The Colossus of Clonegal

Published in Features, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Volume 9

TG:    Tell us about your family background?

KW:    I come from the parish of Clonegal which straddles the counties of Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford; by a lucky accident, I was born on the Wexford side of the parish. My family has been there as far back as records go. A local townland Baile uí Fhaoiláin (Balisland) translates as Whelanstown. On my mother’s side, Thomas Bookey, the first loyalist killed in 1798, is an ancestor: another is Carton, a United Irish blacksmith from Scarawalsh Crossroads. More recently, all my mother’s family were coopers. My grandfather worked with Guinnesses and then set up as a cooper in Bunclody. It was from my mother’s side of the family that the interest in education came. Her uncle, Brother Aidan O’Reilly, actually taught history at Notre Dame in the 1920s and my Aunt Kitty was a famous storyteller. My father’s side of the family were agricultural labourers, poachers, faction fighters, emigrants, soldiers… According to the 1911 census my paternal grandfather was illiterate. My grand-uncle Myles Murphy was slaughtered in the trenches in 1915 and the only possession found on him was a cutting from the Enniscorthy Echo about Wexford winning the All-Ireland in football. In my immediate family the impact of free education can be seen with schematic clarity. I come from a family of eleven which splits right down the middle in terms of third-level education. None of the top end of the family went to college while all the bottom end did.

TG:    Do you think your background has influenced your approach to your work?

KW:    I have always been interested in the men and women of no property, those marginalised or side-lined within conventional history. I seek ways of exploring their side of Irish history. From the beginning, I had an instinctive feeling that the revisionist approach was a form of championing the overdog.

TG:    But how do you fill in the evidential gaps of subaltern history, of history from below?

KW:    One response is to expand the archive itself. For example, I use evidence from historical geography. The landscape itself is an archival record, a cumulative diary of the way generations lived, loved and died over the centuries. It can, sensitively read, record an entire population whereas the written archive is created by a very narrow range of people. A second response is to explore alternative ways of interrogating the past, not just the narrow technical approach of academic history. History is far too important to be left to historians. The most interesting recent work has come from scholars deploying more oblique angles on the past—Joop Leerrsen’s Remembrance and Imagination (date?) or Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999), for example. Fresh thinking rarely comes from the centre of a discipline.

TG:    Aren’t there dangers in using folk memory as a source? It can be a pretty elastic concept.

KW:    Obviously. It requires forensic care, and a more sophisticated philosophical understanding than a positivist obsession with the ‘facts’. The contemporary scholar has to be equipped with a broader hermeneutics than has been practised in conventional history.

TG:    You mentioned historical geography. Your original academic background was in geography. What has this brought to your study of history?

KW:    I never formally studied history as an undergraduate or even for the Leaving Certificate. When I went to UCD in the late ‘70s, I intended to study English (among my class mates were Fintan O’Toole, Eileen Battersby and Ben Barnes). I was disillusioned by the sterile way it was then taught. (It is only recently that I have re-engaged with it.) Geography was my second subject and gradually my interest in it deepened through the influence of Tom Jones-Hughes and Anngret Simms. Jones-Hughes was a remarkably charismatic figure in a quiet Welsh sort of way. He was interested in the ordinary lives of the Irish people as expressed in the landscape—politics, religion, hurling, language—the kind of material now encompassed by Cultural Studies. He was trained in Aberystwyth which was influenced by the French school of geography, which also had a profound influence on what later became the Annales school of history. Intellectually, I felt closer to that tradition than to an anglophone one. I was also influenced by Anngret Simms, who emphasised field trips. As well as being brilliant craic, these trips opened my eyes to the range of evidence embedded in the landscape. I didn’t drive then (I still don’t) so my friend Jack Burtchaell and I thumbed everywhere. I learned the landscape through the soles of my feet through visiting practically every parish in the country. Those experiences gave me a respect for the enormous diversity within Ireland. As I deepened my own knowledge of Irish history, I retained a curiosity about how the bigger issues played out in the local context. I always have a ground-truth touchstone against which to judge larger generalisations.

TG:    Having been diverted once into geography, how did you get rediverted into history?

KW:     After I completed a PhD in 1981, an NUI travelling studentship took me to Memorial University, Newfoundland, where I worked with John Mannion, the most gifted, indefatigable and ferocious researcher that I have ever met. Mannion gave me a grounding in serious commitment to archival research. When I came back to Ireland, I worked for seven years in the National Library where there are seven miles of shelving packed gloriously full of the record of Irish culture. My real education only began then. I covet my hours in the domed reading room of the National Library, my favourite place in Ireland.

TG:    How did you get interested in 1798?

