I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Making History in Ireland

Liam Kennedy

It is unusual for historians to reveal much of themselves. The tradition within the discipline is to affect detachment, fair-mindedness and a scrupulous attention to evidence. These are all thoroughly worthy qualities. There is also a humility which is less evident in other walks of life, though some critics argue that behind the mask of the seemingly unobtrusive author there still lurks authority. But historians should be authoritative, bringing professional training and standards to bear on their work. Making history within the academy is normally an iterative process that admits of progress, regression, deviation perhaps, but at its best it is a truth-seeking quest that is never finally realised. Sometimes there are paradigm shifts that transform our understanding of the past, as with the advent of second-wave feminism. Even then the store of knowledge builds up cumulatively, if unevenly, across areas of interest, but crucially the fruits of inquiry are forever subject to revision, at least outside of totalitarian and theocratic societies.

Lest this appear unduly optimistic, or even Whiggish (perish the thought), let me caution that even within the European world of liberal democracies there are minority authoritarian movements or sub-cultures of, for example, a Trotskyist, post-Stalinist, ultra-nationalist or neo-fascist disposition which have proved remarkably impervious to advances in historical knowledge. The hermetic milieu of traditional Irish republicanism is a further case in point, with its annual rounds of graveside orations summoning the faithful to the worship of the memory of the dead.

More often than not, history-making is the work of the lone historian, so the engagement with or the relationship between the historian and the object of study is of paramount importance and itself open to inquiry. As we well know, our consciousness is shaped by early socialisation and family dynamics, by social class background, by gender, by location (an urban or rural environment, and much else), by ideological considerations (religion, politics, “isms” of one sort or another) either inherited or acquired, by socio-cultural setting, by disciplinary networks and fads, and by the times we live in. These are the visible nets we self-consciously strive to escape or fly past. Moral values (an aspect of early socialisation) tend to go unexamined but few historians, I suspect, would wish to suspend these entirely in evaluating the past. Indeed Ian McBride has suggested that in the early years of professional history-making in Ireland “the modernization of historical method was connected to a kind of moral crusade” against divisive myth-making and the propagandist use of history. Morality mattered, one way or another.

Much less familiar to us is the influence of underlying personality structures, which falls within the realm of the psychology of individual differences. Yet I cannot read some of the great contemporary historians of Ireland, friends and colleagues in the main, without feeling that personality traits are deeply implicated in some of their most critical interpretative decisions, and sometimes even their conclusions. Personality is rooted to some degree in biology but is also the product of experience and culture. One definition of personality is that it consists of “those internal properties of a person that lead to characteristic patterns of behaviour”. The argument is necessarily an elusive one but I will return to it later.

For those of us writing about Ireland, North and South, there is a very specific historical conjuncture that cries out for attention. This is what is commonly called the Troubles, or the decades-long conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from 1969. It is inconceivable that this did not have a bearing on the practice of history, literature and the social sciences. I would go further and say that the Troubles contributed exponentially to the boom in Irish studies in the late twentieth century. In an irony of ironies, the period of the Troubles may come to be seen as coinciding, at least in rough and ready fashion, with a golden age of Irish studies. New centres and institutes of Irish studies sprang into being, reflecting the time-spirit. These in turn seem to be giving way to a new world of terrorism studies and studies of conflict transformation, but that’s another story.

Irish history, politics and literary studies came to command a new status internationally. Historians, political scientists, sociologists and social anthropologists from across the world flocked to Belfast. Many beyond Ireland came to know something about Ireland and its troubled times. Then there was the artistic and creative response: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan, Glenn Patterson, Robert MacLiam Wilson, and a line of others that extends from writers, literary critics, and film-makers to artists, sculptors, rock and punk musicians, even dancers, who were shocked into trying to make meaning out of the murderous times. The North was like a hot skillet in which the passions of ethnicity, religion, class and nationality hissed and spluttered. It commanded attention. Moreover, the Troubles could be addressed through the medium of the world’s lingua franca, English. Azerbaijani would have been a less convenient tongue to master. Ireland became cool and edgy, with a touch of the allure of dark tourism about it. The result was an efflorescence of studies on Ireland and the Irish, in a way that was not true of smaller nationalities elsewhere in Europe such as the Bretons, the Catalans, the Welsh or even the Scottish. In effect, one of the many unintended consequences of the Troubles was to project Irish studies onto an international stage.

