A Public Voice of History

Published in Features, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), Volume 9

AB:    What early influences contributed to your interest in history?

JAM:    Growing up in a strongly nationalist household in the 1930s, my first introduction to history was history as nationalism. Quite separately, however, there was a particularly inspiring teacher at primary school named Paddy Desmond who made the history of the locality come alive, for example the story of Art Ó Laoire, which was very much centred in Macroom.

AB:    Was there a strong emphasis on the revolutionary period in West Cork?

JAM:    I was born in 1927 and that period was so recent that we didn’t regard it as history, it was politics. My earliest political memory was seeing the first copy of the Irish Press coming into our house. To this day I still remember a Blue Shirt march passing my house—dominated mainly by the large daughters of large farmers. And then there were the election meetings of the mid-’30s, with the torch-light processions, the tar barrels and the huge crowds in the square in Macroom. I remember being introduced to Éamon de Valera as a small boy, ushered into his presence, reverentially, by my uncle by marriage, Daniel Corkery (sometimes confused with his literary namesake), a hero of the revolution in his own area, a member of the first and second Dáils who took the anti-Treaty side. The nationalist historical influence was sometimes mediated through the songs which were the staple musical diet in our household, the nineteenth-century ballads of Thomas Davis and T.D. Sullivan, but also the kind of neo-Jacobite ballads which were revived and re-written during the Irish-Ireland revival of which my parents were very much a part.

AB:    How was your interest further fostered as a student at UCC?

JAM:    The fame of people like James Hogan and Daniel Corkery preceded my entry into UCC: I was looking forward to seeing these men and being their student. Corkery was something of a disappointment because it was his final year and he gave the impression of being old and tired. Hogan was the dominant influence then because I was in his general and honours classes up to degree level and became a graduate student of his. In an odd way his influence as a historian was secondary to his intellectual inspiration.

AB:    Given Hogan’s antipathy to Communism, to what extent were you and your contemporaries involved in the ideological debates of the early Cold War?

JAM:    We accepted Hogan’s general premises. European history was presented as an achievement of Christendom, until its seamless unity was disrupted by the Reformation. Hilaire Belloc’s works, despite their polemical nature, were regarded as a serious texts. We had no radical critique of that view or of its then contemporary expression, the Cold War, which was again a question of West versus East, or Christianity versus one form or another of atheism or of dissent. There was nothing in my background to point me in a rebellious direction, my nationalism was the received kind. I hadn’t yet read the minority voices in the Irish nationalist tradition such as James Connolly. The 1950s are seen as a decade of repression and narrow-mindedness but paradoxically, as a teacher in a diocesan seminary I developed my own pattern of independent thinking. So that when I came onto the staff of UCC as Hogan’s assistant lecturer in the early 1960s I had quite a strong framework of views of my own which were quite critical of the received wisdom of the Cold War.

AB:    Do you believe there was a form of cultural chauvinism fostered in Ireland after the Second World War?

JAM:    Yes. There was a certain self-satisfaction with the status quo on the part of the Catholic establishment and there was very little dissent from that. Gradually during the 1950s I began to dissent from it in some respects. There was a certain radical dimension in the nationalist tradition on which I built, so I began to question the social, economic complacency of that Ireland. I was resentful of the educational privilege of certain classes. I was resentful that some people, even those who were fortunate enough to gain entry into third level education were then able to proceed luxuriously to postgraduate studies while more people had to go and soldier in the ranks. I suppose all dissent is born out of a certain personal dissatisfaction but at the global level I was greatly influenced by journals like the New Statesman. So gradually I began to take a very independent line on the Cold War. An example of that cultural chauvinism was the assumption that Ireland was a Catholic Ireland, that its interests lay with the Catholic world and should be distrustful of any secular movements. There was a very strong undercurrent of Catholic opposition to the United Nations which was seen as representing secular interests; UNESCO was seen as a kind of a stalking horse for all kinds of secularist movements. When I joined the staff of UCC it was expressed in a division on campus about Ireland’s involvement in the Congo, that we shouldn’t be on the secular side, that we were ‘oppressing’ Catholic Katanga.

AB:    Which period of history do you find most interesting?

