Bringing it all back home

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Catholic Emancipation, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Volume 3

BS:    Could you explain the origins of your interest in history?

JM:    I would say that historians are born, not made. I did not become a historian for ideological or monetary reasons but rather because that was what I wanted to do. From an early age I was aware of a sense of the past in the family home. My father fought in World War I as a young man and had a deep interest in the history of Europe. He had left school at the age of twelve to work for his own father, who had been born in Ireland, but both he and my mother were great readers. In short, books and conversation were present in the home and so it was not abnormal for me to have an interest in history.

BS:    How much of this sense of the past had to do with being Irish?

JM:    Our Irishness was not stressed but simply recognised and taken for granted. There were no elements of Irish nationalism in the home. After being demobilised in London after the First World War my father spent a year with his relatives in Feakle, County Clare. This experience obviously had an impact which lasted, but it did not manifest itself in any strident nationalist sense. My mother’s interests were more ‘human’. For instance, she could say the ‘Hail Mary’ in Irish. Her parents were also from Clare and her father was a native Irish speaker. So Ireland was present but not in an obtrusive sense. Interestingly, England was never present. The result was that, if we were anything, we were Australians. There was nothing forced about this. One was born an Australian and one thought of oneself as such. As a child in a state school on Monday morning where they would run up the Union Jack I stood and watched, but I never had any sense of loyalty to Crown or Empire; they didn’t seem to exist. Not that one positively turned against such things, they just didn’t come through. One became an ‘Aussie’ without being flamboyantly nationalist. Obviously we wanted to beat the English at cricket and perhaps showed too much pride in our sporting prowess, but that is harmless. My childhood left me no recollection of nationalism but, to use Thomas Davis’s words, a deep understanding of nationality. There is an important distinction.

BS:    Was this a common experience for Irish Australians?

JM:    Yes. You must remember that the Irish who went to Australia went to a prison. The British were running a big open-air gaol until the transition to a free society in the1830s. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Hubert Plunket, attorney general of New South Wales from the early 1830s to the mid 1850s. He was a Catholic, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, who was deeply involved in the campaign for Catholic emancipation. His reward was first the post of solicitor general and then attorney general. In Australia he devoted himself to further strengthening the British model. I would be the last to deny Pat O’ Farrel’s thesis about the importance of the Irish element in what it is to be an Australian. But I always argue that it was within a British model that that happened. We accepted this was the way a society was conducted, just as the inheritors of the British state here in Ireland did. This partly explains why Australia has been slow developing into a republic. Also, Britain was very careful not to upset the balance too much. Trading relations were important and the British maintained an economic hold. For example, we didn’t sell our wool in Australia at all; it was all sold in Britain.
The sacking of Whitlam in 1975 brought home to many Australians that there was a nexus that in some senses was totally unpalatable. Already there was the realisation after 1941, when the Japanese attacked northern Australia after the fall of Singapore, that Britain couldn’t come to our aid. And so we turned to America. The Vietnam war and the immigration which came in its wake was another lesson, this time in geography. Culturally for so long we belonged to Europe, geographically we belong on the edge of Asia. This doesn’t make us an Asian nation, or at least not yet. But Indonesia is within half an hour’s flying time, an Asian nation of 170 million people. So it is anomolous for us to be taking our place among the nations of Asia and still be dependent on a distant Crown. There is, therefore, nothing unnatural or forced about this move to a republic.

BS:    What role have Australian historians played in this process?

JM:    Only in the last thirty years, thanks to pioneers such as Manning Clark, has Australian history been taught comprehensively in Australian universities, and by that I mean the history of both white and black Australia. Twenty-five years ago I would set aside an hour each week to go to the bookshop to check out new publications on Australian history. In the last five to ten years an hour has allowed me no more than a glance. There are similarities with the Irish situation here. Unlike here, however, the divisions in Australian history writing tend to be more ideological; typically dividing between liberal and Marxist interpretations. For a period the Marxist interpretation was more vibrant, but it has diminished in the last decade. Since Clark, Australian historians have tried to lead the people rather than being led by them.

BS:    How do Ireland and Australia compare or contrast?

JM:    While teaching final year classes in Ireland I used to wonder not only whether these students would get employment but where they would have to go to get it. That never happened at home and its an obvious difference. Australia has had its trading problems but here your most precious resource is for export. In economic terms and in terms of the human spirit Europe offers great opportunities to Ireland, both to receive and to give. Let us take the religious spirit as an example. People tend to shy away from that aspect of Ireland. It is distressing to me that so many people visit and write about Ireland and yet never go into a church and see the people at prayer. How can you understand Ireland without understanding the soul of Ireland? The well-springs of European civilisation, even taking into account the Greeks, are religious. Even the political or civic origins are all bound up with religion. In that particular aspect people tend to be critical of Ireland; they call it narrow-minded and all the rest of it and yet rarely ever want to examine their own narrow-mindedness and their own prejudices and biases. I feel that Europe is divorcing itself from its origins, which hitherto Ireland has not done to the same extent and so Ireland may come to play the same role now as it did long ago. We don’t have to talk of a land of saints and scholars, but the spirit of the past lives in the present and that spirit will still be of very considerable importance as time goes on.

