Green Revisionism

by R. F. Foster.
Allen Lane/Penguin , $35.00.
AS THE IRISH historian Robert Fitzroy Foster remarks in his preface to this masterly, mildly sardonic history, “The tradition of writing the ‘story of Ireland’ as a morality tale, invented around the seventeenth century and retained (with the roles of hero and villain often reversed) until the twentieth, has been abandoned over the last generation. A vast number of special studies have appeared, revolutionizing long-held views in several key areas.”
We therefore begin with a melancholy paradox. A profound revolution in Irish scholarship has indeed overthrown the simple (and several of the more sophisticated) narratives of the Irish past. Chiefly, though, it has been a revolution within university lecture halls and journals, although its general assumptions have filtered into the urban middle classes, guided by “revisionist” and “de-mythologizing” writers of whom the exemplar is Conor Cruise O’Brien.
The traditional “story of Ireland,” or, rather, stories—one Catholic and one Protestant—are still vivid within the general population, and still bloody in the streets of Belfast and Derry. Real issues of justice and human rights are at stake in Northern Ireland, but a genuine conflict has been contorted into savagery by these disparate stories, ancient yet lethal. Students of those galactic distances that now separate scholarly elites from their containing communities need look no further than Northern Ireland.
One of Foster’s chief concerns in Modern Ireland is to demonstrate that the central effect of contemporary scholarship has been a liberation “from the Anglocentric obsession that once led the study of Irish political and economic history so far astray.” The meanings of that adjective “Anglocentric” are multiple, but they may be subsumed within the general notion that the several conflicting stories of Ireland have all had Ireland’s relations with England at their core. And reasonably enough, it could be argued: for many centuries the history of Ireland was its history as a colony of the British Crown. But Foster, and other recent historians, argue forcefully that the consequence has been a digression into one ideology or another, the nationalist or the loyalist story, and away from a steady, unillusioned consideration of what was actually happening in, and to, Ireland.
Foster has chosen appropriate dates. In 1601 the Tudor reconquest of Ireland was consummated by the defeat on the Cork coast of the rebellious Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. In 1972 the Republic of Ireland voted to join the European Economic Community; that same year Britain, its petulant fury masked as statesmanship, suspended its puppet government in Northern Ireland, having recognized, rather belatedly, that its Parliament existed entirely to serve the interests of l ister’s Protestant majority, Britain chose instead to govern the province by direct rule from London. Within a single year Ireland had entered modern Europe and had opened a new chapter in the history, at once dismal and bloodshot, of its relationship with its “sister” island.
IN THE NATIONALIST story of Ireland, Hugh O’Neill was the heroic champion of Gaelic, Catholic Ireland against Protestant England. So he was, from time to time, and as it suited him. He was in fact a wily territorial magnate defending his turf, a man by political education as much English as Irish, moving into rebellion against or alliance with various lords deputy in accordance with what he took to be his best interests. Nationalism itself, of course, did not exist in his century, although it was to supply the mold into which all Irish history was eventually poured.
Hugh O’Neill was, as Foster makes clear, a more intricate, elusive, and culturally complex Figure than the lithographed hero popularized by later propagandists. And Foster is unsentimental in his quick sketches of more recent deities of Irish nationalism. Thus “bold Robert Emmet, the darling of Erin,” as the ballad has it, hanged after his abortive uprising in 1803, is to Foster not a “noble and sacrificial dreamer” but a Continental-style radical whose “ideas were those of elite separatism; neither social idealism nor religious equality appear to have figured.” Wolfe Tone, the chief contriver of the calamitous rebellion of 1798 and the founding father of the Irish republican tradition, is presented (quite accurately) as a charming, witty, and ruthless opportunist who regarded Catholicism as a “dying superstition” to be exploited for entirely secular purposes.
ALL THIS HAS long been known, save in such redoubts of unreconstructed piety as the bars of Queens and South Boston. When Foster speaks of a revolution in Irish scholarship, he refers not to such superficial emendations of patriotic folklore but rather to deeper research and more sweeping interpretations.
A crucial example is provided by his consideration of the horrific Great Famine of 1845-1849, which, as he says,
opened an abyss that swallowed up many hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish people: the povertystricken conditions of rural life in the west and south-west, a set-piece for astounded travel books in the early nineteenth century, apparently climaxed in a Malthusian apocalypse.
It has traditionally been seen as a watershed in Irish history, cataclysmic in its effects upon the society, and having as a subordinate consequence the creation of “an institutionalized Anglophobia among the Irish at home and abroad.”
To put this latter point less gently, it has traditionally been held as having entered the folk consciousness of the Irish, and still more the folklore of the grandchildren of those forced into American exile, that the Famine was an act of genocide visited by England upon Ireland. That the causes were at once more complex and morally more terrifying we have known at least since the publication in 1962 of Cecil Wood ham-Smith’s magnificent The Great Hunger, It is indeed the case that, as Foster says, Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, the “final arbiter of famine-relief policy,” inclined toward the view “that the Famine was the design of a benign Malthusian God who sought to relieve overpopulation by natural disaster.” But this was a theory universally held among Whigs. The Famine was an abomination that flowed not from malignity but from an iron economic ideology, a historical point often lost on those who urge the unqualified beneficence of “free trade.” Trevelyan was no Eichmann; he is proof not of the banality of evil but of the evil of banality. As Foster puts matters, perhaps with too heavy a decorum, “Within both the government and the Treasury . . . there was also an attitude, often unconcealed, that Irish fecklessness and lack of economy were bringing a retribution that would work out for the best in the end.” Rhetoric falters into silence before such brutal complacency, beside which Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss seems gloomy and saturnine.
