Like many people I associate Turtle Bunbury with the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ books. He and the photographer James Fen...nell were a perfect team, and the books were a success from the start, with good reason. We look on them as picture books, but unlike the usual coffee-table variety, which are often more concerned with show than substance, they combine top-class writing with outstanding photography.
Turtle Bunbury made his name supplementing the portraits in the Vanishing Ireland books. Since then, he has written many books of his own, including ‘Easter Dawn’, one of the best accounts of the 1916 Easter Rising. He must be one of the most versatile authors of his generation, writing about travel, the Irish in the First World War and many other subjects. He is a serious historian with a light touch in writing.
This time he has managed to make an episodic book, spanning just one year in the nineteenth century. It is consistently entertaining, thoroughly researched and a pleasure to read. In ‘Vanishing Ireland’, he and James Fennell had been astonished to learn that many of the old people whose lives they researched had grandparents who remembered the Great Famine, and Turtle has included several incidents from that dreadful time.
When I was asked to review ‘1847’, I had not heard of the book before and thought that it was going to be about that tragic episode in Irish history. When the heavy parcel arrived, I hoped it would not be too miserable. I need not have worried: ‘1847’, although it has fresh light to throw on the Great Famine, travels the world for copy. It swings from tragedy to comedy and back. This is done with a light hand and the result is highly readable.
The eponymous year was one of many wars, discoveries, expeditions and oddities. The book is subtitled ‘A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery’, and it is just that. The story of the Comanche nation in Texas makes an impressive start to the book in a chapter entitled ‘The Comanche Warriors and the Free-Thinking Germans’. I had associated Texas with the Spanish and Americans and with bloody battles. The Germans settlers seem to have been much more humane than their other European neighbours; their descendants are there still.
We pass on to the ‘Opium King’ and later to the relief sent to the Irish by the Choctaw Indians. The Choctaws were not the only Indians who raise funds for the Irish during the Famine; there were other tribes who donated money for Ireland, although some was diverted to Scotland.
Circus people crop up all through the book, including PT Barnum, followed by the equally intrepid career of Sligo girl Lola Montez and the luckless king of Bavaria’s infatuation with her.
The Mormons’ epic journey is one of the highlights of the book for me. It is a long, detailed account of their famous march to Salt Lake City and beyond. Titled ‘Of Roadometres, Choirs and Baseball’, it is a story of these unusual but determined people, traveling across a continent in the absolute certainty of their rightness. I am sure that whole books have been devoted to this subject, usually with emphasis on the practice of polygamy. This book gives a fascinating account of a journey like no other.
Extraordinary happenings at sea form a large part of the stories. Especially sad is the account of Sir John Franklin’s final voyage. These intrepid men were searching for the North-West Passage - which of course did not exist. Already elderly, Sir John was a man who insisted on holding daily services, complete with sermons composed by himself. He was popular, but the expedition should have been led by someone younger.
Music is a recurring theme. We read of Stephen Collins Foster, who wrote ‘Oh Susanna’, ‘Campton Races’, ‘Swanee River’ and ‘Beautiful Dreamer’. Later Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, appears. She was almost worshipped by musician Felix Mendelssohn, who tried without success to write an opera for her.
The relaxed style of writing suggests that the author didn’t search too hard for his gallery of characters and incidents, although the impressive list of sources at the end of the book proves that he did. Present more as a book to be dipped into than a serious study, it must have taken many months to research. Producing something of this size and scope, with such a huge cast of characters almost worldwide, sounds like a daunting task. It might even have been scrappy or uneven, but I found it consistently interesting.
It was difficult to remember that I was writing a review, not reading for my own pleasure, and I shall be looking up Turtle Bunbury’s earlier books.
NB: The accompanying image depicts gentleman of fashion in Sweden, as published in Stockholms Mode Journal in 1847.
'1847 - A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery' (Gill Books), available via Amazon, Book Depository, Kennys.ie and Irish bookshops nationwide.