THE BIG BOOK: Cambridge History of Ireland, Vol. IV: 1880 to the present

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

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107113541

Reviewed by: Brian Hanley

This volume of the Cambridge History of Ireland sets out to tell the story of Ireland from 1880 to the present day. Editor Thomas Bartlett has argued that such a project was ‘badly needed’, not because of a dearth of scholarship on modern Irish history but through the sheer quantity of it. Much of this, Bartlett argues, has been ‘all but inaccessible both to the student and to the interested reader’. Hence the need for a ‘new synthesis, drawing on the most recent scholarship’, with an ‘appeal to a wide, general readership’.

Any reviewer must begin by recognising the scale of this task and applauding the considerable achievement of producing such a vast work. And there is certainly a huge amount here for the general reader, student and professional historian alike. Alvin Jackson provides an insightful essay on Irish unionism, Catríona Clear presents a vivid description of social conditions in pre-independence Ireland and there is a nuanced synthesis of recent scholarship on the revolutionary period by Fearghal McGarry. A typically elegant and provocative piece by Anne Dolan provides a contrast with some of the arguments cogently advanced by Lindsey Earner Byrne and Catherine Cox. Michael Kennedy on foreign policy, Paul Rouse on popular culture and Guy Beiner on memory all contribute significant chapters. In general the volume showcases the work of a newer generation of scholars, most of whom did not contribute to the New History of Ireland, the last project of this scale. Seven of the 29 contributors are women, which marks something of an advance, though a limited one.

I learned something new from every chapter and greatly enjoyed many of them, but there are two major areas where the volume disappoints. While class inevitably features in many of the narratives, there is little explicit discussion of its importance, particularly after 1950. In terms of organised labour, there is only a passing mention of the 1913 Lockout—by any standards a significant event. The organisation of the unskilled (and Larkinism in general) was a social phenomenon that had a deep impact on working-class culture, especially, but not exclusively, in Dublin. The ‘sacrosanct’ nature of picket lines, bemoaned by commentators until the 1980s, owed much to this. As a frustrated union official complained at the 1970 Irish Congress of Trade Unions conference, the problem was that ‘members will not pass any picket irrespective of whether it is official or otherwise’. But we are told little about why the Republic had one of the highest levels of union membership in Europe until the 1980s, or why strikes topped record levels there during the 1960s. In 1968 the Washington Post described the Republic as the ‘most unionized country in Western Europe’, and noted how the new American multinationals basing themselves there customarily recognised this. Why this contradiction (if that is what it was) between an extremely militant labour movement and a politically conservative working class existed is not discussed. As late as January 1980, 700,000 workers would take part in what the Irish Times called the ‘biggest demonstration of organized labour in the history of the state’. What happened to this combative movement? There are a number of explanations, though none are advanced in this volume, since the subject is avoided altogether.

This labour movement was also an all-Ireland affair, and there might have been some reference to how it was affected by partition. While the importance of social partnership is mentioned in terms of economic revival after 1987, this can only be properly understood in the context of the historic relationship between organised labour and the independent Irish state. Unfortunately, John O’Hagan’s orthodox account of economic development treats us to the usual clichés about the value of fiscal rectitude and the burden of allegedly ‘unsustainable wages’. There is little, however, on the persistence of inequality, costly child care or dysfunctional health services even in the midst of an unprecedented boom. There is no treatment either of the heroin epidemic of the early 1980s, when mass use of this drug, initially in Dublin’s inner city and then further afield, had devastating effects. The impact of this on health care, social cohesion and crime is something on which a study of modern Ireland should surely reflect. Scholars looking for information about the experience of Irish Travellers will likewise find very little here.

Bartlett notes that most of the volume’s contributors came of age ‘in the era of the Troubles and are thus all too mindful of the furies that lie below and sometimes above the surface of Irish life’. Perhaps surprisingly, then, there is little discussion of the bitter divisions that these questions provoked among historians. When Fearghal McGarry notes that during the revolutionary period ‘Crown forces killed more civilians (42%) than the IRA (31%) but historiographical controversy has tended to focus on IRA violence’, this surely says something about historians’ political priorities. These debates might have been addressed in a chapter on historiography, or indeed on the ‘revisionist’ controversy itself.

