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History from the Top

Barra Ó Seaghdha

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

Historiographical writing asks broad questions while engaging with particulars to illuminate the values and ideas underlying historical works. When it comes to a survey history, it can ask what significance attaches to themes included and themes passed over. In “History from the Top” Barra Ó Seaghdha reflects historiographically on an important collection of essays by a number of scholars who address the sweep of modern Irish history. This reflection will be published in two parts, the second to appear in our November issue.

The opening chapter of a major historical project is important, not only for the impression it makes in itself, but also for the tone it sets for the volume as a whole. Given the scale of the Princeton History of Modern Ireland – a span of four hundred years; more than five hundred pages; two distinguished editors; twenty-one contributors – we may assume that Ian McBride and Richard Bourke gave particular thought to the message conveyed by the chapter that, in addition to being in a key position, would also tackle a period of an importance that needs no underlining: “Conquest, Civilization, Colonization: Ireland 1540-1660”.

What, then, are readers offered? Provided one is not seeking an outline of the unfolding of the process of colonisation, or any idea of the scale and nature of the direct and indirect violence involved, or any developed sense of the existence (food, shelter, activities, beliefs, pastimes, culture) of ordinary people within and without periods of war and famine, or any narrative framing of the impact of the Reformation, or any outline of the experience and perspective of different sectors of the Catholic church, or any idea of the nature and activity and historical self-positioning of the Gaelic cultural-intellectual elite that was forced off the island – then the chapter has all the virtues one would expect of Jane Ohlmeyer, the author of the massive, massively learned and truly impressive Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century. As in that book, the emphasis here is on changes in the upper reaches of the power structure.

The unfolding of the topics addressed in the individual paragraphs of the first section tells its own story: introductory; Ireland’s status under the Kingship Act of 1541; those burdened with implementing imperial policy; the manoeuvring of the Irish Catholic aristocracy; older English and Old English views on native Irish inferiority; more recent views of the same; a very brief sketch of Irish society; the Gaelic Irish and old English overlords … All this is fascinating in its way but the chapter does not constitute the overview of the period in question that one would expect from the chapter and book titles. As will become clear, this is a matter of editorial direction and responsibility. Ohlmeyer is not to be criticised for concentrating happily on the territory that she knows better than anyone else in the field of Irish history. If requested to do so, she could doubtless have covered the period more comprehensively.

When Roy Foster asked Nicolas Canny, known for his innovative contribution to the study of colonisation, empire and Atlantic history, to survey this period in the Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, we were guided through the complexities of the period under the following, somewhat wider, range of headings: Irish Society 1500 to 1700; the Sixteenth-century Economy; Religion and Authority; Ireland Transformed, 1500-1700: Government and Religion; the ‘Old English’ in Ireland; Strategies of Control, 1534-1565; Colonization, Resistance, and Plantation; Settlers and Natives; and The Crown and the Catholics: War and Restoration. Canny’s conclusion asked how Ireland fitted within the European pattern of the time – along the lines of the ancien régime vs colony debate among historians of the eighteenth century. In uncluttered prose, Canny presented a structure of understanding, both narrative and thematic, that readers could extend, modify or challenge as their knowledge and approach to history developed.

The impression left by Chapter 1 of Princeton is confirmed by a reading of Chapters 2 and 3. These also point to an editorial slant towards political history at elite level. Ultán Gillen’s “Ascendancy Ireland, 1660-1800” is essentially a useful and informed chronicle of power as won, maintained and contested. It is significant that, when he breaks from the intermeshed triad of land, power and religion, it is to state that an “awareness of the outlines of economic history in this period is essential to understand political developments”.  The insignificance of trade restrictions imposed from London is briefly stated in Richard Bourke’s introduction but, whatever the economic facts, their significance as a continuing motor of resentment in Ireland is surely in itself a historical phenomenon worthy of analysis in the relevant chapter. Passing references and quotations in Gillen’s text, along with the breadth of approach in the further reading section at the end of the chapter, suggest that he is following instructions in keeping a narrow focus. This may also explain a lack of illustrative colour in the writing: events are mentioned but not evoked in any detail. Thus, the projection of power through the new architecture of Dublin (the creation of a new city, in effect) and the social life of which it was the theatre scarcely figure – not to mention the filthy lanes and overcrowded hovels of the poor. In keeping with the underlying approach of the volume, the rural masses are largely unseen, as in this sentence which surely merits elaboration: “At the bottom of the scale, the cottier class was developing rapidly.” The intensity of debate and the vigorous expression of religious, racial and social prejudice are mentioned but, like the indiscriminate use of brute force and torture to suppress the United Irishmen and like the violence of the 1798 rebellion itself, they are not impressed with any vividness on the reader.

What then of the nineteenth century? Whereas Ultán Gillen highlights what would generally be considered the main developments in the high politics of his assigned period, John Bew seems particularly concerned to redress a perceived imbalance in standard interpretation of post-Union Ireland by drawing our attention to what he calls constructive unionism. The term is generally applied to those policies of post-Gladstone Conservative governments that were directed towards radically changing rural life so as to create a politically quiescent populace. In Bew’s usage, the term applies, first, to every initiative emanating from the centre of power in Britain that can be seen as in any way positive in intention or in effect and, second, to suggestions of a positive nature coming from non-nationalist sectors. Along the way, he reminds us both of the complex evolution of Presbyterian thinking and of the significant role played by Liberals within the Irish political world. Excessive concentration on the history of organised Irish nationalism can indeed lead to the neglect of other strands in political history. Does this mean, however, that a survey chapter in a new general history should be skewed to, if anything, an even greater degree? The following memorable sentence holds the key to the whole chapter: “Ultimately, however, the Union was born and died in the minds of the British political elite.” With this as his starting point, Bew is free to concentrate on those minds and to disregard entirely, or pay only passing attention to, major developments in nineteenth century Ireland: the failure to assimilate the rising Catholic middle classes within the new post-Union state order; the dramatic rise, precipitous fall and further steady decline in population; the Famine; the growth of popular education and literacy; language shift; the growth of the administrative state; the decline in the social and symbolic authority of the Church of Ireland; the growth of the institutional Catholic church; changes in transport, communications and consumption patterns; and the contrast between the growth of Belfast and the relative stagnation of Dublin. O’Connell – whose leadership of a liberal, Catholic mass movement was one of the most significant and original phenomena of post-Napoleonic Western Europe – figures mainly as an irritant to Bew’s favoured political sector. (To characterise O’Connell as a liberal Catholic in his political philosophy is not to deny his indulgence in vigorous abuse of opponents or his twisting and turning in pursuit of his goals – one of which was of course to maintain his own supreme position.) Bew’s analysis of nationalist leadership does not rise much above the following: “Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell were both great British parliamentarians and highly innovative political mobilizers ‘out of doors’.”

