Our Man In Montreal

Published in Features, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Volume 8

VC:    Did your background contribute to your interest in history?

MPM:    Yes. My father had a deep interest in the history of Ireland and my family had been involved in one way or another in the country’s history since the seventeenth century. We had a very good library and there were historic books all over the place which I spent a lot of time browsing through as a child. We had family in Ireland (north and south), England and in Scotland. So the way in which people had ended up in one place or another penetrated one’s consciousness as a child and stimulated an interest in history. I read it in school and studied it for the school certificate but I didn’t see any possibility of earning a living from it so I went in other directions.

VC:    What was it like growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1940s.

MPM:    I was aware of the tension. We were Protestants and my father was a member of the Orange Order. At one point after I had moved to Canada I returned home and voiced criticism of the Orange Order for its anti-Catholicism. My father’s response was: ‘How dare you say that’. He himself was absolutely opposed to any form of discrimination and had his own criticisms of the Order. He told a story of how he addressed an Orange gathering on the Twelfth during the war and asked them why they were there because they should be fighting the war. He was a junior minister in the Northern Ireland government but eventually left politics because he could not participate in the way that people wanted him to. He was very upset about that. It’s not that we didn’t share some of the prejudices that were about but my father drew a great distinction between religion and politics. He did not like people who in his eyes were disloyal to the Crown but he never associated that with religion. When I once asked him what he would do if I became a Catholic, he replied, ‘It would make no difference’. Then I asked him what he would do if I became a communist, and he replied, ‘Now that would be different’.

VC:    You went to school at Eton. What was it like?

MPM:    I was taken to task for being an Irishman. I had a classmate from Southern Ireland and he took me to task for being a Northern Irishman! So I had my share of taunts and teasing but I wouldn’t say it was serious, although I was accused of shining lights so that German bombers could find English ports! My history teachers were excellent and I learned a lot from them but they did not encourage us to become historians. There weren’t very many professional historians then and I didn’t know anybody who was a historian. Those who were writing at the time usually had another job. So I was interested in going into agriculture because I had been brought up on a farm.

VC:    Why did you come to Canada?

MPM:    I came because I found a place to farm. I looked at the possibility of going to New Zealand but that didn’t work out. The Canadian Pacific Railroad had a settlement scheme whereby I could do a two-year course in a farming college and work on Canadian farms during the summer. After that I got a job in Canada Packers cattle yards and discovered I could do a BA at night. I went to what is now Concordia and studied literature and history. I was about to give it up on the grounds that it wasn’t leading anywhere when I was persuaded by Edward McCullough to finish the degree first and then go onto commerce if I wished. In the meantime, he put me in for the Woodrow Wilson fellowship so I could do further study at MA level. At that time I was teaching English at the then Montreal Institute of Technology, and decided that that was what I wanted to do, I wanted to teach. So when I got this fellowship, I was accepted at McGill and that is how I got into history. But even then I was not convinced that I would end up writing history, it was an accident.

VC:    Where did the inspiration for The Scottish Migration to Ulster come from?

MPM:    When I came to McGill to work with Stanford Reid, he wanted me to work on sixteenth-century Scottish history. I wanted to work on eighteenth-century English history. So we compromised on sixteenth-century Irish-Scottish history. My MA thesis was on the Scots who went to Ireland as mercenaries. Now it is no substitute for Hayes McCoy, and I have never spoken much about it, but in the process I discovered that there was nothing written since 1877 on the major seventeenth-century Scottish migration to Ulster. So I decided to do my PhD on the Ulster plantation itself and Reid agreed. T.W. Moody had already done the major work on the plantation of Londonderry but he didn’t really deal with the Scots. At the time Robert Hunter and I were about the only people working in this area. I first met Robert while reading the 1622 plantation survey in the British Library which he also wanted to consult. We discovered that we were possibly trespassing on each other’s territory. So we went off and had a coffee and far from trespassing we were soon working alongside each other. Robert was extraordinarily helpful. He put me up in his room in Trinity College, Dublin, which may have been illegal, and we worked together in the library. Later on when I went to Derry, he took me around some of the ruins of the plantation castles. When I told people what I was working on they invariably said, ‘whatever for?’, and I had to defend doing this valuable work on the origins of many of Ireland’s Protestants. But after 1969 I regret to say nobody ever asked why that study had been done. And it is a tragedy that, in a sense, the interest in Irish history is linked to the violence.

