Review of the Cambridge history of Ireland, Vol. III

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—In his review of volume III (1730–1880) of the Cambridgehistory of Ireland (HI 26.6, Nov./Dec. 2018), Timothy Murtagh faults itspredecessor, A new history of Ireland,on the grounds that it was more than ‘just a series of books’ but was ‘astatement by an entire generation of revisionist scholars’. If this is a fault,it could be made of any collaborative series and no doubt will eventually bemade of the Cambridge history. Dr Murtagh personifies that generation as T.W.Moody, R.B. McDowell and J.C. Beckett, whom he sees as a sort of historicalschool preoccupied with ‘high politics’, with the result that the chronologicaldivisions in the New historycorrespond to constitutional changes, particularly in the volume covering theeighteenth century, which begins with 1691.

Moody, McDowell and Beckett did not form a school, nor were they all preoccupied with high politics. Moody, having founded Irish Historical Studies in 1938 with R. Dudley Edwards and having been editor with him or, from 1958, with T. Desmond Williams, was doyen of the small world of Irish history, a networker and a fixer. His research interest was Fenianism and his magnum opus the early career of Davitt (hardly ‘high politics’). Beckett in Belfast, on the edge of that world, did collaborate with Moody on a two-volume history of the Queen’s University, but what may be more relevant here is that he was the teacher and mentor of Thomas Bartlett, the general editor of the Cambridge history of Ireland, when the latter was a student at Queen’s in the 1960s. Certainly McDowell wrote prolifically on high politics, but in contrast to Moody he was a loner; he took no interest in other historians’ work; he never read reviews of his own books; he belonged to the 1930s, not the 1960s. What must be acknowledged is that Moody was the progenitor, planner and organiser of the New history and, more importantly, did so as chairman of a board of editors and, in the early years, with a corps of researchers. By the time he died in 1984 only three of the nine volumes had appeared and responsibility passed to a younger generation of historians, who, contrary to Dr Murtagh’s statement, did attempt to integrate new research and this was a reason for delays in publication.

Criticism that publication of the New history came too long after the research was done and so the work is very old-fashioned is fair enough for some of the chapters in the volume covering the eighteenth century. But complaint of too much high politics is unwarranted. In every volume much space is given to what in the late 1960s (when the series was planned) was an innovation: treatment of economic, social and especially cultural history (thirteen of the twenty chapters in the eighteenth-century volume). Dr Murtagh commendably praises the Cambridge history for its treatment of such subjects. The range is greater than the editors of the New history might have imagined.

Volume III of the Cambridge history of Ireland is not beyond criticism. The significances of the initial and terminal dates, 1730 and 1880, are not stated. The editor of the volume, James Kelly, in his chapter ‘The politics of Protestant ascendancy’, seems to be signalling 1730, Sir Ralph Gore’s first year as ‘undertaker’ of government business in the Irish house of commons, as the beginning of a new age. Was 1880 significant for being when, for the first time, a majority of Irish MPs were Catholics and when Parnell was elected leader of the home-rulers? Whatever the case, 12 of the 27 articles overlap one of these dates. Inexplicably, the sources that each contributor lists in alphabetical order at the end of the book under the title of his or her chapter are limited to those he or she has already cited in footnotes. Why they have to be repeated in this way and why there is not a more comprehensive list of the main sources appropriate for the subject, as is conventional, are mysteries. Giving the name of the publisher in each case is also unconventional, and curtailing the names of the authors cited is perverse. (The editors have become ‘T. Bartlett’ and ‘J. Kelly’; I have become ‘C. Woods’.) What is seriously lacking is a bibliography for each volume compiled by a historian with expertise, as in the case of volume III of the New history, where David Dickson’s systematic list of sources extends over 83 pages. The Cambridge history lacks also the sort of extensive reference material comprising volumes VIII and IX of its predecessor.

It is not unfair to point out that James Kelly, in his ‘Introduction: interpreting late early modern Ireland’, makes a blunder—on the very first page of the volume—in crediting the London printer Philip Luckombe as author of A tour through Ireland in several entertaining letters (1780) and as a reliable commentator on Ireland. In fact, as shown in an article by Susan Kroeg in Eighteenth-century Ireland xix (2004), this book was plagiarised from four earlier books and it is doubtful whether Luckombe ever visited Ireland.—Yours etc.,

Co. Kildare


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