The focus on constructive unionism occludes the impact of the reactionary anti-democratic unionism that, particularly in the early decades of the century, was symbolically ensconced in the Vice-Regal Lodge but was experienced concretely at a local level in the encounters of the rural and urban masses with the state, law and authority – and, in rural Ireland, law and the social order (magistrate and landowner) might be incarnated in the same individual. The waves of anti-Catholic evangelical sentiment and its associated polemical literature are likewise sidelined. Bew’s framing of the whole century in terms of constructive unionism means that he can disregard the brutality with which British order was enforced in favour of the social elite – as when impoverished Catholic peasants were forced to maintain the clergy of the state religion in the comfort to which they were accustomed. He can also disregard the endless procession of Coercion Acts that were imposed on nineteenth century Ireland, the creation of a semi-military police force, and the disproportionately large military force that it was considered wise to station on the smaller of the two islands that constituted the United Kingdom. It is in the logic of this version of the nineteenth century that Lady Morgan should feature at far greater length than the Famine. The lives, the organised existence and the culture of the inhabitants of the island of Ireland are recognised and interpreted principally insofar as they facilitate or impede the realisation of constructive-unionist initiatives.

Admittedly, Bew offers an occasional pithy observation:

It is no coincidence then that some of the most prominent proponents of Catholic Emancipation – Pitt, Castlereagh, George Canning, Edward Cooke, and Cornwallis – were some of the most hawkish members of the political establishment when it came to the prosecution of the war with France.

He states that conservative unionism, whatever its motives, could be more innovative than its liberal counterpart. One would expect, therefore, an interpretation of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s willingness in the late nineteenth century to overturn the sacred rights of property in Ireland (taking land from big estates in order to make farmers out of tenants) and the provision of housing for landless labourers and the poor in Congested Districts. Not only do such pertinent developments escape analysis but, even more strangely, the1890-1914 period as a whole – and therefore the mobilisation and militarisation of unionism in Ulster – is treated in extremely cursory fashion. Such analysis as is offered on p 98 might generously be termed inadequate. Redescribing a phenomenon is no guarantee of insight, as can be seen in this passage:

In another uneven pattern, toward the end of the life of the Union, one could argue that English sympathy for Ireland – expressed both in English support for Home Rule and constructive unionism – increased in parallel with the growth of Irish separatist sentiment in Ireland.

With nationalist Ireland asking for Home Rule within the United Kingdom, and Ulster unionists (with a cross-class geographical base in the northeast of Ireland and with religious and ideological allies in Britain) determined not to be a minority even in a democratic Irish sub-democracy within the United Kingdom, the Irish question forced itself on English attention and forced English politicians into adopting strong positions on one side or the other. Phrasing this case of basic political dynamics in terms of English sympathy verges on the tendentious; it is in any case entirely unenlightening. The sentence that follows is equally open to question:

Indeed, to a certain extent, the growing dislocation between the English desire for conciliation and the Irish willingness to be conciliated was typical of the story of the Union itself.

Behind the somewhat bland terminology here, a familiar trope can be discerned: Irish unreason defying the sweet reason of English power. More fundamentally, to cast Britain as a repeatedly disappointed conciliator is to occlude the push-and-pull of the political process and, in this particular case, to gloss over a fundamental political reality: that what Bew calls conciliation was most often an attempt to defuse the pressure of Irish demands for justice.

In fact, as the chapter unfolds, the Union becomes a kind of benign supra-human presence, but one sadly dependent on support from inadequate, unconciliatory humans to remain in being. Is it grief over this fragility that leads Bew to consign the 1890-1920 period – one not entirely devoid of significant or indeed transformative conflicts and developments – to one, admittedly lengthy, paragraph? But what leads him to invert the order in which armed mobilisation took place after 1910 and to say effectively nothing about the Ulster Volunteers and the Covenant? In a chapter that focuses so intently on unionist thinking in Britain, the behaviour of the Conservative leader Bonar-Law goes unexamined. Even if we accept with Roy Foster (in Modern Ireland) and the Aubane Society (Brendan Clifford in The Cork Free Press) that, apart from William O’Brien, nationalist leaders failed to think seriously about how their words and deeds would affect the unionist political community with whom they wished to share the island of Ireland, and even if we more generally accept that Ulster unionists had good reason to resist being incorporated into a nationalist-dominated sub-state of the United Kingdom, by what historical logic are readers spared analysis of the fact that the Conservative leader of the period was willing to encourage and stand by armed resistance to government policy and that, in taking this stand, he had significant support in the police, the state church and the army? As Bew is concerned with constructive unionism and minds in London, he may feel justified in occluding the insufficiently constructive actions and thinking of Her Majesty’s Opposition. The actions and statements of unionists on the ground in Ireland can be passed over on the basis that they were as nothing compared to the thoughts of policy-makers in London. And so it is that the UVF, the Covenant, Carson, Bonar-Law and indeed the First World War are swallowed up in some textual abyss – or perhaps a “Serbonian bog”, for, as if to flaunt his indifference to the lives and experience of the inhabitants of the island of Ireland, Bew devotes the last page of the chapter to a disquisition on the textual afterlife of Edmund Burke’s phrase. If there is a need to redress the balance of historical attention towards constructive unionism, producing a drastically unbalanced survey chapter in a history of Ireland is not the best way to accomplish this. (As a result perhaps of editorial recognition of the inadequate coverage of the 1900-20 years, Fearghal McGarry’s chapter on Independent Ireland reaches back into the period, though not in a comprehensive fashion, before tackling its own field.)

Multi-author works should be judged on their content rather than on what their editors say about them. However, the fundamental issues raised by the coverage of the first three hundred of the four hundred years addressed in The Princeton History of Ireland mean that editorial guidance may be useful at this point. As Richard Bourke is allotted both the Introduction and the chapter on Historiography, he effectively becomes the editorial voice. It is as a political theorist rather than a historian that Bourke approaches the matter of Ireland. His book on the Troubles, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas (2003), contains a substantial narrative element, but the subtitle points to Bourke’s real preoccupation. He makes clear how, from its birth, Northern Ireland was structured in such a way as to reproduce the conditions for conflict rather than assimilation. He is particularly clear on how majoritarian democracy provides no magic key to conflict resolution – and in this regard identifies the mechanism allowing Northern Ireland to leave the UK as a major flaw in the Belfast Agreement of 1998: the system is communitarian but a mathematical majority, rather than a majority of what was for long ‘the majority community’, can trigger the exit. That the thoughtful ‘Epilogue: 1998-2003’ stands up remarkably well over 15 years later speaks for itself. Bourke’s magnum opus, a contextualised reading of the works of Edmund Burke, is again a fundamentally analytical work, though one demonstrating great command of history. For a more rapidly digestible encapsulation of Bourke at his best, one could cite his article ‘Pocock and the Presuppositions of the New British History’. Though its title is far from flamboyant, this is a model of serious academic/intellectual analysis – consistent in tone and quietly commanding as it tackles an important question. Its arguments are unfolded deftly so that a whole sector of British historical discourse is gently undermined, without resort to the wrecking-ball. This is, however, an article addressed to a limited, specialised audience.

