Ireland: a social and cultural history, 1922–2002

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Ireland a social and cultural history, 1922–2002 1Ireland: a social and cultural history, 1922–2002
Terence Brown
(Harper Perennial, €15)
ISBN 0007125761For this third edition of his enormously influential survey of the social and cultural history of independent Ireland, Terence Brown has brought us up to the year 2002. This is an interesting development, for it involves the chronicling of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s in Ireland by someone who was—in particular with the first publication of this book in 1981—one of those who defined the early parameters of that debate. This new edition, described in the publisher’s blurb as ‘thoroughly updated for the new millennium’, calls both for a reappraisal of the scope and achievement of the original study, the text of which remains almost unchanged, and for a critique of the latest section, which covers the years 1980–2002.
Brown’s Social and cultural history was an attempt, in his own words, to write an ‘intellectual and cultural history of Ireland since independence’ that was at the same time fully intertwined with the main outlines of post-1921 Irish social history. It marked an important step in the development of what was, in 1981, a comparatively infant discipline in Ireland. The book has been required reading for any student of modern Ireland for over twenty years now. Re-reading it, one is again struck by the smoothness of the integration of cultural and social history, particularly in the sections on the first three decades of the new Irish state. Placing Patrick Kavanagh’s long 1942 masterpiece The Great Hunger, to give just one example, alongside an extended account of the crisis in rural consciousness as the 1930s drew to a close is no mere exercise in contextualisation. Rather, Brown insists on a truly materialist consideration of literary culture, and the poem—which marked something genuinely new in Irish writing—is simply better understood in light of his historical gloss. His treatment of the language question as it developed in tandem with the state, and as it was forced to adapt to modernisation, is both concise and insightful, and is one of the areas of continuity that emerges most interestingly in the new section.
Overall, however, the emphasis on the social, cultural and economic, while perhaps in keeping with the academic winds of change at the time the book was written, tends to neglect the political, except in a narrow parliamentary sense, and this makes for some odd lacunae in what is otherwise a text dense with illustration. It seems inconceivable that any history, either social or cultural, of the traumatic early years of the 26 counties could almost entirely ignore the nature and legacy of the civil war, or could neglect to mention the names of, say, Liam Mellowes or Liam Lynch, but that is precisely what Terence Brown does. There is a tendency to practice a cut-and-dried subordination of messy political reality to narrative neatness that, in the end, is upended in this book by political events themselves. Brown’s hopeful conclusion on the achievements of the early years of Ireland’s independence is a case in point:

‘A state that might not have survived at all had established and protected democratic institutions and given hope to many colonial peoples that they too could achieve similar feats of post-colonial construction.’

