The French Connection

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1998), The United Irishmen, Volume 6

Marianne Elliott at the John Hewitt Summer School, 1993. (Pacemaker)

Marianne Elliott at the John Hewitt Summer School, 1993. (Pacemaker)

TG:    In the acknowledgements to Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence (1989) you state that your interest in Tone goes back to childhood and traditions transmitted by your parents. Could you explain?

ME:    I grew up with the United Irishmen. My childhood was spent in the shadow of McArt’s Fort. My father was steeped in it. Although he was very much an Irish nationalist—indeed he was one of the young fellows from the North who answered de Valera’s call to come south and join the Irish army back in the 1930s—he was fiercely proud of Belfast. Even though we were working class Catholics from North Belfast we had a lot of Presbyterian friends, so he was particularly interested in the 1790s. My mother was from Kerry but she was more interested in early twentieth-century Irish history. My father was also involved in the Rosemary Theatre Group which used to stage plays by Tommy Carnduff, a working class playwright well-known in Belfast circles. As a young man he had been an Orangeman but he later became interested in the 1790s and wrote a number of plays on Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Lord Castlereagh, and the like. So when I was quite young, about five or six, I used to go along. It made a vivid impression on me, particularly one in which my father played Leonard McNally: I remember him being booed, which upset me greatly!

TG:    Was he as good an actor as Leonard McNally?

ME:    That’s a very good question [laughing].

TG:    How much of an influence was your upbringing and early education in Belfast?

ME:    It made me more aware of the religious tensions that would have been around in the 1790s. It also made me recognise that those tensions could be somehow worked around. My interest in the relationships between the different religious communities in Ireland certainly came out of my growing up in a mixed-religion estate in north Belfast.

TG:    What was it like being a student at Queen’s at the height of student and civil rights unrest in the late ‘60s?

ME:    I was on the early marches: two of them ended up being stopped by Paisley. On another we staged a sit-down protest in the rain outside Belfast City Hall: I got so wet that it cured me of civil rights! I didn’t go on the Burntollet one although a lot of my friends did. The atmosphere in Queen’s at the time was absolutely vibrant. There was a great air of optimism and for the early civil rights marches in 1968. I remember Queen’s closing down for the day, so many people wanted to go on them. Obviously things turned sour very quickly but in my first two years at Queen’s there was a great sense of hope and liberation.

TG:    You were a student of the late J.C. Beckett at Queen’s. How do you rate him as a teacher and a historian?

ME:    Jim Beckett was a wonderful teacher. One had to admire his breadh of knowledge. The making of modern Ireland, 1603-1923 (1966) is still one of the best general textbooks ever written. Most textbooks on Irish history these days tend to be more interpretative yet Jim managed to get the detail in as well as giving very balanced judgements. My experience generally of the History Department in Queen’s was very positive. I am still immensely loyal to the place. I had Michael Dolly for early Irish history, Lewis Warren for the medieval period, Jim Beckett and Peter Jupp for the early modern/late modern period and A.T.Q. Stewart later on, although I didn’t have as much association with him as I did with Jim Beckett, who by that stage was quite an icon amongst Irish historians. He was of that generation which really founded modern Irish historical scholarship. When I first started to attend his class—an interesting small class which included Tom Bartlett and Peter Smyth, both of whom went on to become historians—he seemed a bit distant. I had heard rumours that he may not have liked female students but I subsequently discovered that this was quite wrong. He taught courses running from the seventeenth into the nineteenth centuries. Over the years I have had occasion to look back over his lecture notes and I am just stunned at the amount he managed to convey. I doubt if the lectures which academics give today could get that amount of information across. The ‘special subject’ on Ireland in the 1790s which I took with him and Peter Jupp launched my academic interest in the United Irishmen and both continued to inspire my work long after I left Queen’s. If I am only half the teacher that they were, I would be happy.