KW:    As a child, I was aware of it as part of the fabric of my life. The Wexford hurler Nicky Rackard was the local vet and I can still vividly remember him driving a sliothar out over the roof of our house. It was as if Cuchulain had landed in our back yard. Nicky was born in the same house as Kelly ‘the boy from Killanne’. A later hurling hero, Tony Doran, was always ‘the man from Boolavogue’ in Michael O’Hehir’s turbo-charged commentaries. 1798, hurling and Wexford were inextricably linked for me—intensified by going to school in Clonegal where the playground fights and games were between Carlow scallion-eaters, Wicklow goat-suckers and Wexford yellow-bellies. And the ‘98 songs were the soundtrack of our lives. So there was never a time that I was not aware of 1798. My academic interest was stimulated by Louis Cullen’s and David Dickson’s eighteenth-century seminar in Trinity College, a seminal intellectual influence. Cullen encouraged fresh ways of looking at the 1790s and produced a new generation of scholarship which came to fruition in the 1990s.

TG:    How do you look at history?

KW:    I strive to engage in a dialogue between the theory and the material. The devil is always in the detail. My own work seeks to keep a proper tension, a contrapuntal balance, between these broad theories and Irish specificity. At the same time, I find it difficult to see how anyone interested in the past could not benefit from the work of scholars like Walter Benjamin, Edward Said, C.L.R. James and Fred Jameson who have developed profound critiques of how past and present intersect, of our forms of representation, and of our technical protocols for presenting that knowledge. But I am not impressed by the crude fashion in which theory is sometimes applied to the Irish situation. Take two concepts that Irish historians are familiar with—the ‘imagined community’ of Benedict Anderson or ‘the invention of tradition’ of Hobsbawm and Ranger. I have read so many articles which start by specifying these models, then apply them to some aspect of the Irish situation, then find that the Irish situation does not fit, before concluding that therefore there must be something underdeveloped, illegitimate, or anomalous  with Irish nationalism or whatever. The model is never interrogated by the documentary specificity of the Irish situation. That is not the deployment of Theory which interests me. Look, for example, at the theories of nationalism of Hobsbawm, Gellner, Anderson or Nairn. Analysis of the Irish situation convinces me that these are not theories of nationalism; rather they are theories of nation-states. In the Irish situation, you had the precocious development of an anti-colonial nationalism, a nationalism against the state. I am much more interested in work that seeks to reformulate these models in the light of the Irish experience. Irish scholarship will never be a mature scholarship until it is capable of generating its own models rather than just limply importing them.

TG:    Yet, given the extent to which you put yourself about on the public lecture circuit, many people would regard you as a populariser of Irish history rather than as a theoriser.

KW:    There is no contradiction between scholarly integrity and reaching as broad an audience as possible: ‘as simple as possible but no simpler’ is a good aphorism of Albert Einstein. Let me cite some examples. The Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape (1997) which I co-edited, was an enormous popular success. It self-consciously blends coffee table production values with rigorous research. None of the many Irish and international reviewers disparaged its scholarly standards. The same is true with the County History series with which I was involved. And one of the earliest meetings to discuss the founding of History Ireland took place at my house in Lombard Street West in 1992. I am unapologetic for seeking the broadest possible audience for my work. During the 1798 commemoration, I gave approximately 120 public lectures. I view that commitment as part of my democratic responsibility as an educator. I never wanted to limit myself to just being an academic. A long time ago, Seamus Heaney gave me a piece of sage advise: ‘Don’t let your job interfere with your work’.

TG:    How do you guard against being present-centred at the expense of the past?

KW:    I am not enthused by a history divorced from the present. Living in Ireland, one lives in multiple time, constantly engaged in a dialogue between past and present. We inhabit that space between memory and history. If we have learned anything from the disastrous twentieth century, it is surely that there is no such thing as ‘objective’ history, a version of the past free of the freight of the present. This argument about present-centredness is deployed politically. Take the unionist and nationalist traditions. One view of them is the ‘dreary steeples’ or ‘confessional realities’ perspective—the permanent irreconcilability of the differences between  two unchanging monoliths. Yet in the 1790s there was a moment of dynamism, when these two allegedly adamantine monoliths were in a state of flux. If it can be demonstrated that the historical problems which still vex us in Ireland today have  precise political origins, then surely the corollary is that they are capable of political resolution. If that is present-centred, so is the ‘dreary steeples’ version of the 1790s. The difference is that my perspective offers redemptive potential; the pessimistic revisionist view is sterile.

TG:    This brings us to the recent commemorations of both the Famine and 1798 in which you acted as advisor to the Department of An Taoiseach. How do you think those commemorations went?