Implicit in all this is the recognition that history-making is a dialogue between the present and the past, as EH Carr put it many years ago. The point here is not the usual one that this may well compromise the historian’s work but rather that the present, or the near present, has useful history. So, on the positive side, take the shift in consciousness produced by the women’s movement in the later 1960s and 1970s. This has helped transform the writing of history for all time periods and all societies. In more recent times the exploration of masculinity and of lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sexualities has served to enrich our understanding of the past. These were epiphanies, as it were. More generally, current economic, political, ideological, even ecological debates can open up new vistas on the past. Who can now revisit old arguments dismissive of the role of ideology in producing social change without reflecting on the ideology-fuelled Islamist insurgencies found today in the Middle East and North Africa?

But could this also be a disabling influence as historians and others delved into the archives or pounded out findings on their word processors? To take my own case, the undeniable fact is that my latest book was conceived and executed while living in Belfast during some of the bad years of the Troubles. This stay also included the years of “peace processing”, of enforced power-sharing at Stormont, and more generally, the aftermath of the Troubles. Like others at Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster, I was inevitably writing Irish history in the shadow of the Troubles. Was this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps the present and the recent past were too much with us.

One could argue this either way. There were surely costs, or potential costs at any rate, in striving for distance and impartiality. But my impression is that, on balance, this backdrop has had beneficial consequences for scholars in Irish studies, including this writer. Or to be a little more precise, the experience of the Troubles, albeit at a distance, was an advantage in seeking to understand important areas of the Irish past and not just the Northern Ireland conflict itself. It may have taught us little about the economy, other than reiterating the old message that wartime conditions deter civilian investment and economic activity, but it brought us face-to-face with violence, intimidation, civil strife, and above all, the human consequences of terror: death, injury, trauma, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide. We could read original documents relating to political violence in earlier periods of Irish history, in particular that of 1916-23, but for me at any rate those years had a distinctly distant feel. Visceral knowledge was lacking, as was a sense of the sheer cruelty of how some victims were chosen for execution, and how this might ripple through local communities, irrespective of whether the perpetrators were Crown forces or the IRA. Communal conflict in Belfast in the 1920s was, if anything, even more remote, given that I came from an overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist part of southern Ireland, and a rural one at that. But living in Belfast, such were the elements of continuity that even the social geography of the past came into focus: the Falls Road, the Shankill, Short Strand, Malone Road, the Markets.

Being a bystander to a conflict that raged outside the academy also gave rise to new questions. This was certainly true for me. Stories of the use of torture (or what most would regard as torture) by British troops during the early stages of internment – I was living in England at the time – caused me to rethink some of my assumptions about the exercise of state power and violence, even within liberal democracies. A loyalist workers’ strike in 1994, and another in 1997, also raised challenging questions about the conditional nature of unionist loyalty to the British state in earlier time periods. And I sometimes wondered if Peter Hart’s seminal work on the IRA – too late to ask him now – owed something to the Troubles. Interestingly, in a reverse process of imaginative understanding, members of Sinn Féin produced The Good Old IRA pamphlet to show that the execution of off-duty RUC and UDR men, as well as civilians deemed to be collaborating with the authorities, had historical precedents. This avowedly unsentimental publication implied that it was acceptable to execute perceived enemies, irrespective of circumstances or social setting, be they unarmed and at home, on the way to or from a church or hospital, working on a farm or having a pint in a local pub. The presence of children or loved ones was also an irrelevance: it had all happened before.

New knowledge or new experiences also serve to change our angle of vision on the past, these being gifts of the present or the recent past. But it is only fair to acknowledge that the cockpit of the present can prove restrictive as well as illuminating. There is the ever-present danger of presentism, that is, an approach to the past dominated by the preoccupations of the present. David Cannadine, among others, has expressed these kinds of concerns in his elegantly crafted study of the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, a subject close to the heart of all economic and social historians. In his view, in writing the Industrial Revolution, generations of historians from the later nineteenth century onwards had absorbed and projected the preoccupations of their era, be it poverty and the social costs of industrialisation in one time period or the limits to economic growth in more recent times. There is surely something in this but a knowledge of historiography and a more acute consciousness of the potential problems are valuable antidotes to the claim by some that “all history is contemporary history”. More than most, it could be argued, historians are by now well-acquainted with this particular set of snares.

Some of the questions that for me swam into consciousness included subjects as diverse as constitutional options, intimidation and terror (and their prevalence in the past), moral economy, the practice of sectarianism, the efficacy of different state policies, and the social consequences of industrial decline. Issues of gender came to the fore, as the Troubles challenged traditional views of female invisibility in the public sphere, though of course all of this was influenced by reading conventional primary and secondary sources as well. In more recent times I have become acutely aware of the role of rumour, gossip and threat in the struggle to control communities from within. Not only that, the physical, emotional and psychological stages are sometimes laid bare, as victims speak in private (generally not in public) about threats, fear and uncertainty, and the possible consequences of not complying with the demands of secret organisations. Images of threatening notices and the activities of secret societies such as the Whiteboys or the Ribbonmen come to mind, and, though the parallels are far from perfect, fresh questions spring to mind. So, in a sense, the experience of the Northern Troubles has come to represent one kind of primary source for the study of some of the more violent or contested aspects of the Irish past.