‘My childhood was spent in the shadow of McArt’s Fort.’ McArt’s Fort, from the Mountain by Andrew Nicholl, c. 1828. (Ulster Museum)

‘My childhood was spent in the shadow of McArt’s Fort.’ McArt’s Fort, from the Mountain by Andrew Nicholl, c. 1828. (Ulster Museum)

TG:    Where did you do your postgraduate work?

ME:    I did my postgraduate work in Oxford but there’s an interesting story behind that. I had pretty fluent French, which I took as part of my degree in Queen’s. At an early stage I recognised that the relations between the United Irishmen and France had not been researched at PhD level. The most obvious next step would have been to go to Dublin to work with Theo Moody or R.B. McDowell at Trinity. But the head of department, Michael Roberts, advised me to go to Oxford and recommended me to his old friend Richard Cobb. Being a Belfast girl and not having travelled very widely I was rather terrified at this suggestion because at the time he was the most eminent English-speaking French Revolutionist in the world and I hadn’t studied any French history before. Nevertheless I went, to Lady Margaret Hall, and I survived. At first it was quite difficult because I was thrown into a world of French Revolution historians of which I had no experience. Over twenty-five years later they still remain some of my closest friends. They gave me a knowledge of the intricacies of French history during this period which I would not have gained had I stayed in Ireland. Then I got a French government scholarship to study in Paris for the 1972-3 year. I worked in the archives full-time: the resulting thesis was the basis for my first major book, Partners in Revolution (1982) and I’m still living off the amount of information I gathered!

TG:    You are Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. What is Irish studies?

ME:    I’ve had to struggle with this question myself. Irish Studies is not a term I am particularly enamoured of but I can’t think of a better one. Irish studies consists of a number of core disciplines: history, Anglo-Irish literature, Irish language, and literature in Irish; with additional disciplines like archaeology, geography, Irish music, etc.. I don’t think it would work in Ireland because everything in Ireland is Irish studies. But in another country it does stand on its own and students recognise it as a separate discipline. Many young English people nowadays have a great interest in Ireland and they want to know more than just the history. Yet I do have a number of worries about the term ‘Irish studies’. You have to be very careful that it doesn’t go into the clouds at the edges. It needs to be constantly pulled back to its core disciplines. Fortunately in England, where it is taught at university level, particularly in the old universities, at its very centre is history. When I first came to England in 1971 there was nobody to talk to; I couldn’t identify a group of scholars working in England on things Irish. When Roy Foster came to England in 1974 we kept meeting at the same interviews and we both wondered if there were other people out there feeling equally isolated. So in 1974-75 we conducted a survey to see how many historians were interested in Irish history and there were enough of them around to start the Conference of Irish Historians in Britain, which has been going since 1976. That was one of the earliest organisations to bring Irish scholars together and then in the 1980s I was one of the founders of the British Association of Irish Studies which is also still going strong.

TG:    Amongst the present generation of historians you were one of the early pioneers in the study of the United Irishmen and the 1790s generally. Can you account for how little work had been done up to then?

ME:    When I started out in the early 1970s I was conscious that I was pretty much alone. I used to try to talk to scholars who had preceded me in the field. I remember going along as a young student to talk to Louis Cullen and Maureen Wall—both were enormously supportive. Louis was then more of an economic historian. He hadn’t really come into the area yet. Maureen Wall was one of the very few who had actually published something in the field, on the penal laws, but also on the United Irishmen. Why was this the case? For a long time much of the writing of Irish history tended to be focused either on the seventeenth or on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the eighteenth century seemed to disappear in between. Was it because the eighteenth century was largely peaceful and researchers wondered what they could work on? And perhaps the United Irishmen were difficult to research because they travelled so widely; you had to be able to follow them around. For my books I’ve had to work in five countries.

TG:    How has the huge amount of research in the topic over the past fifteen years or so changed perspectives?

