Cambridge history of Ireland, Vol. 3: 1730–1880

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107115200

Reviewed by Timothy Murtagh

For anyone looking for a general survey of Irish history, the last several years have represented a bonanza of historical publishing. There has been the Oxford handbook of modern Irish history (2014), the Princeton history of modern Ireland (2016) and the Cambridge social history of modern Ireland (2017), as well as a number of single-authored studies, such as John Gibney’s recent A short history of Ireland. Moreover, under the general editorship of Thomas Bartlett, we now also have the four-volume Cambridge history of Ireland, the third volume of which covers 1730–1880 and is edited by James Kelly. Both Kelly and Bartlett are esteemed scholars, and both are members of a generation that began their careers when an earlier multi-volume history of Ireland dominated the historical landscape: the New history of Ireland series, which appeared between 1979 and 2005. It is fair to say that the New history was more than just a series of books. It represented a statement by an entire generation of revisionist scholars, a generation who constituted the academic establishment in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the generation of Theo Moody, R.B. McDowell and J.C. Beckett. Interestingly, it was a generation whose work was pointedly criticised by Bartlett, the series editor for the new Cambridge history. In a 1987 review that appeared in Past and Present, Bartlett provided a powerful critique of the New history. He argued that the series had put too much of an emphasis on high politics and as a result produced rigid chronologies that primarily reflect political institutions. In this version, the eighteenth century is cleanly demarcated: it begins with the first sitting of the post-Williamite Irish parliament in 1692 and ends with that parliament’s abolition in 1800. The story of Ireland is totally equated with the story of the Irish parliament. Moreover, Bartlett argued that the New history was beholden to the framework of ‘colonial nationalism’, a framework that overemphasised Protestant self-confidence and neglected the very real Protestant fears of the Catholic majority. As a result, it downplayed the deep, structural tensions in Irish society. His most blunt criticism, however, was that, simply put, the New history was out of date as soon as it was published. This was partly a result of publishing delays, but it was also a result of the unwillingness of an older generation of scholars to integrate new research. The era of Moody and McDowell has now passed, and Bartlett and his generation have replaced them at the top of the academy. Accordingly, it is hard not to see the present Cambridge history of Ireland as their response to what went before. While both Bartlett and Kelly are clear that this volume does not intend to replicate or replace the New history, the shadow of that series nonetheless looms large.

Straight away, the current volume distinguishes itself from earlier histories by not opening with an account of the Irish parliament but instead with a chapter by Vincent Morley on Irish Jacobite politics and culture, examining the ideology and world-view of the losers rather than the winners of 1690–1. The first political-narrative chapter is by James Kelly, covering the politics of the Protestant Ascendancy between 1730 and 1790. It is telling that the high politics of this 60-year period is covered in a single chapter, whereas in the New history it constituted the bulk of the fourth volume. Similarly, Kelly is at pains to challenge older interpretations of an Irish ‘colonial nationalism’ that culminated in the era of Henry Grattan. Throughout this volume there is a clear attempt to move away from a traditional emphasis on the later decades of the century, an emphasis that goes back to Victorian historians like Lecky and Froude. The political narrative is continued in a chapter by Thomas Bartlett covering the years 1791–1815 which similarly downgrades a period that previously attracted an overabundance of scholarship: the 1790s. Make no mistake, Bartlett knows the history of this decade well; his work helped shape the current generation of scholarship on the era, and this chapter reflects his expertise. It is telling, however, that a period that twenty years ago dominated the historiographical landscape is now subsumed into the larger framework of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union are no longer the key moments they once were. Both as an editor and a contributor, Bartlett moves decisively away from traditional narratives, but his chapter also reflects a larger shift among the current crop of academic historians, who have largely moved away from the study of the 1790s. There is perhaps a cautionary tale here for those currently caught up in the mania concerning a much later ‘decade of revolution’.