In relation to victims and survivors of the conflict I felt a depth of understanding that might otherwise have been difficult to attain, except perhaps through the medium of oral history: critics will say, and rightly so, that questions of method and epistemology abound. Can we really access the everyday understandings of the other, not to mention his or her pain? As we go deeper in historical time presumably the challenge is compounded. There is the added layer of complication that people’s psychological make-up varies within any population and psychological states evolve over time, even within the same culture. But not everything is in flux and there seem to me to be biological, physiological and psychological parameters as well as variables at play in what constitutes the human condition. The attraction between the sexes, to take but one example, may not be a constant, as Malthus famously put it, or sex may not be the strongest of the passions as a medical journal once claimed, but there is no doubt it is hard-wired into the lives of humans, as are other basic needs relating to self-preservation, food, shelter, warmth and sociability.

If not all is flux, and given these affinities between peoples past and present, then degrees of sympathy, empathy and understanding of historical actors in other time periods seem possible, albeit imperfectly. As for living through a time of crisis, I would suggest that such experience may further enhance the capacity for historical understanding. Reinforcing this point is the fact that the prolonged crisis gave rise to an enormous increase in scholarly output. A beneficial by-product was new questions and new shafts of light on the past. So the point is not the usual one that proximity in time may compromise the historian’s work but rather that a period of intense political tension, as during the Troubles, presents opportunities for a deeper understanding of some aspects of the Irish past. At the same time, I would willingly acknowledge that experiential knowledge and an over-emphasis on contemporary concerns may also serve to produce distortion, bias, and more subjectively-based accounts, if not disciplined by the historian’s concern for a multiplicity of motives, viewpoints, balance, and an appreciation of the constraints operating in any given situation.

Writing at the outbreak of the Troubles, the historian Owen Dudley Edwards felt compelled to level with his readers. After all, his subject was the fiercely contested one of the “roots of conflict” in Northern Ireland. “Naturally, my approach has been affected,” he admits, “as that of all commentators must be, by my background and beliefs.” He goes on to suggest that the reader “needs the courtesy of being informed what these are.” The author then lays out family, religious and ideological influences on his formation as a historian.

This is very close to an approach that is much in vogue among qualitatively-minded social scientists and is implicit in much of what has been said already. The guiding concept is that of reflexivity. Arguably, it is an essential tool for certain kinds of research, possibly for all kinds of social research because “there is no way in which we can escape the social world in order to study it”. In my own case – thinking and writing amidst the Troubles, on the very subject of the Troubles – some personal reflection seems more than usually necessary. So what is reflexivity? According to Charlotte Aull Davies, “reflexivity at its most immediately obvious level refers to the ways in which the products of research are affected by the personnel and process of doing research”. Historians will see the point, I think, though Davies is speaking of and to a different audience. Even closer to the bone is her observation that ethnographers (for these read historians and social scientists) should try “to show how they are implicated or included in their discussions of other people”.

Admittedly, the connection between social scientists, social anthropologists, or ethnographers and their research setting – the contemporary social world – is much closer than in the case, say, of the medieval historian, though the inevitable dialogue between past and present does not go away. But for the historian of the contemporary world the degree of embeddedness is considerably more pronounced. We are all citizens of society as well as members of the academy, loosely defined. Moreover, if the historian is also a political or human rights activist, as for instance are a number of feminist, socialist and trade union historians, then the dilemmas these commitments raise are all the sharper. Walking the tightrope between engagement and detachment is not an easy one.

There is another aspect to the relationship between the researcher and the research field or setting, one that is alluded to rather than developed here. It is what Manda Cesara calls “the human aspects of research”. Suffice it to say the experience of doing research inevitably affects the researcher. This feedback loop from the research field to the researcher is also an aspect of reflexivity but one that tends not to trouble most historians overmuch. (It completes, however, the loop of two-way interactions.) The exceptions though are the historians and social scientists dealing with near-contemporary history. To take only extreme examples, there are plenty of horrific events in the contemporary world, from the agony of Aleppo in the Syrian civil wars, to mass rape in parts of Africa, or the sight of the bodies of refugees being washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. These sights and sounds may well prove traumatising for the observer-researchers. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, while thankfully on a different scale, almost certainly scarred some researchers.