KW:    I worked with two different political dispensations, the earlier Fine Gael-led coalition and the later Fianna Fáil one. Rather than dictate a political agenda, both were open to learning from the historical community. There was never any situation where there was a ‘politically correct’ response to these issues. I wanted to ensure that the commemorations were treated in an appropriate, respectful manner. To use E.P. Thompson’s well-worn phrase, the commemorations tried to ‘rescue the dead from the condescension of posterity’. We avoided an entirely ‘top-down’ presentation; we responded to local communities and local events. And there was a huge degree of interest throughout the country. With the Famine one, there was hardly a parish in the country which did not have some form of commemoration and these were often profoundly moving and dignified.

TG:    What do you think the long-term impact of the commemorations will be?

KW:    Until 1995 very little work had been done on the Famine for nearly two generations. Then in the 1990s there was an explosion of quality new work which profoundly shifted our understanding of it. The same thing happened with 1798 but to a lesser extent because much of the work had already been done under the influence of scholars like Louis Cullen, Marianne Elliott and Tom Bartlett. Looking back now, it is clear that the interpretative centre of gravity of both the Famine and 1798 has shifted, broadly speaking, in a post-revisionist direction. It has not reverted back to the old nationalist version of the history but it has moved on from the simplifications of the revisionist approach. We have a much more sophisticated and mature understanding of both periods. We can now see much more clearly how dreadful a decade the 1980s was when the  revisionist controversy was at its shrillest. When we moved into the 1990s there was a palpable sense of the bitter miasma of two decades lifting and clearing. I can date the change precisely. I remember looking around the Olympic stadium in Rome in 1990 on that balmy summer evening when we played Italy in the World Cup quarter final and realising that I was part of a seismic shift in the national mood. A more generous and engaging public space became available in the 1990s than there had been in the sombre days of the Hunger Strikes and the economic gloom of the 1980s. A bracing new intellectual air swept through the moth-eaten older versions of the Famine and 1798. The sour rigidities of the older interpretations were re-defined in ways which were more nuanced, open-ended and richer. Both commemorations contributed to a sense of decades of a frozen politics melting, that new possibilities were becoming available.

TG:    How do you respond to the criticism that the sectarian aspects of the Wexford rebellion in particular, which loomed large in previous accounts, have been down-played or even ignored.

KW:     Anybody who wants to ignore sectarianism as an issue in the 1790s is completely off base. The issue is how you interpret sectarianism. The eighteenth-century Irish state was sectarian; by definition, therefore, anybody who challenged it could be dismissed by contemporaries like Lord Chancellor FitzGibbon (and by some modern historians) as sectarian. What one should see is the complex interweave between the sectarian and the political. Take the issue of land ownership, the basis for politics in the eighteenth century. The political power of the eighteenth-century Anglican minority (less than 10 per cent of the population) rested on the dispossession of the predominantly Catholic landowners of the previous century. So obviously issues of land ownership and possession intersected with a sectarian dimension. But to reduce everything to a sectarian explanation, that once cited needs no further elaboration, is puerile. Sectarianism is one word, perhaps even the first word, relevant to the 1790s, but it is by  no means the last.

TG:    Is there not a sense that the debate about revisionism is now passé?

KW:    Absolutely. It is much more rewarding now to examine  the categories of the debate itself and to deconstruct the way in which rhetoric and representation functioned in the debate. Those who want to continue trundling along the old, tired grooves are stuck in a 1980s rut.

TG:    Where do you go from here?

KW:     I am always much more interested in the work that I am going to do rather than the work I have done. I want to spend more time in the archives. Hugh Fenning OP once described me as like an insatiable whale prowling through the  historical seas with its great maw endlessly open. I was not unflattered! I am just finishing pieces on the ‘Green Atlantic’ in the 1790s, and on memory and history in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. I am close to finishing my book about the cultural impact of the Famine, The Killing Snows. I want to write another one about pre-GAA hurling and continue my own pleasurable interests in Wexford hurling, Manchester United, the poetry of Blake, the landscape of the Burren, the music of Sharon Shannon… Scholarship presents an enduring paradox. At one level, it is a selfish, intensely solitary pursuit. On another level, it is gregarious and enriching. The great thing in the intellectual life is the friends and colleagues that one meets, old and new. I have the pleasure of working with the University of Notre Dame which is ranked in the top twenty out of over 3,000 universities in the USA. Notre Dame is enormously committed to scholarship and it has been a wonderful experience for me over the last three years to run the Keough-Notre Dame Irish Centre here at Newman House and to have inspiring  colleagues like Seamus Deane. So my learning environment continues to be revolve around this engagement with friends and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic. That is a life-enhancing aspect of the intellectual world that should be celebrated more.

Tommy Graham is joint editor of History Ireland.

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