Gray’s Elegy

Published in Features, Features, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Volume 7

PC    Your father taught history at Queen’s. Did this influence your own enthusiasm for history?

JG    The endless discussions at home about modern history and politics were much more influential. I discovered that my father was in a state of almost permanent opposition to the condition of the world, although little was said of Ireland in our very English family. I did make a gallant stand against history and did politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. I imagined an escape from the North, and a career in journalism or Liberal politics to the disgust of my more theoretically rigorous and once Communist father.

PC    What further factors were influential in your subsequent development as a historian.

JG    One of the few bright points of Campbell College where I went to school was the history teaching of Peter Watkinson. He incited me to read Alan Bullock’s Hitler: a study in tyranny. At the time a group of us were in the habit of visiting Paisley’s Ulster Hall rallies to put Italian lira in the collection plate. It was the first time that I had a sense of history being made, and of possible analogies with previous history. Perhaps inspired by family visits to Kerry in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, and wept. My father clearly felt emoting was not good enough and gave me his New Left Book Club edition of Plekhanov on dialectical materialism. Although I now call myself a socialist, I think I was always too much of a liberal to make a good ideologue.

PC    Did your period as a student at Oxford have any long term impact on you.

JG    No, I wasted it. I was defeated by the ‘dismal science’ of economics and died in the desert of the semantic school of Oxford philosophy. I was President of the Oxford University Liberal Club. However hard I tried, I could not speak well in public. The moment I returned to Northern Ireland and found myself propped on the back of a lorry in the midst of a Fermanagh winter as a civil rights campaigner, I found my voice, and my identity.

PC    Your book on Larkin and Belfast, City in Revolt, is regarded by many as a seminal work of Irish Labour history. It had a long gestation period. What did you wish to achieve in this? Do you believe that you accomplished what you set out to do?

JG    It was an afternoon’s work that took nearly fifteen years, a case of propaganda giving way to the demands of history. As a Peoples’ Democracy activist in 1971, I was a singularly unsuccessful evangelist for Protestant and Catholic working class unity. Like all evangelists sowing seed on barren ground, I began to seek out suitable moral tales. Larkin had apparently united Protestant and Catholic workers in Belfast. The published accounts were curiously insubstantial; it was as though Larkin had performed an act of magic which then, equally mysteriously, dissipated. I decided to look at the old newspapers. I was immediately staggered by the scale of the events involved, covered day after day in those densely packed Edwardian columns. It was not quite the convenient history that I had been looking for. Larkin was too pragmatic for that. It was not a story that set the righteous political line against that of the back-sliders. Rather it was one of huge popular momentum in which all leaders were confounded by the pace of events.
As I lost faith in millennial politics, 1907 assumed greater importance for me. I had a sense that here was a rare episode in which the texture and dynamic of working-class experience had made its mark on the surviving record. I was painfully aware of how previous history of this kind had been a blank for would-be radicals. Worse still the ordinary people of the city had no history that they could call their own. I determined to fill the gap as comprehensively as possible.
To do so required wider research on the whole social, economic, and industrial development of Belfast, and the emergence of its Labour Movement. Only when that was done did one begin to understand the answer to a major conundrum—why did Larkin’s militancy, which had had only modest impact in English and Scottish ports, set light to Belfast. The answer lay in the very Irish conditions of unskilled workers whether Protestant or Catholic in an otherwise superficially British city. Certainly also while Larkin and other Labour leaders engaged in their struggle in the context of British perspectives, both the Liberal government and the British Labour Party ultimately viewed labour disturbances in Belfast as Irish disturbances requiring a law and order agenda. They thus unwittingly helped clear the way for the Unionist counter- revolution of 1912 onwards. Although the book grew far beyond simple narrative, I was determined to bridge the gap between popular accessibility and academic authority. There is nothing more absurd than people’s history in language the people cannot understand.

PC    You have also operated as editor, essayist, and even dramatist—your Billy Bluff was one of the features of the ‘98 commemorations. Which of these activities has given you the most satisfaction?