Manda Cesara takes the “human aspects” of research an unexpected stage further. Touching delicately on her sexual relationship with an African man she encountered during the course of her fieldwork, she writes: “And then there is the affair. I mention it because it is inevitable that some ethnographers in certain settings should experience such an encounter.” I have no idea how representative this experience might be but that is not the point. She goes on to argue that this affair was a prelude to a deeper understanding of herself and the Lenda culture she was studying. Her lover, she says, “opened for me the gate to Lenda”. Later she suggests that a new sexual relationship can be a catalyst to fresh and productive directions in research, presumably including creative thought. This is a hypothesis that is likely to appeal to some more than others, to students of literature more than the historical sciences, and yet should not be dismissed out of hand. Some of us, on reflection I imagine, can think of examples that might fit the bill. And the argument might work the other way round as well. The end of a relationship, which is an increasingly common experience in modern life, might also signal regression in research activity. I can testify to this at first hand, as the end of my first marriage in the early 1980s blighted my research and writing for some years.

Some make a virtue of research with a campaigning objective, which others (including this writer) see as problematic. It is argued by its advocates that no research is value-neutral. This is true enough on various levels, from the choice of research topics, theories and methodologies to the execution of an intelligible reconstruction of selected aspects of the past. But some go further, arguing that the researcher has a social role that includes promoting “progressive” social change, be it the emancipation of women, combating racism or furthering social reform. These motivations may, depending on viewpoint, value judgements and circumstances, be laudable, but the problems are immediately apparent. Quite apart from the confusion of the roles of citizen and historian, politically motivated research is likely to produce findings that are distorted by presuppositions of “how the world ought to be”.

Drawing on Davies once again, “reflexivity, broadly defined, means a turning back on oneself, a process of self-reference”. This is a helpful though hardly complete definition. There are many others with varying scope and emphases. In some accounts the process of introspection and reflection is not directed solely at the self. There are the dominant ideas at a moment in time within particular disciplines to be taken into account. Then there are the socio-economic circumstances of the period, as well as the social and cultural affiliations of the author. Would Joe Lee have excoriated the performance of independent Ireland in quite such extravagant terms had he not been writing his brilliant Ireland 1912-1985 during the crisis-ridden decade of the 1980s, when there was deep recession and political instability, the public finances were in disarray, and a string of corruption scandals mesmerised the nation. A decade later a major recovery was under way on virtually all fronts. Might this later vantage point have conditioned a different reading of the performance of Irish society across the twentieth century as a whole?

Self-effacing though historians may be, the self is always with us. This is true in relation to the choice and deployment of research techniques, the kinds of questions posed and much else besides. Not only are there undertones of autobiography in the writing but, to go a stage further, perhaps particular historical subjects choose their own historians. If so, maybe we need to be that bit more self-conscious of the processes at play, including considerations of temperament and personality in addition to external variables of a more social, political or religious kind. To complicate matters still further, there may be gender differences in personality traits. All of this is no more than to say that historians and other practitioners of the humanities are individuals, while acknowledging that each of us is located in a social milieu or force field characterised by multiple causal and mediating variables operating at different levels of the social structure.

There are many models of personality, and all have their critics. One widely used version, Costa and McCrae’s five-factor model of personality, seeks to encompass personality traits under five headings. These are: Openness (imaginative, emotionally sensitive, novelty seeker, tolerant); Conscientiousness (competent, orderly, dutiful, motivated to achieve, self-disciplined); Extraversion (warm, gregarious, assertive, active, positive emotions); Agreeableness (trusting, straightforward, altruistic, cooperative, modest, tender-minded); and Neuroticism (anxious, angry, hostile, depressed, self-conscious, impulsive, vulnerable).

The “Big Five” offers a mirror in which we may or may not recognise aspects of ourselves. Other psychologists have presented schemas focusing on more narrow traits of personality but that would surely take us too far afield. Suffice it to say that historians and social scientists are likely to be divided from each other by clusters of personality traits that may in turn influence their literary productions.

In my case it is perhaps all the more important to reveal some of my own background and intellectual formation because the bulk of this book engages with contemporary history in which I might be said to have some “lived experience”. Hopefully this exercise in self-awareness can be accomplished without the preciousness and (to my mind) excessive subjectivity that characterises some anthropological musings. But the excursion is worth undertaking, primarily as it may help readers, and critics, form their own assessment of this work, its constituent chapters and the interaction between the scribe and the subject matter.

