In a recent interview with The Irish Times, Roy Foster volunteered a striking comment: ‘The whole revisionism thing,’ he asserted, ‘is over.’ The remark is notable because, perhaps more than any other Irish historian of his generation, Foster built his reputation on a commitment to revisionism. Now that the outlook is avowedly a thing of the past, an opportunity presents itself to reflect on what it was.
In the same interview, Foster dropped some clues suggesting where we might begin. His particular brand of revisionism, he confessed, entailed ‘tearing down idols’. He went on: ‘The function of the historian at that time in the 1980s was to say things that caught people up a bit, that involved looking at the 1916 generation perhaps not as pietistically as they had been, particularly Pearse.’ What was on offer, in other words, was a revaluation of the nationalist pantheon, and with that came a new assessment of the meaning of Irish nationalism.
Foster’s breakthrough was his 1988 volume Modern Ireland, 1600 – 1972. It was, and remains, a supremely elegant intervention. It is still the most authoritative single-volume narrative history of Ireland, extending from the Elizabethan era down to the start of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Since then, as a biographer and essayist, as well as a cultural and political historian, Foster has been as prolific as he has been acute and provocative.
Foster’s books have often proved divisive. One disreputable reason for this is his unparalleled success. Achievements are rarely widely applauded in small academic communities of the kind that make up Irish historical studies. Then there is the controversy intrinsic to his subject matter which encompasses mutually hostile protagonists. But there is also Foster’s stance towards his material. He is convincing when he states that iconoclasm has been one of his motivations. This brought out his talent for caustic criticism: he is a master of satirical commentary. When the programme of ‘tearing down idols’ was in the ascendant, a capacity for ridicule proved a potent weapon.
However, there was also another side to the revisionist enterprise. According to an earlier description of the project, the aim of Irish historians was to battle against ‘myth’. This purpose was articulated by Ronan Fanning in 1986 and applauded by Foster later in the same year. The goal was hardly original to Irish historians. Exploding myths was a common objective of English historians in the 1950s, most of them keen to build on revisionist work by Lewis Namier. The idiom was influenced by postwar trends which celebrated reasonableness in Anglophone culture as an antidote to dangerous mythical beliefs disseminated by totalitarian regimes.
When the English approach was taken up in Ireland it was transformed. Namier had sought to tackle a series of Whig mythologies which had commended English history in terms of a native genius for liberty seamlessly advancing through the ages. But Ireland had never made it onto the path of triumphant progress. Its myth was one of captivity followed by sudden freedom. In response, Irish historians rightly probed the nature of the alleged bondage whilst examining the costs of liberation. They pursued this course by dispassionately assembling evidence rather than by venturing into irony and critique.
By the 1980s, then, revisionism was dedicated to two purposes at once. On the one hand, it functioned as a form of indictment committed to ‘tearing down idols’. On the other, it was concerned with countering entrenched mythologies. There was a degree of tension between these distinct objectives. Demythologising the past implied an impartial sifting of data. By comparison, iconoclastic criticism was explicitly tendentious. These contrary ambitions were brought together because, by the time Foster arrived on the scene, it was mainly one tradition that was being incriminated. As Foster conceded, in the 1980s it was specifically ‘the 1916 generation’ that was treated with scepticism. In other words, revolutionary nationalism in particular was being rejected. Instead of an effort at generalised demystification, this was an exercise in targeted debunking. The question is not whether this was a legitimate political preference, but whether it fulfilled the original intentions of revisionism.
When Foster wrote about revisionism in the middle of the 1980s, he rightly regarded it as a well-established academic endeavour. In Britain, it is often assumed that Foster represented a new dawn. However, the man himself fully recognised that revisionism underpinned historical instruction in secondary schools in southern Ireland from the 1970s. Works by JC Beckett and FSL Lyons were standard textbooks. It goes without saying that, long before then, revisionist perspectives were entrenched in the universities. After all, as is well known, a plan to challenge dubious historical assumptions in Ireland was well under way by the end of the 1930s. At that time, the aim was to undermine two sets of rival superstitions – one Orange, the other Green. This was the original form of post-partition revisionism, determined to eliminate historical fictions all round.
It is often thought that 1930s revisionism was primordial, inaugurated by collaboration between TW Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards. However, although their work certainly marked a new beginning, it was not an unprecedented start. Moreover, it was scarcely an overwhelming intellectual event. The really exciting figure of the period was DB Quinn, who initiated comparison between colonisation in Ireland and America. In a wider European or British context, Moody was a solidly conventional figure, while Edwards’s output was relatively modest. Both men nobly sought to transcend the divisions of the 1920s. Nonetheless, they had precursors stretching back into earlier periods. They hardly represented an absolute starting point.
Different strands of revisionism can be dated to the eighteenth century. These traditions culminated in WEH Lecky in the nineteenth century, surely the greatest Irish historian of any age. Much like David Hume and François Guizot before him, his achievement lay in his artful combination of philosophical insight and detailed empirical research. Soon after Lecky died in 1903, polarisation in Irish politics intensified. With this, inevitably, came a bitter Kulturkampf, much of it in the form of competing historical claims. Even so, academic research did not disappear. Scholars like Edmund Curtis and Eoin MacNeill continued to publish. But it is true that popular narratives gained prominence and traction.