ME:    It was wonderful that from the 1980s onwards a lot more scholars came into the field. I like to think that I had something to do with that, although I may be deluding myself. On the other hand a lot of the latest digging has been in the same old grooves, more deeply, rather than looking to fresh pastures beyond. We still don’t know what happened on the ground in 1798 outside the main theatres of rebellion along the eastern seaboard. Where are the theses on other areas? For instance when I came to write the relevant chapter in my history of the Catholics of Ulster I kept getting pulled back to Antrim and Down which were not the areas of largest Catholic population. Because of the nature of this work, which is covering 2,000 years, I couldn’t go too deeply into the research myself, I had to depend on the work of others and it wasn’t there. So we know a lot more about the eastern seaboard and yet we are still ignorant about other areas. I think the net should be spread wider and it would be good to see new questions raised.

TG:    Would you still characterise the rebellion as ‘bloody and sectarian’?

ME:    I would still use those terms but there were obviously other aspects; it would never have happened had the population not been highly politicised; it would not have happened if the United Irishmen had not been organised on the ground; it would not have happened if there had not been a major counter-insurgency crackdown by the government. What worries me is that some of the new work is desperately trying to discount sectarianism in the rebellion, following the line that ‘this is all political, there’s no sectarianism’. I don’t think that it helps to ignore it. I suppose on this I’m intensely Northern—I’m also intensely Irish—and it makes me so much more aware of this phenomenon. Part of the problem in Northern Ireland has been all sides saying, ‘we’re not sectarian, no, no, it’s the other side who are at fault’. The 1798 Rebellion was bloody. I think there were far more casualties than the estimated 30,000. This is another area for research. In fact I have a new research student and I suggested this topic. We’ve all taken the figure from Thomas Pakenham who takes it from an off-the-cuff remark from Viceroy Cornwallis. We don’t actually know. There are numerous accounts of relatives pulling their dead off battlefields and secretly burying them so the casualties were probably much higher than 30,000.

TG:    And 90 per cent of them must have been on the rebel side.

ME:    I would have thought so, but we don’t know for sure.

The French Connection 3TG:    In his autobiography Tone claimed to have been a committed republican and separatist from early on in his career, yet you question this in your 1989 biography.

ME:    There’s a vast difference between writing a biography and writing a study of either political thought or political writing. If you are writing a biography you have to take into account not just the person’s writings but also other letters, the conversations that we know took place, the impact of friends on that person’s thinking. Because it was a biography I was writing I felt very strongly that the Tone of his autobiography was only part of the person. And the autobiography itself was written in 1796 at a very specific time during his mission in Paris. I’ve been through all the French sources with a fine tooth comb and I know all the things he was writing for the French government. He was not only writing petitions to them but he was actually writing the propaganda for them against England. And if you locate the writing of that autobiography and follow through his writings for the French government it explains very well why this particular life comes out as a kind of set piece of republican separatism which I don’t believe existed before the early part of 1795. Now I would not dispute the fact that before 1795 Tone said that in an ideal world he would very much like an independent Ireland. I’ve no problem with that. He says that as early as 1791. But if you look at what’s happening to him even after the Jackson trial (1795) he thinks that he is going to be rehabilitated. He thinks that he might even get some minor office in the government of Ireland under Fitzwilliam. In fact he’s a marked man. To say that that person who thought he was going to stay in Ireland and be rehabilitated was the revolutionary separatist of tradition goes against the facts.

TG:    What are your thoughts on this year’s commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion?

ME:    From a teaching angle it’s wonderful to have all these television programmes and new publications which I can use in courses for my students. The bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989 generated an enormous amount of teaching material which I’m still using. It’s a period of history that I’m passionately interested in and it’s exciting to find that the public at large are also interested. I have no problem with ‘commemoration’ but I would worry about ‘celebration’. I believe very strongly that the 1798 Rebellion was a disaster for the Irish people and I think we are still living through the consequences.

TG:    But couldn’t it be argued that the disaster was the defeat rather than the attempt?