At the very least I have to face the possibility that my own assumptions and values are being projected onto the literary productions arising from my research activity. It is certainly true that my choice of subjects has not been a random matter. As a postgraduate student at the University of York, and then approaching the zenith of my anti-clericalism, I was thrilled by Emmett Larkin’s trilogy of studies of the Catholic church in Ireland. His magnificent invention, the Devotional Revolution, broke open my assumptions that the all-powerful church in which I had been reared was one of unchanging values and practices, stretching back to the Reformation or before. But of even greater interest was his thesis that the Catholic church – I always said Roman Catholic in those days, with the emphasis on Roman – had siphoned off scarce investment resources and thus had inhibited Irish economic growth. I was more than happy to believe the arguments Larkin deployed so skilfully. The trouble was that when I began to consider the study in detail, it fell apart in my hands. I published a critique of Larkin’s thesis, which I gather annoyed the great man, and I recall with some embarrassment being congratulated afterwards by a Patrician Brother and a secular priest for my more favourable view of the economic role of the Irish Catholic church. There I was, Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith), though in fact I was discomfited by my own findings. At the same time, there was a secret satisfaction in finding that the discipline of history had put some manners on my initially emotion-tinged response.

I can now see, by virtue of my background and inclinations, that the history of the Catholic church in Ireland – my Ireland – greatly exercised my intellect and imagination. So also did sexuality and Irish society, though perhaps fortunately for all concerned my samizdat “Eros and Éire” never saw the light of day. An interest in co-operatives and rural reform flowed easily from my own farming background and an early interest in socialism.

As for Northern Ireland, my deep involvement was in a sense fortuitous, an accident of the job market one might say. Still, even before I came to Belfast, passing from one Northern industrial city to another with all the familiar sights of factory chimney stacks, red-bricked terraced houses and non-conformist chapels, I had begun to develop an interest in the Troubles. Perhaps the interest went deeper, trailing back to my national school in Ileigh, Co Tipperary, where Master Barrow, the principal, railed against the English, the Ulster unionists, and compromisers such as Daniel O’Connell. Having lived for many years in Belfast I am conscious that I was by times an observer, a participant, and a participant-observer, which is a situation different from that of many historians. More generally, sometimes the subject chose me as its historian but not always. It is hard for me to see any particular underlying pattern that drew me to a work of blessed memory and little profit, the history of prices and wages in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

To begin with, I am male and heterosexual, so far as I know. It is for others to consider personality structure and the possible implications. I know nothing of my genetic inheritance other than that, on my father’s assurance, we are descended from high kings (no less). Let me move swiftly and a little less self-consciously to the more external variables that may be at play: I have multiple identities and like the branches of a tree some identities sway, rise and fall, as the social world and my engagement with it changes. So for the readers, and particularly the critics, who might want to know how I have come to write as I have, let me help them. What follows is more or less how I described myself, somewhat unconventionally, on my university’s website some ten years ago: born in deeply rural Co Tipperary in 1946 under the star sign of Leo (or was it Taurus?), well before the era of Radio Telefís Éireann, rural electrification and the Friesian cow. My undergraduate degree was in dairy and food science, with economics, at University College Cork but I later experienced a Pauline conversion to history while studying at the University of York. My formative intellectual influences included Raymond Crotty (Irish Agricultural Production), Sir John Hicks (A Theory of Economic History), Edna O’Brien (The Country Girls) and the Tipperary Star.

On another occasion I was obliged to clarify my political and ideological preferences following criticism from some quarter I’ve long since forgotten. I wrote in Fortnight magazine in 2004, more or less along the following lines, though with some late additions as notions of identity are rarely static over the life course of the individual: My sense of place and early formative influences arose from life in an Irish farming community. I loved and still love the game of hurling, which seemed central to the best moments in life, and I was a devout Catholic and nationalist, probably in that order. I had and I retain an affection for the Irish language and the Irish speakers of the Dingle peninsula, particularly those around Baile an Fheirtéaraigh. Having lived in Britain and Northern Ireland for many decades, I have little difficulty in acknowledging an Irish and a British sense of cultural identity. The shamrock and the poppy easily find a place on my lapel, though not usually on the same day. Other changes, of an ideological kind, included identifying myself with the Irish and British labour movements, which I see as intertwined, and the humanistic position of serving “no pope, no ayatollah and no gods”. That said, I have a deep respect for the Judeo-Christian ethic, particularly as conveyed in the Sermon on the Mount. Hedging my political bets – note the influence of economics – I have long been a member of both the British Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party.

Having gone this far, I might as well add I am a lifelong trade unionist and have been supportive of various peace initiatives, including the Peace People and later the “new wave” peace groups. The latter included New Consensus, which argued for the primacy of democratic over nationalistic principles in tackling the Northern Ireland problem, and the Peace Train Organisation which sought to keep open lines of communication, in the broad as well as the narrow-gauge sense, between North and South. In more recent times some of my energies have been invested in human rights groups campaigning against paramilitary intimidation. The pressure group Children of the Troubles, of which I am a member, concerns itself with the paramilitary abuse of children, as discussed at some length later in this book.

