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 Its authority derives from the fact that it is based upon the most recent published, and indeed unpublished, scholarship on the full span of modern Irish history from the 17th to the 20th century, and also upon a close study of the literature of contemporary social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.
Roy Foster’s arguments never follow quite as circuitous a course as they do in this chapter on the famine – a subject that he is obviously uneasy with. More disconcerting for the general reader, and particularly for those already familiar with the popularly-aimed writing on Irish history, will be the absence of an all-embracing interpretation which would bind together the 23 separate, and sometimes discrete, chapters that go to make up Modern Ireland. This absence is explained partly by his despair that the story he has pursued over the course of four centuries has not led him to any uplifting or even hopeful conclusion as he surveys the Irish condition in the aftermath of the renewal of the IRA onslaught against the state of Northern Ireland in 1969, and the entry, in 1972, of the two Irelands into the European community. Another and more potent factor which explains the absence of a single unifying interpretation is the role which Foster attributes to accident in the unfolding of events and especially great events. Thus the rising of 1641 is shown to have derived from the political manoeuvrings of some discontented, but securely established, Ulster lords, rather than from the planning of some ‘fanatically Catholic revanchists’; the great insurrection of 1798, described accurately by Foster as ‘the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history’, is shown to have been ‘precipitated by an international dislocation’; while the 20th-century revolution that led ultimately to the establishment of two Irish states is again shown by Foster to have had short term causes and to have been created ‘almost entirely’ by extraneous events, notably the outbreak of World War One and the bungling of British politicians who gave only limited attention to Ireland and to advice from their officials in Dublin Castle once the war in Europe was under way.
Because of the allowance Foster makes for such discontinuities in Irish history, it is not surprising that he should shy away from any grand interpretation. Instead he imposes some cohesion on his work by identifying a few threads which run through several centuries of Irish history, and which endured even the discontinuities, and he also identifies an Irish political style which he finds recurring in succeeding centuries.
The classic example of the Irish political style was that cultivated by Parnell – which Foster duly designates Parnellism. This was characterised by the dominance of a single figure who fostered a personality cult and who exploited every existing grievance to further his own ends, which always remained ambiguous and ill-defined. This lack of definition was explained by uncertainty in the mind of the cult figure himself as to what his precise objectives should be, and also by a nagging awareness on his part that the pursuit of these ambitions would place a wedge between himself and an important section of the Irish population. This awareness was always well-founded, and one consequence of the dazzling political episodes associated with these great men in Irish politics was to leave the country more riven by dissent than had been the case previously. At the same time, however, these leaders set a new political agenda for their followers, and so provided Irish political life with a momentum and a refreshing escape from the petty jobbery and patronage that was the standard fare of Irish politics, at least from the 18th century forward.
The Parnell episode fits readily with this typology and Roy Foster encounters no difficulty in extending his model backwards to describe O’Connell and O’Connellism or forwards to explain the achievements of de Valera in his prime. The model is applied less convincingly to Henry Grattan and his politics of patriotism in the late 18th century, and to Captain Terence O’Neill and his involvement with the politics of Northern Ireland during the 1960s. When the term ‘O’Neillism’ is employed yet again to describe the enigmatic actions of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, some three centuries earlier, it is apparent that the analogy with the politics of Parnell has been stretched beyond reason.
The identification by Dr Foster of recurrent themes does more than his development of a political typology to assist our understanding of his subject while enhancing the cohesion of his book. Here again, he sometimes succumbs to the temptation of stretching his theses further than the evidence will allow, as when he dates the distinctive character of Ulster society from the moment that a plantation was established in that province. Far more successful is his isolation of a militant anti-Protestantism among the rural and artisan populations in Catholic Ireland, which added an edge of revolutionary fervour whenever political moulds were broken. Foster employs the term ‘Ribbonism’ to describe such outbursts of populist onslaughts against the establishment during the 18th and 19th centuries, and he contends that ‘in some localities’ the Irregulars of the Irish Civil War of the 1920s ‘paralleled ribbonmen’. This seems eminently plausible, and the concept might also have been employed to describe the populist dimension to the 1641 rising, and thus to underline the fact that sectarian divisions at a popular level have a long tradition in Irish society and not only in the province of Ulster.
While underestimating the extent and duration of sectarian divisions at the popular level, Dr Foster makes no mistake about the existence of such divisions at the upper reaches of Irish society. Indeed, he is so impressed by the insistence of so many Irish leaders upon religious or cultural exclusiveness, and by the blind indifference of most to the likely divisive consequences of their actions, that he condemns all Irish leaders for their collective failure to establish some definition of Irish-ness that would facilitate and encourage religious and cultural diversity. To the extent that this is the dominant theme of Modern Ireland, it lends distinctiveness to his book by making it a chronicle of failure rather than a celebration of success after the mode of most previous general interpretations of Ireland’s past.
