Interview with Dr Brendan Bradshaw (1:1)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 1

A Man with a Mission: Tommy  Graham finds out about the man and his message.

TG:    Could you tell us a little about your background?

BB:    I was born in Limerick City in 1937, in what local people call ‘the parish’, St. Mary’s, the old medieval part of the city. My father had a very small family business and I went to the local Christian Brothers school. I joined the Civil Service in 1955 but left five years later and decided to try a vocation with the Marist Fathers. I was ordained a priest in December 1969. Meanwhile the order had sent me to UCD to take a teaching degree. That led on to a Master’s degree in Irish history, and my supervisor, F.X. Martin, Professor of Medieval History, was anxious that I should take my studies further. My religious superior was not particularly enthusiastic but F.X. Martin managed to arrange for me to apply for a scholarship in Cambridge, so I went to Cambridge for a PhD after my ordination.

TG:    In a recent article you refer to your father as militantly nationalist. Could you elaborate?

BB:     My father used to say that his father was one of the last remnants of the Fenians. Certainly he was a member of the IRB. My own father was too young to be with the IRA in the Troubles but he did join the Irregulars, as they were called, after the Treaty. So he was anti-Treaty; went on the run; spent time in goal in Cork; went on hunger strike. He followed de Valera back into constitutional politics. In fact he represented Fianna Fail on Limerick City Council and was twice Mayor of Limerick. My mother also had very strong views, but her family supported the pro-Treaty, Michael Collins, side.

TG:    Is there any particular historical figure with whom you identify?

BB:    There are actually two, although the choice may seem rather contradictory. One is Daniel O’Connell. I admire him for his nationalist commitment, which I take to be absolutely genuine. I also admire the flamboyance of the man; his generosity of heart; his commitment to non-violence; the place that religion played in his life and his ability to show what could be done through the medium of constitutional politics, to realise justice and the aspirations of the Irish people. The second figure is Patrick Pearse. He represented a much more militant tradition. But again I admire his sincerity, integrity and total dedication to the cause of the people, despite his mannerisms, you might almost say neurosis. I admire his ability to move beyond a narrow nationalism, to respond to the ideas of Connolly.

TG:    Do you think Pearse has had a bad press, through deification on the one hand and demonisation on the other?

BB:    Absolutely, yes. I think a balanced view would have to recognise his unique contribution to the realisation of the national state that we now enjoy. It seems to me that this would not have happened were it not for the contribution of 1916. It was his ability to articulate a deeply felt aspiration of the Irish people at that point that mobilised the support that eventually brought the settlement that was achieved.

TG:    Moving on from history to historians, is there any particular historian you admire?

BB:    Again there are two and they represent a tradition of Irish historiography which was lost sight of subsequently. One was Eoin MacNeill, the great historian of early medieval Ireland; the other was Edmund Curtis, the great historian of medieval Ireland. Both of them tried to restore Irish historical experience in a way that was both sympathetic and highly scholarly. I think that is a tradition that was lost in the 1930s when, I believe, Irish historiography took a wrong turn.

TG:    Over the past four years you have delivered a critique of contemporary Irish historical scholarship. Could you  briefly outline your position?

BB:    I believe that Irish historiography took a wrong turn in the 1930s.  At that point, it assimilated a view of history as a science, with the historian akin to the natural scientist peering down his microscope at a range of data about the natural world, simply viewing it in a detached way. It was a perception of history that was very strongly established in England at this time and also in the United States of America. In Ireland it began with three young historians, all very able people at the time, Robin Dudley Edwards, T.W. Moody and David Quinn, being trained in the Institute of Historical Research in London. On their return to Ireland, they attempted to establish the practice of history here on the same basis. Part of this tradition was the notion of ‘revisionism’; that history up to that point had been going along a wrong track and that the whole record needed to be re-written in a detached, objective way. The result was the de-bunking not only of the history which had been written up to then, in its distortions, but the de-bunking of the reality behind it. And so you got this very austere scholarly approach to the Irish historical record, draining it of its emotional and moral content. This creates a very flat sort of history which you get, for example, in Dudley Edwards’ Church and State in Tudor Ireland and in the articles of David Quinn and T.W. Moody. It is concerned with the administrative nuts and bolts and with the records of institutions told in a very dry sort of way. That tradition increasingly came to dominate Irish history writing and Irish history teaching in the universities in the ‘40s and into the ‘50s. It was the tradition that I experienced when I went to UCD in the 1960s. You got this de-bunking of great heroic figures and the famine was played down, for example. In the late ‘60s, a number of things exacerbated the mood of revisionism, and its cynical approach to Irish history. First of all came the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1916 Rising. At that point, it hit the Irish intelligentsia how disillusioning the experience of political freedom had been. Added to the mood of disillusionment about what had been achieved was the more flourishing secular liberalism of the ‘60s which had the effect of melting the attachment to a sense of tradition. And then the final thing was the recrudescence of violence in the North. After the eulogistic and euphoric times of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a mood of shock set in as the IRA took up the cause of nationalism and you got these horrendous atrocities. Consequently there has been the feeling that the Irish had been fed a nationalist myth which has stoked the fires of militant nationalism and that the best antidote was an increasingly strident anti-nationalism. This feeling was expressed by a whole series of writers. You get it cautiously in  the deep pessimism of F.S.L. Lyons’ last book, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, and then represented much more stridently and unapologetically by a younger generation – Roy Foster, David Fitzpatrick, Ronan Fanning. They began to write in a very militant, aggressive, anti-traditionalist style.

