Understanding our own ignorance

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Platform, Volume 29

The search for truth and the revision of Irish history

By Patrick Maume

In the July/August 2020 issue of History Ireland Dr Fergal Mac Bloscaidh, whose research on Tyrone politics in the early twentieth century is well respected, offers thoughts on revisionist history. This might have been a welcome intervention, because the debate on ‘revisionism’ raises important questions. Unfortunately Dr Mac Bloscaidh’s facile dismissal of everyone who disagrees with him as a liar or a brainwashed zombie does not bode well for his claim to represent a truly free and democratic social model.

One of the difficulties with the debate on Irish historical ‘revisionism’ is that few historians call themselves ‘revisionists’. The ‘anti-revisionist’ position, however, can be summarised: that on ethical and intellectual grounds, Irish history can only be written on the basis of prior commitment to nationalism. In practice, such writers have their own versions of nationalism, with others summarily dismissed or assumed not to exist. For example, some over-emphasise the distinction between constitutional and physical-force nationalists. Certainly the ‘two nationalist traditions’ model has a long history, but most ‘constitutional’ nationalists under the Union resorted to veiled threats of insurrection and forms of intimidation at one point or another (as, of course, did unionists); ‘pure’ constitutional nationalists were a small minority of professionals and office-holders, many of whom were unionists in practice. The present-day tendency to treat nationalism and republicanism as distinct traditions, with the latter equated with socialism or French secularism, exemplified by Dr Mac Bloscaidh, is equally problematic if taken too far, since many early twentieth-century republicans saw that term purely as an expression of separatism and defined themselves in opposition to hypocritical and irreligious British liberalism, while some Redmondite ‘nationalists’ were republicans in general principle.

In politics, Dr Mac Bloscaidh speaks of enlightenment and liberation through spontaneous non-hierarchical mass mobilisation; in historiography he ridicules small-scale studies as equivalent to studying a painting by jamming your nose up against it and demands prior acceptance of his favoured grand narrative, as if history was not a collective enterprise and grand narratives did not draw on empirical studies.

Above: R.D. Edwards and T.W. Moody outside the Four Courts during the Foyle fisheries case in 1947. The Edwards–Moody school not only wished to raise professional standards but also wrote within a liberal nationalist framework aimed at creating a shared-island narrative of the type desired by Thomas Davis. (James Maguire)

John Regan’s recent article on Peter Hart and Kilmichael (HI 28.6, Nov./Dec. 2020), in demanding that no historical narrative should be written until every detail could be proven, unconsciously illustrates the limits of empiricism as methodology and why professional historians are not pure empiricists in philosophy. (This distinction is discussed in E.P. Thompson’s The poverty of theory (1978).) Historical evidence is fragmentary; historians reconstruct the past on the basis of the fragments available to them collectively, developing petty theories (extrapolations from the evidence) with the assistance of grand theories (based on wider historical understanding). These studies test theories against evidence and, if necessary, reformulate them in the light of new evidence or a new interpretation. Dr Regan claims that modification or disproval of a theory shows that it was wrong to advance the theory in the first place, but that is how theories advance comprehension. He is also wrong to claim that historical researchers cannot use social science models, for the distinction between history and social science is an artificial division of knowledge that can be set aside where necessary.

Dr Regan is not wrong, however, to point out that there are dangers in social science models. A model simplifies reality to bring out certain points; it is easy to overlook features that are very significant indeed. Many achievements of modernity rest on setting aside questions of teleology and long-term causes to focus on comprehensive understanding of the task in hand; the problem of this approach is that broader questions are too easily assumed to have been answered when they have only been set aside for a particular purpose.

