An Irish History of Civilization, Vol. 1


828 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-7735-2890-3
DDC 941.5




Reviewed by John D. Blackwell

John D. Blackwell is director of the Research Grants Office at St.
Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, and the author of Canadian
Studies: A Guide to the Sources (http://www.


Don Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at
Queen’s University, senior editor at McGill-Queen’s University
Press, and, as his website rightly claims, “the world’s foremost
authority on the Irish Diaspora.” During his stellar academic career,
he has published prolifically and won international acclaim.

Akenson is always wonderfully irreverent—challenging the limiting
conventions of academe and the learned ignorance of wider society. He
has continually experimented with various genres of history and fiction,
and in recent years has begun creating new forms of historical writing.
In 1990, he published At Face Value: The Life and Times of Eliza
McCormack White/John White, a highly controversial biography blurring
fact and fiction. More recently, he has dazzled readers, even
theologians, with his interpretations of the Bible and the Talmuds.
Ireland, however, has always been his core passion.

An Irish History of Civilization (which, as another reviewer has
perceptively noted, is not titled “A History of Irish Civilization”)
is at once quirky, brilliant, acerbic, rollicking, and self-indulgent,
the product of long reflection on the Irish odyssey and its contribution
to world civilization. Throughout these two weighty volumes, which owe
much to the tradition of the Talmuds, Akenson leaps frenetically from
one finely crafted vignette to another over two millennia of
history—the heroic, the profound, the absurd, the trivial—deftly
merging fact, fiction, and artistic imagination. This inventive literary
device allows him freedom to strip away the pretence and strictures of
academic history. His expansive tableau of characters, events, and
places over many centuries helps the reader to glimpse at the larger,
often inscrutable, reality of the past. In typical Akenson fashion, this
masterful work not only entertains and enlightens, but also forces the
reader to rethink things on various levels and redefine the paradigm.

Although Akenson is rapidly approaching retirement age and An Irish
History of Civilization may prove to be his magnum opus, he is at the
height of his intellectual form and his productivity shows no sign of
waning. One wonders what this virtuoso’s fertile mind will conjure up


Akenson, Donald H., “An Irish History of Civilization, Vol. 1,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,