My mother was born in 1900 in a small town in County Galway, far from the voguish vegetarian restaurants and feminist covens of the Dublin intelligentsia. Yet she caught the whiff of the zeitgeist, recalling those early years of the 20th century in Ireland as the most exciting, sizzling, expectant and exhilarating period there could ever have been.
I thought, when she spoke about that golden age, that she might have been infusing it with nostalgia. But, as Roy Foster’s magnificent and magisterial chronicle demonstrates, it was altogether so. Ireland really was throbbing with budding writers, artists, poets, playwrights and revolutionaries, all swimming in this melee of high talk, fiery ambitions and passionate persuasions. As it happens, the economy was also improving – there was a mini Celtic Tiger boom – and that must have lifted expectations too.
On every page of this meticulous and extraordinarily knowledgeable group biography there is potential for a drama or a novel. The cast is fabulous: Yeats; Constance Markievicz, the posh girl turned revolutionary, who, we learn from a contemporary witness, always maintained a ‘tony’ accent but was still adored by the