While disrespectful of the shibboleths that have sustained most previous historical writing intended for a popular audience, Modern Ireland is a masterful compendium of recent scholarship on the subject. Early reviews of the book have focused on the particular, and commentators have tended to fault Dr Foster’s appraisal of that with which they are most familiar while praising everything else. For my own part, I was favourably impressed with his treatment of the 17th century, and especially so because he has delved deep into the 16th century to uncover roots to the problems that surfaced in the 17th. This, as Foster rightly puts it, witnessed a ‘fundamental and protracted revolution’ that was to remain the reference point for every leader in Irish society for the next three centuries. While satisfied with that with which I am most familiar, I was less so with Foster’s approach to that which is most removed from my immediate research interest, the 20th century. Here his account of events subsequent to the civil war seemed hurried and crowded, and while he makes due acknowledgement of the endeavours of the principal actors, he cannot conceal his many dislikes and disappointments. Despite this reservation, it has to be stated that Roy Foster has something original to offer on each passing century, while displaying a breadth of knowledge that few historians possess.
To state this is not to suggest that Foster’s Modern Ireland is free of blemish or that his interpretation could not be improved upon. For the 17th century I considered his categorisation of the indigenous population into Gaelic and Old English groupings to be excessively rigid, and he also fails to make sufficient allowance for the presence of a sizeable Protestant settler population in all parts of Ireland by the middle of the 17th century, and not only in the province of Ulster. Foster does take account of the renewed flow of immigrants into Ulster, mostly from Scotland, at the end of the 17th and through the early decades of the 18th century, and he shows how this, along with the development of linen manufacturing, contributed to the distinctive character that Ulster society began to assume as the 18th century progressed.
Foster also follows the path of some of these migrants and their descendants from Ulster to British Colonial America, and he endorses the popularly-held belief that their settlement in the mainland colonies contributed significantly to the American Revolution. This belief, which is cherished as much by the descendants of the Scots-Irish settlers as it is by Irish historians, is sometimes substantiated by the identification of American revolutionary leaders who were Scots-Irish by birth or extraction. Far more impressive, however, is the fact that the back-country to the mainland colonies, along the Appalachian mountain chain, where the Scots-Irish were thickest on the ground, was an area that displayed scant enthusiasm for the American Revolution. This was so, not because the Scots-Irish were congenitally loyal to the British crown, but rather because it was not in their interest to fight a war that was directed by an eastern élite which had displayed a crass indifference to their own position at the frontier. If we wish, therefore, to measure the contribution of the Scots-Irish to the fabric of American life, it must be in terms of their assertive individualism and of their disregard for established authority, rather than in terms of any ideological zeal that was immediately translatable into a revolution.
Foster’s treatment of the 19th century is everything that one would expect from the pre-eminent authority on that subject. Like most specialists, he tends to exaggerate the originality of Daniel O’Connell in effecting the politicisation of a mass population, and he might have had occasion to temper his admiration for this achievement of O’Connell if he had looked not to Britain and continental Europe for comparison but to the United States, where Andrew Jackson had rescued democracy from the élite and opened up the political process to the common man. O’Connell was certainly aware of this precedent and its possibilities for Ireland, and also drew upon the experience of the United States, when striving for Catholic Emancipation even to the extent of borrowing the style, vocabulary and moral zeal of the other great emancipation movement, that for the abolition of slavery in the United States. When viewed in this light, the true originality of O’Connell was in harnessing the enthusiasm of reformism, which had always been regarded with some suspicion by Catholics, to serve a Catholic purpose. That great Irish connection with the United States, the sustained migration of the 19th century, is given detailed attention in Foster’s book, but the short shrift which he gives to Irish emigration to Australia comes as something of a disappointment, and especially so in view of the lively literature on that subject.
Foster can be faulted on his assumption that the Northern Ireland state was doomed from the outset to chronic social instability. The unpalatable truth seems to be that the partition experiment might well have worked if Unionist calculations, upon which discrimination in employment had been based, had not been upset by the extension of the benefits of the British welfare state to Northern Ireland. This enabled even unemployed Catholics, who might otherwise have been forced to migrate, to stand their ground against their perceived local oppressors. The educational benefits of British welfare legislation also provided opportunities for deprived Catholics which they had not previously enjoyed, and facilitated the education of a new cadre of articulate Catholic politicians who exposed the shortcomings of the Unionist regime and thus undermined its credibility.
To suggest such modifications of Roy Foster’s interpretation is not to detract from the greatness of his achievement. As well as being an unequalled summation of knowledge, Modern Ireland is an engaging narrative, and Foster’s prose is enlivened by occasional telling comparisons, as when he likens the Protestant ascendancy of the 18th century to the social élite of the Kenya highlands of the 1920s. Such asides are all too infrequent, however, and neither these nor the purple passages that characterise his writing on those topics about which he is most enthusiastic can disguise the fact that the book is a difficult read which requires very close attention if the thread of argument is not to be lost.
Those who persevere to the end will find that reading this book has been a vital educational experience. Their effort will be assisted by an excellent index, a bibliographic essay which is perfectly judged, and a pleasing typeface, layout and design. The crowning glory is that the author has fulfilled his ambition to present ‘a narrative with an interpretative level; stressing themes as much as events and concentrating on areas that have come under recent re-evaluation’. For this, all who have an interest in Irish history will be grateful.