THE BIG BOOK: The Princeton history of modern Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691154060

Reviewed by: James Smyth


One contributor to this volume, Matthew Kelly, identifies ‘the quasi-military character of the RIC’ as a manifestation ‘of British power in Ireland’, while another, Marc Mulholland, notes that, together with the British army garrison, that ‘semi-military and overtly political’ forcewas viewedby some, ‘understandably enough, as a potential Trojan horse, owing its allegiance to a foreign power’. These statements would appear to be both sensible and straightforward. In 1867, after all, the Irish Constabulary earned its ‘Royal’ prefix by suppressing Fenian rebellion. And yet from a 1976 textbook we learn that ‘Sinn Féin leaders encouraged republicans to regard the RIC, not as the friendly local figures they often were, but as the eyes and ears of the British presence in Ireland’, which judgement, surely, reveals a good deal more about the politics of the 1970s—when the ‘polemical tone and subtext’ of historical discourse ‘owed much to the toxic atmosphere of the Troubles’—than about those of the 1920s.

This superb collection of essays is presented explicitly as a state-of-the-art report on historical scholarship by the current, successor, generation of Irish historians. Indeed, in a bracing contribution on historiography one of the volume’s two editors, Richard Bourke, duly delivers the death certificate for revisionism, Irish-style. This may be somewhat premature, however, as some of the undead were seen and heard merrily stalking the studios of RTÉ during its recent 1916 centennial programming. Besides, we have been here before. The 1990s witnessed the end of ‘history’, and the 1950s the end of ideology. Both came back to bite their obituarists soon enough. Peter Laslett struck a more cautious—and, as it turned out, more prescient—note when in 1956 he pronounced political philosophy, ‘for the moment anyway, dead’. Bourke is closer in spirit to Laslett’s cool and informed assessment than to the triumphalism and intellectual hubris of the ‘end of ideology’ ideologues, who fondly imagined, having consigned all past theory and historiography to dust, that they themselves now stood upon the firm rock of empirical fact. On the contrary, Bourke readily acknowledges ‘the steady and systematic accumulation of new research’ and ‘fastidious scholarship’ (though noting also the dearth of ‘paradigmatic innovation’ and ‘admonitory approach’) of the preceding generation of historians, upon whose achievements this book’s 21 contributors seek to build.

In other words, no attempt is made to reinstate old-school nationalist history, refurbished with footnotes and credentialled with associate scholarly apparatus. In fact, any master narrative or ‘underlying purpose to which the history of Ireland can be made to conform’ istersely refused.Characteristically, in the opening of the first of the six narrative chapters Jane Ohlmeyer stresses ‘the haphazard, messy, and clumsy nature of the processes surrounding state formation’ in the early modern period. And over the longue durée‘statecraft competed with contingency’. Moreover, the signature scepticism of revisionist source criticism is here applied to its practitioners. Reliance on state archives, observes Bourke, can generate a ‘powerful fantasy’ of certainty, whereas in practice ‘classified documents present evidence, not facts’, and ‘the lure of previously unseen statements can lend a veneer of authority to mere assertions of belief’.

Declining any linear island storyand insisting upon transnational concurrences,this volume makes no claim to being comprehensive either. It is, nevertheless, wide-ranging, offering thematic chapters on, among other subjects, gender and feminism, the modern media, famine, empire, diaspora, culture and economy,although(curiously these days) none on social memory. There are chapters on intellectual and literary history, but none, for example, on art history. W.B.Yeats and the seventeenth-century historianGeoffrey Keating make it into the index;painters Jack B. Yeats and Seán Keating do not. Written throughout to high standards of clarity and exposition, the text is studded with sharp and arresting insight:

‘By European standards—and for large swaths of its modern history, by the standards of the United States—popular violence was a marginal phenomenon in Ireland.’

‘It is unlikely that Home Rule was ever emotionally satisfying to most Irish nationalists. Few ballads were written about the glory of devolved government under the crown.’

And, by way of Irish Parliamentary Party MP William O’Brien:

‘…violence is the only way of securing a hearing for moderation’.

Early twentieth-century political violence was ‘motivated to a great extent by the lack of overt British oppression’.

‘While anti-Catholicism is an established field of historical and sociological research, there has yet to be an academic study of ‘anti-Protestantism.’

‘Religious differences were a consequence of political polarization, rather than its cause.’

‘Catholic teaching did not determine marriage strategies but simply reflected them.’


