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History from the top II

Barra Ó Seaghdha

The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, eds Richard Bourke & Ian McBride, Princeton University Press, 552 pp, £30.95, ISBN: 978-0691154060

This is the second part of an essay of which the first part featured in the October issue.

Ciara Boylan’s chapter is titled Famine – but is, as one would expect, in large part devoted to the Great Famine. It is a solid survey of responses to the Famine; it does not gloss over suffering and death. How it fares when read against C.V. Wedgewood’s statement [see Part One] is open to discussion. The title of the chapter and the emphasis in the opening paragraph on the Great Famine as an ‘ecological shock’ may bespeak an (editorial?) anxiety to avoid any risk of trauma-centredness. A quotation from Margaret Crawford is notable in this regard. Taken in a thousand-year context, what is stated may be true; the issue, however, lies in its positioning and function within Boylan’s chapter.  We learn that, but for the Great Famine, ‘it is doubtful that Ireland would be regarded as more famine-prone than other European countries.’ The fact is that earlier Irish famines are rarely referred to as shocking in global terms or as justifying subsequent anti-English feeling. What gave impetus to anger among Irish people, and among descendants of nineteenth-century emigrants, was the fact that, on an island that was officially an integral part of the world’s then leading economic and military power – on an island, too, near the centre of an empire able to draw wealth, food and materials to itself from around the globe – one eighth at least of the population died of hunger and disease, while a similar proportion fled the country in despair or in order to escape death, hunger and disease. Even outside of periods of famine, the condition of rural Ireland, within the context of a two-island United Kingdom, was exclaimed over by nineteenth-century commentators from J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi to the Newcastle radical Joseph Cowen. (It is a pity that the two errors in the spelling of bliadhain an áir – ‘the year of the slaughter’: the famine year of 1741 – were not spotted.)

For anyone relying on Princeton in order to understand nineteenth century Ireland as a whole, reading pages 447-458 of Mathew Kelly’s chapter on “Nationalisms” would be essential. But why is Kelly assigned a chapter on Nationalisms in the first place? It is hardly because unionism as a force in itself is, as can happen, invisible to these particular editors. One can only speculate that something had to be done in light of the fact that John Bew’s narrowly focused chapter is inappropriately occupying the relevant space in the survey section. A simple solution was available: a survey chapter by Kelly (a historian quite capable of outlining and balancing unionist, nationalist, liberal and imperial perspectives), with John Bew’s thought-experiment finding its proper place in Part Two.

Readers coming to a themed chapter with some ideas of their own will always have a list of quibbles and neglected topics, but as one would expect both from Ian McBride’s deep knowledge of the field and from the impressive expansion of range manifest in his Gill Eighteenth Century Ireland volume, his chapter on religion offers sharp reflections on developments across all four centuries, does what can be done to clarify the intermixing of politics and religion in Ireland, and is not overdelicate in its brief comments on figures such as Tom Garvin and Tom Inglis. There could be more, perhaps, of what might be called religion-on-the-ground – literally so, in the case of the post-1850 Catholic Church. A socio-architectural sketch of Irish townscapes in the post-Famine decades (the Catholic Tiger years?) – Drumcondra and Thurles are two outstanding examples of the sprouting of Catholic infrastructure on the periphery of existing urban centres – would make the renewed power of the Catholic church as experienced by the populace understandable in a way that ideological explanations do not fully capture; the employment effect too, in an underdeveloped economy, was not confined to the factory of vocations. Discussion of religion can encompass not just doctrinal and organisational matters but the smashed musical instruments littering a public house in Wicklow after a vigorous effort at social disciplining by Fr Young [see Part One] or the leader of the Church of Ireland in the early decades of the twentieth century happily joining in singing fascist songs with gondoliers in Venice (as recounted in his autobiography). The collapse in prestige and social authority of the Catholic church – accelerated by revelations of systematic abuse (whether by individuals or as a culture within particular institutions) and the protection of clerical criminals – remains, as it must, the major theme in the coverage of the last few decades of McBride’s chapter.

In certain cases, the Princeton History seems tailored to the expectations of those teaching or taking up Irish Studies in North America. Thus there is a chapter both on Women and Gender in Modern Ireland (Catriona Kennedy) and on Feminism (Maria Luddy). These contain much of interest and point to areas of history that demand further research and reflection. Kennedy draws particular attention to the way in which, prior to the complete domination of factory-made cloth, domestic activities like spinning and weaving could give women an important role within the household economy. The opportunities offered to middle-class women in the worlds of business and the religious life are also discussed. Kennedy situates the Irish story within wider European patterns, including debates on the validity of treating that period as a golden age of female participation. Kennedy’s chapter is characterised , on the one hand, by the provision of useful information and of comparative perspectives and, on the other, by the avowal that even broad consensus has not been reached on some quite central issues.  As feminism as socio-political agitation is a very thin thread in the weave of Irish history, its receiving a chapter of its own merits explanation. As a way of looking at and living human experience that entails a revaluation of historically devalued female experience, rights and achievements, feminism is demonstrated more by its incorporation into everyday experience and practice (including the practice of history-writing in the case of academic life) than by treating it as an isolated topic (here, a thread of intellectual history) within a general history. On the other hand, the presence of such a chapter may counterbalance what is, in effect if not in intention, the exclusionary result of the elite-centred approach to history adopted in the narrative/survey chapters of Princeton. (Two Irish-language names are, it must be noted, mangled in the Further Reading section.)

