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Ireland’s Forgotten Past A History of the Overlooked and Disremembered


Why did the Romans never try to conquer Ireland? Why did the King of Spain give his name to an Irish county? And how did brandy change the course of Irish history?

This alternative history covers 13,000 years in 36 stories and considers events and people that are often left out of history books from the eruption of a massive volcano in County Armagh sixty million years ago to more recent events that have made Ireland the vibrant place it is today.

Among the characters who feature are a pair of ill- fated prehistoric chieftains, a psychopathic Viking, a gallant Norman knight, a dazzling English traitor, an ingenious tailor, an outstanding war-horse and a brothel queen.

First published in 2020 by Thames and Hudson, ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’ is now available as paperback (try Kenny’s here), hardback and audio.




‘A delicious book … a stirring atlas of Irishness’ – Sebastian Barry, The Guardian

‘Witty and irreverent’ – Family Tree

‘Impressive’ – Evening Standard – Best books about Irish history to read in 2024

‘Will delight anyone interested in the untold history of Ireland’ – Timeless Travels

‘Full of interesting stories and very beautifully written’.
Oliver Callan,
The Tubridy Show, RTE Radio One

‘Turtle Bunbury has pulled off a feat of exquisite skill – the upholding of a mandate to edify entertainingly without overwhelming his audience in scholarly aridity. Ireland’s Forgotten Past is a rare and cherishable thing: combining assiduous research with a nose for ribald fun, Bunbury disinters the odd, the arcane and the profoundly surprising from the dark recesses of a mostly unknown history. His great skill is to illuminate the past through the picaresque activities of significant contemporary individuals. The approach is profoundly effective.’
Steve Whitaker,
The Yorkshire Times

‘What I love about Turtle’s writing is that he takes a subject that you might only have a slight connection with, and then he tells you a story that pulls you right into the middle of it. The only other person I can think of who does that is Bill Bryson.’
John Toal, BBC Radio Ulster, 2020

Kilkenny Book Centre

‘The author is a skilled spinner of yarns, carrying his readers on with a light style of writing which disguises the careful research behind each story. Eminently readable and enjoyable, this entertaining and thoroughly Irish book gives us a surprising picture of the country we thought we knew’.
Pat O’Neill, Carloviana

‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’ by Turtle Bunbury offers a fresh and engaging perspective on the country’s rich history, exploring its deep cultural roots and the many contributions it has made to the wider world. From the earliest settlements to the present day, Bunbury’s narrative covers all aspects of Irish history with insightful detail.’
E. Shaver, Connect Savannah, St Patrick’s Day 2023 

‘Well-known Irish historian, broadcaster and presenter Turtle Bunbury has gathered stories of ‘the overlooked and disremembered’ in this charming book, spanning eras from the megalithics up to the twentieth century … Many of these tales are as humourous as they are surprising, mostly those of eighteenth-century Dublin, which makes our present-day capital appear as pure as the driven snow by comparison. Entertaining and engaging, a great book for history fans.’
Anne Cunningham
Meath Chronicle

‘Fascinating and engaging … beautifully illustrated.’
Current Archaeology
May 2020

‘A witty, pacy narrative exploring fascinating tales of Irish history … the sense of power and beauty info nature resonates as strongly as the varied tales Bunbury so enjoyably explores. Five stars.’
All About History

‘A marvellous miscellany … a magnificently eclectic collection … Bunbury is a skilled storyteller who carries his learning lightly and his readers with him. Helped by Joe McLaren’s fine illustrations, readers of all ages will enjoy squinting through this stained-glass window of a book and marvelling at these weird and wonderful flickerings of the Irish past.’
Breandan Mac Suibhne
BBC History Magazine, May 2020

‘Irish culture of a slightly different stripe was explored by stand-in Oliver Callan on Ryan Tubridy (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 9am). The magnificently named Turtle Bunbury was promoting the latest of his excellent social history books, Ireland’s Forgotten Past, which looks back at some of those fascinating little moments which time and tides have now lost. The book sounds utterly charming, and their chat was informative and often amusing – particularly when Turtle explained the name. It’s a corruption of Tertius… but that’s not his name either. Alexander was the third child of his Latin-speaking dad, hence Tertius, hence Turtle.’
Darragh McManus
Irish Independent, 7 March 2020

‘A quirky collection, well illustrated with woodcuts by Joe McLaren in a handsome hardback that will make absorbing reading or a thoughtful gift’
Tuam Herald

