BOOKS: The Global Irish Joke ; an Irish History of Civilization by Don Akenson GRANTA Pounds 30 (828Pp) Pounds 27 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897

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We have known, ever since Joyce's Ulysses, that a seemingly small Irish story can also be a universal one. The idea of making a book from a crazily spiralling skein of anecdotes, jokes and cock-and- bull stories has even deeper Irish roots, going back at least as far as Laurence Sterne. Another contemporary form " the creation of something huge from a mass of seemingly unrelated fragments " is older still, and not very Irish. Rather, this is a Jewish tradition. The model is Talmudic; the mosaic is Mosaic.

An Irish History of Civilization, the first part of a vast two- volume endeavour, is an Irish story presented in a Jewish form by a US-born Canadian historian of Swedish Protestant ancestry. The title is, of course, a kind of joke, albeit with a very serious intent. One of Don Akenson's many previous books, focused on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, was entitled If the Irish Ran the World. This one proves they almost did...

The upshot of the Montserrat story, surprising only to the most sentimental of Emerald Isle patriots, is that Irish colonisers and slave-owners were no more benevolent than any other kind. An obvious lesson of An Irish History " amid hundreds of more surprising teachings " is that this was true on a global scale. Akenson's astonishing series of vignettes, mini- biographies and running jokes features Irish pirates, missionaries, colonial governors, slaves and slaveowners. …