TG:    Your critics accuse you of concocting a conspiracy theory, where you see a link between the political and academic spheres. How do you respond to that?

BB:    I do not think it is a conspiracy theory; in fact it is a consensus theory. The young Irish scholars who went to London in the 1930s assimilated a view of history that was then fashionable and took this to be orthodoxy as if there was no other possibility. One of the dangers of universities is that we think they are places making people think for themselves but, in fact, often what they do is simply feed students with the latest intellectual orthodoxy. That consensus was then fostered in Irish academe and that is where we are at present.  So there is not a conspiracy with some sort of mafia putting people in the right jobs or whatever, but rather an assumption that all right-minded people think in this way. It is a fact that most of the major courses in Irish universities at present are taught by people who are, if not militantly revisionist themselves, generally sympathetic to that point of view.

TG:    What sorts of insights have you yourself brought to bear on Irish history and how do these differ from the consensus you have identified?

BB:    My first important article, written soon after my arrival in Cambridge, was a piece on the 16th century Irish parliament in The Irish Parliamentary Tradition, edited by Brian Farrell. I had been really stifled in UCD by this revisionist mentality and  teaching. I felt somehow stultified by it but I did not have the intellectual equipment to criticise it. I did not actively resent it, but I felt it was not responding to what I felt to be the Irish experience. When I went to Cambridge, two things happened to me.  One was a broadening understanding that there were different perspectives, different traditions. That helped to sharpen my critical edge. The second was coming into close contact with the sources. That happened to me at an early stage after going to Cambridge and I began to see that the national consciousness that nationalist historians had spoken of, which we had been taught to reject as unhistorical and sheer prejudice, actually existed in the records. And the first place I gave expression to that perspective was in my treatment of the Irish parliament of the 16th century when I saw national consciousness operating among what came to be called the Old English community, an identification with Ireland against a new wave of colonists.
TG:    Do you think it ironic that you had to go to Cambridge to undergo this experience?

BB:    It is deeply ironic because I think the source of the revisionist consensus also lies in Cambridge. It is the Cambridge connection through which that consensus was built. Now I want very quickly to say that I do not believe that every Irish historian who went to Cambridge was or is a revisionist. There are some notable exceptions.  But by and large, they assimilated that revisionist mentality there. I developed my ideas in a more systematic way in a book called The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century where I saw the birth of the modern nationalist tradition, the product partly of the Old English community and its current of patriotism which it imbibed through education in the London Inns of Court, and partly through the Counter Reformation, from where the Gaelic tradition assimilated this modern patriotism. In an article on Manus O’Donnell, I tried to show that Donegal was not the backward area that the revisionist historian might assume it was and that a whole succession of English historians had assumed it was. Then I did some studies of the Counter Reformation, which I think is much more necessary to study in Irish history than the Reformation. In a recent piece called  ‘The Reformation in the Cities’ I looked at the Reformation and Counter Reformation in three western towns, Cork Limerick and Galway, and tried to show why the Reformation failed and why the Counter Reformation succeeded in Ireland.

TG:    What are the current debates in 16th and 17th century Irish history?

BB:    There is the issue of national consciousness as a political dynamic in the period which needs to be deeply debated. There is the question of the point at which the Gaelic Irish and Old English traditions began to fuse, exploring the significance, for example, of the Confederation of Kilkenny of 1642, by which time, I believe, this fusion is well under way. There is the debate about the mentality reflected in Irish Gaelic bardic poetry and the new poetry of the early 17th century between the revisionists and those who are more sympathetic to a national interpretation of it. There is also the question of whether, or when, the Reformation failed.

