Revisionists—they haven’t gone away, you know

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2020), Platform, Volume 28

Why do the academic historians of Ireland seem to speak for rather than to power?


Leopold von Ranke—‘Rankean empiricism represents a deliberately restrictive practice, established to justify power relations in the nineteenth century and ever since’. (Ranke-Museum, Wiehe, Germany)

Ireland is more than halfway through a ‘decade of centenaries’ commemorating the revolutionary period. It is also, quite apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, in the midst of a decade-long economic and political crisis (at the time of writing the 8 February general election has still not produced a government and a no-deal Brexit looms) that has shaken the island’s 100-year-old constitutional settlement. In response, the public profile of the professional historian as civic intellectual and expert has seldom been greater. Academic voices, however, seem often to speak for rather than to power; misplaced assumptions regarding their objectivity have to date facilitated a rather partial reading of the revolutionary period and a revisionist assault on popular ‘misconceptions’.

Yet many Irish people stubbornly cling to antiquated notions: that Ireland was England’s first colony; that the Irish revolution was a national liberation struggle to fulfil long-standing democratic demands; that Ulster Protestants do not constitute a separate nation, but that partition constituted the imperial strategy of a reactionary élite that included Ulster unionism. In the face of the recusant masses, revisionists reject a colonial perspective and construct their own grand narrative that rests on three ahistorical assertions, which few academic historians would fundamentally challenge. First, the British State acted largely as a neutral arbiter across the long nineteenth century. Second, two nations with equal rights to self-determination inhabit Ireland. And, third, Irish republicanism is inherently violent, irrational and sectarian.

Revisionists continually lament the public’s ignorance of the past, lack of maturity and failure to honour everyone’s history. Their frustration is rooted in the fact that Ireland’s revolutionary tradition appears impervious to revisionist reason. Yet, to paraphrase Patrick Pearse, wise men riddle me this: what if the fools are right? Despite its systematic mischaracterisation, republicanism consistently represented the most democratic and progressive political ideology in Irish history. That those in positions of intellectual, political and financial influence recoil from viewing British rule as anti-democratic, coercive, sectarian or colonial speaks more to their support for a comparable arrangement in our own time than to the objectivity of their analyses.

Objective historians?

W.E.H. Lecky—‘an inveterate racist and eugenicist who consistently opposed democratic reform’.

Revisionism’s limitations are both methodological and ideological, shortcomings that reinforce one another. There are some incontrovertible elements to history—facts among them. Yet, as facts can be employed to support different interpretations, they cannot speak for themselves through objective historians. Nevertheless, revisionists claim that their conclusions emerge from a cumulative process of professional, empirical research, and that other perspectives lack validity because they stray from the methodology of ‘value-free history’.

Irish revisionism began in 1936 with T.W. Moody and R.D. Edwards’s mission to promote historical learning on scientific principles. This methodology—Rankean empiricism—represents a deliberately restrictive practice, established to justify power relations in the nineteenth century and ever since. In Ireland it has always favoured a partial, élitist reading, promoting the perspective of an articulate minority who enjoyed the liberty, literacy and licence to leave a written record. Having served their own apprenticeships, revisionists insist that only trained historians (Enda Kenny’s ‘genuine historians’) can speak with authority about the past. With rare exceptions, an assembly line of automatons emerges from Irish history departments championing the very same synchronic approach, rejecting broad generalisation and insisting that the past is distinct from the present—an approach akin to viewing an old master with one’s nose pressed against the canvas. Any appreciation of the wider picture, or of history as a process, is intentionally abandoned.

By its very nature, empiricism reifies concepts and historical processes, accepting them uncritically as fixed and natural phenomena in a manner that impedes understanding. Sensory experience represents the only source of knowledge, obtained through experience—in this case through reading primary sources and peer-reviewed literature. Yet, as Marx noted in Capital, all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided. Where an overarching theme appears in Irish historiography, the modernity thesis serves as a stick to beat recalcitrant plebs who did not know what is good for them—a convenient creed for an establishment subservient to neo-liberal hegemony.

