Seamus Deane’s review of James Donnelly’s Captain Rock

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), Letters, Volume 19

83_small_1295791724Sir,—I was dismayed by Seamus Deane’s intemperate review of James Donnelly’s Captain Rock (HI 18.6, Nov./Dec. 2010), having long been an admirer of Deane’s writing. He did your readers no favours, ignoring much of the content of a book that offers the most comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of the Rockite movement to date. Deane, it appears, cannot countenance an unblinking account of Catholic sectarianism because he believes that state and Orange sectarianism was worse. Donnelly does not, as Deane implies, ignore the latter, far from it, but he also quite properly looks in detail at the evidence for the role of millenarianism, for example, in Rockite violence.

In a dismissive aside on my own work, Deane seems to imply that I have used fiction as ‘evidence or even support for a historical account’. I hope that I have done nothing so crude. In my introduction to The writer as witness (Cork, 1987)—in which Deane has a seminal article on ‘Irish national character’—I wrote, ‘Like other forms of historical evidence, literature has to be treated with caution and sensitivity, its particular language and conventions understood, its bias and motivation taken into account, its limitations accepted’. If that is done, literary texts may help the historian to understand better the mentalité (not the facts) of a particular time, and this I have tried to show in the case of both the early nineteenth-century novel and Gaelic poetry from Kinsale to the Famine. My concern is that such disparagement by so eminent and admired a literary scholar as Seamus Deane may discourage young historians from engaging with literary texts.—Yours etc.,



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