TG:    Does it worry you that you have become famous, or infamous, for your views on revisionism rather than for your own scholarship?

BB:    The answer to that one is yes and no. I am glad to be able to draw attention to the way in which Irish history has been dominated by a consensus which seems to me to be distorted. I am sad if this takes my energies away from doing the scholarly work which I know very badly needs to be done. I can only hope that in time both will somehow come together.

TG:    How do you account for the rancour that marks these debates?

BB:    Some of it is genuine concern that I may be supplying ammunition for the ugly face of nationalism. In other cases, it is simply that there is a very cosy little group who have the Irish historical scene sewn up between them and that they do not like to be challenged. They are good practitioners of history but they are not so good at handling conceptual problems. And this is a problem that is conceptual. So they find themselves being challenged in a way to which they are vulnerable, and to which they cannot easily respond and they are consequently resentful. They are good at getting on with writing their own particular bit of history but they are not good at thinking about the craft or about the profession. To suggest to them the possibility that they are actually working on a basis which needs to be adjusted is obviously uncomfortable. On the other side, there is a brand of militant nationalism which has for a long time greatly resented fuddy-duddy academics and that generates impatience on the other side.

TG:    You have referred to a credibility gap between academic history on the one hand and popular perception on the other.  Could you elaborate?

BB:    I am grateful to Roy Foster, one of the leading, and certainly the most distinguished, of the revisionist writers at present, for having pointed this out in an address to the Royal Historical Society in 1983. Despite the fact that Irish historiography had apparently de-mythologised itself, and had apparently rid itself of all these nationalist myths, yet, he said, on the evidence of social statistics, the tragic fact was that the Irish public had failed to follow. A well-known historian is good humoured enough to tell a story which illustrates the point. He relates how he went into a Dublin pub for a pint one evening and was approached by an irate member of the public – ‘You so-and-so historians are all the same. One million people died in the famine and you put it down to a case of mass-anorexia.’

TG:    Do you see a danger then of a certain anti-intellectualism?

BB:    Yes. I feel that my mission is to show that you can interpret Irish history another way, to attempt to capture the reality of that experience in all its grandeur and nobility, in all its tragedy and pain, as well as in all its shame. I want to show that you can do that in a fully scholarly way and that there is a rational conceptual framework which will justify that approach to history.

TG:    Do you think the debate has moved on?

BB:    The challenge has been made and has been perceived to have been made; not only by the public but by the scholars themselves. They understand that there is a case to answer. What disappoints me is that they have not been good at responding.  They have not been willing to stand up and be counted and to articulate a rationale for their own particular practice of history. They keep telling me that all historians are revisionists, which is true, but at the same time they are simply ignoring the point on which a number of us have insisted, that by revisionism we mean a particular approach to the practice of Irish history. The challenge to revisionism has given courage to a younger generation who also felt inhibited by this detached, sceptical, almost cynical approach to Irish history and are now gaining the courage and the voice to articulate what they feel the Irish historical experience actually was and to develop their own paradigm within which they can disagree with one another but also challenge this conventional consensus.

TG:    How do you respond to the view that revisionism, for all its faults, was a necessary process which Irish historical scholarship had to experience?

BB:    I do not think it was necessary. I can see that there was a profitable side to it. The myths, and there were myths, have been de-mythologised. We are always in the process of discovering new myths to de-mythologise. Certainly people like Moody and Edwards did Herculean work in making Irish history into a properly professional discipline. But I think that could have been achieved without revisionism.

TG:    Do not the sharp disagreements we have discussed in some way demonstrate the health of the profession?

BB:    In terms of the practice of history, it shows that the state of the art is healthy and vigorous. What is disquieting, however, is the lack of a response at the intellectual or theoretical level. It is disturbing that Irish historians have been practising their discipline without being aware of the assumptions that lay behind the particular practice that they had adopted. So I hope that a critique of Irish historiography as it is at present is developed in order to provide an intellectually viable alternative to the particular mould in which it is practised.

TG:    So in conclusion do you feel optimistic for the profession?

BB:    Yes. It seems to me that the Irish people are historically conscious and that that consciousness has not been lost. Everything that has happened has indicated that we still have a strong sense of a past and that we can see that the past is vital to the way we orientate ourselves toward the future. So I do not think we will become a rootless society. I think we are always going to want and to need historians. I find it very encouraging that talented young people are continuing to offer themselves to study history despite the technocratic challenge and the emphasis on career-orientated university qualifications.


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