In the introduction, Richard Bourke informs us that the book aims to provide “an up-to-date rendition of the course of Irish history” and “to make available the necessary ingredients for an understanding of Irish history together with a range of insights on pivotal issues and key controversies”. He places the Princeton History within post-World-War-Two historiography. The task that the founders of the journal Irish Historical Studies set themselves in 1938 had been, in Bourke’s view, to advance specialised research rather than to revise a body of scholarly writing. (The implication was that there was no serious body of history to revise.) Their project was also in part “a reaction against prevailing popular assumptions”, with the intention of freeing history “from the influence of fable and polemic”. It is unfortunate that no naming or classifying of historians follows: Bourke and other contributors may not intend to re-enact the erasure by the IHS founders of pre-1938 histories but, by leaving such writing as an undifferentiated mass, the present generation reinforce the notion that no history-writing associated with or sympathetic to the movement towards Irish autonomy or independence is worthy of serious consideration. Bourke suggests that, following the events of 1968 and Ireland’s evolution towards membership of the EU, historians became “still more focused in their objectives” and “more withering in their approach to national traditions”. He goes on to make a broad statement: “scepticism about the legitimating narratives that underpinned the establishment of the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland became pervasive”. The political context lent “a degree of urgency as well as a didactic tone” to history-writing, with a tendency to “blame rather than to explain”. (No specifics are offered.) This opens the way for a younger generation, one that is building on earlier achievements but is presumably capable of greater detachment in the post-1998 context. In suggesting that his generation has attained a greater degree of objectivity and understanding than the preceding one, Richard Bourke is following a standard pattern.

After the opening two paragraphs, Bourke focuses almost exclusively on an exposition of the difficulty of conceptualising Irish history, revealing in the process a writer suspicious of narrative and drawn to conceptual order. He begins by affirming what most historians would consider scarcely worth mentioning: “Few, if any, states have been established by a formal ‘contract,’ whereby their populations consented in an orderly way to their formation.” Most commonly, he writes, “they have been a product of conquest or revolution”. He offers India, Mexico, America and France as examples. Does France really belong in this company? A French state with a more or less defined territory had existed for centuries before the outbreak of revolution and much of political life, including dramatic regime changes, since 1789 has been composed of struggles to reject, dissolve or reconstitute the revolutionary heritage. French historiography enacts a similar struggle. French literary history generally adopts a much longer national time-frame, in which Romanticism rather than the Revolution constitutes a major watershed. (The Revolution is scantily dealt with, for example, in La littérature française: histoire & perspectives, a 1990 volume presided over by R Favre.) Be that as it may, Bourke emphasises that the attempt to account for revolutionary change almost inevitably involves a reassessment of previous historiography and a reassessment of pre-revolutionary history, in a long ‑ as well as a short-term perspective – again, a point that few would dispute.

Bourke now brings the point home to Ireland:

The immediate heirs of the Irish revolutionary generation of 1912-1923 constructed a past that pointed to the legitimacy of their revolution based on two principles: the right to self-determination on the one hand, and the entitlement to assert that right by force of arms on the other.

Questions arise. One is a matter of terminology: given the youthfulness of the revolutionary leaders, is it meaningful or useful to refer to the leaders of the young Southern state, many of them participants in (and survivors of) the struggles of the 1912-1923 period, as heirs of that generation? And was there really a need to construct (as if from nothing) a legitimating narrative? Was it not rather a matter of adapting a narrative that, in weaker or stronger forms, and with a shifting historico-ideological framing, had underlain separatist activity over the previous decade, had underlain revolutionary politics for more than a century and, however amorphously, had underlain popular historical consciousness for longer than that? Where resort to violence is concerned, would those who lived through those years have seen justification of the resort to violence as a general principle demanding to be addressed anew? They had, after all, emerged from a period of generalised violence. The Ulster Volunteers had organised as an armed force (though in the knowledge that, with powerful elements within the political establishment, the state church, the army and the police supporting them they would probably not need to move beyond threatening gestures in order to make their point). Before long, the “constitutional” leader Redmond was willing to put himself at the head of the nationalist militia that had formed in response. Meanwhile, England (or the British state) was using force on a world scale, as it had done for centuries, without too many pangs of conscience. If by 1914 Redmond had become more an inhabitant of Westminster than of Ireland, many in the nationalist leadership went along with the decision to commit the Volunteers to the British war effort for pragmatic political reasons. It was vital that the Ulster Volunteers should not have sole Irish claim on Britain’s trust. In effect, Ireland’s political future was being played for in cold blood in meeting rooms and in hot blood on the battlefields of Europe.

So it was that, almost two years after the outbreak of the Great War, separatist nationalism stood out as the only significant political sector not actually firing guns. This context did not lend itself to scrupulous concern for the ethics of political violence, though, as it happens, the 1916 leaders proved more scrupulous than others (notably the government that sanctioned the shelling of residential areas of a city of the United Kingdom) in bringing the insurrection rapidly to a halt in order to avoid further civilian casualties. (To mention this is not to argue for the use of violence in 1916 or to support the unconsidered use of violence at any time since, but the role of historians as explainers differs from that of political ethicists.) The tremendous support for Sinn Féin in the November 1918 election, the day-to-day repression of both separatists and of separatist activity that followed, and the clear message that the British government was again not going to listen to the voice of the majority of Irish people – all this (not to mention voting patterns in subsequent local and general  elections and the on-the-ground support that made guerrilla warfare sustainable) suggests that those seeking an independent Ireland could feel that it was the British state that needed to justify its use of violence.

Richard Bourke appears to have doubts as to the intellectual validity of the quest for an independent Irish state – or perhaps of any particular state. Such doubts hardly loomed large in the minds of the leaders of the new state. The task facing them (once they had ruthlessly crushed what they considered illegitimate opposition in the Civil War) was organisational and administrative, though success in this regard would also help to project the serious standing of the new state to the world. Partition was a mark of incomplete realisation, not a fact that undermined the overall project. Unionism in newly-created Northern Ireland already had its heroic narrative of survival against adversity. Conceptually or ideologically, adjustment to the loss of twenty-six counties and their unionist population and the need to build a unionist narrative concluding in an arrangement they had never asked for (a six-county Home Rule arrangement – a sub-state – within the United Kingdom) was at least as challenging as that facing nationalism.

