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Irish Visionaries

Bryce Evans

Histories of the Irish Future, by Bryan Fanning, Bloomsbury, 312 pp, €27.20, ISBN: 978-1472532954

The opening acknowledgements in books are sometimes monotonous in their dutiful nods to individuals and institutions. Not so Bryan Fanning’s Histories of the Irish Future. The book opens with a broadside against the structures of the corporate university concealed within a vote of thanks to University College Dublin for giving the author the opportunity “to be part of an intellectual community of scholars, one which exists on no organisational chart or website or in any managerial map of what multi-disciplinary synergies might look like”.

As this opening sally indicates, Fanning’s collection of essays interpreting interpretations of modern Ireland from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries is more than mere backward-looking intellectual history; it’s a work honest in its situatedness, vigorous in its argument and confident in its provision of intellectual armour for future discussions about the state of Ireland.

The book consists of twelve separate pen portraits of thinkers who at various times wrote about Ireland. But don’t let the ostensible disparity between the likes of Thomas Malthus and Fintan O’Toole put you off. Binding together the essays is a philosophically aware and historically anchored narrative that ensures that big ideas and big events take their place alongside our subjects. The final chapter – “Ghosts of Futures Past” ‑ provides coherency in grouping the figures considered in the previous chapters into three broad intellectual traditions: conservatives, orthodox liberals, and republicans. Such classification is necessary in a book of this nature, but it does raise inevitable questions about the selection criteria deployed (more of which later).

The English seventeenth century philosopher William Petty is the subject of the first chapter, specifically his recommendation to King James II that Irish Catholics be transplanted to England en masse, thus clearing the way for Ireland to become a cattle ranch. Fanning calls this Petty’s “final solution” and charts how he came to such an idea, which involves recounting Petty’s impressive ascent from ship captain’s apprentice to policy-maker and landowner. What made him, in between, was medicine. Petty made his name by reviving a servant girl who had been hanged for trying to conceal an abortion. The analogy between the unfortunate girl and Ireland ‑ which became “a metaphorical body on Petty’s table” ‑ is almost too good, and Fanning repeats it once too often; however the contemporary appeal of scientific prescription is a useful prism through which to view the state-sponsored emigration advocated by Petty. The epistemological questions of the age dominate the following chapter, which examines William Molyneux’s 1698 The Case for Ireland as drawing upon the Lockean concept of rule by consent. Of course, Molyneux’s Case was an exclusively Protestant one, written at a time when the Penal Laws were first being enacted.

Fanning implicitly rejects the “Great Man” theory of history throughout this book, but if one nonetheless emerges from the pages it’s Edmund Burke. Burke’s influence on later thinkers and later analyses of Irish events is, justifiably, emphasised again and again by the author. Fanning shows how 1790’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which looked to the British constitution as the best guarantor of liberty, “drew from the same well” as Molyneux: after all, English conquest had given Ireland a parliament. But he also articulates well Burke’s fears that the Ascendancy status quo would push Catholics towards Jacobinism, as did indeed occur in 1798.

If the French Revolution was arguably the first great “moment” to impact modern writings about Ireland, the next ‑ the Great Famine ‑ clings like a chill premonition to Fanning’s next essay, on Thomas Malthus. The bleakness of Malthus’s social outlook, like Burke’s, is underplayed by Fanning, who seeks to partially rescue him from his reputation as a “prophet of overpopulation”. The great pessimist died over a decade before the Famine and even he, in his writings on Ireland, did not foresee catastrophe on the scale of what unfolded. Fanning even provides flashes of the compassionate Malthus, who sought to vindicate the Irish Catholic peasant as part of his argument that an overhaul of the country’s entire class structure was necessary for its salvation. A related question, which Malthus wrote on and which would influence events to come in Ireland, is that of the Corn Laws. Consideration of this is however conspicuous by its absence in a chapter which otherwise, like the preceding essay on Burke, is deliciously rich, highly readable and provocative.

For all its seriousness, Histories of the Irish Future is not all work and no play. There are some humorous asides, such as that concerning the renowned pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s melodramatic early novel In Dark and Evil Days ‑ “a less pacifist and feminist novel would be hard to imagine”;indeed Fanning compares it to the brainless sentimental gutsiness of a Mel Gibson film. The book is pock-marked with anecdote and it’s all the better for it. The intellectual heavy-lifting is interspersed with details such as the fact that the nineteenth century Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, while in his previous post as professor of political economy at Oxford, “trained his dogs to climb trees and jump down on undergraduates out walking with girls”. And yet the volume contains really very little in the way of digressive and tiresome common room tales about the eccentricities of renowned brainiacs: one of the less appealing aspects of belonging to the “intellectual community of scholars” which Fanning extols. Rather, and without resort to mawkishness, he ensures that the “plain people of Ireland” and their socio-economic struggles are never far away. This, then, for all its subject matter, is certainly no elitist history.

