Patrick Maume and revisionism

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Letters, Volume 29

A chara,—Dr Patrick Maume cites E.P. Thompson’s The poverty of theory in his welcome reply to my article on revisionism (Platform, HI 29.2, March/April 2021). In my piece (Platform, HI 28.4, July/August 2020), I cited the same collection to illustrate the ideological imperatives operating within and beyond the academy. Unfortunately, Dr Maume’s response rests on a misrepresentation of my argument: he implies that I regard those with whom I disagree as ‘liars or brainwashed zombies’, though the inference is entirely his own. He compounds this by mischaracterising my critique of the synchronic nature of a great deal of Irish historiography as ‘jamming your nose up against it’. (History is described as an oil painting in my original metaphor.) Keen, it seems, to make my work fit a popular caricature of radical history-writing as ‘reductionist’ or ‘didactic’, Maume attempts to strip my critique of any nuance or acknowledgement of contradictions within the historical process. Let me assure Dr Maume that the reification and crude reduction are in his own mind. Far from deriding small-scale studies, I have published two: in both my overarching aim is to illuminate the dialectical tension between individual agency and wider social forces.

I am grateful, however, that Dr Maume acknowledges one of the central arguments in my original critique: that the three historians studied employed an ‘acerbic’ tone. Still, where Maume sees little more than an ‘overused ironic mode’, I identify a clear pattern of ideology trumping the evidence. Apparently, when prominent historians dismiss popular agency this merits comparison with Socrates; when I expose the obvious bias in their work it can be brushed off as caricature. Maume also does me a disservice by putting words in my mouth—constructing reductive statements that I never made in order to obscure my actual argument. In my longer Irish Studies Review piece (which Maume does not reference), I employed a deep text-analysis of three icons of Irish historiography, all professing to write objective or ‘value-free’ history. Their claims to ‘objectivity’ are cited in the piece, and Maume’s attempt to argue that the Edwards–Moody school did not purport to write ‘value-free’ scientific history represents a very striking revision of history indeed. In the extended article, I establish that the works under review each propounded the three key assertions outlined by Dr Maume (i.e. Britain as a neutral arbiter; two nations in Ireland; and irrational, sectarian republicanism). I never claimed that these historians were not entitled to make these arguments; rather I argued, quite compellingly I thought, that they were not entitled to use the shield of value-free history as a defence.

As for the straw men: I have never, anywhere, argued that the British State ‘was uniformly malevolent towards nationalists’ or ‘uniformly reactionary’, although there is certainly a compelling argument that it was generally so. Dr Maume, in his haste to portray me as a crude propagandist, seems oblivious to the singular utility of a Marxist analysis for mapping and understanding tensions and contradictions at the intersection between class and ethnicity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland. I do indeed argue that a colonial paradigm best explains the position of Ulster Unionism, but at no point do I claim that Unionists ‘have no right to refuse to identify with the nationalist/republican project’.

I have scoured the article but am unable to locate the passages where I argued that my definition of Irish republicanism is ‘the only way forward’, or that everything will be fine when I convert Ulster Unionists to my own brand of socialism! In my actual piece, the evidence suggests that the three general histories under review depict Irish republicanism as uniquely violent, irrational and sectarian but consistently portray the British and Unionist positions, as Dr Maume would have it, as ‘an expression of sweet reason’. I do argue that the promotion of dual rights to self-determination is based on hypocrisy and does not correspond either to the historical evidence or indeed to basic notions of common sense. Dr Maume himself does not know whether Ulster Unionists can be called a separate nation, but they are a ‘distinctive cultural body with a distinctive political position’. I would not dispute any of this, but only the most two-dimensional thinker would proport that this negated their role as British proxy. What de Valera’s conversation in New York in 1920 has to do with anything I have ever written I will leave as a question in anticipation of Dr Maume’s response. I hope, however, that, this time, he will address what I have written rather than the product of his own taut and febrile imagination.—Is mise le meas,

Dr FEARGHAL Mac BHLOSCAIDH

Sir,—Reading Patrick Maume’s ‘Platform’ piece (HI 29.2, March/April 2021), I was reminded of my own school days in Dublin in the late 1960s/early 1970s. I was fifteen years old in 1970 and was a pupil in a north inner-city Dublin school, under the brutal tutelage of the Christian Brothers. One of the lay teachers was an ardent Irish republican, who some years later would become a very well-known, and respected, TD. Juvenile discussions with this teacher about the burgeoning trouble in the Six Counties were sometimes heated but always rewarding and exhilarating; he encouraged us always to think for ourselves. Analysis, such as it was, of the situation was straightforward; the murder and maiming was all coming from one direction and the Catholic/nationalist population had somehow to be protected. Craigavon’s assertion that ‘All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State’ was the watchword of the marauding Unionist thugs—RUC, ‘B’ Specials, UDA, UVF, UDR, sundry mad preachers and dubious clergymen. It didn’t seem to me, at that time, that unifying the country was a primary concern.

Half a century later, unrepentant, supremacist Unionism is still as resilient, vibrant and triumphalist as ever. Its political and militia—DUP, UUP, UVF, UDA etc.—structures are still intact and Orange sectarian triumphalism prevails. James Joyce’s potted history got it perfectly when he called Unionists ‘the naymen of noland’.

At age fifteen, Dr Maume seems to have had a ‘lightbulb’ moment (orange-coloured?) and from then on was a free-thinker. In that vein, it might be useful if he had another epiphany and resolved to his satisfaction the fact that Ireland was entitled to ‘break away’ from the colonising power, Britain, majority or no majority. Ireland was not, and is not, the property of Britain/UK/England (or whatever they want to call themselves), and never was. Using Brexit as an example, we know what a majority means to Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Poor de Valera seems to get a raw deal these days. Personally, I think that O’Casey’s oblique reference to Dev (in The Plough and the Stars) as an ‘illegitimate son, of an illegitimate child, of a corporal in the Mexican army’ is closer to the mark than the notion that he was Spanish.—Yours etc.,

EUGENE HANDLEY

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