Upper Ireland

Nicholas Canny

  • Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by R.F. Foster
    Allen Lane, 688 pp, £18.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9010 4

Historians of Ireland seem more compelled than those of any other country to move beyond their immediate research interests to offer general appraisals as a means of explaining the present condition of their country. Some do this through the medium of radio or television, others offer contributions to one of the several multi-volume paperback histories of Ireland, while most cherish the ambition to advance their opinions in a single-volume history tracing developments in Ireland from some crucial date in the past to the recent present. Those few who realise this ambition can be certain of at least an earthly reward, since the demand for general histories of Ireland seems insatiable and sales can match those of a moderately successful novel. Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland has exceeded such expectations. It has recorded sales in excess of 12,000 hardback copies on the Irish market alone since its publication in October 1988.

Such an astonishing success is richly deserved. Foster’s book is the most authoritative single-volume survey of modern Irish history vet written. Its authority derives from the fact that it is based upon the most recent published, and indeed unpublished, scholarship on the full span of modern Irish history from the 17th to the 20th century, and also upon a close study of the literature of contemporary social analysis ranging from that composed by Fynes Moryson and Thomas Dineley in the 17th century through that written by Charles O’Conor and Sir Jonah Barrington in the 18th, and forward to that executed by Conrad Arensberg and Rosemary Harris in the present century. Due acknowledgement is made by Dr Foster whenever he draws upon the work of others, but he is at his best when his arguments are based upon his own research and thinking. Foster is also clearly more at home with high politics and high society than with the lives of the poor, and there is a marked contrast between the easy confidence that characterisies his treatment of such subjects as Anglo-Irish society of the 18th century, or the politics of Parnell in the 19th, and the nervous hesitancy that mars his writing on less inspiring subjects such as the Great Famine of the 19th century or Irish politics since World War Two.

Another difficulty arises whenever Foster strives to attain a balance between historical interpretations where expert opinion is divided over some problem. Instead of opting for one interpretation and stating the reason behind his choice, Foster draws willy nilly upon clearly incompatible interpretations and sometimes contradicts himself within the compass of a few pages. The most glaring example of this uncertainty emerges in his treatment of the Great Famine. Twice (pages 219 and 324) the famine is referred to as the holocaust, which leaves us to assume that he concurs with the judgment of Joel Mokyr and Cormac O Grada that the British Government was culpable for the loss of at least 775,000 lives. This assumption is then challenged by Dr Foster’s remark that the British Government reacted to famine conditions in Ireland in much the same way that the Belgian Government would respond to the famine of 1867 in that country, and he asserts that any government action which might have alleviated the crisis would have required the assumption of powers that no contemporary government possessed. This in turn suggests that there was a horrible inevitability about the famine, and Foster does acknowledge (page 334) that the Irish rural poor were authors of their own destruction in so far as ‘they stayed on the land to an extent unjustified economically.’ Not satisfied with this near-judgmental remark, he points the finger at landlords and strong farmers for their general indifference to the plight of the poor, while praising the few efficacious efforts at private famine relief, notably that of the Quakers. Then, having travelled a distance with every argument, he proceeds to the amazing and unsubstantiated conclusion (page 342) that an Irish parliament and government ‘would certainly have behaved more efficiently’ than did the British Government in dealing with the crisis.

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