Westward Enterprise

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1998), Volume 6

Nicholas Canny (right) is Professor of History at the National University of Ireland, Galway and until recently chairman of the Irish Committee for Historical Sciences. Hiram Morgan talked to him about his career and his ideas.

Nicholas Canny (right) is Professor of History at the National University of Ireland, Galway and until recently chairman of the Irish Committee for Historical Sciences. Hiram Morgan talked to him about his career and his ideas.

HM:    What inspired you to do history?

NC:    My father, a primary school teacher, was interested in history and was an avid listener to Thomas Davis lectures on the radio. As an undergraduate at University College Galway I was inspired by Gerard Hayes-McCoy. He wasn’t a particularly good performer in the classroom—in fact he dictated notes. But when he left his notes aside, particularly when dealing with either sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Ireland or military history in any period, then you were confronted with someone who had devoted himself to research and you were learning directly from historical sources. David Quinn [formerly University of Liverpool] was another major influence. I got to know him through the recommended reading at college. Most of the historical work being done in Ireland in the early 1960s related to nineteenth-century parliamentary history and focused on personalities such as O’Connell or Parnell which I didn’t find particularly interesting. The early modern Ireland literature wasn’t exactly inspiring either. Required undergraduate reading entailed the likes of Bagwell’s Ireland under the Tudors (1885-90) and Ireland under the Stuarts (1909-16) supplemented by ‘modern’ books, such as Church and State in Tudor Ireland (1935) by Dudley Edwards or The Londonderry Plantation (1939) by Moody. The exception would have been the occasional article by Hayes-McCoy himself. One of the most interesting was ‘The early history of guns in Ireland’ in the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Journal (1938-39). Looking back, Hayes-McCoy’s Scots Mercenary Forces in Ireland (1937) was an altogether better read than either of the books by Edwards or Moody and, indeed, it is a book that has stood the test of time better than either. He was looking at developments in Ireland in tandem with those in Scotland. I consider such contextualisation of Irish history to be important and I found that inspiring. Similarly with articles by Quinn, whether they were dealing with Henry VIII and Ireland where he was relating what was happening in Irish history to debates within English historiography or where he was situating Irish events in a broader context of exploration and discovery. In that sense Quinn was doing for Early Modern Ireland what was not being done for the nineteenth century where the only context was English history. Quinn was certainly the best writer and the best mind working on Irish history at that time, and he went on to do more than just Irish history.

HM:    How important was your postgraduate experience at the University of Pennsylvania?

NC:    Experience abroad was more or less essential in advancing an academic career in Ireland, certainly as far as the National University was concerned. The fact that I looked towards America rather than Britain would again have been related to the inspiration of Quinn. To follow his line I needed to build up some expertise in American colonial history. Going to an American university proved particularly beneficial to me because the principal limitation in my earlier education was the lack of books. The library in Galway was very poor. Between 1922 and mid-1960s there was effectively no book purchasing budget. So the huge post-war output of history books in Britain was for the most part unavailable in our library. The strong emphasis on reading in the rigorous American PhD programme gave me the opportunity to catch up on general European and American history in a controlled environment. If I had gone into the British system at the time, where you got down to research almost immediately, there would have been less opportunity to make up for the deficiencies in my undergraduate training.

HM:    Has your first book, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: a pattern established (1976), stood the test of time?

NC:    Perhaps the book should have been challenged much earlier than it was. There wasn’t a comprehensive challenge to it until Ciarán Brady’s Chief Governors (1994). There should have been a more rigorous debate. One of the problems of sixteenth-century Ireland is that the material is inaccessible, largely because the existing calendars which summarise the state papers are defective. The novelty of the Elizabethan Conquest was its basis in a rigorous study of the original primary source documents from Queen Mary’s reign up to the 1580s without reference to the calendars.

HM:    You argued that colonisation and provincial government established a pattern for conquest. Would you stand over that?