The dominant strain in Irish academic history is not ‘value-free’ or reducible to ‘empiricism’. The Edwards–Moody school not only wished to raise professional standards but also wrote within a liberal nationalist framework aimed at creating a shared-island narrative of the type desired by Thomas Davis, and did so in part to explain (not least to British audiences) why Ireland survived as a democracy rather than collapsing into chaos and dictatorship, as many unionists had predicted and as many newly independent states had done in the same period. John Regan correctly identifies the development of a state-patriotism centred on the 26-county state after independence, but he overlooks the fact that the rationale of Irish nationalism in its broadest sense was the creation of a functioning Irish nation-state and the invalidation of unionist claims that such a state would be a disaster. (Incidentally, Regan does not ask why this ‘state-patriotism’ did not lead to the abandonment of the claim to Northern Ireland.) He describes the Cumann na nGaedheal government as an Irish counter-revolution when its members were conservative revolutionaries trying to prove the ability of the new state to sustain itself. Dr Mac Bloscaidh’s argument, on the other hand, is that a Marxist state would have been preferable. It can be argued (and I would agree) that such a state would not have achieved the aims it professed, but the hypothesis is perfectly legitimate and cannot be excluded from debate, just as denominational and politically motivated history—though they may be susceptible to certain flaws—cannot be ruled illegitimate in their own right except by someone who favours the suppression of religious and political diversity. Great historians have been Marxist, conservative, liberal and so forth, and to exclude any viewpoint a priori so long as its upholder can argue their case effectively is positively dangerous.

Above: Why professional historians are not pure empiricists in philosophy is discussed by E.P. Thompson—seen here in 1980 addressing an anti-nuclear rally in Oxford—in The poverty of theory (1978).

Much recent Irish academic history is primarily concerned with the development of the state apparatus and its impact on society—the growth and broadening of the bureaucracy, its triumph over aristocratic, revolutionary, locally elected and clerical rivals, and its claim to provide for the welfare of society better than any alternative. This image of bureaucrat as hero, with Lemass and Whitaker as paradigm, brings out the dissatisfaction with the social policies of the post-independence state, which was producing a reassessment of the post-independence decades well before the outbreak of the Northern Troubles. Such celebrations sometimes emphasise the ideal over the actuality of bureaucracy. Dr Mac Bloscaidh and Desmond Fennell are not alone in suggesting that there is much to be said for a more decentralised and participatory society (though they seem unduly confident that a decentralised and participatory citizenry will always agree with them), but such critiques gloss over objections that some form of hierarchical bureaucracy is necessary to manage a complex society and that minimal-state societies often succumb to vested interests and mafias.

Above: T.K. Whitaker—the bureaucrat as hero.

A specific problem with the bureaucrat-as-hero approach is that by reducing politics to administration it excludes and treats as non-existent disagreements about the nature and functions of society, which nevertheless recur when the bureaucracy proves less omnicompetent than it assumed itself to be. The Moody–Edwards tradition, with its assumption that examination of Irish historical myths will necessarily produce reconciliation rather than conflict, has a centrist bias, a reluctance to ask whether studying (for example) ultra-republicans or diehard unionists may give insights into their wider context. When I was a postgraduate student almost 30 years ago, a very distinguished Irish historian remarked to me that if I persisted in studying conservative figures such as Daniel Corkery and D.P. Moran I would get the reputation of being a conservative, and that would be bad for my career. This was not a threat but was spoken quite good-naturedly, as a fact of life taken for granted.

Dr Mac Bloscaidh, however, cannot disagree with someone without caricaturing them. If he is fighting a class war, it is advisable, as in any war, to understand what the enemy are doing. I agree with Dr Mac Bloscaidh that some of the historians he discusses overused the ironic mode when writing about tragic events, but they were reacting against predecessors like A.T.Q. Stewart and F.S.L. Lyons who responded to the early Troubles by suggesting that Ireland was trapped in a never-ending cycle of atavism. The late David Fitzpatrick was addicted to acerbic remarks about interests he considered trivial (as anyone who had a book reviewed by him has cause to know) but I believe that he intended it as a Socratic tactic to dispel complacency and to stimulate thought. My reading of the passage quoted by Mac Bloscaidh is that when Fitzpatrick describes local Sinn Féin leaders in post-1916 Clare as ‘nobodies’ this is not his own opinion but that of their social superiors and political opponents—just as Mac Bloscaidh, discussing divergences between academic and popular versions of Irish history, asks ‘What if the fools are right?’