Vincent Morley’s chapter provides a tidy and insightful survey of the Irish language across the centuries.This means that there is some recognition in the Princeton History of the political and literary culture of Gaelic society, but its appearance here also constitutes a kind of intellectual ghettoisation: the language, culture and lives of the majority of the population should be part of the narrative and analysis in the relevant survey chapters of a history of Ireland. The sheer stretch of time covered – effectively, a thousand years, well beyond the book’s stated time-span – unavoidably curtails the space devoted to the last two centuries. Coverage of the nineteenth century tilts too much towards scholarly activity; a little more of language-on-the-ground and of the workings of language shift would be welcome. (That major histories of Ireland barely register language shift and its cultural effects should be an intellectual scandal.)   The burst of optimism in the Irish-language movement from the late ’50s into the ’70s is insufficiently registered. This involved publishing, journals, creative writing, drama, literary criticism, music, documentaries, television, language teaching courses for adults, co-operative and voluntary initiatives, and the movement for Gaeltacht Civil Rights. The need to squeeze centuries into a small space (and perhaps personal temperament or affinity) means that Morley has little to say about the particular articulation of the Irish language where class, education, media, immigration and politics are concerned, in contemporary Ireland, urban and rural, north and south. TG4 (the Irish-language TV station) successfully plugged into the popular youth culture of the early Celtic Tiger and is known for its colourful historical documentaries, but it has done almost nothing to translate the thousand-year course of Irish-language literature and culture into TV form. One tribute to the late poet, scholar, journalist and broadcaster Liam Ó Muirthile would be to remember and take inspiration from how, decades ago he combined low budget, high intelligence and accessibility in a series of searching TV interviews with writers and scholars. A twelve-part series of one-hour programmes would become a valuable resource. Some experts  with the gift of communication (Louis de Paor, for example) are available. For the clash of ideas (Reg Hindley’s The Death of a Language: A Qualified Obituary and Éamon Ó Ciosáin’s response in pamphlet form, for example) and for new ideas on Irish in a changing linguistic landscape (Michael Cronin’s An Ghaeilge san aois nua/Irish in the new century), readers will need to go outside the suggested Further Reading. Some very interesting essays and reviews will also be found on the drb website.

Chapters on more explicitly cultural topics remain to be addressed. Given that for centuries the majority of Irish people were living under a political order that was imposed on them, it is not surprising that intellectual or literary activists devoted much of their energy to creating or promoting an order more congenial to them or to their community. This is only to be expected in an unsettled society. Such thinking is neglected in the Princeton History. Like Thomas Duddy’s A History of Irish Thought(useful and valuable in itself), Daniel Carey’s chapter, “Intellectual History: William King to Edmund Burke”, focuses largely on that portion of English-language elite thinking that forms a sub-field of the British intellectual world of the time. Including as it does the intriguing figure of John Toland, and of course Edmund Burke, there is much of interest here.

David Dwan’s chapter is, somewhat inaccurately, titled “Cultural Developments: Young Ireland to Yeats”. Dwan is very knowledgeable on the intellectual background to Young Ireland. The chapter is, however, problematic on a number of counts. Dwan doesn’t lay out a simple time-frame against which readers can plot developments in Young Ireland, The Nation and the public world – the use of the military to pressurise O’Connell into calling off the Monster Meeting at Clontarf, for example; the relationship between Young Ireland and the mass movement led by O’Connell; the controversy over religion in the projected university system; Davis’s death; the split between Young Ireland and O’Connell and its marginalising effect; the outbreak of famine; levels of awareness of the Famine at government level, along with changes of government and policy that affected the lives, and deaths, of millions; the decline and death of O’Connell; the deteriorating national situation in which the movement began to fragment; the mini-rebellion of 1848 … In a history of Ireland, one would expect more contextual awareness and signalling when, to take one example among dozens of this kind, a Davis article from 1842 is cited alongside a later statement from John Mitchell’s Jail Journal. One might also wonder if it is legitimate to treat any statement quoted from an article in The Nation as a statement by The Nation? Was The Nation such a univocal publication?

In a history of Ireland whose introduction urges awareness of the need to see developments in Ireland outside a single-island perspective, it is striking that, while setting Young Ireland within the context of British political thinking, Dwan evacuates the whole question of power, of what Young Ireland was setting itself against. Taking this matter at its simplest, Dwan can treat Young Ireland notions of citizenship and its duties, and attitudes to the use of violence, as overheated and absurd; he offers no reminder of the invasion and actual slaughter being carried out in this same period by British military and naval forces, and the extravagant or routinely self-justifying discourse surrounding such activities. The result is that Young Ireland rhetoric comes across as exotically irrational. (This process is repeated in the decontextualising of Pearse’s rhetoric later in the chapter.) Over a few lines on p 220, Dwan employs the following terms: “aggressively particularist”; “ransacked the idioms of an earlier patriot tradition, endless emphasizing […]”; “obsessive emphasis”; and “diatribes against faction and party”. His phrasing in a passage on the following page is more delicate:

Protestant oligarchy, as Burke had argued, was no monument to religious inclusiveness; nonetheless, the defenders of Anglican interests in the Dublin University Magazine repeatedly worried about the illiberal features of democratic trends.

Dwan does refer to a “particularly virulent” critic of mass mobilisation and to Charles Lever’s “wishful thinking” but the broad contrast is nonetheless clear. Having devoted a substantial section of a book to Young Ireland some years ago, Dwan treats his retour aux sources as an opportunity to revitalise the art of historical condescension – and perhaps to scrub at the stain of his association with Field Day. Certainly, if his writing is carried off with a certain élan, his Further Reading list enacts some very respectful bowing.