‘Just before being cocooned in Kilteel on the edge of the Pale, on government orders because of my age, I was fortunate enough to have purchased your latest book from probably one of the best little bookshops in Ireland, the Blessington Bookstore. It has been a really enjoyable read mainly because it is so detailed but at the same time short and to the point in each tale. Your coffee table works are also part of my library. You are part of a great group of Irish writers like Barry and Banville. Maybe one of the benefits of this lockdown is that you will all have even more time to write for the joy of those of us who have more time now to read.’
Derek Carruthers

‘Thank you for writing such an Excellent and Interesting Book in Ireland’s Forgotten Past.’
Nick Monaghan of The Monaghan Family of County Mayo, Yorkshire

Offaly Express

‘Informative and entertaining’
Wexford Today

‘A great read’
Carlow Live

‘Corking good tales of our forgotten history … related with wit and erudition’.
Concubhar Ó Liatháin, The Corkman

‘Bunbury certainly can spin a good yarn. His voice is warm and engaging.’ Josephine Fenton
Irish Examiner

‘Wonderful read!’ – Catherine Leonard

‘Perfectly sized bites to read with my morning coffee’ – Thomas Pluck

‘Very engaging, well done’ – Cormac Evans

‘An excellent book with some fascinating lesser known history of our Island, it was a great read, and a great, accessible format for telling those stories’ – Conor Winchcombe

‘Turtle Bunbury did himself proud again with this book. It’s easy to read and also very entertaining. The pictures are black and white in a wood cutting style. I also love the eye catching colour. Interesting read not only for tour guides or history buffs. I got it in Easons in Carlow.’ – Bianka McDonagh

‘There is so much forgotten history, an excellent read’ – Olaf Maxwell

‘Great read’ – Richard Murphy

‘I wanted to reach out and let you know that I just finished your most recent book – Ireland’s Forgotten Past. It was a great read with lot’s of wonderful history. I feel like we are re-experiencing the “Big Wind” with COVID-19. Thanks for continuing to teach and entertain all of us.’ Kevin P Clarke, Boston

‘Really enjoyed the book Turtle Bunbury. So many interesting vignettes that help to explain parts of the rich tapestry of Ireland that have been forgotten.’ – Mike Casey

‘Amazon delivered to my lockdown retreat. Read it in two sittings. Delightful.’- Adam Chappell

‘Five out of five stars. A delightful read. Lots of historical oddities I never knew. A tremendous number of fine illustrations flesh out the text and add to the offering from this fine Irish author. History can be fun . This fine book makes it so. I couldn’t put it down right to the end. I wished it was longer.’ – Daniel Williams

‘This was a really enjoyable read. I would have liked a longer version actually because it was really interesting. I hope there is a volume two soon.’ Roseanne Manton

‘A delight, and fills in so much on half remembered names places and events.’ Bill Ainsworth

‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’ is perfect for reading aloud to one’s spouse during these isolating times! Well done – hope there’s a volume II! – Mark Wilkes

‘Received a gift of Ireland’s Forgotten Past, a gem of a book and I love the illustrations by Joe McLaren’ – Ann Egan

‘I enjoyed it immensly’ – James Butler, Bennetsbridge, Co. Kilkenny.

‘Fascinating, so full of characters and names and dates and interesting things’ – Meike Blackwell, County Mayo.

‘I picked this up from a display in a local bookstore. In short chapters, the author brings to light some little known facts of Irish history. It was written in a very engaging manner and I learned many things I had never even heard of before. I enjoyed it and will look for some of his other books.’ – Kate Zdenek, GoodReads

‘A really delightful book … lovely and interesting to read, handle and look at. It deserves to do very well and I hope it does.’ – Ros Shiffner, Oxford.