Bourke’s introduction to the Princeton History is an uncomfortable mix of narrative (itself jerkily conducted) and schematic thinking. Though the point being made is effectively a translation to Ireland of an analysis delivered in more smoothly accomplished fashion in the Pocock essay, the manner of address implies an audience resistant to the master’s lesson:

Irish history can have no overarching meaning or pattern unless it could be said to be a product of design. The chapters in this book cumulatively show that there was no underlying purpose to which the history of Ireland can be made to conform. What we encounter, instead, is a sequence of attempts at political construction that met with various forms of contingent resistance. For this reason, the subject matter of Irish history is not to be sought in persistence and stability but in discontinuous processes of conflict and conciliation [italics inserted].

Bourke’s pitching of attempts at political construction against various forms of contingent resistance enacts a surprisingly simple binary: it opens the door to an Irish history that reads invasion, the violence accompanying it and subsequent dispossession and colonisation as political construction and that reads resistance to colonisation as mere contingency.

The above passage continues:

Given that these processes spilled beyond the geographical boundaries of the island, Irish history should be seen as porous rather than self-contained – affected overwhelmingly by English and British policy, but also by European and American events, as well as developments in the wider diaspora.

To say that the discontinuous processes that constitute Irish history “spilled beyond” the geographical boundaries of Ireland is, to put it mildly, a curious formulation. To whom is it necessary to point out that anything from the Elizabethan wars to the setting up of a railway system in the nineteenth century involved people, organisations and plans originating outside the island of Ireland? And in what sense can military invasion of an island be described as spilling beyond that island? (Did US military action in the Gulf Wars overspill the boundaries of Iraq?)

If the intention is to enlighten international readers as to Ireland’s porosity as an entity, the journey from a distant farm of a few pounds of butter to the market in Cork during the Napoleonic Wars, and thence to the armies of Britain on the Continent, might make the point quite simply. The inhabitants of Dún Chaoin on the Dingle peninsula have had painful experience of Ireland’s porosity for generations, as they saw their own or their neighbours’ children set out on the long and, in many cases, definitive journey to Springfield, Massachusetts. And Irish students of the last few decades who were paying attention during their history classes must also be aware of Ireland’s porosity. The vocabulary and cultural references suggest that Bourke wishes third-level students or educated general readers to be more aware of Ireland’s interconnectedness with Britain and other parts of the world – but are aqueous metaphors of spillage and porosity at all appropriate where the focus is on the brutal process of colonisation or indeed where power relationships more generally are under scrutiny?

It would be helpful if Bourke were to offer, however briefly, some representative examples of current or very recent non-porous interpretations of Irish history. Would Diarmaid Ferriter’s breakthrough work have spoken more commandingly of the transformative periods that open and close the century it addresses if it had fully registered the shaping influence (for better or worse) of British policies and (informed or ill-informed) decisions? Would the Decade of Commemorations have been more truly educational if, instead of beginning by bringing British political non-entities to nod approvingly at the new Ireland’s mature broadmindedness, we had consistently brought British historians and serious political commentators together with their Irish equivalents to discuss memory and forgetting across the two islands, on television as well as in conferences? Would some of the truly critical and thought-provoking debates at the international conference on “History after Hobsbawm” in London in 2014 have benefited from the input of a few Irish historians of standing (thus potentially offering the participants something more substantial on Ireland than one speaker’s recollection of a reference to leprechauns in The Age of Capital)? Would we understand the history of classical music in nineteenth and twentieth century Ireland better if the standard work on the area had devoted some consecutive paragraphs to its glaringly important British dimension? Would critical and political culture in both Britain and Ireland benefit from more cross-reviewing rather than the over-prevalent mutual back-scratching among Hibernians in the British media? These may not be the questions that Richard Bourke had in mind but they suggest that he is right in thinking that insularity remains an issue – a notion borne out by events since the publication of the Princeton volume.

Where Bourke is less clearly right is in his schematic approach to history. His structuring of history on (attempted or achieved) political construction in its encounter with contingency is one potentially productive choice of focus; it is not a rule against which other works of history must be measured. The evidence of the introduction suggests that it is founded on a distaste for the sheer messiness of human, and especially Irish, history. Bourke is a subtle and deeply knowledgeable analyst of ideas and texts (including works of history), concerned both with their inner logic and the context in which they arise; and he is an intellectual historian with a particular interest in systems of governance and the logic that underlies them. To put the matter a little crudely, he is at his brilliant best in analysing things that do not move. Most history, however, is about things that move, and unsettled states or entities move a lot and tend to defy clear definition. Bourke writes that, in post-Tudor history, “statecraft competed with contingency” but that Ireland failed to settle into a “durable constitutional mold”. The neutral-to-positive term statecraft is overcomfortably aligned with the perspective of the colonising power, as is the general analysis. Overall, “[t]he problem was that this mixed regime presided over an imperfectly assimilated population”, one that became less assimilated in response to various schemes. Again, the terminology is interesting: “Colonization [which introduced “politically amenable constituencies”] was an arm of conquest intended as an instrument of pacification.” More interestingly, “pacification consistently sparked rebellion […]”. Bourke’s vocabulary and the focus of what narrative he offers betray a level of exasperation at Ireland’s failure to be assimilated or England/Britain’s failure to assimilate Ireland.

Let us linger briefly over this issue. It is indeed normal in geopolitical terms that, as soon as England/Britain became a major European and then world power (all the more so a sea power), it should need to control the neighbouring island lying between it and the Atlantic. Its failure to do so effectively, to the point where it eventually conceded independence to most of the island of Ireland, is an unavoidable and fascinating theme for historians; overtly or covertly, judgement of the issue inflects writing across the many subfields of Irish and Irish-British history. In approaching the issue, however, Bourke too much resembles a relationship counsellor whose sole interest lies in the validity and provenance of the unhappy couple’s marriage contract and documentation; the fact that the couple are from different countries and that he himself is especially proficient in the language of the dominant partner further blinds him to the emotional dynamics, pain and pressing material issues involved.

The comparison is only slightly exaggerated. In Bourke’s introduction, as a tabulation of the names and concepts that figure in it would reveal, the existing socio-political order on the island, and its cultural and legal forms, are erased. The point can be put more strongly: Bourke is discounting the feelings, language, culture, creativity, living conditions and life horizons (and the sometimes cruel constraints on these) of the vast majority of the inhabitants of the island of Ireland. This is not quite what one expects from a co-editor of a volume on the history of Ireland. Perhaps, Richard Bourke was attempting to pack too much (a capsule version of Irish history; a challenge to approaches and notions of which he disapproves; theories of history; future directions) into the fifteen or so pages of text allotted the introduction. Would a longer work, comparable to Peace in Ireland, on the period, allow his ideas to be developed and exposed at the length that they demand? As matters stand, the introduction fails to explain or justify what is laid out in the body of the book. Given the narrow remit of the survey chapters, and the narrow social base on which they cast light, readers could legitimately expect an explanation of the choice of subject in Part Two: Topics, Themes and Developments, with its emphasis on intellectual or elite culture and its disregard for whole areas of the social and cultural existence of the inhabitants of the island of Ireland.

