Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780198808961

Reviewed by John Gibney

This book arose, as its author admits in the very first line, ‘by accident rather than design’. Nicholas Canny is one of the small group of historians who revolutionised the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland from the 1960s onwards. His work was distinctively attuned to Ireland’s location within the wider ‘Atlantic’ world and culminated in the mammoth Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 in 2001. As he explains in the introduction to his latest book, a resolve to shift away from Irish history was foiled by various administrative responsibilities, and Canny found himself moving back towards the subject, and specifically towards Irish historiography. While the Irish past can throw up a wide range of topics capable of provoking disputation, scholarly and otherwise, the study of Ireland’s historiography remains underdeveloped and has, all too often, been passed over in silence. One exception—at least for an earlier generation of historians—was the ritualistic namechecking of the various UCD, TCD and QUB dons credited with imposing a degree of disciplinary rigour on academic history in Ireland from the 1930s onwards. The assumptions underpinning both the theory and the practice of this, however, may have relegated the historical writing of earlier generations to the condescension of posterity as a subject unworthy of study.

Such writing is the raw material on which Imagining Ireland’s pasts is based. This is a major account of the shifting—and, indeed, shifty—ways in which early modern Ireland was conceived of in writings about the past from the late sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Chronologically structured, the core of the book consists of an extended sequence of discursive essays built around close textual readings of a wide range of works, some relatively familiar to historians, many more obscure, contextualised within the careers of those who wrote them and the times in which they lived. In terms of scale, it is difficult to think of any comparable study of Irish historical writing for any era. This study is a distinctive landmark, seemingly far removed from the ‘snappy’ book that Canny originally intended. It is dense and richly textured, unashamedly scholarly yet deftly and clearly written. It is designed to be user-friendly and accessible and will undoubtedly repay repeated reading and reflection. While the focus is on how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were described and explored in print, Canny lets his analysis roam freely into other periods and genres as required. He readily concedes that not everyone will persevere to the end, but those who do will be brought on a fascinating excursion through a strand of Ireland’s intellectual history perhaps more evident to previous generations than to our own.

The subject at hand is neatly encapsulated in the first chapter, where one of the protagonists is the Tudor viceroy, Sir Henry Sidney, not as an author but as the patron of two authors producing very different works in the 1570s: Edmund Campion, writing in 1571 that the English colonial community that had existed since the Middle Ages was the bulwark of English ‘civility’ in Ireland; and Richard Stanihurst, writing in 1577 that the same community was becoming part of a problem that Ireland’s English rulers would have to solve. In the intervening period Sidney had found himself at loggerheads with the ‘Old English’, as they were later termed, and a shift in how they were to be depicted was needed to suit his requirements.

The theme this reveals, of history being bent to the needs of the present, sets out the stall for much of the rest of the book. The works that Canny studies over such an extended period were not examinations of Ireland’s past so much as polemics that used versions of it in the service of whatever the authors were arguing. The British conquest and colonisation of the early modern era is of existential importance to Irish history. The ways in which the events of these centuries were considered both by contemporaries and by those who came later reflected ethnic, sectarian and political distinctions in Irish society, and the experience of dramatic upheaval and its consequences. Canny is conscious at the outset of the existence of two ‘memory traditions’—those of Gaelic Ireland and of the colonial culture that had developed from the twelfth century—that had emerged in Ireland from the Middle Ages onwards. But he is also wary of totalising categories and remains alert throughout to the subtle distinctions between works that might be placed together into categories that are far too neat. At the same time, broad traditions of historical writing can be discerned. The early modern period saw the two post-medieval ‘memory traditions’ complicated by the emergence of a more aggressively Protestant ‘apocalyptic’ trend in historical writing, as well as by histories that articulated the experience of those dispossessed by war and plantation. These strands of thought were being articulated in print culture from the late Tudor period onwards; that they were more sharply defined along sectarian lines after the cataclysm of the 1641 rebellion was perhaps more of a recalibration than a rupture.

