The most unusual history books that fascinated me

Mary Ryan Author Of Under the Wild Sky: A Saga of Love and War in Revolutionary Ireland
By Mary Ryan

Who am I?

I live in Dublin, Ireland and am the author of eleven novels, many of them Irish bestsellers, all of them translated into foreign languages, most of them also published in the US by St Martin’s Press. A lawyer by profession, I gave up my law practice to concentrate on writing fiction, beginning with an historical novel Whispers in the Wind which was a No. 1 Irish bestseller. History is my passion.

I wrote...

Under the Wild Sky: A Saga of Love and War in Revolutionary Ireland

By Mary Ryan,

Book cover of Under the Wild Sky: A Saga of Love and War in Revolutionary Ireland

What is my book about?

I wrote Under the Wild Sky to coincide with the centenary of the 1916 Rising in Dublin which culminated in the revolution that won Independence. The title was inspired by a verse from Francis Ledwidge’s poem "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh" (a leading revolutionary who was executed by firing squad).

Essentially a love story, it traces events leading up to the Rising and the War of Independence through the eyes of Ellen and Guy, two young people in the cross hairs of history who come from opposite sides of the political and religious divide. The sequel to Under the Wild Sky will be out in November 2022. It is called The Dreamless Land.

The books I picked & why

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Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious

By Gustave de Beaumont, W. C. Taylor (translator),

Book cover of Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious

Why this book?

First published in 1839 this is a fascinating history of Ireland from an outsider’s perspective. De Beaumont, a Frenchman, was a grandson of Lafayette and a lifelong friend of Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America. He visited Ireland in 1835 and two years later L’Irlande appeared in two volumes, with an English translation later that year. An intellectual tour de force, the book was an immediate bestseller and remained popular for decades. His contemptuous howl of outrage directed at the British administration in Ireland reverberated down the nineteenth century.

The Turkish Embassy Letters

By Mary Wortley Montagu,

Book cover of The Turkish Embassy Letters

Why this book?

This is a little historical gem. The author was the wife of the British consul to Constantinople in 1718 and wrote copious letters home detailing her travels and her life in the Ottoman Empire’s capital. She describes the exoticism, the requirement that women be veiled in public (which she saw as freeing), the sumptuous jewels and wealth, the admiration of pregnant women (and the pressure to be pregnant to prove you were still young).   

Her description of smallpox ‘parties’ is particularly interesting. These gatherings were held annually to inoculate children by using a tiny amount of smallpox pus scratched into the forearm. A survivor of smallpox herself, Mary had her own small son successfully inoculated and brought the knowledge back with her to England, but it was not until Edward Jenner introduced a vaccine later in the century that a treatment became more widely known.

The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing, 1200-1600

By Alice Stopford Green,

Book cover of The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing, 1200-1600

Why this book?

This is an intriguing account of a lesser known period in Irish History, an unusual focus on a surprisingly successful and wealthy time. Stopford Greene was an Anglo-Irish historian, the daughter of a Protestant Archdeacon and the granddaughter of a Bishop. In this remarkable book, using material contemporaneous with her chosen period, she explores the centuries after Ireland had recovered from the Norman Invasion when it had developed a rich and sophisticated society and a thriving trade with the Continent of Europe. All of this ended with the devastation of the Tudor conquest and England’s subsequent genocidal policies.

A committed nationalist, Alice paid from her own pocket for the guns which were run into Howth Harbour in 1914 to help with the Rising.

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War

By Helen Rappaport,

Book cover of After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Époque Through Revolution and War

Why this book?

The fascination of this book is its portrayal of the human cost involved in the fall of a civilisation. After the Bolshevik Revolution the cream of Russian society, including most of the aristocrats, the professional classes, the officer class, the middle class, fled Russia with little but the clothes on their backs. Being Francophone, most of them sought refuge in Paris only to find there destitution. Grand Dukes who formerly had palaces, country estates and scores of servants, now drove taxis, waited at table, washed dishes; Grand Duchesses embroidered for fashion houses (the lucky ones), all yearning for their homeland and being, as time passed, regarded with less and less tolerance by the French.  

The book is a reminder that catastrophe waits only for opportunity.

Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter

By Susan Nagel,

Book cover of Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter

Why this book?

How many people know what happened to Marie Antoinette’s daughter? This book focuses on this tragic, formidable woman and her extraordinary life, from her birth in a crowded bedroom where they had to break the widows to provide fresh air to her fainting mother, to her three year imprisonment during the Terror, to her secret escape from France after the murder of her family. She found refuge in several European countries and married her cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême. Many historians claim that on the abdication of his father (Charles X, a brother of the executed Louis XVI), he became King for twenty minutes and his wife, thereby, became briefly the last Queen of France of the senior Bourbon line. 

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