British Consciousness and Identity: the making of Britain, 1533-1707, Brendan Bradshaw and Peter Roberts (eds.). (Cambridge University Press, £45) ISBN O521433835

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

Although about the making of Britain, this volume also has a disproportionately large Irish content, reflecting the growing interest among Irish historians in viewing Ireland’s ties with England, Scotland, and Wales in a comparative, British context. Yet the volume’s contents also expose the latent tensions in Irish historical circles between writers of conventional history and what might be called ‘Irish national history’. Working within parameters defined by the 1937 constitution, and often trained in special departments of Irish history, national historians employ a distinctive terminology and methodology which highlight the uniqueness of the Irish experience against the apparently similar experiences of those Gaedhil and Gaill living outside the national territory. Very recently, however, some national historians have begun to steal nervous glances over the frontiers of national history to engage with ideas developed by historians of the neighbouring island. Among these is the subversive suggestion that, since Ireland was likewise governed from Westminster by English law and administrative structures, there might be merit in assessing developments holistically in the context of state formation throughout the British Isles, rather than treating Westminster as an extraneous influence.
In fact, Irish historians generally lack the experience of primary research in British history needed for this kind of comparative project. An honourable exception, however, is national history’s leading exponent, Brendan Bradshaw. Bradshaw here collaborates with a Welsh historian, Peter Roberts, assembling a team of eleven writers to discuss how far a shared political identity emerged among the communities comprehended in the new state. Their conclusion emerges in Colin Kidd’s important last chapter arguing that ‘conflicting regal claims…of English, Scottish and Irish national identities’ meant ‘the lack of a suitable “matter of Britain”’: what developed was not ‘a common British identity’ but ‘a minimalist Britishness’ based on ‘concentric loyalties’ and ‘competing sub-traditions of Britishness’. The other essays usefully aim to broaden the British agenda by charting the response of its constituent kingdoms and nations, with occasional comparative comments from a national standpoint.
The volume’s English dimension is particularly thin. Two literary critics, Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, analyse printed texts of English writers, mainly about Ireland. While Maley’s essay does read like history, the absence of recognised English historians cannot be justified simply by citing ‘ill-informed charges of “anglocentrism under another name”…by critics of the new British history’. Of the other British nations, Keith Brown concludes that ‘[s]eventeenth-century Scots had no identity problems’ despite ‘living in a multi-kingdom state’. Yet a parallel British sense of identity developed soonest and least problematically among the Welsh. In two first-rate chapters, Peter Roberts and Philip Jenkins assess the growth of loyalism in Tudor Wales and ‘how the “oldest colony” became so thoroughly integrated into the new nation’. Their obvious relevance to Ireland is highlighted by Jenkins’s opening question: ‘whether “Wales” is indeed a suitable unit for historical analysis’. And the danger of putting the cart before the horse is underlined by Jane Dawson’s stimulating essay discussing late medieval Gaeldom’s gradual division into separate Irish and Scottish components, the creation of a new Scottish Gaelic identity, and the growing association by lowland Scots of the Gaelic language and culture with Ireland. Dawson’s remarks concerning the semantic shift in the terms ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Irish’ are also relevant to Alan Ford’s thoughtful discussion of Archbishop Ussher’s difficulties in trying to anchor the Church of Ireland to a Gaelic past. Finally, Jim Smyth persuasively argues that to understand Anglo-Irish unionism before 1707, we need to recreate ‘the range of possibilities available to contemporaries’ since this tradition has been sidelined by ‘Hiberno-centric history’ with its ‘traditional emphasis on Irish identity and on the politics of legislative independence’.
Smyth’s remarks bring us neatly back to the tensions noted at the outset between conventional history and national history in Ireland. These are exemplified in the volume’s two remaining essays. Marc Caball’s study of Gaelic literature (here described as ‘classical Irish’) charts the growth of an Irish national consciousness and identity. Yet equally significant is what is left unsaid. Caball’s discussion of ‘Irish’, ‘native’, and ‘national’ simply shirks the key problem of definitions: the Irish of 1540 were the Gaedhil of both Scotland and Ireland; the Irish of 1640 were the Éireannaigh, those Catholic Gaedhil and Old English (Sean-Ghaill) living in Ireland. So his allegedly ‘inclusive national identity’ was actually partitionist. More revealing, however, is Bradshaw’s landmark essay—twice the length of the others—on the Reformation in Ireland and Wales: its ‘post-revisionist’ methodology here makes explicit the interpretative strategy underpinning much writing in the national tradition.
As a conventional analysis, Bradshaw’s account compares unfavourably with the recent survey of the Irish Reformation by Karl Bottigheimer and Ute Lotz-Heumann. Its importance lies, rather, in its adaptation of recent work by conventional historians to meet the needs of national history. Citation is selective: nothing by Ford or Bottigheimer, stray articles by Nicholas Canny, Aidan Clarke and Henry Jefferies. But the effect is to ‘reinstate the received orthodoxy, albeit in post-revisionist form’ of an earlier generation of national historians: ‘In sum, the cataclysm of the Tudor revolution in church and state in Ireland marks paradoxically the moment at which the island’s assimilation within the multinational conglomerate of the modern United Kingdom was pre-empted’. The context and terminology are impeccably ‘present-centred’, reasserting the importance of ‘faith and fatherland’ in precipitating among Gaedhil and Gaill ‘a new racial identity as the Catholic Irish’, while ignoring the contemporary transmutation of Gaedhil into Albanaigh and Éireannaigh or the parallel Tudor context of developments. Rejecting the medieval Englishry’s contemporary national identity (Caball’s ‘gaelicised Anglo-Normans’), Bradshaw portrays them as ‘colonial separatists’—’the vast majority’ being ‘monoglot Irish-speakers’—in ‘a receding enclave’ of English rule. Finally, what he elsewhere calls ‘purposeful unhistoricity’, enables him to demonstrate the ‘inherently unstable relationship’ between crown and community. Following ‘the readoption of Edward IV in 1471’ (!), he argues, ‘a succession of reformist missions from London—at least one every decade from the 1460s—…invariably got under way with a purge of the Dublin administration involving the removal of the local Fitzgerald magnate’, so precipitating a ‘chain of rebellions’. In reality, the Kildares remained in power continuously 1478-92 and 1496-1520, but ‘purposeful unhistoricity’ substantiates Bradshaw’s thesis that the Tudor revolution served to ‘bring to fruition a long-germinating sense of alienation from the English metropolis’.
In many other respects, Bradshaw’s suggestions about the contrasting outcome to reform in Ireland and Wales, notably among the local elites, would command assent from ‘hard-nosed revisionists’ like myself. Conventional historians would argue, however, that national history necessarily establishes the Irish Reformation’s status as a Sonderweg, since its ‘present-centred’ context and terminology automatically prejudge the issue. The difficulty for those historians who share Bradshaw’s sympathies but not his candour about the real purpose of history is that if they took up conventional comparative history, instead of taking Ireland’s uniqueness as given, they might end up identifying similarities as well as differences.

Steven G. Ellis


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