Irish Historical Debate

Discuss how developments in historical scholarship (including revisionism) have shaped historical debate in Ireland from the 1950s to the present. Illustrate your answer with reference to at least three specific debates relating to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Ireland lagged behind its European counterparts in many areas during the 20th century and the discipline of historical scholarship was no exception. Roughly up until the 1950’s Irish historical debate was to remain in stagnation. Historians often took a rather uncritical administrative approach to historical debate. Mid-twentieth century Irish historiography offered little in contemporary Irish history. Historians were restrained by narrow political and institutional forces, and often their debates were completely lacking on social, economic or cultural maters. The traditional view of Irish history is based on the principle that the Irish people had a moral right to fight for their political, economic social and cultural freedom. ‘The professionalism of history as an academic discipline owes much to the work of the German historian Leopold Von Ranke’s critical methods’[1]. With the emergence of his work which influenced the writing of history in many nations Ireland too followed suit. Historicism in Ireland was to receive a boost with the publications of the Irish Historical studies in the 1930’s. However a restoration of Irish historical studies did not come with these publications, the studies were not without their flaws none the less they provided a foundation for modern historical studies. Thankfully the cold and clinical approach to history which dominated early Irish history evolved and after the 1950’s was to witness a complete overhaul but this was not without its challenges or difficulties.

‘In modern history there are few countries which present the historian with the kind of interpretative challenge offered by Ireland’. The problems are well known. The impact of colonisation on the island; endemic unrest, religious strife, and political instability, exemplified in recent times by the partition of the island between two states; and the internal and external conflict since the middle ages. These features raise the question how as historians can we find an appropriate framework to understand the history of Ireland. In the words of Benedetto Croce, ‘All history is contemporary history’, this idea has shaped the way modern historians connect the present society with the past, as contemporary issues in society allow for a reassement of the past.  It is the search for this appropriate framework which has dominated Irish historical debate since the 1930’s. An opposing view of Benedetto Croce emerged around the 1930’s, a ‘value free’ history one which offered scientific objective view of the past. However this ‘value free’ history was not without it’s problems, or it’s critics.   One subject which has captivated international audiences and historians alike is the debate surrounding the Irish famine.

‘The interpretation of this traumatic event in Irish history has long been at the root of many of Ireland’s political and ideological divisions’ . The Famine has been interpreted and re-interpreted in many different ways. The earliest Contemporary nationalist historians focused on the extent to which the British government was responsible for mass emigration because of the polices which it did and did not pursue. The contemporary writings explained the failure of the British government to prevent the deaths of some one million people because of their commitment to a laissez-faire ideology which left the British indifferent to the loss of Irish lives. At its most extreme they accused the English of acts of wilful genocide.The ‘great Famine’ took millions of lives, drove many more to emigration and poisoned Irish minds convincing them that the British government deliberately caused the famine or at least did little or nothing to prevent it. This nationalistic view was to be challenged with the emergence of some major publications which made great impact on Irish historical debate.

Ruth Dudley Edwards along with several other Irish scholars set out to dispel the nationalistic ‘myth’ with their work entitled; ‘The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52’, which was released in 1957. The authors come to a conclusion that there was no conspiracy by the British to cause the famine however there is widespread agreement that the great famine is water shed in Irish history. Edwards and those who would subscribe to her school of thinking argue that contemporary accounts ignore that between September 1846 and March 1847 the government’s principal famine policy was a work programme which employed at its peak 715,000 thousand men and by extension supporting 3.5 million people (nearly half the population of Ireland). More recent accounts of the famine such as George L Bernstein’s ‘Liberals the Irish famine and the role of state’which was published in 1995 have recognized the British break with policy in the winter of 1847 to provide food.  Despite such popular interest, scholarly research in the Famine has been limited. The Famine has been largely but not totally untouched by revisionist scholarship both home and abroad. The controversy surrounding the event and its subsequent exploitation by Nationalist polemicists have meant that the narrative of events and the related debate have been dictated not by scholars but by politicians.

However debate on the famine continues, the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s has been popularly perceived as genocide attributable to the British government. In professional historical circles, however, such singular thinking was dismissed many years ago, as evidenced by the scathing academic response to Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1963 book ‘The Great Hunger’. As we have seen historians such as Ruth Dudley Edwards and George L Bernstein were quick to play down the role of the British government in the famine. However in 1996 Francis A Boyle wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, which concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race and ethnicity based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide[10]. James Donnelly is also quick to support Cecil-Woodham’s charges of the British governmental sins during the famine but does so in a way which puts those charges in a broader context, including discussion of class and regional influences on the famine in Ireland itself.

Cormac Ó Gráda totally disagrees that the famine was or should be considered as genocide: firstly he argues that; “genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish“; second, that most people in Whitehall “hoped for better times in Ireland” and third, that the claim of genocide overlooks “the enormous challenges facing relief efforts, both central, local, public and private”. Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide. However, people in charge like chief of the Government relief Charles Trevelyan contradict this argument of mere negligence. He believed that the Famine was a “mechanism for reducing surplus population“.

Brendan Bradshaw would argue that revisionist history is void of any empathy with their subjects. While Christine Kinealy argues that challenging Nationalist mythology became an important ideological preoccupation of a new generation of historians. These various debates still rage among both British and Irish historians, finding or coming to an overall conclusion remains unobtainable. Approaches in Irish history have changed over time. Journalistic history has faced an uphill struggle against the onwards march of academia. Today the systematic use of evidence has advanced the way we interoperate history. The quality and quantity of intellectual input in the last twenty years exceeds all previous research. Economic analysis has continued to dominate with increased use of statistical data, the key writers were Raymond Crotty and an economist Louis Cullen who focused on agricultural production in Ireland. The contemporary situation that has emerged is a far more complex problem then first realized in traditional historiography. Never the less it must be recognized that debates are still ongoing and the continuation of debate and revision must be viewed as a step forwards in Irish historical debate. Revisionism is something that emerged in Ireland during the 1960’s and 70’s but can draw its roots from T.W Moody and Edwards 1930’s work; ‘Irish Historical Studies’. While debate continues one thing is certain, the emergence of revisionism has greatly enhanced historical debate amongst historians in Ireland.