At one point, he approaches the 1890-1923 period through one of Yeats’s grand formulations, in which the entire period is presented as the “gestation” of an “event”, the realisation of the vocation of the “race” in the War of Independence. Not surprisingly, he finds this formulation  unsustainable. In making the point, Bourke’s tone verges on the naive: “Yet despite Yeats’s retrospective formulation, there had not in fact existed a shared conception of the Irish future that animated the population of the island of between 1891 and 1912.” How many readers of academic histories in 2016, the year of Princeton’s publication, would have had Yeats as their primary guide to the period and how many would be surprised to learn that nationalists – from young activists to veterans of Westminster – did not march step by step towards a single goal? Bourke proceeds: “Instead, a diversity of aspirations found expression in the period.” So busy is he delivering his elementary lesson that he manages to make a period of ferment – fascinating indeed for its diversity and clashing visions of the future – seem positively dull. Fearful perhaps that the lesson has not been learnt, Bourke reformulates the point and deplores a fact that anyone with a feel for practical politics and history in the making would treat as elementary: “Moreover, in political terms, these [aspirations] had yet to be definitively formed.” The primary interest of the sentence lies in what it says about Bourke’s relationship to the world of events: aspirations that have not received definitive form disappoint him. Effectively, political ideas excite him more than do political impulses and aspirations in action. Though his closing paragraph gestures towards a grander or wider perspective, a subdued irritation and judgementalism towards his Irish material undermines his aspiration to enlightening detachment.

Bourke’s chapter on historiography can be treated as supplementing his introduction. It displays both his strengths and his blind spots. Among the points made are these: that Theo Moody’s postwar project for a New History of Ireland was more aimed at synthesising current knowledge for a broader public than was the case with similar German and British nineteenth century ventures; that the adoption of the external marks of professionalism (the sifting of material gathered from archives, for example) is no guarantee of objectivity; that setting professional history against myth (which could mean “the debunking of popular assumptions”) was not an adequate conceptualisation of the task of the profession; that Moody and his fellows effectively dismissed all Irish history-writing from before the foundation of Irish Historical Studies in 1938 and inculcated the same perspective in their successors. Among historians who came to prominence during the Troubles, Bourke identifies “an assertive moralism underpinning what claimed to be ‘value-free’ analysis”.

Bourke underlines the point that, even if Moody did not adequately address the issue, his distrust of fictions of historical community, or of “corporate identity” (to adopt a different idiom), was a key intuition. Here, Bourke goes back to the eighteenth century and Edmund Burke’s attempt to undermine ‘”the fiction of ancestry in a corporate succession” whereby Irish Catholics were held responsible “for the offences of their natural ancestors”: unwillingness to grant political rights to Catholics in the present was often justified by reference to the earlier massacres of 1641 (or the massively exaggerated version of those massacres that was, and would remain, widely accepted). This leads to a discussion of the historian John Curry, who fell into a simplistic counter-history, and the more subtle Charles O’Conor, and then of reactions to the failure of Britain’s most advanced practitioner of history, David Hume, to rise above prejudice where 1641 was concerned. Bourke moves on to a later disagreement over 1641, that between Anthony Froude (whose Irish history was consciously directed at demonstrating Ireland’s unworthiness for Home Rule) and WEH Lecky, who, despite his own changing opinions, never lost his respect for the facts of history as he understood them and clung to the idea of a national history despite his increasing reservations about the value of mass democracy. Bourke then leaps forward again to FSL Lyons, Roy Foster and the current generation of historians.

Certain reservations and observations, some of them quite basic, must be outlined. Though he criticises the dismissal of the historiographical record by the pioneers of revisionism, Bourke himself erases native Irish historians (often working from centres of learning on the Continent) in and after the period of conquest and colonisation. Whether written in Irish or in Latin, their major works are available in translation and should be mentioned, briefly or more sustainedly, in a historiographical survey. Likewise, the historical understanding(s) of the mass of Irish people between Keating and Young Ireland, however transmitted (orally, semi-orally, in manuscript or in print, in Irish or in English) could be briefly alluded to, if only for the purpose of contextualisation. The many unionist and nationalist histories and polemical publications of the 1800-1920 period scarcely figure; again, the effect is to collaborate in the dismissal or rendering invisible of pre-1938 histories and historico-political thinking. Thus the histories actually read by Irish people since the rise of mass literacy are rendered largely invisible. In addition, though Bourke acknowledges the flaws in the portrayal of Ireland by Hume and Froude, his own concern with a philosophically founded history in a British context leads him away from any sustained discussion of history and power where Ireland is concerned, of history as taught in the state system of education in nineteenth century Ireland, or of the felt weight of imperial power and prejudice against which Irish nationalist historians and commentators reacted to varying degrees. Readers might have a sharper appreciation of these matters if they were told that Froude’s chapter on “Irish Ideas” is a lengthy and unrelieved catalogue of incidents of brutality, rape and murder – and how this representation of Irish history would in turn give rise to, for example, the Very Rev Thomas N Burke’s Ireland’s Vindication: Refutation of Froude.

Richard Bourke does not reflect on how the class and cultural backgrounds of certain Irish historians who received their training in Britain relatively soon after the War of Independence and the foundation of the Free State may have inflected their understanding of what professionalism meant. In talks in or around 1995, Joe Lee spoke with some irony of the extreme caution exercised by Robin Dudley Edwards and his colleagues in relation to levels of mortality during the Famine. The historian and autobiographer Jill Ker Conway’s wonderful Road from Coormain shows a parallel subordination to British metropolitan perspectives in Australian universities of the same period. (Lest the point be misunderstood, let it be stated here that, as the cases of Lee himself and of Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh demonstrate, loss of intellectual independence is in no way an unavoidable consequence of the pursuit of history at Oxford or Cambridge.) Though Bourke refers to Lee’s comments on historiography in Modern Ireland, he does not mention his vigorous interrogation of the practice and institutional life of history in modern Ireland in The Heritage of Ireland (2000). (Two decades previously, Lee had also edited and contributed to a survey of Irish historiography.)