VC:    You were a ‘British historian’ long before ‘British history’ became fashionable. What are your thoughts on this current genre of historical writing?

MPM:    The interesting thing about these islands is the tussle between the centre and the periphery and I saw it in those terms. As far as the current trend is concerned I am all for it. Whereas there are very valuable town histories, county histories, and national histories we also have to look at the way in which the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh have interacted. It doesn’t mean that each doesn’t have a history of its own but each one’s history is so deeply influenced from at least the twelfth-century by the others that it cannot be ignored. I think the English during the twentieth-century have been perhaps the worst offenders in this regard. Think of the number of books with titles like, ‘English Civil War’, ‘English Revolution’, etc., ignoring the Scottish and Irish dimensions until recently.

VC:    Since the foundation of modern historical training in Ireland, students had to study English history. Why do you think a similar approach to the histories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales was not adopted in England?

MPM:    English history went off on a tangent: the discussion became Marxist-oriented and Ireland and Scotland didn’t fit into that. There was also a sense that England’s history was more important than that of Ireland and Scotland. I couldn’t deny that. But even the historians who did not adopt that view, like Christopher Hill or Lawrence Stone, who were certainly not imperialist historians, were not interested in Scotland or Ireland, and sometimes for valid reasons. If you are looking at the English aristocracy it did have a different sort of history than the Irish aristocracy. They were intermarrying, certainly by the seventeenth-century, and the idea of the rise of the gentry had repercussions in Ireland. Yet English historians did not recognise this.

VC:    What do you think of the critique that ‘British’ history is for many of its practitioners still English history with little dollops of Ireland, Scotland and Wales thrown in?

MPM:    To some extent that criticism is valid. It is difficult to give due weight to the periphery. When you are working at a particular subject that lends itself to at least a three-way perception, you can get into the minds to some degree of the Gaelic Irish, you can get into the minds fairly easily of the English officials, but it is harder to get into the minds of the Scots because they didn’t write as much and there aren’t as many letters that have survived. But you can do that on a subject such as the plantation. When it comes to other topics, for example, the development of industry, this is much harder. And it is even harder when you are teaching. If you are giving one lecture on England, one on Scotland and one on Ireland, this breaks down the story so it is hard to follow. The way I do it is to give one course on British history and another separate course on Irish history. I expect the students taking the Irish history course to have taken the British history course so that I don’t have to explain what has gone on in England. And it is interesting that there are as many students in the Irish history course as in the British history course. But the students taking the British course do expect to learn about William Langland, the Tudors, many of them are fascinated by Elizabeth and about English colonial expansion. So they are interested in things that are essentially English and that is entirely valid. But if you teach a course on Irish history then you can concentrate on Ireland but bearing in mind the influences from the larger island. You see, in explaining this point I have owned up to doing the same thing as the critic would charge!

VC:    It is unlikely, however, that you are guilty of this with your 1994 book The outbreak of the Irish rebellion of 1641. What brought you to this complex and controversial topic?

MPM:    I wanted to follow up the planters and see what effect they had later on. There had been a lot of work on the English side of the wars of the 1640s, and Stevenson had fairly well covered the Scottish side, but the Irish side was neglected. I originally wanted to write a history of the civil wars in Ireland but I very quickly realised that it was just too overwhelming. What was really intriguing was why the war had broken out in the first place. So I made a book out of what was going to be a chapter. But that again led me to the archives in all three countries, and to a much more extended treatment of the subject.

