The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up In Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Reviews, Volume 10

R.F. Foster
(Allen Lane, £20)
ISBN 0713994975Roy Foster has already made an enormous contribution to the writing of Irish history. He has inspired, encouraged, and provoked many of us to engage in/with the reassessment of Irish historical writing and thinking that has marked the last two decades as among the most fruitful in Irish historical writing. His central role in that debate was assured fourteen years ago with the publication of his Modern Ireland, and his subsequent contributions, most especially his landmark Yeats biography, have only enhanced that position.
In this new collection of essays, most of which have appeared whole or in part elsewhere, Foster explores the ways in which Irish writers of various sorts have engaged in the construction of Irish national narratives. In his introduction Foster lays out his goal—to discover: ‘What stories do people tell each other in Ireland, and why?’ His focus upon narration and narrative as the primary vehicles of historical conceptualisation is well thought out and executed.
As we have come to expect, Foster challenges the anecdotal, the sentimental, the triumphal, the simple. This is to be applauded, encouraged, emulated. Yet, there is an odd a/symmetry to what Foster is about, one that recalls F.S.L. Lyons’ dichotomy of ‘culture and anarchy’ (the book contains an engaging discussion of the late Trinity don). Foster’s choice of subjects creates a very uneven contest between representatives of Anglo-Irish and Catholic Nationalist voices. Few would quarrel with the representatives of the ‘ancients’ in this battle of the books, but many may wonder at his choice of ‘moderns’. Frank McCourt and Gerry Adams may be important figures in the contemporary firmament, but few would nominate them as intellectual leaders of their respective communities. Substitute Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark for McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and Paul Muldoon’s work for that of Gerry Adams’ and a very different, and far more complicated sort of ‘voice’ would enter Foster’s analysis. Yet, McCourt and Adams serve Foster’s purpose well—the interrogation of our histories, and, it would be churlish to criticise an author for what he has chosen not to do. Or, would it?
Surely we cannot fault a scholar for looking at the ‘extremes’ that Adams and McCourt represent. But, it is less than logical or fair to critique the work of such popular narratives by juxtaposition with the work of elite Anglo-Irish artistic and critical luminaries such as Yeats, Bowen or Hubert Butler. Surely these figures do not represent ‘popular’ Protestant culture? It would be much more revealing (if depressing) to hold up Ian Paisley’s autobiographical work as an appropriate foil to Gerry Adams’ childhood memories.
The core of the book consists of four chapters devoted to W.B. Yeats. Not surprisingly, for this most accomplished biographer of Yeats, these chapters shine with the scholarly care and sophistication that we have come to expect from Roy Foster. These chapters deal with Yeats’ political and poetic manoeuvering during the critical years 1914-18, his memorialisation, and the contest over Yeats’ ‘Irishness’. Though we expect Foster’s deftness of touch, we should not lose sight of how difficult a subject Yeats is. As Foster demonstrates, Yeats was one of the slipperier public intellectuals of his time. Or, as Foster puts it, ‘Yeats stands as a powerfully absorbing exemplar of the Irish propensity to therapeutic forgetting: the ability to change footing and gloss over the past’.
Foster does some remembering of the side of Yeats that can offend even his more devoted followers. He quotes Yeats’ comment to Lord Haldane, regarding the conscription crisis of 1918: ‘I do say that there is in this country an extravagance of emotion which few Englishmen, accustomed to more objective habits of thought, can understand. There is something oriental in the people.’ Yet, Foster is at pains to note the impartial nature of Yeats’ more acerbic commentary, as in the poet’s ‘impartially offensive argument’ about Home Rule—that it would ‘educate Catholics mentally and Protestants emotionally’. But was this really impartial? Students of gender or colonial paradigms would easily recognise the hierarchical and paternalistic nature of dichotomies that assign ‘mental’ and ‘emotional’ powers to different groups within a society.