NC:    Oh yes. I don’t think anyone disagrees. Some people like to de-emphasise the colonisation aspect of things but the current book which I am now writing and which I have been working on for the last fifteen years provides more concrete demonstration that the colonisation model is critical to understanding Early Modern Ireland. Ireland was systematically colonised by a government—or at least by government officials in Ireland—between the middle of the sixteenth century to the Cromwellian period. Arguing to the contrary is essentially arguing against the evidence of what the government was about during that period.

HM:    Isn’t there a danger in over-emphasising this colonial theory?

NC:    Lots of European societies, including England itself, were shaped by a process of colonisation at some point in their histories. Those that were engaged in Renaissance colonial endeavours whether across the Atlantic or within Europe were constantly referring to precedents; colonisation by ancient Rome or medieval precedents. The English conquest of Ireland was a continuing part of a larger and longer European enterprise and was entirely justified by the moral standards of Europe itself. What you have to take into account about Early Modern Ireland is the level of discontinuity which has few comparisons. Generally speaking all the wielders of power and influence were removed forcefully and systematically over the course of a single century, and that happened in relatively few European experiences. Look at the nobility in France or in Spain or in Poland and you find the same families in place, the same surnames appearing in 1700 as in 1500, whereas in Ireland a completely new cohort of people is in charge of government and in charge of society through the ownership of land and control of the municipalities. The level of change was just phenomenal and if you disregard this discontinuity then you are distorting what happened in Ireland during the early modern period. Hence the level of animosity expressed against this settler community in 1641 was also extreme by European standards.

HM:    Doesn’t the description of our past as colonial prompt a connection with, indeed a justification of, current grievances?

NC:    I don’t see any necessity of making such a connection at all. What offends me is that people who might read a piece of mine on Edmund Spenser suddenly zoom from that to talk about the recent IRA campaign and would say that this was fully justified because of what Spenser said. When I write, I try to explain why Spenser says what he says and does what he does. The second stage of saying that we should now retaliate because of what he said or what he did is an entirely different philosophical problem. Just because there are people in other disciplines, and indeed in no disciplines at all, who are willing to make those arguments doesn’t mean that you cease to study the past. I study the past because I want to understand it and to explain to people what happened. It is not the function of the historian to justify and provide legitimisation for current political positions.

HM:    You contributed an essay on Spenser to the Yearbook of English Studies in 1983. In hindsight this appears to have been a seminal piece which has spawned a whole area of study—not just as a contribution to Irish historiography but also to the study of Renaissance literature. You must be quite proud of that.

NC:    Yes. Out of the blue I had correspondence from people that I had never heard of before or people whose names were very distinguished in English literature, who wanted to know if I was doing further work. Only now is the full book in the process of being written. The first chapter of my forthcoming Ireland in the English Colonial System will have a comprehensive piece on Spenser. What I was about in the original article will be borne out where what Spenser said is related to what actually happened. The rationalisations which people offered and the way that people were constantly looking back to what Spenser had said made his writings a touchstone for those who formulated policy for Ireland throughout the seventeenth century.

Edmund Spenser—’his writings...were...a touchstone for those who formulated policy for Ireland throughout the seventeenth century.’

Edmund Spenser—’his writings…were…a touchstone for those who formulated policy for Ireland throughout the seventeenth century.’

HM:    In approaching the subject of Spenser you touch on the role of literature in history.

NC:    The literary scholars who have referred to the original piece have done so in the context of re-appraising what English literature was all about. You can’t draw a distinction between what might be described as a ‘historical source’ and a piece of ‘creative literature’. That distinction was not drawn in the early modern period. Everything was written to a purpose and to an agenda. I suppose in considering Spenser, whose Protestantism shaped the arguments he was advancing, I realised the extent to which I had downplayed the importance of religion in The Elizabethan Conquest. Trying to contend that the Elizabethan conquest could have happened without the Reformation having occurred was one of the errors in that book. Now I place an altogether different emphasis on the importance of religion.

HM:    How do you view the ‘New British History’ which looks at Ireland’s problems within the context of the British Isles or the developing British state.