Dwan seems determined to prove that the Young Irelanders were not original thinkers. It was not for their individual originality but for their concerted attempt to lay the foundations for a new, non-sectarian, energised Irish society and culture that the Young Irelanders mattered. That their rallying cries and exhortations could at times be exaggerated, crude or wildly romantic, or that their ideas on economic or social matters could be grievously inadequate, few would deny. The middle-class Young Ireland leaders were trying to inject energy and ideas into a broader popular movement led by O’Connell. Dwan fails to deal with The Nation’s galvanising role under Davis: the use of journalism and the national network of Repeal reading-rooms to develop an enlarged, civic-minded, educated public in a society that was still only semi-literate. One would never guess from his prescriptive study why readers enjoyed reading The Nation (including lively editorial reactions to correspondence from readers), or having it read to them, or why so many who did not share his politics mourned Thomas Davis’s premature death. In his simplistic acceptance of O’Connell’s denunciation of violence, Dwan reveals his poor grasp of political power. In drawing huge numbers of people to demonstrate their desire for a new order, O’Connell was implicitly saying: “If you do not listen to me and grant my demands, I may not be able to keep this movement in check and you may have to face an angry, undisciplined and even violent populace.” The British government decided that it could risk calling his bluff and won that particular game. In the larger game of power, a stronger message was sent out (it was, after all, the logic of the Act of Union): Britain did not have to listen to the peacefully expressed will of the majority of people on the island of Ireland; in a two-island framework, Irish voices would be out-shouted by the UK majority.

Music was a mode of popular communication (as well as a topic of interest) in the world of Young Ireland. There is no obligation on intellectual historians to be knowledgeable about this area but it is Dwan’s own choice to assert without qualification that Thomas Moore was “denounced by Young Ireland as a sell-out, even as his Melodies were enthusiastically mimicked”. It is true that Thomas Davis felt that Irish political songs were, as he put it, too “desponding or weak to content a people marching to independence as proudly as if they had never been slaves” (“Irish Music and Poetry”). If the political psychology of attempting to reverse the devaluation of a whole culture escapes Dwan, he might note that on the same page Davis suggested a way of increasing Moore’s social reach: “A reprint of Moore’s Melodies on lower keys, and at much lower prices, would probably restore the sentimental music of Ireland to its natural supremacy.” Elsewhere, in complaining that an Irish boy leaving primary school would have received as much information about Mexico as about Ireland, Davis wrote: “Swift lived and Griffin wrote, and Moore sung not for him” (“Popular Education”). In “Irish Songs”, Davis wrote: “[…] we find that, even putting Moore out of view for the moment, the songs of Ireland are immeasurably above those of England, but certainly inferior to those of Scotland”. This places Moore above other Irish songwriters. Later in the same essay, Davis described Moore as “perfect in his expression of the softer feelings, and unrivalled by Burns in many of his gay songs”; Moore was, however, “deficient in vehemence” and did not “speak the sterner passions”. Davis made it clear, however, that Moore was “immeasurably our greatest poet”. Davis – the chief voice of The Nation in its first and most impactful years – was quite measured in his assessment of Moore.

A cursory scan of the titles of the standard collection of Davis’s essays would reveal his relentless commitment to building knowledge, encouraging the practice of the arts and erecting an institutional infrastructure for the nation-to-be. His project was not towards erasure or abolition of flawed models, institutions and materials but their adaptation towards the construction of a new society. Dwan’s reference to “the joyless primitivism of Davis – an Ireland of wigwams and potatoes” speaks more of authorial self-positioning than of Thomas Davis.

Though Dwan’s chapter is titled “Cultural Developments: Young Ireland to Yeats”, the focus is much narrower than this. It makes no mention of the regular reprinting, well into the Free State years, of the anthology of poems and ballads The Spirit of the Nation, as important a cultural development as any mentioned or analysed in the chapter. Mitchell’s Jail Journal is another such popular legacy. Far from covering cultural developments from Young Ireland to Yeats, the chapter goes from one to the other with a hop, a skip and a jump. James H Murphy’s A Social, Cultural and Literary History, 1791-1891 is one of the most accessible and reliable guides to Irish cultural history in its unfolding, and not merely in its connection with the great political and cultural upheavals of the early twentieth century. The much-neglected chapters on music, the Irish language, the visual arts and literature in the New Oxford History also survey (with varying degrees of contextualisation) developments in those years.

In a history of Ireland, as opposed to a history of internationally recognised Irish cultural achievement, the case for highlighting modernist over other forms of literature should have been argued –  whether in the introduction or within Lauren Arrington’s chapter, “Irish Modernism and its Legacies”. (And why, as so often, are modernist painting and composition excluded?) Nor is any explanation offered for not extending consideration of the legacies of modernism into recent decades. Regarding writers whose work she addresses, does she make the case for the centrality of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction to her topic? Many non-academic readers down the years must have read and enjoyed Bowen’s work without considering her a modernist or realising that she was one. There isn’t a hint of it – though, as usual, there is recognition of her intelligence and psychological insight – in Angus Wilson’s introduction to the collected stories. As Arrington herself recognises, there are, of course, rigorous and more inclusive definitions of modernism. One way of defining the issue would be to say that, in the looser or more inclusive definition, the use of “the themes of instability and fragmentation” would make one a modernist while the more rigorous definition would demand that a questioning of the fundamentals of artistic order should penetrate to the formal core of the artistic work. Bowen might be classed as one of those bridging figures that register some of the shock of modernity and a degree of estrangement but without a radical break with conventional nineteenth century narrative.

