If I had to pick my favorite local history book of the first decade of the 21st century I would be hard pressed to choose between Rebel Heart By Terence O'Reilly (click the link for the review) and Arses & Elbows by James G. Cullinane.
I liked O'Reillys book because of the extensive research and easy to read style he brought to an unjustly neglected part of Waterford history, the struggle for independence and the aftermath.
Cullinane's book is an entirely different beast, it is more a memoir than a history book. Part of the attraction of the book for me is that the topic is Abbeyside and in particular the people of Abbeyside. However I don't think you need to be a native of the village to enjoy or learn from the story it tells. What the book has is a great big dollop of honesty and truth running through it. It manages to steer a path halfway between rose-tinted nostalgia and Angela's Ashes misery. The truth might be the authors truth, people may disagree with his opinions and his presentation of the facts but that is the nature of any memoir. Cullinane recognises the flaws and hypocrisies of the world in which he grew up but also celebrates the characters, organisations and community spirit that allowed families to survive in these difficult times.
The book is subtitled 'A time of little change: A boy's life in a small seaside village in 50's Ireland'. Arses & Elbows doesn't concern itself with great historic events and to be honest it doesn't even have a very strong narrative trend through the book. Chapters about Christmas, Dungarvan, the local scout troop, school, the cinema, fair day, sports and local characters can be read independent of each other.
Most of us with an interest in local history have read books that range in presentation from being barely readable to having a high academic style, scattering footnotes like landmines, throughout the text. Fortunately for the reader of Arses & Elbows, Cullinane (as a frequently published author with an MA in Creative Writing) recognises that he has duty to entertain as well as inform his audience. The book is extraordinarily enjoyable to read, a real page turner, packed with colloquialism's and characters.
Cullinane has performed an extraordinary service to his native place in producing this book, it is one of the finest pieces of local social history I have had the privilege to read. Perhaps it is a book that could only have been produced by an emigrant (Cullinane now lives in Mount Kisco, New York). The ribald passages in it may not suit all tastes, I suspect these passages would have been difficult to write if the author was still living cheek by jowl with his subject matter. Be that as it may, for the non-prudish local history enthusiast (a niche target market if ever there was one) this is a must purchase. The book is available from Amazon.com or from Waterford County Museum, email firstname.lastname@example.org for availability and pricing.