Visions and Revisions

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 1996), News, Volume 4

In a short poem composed near the end of his life, W.B. Yeats wrote: ‘Out of Ireland we have come. /Great hatred, little room, /Maimed us from the start’. Over sixty years later, Yeats’s despair (or statement of fact), has maintained its relevance for understanding Ireland, and will continue to do so for years to come. While physical battle lines have disappeared for the time being, the war of words continues and ideological lines are drawn and redrawn according to the poet’s terse analysis. Nevertheless, within the realm of ideas there are some fields in which the contestants in Ireland have managed to dispute, if not always amicably, then at least with a good deal of respect for differences. With few exceptions, this can be said for the fields of Irish history and literature as they are practised by professional historians and literary critics. The December 1995 conference sponsored by Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, Visions and Revisions: recent trends in Irish literature and history, was another example of just how this is done. Positions were stated and agendas laid out, but all within an accepted space, a space which seems to be growing.

The morning literature session featured panellists Edna Longley (Queen’s, Belfast) and Denis Donoghue (NYU). Not surprisingly, Yeats and the long shadow he cast over Irish literature and culture was a central theme of discussion. Various speakers and discussants proposed that Yeats was both a revisionist and a key figure in the establishment of an official nationalist story. Longley argued that the regionalism of the Ulster poet John Hewitt could provide a healthier and more plausible vision for Ireland than the hegemonic view of orthodox Irish nationalism. Denis Donoghue followed her admonition by quickly depoliticising ‘revisionism’, defining it as the act of questioning the dominant story. As such, he identified Joyce and Beckett as early revisionist critics of Yeats’s literary nationalism. Donoghue ended with the thought that in the future in Ireland there will and should be a multiplicity of voices and stories. But, he added, every individual will still find that one story rings truer than the rest.

Kevin Whelan (Boston College) opened the afternoon session on history, by stating that Irish historiography, as with Irish history itself, finds itself at an important cross-roads. Increased communication between historians, especially in Ireland, Britain and America, the importation and acceptance of theory, and an emphasis on comparative studies have helped to raise the academic focus on Ireland to an unprecedented level. Moreover, and most importantly, the cease-fire in the north has lifted a weight so that meaningful dialogue is not only possible, but perhaps unavoidable, as the shallow talk of before can no longer be easily disguised as representing legitimate political positions. As a result of all these things, long-held conceptions of the past are breaking down, creating new intellectual and cultural space. Whelan urged fellow Irish historians to elevate historical debate out of politics. He stressed that history in Ireland, more so than most places, is political, and only by separating it from the political realm could the new space be filled with a peaceful, more inclusive vision of Ireland.

Whelan’s remarks were well aimed, as the so-called ‘revisionists’ and ‘anti-revisionists’ have both been accused of having political agendas which overcome their scholarship. Significantly, the first panellist, Brendan Bradshaw (Cambridge), while acknowledging that ‘we are all revisionists after a fashion’, has been a leading critic of other ‘revisionists’. Or, as he put it: ‘There are revisionists and there are revisionists’. By Bradshaw’s own definition, revisionism is the questioning of new evidence. He cited examples of what he called ‘good’ or ‘constructive’ revisionism, singling out Joe Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985, as an example of a book which is highly critical of the Irish past, but which nevertheless shows a concern for Irish historical heritage and enables people to come to terms with the darker side of their history. Among the ‘bad’ revisionists he also listed a number of authors, culminating in a critique of Roy Foster’s widely read Modern Ireland 1600-1972. Bradshaw claimed that Foster’s decision to begin the story in 1600 and not a half-century before, gave the work a natural anti-Irish bias, since it commences with the defeat of Gaelic Ireland and the beginning of English rule over the entire island. He went on to accuse Foster of deflating critical events in the Irish nationalist pantheon at the expense of those who genuinely suffered and died.

Bradshaw’s own work shows that he is hardly an unrepentant nationalist historian. Rather, his categorisation of certain colleagues as ‘good’ revisionists and ‘bad’ seems to be based largely on their approach to moral problems raised by past actions. In his opinion, those who do not sufficiently acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by, for example, the Cromwellian massacres and dislocation, the Famine, or those who dismiss the motives behind the Easter Rising, are failing to acknowledge the basic humanity of the victims and the right of others to sanctify their story. To prove his point, he cited his disagreement with the Ulster historian Brian Walker who has questioned the degree of suffering by Protestant settlers in the violence of 1641. For Bradshaw, it is only by examining and acknowledging the horrible truth of these events that the past can be dealt with.