BS:    Have recent trends in Irish histoiography been too negative about our heritage and potential?

JM:    Brendan Bradshaw dealt admirably with one aspect of that problem in the first issue of History Ireland (Spring 1993). On both sides of this argument some criticism will be idle and destructive. There will always be trends in history and newcomers will always say that we have to look at the past in another way. Provided they do so based on the sources rather than simply constructing a historiography that is a whim then it is good. I am conscious of the Irish historiographical debate. I see a danger if a message goes out to the general Irish public that the past has been grossly misrepresented; that ‘it wasn’t like that’; that, for example, there was never any real Irish entity; that the inhabitants of this island had no consciousness of being a people with a commonality. That is going too far; it is almost bordering on the outrageous, both historically and as an interpretation. It has no basis in the evidence and it is a misguided interpretation: a people that has no understanding of being such are prey to the cultural dominance of their neighbour, in this case Britain, or more generally America. Politically the development of the new Europe is wonderful but the Irish will not make a contribution unless they are Irish. The Irish policy of neutrality, for instance, seems to me a precious principle. All principles to some degree must be related to practicalities, but to deny the principle because in certain circumstances the practicalities militate against it is wrong. Look at Ireland’s splendid contribution to various peace-keeping expeditions. This has been possible exactly because of its neutrality. Ireland succeeds because it has no great axe to grind; it has only a moral power.

BS:    You mentioned earlier the need to distinguish between nationalism and nationality. Do you think we have succeeded in doing that in Ireland?

JM:    Let me answer by returning to Thomas Davis. He would talk about ‘the Saxons’ with considerable vigour, but what he wanted above all was for the Irish to understand themselves whether in language, art, archaeology. In connection with Davis people use the expression ‘romantic nationalism’. If you say of someone ‘he or she is a romantic nationalist’ then you put them up on the shelf with the other toys. You may bring them down for the amusement of the children every now and then, but don’t, for goodness sake, let them in any sense become a dominant factor around the house! Yet if you read Davis, and even O’Connell—the pamphlets they wrote on the economy and demograpy and foreign policy—then you see that these were no idle dreamers. Their concept of nationality went well beyond the artistic and the literary, into a whole range of practical questions. Yet what do historians say we get out of Young Ireland? Violence, without any recognition that there is a great deal more to it than that, and without any distinction of the difference between resistance and violence. It is regrettable to sum up in such a way a school of thought which is so intimately connected with all that has made this republic.

BS:    You once said that it made as much sense to talk of a Catholic historian as it did to talk of a Catholic jockey. For the last two years you have lectured at the Australian Catholic University. What is a Catholic university?

JM:    If you talk of a Catholic jockey or a Catholic historian the bottom line is that there would be a minimum set of values. The jockey would desist from kicking the horse or jockey next to him, not because he is frightened of being caught but because he says to himself that that is not the way to proceed. The Catholic historian similarly would not doctor evidence because that is not the way to behave.  But it is not simply a set of negative values. What, in a Catholic university, would you want to do? You would want to pursue truth to its ultimate, in so far as the human mind can, but why? Not simply because it is some abstraction called truth, but because it is a manifestation of the Creator who in his or her inexorable wisdom has made things as they are. It is the ‘why they are’ and the ‘how they are’ that we seek the truth of. It isn’t that we do anything differently, it is that we do it based on our understanding of the reason why we do it. It would be utterly unthinkable to me that in a Catholic university anyone would say ‘you can’t research that’ or ‘you can’t teach that’ or ‘you can’t publish that, it isn’t in conformity with what we regard as the Catholicity of the university’. I can understand if someone said to me ‘John, would you be prepared to think of such and such a way of approaching your area of research?’ If someone said to me ‘John, would you think about the concept of nationality in the various Christian denominations in Australia and how their religion influenced the way they thought about being an Australian?’ I would not object. I would not do it as a Catholic and would not want to do it as a Catholic. I would just do it as a historian. So there is a difference, but that difference is not based upon saying ‘I’m this, you’re that; we’re different’; the difference is concerned with motive, because there is the transcendent and if you believe what I believe then the transcendent is always present.

BS:    What dangers do you see facing the University?

JM:    The main danger is bureaucratisation. Thirty years ago there was unity between bureaucracy and staff, now there is a tendency to have a managerial class. This is a perversion of the nature of the university. But what is the ideology behind it? It is the ultimate ideology of capitalism, which says that what matters is the saleable product. At least we have been humble enough over the centuries in the university never to know what the saleable product was. All we knew was that we would do our best to impart knowledge and a desire for knowledge to those who came to us. Surely it must be recognised that this has been fairly successful over the centuries. But now the process is inverted; it is what happens the day the students walk out that matters rather than what happens to them here; the university is being geared to the needs of industry. We cannot divorce ourselves from what is euphemistically called ‘the real world’—as if the university isn’t the real world too. The university has always been part of the real world as is explained most clearly in the writings of Newman. We turn the university into a productive unit at our peril. Through the centuries the shaping of minds through education has been the goal of our civilization and the pinnacle of this shaping process is the university.

Brendan Smith lectures in medieval history at the University of Bristol.


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