The penultimate paragraph of Bourke’s chapter demands comment. In it, whether losing himself in a quest for unassailable philosophical purity or displaying a rare form of academic humour, or both, he manages briefly to undermine his own credentials as a commentator on politics. Readers can judge for themselves:

If the term “nation” designates any pre-political community, then, by the criteria stipulated by natural law doctrine, a nation is reducible to the dimensions of the family, with the result that there were roughly 1.8 million nations in Ireland by the time of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. If, however, a nation is constituted by the aspiration to form a political community, then the number of nations in Ireland was coterminous with the electorate on both parts of the island. However[,] if, finally, the term “nation” refers to a population under a political leadership aspiring to sovereignty and wielding the means of coercion, then there were at least three nations on the island of Ireland in 1981: the Southern Irish community, the Northern community comprising both British and Irish affiliates, and the constituency supporting the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). This last nation was derisory in terms of its actual numbers, commanding the allegiance of just a tenth of the Northern electorate, but for all that, it was a powerful contender in the game of politics.

In this third and most detailed formulation, everyone from the SDLP to the Shankill Butchers would be in one nation and the IRA in another; a footnote considers the INLA a “possible fourth contender”. Bourke thanks Ultán Gillen and Ian McBride for their comments on the chapter; if his colleagues suggested that this paragraph be deleted, they were not listened to.

Richard Bourke concluded the introduction by suggesting (in what could be interpreted as an escape route from the exasperation referred to above) that Ireland’s case should be read as many now read European history – less as a set of discrete national units than as a process of fluctuating empires and volatile frontiers. This makes a lot of sense when we are looking at, for example, the territories from today’s eastern Germany, through Poland to the Baltic and Ukraine. It is not clear, however, that one form of history-writing is displacing another; it would be truer to say that pragmatic decisions are taken as to the usefulness for particular investigations and territories of the many interpretative grids (from the transnational to the intensely local) that are available. Where Ireland/England (Britain) is concerned, the major power centre has been the same for centuries and the fluctuation has been primarily in the level of control sought and the level and type of resistance offered. Given how truly diverse in topic and approach Irish history-writing has become over recent decades, and how diverse in approach and spirit public and local history proved to be in 2016, it would not be unfair to suggest that, despite his proclaimed distance from that generation of historians, Bourke betrays an anxiety regarding national and trauma-centred history that is reminiscent of the historians of the 1970s and 1980s.

It would be a mistake to read individual chapters in an edited collection as simple exemplifications of the broad approach adhered to by the editors. For the moment, leaving most material dealing with the twentieth century till later, this review will turn to the themed chapters of Part Two. Given Bourke’s theoretical approach, and given that the vast majority of Irishmen who fired guns in a cause between 1800 and 1925 did so in a British uniform, it is entirely appropriate that the Irish role in the British empire should be addressed in the Princeton History. The task is undertaken by Jill C Bender. The tone of the essay is unfortunate, however – suggesting readers ignorant of, or reluctant to acknowledge, or in denial of, the degree of Ireland’s involvement in empire. Her opening sentence, like others, blurs the outlines of what demands definition: “Over the course of four centuries, the Irish played a significant role in the expansion, maintenance, and decline of Britain’s empire.” What does the term “the Irish” mean, particularly where the first of those four centuries is concerned? Does the term refer to, for example, the eighteen-year-old son of a soldier-colonist given land after the Elizabethan conquest? Would such a person have described himself as Irish? How different were matters in the age of Swift and Berkeley? Swift’s Drapier defined the issue thus: “As to the people of this Kingdom, they consist either of Irish Papists, who are as inconsiderable in point of power as women and children; or of English Protestants, who love their brethren of that kingdom …” A letter to Alexander Pope refuses assimilation: “Some who esteem you, and know you personally, are grieved to find that you make no distinction between the English gentry of this Kingdom, and the Savage Old Irish, who are only the vulgar. The English Colonists are much more civilised than many counties in England, and speak better English, and are better bred.” Clearly, un-nuanced reference to “the Irish” as a meaningful term across centuries repeatedly runs up against period usage. The point is noted by Ian McBride in Chapter 8 of his Eighteenth Century Ireland. As he puts it, “When we refer to Swift as Irish, of course, we must be careful, as neither he nor his fellow-Anglicans considered themselves to be Irish – at least not in any straightforward sense.” One would also expect Richard Bourke (elsewhere an excoriator of the fallacy of continuity) to have queried the erection of such a blatantly trans-temporal constant. Generalising this terminology would entail referring to much early coloniser/colonised conflict as intra-Irish or Irish-on-Irish violence.

A brief evocation of the careers of the two O’Donnell brothers, Frank Hugh and CJ, forms the overture to Bender’s light-imperial opera. (The brothers’ political, journalistic and administrative careers encompassed Ireland, Britain and India.) A conceptual or descriptive blurring mars this paragraph and much else in the piece. When FH O’Donnell sees parallels between Ireland’s situation and India’s, we are told that “his interest in nationalism and the Empire appeared genuine” – as if this were a source of wonder. As he and his brother are employed by the empire, we are told that these men “remind us that British imperialism was not a black-and-white conflict between colonizer and colonized”. Who thinks otherwise among the likely readers of this volume? In what sense is it a revelation that relationships within empire can involve compromise or ethical dilemmas? The case of the O’Donnell brothers reminds us, Bender states, “that the British Empire had an impact on the Irish – whether at home or overseas – and that the Irish, in turn, had an impact on the British Empire.” Sentences of this type recur, like jingles punctuating a radio programme.

Straightforward aspects of empire – that colonial subjects find employment within the power structure; that many unemployed young men join imperial armies while others seek adventure or enrichment; that the empire sometimes writes back with a pen borrowed from the master – are presented as headshakingly complicated: “To further complicate the matter, even while they seemed to be colonized by the British, Irish people also played a significant role in the expansion of Britain’s empire [italics inserted].” Some issues are presented in cheerily over-simplified terms: “The British Empire offered ready employment, and the Irish seized the opportunities.” Again, the reference to “the Irish” occludes more than it illuminates. If we are dealing with the Anglican elite in the eighteenth century (or later), a move to London or further afield was completely normal and facilitated both by the ideology and religion they imbibed at home and by family and educational networks across the two islands and beyond. (Lower middle-class Anglicans without a support network would of course have faced more difficulties.) But how enlightening is language that amalgamates elite participation in the empire with the decision in 1810 of the son of an Irish peasant, perhaps ninth in a family of twelve, to join the British army – one of the few employment opportunities available to him in a society that was not designed with any regard to his interests? (Let us not dwell on the men who were lured or forced into donating their talents, and sometimes their lives, to the army or navy.) Given that, whatever the theoretical legal situation, Catholic penetration of certain employment sectors in Ireland was severely restricted into the twentieth century, the empire clearly offered an outlet for un- or under-used talent. And as a Catholic middle class made its way more confidently into society, of course it behaved very much like the middle classes in other countries. It is to be expected that a majority of mildly anti-imperial or aspirationally nationalist members of any middle class in any empire will not move into opposition and put their own or their family’s financial security at risk until the grip of the empire eases or until it becomes likely that a new order needing a new leadership and adminstrative class is at hand. None of this is complicated, though there will be harsher or softer presentations of the facts of empire.

