A New History of Ireland VII, Ireland 1921–1984

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

A New History of Ireland VII, Ireland 1921–1984
J.R. HILL (ed.)
(Oxford University Press, £125)
ISBN 0198217528


70_small_1247579093In 1962 the New History of Ireland (NHI) was first conceived. Seán Lemass was taoiseach, and Harold Macmillan occupied 10 Downing Street. Like Pandit Nehru, Chairman Mao and T.W. Moody, they are gone now: only Fidel Castro, living relic from a bygone age, survives. In 1976 the first volume (actually volume iii), Early modern Ireland, appeared. Two pints of Guinness could be had for a punt and the punt exchange rate was fixed by sterling. However, in that age of inflation one otherwise enthusiastic reviewer regretted that at £17 ‘few private individuals’ could afford volume iii. Another reviewer quipped of volume v (1989) that, at £75, purchase ‘may require the taking out of a second mortgage’. The latest volume, vii, Ireland 1921–1984, costs £125 (€181 at time of writing). A New History of Ireland, then, may be viewed as in itself a historical artefact.

The New History project has been approached from that standpoint before, notably by Tom Bartlett, who, nearly twenty years ago in the journal Past and Present, recounted the project’s origins and critiqued its aspirations, purposes, methods and format. Sponsored by the Royal Irish Academy and published by the Clarendon (Oxford University) Press, the NHI sprang from the initiative of Theodore Moody, professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin. Lord Acton’s multi-volume Cambridge Modern History provided the model, and Moody’s professional and pedagogical ethos was happily attuned to Actonian values of non-partisanship, ‘objectivity’ and scholarly rigour. In tone, design and intention the NHI aimed for authority, comprehensiveness and balance: a ‘harvesting’, according to the introduction to volume iii, of the best, most up-to-date research, research set in train by the so-called ‘historiographical revolution’ of the late 1930s, institutionalised in the journal Irish Historical Studies, and pioneered by Moody himself, R.D. Edwards, D.B. Quinn and others. In that vein David Hayton and Gerard O’Brien hailed NHI as a sort of ‘monument’ to ‘the pioneers’. And, to be sure, the role of Moody (duly acknowledged in the preface to vol. vii), and of Moody students and Moody seminarians, as both contributors and editors, lends credence to Bartlett’s suggestion that while the NHI is on the one hand history-by-committee on a grand scale, it is on the other, and has always been, ‘Moody’s History’.

Inevitably, perhaps, the critical reception of so vast an enterprise, the work of so many hands, has been as uneven as the quality (or at least utility) of the contributions. Early modern Ireland, for example, was generally, and in my view deservedly, welcomed. Volume iv, Eighteenth-century Ireland, by contrast was lambasted for being outdated, ‘stale’, ‘tired’, ‘megalithic’ and ‘shipwrecked’, saved from the knacker’s yard only by Louis Cullen’s chapters on the economy, Brian O’Cuiv on the Irish language and David Dickson’s exemplary bibliography. So common were negative notices that L.A. Clarkson called the hunting down of the NHI a new blood sport. Mercifully, none of the subsequent volumes suffered a similar fate. It might even be argued that vol. v, Ireland under the Union, 1801–70, rescued the intellectual viability of a faltering venture. The chapters by Seán Connolly and David Fitzpatrick especially, on the early nineteenth century and on emigration, are models of synthesis, lucidity and comment. Yet for all its—again uneven—success, doubts persisted, about the value of committee-history per se, about what was left out, and, in the wider context of the writing of Irish history, about the allocation of scarce resources. How, then, is volume vii to be judged?

First, it maintains the immaculate editorial standards, the near-flawless scholarly apparatus—index, bibliography, footnotes—and the highest-quality production values—print, paper, plates, maps and presentation—characteristic of the NHI from the start. But volume vii is in other ways unique. After the imposition of partition, Ireland, at the level of de facto jurisdiction, election cycles and so on, generated two histories, and that fact is reflected here. Of the fourteen chapters of political narrative, four deal with Northern Ireland exclusively, while five, written by the late J.H. Whyte and covering the period 1945–72, combine treatment of both states. Then there is the problem of sources and perspectives. The closer the historian gets to the present, the thinner the line dividing politics and history, and the keener the risk he or she runs of collapsing into political journalism. The inescapable tension between ideological bias and the demands of intellectual detachment, which intensifies as historians enter the sphere of personal memory, is restrained but not suppressed by the protocols of the NHI.
NHI contributors write to a brief, and for the most part conform to a neutral, faux balanced, house style. Insofar as this volume has an underlying argument, master-theme or overarching framework, it is state-building. Thus Michael Hopkinson manages to convey the sheer messiness of the Civil War without losing sight of the gradual assertion of Free State authority. Thus, too, Dermot Keogh in the introduction and Eunan O’Halpin on the 1920s both seem anxious to praise the achievement—effective administration, political stability—of the otherwise not very sexy W.T. Cosgrave. Brian Girvin traces the ‘republicanisation’ of Irish society during the first era of Fianna Fáil ascendancy, 1932–48, but does not define ‘republicanism’, by which he appears to mean 26-county sovereignty.

