Category Archives: History

Poems for St. Patrick’s Day

Mark Holan and I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by reading our favorite Irish poetry aloud. Here’s are selections from what we read:

Easter 1916, by William Butler Yeats

I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Digging, by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Whatever you say, say nothing, by Seamus Heaney

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap

On the First Day of June, by Paul Durcan

I was walking behind Junior Daly’s coffin
Up a narrow winding terraced street
In Cork city in the rain on the first day of June
When my mobile phone went off in my pocket

And of course, a poem from himself:

The Deer’s Cry, by St. Patrick

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun,
brilliance of Moon,
splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind,
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock.


‘Get action, be sane …’

Bully! TR on Theodore Roosevelt Island.

A post shared by Angie Holan (@angieholan) on


I loved getting to know Teddy Roosevelt through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. His advice for staving off depression by staving off boredom was this: “Get action, be sane … .” Another great TR quote is chiseled on the monument I viewed today at Theodore Roosevelt Island: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”


Washington by Instagram

This gallery contains 12 photos.

We’ve been exploring Washington D.C., mostly by bike, ever since we moved here earlier this year. I like to snap photos of the monuments on my iPhone and post them to Instagram; it’s an amateur endeavor and totally fun. Here … Continue reading

The 2014 Global Fact-checking Summit in London (photo gallery)

In June, I attended the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. About 50 fact-checkers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia attended. The conference was  hosted by the Poynter Institute, organized by Duke University’s Bill Adair (PolitiFact’s founding editor), and funded by the Omidyar Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, craigconnects, the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Full Fact.

The conference was fantastic, and seeing London for the first time was a real treat. Here are a few photos and comments from my trip. Click on the first photo to launch the gallery.

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!


Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.


Wilfred Owen speaks from the grave

When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.

First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.

I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.


Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland

Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland:

To End All Wars, by Alan Hochschild – Favorite Nonfiction of 2011

This history of World War I — To End All Wars by Alan Hochschild — was my favorite nonfiction book of 2011. I don’t usually think of World War I much, yet it was an astounding conflict in so many ways, with its vast loss of lifeless and the almost pointless way it started. I wasn’t really sure how the war ignited before I read this book, and now that I have more detailed knowledge, I’m not sure I can explain it any better. Basically, Austria invaded Serbia, and the rest of the countries of Europe really wanted to go to war, so they all jumped in.

Hochschild uses a smart structure for his history: He focuses on people in Britain, switching between the points of view of the generals running the war and the anti-war protesters trying to stop it. There’s plenty of futility to go around on all sides: The generals don’t understand that they can’t take out machine gun nests by throwing infantry and cavalry at it. Meanwhile, the conscientious objectors are trying turn public opinion that seems absolutely gung ho for war.

Hochschild tells the story through just a few characters, including the Pankhurst family, a mother and her daughters who were radical suffragettes — bombing buildings and rappelling into parliament — before they split over the war issue. The mother, Emmeline, became a fervent war supporter, while one of her daughters ran a prominent anti-war newspaper. 

Finally, World War I has popped up in some uniquely personal contexts for me. My husband has been working on a history of his grandparents, who came to the United States from Ireland in 1913. His great uncle John came to the States around the same time, but was drafted and sent back Europe to fight with the Americans in 1918. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising, which eventually led to the country’s independence, happened in 1916, right in the middle of the war.

On a lighter note, World War I is figuring heavily in the new season of my favorite TV show Downton Abbey.  

I would strongly recommend this book to people who are interested in history but who find traditional scholarly treatises to be dull and plodding. This book is anything but.


Review: In ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard’s first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs – St. Petersburg Times

Review: In ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard’s first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs – St. Petersburg Times

Book talk on ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.’

I wrote this book talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell. What is a book talk? It’s a short presentation a librarian gives when she’s suggesting books for recreational reading. I learned how to give book talks in the Adult Services class at the University of South Florida’s library school, a class taught by the exemplary Dr. Kathleeen de la Pena McCook.

I don’t work in public libraries now, so I don’t have cause to write many book talks, and I wrote this one only because I liked the book so much and would like others to read it. Librarians, steal this book talk!

Book Talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell (paperback)

David Mitchell is one of those authors who seems to enjoy defying easy categories. In the course of a single book, he can go from historical adventure to detective mystery to science fiction. Or, he might write an autobiographical novel of a boy growing up in England in the 1980s against the backdrop of the Fauklands War. And then there are the literary critics who love him: He’s written five books, two of which have been finalists for the Man Booker Prize. They praise his unorthodox approach to narrative and timeline.

His latest book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is a traditional historical novel. It takes place on Dejima, a trading island off the coast of Japan at the end of the 18th century. Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives at the island charged with rooting out corruption at the trading company. His job is to reconcile the books between the Dutch traders and their Japanese hosts, keeping a special eye out for embezzlement and thievery. While working on Dejima, he falls in love with a young Japanese woman, Orito Aibagawa. Orito is studying with the island’s physician in order to become a midwife. She’s a smart, independent young woman who lives in a culture that admires conformity and submission.

Of course, any sort of relationship between the Japanese and foreigners, aside from trading, is forbidden. A romance between Jacob and Orito is impossible. But about halfway through the book, another plot reveals itself: There is a great evil hidden on the Japanese mountainside, in a shrine ostensibly devoted to the prayers of monks and nuns. Orito and Jacob must find a way to oppose that evil and bring it to an end. This struggle propels the rest of the novel forward.

So this is a very literary author taking a different tack and writing something that is essentially historical fiction. Still, most critics gave the book a rave. And well they should have, because “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is an engrossing read that like its author seems to enjoy crossing boundaries. At its heart, it’s a love story, though an unrequited one. It’s also a masculine adventure story, much like “Master and Commander,” told from the point of view of men seeking fortune and pursuing acts of bravery. It’s also high literary fiction, with lush and intricate descriptions of 18th century Japan, the land of a thousand autumns, from which the novel gets its name. Consider immersing yourself in the world of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”