We can see its outworking in Alvin Jackson’s 2000 review of three notable revisionist monographs in Irish Historical Studies. There he commended Ireland’s ‘honourable native tradition of liberal historiography dating back to Lecky’, and cited Isaiah Berlin as archetype of the ‘empirical and sceptical approach to the study of history’. In fact, Lecky was an inveterate racist and eugenicist who consistently opposed democratic reform. His empirical approach legitimised his own class prejudice, masking the very reactionary tendencies that underpinned his liberalism.

If we locate liberalism within the historical process, then Jackson’s nod to Berlin is particularly revealing. Berlin’s concept of ‘negative’ liberty, the ‘full enjoyment of a private sphere of liberty guaranteed by the law’, demarcates the confines of liberal democracy. As custodians of the community of the free, modern liberals fulfil a similar historical role to their predecessors from Locke onwards. Liberalism seeks to fix the boundary to the march of democratic freedom, the ne plus ultra: ‘thus far shall it go and no further’. The main current dominating Irish historiography can be understood as a liberal defence of power, which employs a vulgar empiricism and constrictive ontology to rule out a radical reading of the past or an awareness of history as process.

Irrational Fenians

On 10 January 2016, the BBC’s ‘Sunday Politics’ show welcomed Paul Bew as an academic expert to share his thoughts on the Easter Rising. In many ways Bew’s contribution epitomised revisionist attempts to deny the Rising’s legitimacy, criticising those who were ‘all the time claiming to be in tune with Irish history, thinking deeply about its resonance, [whereas] most of the people who are claiming this are not in tune at all’, and insisting that the Rising led to ‘a harsher partition, economically, much harsher life for two generations of Irish people … and a much more sectarian society … for which unionists are not responsible’. ‘The project’, Bew claimed, was ‘follow us into the post office and you’ll have a country of twenty million, Irish-speaking and united. What you actually get, and it is almost inevitable once you’ve introduced the gun into Irish politics and when you use it on that scale, is you get a country of two million, English-speaking, you get a harsher partition.’

Bew’s argument—delivered under the authority of ‘value-free’ history—defies any credible reading of the evidence. Rather, like Alice through the looking glass, history is inverted and, curiouser and curiouser, non-sectarian republicans who resisted partition become the chief culprits for sectarianism and partition. Insurrectionaries mounting a rising against empire during a global cataclysm become men of violence challenging good, democratic government.

The three general all-island histories written in Oxford, Dublin and Belfast, provide a useful basis for interrogating the main pillars of the revisionist grand narrative. These works span three decades from 1988 until 2007, and were produced by three ‘baby boomers’—Foster, Fitzpatrick and Bew—who came of age while Isaiah Berlin waged cold war, entering the academy as François Furet was storming the popular memory of the Bastille. Careful analysis demonstrates a deeply embedded anti-republican bias, which essentially whitewashed British and unionist agency during the revolutionary period.

All three works depict a neutral British administration—sometimes wrong-headed but seldom if ever malicious. Although the imperial élite’s thoroughly reactionary world-view barely registers, quixotic republicanism consistently tilts at the windmills of British oppression and misrule. Opponents of British rule are mad, bad and dangerous to know, but the status quo remains, conspicuously, beyond criticism. Like Pangloss, change represents anathema, as ‘all is for the best’ in the ‘best of all possible worlds’.

All three studies also promote the ‘two nations’ theory and encourage the absurd notion that partition emerged from nationalist insensitivity to unionist concerns rather than imperialist agency. As to systematic discrimination and loyalist intolerance, Fitzpatrick perhaps best captures the mood, commenting that, ‘at its merriest, life in Craigavon’s Ulster was a bowler-hatter’s tea-party’. The levity does not extend to republicanism, apparently, which is portrayed consistently as akin to an emotional disorder. Nowhere are the progressive or anti-imperialist elements explored in these three works, which consistently portray republicanism as a racist, sectarian and irrational cult.

