell's butchery of children ("Nits make lice") come unpackaged but the Hunger, which could have been mawkish, is told simply and with restraint.

Coveney and his team of inkists and colourists well deserve their credits on the title page beneath the authors, both of whom have bestseller status in the fields of early Irish history and legend; there is an excellent bibliography of the sources for each chapter. However, it is the strong images and the ability to translate raw emotion into line and form on the printed page that make this approach to storytelling so refreshing and so memorable.

The postscripts of just two pages showing the eternal couple's fingers entwining over a news report of the Downing Street Declaration gives the book an immediacy which outweighs the naivety of the device but does not altogether excuse the neglect of the period since the Easter Rising.

This durable paperback which is a delight to handle should bring popular history to a wide readership from 12 years upwards. More graphic history please.

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