12 May 2006

Ireland's Revisionist Historians: A Generation of Vipers

American Chronicle

James Mullin
May 11, 2006

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe traditional view of Irish history is based on the premise that the Irish people had a moral right to fight for their political, economic, social and cultural independence from Imperialist Britain.

According to Dr. Christine Kinealy,(A New History of Ireland, This Great Calamity, etc.) an opposing view began to emerge in Ireland in the 1930s, when a number of leading Irish Academics, following the lead of earlier British historians, set an agenda for the systematic revision of traditional Irish History, which they claimed was rife with “nationalist myths”. Their declared mission was to replace this so-called mythology with objective, “value-free history”.

In her essay, “Beyond Revisionism”, Dr. Kinealy says that the revisionist movement gained a new prominence in the battle for Irish hearts and minds during the 1960’s when the IRA campaign intensified: “Challenging nationalist mythology became an important ideological preoccupation of a new generation of historians”.

A strong opponent of the revisionist school is Peter Berresford Ellis, author of Eyewitness to Irish History, and A History of the Irish Working Class, and many other historical works. In his essay, “Revisionism in Irish Historical Writing”, Ellis argues that a more correct term to describe revisionists is “neo-colonial” or “anti-nationalist”.

“In its mildest form, this school of thought apologizes for English imperialism, and in its strongest form it supports that imperialism,” he wrote. These anti-nationalist historians accept the thesis that England’s invasion and conquest of Ireland is not a matter for moral judgment. It is simply a fait accompli.

One of the most popular arguments of the revisionist school is that there was no Irish national consciousness when the invaders arrived. Ireland was a land of divided, warring factions, “and the arrival of one more such faction is not a matter of importance nor of moral speculation.”

They argue further, that English colonial rule in Ireland was beneficial to the Irish people, although their imparting of civilization was at times, a bit too brutal.

Finally, these revisionists use their interpretation of history to justify the status quo in Ireland today: “The Six Counties of North-East Ulster are depicted as a democratically formed unit in which the political majority is represented by Unionists. Partition, imposed by bloodshed and violence, and threats of bloodshed and violence by Britain against the democratic wish of the Irish nation is not considered in such histories.” (Ellis)

Two books emboldened the revisionist movement in the early 1970’s: States of Ireland by Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Towards a New Ireland by Garrett Fitzgerald. Both books made peace with British imperialism, maintaining that the real Irish independence tradition was a “home rule” philosophy.

“The lesson they attempted to hammer home”, according to Ellis, “was that separation from England was never a popular concept in Irish historical development – that the republican tradition was a minority view.” These revisionist authors would have us believe that the Irish People simply “wanted a greater say in their domestic affairs within English colonial structures.” (Ellis)

O’Brien wrote that the 1916 rebellion was despotic: “a putsch with no pretense of popular support.” His words are echoed by a contemporary revisionist, Ruth Dudley Edwards. In her book, Patrick Pearse – The Triumph of Failure, she portrays Pearse as a deluded romantic obsessed with a desire for revolutionary “blood sacrifice” and heroic martyrdom.

Pearse “glorified war”, she says, and “sanctioned the sacrifice of self and others.” He was “part of a despotic tradition” and “acted and died for a people that did not exist.”

Dr. Marianne Elliot’s book, Wolfe Tone, Prophet of Irish Independence, continues in the same revisionist vein. One reviewer, Dr. Anthony Coughlan, called her work, “a fundamentally hostile interpretation of Tone”, saying, “the author evidently has little sympathy for the ideal of an All Ireland Republic which Tone and his fellow Protestants came to adopt in the 1790’s.”

The work of these anti-nationalist historians has been accurately described as, “the historiography of the Irish counter-revolution”, yet they want the public to believe that they hold the moral high ground above all nationalists and unionist factions. “They disguise their partisanship under the cloak of academic objectivity,” says Ellis.