The major treatment of the Northern conflict comes in a chapter by Paul and John Bew. This account, however, falls between two stools, as an analysis of the emergence of the conflict and a discussion of inter-state relations in later decades. Both sections might have been better as stand-alone pieces. Indeed, given the lack of knowledge of the course of the ‘Troubles’ among a younger generation, there was a strong case for a chapter that simply outlined what happened. Though much of this would make for depressing reading, the main events and the key players in them needed some explanation. It would be useful, for example, to know the difference between the UDA and the UVF, or the issues at stake in the split in the IRA. Paul and John Bew are accomplished historians and also committed unionists. Historians should not be afraid to be politically active, though it seems unlikely that a scholar associated with republicanism would have been asked to contribute such a crucial chapter. So they emphasise, for example, an interesting 1970 article by Nell McCafferty that handily makes their case about the ‘rancid sectarian world’ from which the Provisional IRA emerged. The British army’s tactics in that period are described as ‘clunky and misbegotten’ when in fact they can also be seen as part of a counter-insurgency strategy in which torture and lethal force were deployed on the model of Aden and Kenya. This policy proved disastrous and ultimately led to more sophisticated tactics, but it is wrong to present the British state as referee rather than player. As Niall Ó Dochartaigh has argued in the Princeton History of Modern Ireland (2016), the security forces constituted the largest and most important agent deploying force in the North. The British army, for example, carried out an estimated 300,000 house searches in the early seventies alone, and soldiers killed civilians regularly in that period, but it was not until 1983 that a member of the British army was jailed for murder, and within two years that soldier was released on licence and allowed to resume service with his regiment. The Bews’ contention that the Provisional IRA bears the major responsibility for turning the crisis into a ‘sectarian war’ underplays the culpability of the British state and of unionism. They rightly point out that republicans killed more people than anyone else, including over 600 civilians. But the majority of republican targets were soldiers or police personnel, while in contrast loyalists overwhelmingly targeted civilians, usually on the basis of their religion. The security forces’ relationship with, and attitude to, loyalist paramilitaries was also very different from that with republicans.

The other ‘Troubles’ chapter is a photographic essay. It is a pity that several of the images are misdated as being from the 1970s, when the uniforms, weaponry and fashions on display should have indicated that they were taken much later (female RUC constables, for example, were not armed at all until 1993). The amicable-looking encounter between Gerry Adams and peace activist Betty Williams certainly did not take place in the late 1970s; the ‘Vote Sinn Féin’ mural would date it as sometime after 1982. Brian Girvin’s chapter on the Republic during this period understates the social and cultural impact of the conflict. The ‘North’ meant more than the Arms Trial or the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but there is little sense of how commentators genuinely feared civil war in the early 1970s. The physical impact of the violence on southern life is barely mentioned. The Dublin/Monaghan bombings were only a footnote in the New History of Ireland but they are not even mentioned here.

Given the centrality of the Northern conflict to the story of late twentieth-century Ireland, its treatment in a project of this ambition is disappointing. Jane Ohlmeyer (one of the series editors) has contrasted the Cambridge history with a time when ‘Irish history writing was vigorously partisan and was used to win an argument or to prove a case’, but surely Irish historians, like historians everywhere, continue to try to win arguments and prove cases? There should be nothing wrong with that. As it is, we are sometimes left with the task of discerning a historian’s politics from whether their prose simmers with quiet rage or exudes self-satisfied smugness. Perhaps there is something to be said for the ‘vigorously partisan’ after all. If there is a new consensus among historians here, it seems to be asserting that, in comparison to the horrors visited on much of humankind in the last century, ‘we’ got off relatively lightly. True, in global terms our revolution was not so violent. Democracy was maintained in independent Ireland when it was collapsing elsewhere. The Free State was not uniquely oppressive or patriarchal (neither, indeed, was Northern Ireland), but whether Belfast refugees burnt out of their homes in 1922 or a young mother institutionalised during the 1950s would be comforted by these facts is open to question. To a great extent class determined whether a person’s experience of life was ‘successful’ or not. The best essays in this collection are those that convey a sense of that.

Brian Hanley is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.


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