JAM:    Hogan had a great diversity of interests as a historian. I inherited and repeated that pattern; the breath of interest was a function of the necessarily broad range of lecturing one had to do. The drawback was that one never really got into sustained in-depth research. Of course when I began, the facilities were minimal in places like Cork in terms of availability of sources; the age of photocopying was only beginning. The result was excessive dependence on calendars, state papers and so on, apart from what was available in printed form—Archivium Hibernicum and Analetca Hibernica were most useful. My first research was in the Confederate period, on Lord Inchiquin who was infamous in Irish tradition as ‘Murrough of the Burnings’. Though of the great O’Brien family he was a committed persecutor of his own people according to tradition, aligning himself with the parliamentarians in the English Civil War and the most formidable and terrible opponent of the Catholic Confederate forces. Hogan subsequently suggested that I should look at another personality of the Jacobite period, Justin MacCarthy, Lord Mountcashel, a significant Jacobite and indeed the prototype Wild Goose, the pioneer of the Irish contingents in French service from 1690. What I liked about a biographical approach was that it was the lens through which you could view the lifetime, background and therefore the whole politics of the particular period.

AB:    What led you to research the social history of religion in the eighteenth century?

JAM:    As the only lay teacher in the Cork Diocesan Seminary in the 1950s I had a close insight into diocesan clergy, pre-Vatican II, where the local bishop was militantly unecumenical. I took that forward into work I did on the financial support of the Catholic clergy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that, in turn, opened up a whole new notion of the role of the priest in Irish society. What was most useful was the collection of Irish sayings and proverbs and indeed, poetry, concerning priests’ relations with the people.

AB:    How has the role of the historian in society changed since the 1960s?

JAM:    Historians react in different ways to the world around them. The public expect historians to pronounce on current politics. Some historians have no appetite or stomach for that and have no interest in it. Some are too committed to their work to venture outside the walls of academia. Others get very much involved, as I did. One area where historians have got more involved than they used to be is with the community. Historians now respond more readily and more responsibly to the requirements of communities to be informed about their past. Since the beginning of my career local history has become academically respectable. There was a time when the professional historian dealt with high matters of history and amateurs and antiquarians beavered away at the local aspect. It has been recognised by historians that all history is, in a sense, local history and that that particular lines of development cannot advance without an in-depth investigation of what happened locally. Local history has come in out of the antiquarian and amateur field entirely. That’s why I would regard my own associations with the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society as an important part of my own career in that I edited its journal from the early ‘60s to the early ‘80s. A lot of effort went into that editorial role but it was something I was very glad of and it contributed to connecting the academic world here in UCC to the local historians.

AB:    How important were contacts with professional historians overseas?

JAM:    One of the most absorbing experiences of my life was my contact with scholars in the United States from the mid-’70s. Since then I have had several stints as visiting professor in American universities as well as more frequent trips to conferences. I developed close contacts with people like Larry McCaffrey, the pre-eminent historian of the Irish in America; Emmet Larkin, whose monumental work on the history of the Irish Church has a particular interest for me; and Jim Donnelly, whose pioneering work on the land and the people of County Cork was a very good example of the professional historian applying his expertise to the local area. All of these Americans had a wholehearted, almost Germanic attention to detail and dedication which I find admirable. Many of them are pioneers in different areas of Irish historiography.

AB:    Do you see the American influence overshadowing the traditional Oxbridge influence in Irish history?

JAM:    It was marvellous that our historians here began to have contacts with Oxbridge. Nonetheless, the contribution of the Americans is much wider and it would be hard to envisage the world of historians of Ireland without the Americans. I could envisage it, however, without the Oxbridge dimension.

AB:    You have commented extensively on events in Northern Ireland. Do you see that as the duty of a historian?

JAM:    I do not expect that any historian would necessarily want to get involved. If you say it is the duty of a historian to get involved then you are, by implication, criticising those who don’t and I wouldn’t dream of doing that. Some historians have more of an appetite for this kind of thing. But it did seem to me that since the late ‘60s there were so many issues being raised there, not only of violence and Irish nationalism, but of Anglo-Irish relations, that the historian would have a particularly useful role to play by speaking out on these matters. In the end it became a matter of espousing, fairly passionately, a particular line so that the historian then has a problem of coming back into his classes the day after he has taken a particularly strong stand on a contemporary issue and to adjust himself to a historical cast of mind in dealing with a subject like nationalism. There are difficulties there in the role of the historian as activist.