The kind of historical works under scrutiny here were often intended to justify the positions of those who wrote or commissioned them, and of the communities from which they sprang. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660, for instance, prompted a remarkable level of intellectual and verbal gymnastics, as various actors in the events of the previous two decades sought to cover their tracks, or at least to have them covered. A polemical tinge reflected the settled balance of power—cultural, economic, military, political—in Ireland after 1660, but also attempts to unsettle it. The latter may have ceased to be a realistic proposition by the mid-eighteenth century, but the events of preceding centuries retained their resonance and various writers, intellectuals and polemicists continued to pick over them. Even aside from how history was consciously deployed to win or counter arguments over contemporary issues, differing assumptions about the past became intertwined with prejudice and group identities at other levels.

The subject of the book is better described as historical discourse rather than historiography, as it ranges over other genres (such as verse) alongside historical writing per se (the impact of the COVID pandemic curtailed further, tantalising excursions into fiction). Canny is not overly concerned with the question of the reception of the texts he examines, though it must be said that this is a vexing matter that eludes easy answer. The perspective reflected here is, for the most part and perhaps inevitably, that of intellectual élites who have left sufficient traces to study. As the book moves beyond 1700, the perspectives of another élite emerge: aristocratic families who sought to rehabilitate their lineage, some of whom may have backed the wrong horse. The discussion of Thomas Carte is a striking case-study: his accumulation of manuscripts while writing a biography of the first Duke of Ormonde makes him an author familiar to historians of seventeenth-century Ireland, yet by exploring why he wrote such a biography in the first place—to highlight the royalism of the first duke to compensate for the Jacobite sympathies of his successors—the source becomes a source in its own right.

A core theme of Imagining Ireland’s pasts is the centrality of contemporary issues to the exposition of history, and how it can be deployed in the hope of prompting or preventing change: from the diverse communities of early modern Ireland seeking to bolster or justify the status they had been left with, to the uses of history in arguments for and against the Penal Laws, the updating of the assumptions held by writers in previous centuries into new forms during the early decades of the nineteenth century, and the political and cultural project of the Young Ireland movement. The Land War and associated social revolution of the late nineteenth century make for a natural end, as interest in early modern Ireland was reinvigorated by the challenges presented in the Victorian age to the system of Protestant landowning power that was the defining legacy of the early modern era. The irony is that the book begins to draw to a close precisely as the use of archival documents began to come to the fore (for better or worse) in the writing of authors like Mary Hickson or J.P. Prendergast, which highlights the extent to which so much of what Canny has examined here can be classed as polemic rather than the evidentially based history that we might expect today (which is not to suggest that the use of historical evidence will never be tainted by polemic). While his book does glance towards the historical writing of the ‘professional’ era, Canny freely admits that detailed study of early modern historiography from the twentieth century onwards would require a book of its own.

This brings us back to the book that he has written. It would be a cliché to claim the relevance of Imagining Ireland’s pasts for the era of ‘fake news’. History has been used and abused for as long as history has been written or recorded. What gives a book like this an enduring value is the way it explores how and why this happens. Could Canny have ranged further in time and space, and across genres? Of course, and he acknowledges as much. Books, like everything, are created and exist within limits (one that comes to mind here, as is so often the case with academic publishers, is the exorbitant price tag), and consideration of what a history book does not contain should not overshadow what it does. This is an ambitious and excellent account of Irish historical writing on a specific era and is, essentially, a reflection on the development of an enduring strand of Irish intellectual life over four centuries. Attempting to understand the reality of events is the stock-in-trade of historians. Alongside this, however, is the necessity to understand not just what happened but also how it was experienced and understood, and how such understanding or misunderstanding—deliberate or otherwise—has played a role in shaping the past. Canny is undoubtedly right to suggest that other subjects, such as pre-Norman Ireland or the Penal Laws, deserve similar treatment. Given how the book draws to its substantive close in the shadow of the Land War, it would be interesting to explore whether the undoing of ‘landlordism’ caused the relevance of early modern Ireland to recede, and whether the republican revolution that later led to partition and independence shifted the focus of inquiry and disputation over Irish history towards later eras.

These are questions for others to answer. In the meantime, Imagining Ireland’s pasts is a major contribution towards reasserting the importance of historiography to Ireland’s cultural history; hopefully other scholars will take a cue from it.

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series and is the author of The shadow of a year: the 1641 rebellion in Irish history and memory (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).


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