The issue raised by Bradshaw is one of evidence and emphasis. Brutalities often occurred, in Ireland as elsewhere. But just as often these brutalities have become mythologised by the victims, making martyrs out of everyone. In this situation the truth is hard to find, and even harder to recognise. In Bradshaw’s opinion, ideologically motivated or ‘tactical’ revisionists, have mishandled or avoided evidence and their anti-nationalist agenda has caused them to diminish, if not dismiss, the darkest moments of Irish history. The idea of historical emphasis was taken up by Roy Foster (Oxford) in his reply, when he suggested that the debate was really about style, not content, for he did not disagree with Bradshaw’s litany of horrors, only with the notion that he himself did not properly contextualise or acknowledge them.

After a brief rebuttal of Bradshaw’s criticisms, Foster defined revisionism as an age-old oedipal problem, an issue of what is acceptable, and a questioning of political assumptions. He stated that Irish historical ‘revisionism’, if it must be called that, neither excuses British behaviour in Ireland, nor is it monolithic, ideological or anti-national. He asked what is meant by ‘national’ and whether or not the term can be so easily applied when it does not refer to all people in Ireland. Foster defended the ‘Moody-Edwards’ school from which he sprang, as ‘national-minded and nationalist’. What he questioned was their view of Irish history as a series of missed chances for successful pluralism. He too applauded a number of healthy ‘revisionist’ authors, citing Bob Scally’s The End of Hidden Ireland, and a number of other books on aspects of social history long overlooked by the nationalist story. Foster suggested that the interrogative nature of contemporary Irish historiography, including his own, is a sign of growing cultural confidence. Or, as he stated later in his talk, revisionists have often been accused of destabilising Irish culture because of their emphasis on discontinuities. The true result, according to Foster, has not been destabilisation, but liberation. If Irish historiography now finds itself in a period of ‘post-revisionism’, a term which Foster embraced, he hoped it would not signal a return to determinism, but rather a recognition of ambiguity and realism. Pluralism, the acknowledgement of various stories of Irish history, continues to be relevant because it celebrates things as they are, not as they ought to be. ‘And recognising things as they are’, said Foster, ‘is the height of philosophical endeavour.’

Bradshaw and Foster were in some ways addressing different issues, for the question raised by Foster’s talk was not about the proper use of evidence and emphasis, although those was discussed, but whether or not a pluralist Ireland can or should be subsumed into a broad definition of Irishness. This took the debate back to Kevin Whelan’s question of how the new intellectual and cultural space should be filled and what the historians role should be. The first discussant Nicholas Canny (UCG), had a quick response to the question of the historians role. Historians, he said, should not be cultural critics or advisors. Their job is to write history and to critique the work of fellow historians. History is good when it clarifies and explains the past; it is not about making moral judgements. He rebuked fellow Irish historians for neglecting the task of professionally criticising each other’s work, and thus advancing our understanding of the past. Hiram Morgan (UCC), stated that he and many in his generation seek a new Ireland, beyond the division of Catholic and Protestant. He stated his belief that one can be professionally critical while being open to a number of interpretations of the past, and this was the idea upon which History Ireland was founded. Richard English (Queen’s, Belfast) said that revisionism was not necessarily unionist, but that the new scholarship on ‘Britishness’ is often a helpful framework for exploring and understanding Irish historical questions. Jim Smyth (Notre Dame) reiterated Foster’s point that revisionists occupy a wide range of political and historical viewpoints and cannot be easily classified. However, he suggested that the relative absence of an oedipal reaction in Irish historiography is a more interesting problem than the reaction that did occur.

The plenary session was a surprisingly calm affair as all four panellists responded to occasionally blunt criticisms. Most questions from the audience were related to how the study of literature and history might help engender a sense of shared traditions and abet the peace process. The American journalist Pete Hamill asked the panellists: ‘What books would you have the politicians read before coming to the table for all-party talks?’ Brendan Bradshaw offered the historical writings of Eoin MacNeill. Roy Foster suggested Estyn Evan’s book, The Personality of Ireland, along with the collected works of Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt. Edna Longley agreed on Hewitt, and added the essays of Hubert Butler and a poem by Paul Durkan, ‘A spin in the rain with Seamus Heaney’. Finally, Denis Donoghue revealed a certain weariness—or healthy scepticism—when he said that ‘if they read King Lear that’s all they’d have to know’.

There were enough disagreements throughout the day that the conference was distinctly frequently talked past each other. However, as George O’Brian (Georgetown) suggested, that may indicate the successful emergence of a politics of difference. He even proposed that the word ‘progress’ was in order. Whether or not this cultural and intellectual progress can be sustained and whether in any way translate to the political level is uncertain. Yet the conference left little doubt that the space in which such progress can occur, is increasingly confident and growing.

Charles C. Ludington is a postgraduate student at Columbia University.

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