Historical Studies XXIV: Culture, place and identity

Published in Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Historical Studies XXIV Culture, place and identity 1Historical Studies XXIV: Culture, place and identity
Neil Garnham and Keith Jeffery (eds)
(University College Dublin Press, ?39.95)
ISBN 1904558348For the history reader, a volume of conference papers has the same attraction as a collection of short stories by different authors. They cover succinctly related themes studied in a variety of contexts by those who are authorities on their subject. One is often likely to learn much that is novel and stimulating. As Keith Jeffery points out in his introduction, the Irish Conference of Historians (in this case the 26th, Magee College, University of Ulster, 22–25 May 2003) rightly perseveres with the notion of a broad, general appreciation of history not exclusively confined to Ireland, as comparative perspectives are always of value.
Jeffery dwells on the irony that the art of a Northern Protestant, Paul Henry, was emblematic of an idealised but depopulated west of Ireland central to the self-image of independent Ireland in its early decades. Curiously, also, Henry’s work sold better in his lifetime in Belfast than in Dublin. Perhaps it fitted quite well the general Northern image of the rest of Ireland.
Contrasting more recent commemorative monuments, Kilmainham Gaol with its fairly straightforward nationalist narrative, the 1798 bicentenary commemoration criticised by revisionists (of all people) for distorting history in a more benign and conciliatory direction in the year of the Good Friday Agreement, and the restored War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge reflecting what was formerly but is no longer officially neglected, Jeffery makes the pertinent point that independent Ireland as a winner, like Vietnam, ‘can afford to accommodate multiple histories of the past’, now that the actual struggle for independence has become (largely) irrelevant to contemporary politics.
Keith Robbins gives a useful overview of Welsh history for the uninitiated, Wales being in some ways ‘the most Celtic society in the British Isles’. The poor north–south communications in Wales are noted. They had no Parnell. Devolution was defeated in 1979, for fear of what Welsh-speakers might demand, but went through by the smallest margin in 1998. A distinct political identity without the complications of separation seems to be appreciated and to work very well in Welsh circumstances. The Irish state certainly enjoys being able to have direct political contact with fellow parliamentarians in the devolved executives and assemblies in Wales and Scotland.
Marie Bourke of the National Gallery writes about the parallel artistic renaissance in Ireland in the early twentieth century, with painters turning to the west and exploring a people and place rooted in the Gaelic past.  Orpen, influenced by Synge, though bilocated before 1916 in London and Dublin and with an ambivalent attitude to advanced nationalism, taught many of the up-and-coming Irish artists in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Among his pupils were Grace Gifford, from a similar background, who married Joseph Plunkett just before his execution, and Seán Keating, the stern revolutionary artist, whose work was as different from Orpen’s as David’s was from Fragonard’s. Maurice MacGonigal was the last major artist to fuse western landscape with national identity. Modernism, associated with Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett, developed a different idiom. What constitutes Irish art today draws on many diverse sources and is not in any one mould.
Kenneth McConkey, in his essay ‘Politics and that girl’, an allusion to Yeats’s admission of distraction from world crises, offers a detailed analysis of the symbolism of Orpen’s Sowing new seed in the Department of Agriculture. Orpen himself offered several different explanations, including that the girl represented the spirit of Sinn Féin in 1914 sowing new ideas. All that is certain is that she is sowing with some abandon on infertile ground on Orpen’s favourite spot, the Hill of Howth. Orpen is as playful as he is profound, and whether the joke or satire has been fully deciphered is unclear.
Enda Leaney in ‘Science and conflict in nineteenth century Ireland’ shows how science tried to offer a refuge that was inclusive from the conflicts of religion and politics. In the mid-nineteenth century the RDS was regarded even by government as bigoted and élitist. A battle over industrial education determined that industrial education in Ireland would be confined to mining and agriculture. Robert Kane remarked sardonically that the business of the Irish was to raise bullocks and mine ores, but neither to eat the bullocks nor smelt the ores. The British government argued that there were English towns with a stronger claim to industrialisation. Eventually, a college of science emerged, later occupying the current premises of government buildings, next to the RDS in Leinster House, where the statue of Prince Albert is a reminder of the Industrial Exhibition held in the grounds in 1853–4.
Mike Cronin explains the role that sport played in the 1920s in underlining the cultural identity of the new state, in particular the Tailteann games in 1924, dismissed by the Belfast Telegraph at the time as the ‘Gaelic Olympiad’. The article notes in passing the rebuilding of the Four Courts, the Custom House and the GPO in the 1920s, with the comment that they are worthy of far greater attention by historians. There was tremendous pride when Dr Pat O’Callaghan from Kanturk won the Olympic hammer title in 1928 in Amsterdam. The magazine Sport rejoiced that ‘Ireland has raised its first winning flag as a distinct nation’. The Irish Times, still a unionist newspaper, saw the winner as a noble amateur in the British tradition, while the London Times called it ‘Great Day for the Empire’. Perhaps this explains why a more pronounced determination and a more visible independent policy was voted for from 1932.
Paul Dineo in a very interesting comparative piece shows the contingent way in which cricket came to be regarded as India’s national sport, even though it began as an élite pastime. Peter Wilson takes a broad sweep through modern European history, and the culture of the imperial reich from the late fifteenth century to its collapse and replacement in the nineteenth. Joan Beaumont writes about the defining place of Gallipoli in modern Australian history. Prime Minister Howard defined ANZAC values in 1998 as ‘mateship, courage, compassion’. William Logan shows how the original French colonial Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi is an example of history turned into heritage. Many American GIs spent time as prisoners there. Its message is one of endurance and survival against the greatest odds.
The final essay by Jock Phillips on ‘Race and New Zealand identity’ shows how it evolved beyond a ‘Britain of the South’. The All-Blacks were seen as evidence of the physical superiority of those who had settled abroad. The Maoris, at first excluded, provided an instant native tradition, and in addition were great warriors. The Irish in New Zealand were made up of a substantial number of Ulster Protestants, who integrated well, and Irish Catholics, who did not behave in a nationalist fashion. There are apparently only about 11,000 people in New Zealand today describing themselves as Irish.
If there is any generalisation to be made from such a diverse group of studies, it is the benefits of the more nuanced understanding that is available from detailed reading and research, in place of broad and even lazy stereotypes.
Martin Mansergh

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