Every national culture generates self-affirming narratives rooted in ideological preferences. In the period of the Irish Revolution and its aftermath, Ireland was no exception. Much as in America, Britain and France, chronicles celebrating deliverance multiplied. They rarely made much pretence to scholarly rigour, though the revisionism of the 1930s applied itself to refuting them. Rival republican and unionist accounts, penned by writers such as PS O’Hegarty and Ronald McNeill, catered to opposing tastes. When the dust settled in the 1930s, Moody and Edwards resolved to revise the accumulated distortions.
This opened an era of pitting the university against the street. The vocation of properly accredited historians became one of educating misguided popular opinion carried out by the dissemination of research. In the minds of the university professoriate, professionalism confronted amateur beliefs. This rhetoric abounded from the 1930s to the 1980s. Moody appealed to ‘science’ as the way to upend crowd-pleasing legends. Fanning protested that nationalist slogans tended ‘to erode professional authority in the popular mind’. And Foster reprimanded ‘popular histories’ and ‘public opinion’. In all cases, poorly informed assumptions were to be amended by ‘the profession’.
At this point, discussion of revisionism must inevitably embrace reflection on the relationship between the academy and society. Beginning in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century, the modern university was envisaged as a school of enlightenment. This image gained momentum across Europe and America in the nineteenth century. The self-conceived purpose of the institution was to contribute to rational opinion formation. It therefore had to compete with the projects of the political class, along with the claims of the church and the fourth estate.
Within universities, the humanities in particular are concerned with evaluating doctrines. History and philosophy are the prime tools of assessment. Under a powerful state or an authoritarian church, their role in challenging commonplaces is curtailed. Since 1950s Ireland was hardly a liberal paradise, the potentially transformative impact of the humanities was constrained. Clerical influence dominated most philosophy departments, and revisionism among historians was conservative in orientation. Above all, revolutionary convictions were frowned upon and castigated.
Since independence and partition were secured through violent resistance, and politicians mobilised opinion by appeal to revolutionary lore, there was potential for a collision between historians and popular feeling. Under the socially stagnant conditions that prevailed before the 1960s, all consequential conflict was avoided. There had been strains of opposition inside literary culture, and occasional ripples of protest among the diminutive intellectual class. Nonetheless, overall, public opinion remained cohesive and monochrome.
Early shoots of liberalisation changed some of this picture in the mid-1960s. The old rigidities of the de Valera epoch slowly started to loosen. But it was the shock of insurrection in Northern Ireland that disturbed the peace. As early as 1966, the dissident Jesuit Francis Shaw, along with the diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, questioned aspects of the folklore around the 1916 Rebellion. The assertion of nationality by the method of ‘blood sacrifice’ was rebuked on the grounds of its paganism and apparent resemblance to fascism. However, at that point, these dissenters were marginal voices in society at large. Besides, Shaw’s essay was not published until 1972.
In August 1969, three years after the half-centenary commemorating the 1916 Rising, it was insurrection in Belfast and Derry that posed an ideological threat to the South. By 1971, republican violence was relentless and devastating. Rival wings of the IRA appealed to Connolly and Pearse to legitimise the resort to arms and to undermine partition. Revisionists now turned their attention to invalidating republican myths. Cruise O’Brien immediately found himself in the vanguard of critique. But interestingly, it should be noted that he was not speaking from within the academy; he was rallying as a politician to the defence of the Irish state.
A clutch of pundits and academics followed O’Brien’s lead. Nonetheless, his remorseless logic and grim foreboding swiftly divided opinion. Yet he was never stranded without resources. He clung to a basic insight that was both credible and urgent. When, in the New York Review of Books in 1974, Seamus Deane sought to expose him as a mendacious propagandist, the heart of O’Brien’s retort was compressed into one question. What exactly, he asked, did Deane think ‘would be likely to happen in Belfast if the British Army were now to be withdrawn’?
Deane never answered that question, at least not in public. Over time, O’Brien’s premonitions won over doubters. If British forces withdrew, many began to think, Catholics in Belfast would be exposed to calamitous vengeance. In due course, as intercommunal violence grew, the Republic would be sucked into a mounting conflagration. It was not as a political analyst that O’Brien was lacking, but as a credible historical adjudicator. His prime concern was the danger of republican propaganda, rarely the deficiencies of British policy or unionist attitudes. Given his role in the Southern polity, this surely had much practical justification. But it was a partisan position from which to embark on impartial research.
It was from this skewed vantage point that many historians soon took their bearings. In 1977, Ruth Dudley Edwards was credited with launching a new agenda with the appearance of her deflationary biography of Patrick Pearse. However, the book was more a takedown than a disinterested investigation. Recalling Foster’s phrase, perhaps she was trying ‘to say things that would catch people up a bit’. She was, without doubt, examining Pearse less ‘pietistically’ than had been the case in earlier decades. But, equally, she was not reconstructing his world in the spirit of dispassionate inquiry. It took research into Pearse a generation to recover.
