Narratives of Irish History

Published in Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Letters, Letters, Volume 4

The elegant eighteenth-century surroundings of Clifton Hill House provided a suitably austere setting for the Tenth Biennial Conference of Irish Historians in Britain which took place at the University of Bristol, 12-14 April on the theme Narratives of Irish History.
Donnchadh Ó Corráin (UCC) set the tone with a stimulating opening contribution examining the literary devices employed by Christian writers in seventh- and eighth-century Ireland to accommodate the country’s pagan past. Sean Duffy (TCD) then discussed Irish and Scandinavian attitudes to the role of Dublin in eleventh- and twelfth-century Irish politics and this was followed by the first of many lively question-and-answer sessions of the weekend.
On Saturday Bernadette Cunningham (Dublin Diocesan Library) continued the theme of religious narrative with an analysis of seventeenth-century Catholic and Protestant interpretations of the career of St Columba. Toby Barnard (Hertford College, Oxford) then discussed the writings of members of the eighteenth-century ascendancy during their tours of continental Europe and what these accounts revealed about this group’s sense of identity. Vincent Morley (University of Liverpool) compared attitudes towards Jacobitism in eighteenth-century Gaelic poetry from both Scotland and Ireland. The excellence of this paper was complemented by the contribution which followed from Norman Vance (University of Sussex), who examined attitudes to Ireland’s literary heritage displayed in the writings of commentators from Geoffrey Keating to Douglas Hyde. A particularly pleasing aspect of this talk was the long overdue recognition it paid to the work of Darcy Magee.
In the next session Joep Leerssen (University of Amsterdam) examined the reasons why mid-nineteenth-century Ireland witnessed a dearth of fiction-writing and a profusion of works of history. The theme of blurring fact and fiction in the narration of Irish history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was advanced still further in an absorbing paper by the next speaker, Eileen Reilly (Hertford College, Oxford). A reception hosted by the Irish embassy followed and the conference dinner was brought to a close by the guest speaker, Margaret MacCurtain, who spoke to the theme of the conference with feeling and insight.
Maria Luddy (University of Warwick) began proceedings on Sunday morning with a paper on prostitution in nineteenth-century Ireland and was followed by a fascinating examination by Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck College, London) of the stereotyping of Irish soldiers and their attitude to war by their British officers during the First World War. Jennifer Ridden (University of Bristol) gave a subtle analysis of the conflicting attitudes of the different groups which constituted the Protestant elite in early nineteenth-century Ireland and the final paper of the conference, by D.H. Akenson (McGill-Queen’s University, Canada), used the Biblical story of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people as a way of introducing a warning against the use by historians of the term ‘holocaust’ in discussions of the Great Irish Famine. Professor Akenson’s paper inspired Owen Dudley Edwards (University of Edinburgh) to read from the floor extensive passages from the Book of Kings with the result that delegates left the conference both mentally and morally refreshed.

Brendan Smith

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