NC:    I disagree with the term ‘British Isles’. It’s a term which wasn’t used by politicians of the early modern period, which isn’t accurate when used today, which is offensive to a substantial number of people, and therefore should be avoided. On the other hand I am in favour of the New British History, or any other kind of history that develops contexts and encourages people to write. My principal criticism is that as far as Irish historiography is concerned there is little ‘new’ about it. What Edwards, Moody, Hayes McCoy and Quinn wrote was very much ‘New British History’ and their agenda was formulated in England. If you look back at Edwards and Moody they were interested in the history of parliament and the use of Poynings’ Law as an instrument for managing parliament, the same preoccupations as contemporaries who were working on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English history. My concern with that historiography is that it ignored things which were un-English. To say that Ireland was colonised doesn’t fit within that agenda. It identifies the activities of government which would be regarded as normal in England, and considers them in the Irish context but disregards those aspects of the Irish experience which don’t fit. In that sense the New British History is still very Anglocentric. Another victim of this as far as Irish history is concerned is that altogether more has been written about the Reformation in Ireland than about the Counter-Reformation.

HM:    You have just completed editing the first volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire. Will it be a controversial volume along the lines prophesied by Max, Lord Beloff?

NC:    It won’t be as controversial as Beloff had feared. He was opposed to the idea that people who had suffered in the colonial experience would be invited to contribute. I would very much have liked essays on India done by people from India and on the American-Indian experience written by native Americans. It’s awfully difficult to get such authors. I thought that that would have been a plus aspect in the volume generally but my priority as an editor was to identify the people who were experts in the field. Each essayist has the responsibility to give a summary of the existing state of knowledge and hopefully then to make an original contribution of their own in the context of the essay. In terms of breaking down barriers, it won’t be anything as extreme as Beloff thought it was going to be.

HM:    Nevertheless putting Ireland into the context of the British Empire is surely a radical departure.

NC:    It will be unusual in that there will be two essays (Jane Ohlmeyer on Colonisation in Ireland and in Scotland and Toby Barnard on Restoration Ireland in the Empire) with a considerable Irish dimension. My general introduction to the volume makes references to the role of Ireland in English expansion generally. The approach isn’t as radical as you think. The first volume of the Cambridge History of the Empire which A.P. Newton edited at the beginning of this century made some reference to Ireland. Also Lecky wrote an essay on the Empire emphasising the role that Ireland played in the broader British imperial experience. Lecky considered that to be one of the factors ignored by English historians of Empire. Equally Froude was interested in the broader imperial experience and thought that Ireland should be mentioned. But he made reference to Ireland in the same way as the people writing about Ireland in the sixteenth century would have done. When Froude was writing about the West Indies he thought the analogy to draw was with ‘natives’ in nineteenth-century Ireland. Nonetheless he saw the two fitting together as part of the one thing. I think in this five volume series generally there will be articles with more emphasis on Ireland. The later volume will contain articles by Tom Bartlett, David Fitzpatrick, Deirdre McMahon, David Harkness and Keith Jeffery. I don’t know if Max Beloff will approve or not.

HM:    You are the outgoing chairman of the Irish Committee for Historical Sciences. What do you think are the problems of Irish history as it currently stands?