The academics now followed the journalists and politicians. As Foster put it, the historical profession resolved to contend with ‘the pieties of nationalism’. He noted that commentators in the 1930s had been ‘sceptical about imputing praise and blame’. But, by the 1980s, he himself was happy to reprove ‘self-righteous whingeing’ in the Southern electorate. No doubt there was much to deplore in nationalist communities at home and abroad. Perhaps, as Foster suggested, the preoccupation with anti-Irish racism in Britain was needlessly feeding ‘never-ending research’. Nonetheless, denunciation of the kind was remarkably one-sided. For instance, unionism was spared the same degree of suspicion.
Since the 1970s, most histories of unionism have been redemptive, exculpatory or explanatory in form. The emphasis in ATQ Stewart and Paul Bew, for example, has been on making sense of Ulster’s unionist aspirations. There is no intrinsic problem with an approach that strives for neutral interpretation, even when the interpreters are deeply aligned in their preferences. The recovery of what Stewart called the ‘inner workings’ of loyalism was obviously a service to understanding. On the other hand, when writing on Orangeism in 1999, Ruth Dudley Edwards veered into mawkish acclamation. By that stage, the excoriation of republicanism had become the dominant gesture in the historiography.
There is no denying the outrages of the Provisional IRA, nor the futility of its thirty-year campaign. However, an overwhelming focus on the pathologies of one side has meant a lack of self-reflection on the other. It is obvious that unionism played a causal role in the Troubles. More importantly, since the peace process, it has struggled to articulate a positive vision of the future. Correspondingly, the demise of the Provisionals has left Irish historians unable to articulate a new agenda.
This perplexity comes at a time when the wider profession is undergoing change. On this larger stage, a reversal of priorities has occurred: the kind of target singled out for reproach by Irish revisionists in the 1980s has acquired moral prestige in the new millennium. Today, abuse by authority, rather than by subversives, is the object of disdain. But the character of the abuse is still under-defined. The past is more a matter of contempt than a process to be explained. Catchword concepts, like ‘empire’ and ‘neoliberalism’, are sooner censured than analysed. All of a sudden, a mystique of wretchedness is universally in vogue; victimhood is accounted for with reference to structural features, although what these are is usually unspecified; resistance is regarded as an unavoidable reflex; and maltreatment is equated with occult forces like ‘settler colonialism’. The problem is that these structures are rarely explicated. Instead, they offer occasions for sanctimonious ventilation. It is no longer the insurgent but the oppressor who is spurned. But, in both cases, what is disliked is rebuffed in a flurry of moralism.
In some quarters, since the 1960s, the humanities have come to see themselves as constituting a tribunal of conscience. From this viewpoint, they are a means of simply lambasting the apparatus of rule rather than an instrument for comprehending how it works. Equipped with this self-image, the university has exempted itself from complicity with the status quo, even though it educates most organs of public opinion. Academia, like the judiciary, participates in power. It nonetheless has its own discrete modus operandi. For that reason, it ought to clarify its relationship with other parts of the state. In general, the university is charged with investigating the claims of the authorities, not duplicating their work.
Investigating a subject implies striving to understand it in all its dimensions rather than judging it complacently with reference to one’s own standards. A more holistic approach does not begin by blaming one party but by rigorously reflecting on the conditions of conflict. It is this broader perspective that is needed at the current juncture. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, power-sharing has proved a half-hearted affair. One reason for this is that the two largest parties in Northern Ireland have failed to make their peace with the regime. As a result, among nationalists, attention has been directed to the prospect of a United Ireland. On the other side, unionism has refused to develop a constructive programme for government encompassing the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.
With both sides fixated on opposing definitions of sovereignty, neither has committed itself to an inclusive vision of citizenship. Under these circumstances, historians should stand back from prevailing forms of partisanship. They should move the debate from interminable wrangling over jurisdiction and ask instead how quality of government might be assured. The chief problem to be addressed is how the population should be ruled, not the question of its composition.
Towards this end, a basic change in political understanding is needed. Only new concepts, together with an account of their practical consequences, can hope to supply this. The old debates about nationalism are now tired and divisive. We need to change the ground on which the discussion is conducted. This can only be achieved by an alliance between history and philosophy, with both disciplines serving the common interest rather than sectarian goals.
Intellectual life is not beholden to any specific constituency. Given this freedom, academics in the Irish context should extend the framework of their inquiry. They should move beyond asking which of two unions – a United Ireland or the United Kingdom – best caters to national allegiance. For a start, both these arrangements are equally artificial constructions. Given this fact, nationality should not determine the remit of government. The legitimacy of a regime depends on the quality of its administration rather than the principle of nationality as such. Shifting attention to what the system of rule ought to deliver provides the only escape from zero-sum disagreements which moralising historians have hitherto sustained.
Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is Hegel’s World Revolutions (Princeton University Press).