Today, the unchallenged demigod of the anti-nationalist school is Roy Foster, head of the Irish History Department at Oxford University. Born in Waterford in 1949, he burst on the academic scene in 1989, with the publication of the 600-page revisionist tome, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972.

The book was hailed as “a work of gigantic importance” by the Irish Times, “a revisionist milestone” by the Irish Literary Supplement, and a “masterwork” by many historians who reviewed it. Foster has read these press clippings, and now believes he has been given a divine gift of historical interpretation.

Desmond Fennell, an Irish critic, said the underlying message of Modern Ireland was Foster’s revisionism, which he called, “A retelling of Irish history which seeks to show that British rule of Ireland was not, as we have believed, a bad thing, but a mixture of necessity, good intentions and bungling; and that Irish resistance to it was not, as we have believed, a good thing, but a mixture of wrong-headed idealism and unnecessary, often cruel violence.”

Discussing the aftermath of the Easter Rising, for example, Foster wrote: 'The draconian reaction of the (British) authorities to the rebellion should be understood in terms of international war and national security.”

Maybe the execution of 16 Irish Republican leaders had nothing at all to do with the history of Britain in Ireland!

Foster is the author of The Oxford History of Ireland, and the Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, and other quasi-historical works. His fluid writing style and talent for omitting entire periods of Irish history because they do not conform to his revisionist thesis, have made him an author much in demand.

In his strangely titled work, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland, he adopts the patronizing position that the Irish have “misused” their own history. It seems that the mischievous Irish have taken the great events of their history - the 1798 Rising, the Famine, the Celtic Revival, Easter 1916, the Troubles - and dropped them into a fanciful narrative that includes elements of myth, folklore, ghost stories and romance.

The result, according to Foster, is nationalist fiction - the "Story of Ireland" - complete with the novelistic elements of plot, drama, suspense, and a heroic victim. One review of the Foster book concluded that traditional Irish history is “manipulated for political ends, and Irish poverty and oppression are sentimentalized and packaged.”

In The Irish Story, Foster claims that “the new modernized and liberated Irish consciousness feels a sneaking nostalgia for the verities of the old victim-culture, which was also, in its way, a culture of superiority. The concept of a perennial victim produces a very emotionally powerful and emotionally coherent story, but it also leads to a kind of denial that any other elements in the Irish Story have any part to play."

Christopher Shea of the Boston Globe obviously bought into Foster’s attack on the simple, myth-filled narrative about Ireland. In his review, Shea wrote: “That story stars a holy island nation. It suffered under English rule for centuries, nearly died, and then rose, liberated and reborn, in 1922, with partial independence. The story, in its basic shape, mirrors the life of Christ. And the story, in Foster's view, has bred boatloads of sloppy thinking and historical myopia - and a whole lot of wallowing.”

One of Foster's acolytes is Irish author Colm Toibin. In a 1993 piece for the London Review of Books he recalled the heady days of his youth when he first read Foster.

“I became a revisionist… I remember feeling a huge sense of liberation…. I was in my late teens and I already knew that what they had told me about God and sexuality wasn't true, but being an atheist or being gay in Ireland at that time seemed easier to deal with as transgressions than the idea that you could cease believing in the Great Events of Irish nationalist history. No Cromwell as cruel monster, say; the executions after 1916 as understandable in the circumstances; 1798 as a small outbreak of rural tribalism; partition as inevitable. Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction, how free and happy we could be! It seemed at that time a most subversive idea, a new way of killing your father, starting from scratch, creating a new self…”

Then he gets to the real heart of historical darkness: “This revisionism is precisely what our state needed once the North blew up and we joined the EC, in order to isolate Northern Ireland from us and our history, in order to improve relations with Britain, in order to make us concentrate on a European future. Foster and his fellow historians' work became useful, not for its purity, or its truth, but its politics.”

Here is a revisionist historian who puts politics on a higher plane than the truth. Foster’s disciple makes it clear:‘value-free history’ is nothing more than a euphemism for partisan political propaganda.

James Mullin is the author of the Irish Famine Curriculum:


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