JG    I think I get most pleasure out of attempts to dramatise history. In the early eighties I did a number of semi-dramatised documentaries for Radio Ulster on historical themes, but, alas, nowadays documentaries are all talking heads. Certainly last year I got huge pleasure out of dramatising the Revd. James Porter’s Billy Bluff, but had a sense of stealing a dead man’s clothes; the biting wit was his, not mine. But I doubt that I am a dramatist and can escape the fetters of facts. For persistence at least, I hope that the Linen Hall Review, which I launched in 1984 to provide ‘a northern view of the world of Irish books’ had some impact, although it fell into abeyance in 1995. In the end the sheer strain of endless production was preventing me from doing other things. For those with heavy work commitments the essay form provides maximum punch for feasible endeavour. One can move through lecture giving with scanty notes, terror of the experience leading to fresh insights, and then to full text with a couple of all-night stands. By way of example I feel that I found a new approach to a well known figure in my ‘Mary Anne McCracken: Belfast revolutionary and pioneer of feminism’  in Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong’s, The Women of 1798.

PC    Have you aspirations or plans to write another full-length book or books? If so what would be the subject?

JG    I would like to draw together some of the ideas and insights that have come to me while on the road during the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion—a book of essays, I think. Others possibilities are certainly eclectic. I have a particular fascination with the rise and fall of the Achill Island missionary colony, the most famous or notorious endeavour of the nineteenth-century Second Reformation. I would like to do a book on Belfast’s Cave Hill which looms above my North Belfast home. It is my happy hunting ground, and I would take as a model, Tim Robinson’s marvellous Stones of Aran, though doubting my ability to so seamlessly explore both the terrain and the people associated with it. I would also like to breathe new life into a stalled history of popular entertainment in nineteenth-century Belfast.

PC    What do you see as the essential functions of history and historians?

JG    Enlightenment and empowerment. That becomes more evident when you consider that history is the first victim in dictatorships. Because perceptions of the past constantly and inevitably impinge on contemporary debate, we depend on historians to provide us with a richness and variety of grounding. Historians should not be too complacent about their ability to do it. Certainly looking at the historiography of 1798 one is struck by how far each generation of historians swung with the prevailing myth of their moment and then attached a little history to it. Then again most historians have led sheltered lives, few have gained the insights offered by actual experience of popular engagement, and inevitably most of the historical record they work with was created by the elite. Yet history without any realised sense of the experience of the underclass, or, say, of women, is only half a history. And if you have only half a history perhaps you have at least half an explanation as to why poverty and women have such a low priority in contemporary Ireland. I wouldn’t suggest supernatural predictive powers for historians. In my part of the world we know enough of the tyranny of biblical prediction to too readily adopt other formulaic certainties. What we can usefully do is to point to other possibilities in the face of any prevailing consensus. We will serve best if we engage in an endless process of exploration, of critical assessment of what has gone before, of self-criticism to the point where it is just still possible to write—to move our understanding of the human condition forward. In doing so we engage in the one inevitable feature of the process; that revisionism will always be followed by post-revisionism.

PC    You have been Librarian of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast for seventeen years. What considerations led you into the field of librarianship?

JG    Why indeed? It is not a glamorous profession. Library time scales are enormously long. Great librarians, and disastrous ones, are usually only discovered after they are dead. Mothers find safe jobs for nervous children in libraries. Then there are the failed teachers. I am a failed teacher in a sense. I was disbarred from a teacher training course at Stranmillis College because of a court case, a hangover from my political activities. As ‘moral custodians of the teaching profession’ they couldn’t let me in or ‘guarantee my safety’. Clearly Belfast Public Libraries was a less moral institution, and I safely started my career there. I  have no doubts now about the vital role of librarians. Every time I go into a great library I am struck by its limitless potential, because it is impossible to control the intellectual uses made of it. Thus Karl Marx used the British Museum Library, a great imperial library, to write Das Kapital. True, Fascists have equal opportunities, but I comfort myself with the thought that progressives, almost by definition, make better use of the fruits of the Enlightenment. Librarians do good by stealth.

PC    The Linen Hall Library is a unique institution in Ireland, certainly in the North. What strengths and weaknesses does it have in relation to other libraries which receive direct public funding?

JG    It is a unique institution, the last surviving independent subscribing library in Ireland, although it encourages free public reference use. We could not survive without generous grant aid, but the Library has maintained its constitutional independence, an advantage, when many fully publicly funded institutions have been suspected, and often unfairly, of censorship. I would prefer to put it the other way round; for whatever reason the Linen Hall has taken initiatives that others did not think of, or did not choose to take. The obvious example was the creation of the Northern Ireland Political Collection in 1969 and now the definitive archive of ‘The Troubles’.

PC    What initial aspirations did you have for the Library; to what extent have they been fulfilled; and what changes would you still like to bring about.

