IRISH HISTORY MATTERS: politics, identities and commemoration

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

BRIAN M. WALKER
The History Press
£15.95
ISBN 9780750991292

Reviewed by John Gibney

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

Divided into four sections, the avowed purpose of this book is to explore the role of history within contemporary political life on the island of Ireland. It begins with an opening panorama of the role played by history in the Peace Process, before moving on to a second section on commemoration that offers overviews of commemorative practices relating to St Patrick’s Day, the siege of Derry, the pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown and the First World War. A third section tackles the often nebulous but nonetheless important subject of ‘identities’, while the concluding section, on politics, explores both the crystallisation of explicitly unionist and nationalist electoral politics in the 1880s and the vexing issue of sectarianism in the Irish Revolution. This is a book that is well worth reading, though it is not without its flaws, in both structure and approach.

Walker is an engaging and accessible writer (an attribute one should never take for granted). His prose style is admirably lucid, and devoid of the almost wilfully polemical tone that characterised much ‘revisionist’ historical writing in Ireland. This would be a very useful text with which to introduce some of the concepts that he explores to both students and general readers. His clarity is also matched by his fair-mindedness, and there is much to commend here. The chapters on commemorations are fluent and very useful surveys, while the essays in the fourth and final section are the strongest in the book; his account of the Protestant experience of the revolution and population decline is a measured and substantial study.

The book begins with the Peace Process and concludes with the events of the 1880s and 1920s; surely an account of how unionist and nationalist politics took concrete shape in the 1880s should foreground a work that is largely shaped by the binary distinction between the two? The chapters have been grouped together in various categories that make sense in themselves, but one senses a missed opportunity to recast them into a more coherent whole. There are also issues of substance as well as form. There is surprisingly little engagement with an extensive Irish and international literature on commemoration, which weakens the volume in theoretical terms. When Walker notes that, ‘For unionists and republicans alike, commemoration of certain events or individuals in their history continue to provide the means to explain or justify their contemporary political and cultural concerns’ (p. 79), that might cut to the heart of why commemoration is relevant but the impulses that lie behind it warrant deeper consideration.

The same could be said of other themes in the book. The opening chapter seems to assume that an awareness of history in and of itself is a critical dynamic, rather than being one powerful element amongst many that shape actions in the present. In a similar vein, in the third section on ‘identities’ (the weakest section) there is little analysis or definition of the concept of identity, and there is surprisingly little engagement with sectarianism, or the implications of political violence in shaping how people view themselves and the society of which they are a part. Given the contemporary valency of identity politics on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention the role that versions of history currently play within them, it is frustrating that Walker seems reluctant to delve too deeply here. There is also a touch of exceptionalism, in that the manner in which Irish history and identity are intertwined surely cannot be fully understood without recourse to the wider British–Irish relationship, which could also have been teased out more fully. A sense only a few years ago that the UK was willing to engage with the complex and messy realities of its imperial history is now a distant memory; it would be nice to have some British or unionist revisionism at some point. Another issue that might have been usefully explored, not least as it lurks at the fringes of so much of his subject-matter, is the vexing concept of ‘shared’ history, which has set the contemporary tone for much of the public history of the Irish Revolution in recent years. As he is dealing with subjects that remain deeply contentious, it might have been better had Walker grasped a few more nettles in order to fully understand why people believe what they actually believe about the past, and how that interacts with their views of the world and might influence their actions within it.

The book could have done with more rigorous copy-editing to weed out some repetition and a few minor factual errors (the annual St Patrick’s Day presentation of a bowl of shamrock to US presidents dates from the 1950s rather than the 1990s). As an introduction to the subjects on which it touches Irish history matters is useful and it is definitely worth reading, but the principal subjects that it professes to explore—the uses and abuse of history, and identities—deserve more substantial treatment.

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