ME:    That’s a good question but if the 1798 Rebellion had succeeded it still wouldn’t have resolved the problems of religious disharmony in Ireland. We’re getting into contrafactual history here and you’re quite right to pose the question. But the events as they happened were a disaster for the Irish people. I’m much more aware of that now than I was when I was writing my books on the period because I have now researched the two subsequent centuries. The people who had been brought out of themselves in the late 1780s and early 1790s to think that Ireland had a more optimistic future were pushed a dozen steps backwards.

TG:    But it raises the question: who or what forces pushed them back?

ME:    Well I have a lot of sympathy for some of the ordinary Mayo people who in the aftermath of the failed French attempt were extremely critical of the Belfast Presbyterians and said ‘they were the people who brought us into this and then abandoned us at the end and our life is much worse as a result’. The life of the ordinary peasant in the eighteenth century was no cup of tea by any manner or means but it was a lot worse in 1798 and afterwards than it had been before. I’m dealing with what happened rather than the great ‘if’ of Irish history. The outbreak of war with France in spring 1793 had already set the disaster in train. Until then it did look as if there was going to be a new and better future for the people of Ireland and I think the United Irishmen and the Catholic Committee did a wonderful job in exposing the hypocrisy and the wrong-doing of the existing order. It wasn’t their fault that this highly ideological war broke out.

TG:    But against that in 1792 Protestant Grand Juries were passing anti-Catholic resolutions. One could argue that they were  already showing their implacable resistance at that early stage.

ME:    But that was part of the Catholic Committee’s success in bringing that out into the open, in showing them up for what they were.

TG:    Could you tell us about your forthcoming history of the Catholics of Ulster. What new insights does it offer?
ME:    It has turned out to be far more enormous than I had ever imagined and I will be very glad to return to more familiar ground. My next book will be on Emmet’s 1803 rebellion.

TG:    Why a history of Ulster Catholics?

ME:    When first it was suggested to me I had to address that question very seriously. What I will show is that throughout the ages there was a very different provincial identity in Ulster long before partition, that was already shaping a slightly different religious identity even before the Reformation and certainly after the Ulster plantation, not so much a different people but a different outlook. Coming from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, I’m always conscious of how different we are from our co-religionists elsewhere. I used to think that this stemmed from the Ulster plantation onwards but it was there before then. But I’m not trying to reach a pre-ordained end, I’m telling the story century by century.

TG:    Finally, could you tell us about your involvement in the 1993 Opsahl Commission?

ME:    I was one of its six commissioners. It was the brainchild of Robin Wilson and Simon Lee, who had the good sense to invite Torkel Opsahl to lead it and Andy Pollak to act as its secretary. Torkel died shortly, just as he had taken up a new position as head of the Bosnian War Crimes Commission. He was a great loss to the world of international peace negotiations. The Opsahl Commission was an independent enquiry, which caught the mood of frustration among ordinary people in Northern Ireland. Sectarian killings were escalating out of control and any political answer seemed a long way off. It was a humbling and very moving experience, as people came forward to tell of personal tragedies and suffering. We also spoke with those who had been involved in the paramilitary movements and came away with the conviction that many were searching for a political way forward. I remember being mauled by the press when we called for Sinn Féin to be given a chance to prove their political credentials. But five years on, both they, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party [both aligned with loyalist paramilitaries] are doing just that. I feel very privileged to have been part of the Opsahl Commission. It came at a very early stage of the peace process, a process which then seemed blocked. At the time it was said that its report, A Citizens’ Inquiry, would be a ‘slow burner’. But I think many of the recommendations have seeped into general parlance. I am very pleased with the recent Good Friday Agreement, which contains much of what people were calling for back in 1993. It too, like Opsahl, will take time to work itself out. But to get to this stage—when many of its architects were not even speaking to each other in 1993—is progress indeed.

Tommy Graham is joint editor of History Ireland


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