‘This book is an entertaining and informative ramble through the lesser-known history of Ireland. Well written and beautifully illustrated by Joe McLaren, this book would make a great present for people of all ages.
Highly recommended.’ – John Kelly (Good Reads)

‘This is a marvellous and quirky gallop through glimpses in Irish history that are either forgotten or overshadowed by seemingly more significant occurrences. The truth is that most of the tales told in the book describe events or people that influenced Ireland in ways in which the ripples are still felt today. Highly recommended.’ – Rónán Murray (Good Reads)

‘Turtle Bunbury always makes history very accessible and his latest book is hugely interesting as the writer takes us on a journey into some of Ireland’s forgotten past. I am not reading it in any particular order, just dipping in and out of the concise chapters as a title captures my interest – as a resident of Wicklow I enjoyed the description of Gold Fever in Avoca in the 18th C, and the description of Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin n 1900 is fascinating. Not only is it well-written- it’s also a visual feast thanks to the wonderful illustrations by Joe McLaren.’ Ann Egan (Good Reads)

‘This book is a must read for anyone thinking of meandering around Ireland and drinking in all it has to offer. As an Aussie with a very scant knowledge of Irish history, this has given so much more meaning to all those crumbling castles and ancient sites of significance. Turtle’s charming and sparkling personality comes through in his writing, making this an extremely easy way to soak up some of Ireland’s more obscure, turbulent & colourful past.’ – Jenny Grant (Good Reads)

‘Truly excellent and beautifully made’ – Paddy Cullivan

‘A collection of little-known stories & vignettes from Irish history, which I would heartily recommend’ – James O’Fee.

‘A delight, and fills in so much on half remembered names places and events. I find I am having to ration myself. Two chapters in Bed, no more. It’s too much of a delight to rush thro’. – Bill Ainsworth.

‘Just finished reading it. Full of great information.’ – Michael King

‘Great read a totally different, entertaining view of Ireland’ – Danny McElroy

‘Fabulous book’ – Rick Dutton

‘Good read’ – Kevin Kinsella

‘A most enjoyable read’ – Anne Kearney Farrelly

‘I really loved this book’ – Diana Muller

‘I love your book!’ – Linda Nolan



Full Review from The Yorkshire Times

Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Yorkshire Times, 23rd February 2020

Acclaimed broadcaster, writer and journalist Turtle Bunbury has pulled off a feat of exquisite skill – the upholding of a mandate to edify entertainingly without overwhelming his audience in scholarly aridity. Ireland’s Forgotten Past is a rare and cherishable thing: combining assiduous research with a nose for ribald fun, Bunbury disinters the odd, the arcane and the profoundly surprising from the dark recesses of a mostly unknown history.

His purview is panoramic: beginning with the tectonic continental shifts of distant geological time, Bunbury adds accretion to learned accretion, introducing the first human inhabitations, and welcoming the Neolithic age through the migration of its human embodiments from – judging by the verisimilitude of Dolmen and standing stones in the respective landscapes – Northern Spain or Brittany.

Bunbury’s tour through time is breathless but never less than engaging. He leads the curious reader down alleyways of enquiry which shed genuine light; we begin to sense continuity in the detail, the shaping of the human landscape by succeeding generations over millennia, and the weaving of a cultural identity from disparate, often unpromising, threads. The mixing and matching of racial characteristics from all over Europe and the Middle East, the thriving trade lanes, and the frequent, and frequently hostile, English incursions are the building blocks upon which the far from homogeneous modern Ireland is constructed. And it is to this writer’s credit that the island’s ‘forgotten past’ is qualified in the book’s subtitle: that some of that past is ‘disremembered’ suggests that the overlooking has been deliberate. At least one subtext, for example, of the constant sackings of Ireland’s east coast over many centuries has been the displacement of large numbers of people, frequently into slavery, as when large-scale Viking raids denuded the coast of its populations twelve and thirteen centuries ago.

Not that Ireland’s essentially heterogeneous provenance ever got in the way of an urgent, somewhat flattering compulsion, in certain quarters, to imitate local culture. Bunbury, whose own origins are expatriate English/Scots baronial, is quick to recall the words of the seventeenth-century historian, John Lynch, who remarked on the tendency of early Norman and English settlers to adopt the manners and customs of their grudging hosts to a chameleon-like degree. It is ironic in the extreme that his Latin expression – Hiberniores, Hibernis ipsis (‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’) – still holds water, not least in the New York diaspora on St Patrick’s Day.

There is real, often subtextual, wit in Bunbury’s lively examination. His remarkable facility for trawling revealing detail from historical backwaters yields an opportunity for the satirical undoing of religious hypocrisy. The diminishing hegemony of the Knights Templar in Medieval Ireland is illustrated in the words of one Hugo de Lummour who stooped low when recounting a visit to the Templar preceptory at Clontarf, wherein he apparently witnessed one Knight, William de Warecome, ‘bend his head at the elevation of the sacrament , not caring to look at the host’. ‘Nobody’, Bunbury notes, ‘could construe this as evidence that the spirit of Beelzebub had taken root’.

