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.

The duality is not resolved by an approach in which his unity of Irish history derives primarily from British intervention, with praiseworthy development dictated by a wellintentioned succession of improvers from Spenser and Sir John Davies, through the Enlightenment administrators, to liberal Tories, or Gladstone and Asquith. It may be unfair to suggest that Johnson believes that the Irish always needed to be taught (though this is how the period of ‘Celtic disorder’ is portrayed), but he shows a certain sympathy for those who imposed real dominion – -Mountjoy, Cromwell, Castlereagh or Balfour. His exasperation with Terence O’Neill and the authors of the Sunningdale agreement, who acted uprightly and failed, seeps through, as does his dislike of De Valera and Sir James Craig. His good guys were duped and let down, while the last two died in their beds, full of Irish honours.

Thus O’Connell and Parnell seem to react primarily to English stimuli, and the autonomous growth of Sinn Fein occurs in a chapter given over largely to the transactions of Asquith and Balfour with the Nationalists. The non-sectarian socialism preached by Larkin and Connolly is submerged in confusion by the Easter Rising, and this elision makes it hard to understand either the conflicts between Communists and Blueshirts in the Thirties or the Provos’ defection from a Marxist-oriented IRA in 1968. Anglo-centrism also produces some odd judgments: that the Irish massacred at Drogheda or Wexford somehow shared Cromwell’s definition of the ‘rules of war’, and that James II lacked legitimacy because he was no longer legal King of England. He was surely a king to the Irish who fought at the Boyne, and for that reason a threat, not only to the religious unity of the Williamite settlement, but to its whole territorial integrity.

The early 18th century saw exclusion of the Catholic majority from landownership and political life, its differentiation as an inferior group confined to certain trades. Ireland, as Johnson says, became a land of oath-taking, ‘secret and furtive’ on one side, ‘public and assertive’ on the other. Under this regime, ‘a landless Catholic peasantry was governed by a legally-exclusive Protestant ruling class, with a small, predominantly Protestant, middle class sandwiched between them, and a multiclass Protestant enclave in Ulster.’ Unfortunately, there is insufficient space for him fully to develop this analysis. Instead, the complexity of late 18th-century Ireland is reduced to a sketchy chapter on Anglo-Irish writers and a discussion of the Enlightenment Parliamentary reformers, revolted by poverty on the Gaelic fringe, and reacting, like American colonists, against restrictive British trade legislation. Useful though this is in showing the fragile nature of equipoise in the 1780s, and the dilemma, even for a docile Catholic middle class, that emancipation could never be allowed to reach a point where it threatened the Ascendancy itself, it does not really explain the disparate forces behind Wolfe Tone’s uprising in 1798, nor the subsequent ambiguous behaviour of Ulster Protestants, founders of the Orange Order.

Within a decade, it was clear that Protestants had become surrogates for English interests in the Union, unwillingly exposed to a Catholic nationalism based on a new, yet spiritually ancient, concept of the Irish nation. Thereafter it becomes surely less appropriate to talk about a ‘colonial ruling class’. It is at least arguable that Lloyd George succeeded in disengaging England from the South in 1921 because of the social differentiation between Ulster and the Southern Unionists (who, under Lord Midleton, made their reluctant peace with the Republic). The tragedy for many Ulster Unionists was that, even by the mid-19th century, England was already outgrowing the political economy on which Pitt’s Union had been based. Ireland received the same franchise and other reforms as the rest of Britain, and even, by the 1900s, a land settlement that effectively removed the main 19th-century agrarian grievances. Yet Catholic Nationalist demands continually ran ahead, and so the Ulster Protestant middle and working classes found themselves locked with businessmen and landowners in defence of an obsolete political inheritance.

These conditions preceded Lord Randolph Churchill and Sir Edward Carson’s populism, and it is hard to see what Unionists could have done except resist Home Rule, not merely from self-interest, but from a purist belief that Home Rule was a corrupt bargain extracted from an already decadent imperial power. There are comparisons to be made here with the Boers in the 1890s and the public posture of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front. No wonder Carson and Sir James Craig come out of this account badly: even Lloyd George found their attitudes repellent, and denounced ‘the cloven hoof of Ulster’s sordidness’ because the new Northern Ireland government wanted to retain its living standards without taking a share of the UK national debt.