I mentioned in the Fortnight article a sneaking regard for poetry (Paul Durcan being my favourite poet) and of a republicanism that practically rather than rhetorically sought to reconcile Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. I never cease to be amazed at the irony that those who stridently invoke such sentiments turn out to be the very people who by their actions drive a stake through the heart of the aspiration. Others, it is only fair to add, see me as anti-republican and it may be worth dwelling on that point. An organ that pays much attention to Irish history, at least as represented by graveside orations and other commemorative rituals, An Phobhlacht, once described me as not only anti-republican but “rabidly anti-Republican”. I would not wish to say that An Phobhlacht is rabidly pro-IRA but it is certainly associated with the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin. But, if any of its devotees have read this far, let me explain.

We all have a number of identities and within these a subset of political identities. I am from the Republic of Ireland and I favour a republican form of government, as do the vast majority of people in Ireland. So I am a republican. I also favour the classic formulation summed up in the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, as set out by the French republicans in the 1780s and the 1790s. (Sure enough some of them betrayed those principles during the Terror and the later Napoleonic dictatorship ach sin scéal eile.) In that sense I am a republican. As mentioned, I am impressed by the sentiments (though not some of the adventurism) of Wolfe Tone and the early United Irishmen and women to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. In that sense I am a republican.

I am not, however, an Irish republican if that means being a militarist Irish republican. That is the “sacred” tradition of hatred and vengeance, as well as fascination with guns and explosives, represented by the IRB and the IRA in its various forms. The point is little appreciated but much of that hatred was directed inwards, towards fellow Irish people, which makes it an ugly-minded “patriotism”, and one which has its loyalist counterpart. In that sense I am not an Irish republican as conventionally and narrowly understood. Though not a pacifist I have little time for guns, gun-running and gun-worship by unrepresentative conspiratorial groups. They conspire against the people in whose name they presume to act.

This connects directly with a core value expressed in the Fortnight article:

What is really fundamental is a concern with human rights, democratic values and, above all, acknowledging the sacredness of the other, and indeed of all others, as members of the one human family. Being a unionist or a nationalist – though I can happily reconcile both tendencies under the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998– is in the ha’penny place by comparison.

In other words, in my hierarchy of identities, nationalism and republicanism occupy lowly places. But in the hard and the very hard world of the Gael, as Myles na Gopaleen might have put it, there is always the miserable qualification. Of course being an Irish nationalist was one of my primary identities, as is my sense of place and belonging. How could it have been otherwise, growing up in the Tipperary hill country and having undergone intensive socialisation at home and at school into the eternal truths of faith and motherland. But at a thinking level, and increasingly at a feeling level, nationalism (as distinct from a sense of nationality) raises too many troubling spectres. I am not sound on the “national question”, to use that odd phrase. My “national” view, which forms part of my world view, is: let unity prevail, be it that of a united Ireland or that of the United Kingdom, depending on the wishes of the people. But let it be a unity of hearts and minds, not one based on the coercion of the other.

The manner in which political and constitutional change comes about is far from being a merely technical matter. The presence or absence of coercion is critical. Going back to first principles, the legitimacy and the morality of the means employed have to be taken into account. Second, and perhaps less obviously, the ends are not independent of the means. In the drive to achieve nationalist or unionist objectives, political violence corrupts. An “agreed Ireland” would look very different from one achieved at the point of a gun. The violence of a revolutionary vanguard would inevitably deform the newly created polity, as we saw with the arming of the UVF in 1914 and the arming of the Provisional IRA in 1970. So, judging them primarily by the means they employ and judging them also by the outcomes, I am resolutely opposed to Provisional republicanism and loyalist extremism, as well as to ultra-nationalist movements in Britain and mainland Europe. The first mentioned was the main killing agency during the Troubles while loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UDA, the UVF, and other smaller factions brought immeasurable pain to families within the Northern nationalist community and also within their own unionist communities.