Fanning’s thinkers often held unpalatable views – many arguing, for instance, in favour of a hideously restrictive poor law. Yet if the author is scrupulous in measuring such unfashionable attitudes against the yardstick of the elitist assumptions of the day, some are treated a tad more fairly than others. John Mitchel, by far the angriest of the twelve angry men (or rather eleven men and one woman) analysed here, is described as “the most illiberal and bloody-minded nineteenth century Northern Protestant nationalist”, a destructive “agrarian reactionary”. All of which is true, but the verdict comes across a little more venomously than in other cases. Can this be explained by a mischievously revisionist impulse to expose the patron saint of so many GAA clubs as a nasty racist? This is probably an unfair charge since the chapter on Mitchel is terrific, devoid of knowing anti-republicanism and, like the other essays in the collection, interspersed with abundant intellectual context ‑ in this case the interesting overlaps between Mitchel’s anti-Whiggism and that of Thomas Carlyle. Parenthetically, opinions like Mitchel’s, which contrasted the relative security of slavery with the barbarism of Anglo industrial capitalism, are to be found in other, unexpected modern Irish quarters: James Larkin, for example, echoed some of the Young Irelander’s thoughts on the matter.

Like Mitchel, Friedrich Engels was frustrated by the lack of revolutionary impulse of Ireland’s nineteenth century political titan, Daniel O’Connell. Engels’s views on Ireland were undoubtedly coloured by his conjugal relations with “Tipperary Mary” Burns and her sister Lizzie, two Manchester-Irish women with Fenian sympathies. He hoped that the downfall of the Irish aristocracy would bring about their downfall in England and, largely because of the revolutionary impulse of the post-Famine Irish, did not dismiss them as a “non-historical people” as he did the Slavs, the Gaelic Scots, the Bretons and the Basques. In getting to grips with the great dialectical materialist’s views on Ireland, Fanning’s unsentimental tone is appropriate ‑ as he puts it, the million plus Famine dead were “lost from Irish history and the onward march of world history as understood by Engels”. And yet the chapter also misses the point. Surely what was most significant about Engels’s views on Ireland was his refusal to view the Great Hunger as a progressive infliction of modernity by a great nation on an underdeveloped one. Engels could coldly dismiss the “fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution” in Slavic nations who nursed historical grievances while failing to recognise that they were the necessary victims of a “great historical revolution”. The Irish, by contrast, didn’t conform to this type: they were the victims of what he saw as gratuitous oppression.

Fanning delivers a controversial but well-reasoned verdict on another great leftist, James Connolly:

Connolly’s most influential intellectual achievement was not, as he hoped, to inject socialism into the mainstream of Irish nationalism, but an account of Irish history that classified constitutional nationalism as false patriotism and that helped keep alive a dissident Republicanism that perceived the Free State created by the winning side of the civil war as a betrayal of the Irish people.

Heavily citing Labour in Irish History, Fanning’s account of Connolly and Catholic nationalism is a blisteringly written (and not unsympathetic) examination of Connolly and Catholicism which along the way acknowledges Connolly’s importance to socialist republicanism. In the process he manages to gently introduce important (if indirect) political-intellectual movements which would assume great importance in Ireland after 1916, not least corporatist-vocationalism. This seamless threading in of impending themes is a consistent strength of the written style of Histories of the Irish Future.

It is the very punchiness and originality of the Connolly essay which undermines the following chapter on Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. Although important to break up what is colloquially referred to in nightclubs as a sausage-fest, the logic for her inclusion in this volume appears tokenistic. This is in no way to downplay Sheehy-Skeffington’s significance for suffragism, feminism and indeed republicanism, and the sexist derision of her and women of her ilk by PS O’Hegarty and other leading lights of the Free State is well captured by Fanning. Yet the Connolly chapter sufficiently establishes the context of anti-Free State republicanism: the topic of the essay. Rather than “Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington versus the Free State”, this section could have been better served by a deeper examination of her feminism.

