Keith Middlemas on the history of Ireland

  • Ireland: Land of Troubles by Paul Johnson
    Eyre Methuen, 224 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 413 47650 2
  • Acts of Union by Anthony Bailey
    Faber, 221 pp, £4.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11648 5
  • Neighbours by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Faber, 96 pp, £2.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 571 11645 0
  • Ireland: A History by Robert Kee
    Weidenfeld, 256 pp, £9.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 297 77855 2

An Englishman addressing himself to Irish history and contemporary politics ought always to bear in mind John Stuart Mill’s provocative remark, that it was not Ireland but England that was the exception: ‘Ireland is in the mainstream of human existence and human feeling and experience; it is England that is one of the lateral channels.’ Of the authors under discussion, the first is an Englishman who, in The Offshore Islanders, has anatomised just that lateral channel, the second an Anglo-American journalist, the third a leading Irish politician and writer of uniquely varied experience, and the last the broadcaster and historian reponsible for the current remarkable television series on Ireland. If they have a common theme, it is that Irish history is characterised by violence, ignorance, bigotry, and an obsession with a heroic past, and, though none makes European comparisons, their books suggest that it is the history of Sicily, the Basque country or Corsica which might illuminate Ireland’s long relationship with England.

Painstaking work since the 1950s by a broad range of scholars such as R.B. McDowell, Owen Dudley Edwards, F.S.L. Lyons and Patrick O’Farrell has profoundly altered our understanding: not only have ancient myths been invalidated, but the structure of a genuinely Irish history now exists, free from the Anglo-centric emphasis still common twenty years ago. Questions can be asked about an autonomous development of society and culture in what Maitland called ‘the long troughs and hollows’ between the troubles; about whether English rule at different epochs should be described, in colonial terms, as ‘overrule’, and compared with 20th-century Southern Africa, or as ‘attempted integration’, like French rule in Algeria. To what extent did Irish circumstances deflect British aims in, say, the vital decade of the 1790s, when modern notions of nationalism, republicanism and revolution seem firmly to have been implanted? Is the Irish obsession with the past a mere romantic consolation, or a practical method, as Johnson has emphasised elsewhere, of prescribing change by reference to an ancient, largely fictitious ‘golden age’ – De Valera’s method of enlisting the imagery of Cathleen ni Houlihan while establishing his narrow-minded, conservative mid-20th-century Republic?

These books show how hard it is to focus on ‘crucial developments’ in Irish history, since the definition of what is crucial depends largely on the point of view taken. What weight, for example, should be given to English statesmen’s tangible fear of invasion, supported by an alien, ‘treacherous’ populace, from an island vulnerable, as England’s coastline never was, to Spaniards, French or, later, Germans? The problem of law and order clearly affected all 19th and 20th-century British governments, since failure to restrain murder, subversion or agrarian outrage was accounted weakness by an English electorate: yet the historian needs also to analyse a society in which, at a philosophical level, these acts received widespread Irish support. Then there is Mill’s question: should Irish culture, for all the fact that its literature is almost wholly in English, be analysed like that of Scotland, in European terms? More recently, how should history since the 1921 Treaty be written: as if England were still part of the Irish cosmos, an integral factor in a prolonged, and possibly insoluble, post-colonial schizophrenia?

Paul Johnson’s book is lively, well-informed and often provocative; his standpoint allows little space for nuances. His ‘crucial developments’ are the troubles themselves; the ‘shared experiences’ (one thinks of those thousands of Irishmen who volunteered for service in the British Army even after the Easter Rising in 1916) occur only at the end when he talks briefly of the book he has not written. Instead, invasion, rebellion and persecution wash down the centuries, lit up by vivid contemporary documents. It is good to be reminded that in 1609 Ulster was still ‘unknown ... as the most inland part of Virginia’, and that Spenser compared the Ireland he knew with England in the Dark Ages after Rome. Seen in this way, Irish history has a unity, almost a purpose.

Yet, as Johnson emphasises, Ireland’s problems were never central to English governments’ calculations for more than very short periods, and never more than dimly seen by an English electorate. Even for Gladstone’s Liberal colleagues (though not for him), and for Elizabeth I or Lloyd George, they were a costly and debilitating diversion from more important matters. But except in the late 18th century, Ireland denied its administrators, even full-time, well-meaning ones, the illusion that overrule would be acceptable if only it provided justice, prosperity and good government. Johnson’s book runs in two directions as a result: backwards, seeking a moment when the dream of lasting consensus seemed possible (the 1900s? the 1880s? the 1830s? the 1780s?), and forward, projecting this ancient dilemma onto the present day.

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