AB:    What of the danger of politicising the profession?

JAM:    The question of revisionism kept looming large throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. It is now no longer relevant in the sense that it has stopped being an issue among historians. Indeed, it was never an all-dominating issue because the argument about revisionism concerned only the questions of Anglo-Irish relations, the Great Famine, repression and violence and so on, whereas much of the historical past had no relationship with these matters whatsoever. Much of the social history, for example the social history of religion, in which I myself was interested, was independent of the revisionist debate. Nevertheless, revisionism exercised the minds and the passions of many historians during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It has been suggested that there was somehow a conspiracy among certain historians to promote a revisionist view of history, in the interests of conciliating Ulster Unionists or Anglo-Irish relations. Part of the accusation was that certain revisionist historians were emasculating the whole flesh and blood of Irish history by sanitising it. I was acquainted with scores of historians in my professional life and I was never aware ever of anything like a ‘revisionist enterprise’. All historians are revisionist, in an obvious sense, but the idea that there was somehow a conspiracy to subvert the traditional view of history was something for which I never had any evidence whatsoever. I would say, on the other hand, that there is much more evidence for what you might regard as a nationalist enterprise in some of the writings in connection with the 1798 bi-centenary and with the 150th anniversary of the Famine. It seems to me that some of the writings by mainstream professional historians, were animated by a nationalist enterprise.
I was commonly regarded as a revisionist but in the end the word became meaningless. It became a term of abuse really—like ‘Fascist’—the great abusive catch cry of Republicans, of supporters of Sinn Féin and the IRA who claimed that academic institutions were being subverted by revisionism, though, ironically, the way in which they are now viewing their own past over the last forty years is strongly revisionist. But the term revisionism applied, certainly, to the way in which certain politicians and political intellectuals began to put a new emphasis on the constitutional as against the physical force movement. I could never, as a historian, accept some of the extremities of that kind of revisionism. The notion became current among political intellectuals and certain journalists that the 1916 Rising was an irrelevance and an unnecessary disaster because modest home rule would have led in time to total independence. I regard that particular line as purely speculative and never followed them down that particular revisionist track.

AB:    How did your knowledge of Irish history inform your career in Seanad Éireann?

JAM:    There is no doubt that many topics of the hour in Ireland have such a strong historical background that I enjoyed very much bringing my historian’s knowledge to bear on political debate, and shamelessly at times used that knowledge in order to force an argument. But that is part of the temptation a historian has in the public arena.

AB:    You recently presented a Thomas Davis lecture marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of 2RN. How has the historian’s relationship with the media changed?

JAM:    When RTÉ first approached historians to give Thomas Davis lectures they met with a certain resistance. But gradually the Thomas Davis lecture has developed as a very respectable format for historians and people are now honoured to be asked to be involved. So just as the academic historian had to come to terms and take on board local history as part of his legitimate expression, so too, the academic historian has had to come to terms with the world of the media. It is part of the historian’s consciousness of his responsibility to the community; it is a civilised activity; it is an educational activity; and therefore its benefits have to be obvious and available to a wider public. Popularising history, whether in the local history direction or through the media is now a very reputable activity for a historian.

AB:    You have continued to publish extensively and participate in various forums since your retirement.

JAM:    In theory, one should have lots of time to do all kinds of research and work. But the burden of the years makes its presence felt in various ways. There are scholars for whom I have an intense admiration who can keep going indefinitely, it appears. I have had a retirement which has been very fruitful, helped by reasonably good health, apart from a hiccup or two. At the moment I am writing a memoir reflecting on my involvement in politics, on my time as a senator. My column with the Sunday Independent is a very useful outlet. I think I always needed an audience of some kind so that I would never have prospered as a scholar in a research institute. From the very beginning my teaching and my research and my writing were inextricably intermingled.  And today, I still have to find some kind of public expression so that I am always glad to get involved in a summer school where I am asked to undertake something new.

Alan Burke is head tutor in the Department of History at University College Cork.


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