Contested island: Ireland 1460–1630

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 17

Contested island: Ireland 1460–1630
Divided kingdom: Ireland 1630–1800
S.J. Connolly
(Oxford University Press, £35 each)
ISBN 9780198208167
ISBN 9780199543472

The last decade has seen the publication of many surveys of the history of Ireland, including tomes from S.J. Connolly’s Queen’s University Belfast colleagues Alvin Jackson and Paul Bew. Tom Bartlett will shortly publish a single-volume history with Cambridge University Press. And in these cash-strapped times, it is a relief to note that OUP has also started to release the individual volumes of the New history of Ireland at genuinely competitive prices. One assumes that these publishers presume that a market still exists for serious scholarly books on Irish history, aiming at those mythical creatures, ‘intelligent’ general readers (Is there a risk that they have become extinct like the Celtic Tiger?). One assumes that these general surveys are also pitched at undergraduate courses on Irish history. Internationally that market may now be shrinking as Northern Ireland settles into an uneasy calm: is it unduly cynical to suggest that for the last three decades the Provos were the best recruiters of students for Irish history classes? These surveys are normally written to be accessible to non-specialists and are designed to offer a comprehensive one-stop-shop on Irish history. In my experience of using a variety of these texts in teaching American undergraduates, they suffer from two major flaws: they are all far too long, and—despite ritual protestations to the contrary—an assumption of prior knowledge always manages to creep in, usually when historians are tempted into the difficult territory of shifting attitudes to the Irish past. It is off-putting for neophytes when Irish historians wash their dirty green linen in public.
Sean Connolly’s two volumes together run close to 1000 pages—cruel and unusual punishment for an undergraduate. Compare these recent surveys with an earlier specimen of the genre from Connolly’s predecessor at Queen’s, J.C. Beckett’s History of Ireland, published in many editions from the 1950s. The earlier volume is remarkable for its concision, which encouraged clarity of exposition, accuracy with the basics and a bracing firmness of judgement. Beckett avoids beating around the bush through historiographical summaries or summarising multiple positions. The more recent volumes are much less concise (only an über-anorak could read them at a single sitting) and excessively reticent about advancing clear-cut positions. Is there a reputable Irish historian who would now be willing to publish an authoritative history of modern Ireland in 200 crisply written pages? Diarmaid Ferriter takes 884 pages to tackle 1900–2000. At that rate, he would have needed 3,894 pages to traverse Connolly’s period.
The surprising feature of Connolly’s two volumes is their chronological range—1460 to 1800. His initial reputation was made with his innovative Priests and people in pre-Famine Ireland 1780–1845 (reissued by Four Courts Press in 2001), and he supplied four authoritative survey chapters in the New history of Ireland, volume V, which still constitute one of the crispest treatments of the period from 1800 to 1830. In the 1990s he copper-fastened his reputation with a major volume, Religion, law and power: the making of Protestant Ireland 1660–1760 (reissued in paperback), notable for its archival range, its independent if occasionally pugnacious judgements, and its determined effort to relocate the centre of gravity of studies of the Irish eighteenth century away from its turbulent last quarter. (That is still a major concern of Divided kingdom, his second volume here.) Thus one might have assumed that a survey history from Connolly would start perhaps in the 1640s and proceed to the Famine at least, or even venture as far as Partition. It is a surprise, then, to find him plunging instead deep into the late medieval period and entering the crowded lists of the early modern period, which has been a lively area in Irish historiography in this generation.
What can a non-specialist make of his first volume, Contested island: Ireland 1460–1630? Three features struck this reader. Firstly, Connolly has firmly nailed his colours to the narrative mast, claiming that he is offering ‘an exercise in a traditional genre, the general narrative survey’, where he prioritises ‘event rather than process’ (p. 123). His preface floats the philosophical issue of whether a narrative ‘innocent’ of wider explanatory horizons and embedded political choices can be made but briskly dismisses it to get stuck straight in. Ironically, the most lively bits of the volume occur where he does engage with wider issues as, for example, in lucid and thought-provoking pages on whether it is appropriate to compare Ireland and America in the Elizabethan period, or why the Reformation failed in Ireland. (Could Eamon Duffy be encouraged to apply his formidable expertise to exploring this issue in Ireland, with the skills so evident in The stripping of the altars?).
