University of León, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2005
ISSUE 0 | Pages: 91-101 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2005-1008
The telling of the story of Ireland, the received nationalist tale replete with heroes, villains and a host of stock elements, has a long history and has exercised a particularly important influence on the development of Irish identity. Yet, when the revisionist historian Roy Foster claimed in the late nineteen eighties that the telling of this traditional tale had come to an end it did seem as if, finally, Irish people were beginning to see themselves through different more complex narratives. Recent evidence, nonetheless, suggests Foster was precipitate in his claims and issues of the competing merits of history and myth remain to the fore.
In 1994 Foster delivered a lecture to the University of Oxford entitled “The Story of Ireland” in which he looked in depth at the history of the traditional narrative through books of the same title. Of these he only briefly mentioned a particularly interesting example of the genre, The Story of Ireland, written by Sean O’Faolain, for many Ireland’s first revisionist. In this paper I consider the importance of this omission and through a look at both texts, as well as at other influential contributions to the revisionist debate, I suggest that O’Faolain and Foster practice fundamentally different revisionisms.
Towards the end of the eighties, Linda Hutcheon, in her seminal study exploring the interface of fiction and history, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, stated “history is now, once again, an issue” (1988: 87). She was, of course, referring to the real world not to Ireland. History has always been the issue in Ireland and so it remains. Historical “facts” and their ontological and epistemological status have always either been taken with a healthy dose of scepticism or slavishly brandished whenever the occasion demanded. Perhaps unsurprising this cavalier attitude: in the wake of historians such as Froude1 and the scientific race theories of Victorian Britain,2 history and scientific truth are often seen to have had an uneven track record in Ireland. In 1988, when A Poetics of Postmodernism appeared and issues of historiography and narrative were to the fore internationally, Roy Foster published his exceptionally successful and influential Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 and “History and the Irish Question”, so bringing to a heady blaze the controversy sparked off in Irish historical circles by Stephen Ellis’s (1986-7) broadside at the nationalist tradition in Irish history writing and Ronan Fanning’s (1988) presidential address to the Irish Historical Society insisting on the continued importance of the scientific scholarship tradition of the society’s founders, T. W. Moody and R. D. Edwards and their heir F. S. L. Lyons. For all of these the imperative was the necessity of tackling the myth-making weakness at the heart of so much of Irish history writing. These are known as our “revisionists”.
In the opening to Fanning’s address he suggests that the “writings of three of the most eminent representatives of three successive generations of modern Irish historians, testify to a striking characteristic of modern Irish historiography: a continuous compulsion to confront myth and mythology” (146). The three chosen baton carriers are Moody, Lyons and Foster. They comprise a tradition, a canon of “real” historians who cut through the difficult thicket of myth to deliver a putative historical truth. It is surprising, nonetheless, to find in one breath such a championing of the most notable debunkers of the succession of heroes in the mythical, teleological tale of nationalist liberation, the “story of Ireland”, as well as a seemingly unproblematic willingness to posit another alternative canon, a tradition of heroes fighting for a very different “cause”.3
Ciaran Brady, in his introduction to the collection of key essays in the revisionist controversy, considers the genesis of the revisionist turn as coming out of a post-independence cultural shrinkage where censorship was increasingly the norm and public debate in retreat:
In the resistance against this drift toward the suppression of cultural diversity, it was, as is well known, the decades’ writers and critics rather than the historians who took the lead. Most notably it was Sean O’Faolain who in a series of literary endeavours culminating in the founding of The Bell in 1940 forthrightly made the case that the encouragement of cultural heterodoxy was itself a nationalist issue-a necessary precondition of the gradual realization of a truly independent Ireland which was still in the process of becoming. (Brady 1994)4
Brady further points out that O’Faolain, the writer, turns particularly to history in his brave crusade against the Free State’s cultural orthodoxy. In effect, as fiction writer-cum-historian, he problematizes that frontier between what is “real” history and what is fiction. In bringing the frontier of history and fiction into play he seems to anticipate the international debate on history and narrative in the later decades of the twentieth century, appearing to have more in common with the approach of Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, Mikhail Bakhtin and Linda Hutcheon than with the often narrow, even insular, terms on which the Irish revisionist debate was conducted. As a result it is apposite that we avoid the temptation to aggregate and simplify when dealing with the phenomenon of “revisionism”. In this paper I will look at how there exists a fundamental difference between some characteristics of the tradition lauded by Fanning and the revisionism of O’Faolain. The work of the latter is marked by an unfailing contestation of the fixity of the boundaries of narrative, history, cultures and traditions coupled with the encouragement of heterodoxy and crucially a healthy disrespect for the excessively partisan. I will here examine some aspects and key protagonists of revisionism and later focus on how, in recounting the story of Ireland, O’Faolain and Foster tell somewhat different tales.