Thus there is a distinct break when Johnson turns from the 1921 partition to the subsequent history of Ulster. Protestant hegemony was established by law (the Special Powers Act, 1922), force (mainly the B-Specials, resident in each locality) and the gerrymandering (here always ‘alleged’) of local government boundaries. But because Johnson conceives of developments in Northern Ireland in terms of an all-Irish history, he does not differentiate between Ulster’s regions, or point up regional variations of supremacy, in relation to matters like education, housing and employment opportunity. Nor does he give much weight to the formation of a specifically Protestant ideology, distinguishable from that of the old Ascendancy precisely because its bearers had lost their spiritual homeland over the water, in 1921.

Explanation of the failure of reform in Ulster in the last twenty years, and of what Johnson sees today as ‘the general fragmentation of the political structure’, ‘the total absence of any commanding figure’, and ‘the destruction of the representative nature of Ulster polities’, rests on two antitheses which he does not appear to recognise: the contrast between Belfast and what Frank Wright calls the ‘unreformable’ decaying border areas, and between Ulster as the last representative of a British tradition and the rest of Britain which has, in the eyes of very many Protestants, betrayed it. The Ulster state was never a monolithic entity, although the Catholic minority, by refusing for forty years to take up a role as Opposition at Stormont (in order to signify their refusal to submit to the system of supremacy), certainly helped to enhance it by offering it justificatory ‘evidence’ of their fundamental hostility to Ulster. To see the Ulster state as composed of a Protestant heartland surrounded by a withdrawn Catholic fringe is to beg the question of why O’Neill’s reforms failed, in the context of widespread acceptance of the British connection after 1945, and after a generation of steady economic progress, which had seen the virtual disappearance of sympathy for the IRA (whose 1958-62 offensive had had to be abandoned).

The Unionist split, the undermining of Faulkner as well as O’Neill, and the basic ambiguity of SDLP strategy, all indicate cleavages in the sectarian blocs – the legacy, not so much of what was inherited from an all-Irish history, but of what was done to defend the Ulster version of the Williamite settlement after partition. Where Protestants were thinnest on the ground and the contagion from the Republic most dangerous, notably in the border areas, supremacy had to be guarded beyond possibility of reform. Here, exclusion of the Catholic working class, comparable to the situation of blacks under apartheid, went hand in hand with unemployment and immigration, for nearly half a century. Whereas in the Protestant heartland both sides could adjust to the welfare and other economic benefits of the British connection (once Attlee had declared that no change would be made in Ulster’s status without the consent of the majority), here they could not. It was to these Protestants that Sir Basil Brooke declared in 1934 (as quoted by Bailey): ‘If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster.’

Since border revision had been set aside in 1925, by mutual consent of Craig and the Free State leaders, systematic reform inevitably called in question the central tenets and practice of Protestant supremacy. Thus the civil rights tide swelled naturally in Derry, and as naturally was met by the instruments of the 1920s settlement, the B-Specials and the Special Powers Act. To succeed, O’Neill would have had to reform Derry before 1968. What Craig and his colleagues created, in the end destroyed Stormont, since their Protestant successors in the Catholic-majority areas were debarred from adjusting to change. As O’Neill found in 1969, ‘it is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants.’

Kee’s short and extremely well illustrated history provides an effective and stimulating counterpart. Taking it apart from the television series means accepting the author’s misgivings about visual emphasis on detail and drama and the Famine horrors as a ‘more important consideration’ than ‘being wholly fair to Charles Trevelyan and the British Treasury’, and this leaves the historian with a number of quibbles – in particular, the leading role assigned to Michael Collins in all the events of 1919-22. Yet on fundamental interpretation Kee is less dogmatic and, above all, less Anglo-centric; greener here, indeed, than in his previous book, The Green Flag. It is not simply that he adds an Irish dimension to the Gaelic era, to the process of assimilation of the Normans and their new technology, and to the subsequent Anglo-Irish culture, but that he exposes narrow attitudes towards the ‘degenerate English’ of the Pale and the Tudor reformers. Here Johnson’s well-meaning Sir John Davis is quoted as declaring: ‘a barbarous country must first be broken by a war before it will be capable of good government.’