Over 500 pages, by 21 hands, on a great variety of topics, do not lend themselves smoothly to synoptic review.Absent a narrative arc, can any master themes be discerned? Years ago J.H.Hexter divided historians into ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’, into those who discover patterns in the past and those who insist that the particularities of the past resist generalisation. The contributors in this book are for the most part splitters, but there remains a tension in these essays, taken together, between the historically contingent on the one handand the historically categorical on the other. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus,Irish historians can never quite fly by the nets of nationality, language and religion. Some, like Vincent Morley, who provides an intellectually rigorous chapter on the Irish language, do not try to do so.

It is instructive to read Ian McBride’s trenchant analyses of religious experience in Ireland,and specifically his account of the political evolutions of the Catholic Church and community in the light of Morley’s argument about the fusion of Catholic and national identities. McBride is unpersuaded by ‘the popular notion that Catholic piety is somehow rooted in Gaelic tradition’ and does not share in—although he recognises—‘the assumption there was an almost umbilical relationship between Irish nationality and the Catholic faith’. For him there is nothing natural or preordained about the emergence of a confessionallybased version of national identity. It was, rather, forged in the heat of political conflict and ethnic-sectarian division: as a response, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to conquest, and as an outcome of the Church’s survival strategies during the penal era and the subsequent struggle for emancipation. In the eighteenth century the Church developed and operated a shadow ‘state within the state’; in 1792 the Catholic Convention constituted the ‘first democratically elected body in Irish history’; and on into the 1820s, when priest and people were pitted successfully against the civil power.It is altogether a saga of epic revanche, which achieved a sort of apotheosis in Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s Ireland—which McBride situates correctly in an international Cold War anti-communist context. An‘extraordinary Marian piety … peaked at the height’ of this era, when in 1951 the first annual military parade marking the invocation of the Blessed Virgin as the patroness of the Irish army, navy and air corps took place, and the president, taoiseach, archbishop and defence forces, in solemn High Mass, ‘dedicated themselves to Mary, Our Lady, Queen of the Holy Rosary’. (Along with the succeeding ‘collapse of the authority, credibility and influence of the Catholic Church’, and the waning of Mass attendance and religious vocations beginning in the 1960s, Diarmaid Ferriter identifiesa‘decline of Marianism’.)McBride and Morley do not diverge over the impact of reformation-and-conquest on identityformation, and both agree that collective identities are ‘constructed’. But Morley’s view of those processes ismore elemental, more echt (more essentialist, as the unconvinced and the post-modernist would have it) than McBride’s, or, at a minimum, anterior to it. In his telling, the enduring concept of a Catholic-Irish nation, drawing on ‘pseudo-historical texts’ from the Gaelic learned tradition, is authored by clerical exiles in the early seventeenth century. The most accomplished—and influential—expression of that supposed fusion is Seathrún Céitinn’s Foras Feasa ar Ḗirinn (Geoffrey Keating, A foundation of knowledge about Ireland), circulated in manuscript in the 1630s and in print by the end of the decade.Keating, a Continentallytrained priest, came from Old English stock, but his total immersion in Irish-language civilisation suggests powerfully,pace Aiden Clarke’s classic, forensic, disaggregation (or splitting) of Catholic Ireland into distinct ethno-political formations, that the cultural merger of the two communities—one Gaelic and native, the other English ‘by blood’ or descent—was well underway in the lifetime of the author of Foras Feasa.At any rate by the 1690s, instructed in the annals, treatises and verse of the heroic period, pulverised by Cromwellian conquest, which recognised no distinctions among mere papists, and re-dispossessed after the great ‘shipwreck’ of Aughrim, ‘the voice of the populace had become audible’—and there could be no mistaking theCatholic-Irish tenor in which it spoke.

From Morley’s standpoint the improvised Catholic-nationalist compound of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thus represents a refashioning, in changed circumstances, of already-made materials.From another perspective such an interpretation is teleological. Perhaps both are ‘right’. As Matthew Kelly reflects, nationalism is modern and pre-modern, invented and innate, ‘imagined but not imaginary’. Imagined, it might be added, in one way by the priests and poets of the seventeenthcentury, and then, as Ultán Gillen shows, reimagined in yet another(eventually) more inclusive way by Protestants and patriots in the eighteenth. It was heartening during the 1916 centennial festivities to see ‘New Irish’ on the streets of Dublin sporting Easter lilies. And it is equally noteworthy that a slight majority of the essays collected between these covers are written by historians based in British universities. This volume does not attempt to resolve the perennial complications, contradictionsand convolutions of Irish history into some neat meta-configuration; it does, however, continue vigorously to reimagine Ireland’s past.

James Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.


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