“Historiography and fiction are seen as sharing the same act of refiguration, of reshaping of our experience of time through plot configurations; they are complementary activities” (100) writes Hutcheon in 1988, the same year as Foster begins his Modern Ireland claiming “the tradition of writing the ‘story of Ireland’ as a morality tale, invented around the seventeenth century and retained (with the roles of hero and villain often reversed) until the twentieth, has been abandoned over the last generation” (ix). Yet, nearly 17 years later the received version of Irish history has no more disappeared than when Foster made his claim. A cursory look at today’s newspapers demonstrates that the debate on history and myth remains very much in the public domain. Witness, for example, a recent edition of The Irish Times containing no less than six letters dealing with issues of Irish history and its protagonists with much emphasis on lineage, tradition and the preservation of the memory of either the old heroes or some new alternatives.5 History is the stuff of everyday debate.
This meeting of past with present always has portents for the future in Ireland. It has generally been accepted that the rapprochement achieved between contending parties in the Northern Irish conflict has, to a degree, been due to a willingness to focus on common ground between the traditions or cultures, a cautious attempt to cross the borders that locked identity into narratives of exclusivity peopled with heroes and villains either orange or green. When today traditions are reaffirmed or questioned it is done very much in the knowledge that expression of a tribal nature is not very far from violence of a tribal nature. In fact the revisionist controversy, before reaching a high point with the publication of Foster’s Modern Ireland, had built up steam over the interpretation of the 1916 rising on its 50th anniversary and had been carried out against the backdrop of tragically dramatic violence in Northern Ireland since the late 70s.
Much controversy has been caused in recent times by the attempt by Sinn Féin to represent the “Republican” protagonists of the past thirty years as the direct inheritors of the tradition of the men of 1916. This is done, of course, at the same time as the movement is unequivocally being identified as the source of numerous punishment shootings and organised crime all against the backdrop of a faltering Peace Process and the shadow of a possible return to violence.6 Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh points out that Ronan Fanning, himself a key “revisionist”, has no difficulty in citing Bernard Lewis as follows to explain what motivated the Irish Establishment to adopt a “revisionist” version of Irish history once violence had broken out in Northern Ireland: “those who are in power control to a very large extent the presentation of the past and seek to make sure that it is presented in such a way as to buttress and legitimize their own authority, and to affirm the rights and merits of the group which they lead” (1994: 313). So whether coming from contemporary Sinn Féin, non-radical nationalists or the revisionists, history writing is clearly a field of dispute where different traditions vie for prominence and the past is used to emphasise permanence, to afford a pedigree and authority, particularly with an eye on the present and future. As Hayden White has stated “a specifically historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish thatcertain events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture’s conception of its present tasks and future prospects” (1986: 487). This is surely the case, too, for all the stakeholders in Irish history.