This push against conventional chronologies and landmarks pays dividends in the later sections of this volume, which are mostly devoted to thematic studies. There are some truly exemplary pieces by scholars who have defined their area of study: Patrick Geogeghan on Daniel O’Connell, Ian McBride on Irish dissenters, Martyn Powell on associational culture and James Kelly on the history of Irish sport, to mention a few examples. There are also two impressive chapters on the economic history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by David Dickson and Andrew Bielenberg respectively. Not only do these provide updated accounts of the early modern economy but they also provoke larger questions about social systems and societal development. The best chapters in this volume are those looking at the evolution of institutions rather than individuals or events. For example, Virginia Crossman’s overview of the development of the Irish state provides a useful introduction to any student of Victorian Ireland. Crossman’s chapter sits in an interesting juxtaposition with an entertaining contribution from Ciaran O’Neill on the emergence of ‘bourgeois’ Ireland that touches on some common themes. Similarly, another pair of standout chapters are the accounts of the development of the Catholic Church during both the ‘penal era’ and the age of Cardinal Cullen, provided by Thomas O’Connor and Colin Barr respectively. It is chapters like these that represent the real utility of the volume: concise accounts of a topic that provide a historiographical review but which are written in a style that appeals to students and old ‘pros’ alike. Much the same can be said for Sarah-Ann Buckley’s chapter on ‘Women, men and the family’, which tackles topics such as fertility, marriage, divorce, domestic violence, institutional responses to the family, childhood, illegitimacy and much else. Buckley’s account provides a convenient entry into a burgeoning field of study, while also representing an impressive piece of scholarship in its own right. Another striking chapter is Christine Casey’s piece on Irish art and architecture, which is richly illustrated and beautifully written.

The fifth section of this volume is labelled ‘The Irish abroad’ and provides another interesting contrast to the New history series, reflecting a broader understanding of transnational movement. For instance, chapters by Liam Swords on the Irish in Europe during the long eighteenth century and Barry Crosbie’s study of Irish participation in the mechanics of empire constitute powerful correctives to earlier accounts. A chapter by Brian Gurrin delivers a great overview of the history of pre-Famine population and emigration, while Patrick Griffin provides a somewhat idiosyncratic study of Irish migration to colonial America and the story of the ‘Scotch-Irish’ there. The volume then concludes with a section dedicated to the Great Famine and its aftermath. Peter Gray provides a succinct and balanced narrative of the Famine itself, which, while providing an evaluation of current debates, also provides a coherent and compelling interpretation of events. This is followed by a chapter on post-Famine emigration by Kevin Kenny, as well as a piece by Douglas Kanter on post-Famine politics, which brings the volume right up to the birth of the Home Rule movement in the 1870s. While both of these chapters give an up-to-date account of present scholarship, in certain regards they reaffirm earlier frameworks, seeing both the Famine and the rise of Parnell as obvious landmarks.

If there is a criticism it is that the narrative ‘spine’ of the book tends to over-correct in terms of challenging conventional chronologies (the Famine aside). While the Act of Union and high politics aren’t everything, there is still a usefulness to older narratives. Kelly himself concedes that the framework of the Union still has some mileage left in it, as Theo Hoppen’s recent Governing Hibernia (Oxford, 2017) has demonstrated. Similarly, the decision to begin this volume in 1730 (although several chapters do touch on earlier decades) is puzzling. It is not necessarily made clear why 1730 is a decisive cut-off point. The effect is to leave topics like the early penal laws to be covered within several different chapters instead of providing a coherent account. These, however, are small gripes. Taking this volume as a whole, praise should be given for the high quality and the diversity of the contributions. One of the big problems of the New history was that volumes tended to be dominated by one or two authors, usually focusing on a narrow definition of what constituted ‘history’. The same cannot be said of Vol. 3 of the Cambridge history, which reflects a much richer and broader definition of the field of historical inquiry. With 27 different contributors, it does not provide a single overarching narrative, which is precisely the point. Thirty years ago, the older revisionist school of Moody and McDowell believed that ‘scientific’ history could provide a consensus—a single, definitive account of Irish history. We no longer live in a world where that is plausible. The Cambridge history should be applauded for reflecting that. It is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any student (or teacher) of Irish history.

Timothy Murtagh holds a Ph.D from Trinity College, Dublin, and was a contributing researcher to the Tenement Museum at 14 Henrietta Stre


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