VC:    The book places enormous emphasis on personality and on faction. Do you think any single individual can be held responsible for the disaster that was 1641?

MPM:    Obviously not, but Charles I bears enormous responsibility. In fact I altered my conclusion to the book because I felt I had exonerated him to a degree and I realised that he must bear responsibility. He was in charge and he got into this mess. Now he was a well-meaning man but terribly weak and indecisive and very unperceptive of other people. As an administrator—and I have been an administrator—you have got to listen to what other people are saying even if they disagree with you fundamentally and he couldn’t. He tried to make some of the right decisions but events got away from him. According to Conrad Russell, he had settled the Scottish issue. There wouldn’t have been a war had it not been for the rising in Ulster. There would have been a much more satisfactory land settlement in Ireland. The Graces were now in the form of bills and they would have been passed. This would have given land security to most of the Catholic landed gentry. Fascinating possibilities emerge from this; it would have given them political power. They had the power to sit in parliament and accommodation might have been possible in Ulster. One can understand why there was a rebellion in Ulster but those who plotted it without knowing what was really going on bear some responsibility.

VC:    Mac Cuarta’s Ulster 1641, to which you contributed an essay, was an attempt to reach a wider readership. Do you think your interpretation of 1641 and the work of Mac Cuarta and his contributors can have an impact on the historical consciousness of its intended audience?

MPM:    I think Mac Cuarta does it better than I do. My book is really for the specialist. I hope that people can persevere with it and gain something from it. That is the dilemma for the historian: we have an obligation as professional historians to do our work in as careful and as deliberate a way as we can, as we, to sound rather pompous, seek the truth in its multiplicity, though that does lead to such detail that it turns people off. Yet the people who write popular works do use our material.

VC:    Your next project on the Duke of Ormond and seventeenth-century Ireland seems like a lifelong task. What drew you to this gigantic project?

MM: I don’t anticipate writing a two or three volume work on him but obviously he was a key figure and I was leaving him just as he was becoming important and I wanted to find out just what he did later on. One topic leads to another and it was also clear that there hadn’t been in 1994 recent work done on him. Now there is more but it is in the form of PhD theses. Yet I think there is now a point where we can begin to look at Ormond in the light of the work that has been done on him and, perhaps, in terms of a series of essays on specific aspects of his life, to look at him again. He got involved in a bit of a dispute towards the end of his life with the Earl of Anglesey and as a result there was written up for him a justification of what he did in the 1640s up to 1647. Although scholars have noted it, nobody has really examined it. And he himself read and annotated it. So it comes closest to an official biography of the period. There are particular aspects of his life that intrigue me; his relationship with the Ulster Scots, for example.

VC:    Executive government has just returned to Northern Ireland today after a gap of twenty-five years. As a historian of a mixed society in Ulster in the seventeenth-century, do you have any cautions or advice for the participants as they set out on their political journey?

MPM:    The first caution must be to historians to avoid telling politicians what they must do! These people have terrific responsibilities; it seems to me fairly obvious that there has to be mutual respect. And I think living in Canada is very instructive. Here we are living in Quebec, admittedly a bigger place, with two main groups that do not see eye to eye very often, yet with an extraordinary degree of mutual respect, most of the time. When that respect is not there then we have problems. There has to be mutual respect, and I know there is in many parts of Northern Ireland because I go back from time to time. But in some groups it is lacking and that leads to these terrible tensions and eventually violence. But that isn’t a lesson of history. What strikes me about Irish history is the number of opportunities there have been for reconciliation and a society that works in harmony. Very often, in fact far too often, these opportunities have been lost. I think 1641 was one of those occasions. Here is another occasion, let us hope that nobody acts too quickly, jumps to conclusions. A little bit of caution before you misunderstand somebody is surely essential. And I think that there are real prospects eventually for a harmonious and bicultural society.

Vincent Carey teaches early modern European and Irish history at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh.

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