I’m reluctant to reach for WB Yeats, as he gets more than his fair share of attention. Yet, writing in 1923, how perceptive was he of the recent past and how prophetic of the future. And not just in Ireland: soon the winds of ultra-nationalism would reach gale-force across many parts of continental Europe. “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

My early academic writings were on the formative phase of the Irish cooperative movement, from the 1880s to the eve of World War One. The social idealism of the pioneers chimed with my own developing socialist consciousness, though I retained some doubts about the possessiveness and individualism of farmers when it came to collective action. That was in the rural sphere, but I was also attracted to ideas of industrial democracy within market economies, although a little less enamoured of statist solutions to the problems of capitalism compared to some of my comrades and friends. I placed much of my faith in the model of labour-managed firms as instituted in Yugoslavia after World War Two under the Titoist regime. At one stage I explored the possibilities of studying in Zagreb. My academic adviser punctured that particular illusion with a barbed question as to the state of my Serbo-Croat or my Russian, sending me, academically speaking, back to my own country. Yugoslavia, as we now know, came to a bad end, imploding with the release of national and communal tensions in the 1990s. The distinctive economic system, or third way, represented by labour-managed firms also disintegrated. It is worth noting that this social experiment gave rise to a sophisticated theoretical literature, in the tradition of neo-classical economics, that for an apprentice economic historian like me served to fuse theoretical, historical and ideological constructs.

My teaching, researching and writing career at Queen’s University, Belfast has extended over three decades, with only occasional interludes elsewhere. “Why don’t you leave that awful place and get a nice job down in Dublin” was my mother’s long-standing refrain. She was right of course but once I was offered a permanent post in Belfast I never got round to applying for a job elsewhere. That may mean something. That love-hate relationship, nuanced by personal, family and academic commitments, continues to this day.

My first venture into writing on Northern political matters was a demographic analysis of the possibilities of repartition as a less than ideal but perhaps feasible compromise on the intercommunal and national conflicts. This was in the mid-1980s, a few years after the end of the hunger strikes, written more out of despair at the diminishing prospects of a shared communal future than anything else. A later version sketched a model of cantonisation. Both were unduly optimistic as to the feasibility of such settlement proposals and indeed my own preference is for a more generous implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, without the institutionalised ethno-national division of spoils (however necessary this may have been during a transition period in the years after 1998).

Several decades on, the performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly leaves much to be desired in terms of genuine reconciliation. Reforms at local government level have proved even more disappointing. The year 2015 saw the creation of eleven “Super” Councils in place of the previous patchwork of twenty-six smaller district council areas. Belfast is more or less evenly divided between nationalists and unionists, with the anti-sectarian Alliance Party holding the balance of power. The other ten map out what are essentially orange and green territories. Six of these areas are unionist-controlled and four are nationalist-controlled, and in virtually all cases overwhelmingly so. With enhanced powers, many of these are already embroiled in controversies about language, symbols and protesting ethnic identity, sometimes in the pettiest of ways. The signs are of spatially and socially segregated futures rather than mutual accommodation. If the demographic filtering evident over the last few decades persists, then the outcome will be something akin to a light form of cantonisation. In Belfast itself, the existence of more than eighty “peace walls” tells its own concrete story, which is that separation and segregation have been concomitants of the Troubles, and unlike the walls of Jericho, sound and rhetoric are unlikely to blow them down. Displays of flags, murals and kerb painting are other forms of territorial marking. Monuments to fallen republican or loyalist heroes, often only remarkable for their dull or ugly composition, have been built into the landscape. Boundaries are everywhere. We are a divided people, at home and at play, from maternity ward to school, from the neighbourhood to the graveyard.

The “Provisionals’ war”, which of course was not the Irish people’s war, has served to consolidate the divisions in the hearts and minds of people in the North, which is the basis of partition at local, regional and national levels. Had the Provisional IRA offensive succeeded, let it not be gainsaid, then partition, at least in a constitutional sense, would have ended. But the real partition would have continued.

In any case, the campaign of political violence failed absolutely in its primary objectives. Ulster unionists were not suppressed or driven out, these being the corollaries of an IRA victory, and so partition became more deeply entrenched, north and south of the border. Prior to partition the really determined anti-partitionists had been the unionists of southern Ireland. In this they shared certain interests with Northern nationalists in the parliamentary tradition, and each was sidelined during the “revolutionary decade” by strident feet and marching voices. Cutting through the haze of rhetoric and viewed in terms of the consequences of their actions, the IRA and Sinn Féin have functioned as pro-partitionist parties throughout the twentieth century. As ever, we are in the province of paradox and unintended consequences.

The mere historian or social scientist, as citizen, may be dismayed by much of this but, like it or not, we have been given an object lesson in the role of violence, popular emotion, communal aggression, state chicanery and state violence. Just as Islamist terror has forced us to re-evaluate the role of ideology in social change, so the Troubles have forced many of us to think afresh about strands of Irish history that had become time-worn, even threadbare. The Troubles confronted us, in our own time, with human experience that bore at least a distorted relationship to earlier violent instances of the destruction and devaluation of life, of resistance, resilience and the continuities of ordinary life. The economist Graham Gudgin has summed up the significance of the Troubles eloquently: Northern Ireland is a world-class problem in miniature. Willing witnesses or not, we have been obliged to gaze on national, ethnic and communal conflicts, forced population movements, elements of racism, peace processes and international interventions, all unfolding within our own small societal space. We have surely learned something along the way, both as academics and historians, to say no more than that.