Returning to contemporary debate on aspects of history so vehemently expounded in the press we find, in a dispute on the history of the Gore-Booth family of Lissadell, Sligo, clear evidence that the death notice served on the received notion of Irish history, the “story of Ireland,” was premature. In an exchange of opinion on the fate of tenants on the estate of Sir Robert Gore-Booth in the years before the famine the disputants engage with each other in emotive terms with History here much removed from the realm of transparent value-free science: “Legend or History” is the heading of one letter by Sligo local historian, Joe McGrath (2005), that claimed to verify that Gore-Booth had evicted, “shovelled out,” tenants on his estate before they were lost on the “coffin ship” on which he dispatched them to Canada. The piece was a riposte to an article by the often shockingly provocative polemicist and self-styled revisionist Kevin Myers (2004) claiming the ship had not gone down, had sailed the seas for years afterwards and that in fact Gore-Booth had compensated the tenants for the eviction as well as generously hiring the ship to take them to Canada. For Myers other historians claiming the contrary are labelled as silly or “equally silly”.
Of course the most famous of the Gore-Booth family is Constance Markievicz. Yet, while Myers is more than disposed to defend the Anglo-Irish landowning Gore-Booths in the figure of Sir Robert, he is less patient when it comes to Markievicz, the member of the family who took to the nationalist tradition and participated in the 1916 rising. He does in fact mercilessly attack her and “her own account of her plucky conduct on being sentenced to death in 1916
- James Anthony Froude (1818-94). Controversial historian. Foster, in Paddy & Mr Punch states Froude’s “study of The English in Ireland had maligned and belaboured the native Irish in a manner not to be seen again for a hundred years”. (1995: 9 [↩]
- For a thorough account of this phenomenon see Anglo Saxons and Celts and Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature by L. Perry Curtis Jr. Roy Foster offers a different perspective in “Paddy & Mr Punch”. (1995 [↩]
- “The Cause” is a euphemism in the Irish “Republican” tradition for physical force nationalism. [↩]
- Terence Brown gives the most authoritative account of the period from a socio-cultural perspective in Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-1985. (1985 [↩]
- On the 25th of January 2005 The Irish Times featured letters on the controversy over the history of the Gore-Booth family –dealt with below; on a dispute over the first family of the father of Patrick Pearse; on the remembrance of Irish First World War poet Francis Ledwidge and the other war dead; on the vandalized statue of I. R. A. veteran and Nazi collaborator, Sean Russell; on the preservation of the national film heritage and on the supposed ignorance of English politician Roy Hattersley on matters Irish. [↩]
- The “Peace Process” has been especially compromised by the robbery of a very substantial sum of money from the Northern Bank and the shooting of a civilian, Robert McCartney. Both have been attributed to the “Republican” movement and followed closely on the latest breakdown in attempts to achieve a definitive disarmament in late 2004. [↩]
- In “An Irishman’s Diary”, The Irish Times, 15th of July 2002, Brian Maye sketches a benign portrait of Markievicz on the 75th anniversary of her death. He quotes from Anne Haverty’s biography Countess Markievicz: An Independent Life. (1988 [↩]
- O’Faolain’s first edition of Constance Markievicz, published in 1934 can be considered his first revisionist biography. The Life Story of Eamon de Valera from a year earlier is later described by O’Faolain himself as “shamelessly pro-Dev and pro-Irish propaganda at a time when all of us who had stuck by De Valera from 1916 onwards at last saw our hero coming into power and all our dreams and ideals —as we foolishly and trustingly hoped— about to be realized”. (quoted in Harmon 1984: 33 [↩]
- In the original lecture, Foster begins by referring to how F. S. L. Lyons, on being invited to give the Ford Lectures in British History at Oxford, asked if they might be on Irish History instead. The authorities acceded, there being, in their view, no difference. This is deleted from the later version. (1995: 1 [↩]
- This distinction is developed by Edna Longley in “Multi-culturalism and Northern Ireland”. (2001 [↩]
- Foster adapts Propp’s functions to Irish history, particularly to the story of Hugh O’Neill. (2001: 5-6 [↩]
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