The Blanket

We Shall Count Catholics Wherever We Go
Wherever Green Is Worn, by Tim Pat Coogan;
reviewed by Anthony McIntyre
first printed Fortnight, June 2001


It was with a measure of trepidation that I agreed to review Tim Pat Coogan's wide ranging work on the Irish Diaspora for Fortnight. With over six hundred pages of Wherever Green is Worn in front of me coupled with my never having been a great fan of the author, I sat down in a public library in Halifax last December to begin my task. Upon completion many months later my main query was whether it took him as long to write the book as it took me to read it? Apologies to Fortnight for the delay but please do read through another's lenses for six months before becoming too judgemental. Perhaps my appetite would have been enhanced were it not for an attempt by the author in the opening pages to indulge in a little ersatz Freudianism by drawing a distinction between Gaelic football and English cricket - the first is a penetration rite while the latter suggests castration. May I audaciously venture to ask what his theory on horn blowing is?

I admit to being in possession of a pre-formed opinion that Coogan's obsession with demographics had prompted him to travel the world in a bid to count as many Catholics as he could among the seventy million worldwide who call themselves 'Irish'. Not for nothing do some of his less admiring readers sometimes refer to him as Tim Pat 'count the Catholics'. And so it was with little surprise that I approached the end of this lengthy work only to find the following: 'One day, demographic forces ... will subsume the present Unionist majority'. Was the purpose of the book to lead us inexorably to such a conclusion?

I was further disconcerted or prejudiced by my previous reading of his work on the IRA. Although - and as Coogan points out - reviewers have been known to describe his forays into IRA historiography as 'the definitive work', I recall interviewing the late Sean McStiofain a number of years ago and being told that his first book on the IRA was the 'worst crap ever written'. I have since come to feel that the reviewers in question either did not read Coogan's book or knew little about the IRA.

It would seem to be no coincidence that a fixation with Catholics has led to the daddy of them all, the Pope, seemingly being credited in Wherever Green is Worn more than anyone else with having brought down what passed for communism in the Eastern bloc. No mention of the Soviet system being forced to its knees by an arms race deliberately designed by an American hegemonised West to produce such a result. It is also insinuated that the Pope may have had a hand in initiating the peace process as far back as 1979. In an inverted mirror image of Paisleyism the Pope is praised rather than castigated for all he didn't do.

Equally unappealing is the author's habit of inflating the influence of the Diaspora on the peace process. In this account they appear to have caused rather than facilitated. But such are what myths are made of.

The most interesting parts of the book were in fact those that did not deal primarily with the Diaspora. Some shocking revelations about the reign of the generals in Argentina or the Hutu genocide in Rwanda possessed the potential to capture the imagination. But in reality this was not essentially the subject matter of the book.

On the strong side is the fact that Coogan traced the Irish to regions other than Australia, America and Britain. Illustrating something of the Irish in Japan, the Caribbean and Argentina gave the book a sense of the nouveau. Unfortunately, too much was written about those Irish communities of which we know already and too little about those of which we do not.

And if we consider other work on areas addressed by Coogan such as Kevin Kenny's on the Molly Maguires or David Wilson's on the Irish in the United States which are much more informative then we may catch a glimpse of just how extensive the limitations in this work actually are. And presumably the further a field Coogan takes his readers the greater such limitations become.

Nevertheless, it was reassuring that this work pulled few punches in its treatment of the racism shown by elements of the Diaspora to other ethnic groups particularly in America where the Irish seemed determined to reproduce the social disadvantage and deprivation experienced by blacks in particular. Such directness reminds us of vintage Coogan from the days when as editor of the Irish Press he battled tirelessly to resist the almost fascist fervour of Conor Cruise O'Brien in the latter's bid to close down press freedom.

Too long to be an appetiser, too patchy to be definitive, Wherever Green is Worn shall hardly be read by all who wear it.

Wherever Green is Worn, By Tim Pat Coogan. Published by Hutchinson. PB £25.00








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