Of course, the story was not quite as straightforward as that, since one part of Ireland was not post-colonial at all.
Brown’s neglect of the political, particularly in his treatment of the first decades of the independent 26 counties, may be, recalling G.M. Trevelyan’s famous definition of social history as ‘history with the politics left out’, a discipline-driven silence. And yet there is plenty of treatment of politics as a constituent factor in the social elsewhere in the book. Although Brown does not dwell on the fierce divisions in Ireland in the 1920s over the matter of partition and of what to do about Northern unionism, he is much more comfortable doing so in some depth when it comes to outlining what was essentially the same tussle as it unfolded in the Republic during the early years of the Northern Irish troubles. In his discussion of what he terms ‘decades of debate’ (through the 1959–79 period), the figure that looms largest in the Southern public conversation on the North is Conor Cruise O’Brien. Whereas, Brown argues conventionally, the ‘Northern conflict did not stimulate major ideological redirection in the Republic’, Cruise O’Brien’s trenchant interventions on what he insisted was the Republic’s dangerous ambivalence on the issue of partition did stir an ideological battle that, in many ways, continued well beyond the 1970s, and remains unresolved. Brown’s critique of Cruise O’Brien’s approach to what the latter famously called the ‘unhealthy intersection’ between literature and politics in Ireland is a significant one, especially in light of what he is doing in this very book. O’Brien’s thinking is ‘markedly self-indulgent on this issue’, according to this critique. But the issue of the separation of politics and culture so vehemently vindicated by Cruise O’Brien raises some central questions about Terence Brown’s own, albeit ‘politics-lite’, effort to integrate the social and the cultural (often literary) in post-partition Ireland.
Why, then, the concentration on state-building in the early years of the state, at the expense of discussing the civil war that accompanied the state’s foundational moments? One way of answering this might be to read Ireland: a social and cultural history as a companion-piece to Brown’s main works of literary or cultural history from the 1970s, Northern voices: poets from Ulster (1977) and his study of Louis MacNeice (1975). What emerges from the collection of essays in particular—written by this Northerner during the explosive early years of the troubles—is the sense of a distinct, even if complex, cultural history of Ulster. So if we accept that the first two books are essentially ‘about’ the North, and that A social and cultural history is exclusively about the Southern state after 1922, what emerges as Terence Brown’s model for the cultural history of modern Ireland is a quietly partitionist—or, at the very least, a loosely statist—one. In light of the seminal work done since 1981 by other historians of the period, in particular by David Fitzpatrick, the overall architecture of the original text of the Social and cultural history might be called into question. What, one is tempted to ask, would a social and cultural historical version of Fitzpatrick’s subtle feat of parallel thinking, The two Irelands, look like?
One of the fascinating aspects of the newly written chapters is the way in which the very politics Brown elides at the outset of his study, in particular those concerning the issues of partition and the North, literally force their way back into the book, as they did into the political, cultural and historiographical debates of the 1980s and ’90s. This makes for some interesting moments of narrative time-slippage, in which the account, for instance, of the re-entry in the 1990s of Sinn Féin into democratic politics north and south jumps into present-minded commentary. The move towards democracy by Sinn Féin, Brown says, is something that, ‘[it] is hoped, will mean the permanent and not merely the tactical eschewal of violence by the IRA’. When Charles Haughey appears in 1981, the text specifically anticipates the corruption scandals that will not emerge until the 1990s. Yet when the bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, first appears (by his absence, for delivering a political snub to Ronald Reagan in 1984) we get no mention of Annie Murphy—though she does make an entry at the appropriate date in the story. So there are a few points in this new section of the book where a rigorous historical sense of narrative is suddenly displaced by what reads like Irish Times journalese. Having said that, on the strictly social, economic and cultural dimensions of what have clearly been two transformative decades for Ireland Brown is exemplary. Anyone who wants to find out about the various abortion or divorce debates, or the decade of tribunals, or (and here he is particularly compressed and articulate) the Northern Irish peace process, will not find a better introductory source.
Finally, there are the culture wars that so strongly marked the ’80s and ’90s in Ireland, especially in the fields of historiography and cultural criticism. Intellectuals in these fields conducted a remarkably forceful debate with one another that, though it might not have felt much like it at the time, enlivened and reinvented, if not Ireland, at least the field of Irish Studies. That younger scholars were able to see that cultural debate mattered has led to a new wave of intellectual engagement that shows no signs of abating. And it should be remembered that Terence Brown’s voice within these debates, as it is in this book, has always been one of equanimity and even-handedness. Central to those battles of the last two decades were the political and cultural project of Field Day and the historiographical project of revisionism. Brown’s treatment of the main lines of argument between the two sides is balanced and helpful, especially to someone trying to get a handle on the thing from the outside. One larger truth that emerges from the cultural history of the ’80s and ’90s that the book outlines is the centrality of Field Day in insisting that what John Montague once called ‘the matter of Ulster’ be taken up by a Southern chattering class that would, perhaps, much rather have forgotten about it. The success of this venture in public intellectualism can be seen in the very fabric of Brown’s book. What began as an effort to write a clear-cut history of independent Ireland is transformed, by the book’s third edition, into a narrative that takes much more fully into consideration not only events in the North but also the ways in which those events cannot be separated from their impact on the Republic.
Ultimately, and despite the author’s protestations to the contrary in his preface, the version of ‘culture’ put forth in this book is that of a high culture. And while it does not seem especially original, in this the age of cultural studies, to point out that culture is always political, Brown’s original book contains as a premise the idea that it is not. This disciplinary innocence, while it might have been understandable in 1981, lends the book a slightly musty quality today. The massive changes in Irish popular culture that have accompanied Ireland’s last two decades may be the big bit of the story that is left out here. Any book on the cultural history of modern Ireland that mentions F.J. Byrne but fails to mention Gay Byrne is missing something important. But equally, a history of post-partition Ireland that remembers W.P. Ryan and forgets Frank Ryan is wanting.
Mary Burgess


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