The narrative construction of Arrington’s chapter is not entirely clear. After some introductory paragraphs, she analyses The Black Soul (the one modernist novel of Liam O’Flaherty’s, it seems), and the novels of Elizabeth Bowen; she then goes back in time to look at Yeats’s poetry, with a particular concentration on The Green Helmet (1910) and the later works; as an influence, Yeats leads to Louis MacNeice and to the Irish modernist poets of the1930s; the Parisian stay and personal network of the poet and critic Thomas MacGreevy then lead us to Joyce (and again we are led back to the beginning of the twentieth century) and thus forward again to Beckett’s fiction and its mining and undermining of self, identity and voice; as Beckett’s approach to fiction has its parallel in his work for theatre, his ground-breaking Waiting for Godot triggers a journey back into the avant garde drama and dance of the 1920s (but not of the 1910s). Was there not a more direct route through the material? Arrington makes a strong case for Thomas MacGreevy’s influence, possibly exaggerates the ‘radically avant-garde’ nature of some contributions to the Bell, blends Joyce and his unavoidable tundish into the bigger picture, places Beckett in France but doesn’t note how his particular use of French relates to other aspects of his work that interest her, mentions Irish-language modernist writers, and is (unlike the editors?) aware of dance and painting. A few brief observations and some footnoted jabs in the last few sentences confirm that she might have a lot more to say if space allowed. Readers might welcome some engagement – not the smug post-bellum sneer of a non-warrior in the Field Day wars that featured in the Irish Times not so long ago – with a figure like Seamus Deane, who set the terms for debate on modernism within Irish literary academia for decades.  Declan Kiberd, who has led so many to an interest in Irish studies, is strikingly absent, even from the Further Reading, as is Marjorie Howes, who has written with intelligent lucidity on the major Irish modernists. (A further, minor, quibble: to say that the Auxiliaries ‘set fire to several buildings’ in Cork in December 1920 does not quite convey the extent of their critique. Were they perhaps influenced by J-K Huysman’s espousal of ‘L’architecture cuite’ [cooked architecture] in one of his exuberantly opinionated essays on art?)

More generally – and this is a point for the editors rather than for Arrington – if the aim of each chapter of the Princeton History is to offer a route towards an understanding of the life and culture of Irish people over time, wouldn’t popular culture in the broadest sense have as much claim on our attention as the literary avant garde? There would be much to learn from an examination of what was read within the primary and secondary school systems before and after 1921, or from popular fiction and religious literature, or from the development of organised sport, or from changing patterns in music culture.

The modular organisation of the Princeton History must have involved difficult choices. In certain cases, the results are something of a puzzle. Andy Bielenberg provides a solid if rather dutiful survey of the economy of independent Ireland; the exclusion of the nineteenth century (surely essential to understanding the post-independence economy) and Northern Ireland from his remit – presumably an editorial choice – goes unexplained. There are perspectives – including Ireland’s location beside a world power and the difficulty of creating an environment conducive to the seeding of an industrial culture at that time – in which Irish protectionist policies in the 1930s are more valid than Bielenberg suggests. Reading the Princeton History sometimes induces a desire for more oxygenated thinking – and a little element of risk. The following passage from William J Ashworth’s The Industrial Revolution: the State, Knowledge and Global Trade leads us away from the Irish 1930s but, in the end, may lead us back to them:

What really set eighteenth-century Britain apart was the peculiar strength and distinctive policies of its state born, primarily, of war. This body made possible a project of global trade, financialization, protectionism, coerced labour (slavery, women and children), colonization and an excruciatingly detail-obsessed, almost encyclopaedic, regulation of industry that culminated in the Industrial Revolution; all these components can’t be separated. It was only once British industry had gained global supremacy over its European and Asian competitors that it embraced a more ‘liberal’ variant of economic policy and then proceeded to reinvent its own history along such a liberal vein.

The double standards were passed on to the United States. And, as if French imperial and republican bullying and vengeful “reparation”-extraction, followed by American military and corporate cultivation of amenable dictators, had not sufficed, the catastrophic effects of Bill Clinton’s sudden exposure of Haiti’s rice-growers to the delights of free trade are also worth considering where the inherent virtues of such a policy are concerned.

Maurice Walsh’s chapter on “Media and Culture” presents, structurally, a similar problem to Bielenberg’s: in a book that covers four centuries, he deals with the 1960-2008 period only, thus excluding from consideration the growth of literacy and the creation of new publics, the role of newspapers and pamphlets in political and religious controversies, censorship over the centuries (not just in independent Ireland), the place of provincial newspapers in political and social life since the mid-nineteenth century, the propaganda wars of the 1912-1922 years, and so on. The chapter is written with fluency and a certain relish. Underlying it, however, is an over-smooth and somewhat complacent narrative of a societal journey from darkness into enlightenment, from the rural into the urban, and from the religious into the secular, with the heroic Bell magazine as a solitary precursor ringing in the changes to come. To be amused by The Sunday Press’s headlining of the climax to the Marian year (1954) is one thing; to give the impression that newspapers of the period were so saturated with religious matters as not to cover hard international news stories is another. The attempts by conservative Catholics to control the new medium of television are rightly highlighted, as is the emergence of audience-friendly clerical charmers, but is the picture complete without acknowledgement of the role of the Radharc team in highlighting not only the terrible famine enforced on secessionist Biafra by Nigeria but also broader issues of injustice and need in the Third World? Walsh, like Colm Tóibín and various commentators, tends to portray The Late Late Show as a perpetual challenge to national and religious orthodoxy orchestrated by the culture warrior Gay Byrne. Acceptance of this view should be conditional on watching from beginning to end any sequence of six consecutive programmes; it would soon emerge that professionally presented banality was the order of the day, with occasional outbreaks of excitement. It is tempting for those who belong to the media world to take a symptom of social change for its cause. John Montague’s poem responding to the goings-on at the 1963 Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar and contemporary articles in Ceol are just two small indications that the times were already a-changing.