Foster’s presentation of Yeats is congruent with his larger argument, that the definitions, the boundaries and the confines of ‘Irishness’ need to be seen in all of their complexity. Yeats emerges here as essentially Irish; and maybe even as Irish Catholic! Foster approvingly quotes Frank O’Connor’s assessment of Yeats: ‘he professed himself a member of the Church of Ireland, though he had much more of the Catholic in him; he was a fascist and authoritarian—an old IRB man, passionate nationalist, lover of tradition, hater of reason, popular education, and “mechanical logic”’.
Two of the more interesting chapters deal with the public aspects of contemporary history. One deals with ‘Theme-parks and history’, the other with the commemoration of 1798. In both Foster is highly critical. He is especially disturbed by the present-mindedness of such activities that repackage the past for present purposes. Foster obviously enjoys exposing the more humorous aspects of such commemoration, such as the establishment of a new Wexford ‘Senate’ that was ‘set up in the town as a sort of fancy-dress exhibit for 1998, manned by local—and other—worthies prepared to pay £2,000 for the privilege’ or the promise given visitors to the restored Wicklow Gaol that ‘they would be “meeting some of the Wicklow men of ‘98” (on the Other Side presumably—an aspect which Yeats and his friends would have thoroughly approved)’. But what most agitates Foster is ‘the extent to which professional historians were involved in the repackaging and alterations of emphasis. There seemed, in some quarters at least, to be an agreed agenda, which owed more to perceived late-twentieth century needs than to a close reading of events and attitudes two hundred years ago.’
He offers (without footnote) Minister Avril Doyle’s charge to the commemoration committee as evidence of this agenda: ‘we must discard the now discredited sectarian version of ‘98, which was merely a polemical post-rebellion falsification’. Like many ministerial pronouncements, this is a debatable proposition, and taken to its logical extreme, could lead to an erasure of some sectarian realities about the 1790s. But is this what historians did during the commemoration activities? Sadly, while questioning the participation of academic historians in government-sponsored events, Foster does not actually critique the major academic event sponsored by the commemoration committee—the 1798 conference held jointly in Belfast and Dublin in May 1998. An analysis of that programme would provide ample evidence of the historical profession busily problemitising the narrative of 1798. And he would have found a number of papers explicitly focussed upon the realities of sectarianism—the major issue he identifies as ‘silenced’ by the direction of the commemoration committee. Happily, it seems that while governments may propose, historians still compose!
Interpretative centres, historical theme parks, museums, monuments and commemorations emerge from many different quarters and are fostered by different constituencies with many different sorts of connections to professional academic historians. Some of them, no doubt, are insipid, simplistic or even ridiculous, but I suspect Mr Disney is more responsible for this trend than any historian! But Foster’s critique raises an important question: where should the professional historian stand in this new public history landscape? It is easy to stand outside it and critique the finished product, but that does little to alter the trajectory of popular history. In the 1930s when establishing a mission statement for Irish historians Theo Moody and Owen Dudley Edwards gave the historians a charge to be ‘instrumental’ in connecting the work of the academic historian with the popular historical audience. At a time when ‘living history’ was unimaginable, their attention was directed towards school teachers, the most efficient transmitters of historical knowledge to the citizenry. In our time we need to find better ways to carry out that original task, but surely we also need to find ways to engage with the new popular forms of historical representation.
Foster is right to remind us that the historian’s job is to explore where myth meets reality in order to steer our way towards a more honest and complex notion of the realities that have shaped our society. But if this exploration is to be fruitful, it needs to consistently seek that objectivity that has proved so illusive in Irish historical narrative. In discussing Yeats and the First World War, Foster notes approvingly the ‘recognition that there may have been alternative futures to the one that actually happened’. This openess needs to be extended to all of the alternatives, not only those that suit our imaginations. Foster’s voice is as welcome and necessary as those he has chosen to explore, and he is right to remind us that ‘history is not about manifest destines, but about unexpected and unforeseen futures’. In this volume he provides us with greater access, understanding, and appreciation for the voices of Yeats, Bowen, Butler, and Lyons, and in the process locates voices that will help us to respond constructively to our unforeseen futures.
Kevin O’Neill


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