Rebellions: memoir, memory and 1798

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 12

Tom Dunne
(Lilliput Press, 320)
ISBN 1843510391

In this ambitious and often deeply personal book, Tom Dunne offers his own perspective on Irish history, on the process of historical commemoration and on current interpretations of the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford. Dunne’s book is divided into three quite distinct parts that might each have formed the basis of a separate book. But, as the title indicates, the author sees the three parts as forming a common project. Drawing on his own autobiography, on the historiography and bicentenary commemorations of 1798 and on a case-study of the events of 5 June 1798 in New Ross and Scullabogue, Dunne seeks to bring a variety of approaches to bear in order to elucidate a highly critical response to current trends in Irish historiography. These are exemplified, for him, by the 1798 bicentenary, which he criticises on a number of levels. The book deliberately sets out to be controversial and it is fair to say that few of the historians mentioned here escape chastisement.

The first part of the book, entitled ‘The historian: an intellectual memoir’, is autobiographical. This is in some ways the most interesting and original part of the entire book. As part of a project of setting out his own academic and political response to the 1998 commemorations, Dunne decides ‘to confront my own social, political and cultural formation . . . to discuss this openly here, rather than allow silently for it as my training dictated’. His account of his background and upbringing in Wexford in the middle of the last century must surely resonate with a great many people of his generation. His account of several years spent in the Irish Christian Brothers between 1957 and 1964 is particularly fascinating, and might well have formed the basis of a different kind of memoir. Dunne’s account of his historical training at UCD, Cork and Peterhouse, Cambridge and his subsequent academic career as a professional historian does not have the same freshness as the earlier chapters. But here Dunne gives a straightforward account of how he, in common with many of his contemporaries, combined a rigorous historical training with a profound horror at the resurgence of political violence in Ireland from the late 1960s. His response to the Hunger Strikes of the early 1980s ‘was not indifference, but anger, mainly at the exploitation of the dead and the cult of martyrdom, once again, by those who believed their terrorism was justified by Irish history’. Some of this anger is still present in his account of the historiography of 1798 and the process of commemoration.

In the second part of Rebellions, Dunne has two principal targets—the bicentenary commemoration organised by Comoradh 98 in Wexford and the wider practice of ‘commemorationist’ history. His dislike of the blend of popular and official commemoration involved in the bicentenary is strongly expressed. He evinces considerable distaste for some of the more commercial and popular aspects, such as the fetishisation of the pike and, quoting Louis Cullen, its tendency to simplify things and produce ‘a strange, communal tribal activity rather like an All-Ireland, or a rugby international’. But what really lies at the heart of Dunne’s critique is the view that academic historians, of whom Kevin Whelan is the leader, have simplified the picture of the Rebellion in order to produce a version of history acceptable to government and to the political agenda which he detects at the heart of what Roy Foster called ‘commemorationist history’. Thus the Wexford Comoradh presented the Rebellion as Ireland’s part of the democratic revolution of the late eighteenth century, emphasising the United Irish ideals of democracy and pluralism. The Wexford senate, which Dunne dismisses as fiction, was an element of this, as in a darker sense is his assertion that the sectarian element of popular politics, which had already been signalled by historical research, was played down or written out of the narrative. At the national level, successive government ministers used the bicentenary to promote a sanitised version of the Rebellion that helped inform the Anglo-Irish agreement. Dunne is particularly harsh in his judgements on the historians, accusing them of ‘systematic distortion of what actually happened in 1798’, ‘suppressing memory’ and, in Herbert Butterfield’s words, ‘purposeful unhistoricity’.

It is hard not to sympathise with Dunne and Foster in some of this. Politicians and commercial interests did latch on to the bicentenary for their own purposes. There was something distasteful about the way in which the two great tragedies of the Famine and the Rebellion were celebrated as well as commemorated in the 1990s. It is much more serious to argue that the historians have been willing collaborators in a process of systematic distortion. This is especially true given that many of the chief ‘culprits’ have themselves been responsible for some of the breakthroughs in our understanding of the period. Cullen and Whelan are both taken to task for exaggerating the extent to which the Wexford Rebellion was organised by the United Irishmen and inspired by their revolutionary republicanism. Yet both have been foremost in unearthing the social, economic and sectarian undercurrents in the politicisation of the people that took place during the 1790s.

In the final section Dunne seeks to ground his criticisms in a case-study of the battle of New Ross and the massacre of innocent prisoners—mainly Protestant—by the rebels at Scullabogue. The point that Dunne makes clearly here is that the massacre at Scullabogue has long been an embarrassment to nationalist histories of the Rebellion—as it was the stock in trade of loyalist accounts of the wickedness of the Rebellion. His account of the commemorative plaque erected at Scullabogue in 1998 certainly shows the sensitivities involved even at this remove. Yet it also seems clear that he is overstating the reluctance of those involved in the commemoration to acknowledge that it happened. Dunne’s account of the bloodbath at New Ross and the massacre certainly bear out his objections to any idealised view of the Rebellion as an assertion of the principles of democracy and pluralism, but he does not draw very far-reaching conclusions from his own concentration on the violence of 5 June 1798. Perhaps hatred and violence are the most remarkable things about 1798, but only if we deprive them of any wider historical context. Persistent quotations from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets represent historians as struggling with an unbearably complex history that we can only grapple with as imperfect beings. This certainly makes sense from Eliot’s perspective—High Anglican, royalist, conservative, pessimist. Can it really also be Tom Dunne’s?


Eamon O’Flaherty



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