Uncertain futures: essays about the Irish past for Roy Foster

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Ed. EC

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780198748274

Reviewed by: Shane Nagle

big-bookuncertain-futuresIt is difficult to review a festschrift. Does one focus on the historian to whom the volume is dedicated or examine the essays that comprise the book, searching for common threads and the links with the historian who is being honoured? Certainly it would be difficult to do much justice in this review to the different essays in the volume, with their great range of focus, ideas and intellectual power. All of them are written by historians who knew Foster, whether peers or former students, fellow historians who debated and argued with him, who helped influence and were influenced by him. We know that R.F. Foster remains perhaps the most important historian of modern Ireland of the last 30 years; all but the most unreasonable of his detractors would accept this. A quick glance at the list of contributors confirms this. The book begins with a pleasing anecdote about a book launch and discussion event on Foster’s last major book, Vivid faces: the revolutionary generation in Ireland, 1890–1923, held at the Boogaloo pub in north London in 2014, which I attended. If nothing else, it shows how historical arguments in a large room full of Irish people are generally less tense than they were in the past. Having been interviewed by Foster and Marc Mulholland earlier that year for the coveted Irish government post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford (alas, unsuccessfully), my own lasting memory remains of his respect for students and young researchers and keen interest in new and unexplored paths for Irish historical research.

Introduced by three biographical essays by Dunne, Elliott and Barnard on Foster’s early years, education, career and intellectual influences, status as Irish historian in Britain and professional life at Oxford, the nineteen research essays range from land politics and violence (Comerford, Mulholland), Victorian government and political culture (Hoppen, Bew, Jennings) and literary culture and its uncertainties (Levitas, Lee, Arrington, Kelly) to nationalist uncertainties (Reid, Nic Dháibhéid, Gillen, and Jackson’s chapter on ‘the interlinkages between Irish history and contemporary Scots politics’), the revolutionary period (Nic Dháibhéid, Townshend, Wilson) and the uncertainties of being a historian in a ‘post-conflict’ society (McBride, English, Fitzpatrick).

Vivid faces has an appropriately prominent place in the book, being referenced in Reid’s, Nic Dháibhéid’s, McBride’s and English’s chapters. There are insights to surprise both the general and the more informed reader. Paul Bew’s chapter on Parnell and Randolph Churchill reasserts the latter’s ‘zigzagging’ on Irish politics prior to ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’ and his willingness at least in theory to countenance some form of Irish autonomy, or ‘a class conservative government in Ireland, with the aid and consent of Irish democracy’.

Elaborating on the theme of generational conflict that is at the core of Vivid faces, Reid’s chapter shows that the nascent nationalist élite of the fin de siècle played a revolutionary though non-violent role of its own through the espousal of such cultural nationalist activities as the Gaelic League, Irish-Ireland pursuits and the educating of their children at Pearse’s schools, St Enda’s and St Ita’s, and that, in the case of Denis Gwynn at any rate, generational political differences narrowed with the passage of time, as the achievement of independence eventually allowed him a more balanced view of his father Stephen’s great hero, John Redmond, than the turbulent times of the pre-1914 period and the 1920s would allow. Whether the political revolution or the generational one was more enduring is one question posed in the chapter. Nic Dháibhéid’s chapter on the fates of the children and grandchildren of the fallen leaders of the Rising illuminates the extent to which, given this group’s relative marginality, independent Ireland’s nationalist élite was dominated as much by those who had been moderate nationalists up to and beyond 1916 as by the descendants of those who took the pro-Treaty side in 1922. In Ian McBride’s chapter on Provisional IRA memoirs, there are inescapable parallels between the political formations and the actors in Vivid faces. ‘In explaining the origins of the Provisionals’, he writes, ‘psychological deformations are of much less relevance than family tradition, teenage rebelliousness, and, above all, the vulnerability of Catholic communities.’ Ideology looms small in this accounting of mentalities, and popular and political efforts to erect a high barrier between the patriots of 1916–22 and the ‘terrorists’ of more recent times are not always buttressed by history. As with any book of this kind, the quality of the essays varies. Fitzpatrick’s closing chapter, for example, while broaching one of the most interesting questions of the book and one of the most important for Irish historians—how can we write terminologically ‘neutral’ accounts of Irish history, and is this even possible?—could probably have survived without the detailed though prolix recounting of the competing nationalist and unionist narratives of Irish history.