The bewildered herd

For a generation, Irish historiography has been coloured by an obvious prejudice against the anti-imperialist struggle. Fitzpatrick admitted as much on these very pages (HI 20.3, May/June 2012, letters) but added that ‘there is no justification for inferring that distaste for “terrorists” led to the endemic distortion or falsification of history, in either its scholarly or its public aspects’. His own study of Clare offers abundant proof of the anti-democratic tenor of empirical and sceptical revisionism. There, in describing the response of ordinary people to British coercion after the Rising, he writes:

‘By the sporadic exercise of force majeure, by interference in public assemblies, arrests, trials and imprisonments, the Castle made heroes out of nobodies and provoked savage indignation among countless families which had previously supported the new movement, if at all, only out of herd instinct.’ (My emphases)

Around the same time that the police arrested these ‘nobodies’, leading liberal theorist Walter Lippmann recommended the manufacturing of consent, claiming that the general public were ‘too stupid and ignorant’ to be allowed to run their own affairs. The task was to be left to the ‘intelligent minority’, who must be protected from ‘the trampling and the roar of [the] bewildered herd’.

Elsewhere, of course, historians expressed deep reservations about such an approach, though their critique fell on fallow ground in Troubles-era Ireland. Rather than replicate the bias of establishment sources, E.P. Thompson recommended holding evidence up to a ‘Satanic light’, reading it backwards to perceive what the herd thought about authority. If the object is to understand democratic agency rather than merely castigating it, ‘history from below’ is essential. The necessity of looking out beyond the castle wall or the policeman’s blotter pre-dated the rise of the ‘new social history’, of course. James Connolly had issued a similar injunction in Labour in Irish history:

‘Were history what it ought to be, an accurate literary reflex of the times with which it professes to deal, the pages of history would be almost entirely engrossed with a recital of the wrongs and struggles of the labouring people, constituting, as they have ever done, the vast mass of mankind. But history, in general, treats the working class as the manipulator of politics treats the working man, that is to say with contempt when he remains passive, and with derision, hatred and misrepresentation whenever he dares evince a desire to throw off the yoke of political or social servitude. Ireland is no exception to the rule. Irish history has ever been written by the master class in the interests of the master class.’

Dublin’s post-war embrace of ‘global’ (i.e. US and British imperial) capitalism, the resultant ‘liberalisation’ of southern society and the outbreak of the northern conflict persuaded the 26-county establishment to disavow its largely symbolic irredentism. The emerging official history reflected the coalescence of the British and Irish élites against a working-class republican insurrection that invoked the anti-imperialist tradition. Amidst the chaos of the early seventies, wider trends within international revisionist historiography found a happy home on both sides of a border that owed its origins to the counter-revolutionary settlement imposed a half-century earlier.

In France, François Furet and his peers endorsed élites as the deliverers of modernity and change, criticised democratic mobilisation as reactionary and destructive, and proposed consensus forged by the institutions of representative democracy. While French revisionism flourished among a group of intellectuals whose stars rose on the back of the failed hopes of 1968, in Ireland 1969 marked year zero. A new partitionist, statist history sought to undermine Ireland’s revolutionary tradition and, in line with European trends, identify the Free State as the birth of modern democracy and the sole notable legacy of a revolution that ruptured a continuum of liberal constitutional politics.


Above: James Connolly—‘Irish history has ever been written by the master class in the interests of the master class’.

Contrary to liberal myths, our historical understanding must recognise that most Irish people suffered under an exploitative social system imposed by a colonial government, and thus their experience reflected that of most of humanity. This understanding (which many instinctively hold) should in turn inform hopes for a mighty future and real reconciliation based on the people’s right to the ownership of Ireland and the guarantee of equality in pursuance of the happiness and prosperity of all, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh lectures in Irish history at Coláiste Feirste and St Mary’s University College, Belfast, and is the author of ‘Objective historians, irrational Fenians and the bewildered herd: revisionist myth and the Irish revolution’ in Irish Studies Review 28 (2) (2020), on which this opinion piece is based.


P. Bew, Ireland: the politics of enmity 1789–2006 (Oxford, 2007).
D. Fitzpatrick, Two Irelands (Oxford, 1998).
R. Foster, Modern Ireland (London, 1988).
A. Jackson, ‘Twentieth-century foxes? Historians and late modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies 32 (126) (2000), 272–7.


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