Jill Bender is one of the softeners. Every opportunity is taken to iron out any unpleasant wrinkling. Regarding Presbyterians who left Ireland in the eighteenth century, she writes: “Certainly, whether Irish migrants sought employment, religious tolerance, or reunion with family members, the move was a conscious decision and often based on hope.” Quite apart from the gloss put on those who left out of frustration or after the collapse of a home industry, this sentence does not interrogate the glow around the term “religious tolerance”. On the positive side, it could mean a quest for a place where many varieties of belief were tolerated (and Bender acknowledges that this quest was not always successful) but it could equally mean a quest for a place where one’s own religious sect, and its intolerance for other sects, could find a space in which to assert itself. Bender exclaims over the fact that at the end of the nineteenth century two out of five Irish people had made their homes overseas, but not over the cause of this exodus. Accentuating the positive for the empire, she writes: “Given these numbers, it is difficult to imagine British expansion without the Irish presence.” Starvation and disease in the 1840s are briefly acknowledged but soon we are treated to a lengthier discussion of emigration as exile versus emigration as opportunity. Through Donald Akenson (an interesting and sometimes deliberately provocative writer), we are led to the insight that “the Irish were not always the passive victims of British imperialism” – a restatement of the obvious that allows Bender to restrike her favourite chord: “And if pushed by events at home, Irish migrants were also pulled by opportunities in the Empire.”

Further positively phrased examples of Irish participation in the empire are rolled out. James Graham of Lisburn sent news of his fellow townsman John Nicholson to his own family, and so the news reached Nicholson’s mother. This nugget leads to a further statement of the obvious: “The Irish, in other words, established their own cultural, economic, and familial ties or networks throughout the British Empire.” Yes, indeed, whether in the British empire or elsewhere, people write to faraway family, friends and neighbours – and indeed we would not be surprised to learn that literate families from Dún Chaoin wrote to their relatives in Springfield, Mass rather than seek pen-pals in the Cameroons. We are informed that Irish participants in empire “provided the human power, knowledge, and skills to facilitate imperial expansion”. We know that the Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy rose to the heights of government in Australia and that many others did well. But the empire also offered career outlets of another kind. If we take it that Hesketh Pearson’s very readable biography of John Nicholson (Hero of Delhi) is not a work of fiction, he was a man of great personal courage and deep (though later troubled) religious faith, a devoted son, a fair and incorruptible administrator by his lights, an independent and forthright man, and a dedicated soldier. What used to be known as the Indian Mutiny was his greatest hour but also led to his death, days after being shot while leading a seemingly hopeless attack of the kind from which he had often wrested victory. The biography includes this scene:

During the assault on Lucknow in the Mutiny about two thousand rebels were entrapped in a place from which there was no escape and all of them were shot or bayoneted. “There they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead and dying inextricably entangled,” wrote Lord Roberts. “ … The wretched wounded men could not get clear of their dead comrades, however great their struggles, and those near the top of this ghastly pile of writhing humanity vented their rage and disappointment on every British officer who approached by showering upon him abuse of the grossest description.

Pearson comments, a little unfairly, that Lord Roberts was probably as distressed by the language as by the carnage, and goes on: “Nicholson was not so fastidious. His was the Old Testament method of dealing with enemies and he did not expect the man he was disembowelling to respect his feelings as a gentleman.” A page or two later, Pearson presents Sir Hugh Gough, a British general – and, as it happens, another Irishman who contributed his knowledge and skills to the empire – as repeatedly throwing away the lives of his own soldiers by underusing the artillery at his disposal in advance of battle; he is also said to have avoided decisive engagements and thus, in the long term, to have prolonged conflicts and increased the casualty rate. Nicholson, in contrast, is presented as ruthless in battle but quite capable of releasing captives and establishing deep bonds of loyalty among former enemies (itself an imperial trope of course, but such things could indeed happen). Anyone imagining that the empire is news in the way Bender seems to imagine could do worse than seek out the more extended writings of the impressive range of scholars gathered in Ireland and India: Colonies, Culture and Empire (2007) – or (for those in a hurry) read Mary Conley’s review of that and related works in the Irish number of Radical History Review (2009).

Let us widen our perspective. The title of a two-volume work published in 1848 is almost as impressive as its content: A history of the Oriental Nations, chiefly Possessions of Great Britain, comprising India, China, Australia, South Africa, and her other dependencies or Connexions in the Eastern and Southern Seas, a complete account of their history, religion, laws, manners and customs, commercial resources, &c. Leitch Ritchie employed the vocabulary of his day but was quite conscious of observer bias and the dangers of facile judgement. In a section on the Malay Peninsula and Indian Archipelago, he distinguished between those in one area still unaffected by European ways of life and the semi-Europeanised elsewhere: “[…] but civilization among the others has assumed a form which perplexes, and probably misleads, a European inquirer, who can only reason from what he knows, and can only draw analogies from his own experience”’ Correcting a writer who said these natives were bewildered and incapable when “a wider range of thought” was required, he wrote: “Surely this is saying nothing more than that they are defective in those qualities of the mind that have never been exercised!”

Leitch Ritchie was not an enthusiast for what he called “a base and brutal carnage”, as is clear from his account of the Opium War – one of the least glorious episodes in British imperial history. Ritchie quotes a military source describing an attack on a fortified isthmus near the city of Chin-hae. After fierce fighting, the Chinese attempted to take flight but ran into a British force that was just arriving on the scene:

Hemmed in on all sides, and crushed and overwhelmed by the fire of a complete semi-circle of musketry, the hapless Chinese rushed by hundreds into the water; and while some attempted to escape the tempest of death which roared around them, by consigning themselves to the stream, and floating out beyond the range of fire, others appeared to drown themselves in despair.

Unlimited slaughter was not the goal: “Every effort was made by the general and officers to stop the butchery, but the bugles had to sound the ‘cease-firing’ long and often before our men could be restrained.” In fact, further slaughter ensued when another regiment saw a mass of fleeing Chinese on the opposite side of the river, crossed the river, cut this body in two and proceeded to further slaughter. We may assume that Irishmen in the usual percentage brought their “human power, knowledge, and skills” to this particular case of imperial activity. “Every officer and soldier has merited my approbation”: so wrote General Gough (yes, him again) in his official report. (Bender does not sufficiently highlight the marvellous opportunities for travel available to the imperial military.)

