Dev and Dan

Tom Dunne

  • The Hereditary Bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 by Oliver MacDonagh.
    Weidenfeld, 328 pp, £16.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 297 79221 0
  • Eamon de Valera by Owen Dudley Edwards
    University of Wales Press, 161 pp, £19.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 7083 0986 0
  • Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland edited by C.H.E. Philpin
    Cambridge, 466 pp, £27.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 521 26816 8
  • Northern Ireland: Soldiers talking, 1969 to Today by Max Arthur
    Sidgwick, 271 pp, £13.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 283 99375 8
  • War as a Way of Life: A Belfast Diary by John Conroy
    Heinemann, 218 pp, £12.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 434 14217 4

The seemingly intractable problem of violence in Northern Ireland has spawned a remarkable number of books, ranging from the voyeuristic and ephemeral to the illuminating and scholarly. There have been comparatively few attempts, however, to see the conflict from the perspectives of the individuals most directly involved. Now Max Arthur’s fascinating collage of soldiers’ reminiscences gives a voice to a group who are not generally believed to have (or to be entitled to) one, while John Conroy’s account is that of a sympathetic outsider nervously learning the codes and concerns of a small Catholic community at the eye of the storm. At the academic level, the heightened interest in Irish history in England has found a focus in the dynamic journal Past and Present, which has published some of the key articles by the younger generation of Irish historians. The republication of these, together with new articles on related topics, in Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland makes important work available to a wider audience, and offers an opportunity to assess some interesting trends in Irish historiography. At the same time more traditional concerns persist, and no other form of academic history achieves as wide a readership as biography. Oliver MacDonagh and Owen Dudley Edwards offer new interpretations of two men, each of whom dominated the politics of his time, Daniel O’Connell and Eamon de Valera. Their relevance to the current crisis is most apparent in the way each had to come to terms with the problems which sectarian polarisation, on the one hand, and militant extremism, on the other, pose for Irish nationalist politics.

Oliver MacDonagh is unique among Irish historians, not only for the range of his interests (the history of administrative, industrial and scientific developments, as well as demography and political and literary studies), but also in the care, polish and adaptability of his literary style. For his last book on Ireland, the award-winning States of Mind, he adopted the classic essayist mode; his splendid occasional pieces on Jane Austen’s novels have some of the dry, delicate precision of their subject. It is part of his strength that this remarkable range is focused chronologically on the first half of the 19th century, so that his knowledge of its literature, for example, informs his appreciation of its politics and has partly inspired his work on its administrative systems. He is equally at home with British and with Irish history, as befits the biographer of a man who made a major career in both countries and combined elements of both political cultures. His qualities come together triumphantly in this first volume of two, which brings O’Connell’s career to the victory of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. For it, MacDonagh has developed a narrative style designed to involve the general reader as well as the specialist. It is spare, lucid and forceful for the most part, while managing to create a surprising amount of room for evocation of places and people, as well as for passages of shrewd political analysis. It wears its great scholarship lightly, and makes even the most familiar aspects of the story full of fresh interest and excitement. A re-evaluation rather than a monumental ‘life and times’, its main debts are to Maurice O’Connell’s splendid eight-volume edition of his ancestor’ss correspondence, and, especially, to the letters between O’Connell and his wife, which are at the heart of a brilliant blending of the private and public lives. The book makes its most original contributions in areas where MacDonagh’s empathy with his subject is balanced by what is often an astringent critique – O’Connell’s work as a barrister and the imprint of this on his politics is a case in point, as are his Catholicism, personal and political, and his relationship (not least in financial terms) with his family.

MacDonagh’s title, The Hereditary Bondsman, comes from O’Connell’s regular rhetorical use of a couplet of Byron’s to define his own position and that of his fellow Catholics. MacDonagh’s O’Connell is a man driven by a ‘consciousness of degradation’ caused by discriminatory laws, including those against Catholic barristers taking silk. This prevented the chronically debt-ridden lawyer-politician from achieving his potential income. Indeed, ‘O’Connell may well have had more at stake in the Catholic question, materially speaking, than any other person in the United Kingdom.’ His resentment was both intensified and balanced by a remarkable self-confidence, and MacDonagh is particularly good at showing how the various elements in this complex psychology were rooted in his Kerry background and shaped by his education in France, London and Dublin. All of this made him at the same time a social conservative, opposed to revolution, and a philosophical radical, fearful of ‘the unleashing of the irrational in politics’. His own description of Catholic Emancipation as ‘one of the greatest triumphs recorded in history’ was on the basis of its being ‘a bloodless revolution’ involving ‘political’ rather than ‘social’ change. In MacDonagh’s view, its main radicalising influence lay in its confirmation of the end of Protestant superiority and Catholic deference, for long the aim also of the ‘Billingsgate’ and violence of much O’Connellite rhetoric.

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