Revisionism

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh discussed revisionist distortions of Irish history (HI 28.6, July/Aug. 2020, Platform) that base themselves on the alleged neutrality of the British state and a correspondingly mistaken view that ‘Irish republicanism is inherently violent, irrational and sectarian’. I agree that that is generally the case. However, established historians reject the suggestion of a common, never mind a revisionist, approach. In Fatal path the late Ronan Fanning showed how imperial British state violence made Irish resistance inevitable. He also famously admitted that revisionist history-writing about the 1910–22 period sought to undermine the post-1968 IRA.

Challenges to the revisionist approach cannot rely simply on broad generalisations. It is necessary to explain how bias affects the presentation of historical events, by depicting aspects left out, misconstrued or simply invented. This Fearghal did admirably in his analysis of Tyrone during the War of Independence (The Irish Revolution: Tyrone 1912–23).

Publicising accusations of IRA sectarianism was of central importance to British Northern Ireland policy, whilst also secretly promoting sectarian loyalist paramilitarism. The allegation that the IRA was sectarian in the War of Independence is of central importance to revisionist historiography, while ignoring or de-emphasising unionist sectarianism, a default position reflected in Fanning’s Fatal path.

Challenges to Peter Hart’s important Cork analysis did not rely on accusations of ‘empiricism’. It was objectively demonstrated that his revisionist view of the independence struggle as an ethno-sectarian squabble was flawed, not merely in misinterpreting but also in misusing and inventing evidence. Hart’s argument was important because it was believable. It suggested that republicans systematically deployed sectarian, misogynist, social class and other prejudices to pursue the goals of Irish nationalism. It very much gave the impression of a history from below. That is why some on the left were influenced.

A faux Marxism is often central to plausible revisionist methodologies. That was the approach adopted by Paul Bew and his colleagues in the 1970s and ’80s. They railed against empiricism and historicism in the name of an allegedly scientific materialism. Bew’s unionist conclusions today, dispensing with his version of Marxism, are the same. Revisionist research findings, celebrated as path-breaking, are often flawed at root and resist evaluation outside an admiring coterie. It is necessary to show that.

That is the subject of my recent essay, ‘She is a Protestant as well’. Historians Terence Dooley (Maynooth, 1986, 1988, 1990, 2000) and Fearghal McGarry (QUB, 2005) said that in 1921 the Monaghan IRA killed a Protestant woman named Kate Carroll for sectarian reasons. McGarry depicted as an IRA target a socially marginalised Protestant poitín-distiller who merely informed the RIC about ‘her competition’. TCD historian Anne Dolan agreed in 2011 and concluded that it was also because a previously amorous IRA volunteer spurned Carroll. UCD’s Diarmaid Ferriter repeated these points in A nation and not a rabble (2015).

In fact, Carroll was Roman Catholic. The ‘facts’ that historians presented, depicting everyday prejudice, did not require reinterpretation. They did not exist. Contrary information from republican sources was ignored or withheld. The latter included evidence that Carroll was an informer who identified IRA volunteers and who was warned to stop. My essay, at academia.edu, reveals that information for the first time publicly. Essentially, I examined what happened when a flawed understanding, or expectation, of sectarianism in Irish society produced replicated, unreliable research for over 30 years.

Dissecting revisionist methodology in practice displays its inadequacies. This also helps construct a more objective (materialist?) record of how so-called ‘ordinary’ Irish men and women cooperated in attempting to transform Irish society for the better. The fact that others formed an all-class alliance so as to reinforce reaction should also be detailed.—Yours etc.,

NIALL MEEHAN

Sir,— I read with great interest the opinion piece on revisionism by Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh (HI 28.4, July/Aug. 2020, Platform). It is clear to see which historical view the author advertises for. However, I cannot share his opinion that Ranke’s methodology ‘represents a deliberately restrictive practice, established to justify power relations in the nineteenth century and ever since’. I believe that Mac Bhloscaidh may be misinformed here, as the modern historiographical approaches, invented by the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), are based on archival research and source criticism, which became commonplace in academic institutions over the last 150 years. One may argue that some of Ranke’s opinions are outdated but the basic methodology has never changed. And if the author had read a little bit of Ranke’s works he would know that Ranke did not write for power but rather explained power and society during his time. I would advise him to read English history, written in the 1860s, in which the Irish people are described with respect and the narrative supports their cause. Although trying to be objective—which did not always work out—Ranke was the first international historian who did not compose his work as a one-sided narrative (either Protestant or Catholic, English or Irish) but tried to explain the society and power structures of nineteenth-century Ireland.

We historians know that written histories are only a reflection of the times in which they were written; they reflect the ideas of the historians and what they wanted to achieve. The goal of ‘objectivity’ is exceedingly difficult to achieve and most historians would follow a theory or an idea when composing their work: they are either conservative or progressive, empiricist or post-modern, Marxist or based on Weber’s theories. But we are all aware that, even if we don’t like the narrative and approach of some historians, we still need to treat them with respect, never mind whether they are right or wrong. Mac Bhloscaidh has to argue with historians and their ideas, based on historical evidence and the understanding of that time.

With every history written, adding or correcting information and data, changing the narrative and including today’s morality, we undergo a new revision of history. Mac Bhloscaidh can advocate whatever perspective he likes, but in the end his own Marxist approach is the same revisionist approach as any other: he follows a very specific idea that excludes many other aspects from the past, thereby creating the same binocular view of history that he criticises so much as practised by any other historian. Yes, I agree, a history from below is important, but it is not the only history.—Yours etc.,

ANDREAS D. BOLDT

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