Young Ireland and the writing of Irish history

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Reviewed by Sylvie Kleinman
Sylvie Kleinman has taught Irish history and historiography at Trinity College, Dublin.

young-irelandIn 1925 an academic, critical of the excessive moralising and lack of perspective in classroom teaching, deplored the ‘gush of legend, rhetoric, passion or panegyric’ form of national history that still ran through examination papers. This form of history derived from ‘popular works of the D’Arcy McGee or John Mitchell type of historian’ [reviewer’s emphasis], in which the Irish were a noble, martial, intensely patriotic and deeply religious race engaged in a protracted struggle against foreign oppression. By the 1960s, academics were professionally motivated to shift away from myths of sublime patriotism and propaganda, in the process creating an often-sharp opposition between scholarly and popular views of Irish history, as readers of History Ireland know all too well. James Quinn’s new book (indirectly) allows us to appreciate how far we have moved on from insular and unsophisticated debates on revisionism in its scholarly treatment of a defining chapter of Irish identity and ideology, the fashioning of genuinely Irish history by the Young Irelanders. True, the historical writings of Young Ireland are rarely read nowadays and they produced no ‘great’ historian or ‘great work’ of history. But Quinn, unperturbed by the focus on the more fashionable actors and phases of Irish history, had previously taken on the ‘outmoded and even repugnant’ John Mitchell. In a short biography he had objectively demonstrated how Mitchell’s uncompromising rhetoric had been one of the most influential and resilient strands of Irish nationalism. In this and other short explorations of Young Ireland’s historicist nationalism, now authoritatively developed in this thorough and dedicated study, he defines how their corpus of nearly 70 titles—duly listed separately in the bibliography—constructed an interpretation of Irish history that fuelled generations of nationalists and did much to shape Irish communal memory, well after independence.

In June 1840 Thomas Davis had delivered his famous presidential address to the College Historical Society in Trinity, criticising the neglect of modern subjects, which inevitably fostered ignorance among students of the most basic history of their own country. This, he argued, was deeply damaging to Ireland’s sense of itself, since all great nations should be able to recall the deeds and honour of their heroes and martyrs. Most histories of Ireland had been written by hostile strangers who had misrepresented her past; and so he exhorted the young Irishmen present to challenge these falsifications. After this foundational moment, the book aptly looks at Young Ireland reading the history that was available to them (and exaggerating its limits) before moving on to their writing of it, their innovative use of it from a nationalist standpoint, their making of it, and continuities and legacies. The flowing narrative consistently locates motivations and approaches within the context of the times, stressing the presentist concerns of Young Ireland.

UCD Press has produced a reasonably priced, light softback edition with handy cover flaps to mark pages. They have made vintage-effect covers acceptable in academia, duly reproducing the original masthead and font of the first edition of The Nation on 15 October 1842, complete with that iconic image of Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy discussing the paper’s foundation in the Phoenix Park. Initially intended to invigorate the campaign to repeal the Act of Union, it became the most significant press venture in Irish history, a paper that would ‘inflame and purify’ the people ‘with a lofty and heroic love of country’. The Nation contended that ‘the history of Ireland has not yet been written’ and saw it as its patriotic duty to give the Irish people the ‘national’ education that the British government had deliberately prevented them from receiving; Young Ireland’s mission was deployed in its pages, but also through the immensely popular (if eclectic and at times unscholarly) Library of Ireland series, the sales of which exceeded all expectations, and other works. The links with increased literacy, print culture, reading rooms, temperance and Repeal mobilisation are addressed, but so too is Anglicisation; Davis promoted a total cultural approach that evidently encompassed the Irish language, but he was a lone voice among pragmatists, as the entirely Anglophone listing demonstrates.

Even the most convinced nationalists could find the Young Ireland style of simplistic versifying, ‘jingling rhymes . . . spirit-wearying flow of romances’ and Davisite balladry irritating. But Quinn also engages with transnational models: the Young Irelanders were avid readers of Michelet and Carlyle, himself influenced by German romantic emotionalism, and discussion of their debt to Augustin Thierry is welcome. This reviewer’s interest in textbook propaganda and martial glory recognises in A.M. Sullivan’s Story of Ireland and its easily digestible patriotic lessons a lot of Lavisse, France’s most influential curriculum designer in terms of the generation led to the trenches. He self-defined his mission as training instructors capable of teaching the love of France in the face of (well-schooled) Prussians who hated her.

Course instructors and undergraduate students in particular will welcome this book as a highly useful resource. Dismissing the Young Irelanders as ineffectual romantics is now history: they were instrumental in shaping a distinct and historic community destined to make its own future. In this, the book concludes, they succeeded better than they could have expected.


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