A similar charge cannot be levelled over Fanning’s selection of the relatively obscure Catholic bishop Jeremiah Newman (1926-95) ‑ dubbed “the Mullah of Limerick” by Magill. In this case the frantic attempts of Newman to intertwine his reactionary views with Cold War anti-statism and postmodernism are clearly intended to convey the bigger issue: the decline in the intellectual power of institutional Catholicism. As Fanning himself puts it, Newman’s writings are “barely remembered and had little or no influence, but are of historical importance in understanding what was at stake from the perspective of a clerical culture that had dominated Irish society over a crucial century of modernisation.”

In the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s partly comic novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter a mentally unstable soap opera writer confusedly begins to introduce characters previously killed off into his new scripts, to the bewilderment and occasional delight of his audiences. In Histories of the Irish Future too old dead acquaintances pop up with increasing frequency towards the end. Burke features prominently in the penultimate chapter “The Lonely Passion of Conor Cruise O’Brien”, as do writers without their own chapter who have nonetheless been very much part of the conversation over the preceding pages (like Séamus Heaney and WB Yeats). Conor Cruise O’Brien’s 1965 essay “Passion and Cunning” was an iconoclastic take on Yeats which, Fanning reveals, owed much to Frank O’Connor’s 1941 “The Old Age of a Poet”, in excoriating Yeats for his leanings towards fascism. Fanning implies a parallel with O’Brien who, in later years, adopted an increasingly idiosyncratic stance on Israel, South Africa and Northern Ireland.

When Yeats died in 1939, Fanning informs us, O’Brien was dining with his mother’s sister, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. This is another example of the exquisite, almost imperceptible, coherency within this relentlessly inventive book; it’s also a reminder of the smallness of Ireland’s post-independence political and intellectual elite. This claustrophobic milieu is the subject of the final chapter, which uses the writings of Fintan O’Toole as a window on the corruption and cronyism of late twentieth century Ireland, culminating in the champagne supernova of the Celtic Tiger.


As Fanning notes, “Wild West metaphors reoccur” in O’Toole’s work. It is to be hoped that O’Toole’s penchant for Buachaill Bó may yet become a new biography on Billy the Kid, a subject in whom O’Toole has an abiding interest and may yet rival his excellent biographies of William Johnson and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In recounting O’Toole’s sometimes brilliant essays on the Lemassian-Haugheyian cowboys of capital, Fanning simultaneously relays one of O’Toole’s central theses: that when Catholicism in Ireland declined there was an absence of civic morality to take its place. Fanning rightly praises O’Toole’s 1995 Meanwhile Back at the Ranch (which documented corruption in the Irish beef industry) as an exposé of the deterioration of Fianna Fáil’s small farmer ideals. This also serves to reinforce a perceptible gap in this book: an analysis of the intellectual project attached to the mainstream, statist, post-colonial, anti-liberal, pre-Taca republicanism of Fianna Fáil circa 1932-1958. As a representative of this period perhaps a chapter could have been devoted to another figure who appears but briefly in the book: Daniel Corkery.

Any slight criticisms one might have of this book are dwarfed by its historical scope and narrative gusto. After discussion of the cowboys and ranchers of O’Toole, Fanning concludes by herding its thinkers into three camps: conservatives, orthodox liberals, and republicans. In a self-confessed spirit of mischief, he lumps post-colonial literary critics in with the conservatives. There’s a good dollop of irony at play here, not least in the observation that the despised creed of liberalism had, by the end of the Victorian period, become integral to Irish political nationalism. But in taking republicanism seriously as an intellectual tradition rather than a movement purely bent on recidivistic rabble-rousing, Fanning delivers a generous and accurate assessment of its worth, albeit noting that it is “just as well” that republicanism does not hold a monopoly on concepts of social justice and civic virtue today.

Histories of the Irish Future is a beautifully crafted, stimulating and enjoyable read. It is an intellectually demanding book but at the same time an accessible and eminently readable one. Bryan Fanning has produced a shrewd and original text which covers so much ground economically, politically and socially. It needs to be read by Irish historians because it exposes the intellectual poverty of much Irish history-writing with its myopic determination to wallow in the intellectually shallow waters of revisionism and post-revisionism. It also needs to be read by the wider public because it effortlessly bats off some of the reductionism inherent in the current media obsession with the “decade of commemorations”; moreover, in providing this history of futures previous, Fanning explains as much about the intellectual assumptions of the Irish present as those of its past.


Dr Bryce Evans is senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University.



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