JG    To secure the future of the Library. Remember that in 1981 the Linen Hall came within an ace of closure. First and foremost that depended on eloquent public advocacy of its strengths; its rich history and its wholly correct emphasis on Irish and local studies. It was absolutely necessary to open the Library up to the public at large and to begin to alter its slightly elitist image. After all we held our collections ‘in trust for the people of Belfast and neighbourhood’. By 1984 we had secured renewed government support and were able to make our building safe for public use—yes, things were once that bad. When I started in 1982 nobody conceived of actually expanding the Library. The need to do so was first perceived in 1985 and now, this year, we are due to embark on a £3,000,000 extension project which by summer 2000 should provide an extra 50 per cent in space. My first ambition for the future is to have a serious party to celebrate that moment! Full electronic access is on the way. I believe that the continued development of expert specialisms, as with the Northern Ireland Political Collection, but specialisms which have direct links with the community, ensures comprehensive collection while maximising public service. Expanded premises will enable us to extend the cultural programming of the Library, and to engage in more extensive education and outreach work. Sam Hanna Bell once described the Library to me as, ‘a breathing hole in the ice-cap that is closing over us’. Our aim should always be to widen that breathing hole.

PC    With much talk of late about cross-border co-operation, how do you view future links for the Linen Hall, and similar northern institutions, with those in the Republic, such as the National Library of Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy, the Irish Manuscripts Commission or Marsh’s Library?

JG    Librarians have no ideological problems on this front. After all their annual conferences are organised on a joint north-south basis. In the field of Irish and local studies the arguments for closer co-operation are even stronger. At the Linen Hall we have seen our most natural partner in the National Library, the only other major library in Ireland which sees its prime role as being to record the history and civilisation of Ireland. In that respect I am proud to be a Trustee of the National Library to which I also owe a great deal as a user. Mind you a good deal still needs to be done to move beyond mere expressions of goodwill. North-south committees will have an excuse for perpetually recycling minutes unless both governments show a willingness to invest in practical measures.

PC    It is no secret that the Linen Hall, like other similar cultural/intellectual institutions, has been experiencing financial difficulties in the harsh modern economic climate. How do we ensure that it and other storehouses of our cultural heritage are allowed to stay afloat without being drawn directly into the maw of the state? Do you see the Assembly as being a more favourable prospect in this respect?

JG    A serious library wholly dependent on revenue earning is on the road to extinction. There must be another wing to its economy, whether that of private endowment or of governmental support. I think that the Linen Hall has got the balance between revenue raising and grant aid about right. Of course major national institutions have no choice in the matter. The best protection then against direct government interference, or, more often, bureaucratic mismanagement, is self-governing status. I supported the new National Library of Ireland Act, and while the present government is investing generously in the Library, this is not a valid alternative to implementing the Act. We certainly face change with the arrival of the Assembly. I have confidence that political leaders across the spectrum know the worth of the Linen Hall. If I am wrong and we face a new era of punishments for presumed cultural misdemeanours, then the Assembly will sentence itself to an early demise on much bigger issues.

PC    As chairman of the United Irishmen Commemoration Society, you have been involved in the bicentenary commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion. What did you seek to achieve and to what extent were your aspirations realised?

JG    I was determined that the pioneers of democratic ideas in Ireland should be remembered. I wanted a commemoration which focused on the ideas of the United Irishmen, and the awkward questions which they still pose for Irish society whether north or south. If Samuel Neilson was to arrive today at Connolly Station in Dublin with the freed slave Equiano would they get through immigration control? I think that the year was marked by hugely constructive engagement, and particularly in the North. In diametrical contrast to 1898 major programmes to mark the bicentenary were organised by Unionist councils as well as Nationalist ones. There was a palpable sense of resonance from past to present and the ever present question of whether there are alternatives to the politics of sectarian division. In the North much of the vigour of discussion was fuelled by the original work of local historians, in marked contrast to the deplorable and self-declared redundancy of leading northern academics, who warned of the dangers of doing anything, and then surfaced in the public arena in tendentious style. They had, however, merely foolishly misread the whole climate of the commemoration. Certainly southern-based historians, people like Kevin Whelan, Tom Bartlett and Dáire Keogh, added academic weight to many a northern commemorative programme. In the South itself, I detected a different mood; that ‘98 is now safely in the past apart from some residual acts of reconciliation, and for the present is more likely to be a tourist development opportunity than an intellectual challenge. The new multi-cultural view of the United Irish enterprise, and in particular in Wexford, of course just happens to fit in with the way the Republic would now like to see itself. These broadly post-revisionist accounts are wholly convincing, but we should beware if they too obviously feed Celtic Tiger smugness.

Peter Collins is an independent historian.


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