The concept of republicanisation is implicated in another recurrent theme of this book, relations between church and state. Separation of church and state is central to most understandings of modern republicanism. That is what Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald had in mind in 1982 when he announced his crusade to create a ‘genuine republic’. Article 44 of the 1937 constitution (later amended by referendum in 1972) recognised ‘the special position’ of the Catholic Church. John Whyte, author of a classic study of church and state, rejects the charge that 1950s Ireland was a sort of theocracy and is careful to place the word clericalism in quotation marks. However, his point is not that the church did not possess power and influence but rather that it never went unchecked. Still, the flavour of that period is evoked vividly by a 1953 photograph, reproduced here, of the presidents of the republic and of UCD, the taoiseach, an editor of Irish Historical Studies, the archbishop of Dublin and the papal nuncio gathered to commemorate the tercentenary of the death of another nuncio. Girvin’s chapter might just as easily have been entitled ‘The limits of republicanisation’.

Whyte refers to the battering of national morale during the emigration-plagued fifties, and it must have been with a sense of relief that he turned to the more expansive, optimistic Lemass years. De Valera used to joke that his minister for finance, Seán MacEntee, was leader of the opposition in cabinet. But Dev, MacEntee and the intellectually sterile Department of Finance all shared in a poverty of economic vision. Briskly overriding both civil service policy orthodoxies and Fianna Fáil’s protectionist credo, Lemass—memorably depicted by the journalist John Healy as ‘an old man in a hurry’—set the country back to work. He also broke free from decades of his party’s essentially empty (and wholly ineffectual) anti-partition rhetoric, travelling to Belfast to meet the reform-minded Unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill.

All of the political narrative chapters are written with clarity and display command and control of wide arrays of sources, but Whyte is more successful than most in filtering out or restraining personal bias. Certainly the more nearly contemporary the history, the more difficult it is to sustain detachment. Dermot Keogh sees the politically vacuous Jack Lynch as an under-appreciated strong (Cork)man defending the state from subversives. Where some might discern a flawed pedigree in the Cosgrave–Cruise O’Brien–Cooney government’s record on civil liberties, he sees ‘resolve’ and ‘determination’. Joe Lee’s view that the broadcasting ban curbed IRA ‘opportunities for propaganda, while nevertheless providing some safeguards for serious comment’ is cited, whereas his observation that at the 1977 Fine Gael Árd Fheis Cosgrave ‘seemed to take deliberate pleasure in repression for its own sake’ is not. When Keogh gets to the election of Charles Haughey as taoiseach he quotes from the scathing attacks of four of his Dáil critics. If any of the majority of TDs who voted for Haughey voiced different opinions the reader must do his own research to find out. Perhaps Moody and Edwards had a point after all when at the beginning of Irish Historical Studies they tried to reinforce the boundary between politics and history by barring contributions on subjects post-dating 1900.

Turning north, like Hopkinson’s parallel account of the Civil War, Brian Barton skilfully restores the sense of contingency that shaped the early politics of Northern Ireland. It now takes an act of historical imagination to grasp just how copiously the approaching boundary commission fuelled nationalist hopes and unionist fears before 1925. Barton is also very good on the divisions within northern nationalism—between accommodationists and abstentionists, Belfast and the borderlands, ‘Sinn Fein priests’ and Devlinites. But his brief is even less enviable than Professor Keogh’s. Barton rises gamely to the task of presenting the six-county state warts and all: perpetual emergency laws, B Specials, gerrymandering and sectarian discrimination in jobs and housing. However, in the manner of the judicial inquiry, he is at pains to present ‘both’ sides in clinical, non-emotive prose. And as in the case of too many judicial inquiries the results prove predictable enough. The 1936 report of the British National Council for Civil Liberties, which excoriated the Stormont regime and the Special Powers Act, ‘lacked objectivity’, he writes. ‘It overstated the faults of Northern Ireland ministers and underestimated their difficulties, in a calculated attempt to discredit them and hasten Irish unity.’ (Numbered among the republican moles involved in this attempt was Margery Fry, formerly principal of Somerville College, Oxford.) Noting that only 5.8 per cent of civil servants in 1943 were Catholic, Barton nonetheless claims that ‘selection procedures in the province followed British practice. They were strictly based on merit.’ Indeed.

In addition to political history there are chapters on the economy, literature in Irish, literature in English, the visual arts, music north and south, the mass media, education, emigration and—a welcome innovation for NHI—women. Given such an admirable range of topics, it may seem a tad perverse to complain about omissions. Surely this book is big enough? And yet one would have liked more social and cultural history. Sports are curiously neglected. Keogh provides useful statistics on church-going and illegitimacy rates in the 1960s and 1970s; arguably, however—historians, hold your noses!—deeper insight into the texture and experience of changing social mores in post-de Valera Ireland may be gleaned from Patrick McCabe’s novel The Dead School. It might have been interesting, too, from the vantage point of the smoke-free state to revisit the world of Henrich Boll’s 1957 Irish Journal, which opens with a constellation of bright red dots as the huddled masses on the night-boat from Holyhead more or less collectively light up. Boll forecast revolution if cigarettes were ever banned.

Over a quarter of a century ago Karl Bottigheimer saw      vol. iii of NHI as launching ‘one of the major collective accomplishments of European historical scholarship in the second half of this century’. Of course the century has since moved on. But the impressive achievement of the NHI has been too uneven, too long-drawn-out, to vindicate Bottigheimer’s prediction. Nor has vol. vii laid to rest earlier doubts and caveats about the project. The editors insist that they are implementing Moody’s vision of carrying history ‘to the educated public as a whole’. They must imagine that educated people have very deep pockets—or at least ready access to good research libraries. In the end one suspects that the principal (and not unreasonable) rationale for completing the series is more basic: to paraphrase Magnus Magnusson, ‘We’ve started, so we’ll finish’.
Jim Smyth


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