Rome v. Republic

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—Mary Kenny having eloquently deconstructed for us some of what didn’t work with the TV documentary Rome v. Republic (HI 27.4, July/August 2019, ‘Seen on TV’), mostly from a twentieth-century perspective, may a historian of the 1790s now point to some missed opportunities? The documentary framed some compelling questions but offered us only partial answers (shaped to fit too neatly into the overall theme) and some distortions. Most undergraduates would pick up on these if, for example, reading a transcript and not being distracted by images of the leafy boulevards and elegant cafés of the 6th arrondissement in Paris. We understand why everyone was piked out after 1998, but some of us were astounded at the extent to which the Enlightenment principles of the United Irishmen, most pertinently separation of Church and State, were airbrushed out of the national conversation in 2016. So the fundamental aim of this documentary was very welcome.

But it featured many oversimplifications of late eighteenth-century realities. Firstly, the ‘spread’ of the French ‘Revolution’ in Europe, which could serve the cause of Ireland and which Tone went to Paris to investigate in 1796, was equated with ‘bloody’ dechristianisation. Viewers were fed visual reminders of mob rule and France as the land of regicide and decapitation, a common trend in British-leaning narratives, deflecting from the threat of plain people demanding civic rights (and less tithes) at home. Projecting this (caricatured) spectre of ‘the French Revolution’ c. 1791–3 was ahistorical: by 1796 the Terror was well over and religious practice had been restored. Tone never mentions the guillotine, and even attended some (Catholic) services! Secondly, the manuscript in his handwriting, aptly displayed and discussed, lobbying the French to invade, did not actually equate Irish Catholics exclusively with Irish ‘nationalism’, though for the documentary to end up in twentieth-century Ireland this needed to be tweaked a bit. In so doing it created a glaring self-contradiction, which none of the ‘experts and academics in their pulpits’ noticed. If Tone was to help ‘import’ bloody secularisation à la française into Ireland, how could he credibly argue that Irish Catholics would welcome the French? Should viewers not have been reminded that he also wrote of Irish Dissenters as ‘sincere and enlightened republicans’, and that ‘liberty of conscience’ in France (we’re finally getting where we should be, i.e. modernism) had mitigated their horror of popery and led to an unexpected coalition with Catholics? His second memorial should have been cited. It insisted that, on landing, the French should declare that they would protect ‘the free exercise of all religions’ (which they did in 1798), and that the abolition of any ‘connection between church and state’ would ensue. This is not the bloody dechristianisation it was implied that he wanted, the ‘Ireland free of popes and bishops’; religion was to become a private matter, not history. A later address to the Irish people (in the same French archive) spoke of how religion had been degraded; once an Irish republic was established, ‘each sect’ would maintain its own clergy, and no citizen would be disenfranchised for worshipping God according to his conscience. Too sophisticated, and too disconnected to twentieth-century Ireland’s intense self-identification as Catholic, this was omitted.

Readers may already know that the ‘research’ for these documentaries often involves wooing relatively obscure non-tenured academics, who have to try harder in the shadow of the pulpit, convincingly plundering them for their (hopefully) original ideas before adjudging them surplus to requirements. The points made above demonstrate how pertinent a robust reminder of context is when plucking ‘Wolfe’ Tone out of the eighteenth century.

Mary rightly concluded with what may appear to be incongruous—reciting the Rosary over Tone’s grave—which had more to do with how Ireland had evolved than with how some had envisaged it a century or so earlier. Many countries experienced an intense revival of religious fervour in the century after the French Revolution, including France, which did not have an ‘alien’ occupier imposing its established faith. In many older countries not experiencing decolonisation, this zeal often overstepped into twentieth-century national identity, and Ireland was, after all, asserting itself. In that regard, Rome v. Republic was also a bit too inward-looking, though it started an essential conversation.—Yours etc.,



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