The transformation of Ireland 1900–2000

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

The transformation of Ireland 1900–2000 1The transformation of Ireland 1900–2000
Diarmaid Ferriter

(Profile Books, £30)
ISBN 1861973071

The blurb misleads by suggesting that these 759 pages (excluding the scholarly apparatus) are about the transformation of Ireland from an ‘impoverished . . . corner of the British Empire’ into ‘the “Celtic Tiger”’. In the first chapter, dealing with the years 1900–12, Diarmaid Ferriter depicts one of the better-off parts of the British Empire, a country at the European middle level. As for ‘transformation’, the author indicates a change of such dimension twice in the century: in the first twenty years and between the 1960s and the late 1990s, though he emphasises the partial nature of the latter metamorphosis. Overall, Ferriter sees Irish history in the twentieth century as consisting of early ambitions to achieve a decent living, equality and dignity for all, and an outcome which, rather than showing these ambitions realised, shows merely an end to falling population and a great increase in wealth for the majority.
The first chapter, of 80 pages, lays a solid foundation by depicting, in a great variety of respects, Ireland under reforming British rule. Special interests of the author that will persist throughout the book are already evident here: social class, culture, economic equality, women, the poor and the vulnerable, ‘the life of the people’, contemporary witness. Notably absent from the very broad survey are the banking system and religion, the latter a remarkable lack in view of Ferriter’s interest in culture and the life of the people (it persists throughout the book). But it fits, perhaps, with the failure to spell out, in terms of perspective and doctrine, the ruling ideologies of this ‘foundational’ period: the Liberalism of the Catholic political class, their liberationist nationalism as part of this, and republicanism as the left wing of that nationalism.
The second chapter, ‘1912–18’, opens with an acute analysis of Ulster unionist life and politics and a sensitive account of Irish participation in the Great War. The treatment of the Easter Rising and its leaders (which precedes that of social conditions and the 1913 Lockout) shocks by its nervous incoherence, as of a man who is saying many things, and quoting many opinions—several of them from long after the events—because he does not know what to say.
I have to say that at this stage I was finding trouble with the book on two grounds that further reading would largely confirm. Both are defects that prevent this work from doing justice to Ferriter’s immense research, width of reading and authorial industry. In my view, the good historian narrates successive events and conditions on his own authority, making informed personal judgements of the truth or doubtfulness of things. If he is an academic, he uses reference notes to indicate the bases for his judgements. Recurrently in this book there is a chatty citing of opinions and judgements from various written sources, without clear authorial statement. As a result there is a repeated lack of narrative tautness.
Then again, the very long chapters without thematic headings do not contain, within themselves, thematic sub-headings. Instead, the abundant sub-headings consist of brief, uninformative quotations—e.g. ‘come on out of here to Hell’—taken from the following piece of text. As a result, for the student or the ordinary reader, this is a difficult book to check back in or to consult; one has only the Index. (The 60 pages of notes, moreover, are without superscriptions indicating, successively, the text pages they relate to.) Thematic sub-headings would have had another advantage: they would have disciplined the writing into compactness or, to put it differently, tended to prevent the meandering and the disorderly chronological sequence that occasionally occur.
But only ‘occasionally’. I derived great pleasure from several long stretches of sober, interesting and reflective narrative. I single out the revolutionary years (which benefit from the author’s use of the recently released papers of the Bureau of Military History); the 1960s in the Republic, with their dynamism and new departures; and, after 1971, the long Northern war and the politics related to it. Only once did I re-encounter nervous incoherence: in the treatment of the North’s eruption in 1969 and the sequel to 1971. This time it is conveyed by jumpy chronology and forced low-key writing that veils the drama of the events. It takes some doing (pp 626–7) to write 28 lines on Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report without using the words ‘soldiers’ or ‘paratroopers’!
Is this book an essentially full story of the century? Owing to minor inattention or to discursiveness filling space, some small but important things do not get mentioned: Sinn Féin’s parliamentary majority in 1918, the ‘Gaeltacht revolution’ of the early 1970s that changed the focus and nature of the language movement; the loyalist bombings and killings that preceded August 1969; and in the 1980s the momentous recognition by Irish nationalism of the Britishness of the Ulster unionists. There are also two major omissions that seriously prevent the story being the full story of the century.
England had a period of political and cultural impact in Africa and Asia, and, logically, English historians record this. Beginning much later, from 1916 to 1965, Ireland made a similar if lesser impact. In fact, during that period, apart from Britain and the US, the main international setting of Irish history was colonised and semi-colonised Africa and Asia. But Irish historians, with a narrow insular perspective, which they do not exhibit in dealing with our history in the sixth to ninth centuries, have failed to record and narrate this. It is therefore a renewed disappointment that Ferriter recounts nothing (apart from Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike) of the motivating impact of the Irish revolution and Irish independence in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and that he devotes only a summary paragraph to the largest organised overseas enterprise in Irish history—our second missionary movement. At stake here is our right to have our twentieth-century history recorded ‘as it really was’.
Then again, while Ferriter records that in the years 1970–2000 many Irish Catholics changed their beliefs and practices with regard to various matters of interpersonal morality, he leaves this floating mysteriously, without context. He does not explain that, beginning in the 1960s and emanating from America, an imposed ideological change occurred throughout western Europe—a Gleichschaltung in terms of fundamentalist or consumerist liberalism to confront the parallel communist indoctrination in eastern Europe; that in Ireland this resulted in the predominant public ethical teaching changing from Catholic-Liberal to the new, post-Christian ideology; and finally, that the main agent of this was the greatly expanded Dublin mass media, which, from having been pluralist, became homogenised, as in, say, Bucharest.
Only in this context are the ‘changes of beliefs and practices’ by many thoughtlessly conformist Irish Catholics understandable. A turning point in Irish cultural history since Daniel O’Connell, this matter, in its full dimension, must be given its due weight. In short, Diarmaid Ferriter’s book, in highlighting some previously downplayed aspects, such as the role of women and the persistence of class bias and inequality, marks not an arrival but a challenging step forward on the way to a full account of Ireland’s twentieth-century history.
Desmond Fennell


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