Elsewhere, an acute description of the Battle of the Boyne of 1690 is rendered through the depiction of one of its protagonists, and his white charger. Colonel Robert Byerley and his horse, Turk, were in the vanguard of ‘King Billy’s’ victories, but it is a lesser known fact that Turk’s estimable speed and proportion were the genetic propensities upon which many generations of racing champions were subsequently founded: his ‘line’ includes such modern luminaries as Galileo, Masar and Frankel amongst many others.

Bunbury’s great skill is to illuminate the past through the picaresque activities of significant contemporary individuals. The approach is profoundly effective. The apparently humourless figure of the English protestant, Joshua Dawson, who went on to be Ireland’s de facto ruler in the early eighteenth century, became the scourge of Catholicism with a series of brutal internecine purges facilitated by an elaborate spy-ring. Whilst the nether end of the moral telescope reveals the louche Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, whose stewardship of the ‘Hell-Fire Club’ in Dublin in roughly 1737 is a paean to decadence and indolent excess:

‘Lord Rosse and his cronies are said to have hosted black masses, mock crucifixions and homosexual orgies, featuring women dressed as nuns. Black cats were reputedly sacrificed on the altar while the bucks drank hot scaltheen, a potent cocktail of whiskey and melted butter, and played cards with the Devil’.

Dawson’s own excesses, and the vehement anti-catholicism of Rosse’s young bucks – setting fire to church thatches, murder – give notice of the wider political landscape of the time, whose resonances continue to shadow our time like a cancerous long.

It is a testament, in fact, to Turtle Bunbury’s insight that a bigger picture is vouchsafed throughout this diverting volume. A sense is yielded, both in the easy eloquence of his prose, and in the fine accompanying illustrations, of an ad hoc building process enlivened at every stage by the strange carnival of social and cultural evolution.



Full Review from BBC History Magazine, May 2020

Marvellous Miscellany

“To remember everything is a form of madness,” remarks the schoolmaster Hugh O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations. If so, then Turtle Bunbury may have concerns for his sanity. In Ireland’s Forgotten Past he delivers a magnificently eclectic collection of 36 little histories of the “overlooked and disremembered” – objects and animals; people and places; and events, big and small. These are arranged chronologically. The first tells of a Devonian tetrapod, a metre-long creature, that some 385 million years ago left its footprints on Valentia Island, where they remain to this day. And the last concerns Herbert Remmel, a boy evacuated from Germany to Ireland in 1946, as part of Operation Shamrock, a Red Cross initiative to help children displaced by the war.

In between are stories of high crosses and holy wells, a thoroughbred horse, the tailor who made a fortune outfitting Cromwell’s army, spies, prostitutes, the Wicklow gold rush, and much else besides. Other than chronology, this celebration of the forgotten lacks any rhyme or reason – except that the stories are more or less obscure, and that all inform and entertain. Bunbury is a skilled storyteller who carries his learning lightly and his readers with him. Helped by Joe McLaren’s fine illustrations, readers of all ages will enjoy squinting through this stained-glass window of a book and marvelling at these weird and wonderful flickerings of the Irish past.

Critics might complain that lords and ladies eclipse the perennial overlooked – the poor – and, for sure, there is more than one gentleman’s club here. But the sheer pleasure that Bunbury takes in spinning these tales would draw the acid from any pen. One suspects there will be a sequel from a prolific author for whom historical research is “an addictive jigsaw”.

Breandan Mac Suibhne, senior research fellow at the National University of Ireland.




Review from Current Archaeology, May 2020


Ireland is undoubtedly full of history – a fact made abundantly clear in Turtle Bunbury’s new book, which sets out to explore some of the less well-known aspects of Ireland’s past through a series of fascinating and engaging tales. The topics covered range from broad overviews of the lives of Mesolithic communities, via legends of Viking invaders, to the story of the German children brought to Ireland after WWII under ‘Operation Shamrock

This accessible volume, beautifully illustrated with woodcut-style drawings, does not attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the history and prehistory of Ireland, but rather selects 36 stories that offer an insight into different points in time … These include Ireland’s history of connectivity and isolation, the struggles for power and changing belief systems, and the importance of the landscape as a factor that both shaped and was shaped by the island’s past.’