Similar actions featured as the campaign proceeded. A “Tartar” city put up particularly fierce resistance: the soldiers feared, on the one hand, harsh imperial disapproval after surrender or defeat and, on the other, the vengeance of the angry and alienated local population; they further expected to be slaughtered if the British were victorious. The besiegers who eventually broke into the city found scenes of wholesale suicide and evidence of the killing or urging to suicide of family members. (Some of the details are horrific.) Ritchie paints the aftermath: “The neighbouring hills […] were covered with slain; the fields in the rear […] were like a slaughter-house […]: but within the Tartar city was the utter silence of desolation and death.” There is a second ending to this story: “And all this turned out, unhappily, to be of not the slightest utility for the purposes of the war.” The city had been taken only with a view to a longer-term strategy – one that was abruptly abandoned.

Leitch was able to face up to the worst side of the British empire’s expansionist activity while also believing that, in a global perspective, it was imperfect, better than any other, and on the path towards improvement. His writing, like the best historical work of WEH Lecky, was written from a particular standpoint but respected the available knowledge. Paying due attention to the unspectacular ways in which Ireland was an integral part of the empire is perfectly legitimate; what is objectionable in Bender’s article is the blandness with which the harsh realities of power and violence are addressed and a phrasing that repeatedly nudges the reader towards a position that has not been properly argued.

Further nudging can be discerned in the blending of the Irish Catholic missionary story into the chapter on empire. After the dissolution of the eighteenth century Protestant Ascendancy into the Union and the eventual granting of Emancipation, the Catholic church in Ireland undertook rapid expansion of its personnel and its institutional presence on the ground. This coincided with the beginnings of general literacy and popular education through the medium of English. The first surge of foreign missionary activity built on these trends and, not surprisingly, followed the existing English-language networks made available by the world-dominating British empire. The Catholic church has survived by accommodating itself (without much scruple), where possible, to existing power structures. Spanish and French missionaries had operated in the Americas as the nineteenth century Irish church was doing. Bender herself points out how Irish Catholic missionaries later moved out onto different linguistic territories. Her imperial nudging becomes increasingly tedious and questionable as a procedure. A comprehensive summary of the topic would have offered more than a cursory mention of Protestant missionary activity, in all its denominational diversity. In addition, the weakness of Catholic organisation in the eighteenth century means that, well before the future Cardinal Cullen returned from Rome, the work of a Dublin priest like Fr Henry Young (1786-69) in Wicklow, as recounted in Myles Ronan’s hagiographical but very thoroughly researched study, could itself be described as missionary. Meanwhile, Henry’s brother William threw himself into a mission to Cornwall, where the Catholic church had faded almost to non-existence. When taken together with the Evangelical Protestant missions in areas like Achill and Connemara, all this suggests that the imperial dimension to missionary activity is more complex and interesting than the soft-focus version found in this chapter.

As we have seen, Bender’’s chapter touches on the themes of religion and emigration. These, as one would expect, receive separate treatment in substantial and thoughtful chapters by Ian McBride and Enda Delaney. Less obvious is the unexplained editorial decision to treat political violence in a chapter of its own. The first sentence of Marc Mulholland’s opening paragraph is promisingly clear: “By European standards – and for large swaths of its modern history, even by the standards of the United States – popular violence was a marginal phenomenon in Ireland.” The second is less promising: “There are few states with such a continuous tradition of honoring political violence.” The Irish state has existed in more or less its present form for only a century; and if nationalist or native Ireland has long honoured political violence, that may well be because it has not had the luxury of living in a political order in any way resembling what most of the population aspired to. Perhaps the adjective “non-state” should also have been inserted before the word “political”. One of the benefits of a stable political order is that the state-political can be presented as apolitical. Remembrance of the military dead in ceremonial public events – as in Remembrance Sunday in Britain – is not explicitly acknowledged for what it is: a reinforcement, or indeed a sacralisation, of the military history of the state. Happily, once launched on his task, Marc Mulholland is relatively ecumenical in his treatment of the topic: he immediately registers the casual use of torture in the repression of the United Irishmen and the use of state force in the gathering of tithes, before moving on to later landmarks in history. Mulholland provides some sharply phrased summations and observations that go beyond the conventional run-through of events. He should, however, have made it clear that partition was enacted and given institutional form in 1920, before the War of Independence had run its course and before the Treaty negotiations. The fact remains, however, that the logic of including a chapter on this theme should have been laid out by the editors. A further point can be made: structurally, treating violence as an issue in itself must inevitably give rise to demarcation issues regarding the chapters on the nineteenth century, on nationalism, on empire, and on twentieth century Ireland, North and South.

A step back from directly Irish matters may be appropriate at this point. How is violence to be presented or represented in a general history? The way in which the question presses or does not press on an article or book will vary enormously according to the topic, the individual author’s approach, institutional factors and the historiographical context. We have seen that the Princeton History editors do not endorse a trauma-centred view of Ireland. (It is possible to write a history of Ireland in a way that acknowledges trauma and disaster where they occur, and that acknowledges their effect on the subsequent course of events, but that does not see trauma everywhere; what is missing from Princeton is an indication of where in recent historiography trauma-centredness is to be found.) The focus on “political constructions” in Princeton inherently pulls writers away from dwelling on the suffering of those at the wrong end of history – a tendency accentuated by an editorial bias towards intellectual history. CV Wedgwood’s introduction to the 1956 Pelican edition of her renowned The Thirty Years War offers matter for reflection. She noted how the first edition (1938) had been written “against the background of depression at home and mounting tension abroad”. She went on:

I wrote with the knowledge, sometimes intimate, sometimes more distant, of conditions in depressed and derelict areas, of the sufferings of the unwanted and uprooted – the two million unemployed at home, the Jewish and liberal fugitives from Germany.

She was able to analyse the grand political, dynastic and religious dramas being played out across Europe, to show how individual personalities and experience affected choices and decisions, to take account of the effects of weather and other contingencies on battles, but also to portray the appalling suffering that occurred during the war. Looking back, she did not regret an approach that makes her book readable and enlightening to this day, even if other writers have since reinterpreted the field:

I feel now, as I did twenty years ago, that one task of the political historian is to show the repercussions of policy on the lives of the governed and to arouse in the reader imaginative sympathy with those multitudes of fellow beings who were victims as well as actors in the events of the past.

The ethic implicit in this statement, taken together with Wedgwood’s scepticism regarding claims that everything negative in subsequent German history can be ascribed to this catastrophic period, constitutes a standard against which other historical writing can be measured – or at least usefully discussed, if the verb measure comes too close to suggesting a fixed gold standard in these matters. Where Ireland is concerned, it can be brought to bear on the period of conquest and colonisation, on 1798, on the Famine and on the Great War.

Part Two follows in November.


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 Ph.D. (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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