The phrase ‘uncertain futures’ points to the realities that the present is unsettled and that the past did not proceed in any straight line. A debunking of conventional certainties, and a highlighting of a range of past and present mentalities, shining a light on those corners of modern Irish history that have been darkened for one reason or another, is an exercise that has lain at the heart of Foster’s oeuvre and is a common theme of this volume. The notion of a national(ist) teleology, as outdated as it may seem to academic historians, remains popular even in societies that have not experienced conflict as recently as Ireland has, part of the reason why this form of thought is a subtext for the work of all modern Irish historians. Another theme is a basic sense, going back to Foster’s first books, his biographies of Parnell and Randolph Churchill, that there is a certain indivisibility to the historical experiences of the two islands. The essays by Hoppen, Jennings, Bew, Lee, Reid and Jackson all attest to this in one way or another. One cannot write the history of one without some attention to the other, or indeed without connecting the histories of all four of the constituent nations of ‘the British Isles’ (or ‘four nations’ history). For Irish historians this is a self-evident fact, though sometimes grudgingly and only partially admitted. Its relevance to Foster’s own biography as ‘Anglo-Irish’ or as emigrant is obvious. For British historians, on the other hand, Ireland has often figured only peripherally, if at all. For making this case, Foster earned the charges of being anti-patriotic or revisionist (this being one and the same to some critics) for calling into question what Irishness means, historically defined. This last is certainly ironic, given that there is probably no intellectual force in the last 200 years that has done more to shape (nationalist) notions of Irishness than ‘history’ broadly defined. For a historian who became so strongly linked to ‘political’ controversies, Foster’s work evokes that of the cultural or intellectual historian, again reflected in the content of the research essays in Part II. This alone places him within a tradition of ‘nationally minded’ if not nationalist historians, such as one of his influences, the great narrative historian and fellow Trinity man W.E.H. Lecky. The individual essays all reflect this preoccupation with Irishness, more or less, while also demonstrating that the preoccupation with the development of the Irish state and the Northern Ireland conflict no longer constricts modern Irish historical research quite as much as it did before.

Nevertheless, as much as Foster was an innovator in the study of Irish history, there is one noticeable lacuna: comparative and transnational studies, an invitation to which appears in the introductory chapter of Vivid faces, where Foster broaches various European perspectives on political generations and their historians. Though the aversion to comparison is weakening, with, for example, an issue of the journal Eire-Ireland devoted to transnational Irish history having just been published, it is still a feature of modern Irish historical research. Those future historians who will answer one of the two big questions that arise from Vivid faces, as put by Dunne, ‘what caused “the spectacular commitment to military posturing, and the cult of guns which characterised Irish radical politics from 1912”’, will have reason to look to broad, cross-continental and comparative European frames of reference. There is, perhaps surprisingly, no chapter written specifically on the Easter Rising or its commemorations, though given the exhaustive treatment these subjects have received in the centenary year, and will continue to receive, this is a fairly minor point. In any case, nationalism and the revolution are one of the subtexts linking together the whole book.

In his autobiography, the German-Jewish intellectual and cultural historian George L. Mosse defended the value of being an outsider in a historian’s life (there are other interesting similarities between the approaches of the two, such as the common emphasis on literature, particularly fiction as a historical source, as pointed out in Marianne Elliott’s chapter). The work of Foster, a Protestant from Waterford (though the son of ‘committed nationalists’, as Dunne points out in the opening, biographical chapter) who was educated at Trinity College—even in 1968 comprised mainly of ‘Northerners, Dublin Protestant bourgeoisie, the English and the West Brits’—spent his professional life in London and Oxford as a member of a relatively small subset of highly educated Irish professionals and for long was the bête noire of the Irish national(ist) historical narrative, is a vivid demonstration of this, even as this collection of essays proves beyond doubt that his place as one of Ireland’s most important historians is fully assured. Nineteen of the 23 contributors are based at English or Scottish universities, which also reflects something of Foster’s considerable role in advancing the stature of Irish history in British academia. Most of all, however, it is perhaps the way in which most commemorations of the Easter Rising and its surrounding events in this year have proceeded—reflective, pluralistic, even sombre, and quite humane; not bombastic or triumphalist—that vindicates Foster and the ‘revisionist’ enterprise most powerfully. In our determination to view the actors on both sides of the conflict and its events in all their complexity, not accepting any narrative without questioning, we are indeed all revisionists now.

Shane Nagle’s Histories of nationalism: Germany and Ireland in comparison will be published shortly by Bloomsbury Academic.


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