Writing a narrative places a premium on writing skills, and while Connolly is accurate and brisk, he is not a stylist on the level of a Foster. For example, the word ‘important’ or variants of it appear on pages 127, 128 (twice), 129 (twice), 131 (twice), 132, 133, 134, 135 (three times), 137 (twice), 138, 140, 148, 150, 153, 154, 155, 163, 164 and 167—25 instances in a single chapter. On page 171, three ‘importants’ appear in three successive sentences. The repetition of other words in the same chapter—for example, ‘traditional’, ‘increasing’, ‘expanding’, ‘ruthless’—clog up the style and impede any sense of narrative flow. Does OUP employ copy-editors anymore? And what are we to make of the main text promising eight maps (often discussed in detail as in the case of the promised Goghe map) while only four appear, and these with their titles horribly mangled and inadequately reproduced?
Secondly, on grounds of clarity, Connolly opts to use anglicised versions of the Irish-language names, and this is an anachronistic and historically inappropriate choice, which also makes for hideous orthography. What conceivable use is it to use ‘William Mayle’ rather than ‘Liam Maol’? And if he is advancing the cause of clarity, should we now call him ‘John’ Connolly? The New history of Ireland implemented eminently sensible editorial decisions on this issue some years ago, and it is hugely disappointing to see Connolly reverting to this culturally demeaning practice. In fairness to him, he does consistently address Irish-language sources, and in a considerably less dismissive and abrasive tone than previously.
Thirdly, and probably inevitably, as a non-specialist on the period, Connolly has to rely on the work of other scholars. That invariably begs the question—who are the accepted authorities and how will he adjudicate between them if they disagree? Judging by footnote citation, Connolly has made explicit, if not sufficiently explained, choices. Thus, to cite a few examples, he prefers Stephen Ellis over K.W. Nicholls, Ciaran Brady over Nicholas Canny and Brendan Bradshaw, and Colm Lennon over Aidan Clarke. Ellis tops the footnote list at 57, closely followed by Brady at 54.
The same problem does not appear in the second volume as Connolly has the easier expedient of citing himself: there are close to 100 citations of his own work, the bulk of them referring to Religion, law and power. The footnotes tend to be longer and more acerbic in this volume, a tendency that intensifies towards its end, and interpretative issues surface much more heatedly, disrupting the effort to maintain an even narrative flow. The chapter on the 1790s is notably waspish and partisan in tone.
In overall terms, Connolly has read both extensively and intensively, and these volumes offer impressive testimony of sustained engagement with the more recent secondary literature. Some influential work—notably Willie Smyth’s Map-making, landscape and memory, David Dickson’s Old World colony and Toby Barnard’s Making the grand figure—appear to have been absorbed rather hurriedly. It is also noticeable that there is no sustained engagement with perhaps the most impressive editorial achievements of recent years—the three-volume Collected writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone.
Some themes appear with relative frequency. Connolly wishes to stress that identities are ‘fluid and primarily pragmatic’ (p. 114) rather than set in cultural concrete. In a fine flourish, he advises his readers to take note of ‘the fluid and contingent, of identities made and unmade against uncertain and sometimes dangerous backgrounds’ (Divided kingdom, p. 3). Occasionally this leads him to over-emphasise marginal or eccentric figures like Matthew De Renzy and to miss what even his own citations attest. Thus he quotes without amplification Bishop Bedell’s shrewd comment in 1634 about ‘the very inborn hatred of subdued people to their conquerors’ (p. 353). He likes work that offers ‘a useful corrective to nationalist myth-making’ (p. 35), avoiding ‘simplistic models based on opposition between a victimized “native Ireland” and a colonising England’ (p. 269), and he tends to downplay or take issue with scholarship that does not play that particular tune. Thus on the politics of bardic poetry, he sides with Tom Dunne and Michelle O’Riordan rather than the more widely accepted judgements of Breandán Ó Buachalla and Marc Caball. This promotes a certain blandness in the narrative. This reader felt much closer to the visceral horror of the Elizabethan period in Ireland while reading a recent vivid article by Patricia Palmer (‘“An headlesse Ladie” and “a horses loade of heades”: writing the beheading’ in Renaissance Quarterly, 60:1 [2007], pp 25–57) than in Connolly’s much longer treatment.
Finally, a narrative history must have some structural unity to give it coherence, and it is fair to say that Connolly primarily uses the changes in political administrators in Ireland as the main thread of his story. He is more interested in the state than in the nation, in the centre rather than the peripheries. That creates a tendency to view Ireland through an anglocentric lens. What might Ireland look like if viewed more from Belfast or Belmullet rather than from Dublin Castle? To advocate such an approach is in no way to diminish the importance or visibility of other cultural traditions on the island. A balanced treatment of Ireland requires a consistent awareness of the majority population—the Irish Catholics—and alertness to sources and perspectives that reveal their historical experience.  HI

Kevin Whelan is Director of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre, Dublin.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568