The Making of Ireland, from ancient times to the present, James Lydon. (Routledge, £45 hbk, £14.99 pbk) ISBN 041501347X, 0415013488

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 6

James Lydon has undertaken a daunting task in writing a history of Ireland from ancient times to the present. It is difficult to cover the broad sweep of history in any detail and too easy to include chronological description instead of analysis or explanation. Yet the author has risen to the challenge admirably and not only manages to provide a good chronological account of the main events in Irish history but also includes analysis, explanation and contextualisation.
This is perhaps because it is divided into chapters which are thematic, such as ‘A Protestant kingdom’ (1660-1691) and ‘The emergence of Catholic Ireland’ (eighteenth century). Within the chapters too, different themes are teased out and explored. What sometimes seems a bald statement at the beginning of a chapter or paragraph (e.g. ‘the real basis of power was land’ [p.221]) in fact turns out to be the introduction to a complex analysis of why a certain situation has arisen. Because of this, the book makes sense of often confusing and complex events and issues. While written in an academic style which resists the temptation to ‘dumb down’ for a popular audience, it is immensely readable and a difficult book to put down.
Lydon gives us a good account of the early Christian period which, like the rest of the chapters, puts Ireland firmly in its international context. The reader is taken at a brisk pace through the subsequent turbulent centuries of Irish history but not so brisk as to exclude depth in the narrative. For example, we discover that as early as the ninth century the concept of the Irish nation was widely accepted and intellectually defined. The arrival of the Normans and its impact on Irish society is treated in a balanced and enlightening way that escapes the constraining dichotomy of the ‘native versus invader’ view and shows clearly that Gaelic Ireland was not an archaic society which fractured under the impact of the invasion but a dynamic and resilient one which more than coped with events. Right up to the sixteenth century the Irish language was important at all levels of society and even Queen Elizabeth requested an Irish phrase book so as to address important Irish visitors in their own tongue.
Lydon shows that the roots of anti-Irish prejudice among English people go back a long way. As early as the fourteenth century all those born in Ireland, whether Gaelic or not, were regarded as barbarians in England. This prejudice in part explains why successive English monarchs and administrators were not content to have a peaceful Ireland loyal to England (once the initial period of turbulence was over both the Gaelic and Norman lords would have been happy to accept English supremacy if left to run their own affairs) but always sought to extirpate the cultural and religious differences and ‘civilise’ the Irish by making them like the English. This in turn provoked Irish resistance and open rebellion time and again. Even in the mid-eighteenth century a Protestant clergyman could still speak of the necessity of civilising the Irish savages through the introduction of English industry.
While giving attention to detail, Lydon manages to convey the evolution of Ireland at a conceptual level. He shows how successive waves of English settlers identified with Ireland as a nation distinct and independent of England, even though they might dispute who belonged to that nation. If in doing so, particularly in his account of the development of the Irish parliamentary tradition, he gives a somewhat ‘Whigish’ cast to his narrative, it does not suffer for that. The coming together of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in the eighteenth century to demand reform and then revolution does not seem so strange if one takes the long view and remembers that even in the medieval parliament Gaelic and Anglo-Irish lords came together to demand equal rights for all and independence from the English parliament, while the Geraldine League in 1539 saw Irish nobles sink their ancestral differences in the common cause of Ireland. Lydon says that the League ‘had manifested a new sense of nationality which had expressed itself in political as well as military terms’.
Against this, the book also traces the growing importance of religious divisions in Ireland from the Reformation onwards. Religion was not just a matter of faith but of loyalty and identity. Increasingly from the sixteenth century, Catholicism was equated not only with Irishness but also with rebellion. This posed a particular problem for the Old English in the seventeenth century as they wished to be Catholics who were loyal to a Crown which increasingly viewed all Irish Catholics as potential rebels not to be trusted. Thus they played a tortuous schizophrenic part in the 1640s rebellion and were reduced to being ‘mere Irish’ in the post-Williamite settlement. If the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a Protestant Irish nationalism which was to alter the political landscape and ultimately clear the way for the rebellion of the United Irishmen, it also witnessed the increasing sectarianisation of Irish politics which was to remain the norm for the next century and beyond.
Modern Ireland, from the Act of Union to the Republic, is treated well. Lydon succinctly summarises the events of these years and the development of Irish society. Complex issues are made accessible in a few paragraphs, such as, for example, the fall of Parnell. The section on the 1916 Rising is particularly good, replacing both nationalist and revisionist characterisation of this event with an objective and enlightening explanation. The final chapter on Ireland’s emergence as a modern democracy is insightful and informative, taking the reader through the vicissitudes of the 1937 constitution, the mother and child scheme, etc., to the economic development of the 1960s and even up to the ‘Celtic Tiger’ of the 1990s. However, the title’s claim to cover Irish history to the present falls a little flat when the epilogue was clearly written before, or just takes no account of, events in the North since 1994 and their impact on Ireland as a whole.
Indeed the book is rather light on the same kind of information and analysis of Northern Ireland after 1920 as for the rest of Ireland. Of course, in a book like this attempting to survey more than two thousand years of history, it would be impossible to cover everything adequately. Equally, other historians may well disagree with certain of the author’s assertions, for example, his judgement that the Defenders played a key role in turning the United Irishmen into revolutionaries, or his claim that the Blueshirts were founded to defend free speech.
However, this is an excellent book which provides a readable, informative survey of Irish history from earliest times. It is a book which could be recommended to both the student and the visitor who wants to know more about Ireland. In the wake of the arguments occasioned by Revisionism, it has been difficult to find a recent book which not only gives a good account of Ireland but is not itself embroiled in the argument. Now that need has been met by James Lydon’s informative and balanced account.

Tony Canavan

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