Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Letters, Volume 29

A chara,—My Platform piece (HI 28.4, July/August 2020) abridged an essay in Irish Studies Review that challenged revisionist claims to write value-free history. I then critiqued revisionism on its own empirical terrain, working methodically through three canonical texts to illustrate persistent bias, ultimately characterising revisionism as an ideological project providing an élite narrative of Irish history, founded on a refusal to acknowledge the colonial nature of Ireland’s past. Dr Patrick Maume’s second response contributes a somewhat rambling defence of the revisionist establishment.

I am pleased that Maume concedes the first point on the bias inherent in Moody and Edwards’s ‘scientific’ methodology. Indeed, my allusion to an ‘assembly line of automatons’ emerging from history departments aimed to puncture pretensions at producing ‘objective’ or ‘value-free’ history by highlighting its ontological absurdity, rather than describing an actual process. Neither was this intended as a refutation of the existence of objective facts, but rather as a confirmation of Richard Evans’s point that it is ‘completely wrong’ to argue ‘that there is only one legitimate way to read a given argument’.

Nevertheless, like before, Maume dodges my argument. Rather than acknowledge persistent bias, he posits Fitzpatrick’s Socratic acerbity, Foster’s Bloomsburyesque ironies and Bew’s granular style. I address substance, not style. A growing weight of evidence exists that revisionist historians have tolerated some very dubious methodologies. Peter Hart’s work on Cork represents the prime example, of which History Ireland readers should be well aware through the sound empiricism of the likes of Niall Meehan, John Regan, Barry Keane and others. Yet the historical establishment has closed ranks. As my article argued, for over a generation the academy either ignored, and at times manipulated, the archive to produce a rhetorical history antithetical to Irish republicanism and radical democratic politics generally.

I nevertheless thank Dr Maume for his praise of my work on Tyrone. Yet his letter ends with a questionable suggestion that ‘colonialism’ as a paradigm is ‘used as a substitute for thought’, before falsely inferring that such a reading undermines unionists’ position as ‘legitimate inhabitants’ of Ireland—arguably a case of having your two nations cake and eating it. Maume ignores Protestants’ singular contribution to Irish republicanism—a historical tradition based on the acknowledgement and transcendence of Ireland’s colonial history through the demand for an independent republic based on universal rights.

Furthermore, Maume repeats that I desire to convert unionists to my ‘brand of socialism’, but has the good grace to admit that this appeared in my ‘interesting’ blog rather than the article under review. I have never hidden the fact that, as a Marxist historian, humanism informs my scholarship. Indeed, it is not in the application of empirical rigour but in the absence of an ‘intellectual sleight of hand’ that the materialist conception of history diverges from liberal claims to write ‘value-free’ history. Maume’s friend, Baron Bew, for example, still maintains the chimera of an objective expert, yet he has embraced the most extreme versions of Anglo-American neo-liberalism at home and of neo-conservative imperialism abroad. In Britain, Bew is a prominent member of the Henry Jackson Society and chairs the hawkish Anglo-Israel Association, trading on his academic reputation to promote ‘liberal’ interventionism in nations resistant to Anglo-American demands. Surely no thinking person believes that imperialism and colonialism represent relics of a bygone age rather than historical processes that have developed over time and are still very much with us?

Above: Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600–1972, David Fitzpatrick’s The two Irelands 1912–1939 and Paul Bew’s Ireland: the politics of emnity 1789–2006—the three canonical revisionist texts critiqued by Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh in Irish Studies Review 28 (2) (2020).

The colonial paradigm constitutes the key contextual framing of modern Irish history; indeed, it reverberates through the historical record. British imperialists and Ulster unionists gloried in their racial and colonial identity. During the Home Rule crisis, Lord Milner, the British ‘race patriot’ and Carson’s close political friend, formed the Ulster Union Defence League with Walter Long, who partitioned the country, to rescue ‘the white settler colony of Ulster from submersion in a sea of inferior Celts’. In the summer of 1920, loyalists carried out mass violence akin to ethnic cleansing in Lisburn, Dromore, Banbridge and pockets of Belfast. In that city, 10,000 Catholics and Protestant socialists were expelled from their employment, and over the revolutionary period approximately 24,000 were expelled from their homes. Unionists excused this violence, which had no equivalent anywhere in Ireland, through a racialised and imperialist idiom. The imperial state provided them with near-unconditional support in this enterprise—these are objective historical facts.

Dr Maume has produced two extended pieces regaling readers with reminiscences of his time at Queen’s, nestled in the leafy suburbs of South Belfast, an experience that undoubtedly shaped his viewpoint. I was born into a working-class housing estate in East Tyrone in 1978, and my considerable lived experience of the North, and indeed of Queen’s, differs significantly from Dr Maume’s. I nevertheless do not subscribe to the notion that familiarity with an area constitutes a prerequisite to the study of its history; rather, to paraphrase Trotsky, the historian should strive—despite his or her open and undisguised sympathies and antipathies—to engage in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement.

The question has never been whether Ulster Protestants are entitled to dignity, respect, equality and understanding; the problem is that this island’s colonial and imperialist past has meant that the Orange government formed after partition denied these very things to many of their fellow Irish men and women.—Is mise le meas,



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