Walsh’s depiction of the enforcement of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act (1960) during the Troubles is overkind both to Conor Cruise O’Brien (who at this point looked into his own heart and knew what would be good for the public, as in his idea of relaying British TV beyond the east coast or his policing of letters in the Irish Press) and to journalists and to RTÉ staff, some of whom surely collaborated in the restriction of investigation and debate. Where critical awareness of new media is concerned, The Crane Bag was not quite as innovative as Walsh suggests: the journal Atlantis had begun to examine such issues in the early 1970s. In a very different mode, the Hibernia of the 1970s at its best provided a mix of analysis, opinion, cartoons, political gossip, business news and lively reviews of the arts. And where are the pressing issues of the last few decades? We are spared the rightward turn of The Irish Times under Geraldine Kennedy and that newspaper’s role in the property boom. Should questions of media ownership, influence and rivalry go ignored – or the new media and the weakening of hard-edged investigation?

Finally, we must turn to the chapters surveying the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As mentioned earlier, the chapter on “Independent Ireland” includes a selective view of the pre-independence decades. Fearghal McGarry sees the union as lacking legitimacy by 1900 and identifies colonial aspects of the British administration of Ireland. At the same time, he acknowledges both the seeming strength of the Irish Party and the question posed by the speed of its collapse. McGarry states that, “reflecting both a less polarized climate and revisionist advances”, post-revisionist approaches to Irish history “are characterized by a less iconoclastic attitude towards popular nationalism, and a shift from a focus on elites and the state towards the experiences of ordinary people”. This is only partly reflected in his own chapter, in which he focuses, in his own words, on “four key processes that shaped twentieth-century Ireland: revolution, state-building, economic liberalization, and modernization”. The choice of themes in relation to the Free State is justifiable, yet his chapter partakes to a degree of a pattern that is gradually becoming clearer: that writers on the history and culture of independent Ireland too closely resemble anxious farmers examining their arid fields for sprouts of liberalisation. There is a greater obligation on the historian than on the ordinary citizen to attempt to imagine that world as it was conceived and felt by those who lived in it (which does not of course preclude the expression of detached judgement). Anne Dolan’s Novermber 2017 talk at Trinity College on the Free State period (https://www.tcd.ie/news_events/articles/international-influences-on-the-irish-free-state/8359/) and related publication may bespeak a broader transition from “assertive moralism” of the type referred to by Richard Bourke to a belated recognition of the human diversity, social pleasures, agency and international connectedness that were possible within the very real constrictions of life in Free State Ireland.

McGarry builds discussion of the general historical reframing of the revolutionary period into his portrayal of the period. Thus, simplistic polarities between physical-force and constitutional nationalism are questioned; the 1916 Rising is read in the context of the World War; the existence of a popular aspiration to more than what John Redmond offered after 1912 is registered; and the ruthlessness of the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War (in particular, its use of extra-judicial killing and terror tactics) is highlighted. On the other hand, McGarry does not convincingly reconcile, on the one hand, the idea that Redmondism rubbed against the grain of a popular nationalism and, on the other, the acceptance by so many nationalists of the call to participate in a British war in 1914 and what seems a dramatic shift in opinion in the aftermath of the Rising. It might be helpful to give greater consideration to the idea that the nationalist public had developed a pragmatism about the realisation of its political ideals, having been well schooled through the nineteenth century in the difficulty of forcing British power to listen to Irish needs and aspirations. 1916 brought to fuller consciousness the conclusions to be drawn from the attitude and actions of British Conservativism and the wider state-army-church establishment regarding the nationalist and unionist communities in Ireland (from 1912 through to the immediate suspension of the Home Rule granted in 1914, and on to the war period), the near certainty of partition, and the presence in a key legal position in the Cabinet of someone who had been the leader of a seditious movement a few years previously. This perspective makes more understandable the result of the 1918 election, subsequent elections, the pragmatic acceptance of the Treaty, the eventual and long-term command of the political world by a party deriving from the anti-Treaty side, and the continuing support for that party during and after the Economic War.

Some of what puzzles historians to this day was analysed by WK Hancock in the first volume, dealing with problems of nationality, of Oxford University Press’s Survey of Commonwealth Affairs (1936), as he made the attempt (“forlorn though it may be”, he noted modestly) to explain the change in nationalist Ireland between 1914 and 1918. First, he looked at what was accepted in 1914:

The act which Redmond was willing to accept from Parliament as ‘a final settlement’ – Sinn Féin would never allow Redmond to forget that disastrous phrase – was nothing more than a scheme of provincial autonomy. It was a scheme of provincial autonomy so circumscribed that an Australian colony, even sixty or seventy years earlier, would have rejected it with indignation. It contained ‘limitations’ excluding from the competence of the Irish parliament trade regulation in all its forms, navigation, postal services, and trademarks. In addition it specified certain ‘reserved’ matters – not counting truly imperial matters such as foreign policy and defence – which might pass to Irish control only at a later date. Among these ‘reserved’ matters were police, savings banks, friendly societies, and public loans raised before the passing of the act. Ireland, to all intents and purposes, remained within the British financial system: at the head of six limitations on her fiscal autonomy customs and excise were listed. Ireland, in the future as in the past, would send representatives to Westminster. The act left intact the framework of the United kingdom. If this was what home rule meant, home rule – although its excited partisans and opponents could not see it – was in fact another form of unionism.