NC:    A major problem is the extent to which history is being disregarded in the schools. History never had a strong position in Irish schools, especially in the Republic. We have been trying, in association with the History Teachers Association, to hold the ground because if young people attending school don’t have some exposure to history as an academic discipline they won’t have the benefit of historical knowledge for their future life and will be less likely to undertake it at university level. Furthermore, the reaching out to the broader public has to some degree been taken up by professional commemorators—commemorating the Famine, 1798, or whatever. The people involved in the commemoration business are not necessarily professional historians but are people who devote themselves professionally to the commemoration activity. Another problem is that people in disciplines other than history want to represent themselves primarily as interpreters of the past. And that is happening every day within universities. It is perhaps more apparent within the National University of Ireland structure where the normal curriculum pursued by students for the BA in a two-subject degree so that we have students, let us say, of English and History. When they come into the history classes they have already been packaged a version of what the historical experience was by people who are involved in post-colonial theory. In that sense you have to confront a pedagogic problem which wasn’t there before. Suddenly the perspective has been put to them that the past is useful for providing political positions for the present; we find that students have pre-packaged versions of the past designed by post-colonial theorists with present and future agendas. As a result we are encountering undergraduates who really have no respect for the past because the people who taught them haven’t any respect for the past. Lecturers in literature, the social sciences, etc., are colonising history as their own, and these are people who seem—because they don’t have to take any great amount of time to look at the historical evidence—to have simplistic answers supported by a limited amount of historical evidence. These also have altogether more appeal to the journalist than historians. To write a good history book takes ten to fifteen years of laborious research in the archives plus the writing-up time and those who want the instant comment don’t have time for that. They don’t have time to wait for the mature statement to be brought to fruition and neither do they have time for reading the long book which relies on reference to documentary evidence to support the argument. They want the book which has the sharply focused argument with immediate ‘relevance’ to the present, and which draws ‘lessons’ from the past that have immediate application. In that sense the property of the past has been taken over by people in other disciplines. How we as historians should be addressing that is probably a debate in which we have not yet seriously engaged.

Lecky - the ‘moment of creation’? (Vanity Fair)

Lecky – the ‘moment of creation’? (Vanity Fair)

HM:    You are also on record as saying that Irish historians spend too much time debating this business of historiography and not enough time in critically reviewing books or, indeed, in writing them.

NC:    It is regrettable that the output of monographs hasn’t been in line with the increase in the number of professional historians. As regards reviewing there is some mutual admiration by historians and then there are historians who dislike a book—they might mock it or say in a footnote that they consider this book to be inadequate but they won’t sit down and write a serious reappraisal of the subject and enter into a serious debate. The issue is being dodged when there isn’t satisfactory debate, and particularly since the category of ‘revisionist’ was introduced. The use of that term is regarded by some as a sufficient rejection of a book. The kind of reviewing which should be occurring is where one historian seriously takes on what another has been doing within historical journals not with a view to demolishing a reputation or engaging in personal attack but to enter into a serious historical debate drawing attention to the sources that exist. My reservation about all this writing on historiography is the myth that the world was created by Edwards and Moody—as if no serious history was written earlier and so it ultimately comes down to the revisionist/post-revisionist thing. The history of Ireland has been written about since people became literate: the eighteenth century began to be written about in the eighteenth century, continued to be written about in the nineteenth century and continues to be written about today, post-Moody and Edwards. Some very good work and some of the most influential work was done in the nineteenth century. Lecky was probably altogether a more fundamental influence on the writing of academic history in Ireland than Moody and Edwards ever were. If you want to have a moment of creation perhaps we should go back to Lecky!

HM:    You have worked on 1641 which had its 450th anniversary seven years ago. What advice would you give to historians of the eighteenth century in the light of the forthcoming commemorations of 1798?

NC:    My work on 1641 was not motivated by knowledge that its 450th anniversary was approaching. When I write my definitive statement on 1641, it is going to be the final section of my book Ireland in the English Colonial System . I will be dealing with 1641 as a reaction to the colonial experience which was being enacted over most of the previous century and at the same time looking at it as a conflict between Counter-Reformation Catholicism and Protestantism occurring within the narrow confines of this island. There has been important ongoing work on 1798 for the past ten or fifteen years. The historians of 1798 have done very well in setting events in the context of the relationship between Britain and Ireland in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. I think there is a need to contextualise it in the historical process of Irish history going back to 1641 and looking for continuity. There is a tendency amongst the 1798 people to see a disjunction between the early and the later part of the eighteenth century culminating in 1798—the emphasis on the absence of disturbance and then 1798 coming out of the blue. There is a longer chronological focus going back to 1641 and 1689 which was still very much in the minds of contemporaries in 1798. I think a corrective might be introduced in that sense to give a longer historical continuum.

Hiram Morgan lectures in history at NUI, Cork and is joint-editor of History Ireland.


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