PATRICK MAUME AND REVISIONISM

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—In his Platform piece, ‘Understanding our own ignorance’ (HI 29.2, March/April 2021), Dr Patrick Maume writes: ‘John Regan’s recent article on Peter Hart and Kilmichael (HI 28.6, Nov./Dec. 2021) … in demanding that no historical narrative should be written until every detail could be proven, unconsciously illustrates the limits of empiricism as methodology and why historians are not pure empiricists in philosophy’. A quotation might have better elucidated my position, but, rereading my article, I cannot find any evidence of making the demand Dr Maume attributes to me. What I said was that Hart’s use of evidence in support of his interpretation of the Kilmichael ambush was ‘self-contradictory, confused, and inconsistent’, but Hart’s conclusions were clear and simple. For more than a decade now, rather than making ‘demands’, I have pointed to there being no recognisable relationship between the evidence some Irish historians cite and the interpretation they advance.—Yours etc.,

JOHN M. REGAN

Sir,—Dr MacBloscaidh (HI 29.3, May/June 2021, Letters) criticises my inference that he regards historians whom he criticises as ‘liars or brainwashed zombies’. My inference rested on two of his statements. The first is that Paul Bew’s argument that an Ireland with a continuing link to Britain would have been more economically prosperous in the period c. 1920–60 than the independent state in the same period ‘defies any credible reading of the evidence’. A historian who produces a view not supported by credible reading of the evidence is dishonest or incompetent; but perhaps I am too precise, since in the same passage Dr MacBloscaidh accuses Bew of making the 1916 rebels ‘the chief culprits for sectarianism and partition’. Sectarianism existed already, and Bew argues that by 1916 partition was inevitable but that it was exacerbated by the triumph of physical-force separatism. This is surely arguable, though disputable.

The ‘brainwashed zombies’ refers to Dr MacBloscaidh’s statement that ‘an assembly line of automatons emerges from Irish history departments championing the very same synchronic approach …’.  I thought this implied that history graduates were not taught to think for themselves but (like unthinking automatons or zombies) to reproduce a particular approach, and that it was impossible for anyone who thought for themselves to adopt such a view. That is why I described my original realisation that the unionist case cannot be dismissed out of hand. I was not suggesting that because ‘an orange light-bulb went off in my head’ whatever I came up with must be correct. I may have been mistaken, but I was learning to think for myself by testing accumulated opinions against each other.

I am not a diehard defender of Moody and Edwards (or of David Fitzpatrick). My understanding is that they did not call themselves ‘value-free’, as Brendan Bradshaw called them. They called themselves ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ historians who were dispelling ‘myths’. The problem with their approach was the assumption that ‘scientific’ history would vindicate the message of reformist reconciliation embodied in Moody’s early study of Thomas Davis or his magnum opus on Michael Davitt. (How does citing these as evidence for Moody’s world-view constitute ‘revisionism’?) Liberal history is dangerously prone to assuming that its heroes were always as straightforwardly benevolent in practice as they are presented in hindsight, and to downplaying the rationality or even the influence of ‘extremists’. Just as liberal or radical nationalists have historically dismissed unionism as false consciousness, ‘liberal unionists’ historically tended to assume that nationalism would automatically disappear through modernisation, and hence the rights, concerns or even existence of present-day nationalists could be ignored. (My statement that Dr MacBloscaidh assumes that the Northern problem will be solved when the unionists are converted to his brand of socialism derives from his interesting blog <blosc.wordpress.com>.)

Second, my remark about ‘acerbity’ applied specifically to David Fitzpatrick, and I stand over my claim that his aim was Socratic. The late Donnchadh Ó Corráin lectured in the same style. It shocks students out of complacency and romanticism; it can also produce an arrogant, intimidating lecturer who assumes that anyone who doesn’t share their views is trapped in the shadows of the cave. Roy Foster’s Bloomsburyesque ironies are more insinuating than acerbic; if they sometimes appear smug, there is a powerful intellect behind them. Bew has a more granular style, built on accumulating nuggets of new information, with remarkable success in finding them and remarkable limitations in getting other scholars to pick them up.

I agree with Dr MacBloscaidh that elements of Marxist analysis are useful in modern Irish history. I went to Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1990 to study for my Ph.D for two reasons. The first was that studying modern Ireland required understanding of the Northern conflict. (When I arrived in Belfast I thought the Antrim Road was in the south of the city!) The second was that, although I am not and never have been a Marxist, I have an interest in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and I had come across a Marxist historian at Queen’s who researched the social base of the IPP, as distinct from the dominant Westminster-centred approach of F.S.L. Lyons. For the last 30 years I exchanged perspectives, ideas and information with Paul Bew. I have learned a great deal from him, and I hope he has learned something from me. There are quite a few things we disagree on, but I respect him as a friend and a scholar.

My own approach to the history of Ireland under the union is to see it in terms of the disintegration of an oppressive ancient regime and the emergence of an ethnic frontier, in line with the analysis of the late Frank Wright in Two lands on one soil (1994). This was how sections of Irish and British opinion, who believed that Irish protest and British reformism were natural allies, saw it at the time; others, both nationalist and unionist, disagreed, and one of the fascinations of the period is the tension it displays between liberalism in theory and in practice, and the reasons why nationalism outdid liberalism while absorbing liberal features. I have given a lot of attention to Ernest Gellner’s theory about nationalism as embodied in an ethnic struggle for the control of administration (particularly education) as this becomes increasingly important in a modernising society, partly because I did some of my early research on D.P. Moran, who fits the Gellner thesis very well. The problem with this is that Moran represents only one strand of nationalism (that which Dr MacBloscaidh calls ‘Hibernianism’ in his useful studies of Tyrone), so I am trying to expand my understanding through other approaches such as Perry Anderson’s emphasis on popular print culture and Anthony Smith’s primordialist view of national identities.

I am not saying that the colonial interpretation is invalid, simply that certain features in my research lead me to explore other approaches. I am not sure whether unionists should be seen as British proxies (though this tends to play down their own agency, and the occasional attempts of sections of the British establishment to sacrifice them for wider imperial interests) or as British allies, or simply as British (I think it has varied and will vary again). I am concerned when ‘colonialism’ is used as a substitute for thought. (How long do they have to live on this side of the North Channel before they cease to be colonists and become legitimate inhabitants? That was the point of St John Ervine’s protest to de Valera.)—Yours etc.,

PATRICK MAUME

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