Hancock then outlines how Irish nationalists worked within the rules:

The Irish had accepted English rules – those rules of respect for law, of persuasion and majority decision as the means of changing the law, which the English boasted were an essential quality of their civilized living. The Irish accepted the constitutional principle of the sovereignty of parliament. They staked everything upon this principle. They lost their stake.

The grammar and rhythm of Hancock’s prose underline the point he is making. Whatever the right and wrongs of the matter, or the insufficiency of thinking regarding the place of unionists in a future Ireland, the shock of realisation he conveys above meant that, to the nationalist public, making further minimalist demands appeared increasingly pointless, and so before long there was support for, or toleration of, the military struggle for independence after Britain had made it clear (both through vigorous policing and by announced policy) that it would not accept the results of the 1918 election within an Irish framework. At this point, it is worth remembering the logic of power and number that underlay the engineering of the Act of Union and to relate this to Hancock’s formulation of a point of political theory, the relativity of the majority principle: “The use of a majority decision to register agreement in all particulars is possible only in those communities which already possess agreement upon essentials.” Hancock thought that the split in the structure of the union was already beyond mending by the adjustment of detail. He measured the distance between London and Dublin by the fact that “a review like the Round Table, pledged to the principle of self-government as the bond of Empire, should denounce the extremists within the Convention” – a relatively mild gathering from which Sinn Féin had excluded themselves.

McGarry does not properly register the class position of Home Rule leaders like John Dillon regarding housing for the rural underclass in the 1900s and offers a rather under-coloured analysis of the 1913 Lockout. (In similar fashion, he offers less than a sentence on how Fianna Fáil’s welfare and housing reforms in the 1930s “improved the lives of the urban and rural poor”.) Nor is he at his best when dealing with cultural change. It is not surprising that sectors of a nationalist movement in a depopulating and largely rural society would articulate sometimes overblown counter-values to those of the highly industrialised and populous world power from which they sought autonomy or independence. McGarry is dutiful rather than insightful on such matters: “As in other parts of Europe, the rise of popular movements dedicated to the restoration of native culture strengthened nationalist sentiment.”

The remainder of his chapter provides a conventional and again rather dutiful overview of developments in independent Ireland; as it proceeds, more of the assertive moralism mentioned above surfaces in the vocabulary and disposition towards the material, with a corresponding reduction in food for thought and an overreliance on the dates of legislative changes as markers of societal change. McGarry appears indifferent or dismissive towards Irish foreign policy from the ’30s to the ’60s – Hancock’s analysis of Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s puts much subsequent analysis in the shade – and also fails to convey, or even begin to grapple with, the impact (direct and indirect) of the Troubles on society (everything from the economy to intellectual culture) in the South. His reading list and references would suggest that he has not explored any radical analyses or non-mainstream perspectives, a point underlined by his uncritical acceptance of Roy Foster’s glib “Luck and the Irish” line on Celtic Tiger Ireland.

Niall Ó Dochartaigh’s “Northern Ireland since 1920” could not be described as a broad survey of the period – which is what most readers would expect from a chapter thus titled in a book titled The Princeton History of Modern Ireland. Instead it provides a set of interesting, well-documented and sometimes very blunt reflections, in roughly chronological order, on selective aspects of the period. It is limited, like McGarry’s chapter, in its coverage of pre-1970 social history. It has little to say, like McGarry, on urbanisation, suburbanisation or changes in rural society, or on sport, music, popular culture or education. Where the Troubles are concerned, it doesn’t offer a chronological run-through of the key events and moments; doesn’t chronicle changes in unionist leadership, class composition and policy; doesn’t analyse the political, paramilitary or class culture of loyalism; and, like other chapters in the volume, doesn’t mention the shadier activities and the significant inactivities of the intelligence services and of elements of the UDR and RUC in relation to loyalist paramilitaries. All this means that we do not encounter Bloody Sunday, the Widgery Tribunal and its legacy, the Dublin/Monaghan bombings, the Kingsmill massacre, La Mon, Robin Jackson, the Miami showband massacre, the Shankill Butchers, Gerry Adams, Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey, Ian Paisley, or the Enniskillen and Omagh bombings. (Did a longer draft have to be severely cut back or did the author decide to concentrate only on those areas where he felt he had something urgent to say?)

Be that as it may, Ó Dochartaigh is an independent thinker who doesn’t simply relay received opinion or follow the latest trends in research unreflectingly. He has given thought to unionism’s need to adjust from an Irish to a Northern Ireland identity within the UK, and to the accentuation of North/South difference brought about by the IRA’s military campaign. He recognises the peculiar political status (and frozen political structure) of Northern Ireland within the UK. Though he doesn’t draw the comparison himself, the unionist failure to co-opt the softer nationalists in the Catholic middle class into the new sub-state carries echoes of the post-1800 failure of the British state to win a substantial section of the emerging Catholic middle class to the new political order. (The fact is that, as set up, the Stormont system demanded next to no political skills of unionism – with the result that when the Troubles broke out there was no cohort of practised politicians with the ability to manage the challenges facing their political community.) Ó Dochartaigh points out how the postwar reforms in housing and other matters enacted by the British Labour Party offered unionism new opportunities to operate discrimination at local level – with results that would be felt a generation or so later. Ó Dochartaigh provides a Derry-centred perspective on August 1969 – and doesn’t deal with the way protest spread to Belfast, triggering a loyalist assault on nationalist areas, the burning of the Bombay Street area and large-scale population flight (some over the Border).

