Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

December Books 1) Interpreting Irish History, edited by Ciaran Brady

This is a collection of essays, including many important manifesto pieces from the key historians themselves, T.W. Moody, Robin Dudley Edwards, F.S.L. Lyons, Roy Foster, Ronan Fanning, etc, on Irish historical revisionism, which is a rather loose and ill-defined shorthand for the notion that the Irish historians of the mid-twentieth century deliberately intended to undermine the received myths of Irish history, and then the debate that ignited in the late 1980s as to whether or not this project was evil and wrong.

I come at it with a natural bias towards the revisionists. To me, the anti-revisionists seemed to be arguing that Irish history is best written as part of a Nationalist agenda, and to wish to close off certain topics from discussion - such as the relations between the Pale and England, or the wider Gaelic allegiances between Ireland and Scotland, or the individual failings of iconic Nationalist figures. It also seems to me that better history is written with an open and enquiring attitude, that one reaches the Truth by considering the Facts, rather than considering the Facts in the light of one's own revealed Truth.

My introduction to this entire question was a public seminar given at UCD in 1987 or possibly early 1988, where the panellists (I cannot now remember who they were) gave a reasoned explication of the so-called revisionist approach, and were heckled from the audience by an American who said, at great and tedious length, that it was disappointing and insulting to the Irish Nationalist tradition among the diaspora if it was now to be undermined by West Brits at home. I cannot remember who he was either; I do remember that he was counter-heckled by another member of the audience, very elderly, barely coherent and very angry, who ended up shouting "How are your hæmorrhoids???" This was Professor Robin Dudley Edwards, who as it turned out had only a few months to live.

Another seminar which I missed was in Cambridge at about the same time, where Brendan Bradshaw gave his detailed and expert critique of Stephen Ellis's take on the Elizabethan era, here published as one of the anti-revisionist pieces. It is by far the best of them as well, which is reassuring as I have tremendously fond memories of Bradshaw as a person (and indeed I asked him to marry me; but he was busy on the day we had chosen); I disagree with him on the central question of the moral obligation of the historian to support the Irish Nationalist project, but he lands some very effective blows on the details of the Elizabethan era, on the wilful disregard of British/English state violence against the Irish people by 'revisionist' historians, and on the true legacy of Herbert Butterfield (a point where he is clearly right and editor Ciaran Brady, in his introduction, clearly wrong). The other pro-Nationalist and anti-revisionist pieces are either petulant or (Seamus Deane's "Wherever Green is Red") incomprehensible. Two of them take my own father to task simply for recording his strong impression that treating the Northern Ireland problem as an issue or relations between two communities, rather than as one of Irish nationalism fighting off British colonialism, had become the academic mainstream.

It has to be said that the anti-revisionists have one killer argument, which is that the revisionist historians, concentrating on documentary (and therefore largely administrative) history ended up producing work that was not very exciting. But it provided the foundations for much else besides, including the expansion of Irish historical research into economics, women's studies, and archaeology. In any case, the book essentially reflects a political argument which has now been resolved, by synthesis as much as anything. In the days when the Troubles were still going, it seemed important to some to assert the primacy of their own Truth, if necessary by shouting in a louder voice. This book was published in 1994, which was the year of the first IRA ceasefire, when the peace process started to open up other possibilities. It feels much more antiquated than a mere seventeen years ago.
Tags: bookblog 2011, world: ireland

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