Dr Mac Bloscaidh takes issue with three statements which he claims would not be disputed by most academic historians. The first is that the British State acted as a neutral arbiter in the long nineteenth century; the second is that two nations with equal rights to self-determination inhabit Northern Ireland; the third is that Irish republicanism is inherently violent, irrational and sectarian. Dr Mac Bloscaidh’s counter-positions appear to be that the British State was uniformly malevolent towards nationalists; that Ulster unionists are a colonial fragment with no right to refuse to identify with the nationalist/republican project; and that Irish republicanism as defined by Dr Mac Bloscaidh is the only way forward. The first two counter-propositions assume that unionists were not independent actors but proxies for the British State.

Opposite page: De Valera in New York in
1920—‘Why don’t you go back to Spain?’
(UCD Archives)

The first statement would not be endorsed by most academic historians. The standard view is not that the British State was neutral under the Union but that it was guided by its own perceived interests, not identical with those of nationalists or unionists, and favoured one or the other as seemed expedient. Theo Hoppen’s recent study of British ministers who administered Ireland under the Union portrays a cycle of promising that Ireland would be assimilated to Britain, assuming that it had been assimilated and could therefore be ignored when kept relatively quiet by local power-holders, and reforms—sometimes opportunistic, sometimes high-minded, often both at once—when renewed disasters and agitation showed that the assimilation had not been completed. (There was some assimilation, with consequences not anticipated by any party; the national school system, intended to Anglicise the population, increased their ability to read nationalist propaganda, which propaganda Gaelic Leaguers subsequently claimed Anglicised the country by using English literary models!)

During the Land War, Fenians who allied with Parnell and the Land League in the New Departure, British radicals such as George Lansbury and Irish conservative defenders of landlordism believed that by intervening in market relations of landlord and tenant in Ireland the British political establishment set a precedent for attacking property rights in Britain—indeed, Parnell’s Fenian allies believed that this was an existential issue that would never be conceded and would provoke revolution. Why did the British establishment concede, if as uniformly reactionary as Mac Bloscaidh claims? If it was simply fear of revolt, why did they not resort to the much greater levels of repression undertaken elsewhere in the empire? If they were intelligent enough to divide and rule by select concessions, doesn’t this suggest that the situation was more complex than Mac Bloscaidh admits?

Academic historians certainly do not all think that Irish republicanism is uniquely violent, irrational and sectarian, merely that it contains such elements—for understandable historical reasons. Nobody who has read the Dublin Evening Mail of the Land War—demanding a Cromwellian reconquest and wholesale executions by court martial, comparing Land Leaguers to the Colorado beetle and the rinderpest cattle plague, and lamenting that the property and intellect of Ireland was being attacked by a ‘barbarous Celtic horde’ granted a ‘mud-hut franchise’—will think that unionism was purely an expression of sweet reason.

Dr Mac Bloscaidh appears to think that anyone who believes that Ulster unionists are a separate nation is either a deliberate liar or a brainwashed zombie. Let me describe my own adoption of this view. I was aged fifteen and there had just been a general election at which one of my teachers was elected to the Dáil. I asked him whether we would get the North back now. He replied that it wasn’t that simple. The thought struck me that if Ireland was entitled to break away from Britain because the majority desired it, Northern Ireland could stay with Britain if the majority there desired it. Nobody brainwashed me; I thought it for myself. Years later, an academic who taught republican prisoners in the Maze told me that IRA prison political education classes emphasised that unionists had a case if certain assumptions were granted. Obviously the IRA did not believe that the unionists were right, but they did believe that they had a case plausible enough that it must be understood before being countered.

I have learned a lot about Northern Ireland and Ulster unionists since then; I do not know whether they can be called a separate nation but they are a distinctive cultural body with a distinctive political position, which cannot and should not be ignored any more than northern nationalists should be ignored. Dr Mac Bloscaidh says that all will be resolved when they are converted to his own brand of socialism; what if they aren’t?

At a debate in New York in 1920 the following exchange took place between de Valera and the Ulster playwright St John Ervine:

Ervine: What are the Ulster Unionists to do if they don’t want the republic?

De Valera: If they don’t accept the republic they can go back to Britain.

Ervine: My family have lived in County Down since the seventeenth century. Why don’t you go back to Spain? (Uproar)

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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