Ó Dochartaigh does not allow his knowledge of what happened in subsequent decades to dictate a simplistic perspective on the early Troubles. Sheer ignorance of Northern Ireland and a semi-panicked wish to keep Irish matters at arm’s length may have played a part in what he shows of the poor decision-making and weakness under pressure displayed by British governments in those early years. (How damaging was it to allow a besuited thug like William Craig to remain in charge of policing – with the power to permit or ban demonstrations?) RUC hostility to Arthur Young, the new English inspector-general, and rank-and-file refusal to implement the reforms proposed by Lord Hunt are not glossed over – nor is the role of the politically stupid 1970 Falls Road curfew in alienating the inhabitants and creating conditions for the subsequent IRA campaign. Ó Dochartaigh is particularly to be praised for his re-complicating of the narrative of the early and 1970s Troubles – too often simplified retrospectively for political reasons. For a comprehensive overview of Northern Ireland’s history and of the Troubles, for an appreciation of those aspects of social and cultural life that are not entirely defined by the Troubles, readers would need to look elsewhere. For whatever reason – perhaps because he relies on his own knowledge and interpretation of archives and government papers – Ó Dochartaigh’s recommended reading list is very narrow. Listing the literature of the Troubles would of course require a book in itself, and selection will always be personal, but David Miller’s edited volume Rethinking Northern Ireland and the 1999 special issue of Capital & Class are among the unlisted works that could encourage readers to move from overworn paths.

The writer chosen for the final survey chapter, devoted to twenty-first-century Ireland, North and South, is Diarmaid Ferriter – extremely knowledgeable, a constructive spirit, and an excellent broadcaster and speaker. Praise for his breakthrough work Transforming Ireland has always centred on its coverage of social issues in independent Ireland – essentially a matter of summarising the work of a generation of young Irish historians and diligently unearthing publications from the period. Where real thinking about political and cultural change would be needed – in treating of the 1900-1923 period and the more recent Troubles – Transforming Ireland does not rise to the complexity and shifting nature of the material. In dealing with Ireland after 2000, some of the same weaknesses are evident. The chapter conveys neither the dizziness of the Celtic Tiger nor the psycho-social impact of the crash. Instead of offering us a developed historical consciousness engaging with the period, Ferriter uses paraphrases of and quotations from other writers, not simply for the insights they offer but at times to carry the basic narrative or indeed to state the obvious. The second paragraph encapsulates the issue:

Prior to the economic crash, some historians tentatively sought to assess the impact of the transformations witnessed during the economic expansion (the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period) of the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s in a state long accustomed to economic malaise. The big changes that had evolved from the 1970s, according to Roy Foster, were ‘perhaps decisively and forever a question of attitude […]’

This last phrase, out of context, is vaguely impressive but entirely unenlightening. In what kind of historical framework can the dramas of several decades of social and political life be governed (“always and forever”) by a (presumably collective) change of attitude? Ferriter doesn’t explain the point. The sentence continues:

[…] and he traced these shifts through economics, politics, the decline of religion, women’s liberation, the cementing of partition, and the impact of Irish literature. Whether the collective transformations represented Ireland’s Great Leap Forward or were the product of a series of interconnected crises, he decided, it was too early to conclude.

Why does Ferriter need to introduce a period about which he has himself written at length, and a set of obvious themes, through a very brief sketch of another historian’s work – particularly so as the quoted paragraph concludes on an inconclusion: the truism that it is difficult to decide how the history of our day will be judged by posterity? Ferriter further elaborates on this point for several lines of the following paragraph, before announcing the themes of his own chapter: politics, the Celtic Tiger economy, the Northern Ireland peace process, the fortunes of the Catholic church, the Republic’s relationship with the European Union (EU), and the economic collapse and its consequences.

On politics in the Republic, Ferriter is rightly critical, but he offers few surprises or fresh insights. Bertie Ahern’s lack of political vision is condemned through his own words, but the one area where his commitment was admirable, the peace process, goes unmentioned. Ferriter substitutes election statistics for real political analysis. A flatly phrased sentence reads: “In contrast to Bertie Ahern and his predecessors, Brian Cowen, who took over the leadership of Fianna Fáil in 2008, inspired no cult of leadership, meaning that the party, for the first time, had a serious leadership dilemma on its hands.” Though other parties had failed to take advantage, hadn’t Fianna Fáil had a mission problem for decades? Had there been an Albert Reynolds cult and had there not been a serious Colley/Haughey tussle? Moreover, would any cult of leadership have saved any Fianna Fáil figure handed the poisoned cup of leadership as the Tiger imploded? Ferriter dwells on Fintan O’Toole’s portrayal of the state as a failed entity in 2010 (it certainly looked like that at the time), but he could have noted that O’Toole had been declaring the state a failure since the 1980s and had initially welcomed the inflow of international capital in the ’90s as a way of washing the fundamentals of that entity away. Ferriter dwells at length on John Waters’s retrospective moral insights into the Celtic Tiger years but surely Waters’s reputation and contribution as a commentator will rest on the best of his event-grounded writings from the ’80s into the ’90s, and not on the years since he became a second-hand retailer of American paradigms and prophecies.