Language and a sort of culture survived the breaking of Tyrone, as the Catholic Church and secret societies survived into the 19th century to be guided by O’Connell towards the concept of reform, helping Kee to answer his most difficult question: what subterranean passages link what was lost at Kinsale in 1601 with the Free State of 1921? This book becomes, therefore, an entirely different history from Land of Troubles, illuminating the Fenians and the Land League, and the 19th-century Orangemen, and dealing on the whole fairly with subjects such as the Gaelic League, the Citizen Army and the origins of the Civil War, which too often cause English observers impatience or incomprehension. Kee’s sympathy evokes a fuller interpretation of Irish nationalism – and hence of the development both of the Free State after De Valera came to power and of the institution of legalised supremacy in the North in 1922 – precisely because it shuns neat conclusions. Using the crucial 1790s, on the one hand, he describes the consequences of conflating Catholics with ‘Irishman’, down to the present day, and on the other, by reference to the distinction between Presbyterian and English interests in the Ulster plantations, and the myth of self-help in the defence of Londonderry, he points up the perennial source of Protestant mistrust of what is still British authority in Northern Ireland.

As all four authors point out, Stormont, in terms of the 1960s status quo, is irrecoverable. Johnson deplores the general fragmentation which followed the failure of power-sharing (for the SDLP, too, has never resolved the dilemma that the attraction of reform and of the British connection requires a dedication which, in places like Derry, seems like a betrayal, inviting IRA retribution). His world-weary assessment of the English who failed becomes at once an expiation for and a celebration of the past. It is left to O’Brien to find hope – in changes of attitude in the Republic, in the economic context of the EEC, or in the realism that Bailey, too, sees seeping through cracks in the carapace of Ulster’s dogma. By these latter standards, it is the outsiders who are deep-frozen: Dublin politicians whose rhetoric comes wrapped in nostrums and myths, and British ministers like James Callaghan who declared of his term of office: ‘I had no occasion to go out and look at the problems of Northern Ireland unless they forced themselves upon me.’

Open and sympathetic to what he sees, Bailey describes an Ulster almost incomprehensible to England, as remote as in Spenser’s day, in which Romeo and Juliet meet in a tiny enclave bounded by bigotry and fear. He asks questions which are the more valuable for being straightforward: how do children live and learn in schools guarded by the Army; how is it possible, in a desolation like the Creggan estate, for Catholics to experience a fierce attachment to the place – in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, to a ‘land possessed and repossessed’? History is drawn in, and the eccentric story of Erskine Childers is set against his son’s Presidency of the Republic. Yet Bailey is surprised to find how remote history becomes, even the Battle of the Boyne, as he walks past the site with Seamus Heaney, symbol of a remarkable revival of interest in literature and discoverer of an imagery already distinct from what O’Brien calls ‘archaic legitimacy’.

O’Brien, the participant observer, seeks in his four Ewart-Biggs memorial lectures to interpret each side to the other and to relate their predicament to constellations of interest outside Ulster, in Eire, England and the United States. Reprinted lectures often convey little of the force of the original, but it looks here as if O’Brien is obsessed with psephology, forcing his material to conform to audience expectation. A narrow range of statistics of public opinion in the Republic is used to support a whole edifice of suggestion about the survival of old ways of thinking. Is it reasonable to hope, on the evidence of 1972 surveys, that since only 17 per cent in the South now remain tied to the ‘sad machismo’ of the IRA, the trend will continue, provided Britain maintains direct rule? Can one conclude that civil war would ensue if the British Army was withdrawn, since on the same evidence there is no majority for unity even in the South? Yet no one is better able than he is to document the time-serving, triumphalism and sheer factiousness of Dublin politicians (though a fair assessment might recall the tradition of Arthur Griffiths, Kevin O’Higgins and Sean Lemass). And the plea to all those audiences to accept direct rule as a sort of blessing, giving time to build new political forms out of Ulster’s fragments, has a certain appeal when it is combined with a vision of economic regeneration within the only possible context – the EEC.