There is no such thing as scientific history because there is no denying the dilemma posed earlier. Historians and social scientists are part of the social world they are analysing. There is no ready escape, no easy way of transcending this duality. But a heightened self-consciousness and a recourse to reflexivity, where appropriate, helps. So also does the tradition of archive-based research, source criticism, the application of theory and quantitative methods, and a variety of approaches and conventions that have accumulated, and to some extent have been tested over the generations. Of fundamental importance, the competitive environment that envelops the making of history sets limits to the wilder assertions of the ideologues and those who demand “the right kind of history”. So, progress is possible by virtue of the existence of a discipline of history and the activity of independent historians producing distinctive narratives within a societal framework that values freedom of expression.

A lifetime’s experience – long or short – shapes the individual historian’s writing of history. As we have noticed, historians are influenced by the concerns of the age they inhabit, by the historiographical inheritance of their generation, by new techniques and approaches, and by their own social and cultural affiliations. We might also take into account gender, family and home background, with all the attendant joys, emotions and neuroses. Partners, peer groups, and academic gangs are almost certainly important. Location within a particular academy may matter, though I suspect this effect has been overblown in relation to Irish history writing. At a deeper, more personal level, there is personality structure. We are each located somewhere along an optimism-pessimism spectrum; some are more open to changing evidence and fresh interpretations than others; some are more neurotic than others, and some are frankly more intelligent than others. The net effects are different interests, different value judgements, different interpretations, and different qualities of history-writing. The mix, in turn, may well vary over the life cycle of the historian.

This essay has now wandered more widely than its original intent. Turning back on to the narrow road, is it the case that writing Irish history – to which one might add Irish studies more generally – is inevitably compromised because many of the practitioners were subjected to the sights, sometimes the sounds of armed conflict involving nationalists and unionists, the British state, the Irish state, the Irish diaspora and its sympathisers? Is it possible to write from within this tumult with any degree of detachment or critical attention? If not, then the older generation of students of Irish studies should simply shut up shop and await the insights of a younger, more innocent cohort of scholars.

This will hardly do, if only out of self-interest. There are positive arguments for experiential knowledge in making the imaginative leap in dealing with the past. Of course there are snares along the way, and some, perhaps all of us, will be tripped at some point or other. So for practitioners of Irish studies, the argument is that the effect of the Troubles was to complicate, indeed trouble our response to political violence in earlier time periods. The long dead women and men, and the children, of earlier generations, be they associated with the RIC, the IRA, the British army, or simply ordinary people going about their daily lives, for this writer at least, have come to assume a more palpable humanity. My conclusion is that, on balance, the sensitising experiences of abnormal contemporary times and an appreciation of the complexities of ethno-national conflict helped illuminate episodes of the past characterised by intense conflict. Thus the Irish Civil War or sectarian pogroms in Belfast in the early twentieth century (but not the demographic implosion of the Great Famine or the vicissitudes of the Irish economy) come to us off the printed page or the manuscript in more immediately meaningful form. Contemporary comparative history has a similar halo effect. Few can have observed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or viewed the communal rage animating Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims during that conflict, without experiencing some frissons of familiarity, even fellow-feeling.

Like it or not, resent it or not, the Troubles expanded greatly the audiences for Irish studies and its bands of practitioners. This surge in investment in Irish studies increased our knowledge of the past and also ensured that there were many more critical eyes poring over the latest publications, exhibitions, monuments, radio and television productions. As the economic historians have long taught, scale, specialisation and synergies matter. One small but vital sign of the intellectual and emotional progress being made was the contrast evident between commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 – for some the foundational moment in the creation of an independent Irish state – and the centenary commemoration of 2016.

The ideal of a history that is critical in terms of sources, arguments and judgements, that is analytical and authoritative, that is truth-seeking, rigorous in method and yet empathetic is one worth fighting for. This also involves introspection and self-reflection. But we shouldn’t forget that for others there are other prizes. In virtually all societies, across the millennia, the past has been used “in the service of religion or national destiny, or morality, or the sanctity of institutions”. Ireland was no different. All of these exploitative motives and uses were present. They haven’t gone away and naturally enough some still hanker after the old-time orthodoxies. But the hold of a past subordinated to establishment interests and ideological zealots has weakened, not least due to the labours of recent generations of historians of Ireland.


Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of history at Queen’s University, Belfast. His most recent work is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin, 2016)

This work forms the basis of an essay to be published his forthcoming book, Who Was Responsible for the Troubles in Northern Ireland? (2018).



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