As a historian, Ferriter should have a little more to say on Fine Gael’s failure seriously to threaten Fianna Fáil’s dominance since 1932, on the still-surviving class distinction between the two parties, and on Fine Gael’s related inability to throw off a tone of assumed moral superiority that, for reasons grounded in history, goes against the grain of independent Irish political life. Ferriter is relatively blunt on the Labour Party’s record, using bland statements of alleged socialism by Éamon Gilmore to demonstrate “a lack of depth or candor”. But where the withering away of Labour is concerned, doesn’t this kind of moral critique need to be supplemented by even a brief analysis of the trajectory of the party over decades, its strategic decisions, and its entire inability (since the grand merger with Democratic Left) to articulate, to remember or to re-interpret any positive elements of the Irish past, including struggles for justice, in order to claim a central place in the changing political world? A past-erasing middle-class managerialism in the prosperous years left it with no political tools or traditions to deal with the crisis years that followed. This and the Fianna Fáil collapse opened the door for smaller parties on the left (ignored by Ferriter) and a politically incoherent surge in independents. Strangely, Ferriter doesn’t ponder the absence of popular protest immediately after the collapse. Fianna Fáil’s 2004 success, based on magical thinking (yes, the good times were going to finish but we might just manage to postpone that for a few more years), had been an indictment of the main opposition parties as a credible alternative. Amid the consensus about Ireland being a victim of politicians, bankers, out-of-control developers, and the EU’s need just then for Ireland to be extra-kind to speculators – all true! – is it right to forget the additional uncomfortable fact that large numbers of ordinary Irish people (ordinary small businesspeople who began to pay themselves like financial geniuses; ordinary mushroom farmers who ripped off vulnerable immigrants; ordinary accountants who covered up devious tax arrangements; ordinary restaurateurs who doubled the price of a slimmed-down piece of cheesecake but decorated the plate with a squiggle of pink goo; ordinary builders and electricians who discarded the ethics of their trades) had been ripping off their fellow-citizens with ardour during the Celtic Tiger years?

Ferriter voices his view of economic developments in significant measure through Morgan Kelly, Michael Lewis and Conor McCabe – each valuable in his way – but again resorts to a quotation from the prominent social critic Roy Foster to make the utterly uncontroversial point that, in the period of rapid growth and inadequate regulation known as the Celtic Tiger, “a sometimes spectacularly unequal prosperity” was evident. (Roy Foster has reason to wonder why it is his most banal statements rather than his more perceptive formulations that Ferriter singles out.) Curiously, though Ferriter briefly mentions the level of immigrant participation in the economy, he neglects to discuss the nature of this dramatic change in the make-up of Irish society – or, on the positive side, the relative feebleness of politically organised racism in Ireland and, on the negative side, the scandal of the non-life imposed on those stuck in the provision-centre system. On the Catholic church and the scandals that deeply undermined its credibility as an institution, Ferriter is clear and confident. There would be more to say about the cultural psychology of post-Catholicism; reference to post-Franco Spain or to 1960s Quebec could be illuminating.

On Northern Ireland, Ferriter is largely unexceptionable but he brings nothing new or stimulating to the field. One example will suffice here: “After the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin and the IRA profited from internal discipline and ruthless centralization, in contrast to the loyalist paramilitaries, who imploded […].” Sinn Féin and the IRA articulated a project that – whatever one’s opinion about it – was future-directed; prisons became political training schools or unofficial universities for those taken out of the struggle. Anyone involved in community or art projects in loyalist Belfast around the turn of the century would know that, despite umbrella titles like UDA, the reality was a certain commonality of feeling or attitude, but a fragmented and extremely localised, and locally competing, set of adherents. Implosion, then, is not the word to describe the dilemma posed by the loss of the limited coherence offered by an active enemy. Ferriter’s chapter concludes, following a strong quotation on societal values from Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, on a strong statement of his own on a rotten political culture.

One further reflection can be offered in the light of post-publication developments. Diarmaid Ferriter, as we have seen, almost as a reflex action, quoted Roy Foster, Colm Tóibín and Fintan O’Toole as bearers of insight. What is the record of these figures who have had ready access to mainstream British media for decades and who are comfortably ensconced in the London Review of Books, the seat of intellectual liberalism? Their habitual role has been as explainers of Irish strangeness and unreason to a British readership of assumed reasonableness. They have offered little beyond an occasional friendly jab when it comes to challenging the dominant patterns of British public life – including attitudes to Ireland and failures to think about Ireland. None seems to have had an inkling of the forces that came to the surface with David Cameron’s moment of political inspiration. It is with the permission of their liberal, insufficiently self-examining public that two of them at least have deplored the English deplorables – and that one of them was almost immediately offered a prize for his belated insight. The whole episode bespeaks a failure to enact the all-round thinking across the two islands that is often invoked but less often demonstrated. This failure of analysis by some of Ferriter’s chosen ones may not have surprised Richard Bourke: the last section of his chapter on Historiography includes a strikingly harsh assessment of the selective targets of Foster’s irony and critique – a point reinforced by an amusingly concise footnote detailing Foster’s many references to Anglo-phobia – and of the lack of critical rigour shown by historians over-swayed by contemporary events and trends.

As the author both of the Introduction and of the chapter on Historiography, Richard Bourke has exposed himself to the kind of criticism found in this review. As things stand, the thinking and influence of his fellow-editor, Ian McBride, are less visible and can only be guessed at. To summarise the many issues raised by the Princeton History of Modern Ireland may be pointless for any reader who has come this far. Beyond the detailed responses to chapters in this review, three broad points stand out. First, the editors have insufficiently explained the logic of the volume’s construction, particularly where the selection of themes for the large second section is concerned. Second, and in ways that may or may not relate to the beginning of this paragraph, the volume has not separated itself from the work of the previous generation as much as it claims. And third, it is remarkable how few of the writers, for whatever reason, convey a sense of passion for their subject and of enjoyment in writing about it.


Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, interviews and reviews in the fields of cultural and intellectual history, music, politics and poetry to a wide variety of publications, from Graph and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press 2002) to the Journal of Music and Ireland, West to East (Peter Lang 2013). His PhD (DCU, 2017) explores Irish cultural history through classical music in the period 1820-1920; “Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music: A Reassessment” appeared in Éire/Ireland (Spring/Summer 2019).



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