The effects of the Famine, however, have been less thoroughly canvassed until recently. One of these, as Foster says, is that, the landless and the near-landless having been swept away by starvation, disease, and emigration, there remained a population of small-scale but solvent farmers which, in coming decades,
would underpin the mass movements that challenged landlordism. . . . The values, beliefs and influence of the farming class in post-Famine Ireland entered their own ascendancy, mediated through Church, social institutions and, eventually, politics.
In the post-Famine years, that is, modern Ireland took its present shape. The ruling Anglo-Irish social caste and the government alike found themselves confronted not by incoherent multitudes but by an adversarial social class, aware of its own interests and capable of fighting to secure them, through instruments like the Land League and political machines such as the one worked at the end of the century, with cold and enthralling brilliance, by Charles Stewart Parnell.
It was also a social class distinctly aware of its supposed cultural and intellectual inferiority to the “Ascendancy” Ireland of its Protestant Anglo-Irish rulers, and increasingly determined to meet its adversary upon cultural as well as political grounds. It sought to assert, that is to say, the superiority of its own culture—peasant, Gaelic, Catholic, newly arisen from bondage, and truculent. Such a celebrated instance as the riot that attended the opening at the Abbey of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, in 1907, speaks for itself.
It is along this thread that Foster assesses the “new” nationalism of the new’ century and the years of armed struggle, 1916-1923, out of which emerged the modern Irish state. For a very long time it had been more or less the case that to be Protestant was to be loyalist, to be Catholic was to be nationalist. Exceptions on both sides provided delectable footnotes. What was new about the new nationalism was its exclusivist nature: to be truly Irish was to be Gaelic (and, if possible, to speak that language) and, by implication, to be Catholic. The new nationalism was prepared to accept the Irishness of Protestants who could pass a kind of ethnic literacy test. And Protestant patriots of the past (beginning and almost ending with Tone, Emmet, and Parnell) were revered and ritualistically hauled out as totems of nonsectarianism. Indeed, Patrick Pearse, the rather odd leader of the 1916 rising, was given to speaking of Tone in language that bordered on the idolatrous.
We are familiar, even in the United States, with the dreary Protestant bigotry of the Reverend Ian Paisley. Less so, perhaps, with the corresponding rant that in the not-too-distant past lay available as fuel for his paranoia. Thus, from the extremist Catholic Bulletin in 1924:
The Irish nation is the Gaelic nation; its language and literature is the Gaelic language; its history is the history of the Gael. All other elements have no place in Irish national life, literature and tradition, save as far as they are assimilated into the very substance of Gaelic speech, life and thought. The Irish nation is not a racial synthesis at all; synthesis is not a vital process, and only w hat is vital is admissible in analogies bearing on the nature of the living Irish nation, speech, literature and tradition. We are not a national conglomerate, nor a national patchwork specimen. . . .
THE CONTEMPORARY twenty-sixcounty Republic of Ireland has come a very long way since the publication of such sinister racial gibberish. But I do recall that when a scholarly book of mine was published in 1958, I was taken to task by a Catholic paper for having approvingly quoted the brilliant, largeminded Catholic writer T. M. Kettle to the effect that Ireland had once been “an unimaginable chaos of races, religions, ideas, appetites, and provincialisms; brayed in the mortar without emerging as a consolidated whole.” In chiding me, the newspaper charitably withheld its ace: Kettle was of Viking descent, the offspring of tenth-century carpetbaggers—as are hundreds of thousands of other Irishmen. In the debates over birth control and abortion in recent decades, though, the occasional odd phrase has popped out to remind us all—liberal Catholic, non-Catholic, and agnostic—that the old spirit is still lurking at the church gates. Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ballad reminds us, has four strong sons: no believer, she, in planned parenthood.
Foster fittingly points out that the Catholic Bulletin was a grotesque extreme. The state that came into being in 1922, and its successive governments, have always been solicitous of the rights of the (steadily declining) religious minorities. But it is also fitting that he reminds us that the Constitution presented to the Irish Free State by Eamon de Valera in 1937 granted the Catholic Church “a special position ... as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.” It is not difficult to deduce a cast of mind in which the non-great minority of Irishmen might find themselves somewhat ill at ease—or one that Ulster Protestants nobler in mind and being than Ian Paisley might not find especially seductive.
As Foster puts the matter, in a tone that contrives to be at once bland, angry, and amused,
If de Valera’s constitution spoke for an overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, to claim that it also spoke for a thirtytwo-county Ireland including a million Ulster Protestants might seem like trying to have it both ways. But that is exactly what the 1937 constitution did.
Happily, 1972 was also the year in which the clause in the Constitution granting the Catholic Church its special position was abolished by referendum. But Foster, a waiter not given to an unballasted optimism, reminds us that
Ireland’s Catholic ethos would be defended by a majority of the population as well as a politically powerful Church leadership. And here again what must be emphasized is the low priority given to making reunion with the Republic attractive to Protestant Ulster.
In his closing paragraphs he remarks, rather moodily, upon how striking it is that “the soi-disant ‘revisionist’ school of Irish historians” has had so little effect on “the popular (and paradoxically Anglocentric) version of Irish history held by the public mind.” He might also have remarked that it has had precious little effect on the version held in the public mind of Protestant Ulster.
“ ‘To have an opinion about Ireland,’ ” Thackeray wrote in his Irish Sketch Book of 1842, “one must begin by getting at the truth; and where is it to be had in the country? Or rather, there are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth. . . . Belief is made a party business.” That verdict remains largely true to this day. In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb argues that the academic study of history has one invaluable civic upshot: it is the solvent of what he calls “the past,” that repository of myth, legend, and dogmatic (because unexamined) opinion, a realm in which belief is indeed a party business. Ireland badly needs history like this to save it from a past that continues to exact murderous tribute from the present.