Few events in modern Irish history have created so many disputes among historians as the 1916 rising. For decades many historians regarded 1916 as sacrosanct, sacred, and immune to criticism. It was seen as a simple battle of good vs. evil. For many Irish people the vision of 1916 remained unchangeable, reassuring and inspiring. There was a belief that it must be spared the irreverence of being exhumed and dissected by historians. For many decades the Easter rising continued to be a sensitive issue and those historians not inclined to prescribe to the nationalistic view generally tended to stay away from the subject as they were unlikely to be rewarded by the Free State. Instead the Irish were offered a history of an unbroken tradition of Irish resistance to British rule. The rising became a focus of a cult or a myth. Historians were allowed to get on with their job provided it did not cause embarrassment. The destruction of the Public records office definitely was a problem for historical debate and it is understandable then that many preferred to concentrate on phases of Irish history. However the 1960’s were to see the emergence of several important publications and the old nationalistic views were to come under fire from Conor Cruise O’ Brien and Professor Francis Shaw.

Conor Cruise O’ Brien was to argue that the nationalistic view oversimplifies 1916. Like ÓFaoláin before him he was unimpressed by ideologies of an indestructible predestinate nation that was achieved by the 1916 rising. In the late 60’s and 70’s revisionist articles and essay’s began to appear. For example in 1972 Shaw’s ‘The cannon of Irish History, A challenge’ was published (although it had been written almost five years earlier). Shaw criticized both Pearce’s actions and his ideology. ‘For Shaw a history which was simply a narrative of sacred, repeated events culminating in the violence of the rising was for him a travesty of historical writings.’[16] Conor Cruise O Brien’s challenge to official republican nationalist history in the 1970’s was basically similar to that of Ó Faoláin. However popular opinion was against Conor Cruise O Brien, and a historian by the name of John A Murphy was representative of typical of opinion. He argues along with those who felt that O’ Brien’s unionist sympathy’s may have layed with his desire to protect stability on the island, or in fact due to political loyalties. However what was most intellectually depressing about his revisionist history was that it lacked historical quality. Implicit throughout Cruise O Brien’s writings in the 1970’s was the suggestion that had 1916 not taken place Ireland would have had achieved as much. From the 1930’s onward the writing of history in Ireland had undergone a quiet revolution. The publications of the ‘Irish Historical studies’ had layed the foundations which were strong enough to support the publication of a number of important works. Works such as Louis Cullen’s ‘life in Ireland’ 1968, ‘An economic history of Ireland’ 1972 and F.S Lyons publication ‘Ireland since the famine’ 1971. Also important to mention was the fact that budding historians could publish in the Gill paperback history of Ireland series. Now in the 1960’s with the state on firmer footing it became possible for historians to delve into Irelands violent past, although 1916 still remained a deeply sensitive subject to many. While 1916 still remained a divisive force in Irish collective memory an issue that brought great unity to the Free State was the question of Irish neutrality in World War 2.

Ireland was one of the five surviving European neutrals at the end of the Second World War; along with Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, it had managed to remain an official non-belligerent and with it the Free State largely escaped the destruction continental Europe experienced. The popular perception of Irish neutrality is that Ireland a small nation stood alone and sovereign through a difficult and dangerous time, staving off pressures from both Britain and the U.S, that the small state held a policy which favoured the axis powers and remained a contstant thorn in the side of the British Empire. However Irish neutrality was both symbolic and pragmatic. Symbolically, neutrality represented the young state’s sovereignty and independence of action from Britain, which was a vital element of the ruling Fianna Fail party’s political project and central to the evolving ideology of southern Irish nationalism, which increasingly gave primacy to the sovereignty of the state over reunification with Northern Ireland. However in actual reality it was for more practical motivations rather than ideological ones that Ireland choose to pursue such a path. Ireland was practically defencless, and neutrality was the least divisive policy in domestic political terms, a fact underlined by the support of all the state’s political parties for the policy. Ireland for geopolitical reasons could never have sided with Germany while lining up along side Britain may have caused devastating actions from the I.R.A.  or in fact provoke another civil war.

British and American newspaper readers were frequently regaled with fabricated tales of German sailors toasting the downfall of John Bull in Kerry pubs, and U-boat commanders collecting cabbages from friendly locals in remote fishing villages and being refuelled in Irish ports. In Britain and indeed America there was great anti-Irish sentiment developing, which exploded into public outrage after Pearl Harbour. The first historical treatment of Irish wartime policy dates back to the early 1950s when T. Desmond Williams published a series of articles under the title ‘A Study in Neutrality’. This limited work has stood the test of time remarkably well. We can only begin to speak of a historiography of Irish neutrality in a real sense from the 1970s, when researchers began utilising newly accessible British, European and US archives. Historians such as Patrick Keatinge, in The Formulation of Irish Foreign Policy (1973) and A Place among Nations (1978), which put a political scientist’s shape on the study of Irish foreign policy, including its wartime neutrality had accesses to this new documentation.

In the first scholarly survey of modern Irish history, Ireland Since the Famine (1971), F. S. L. Lyons memorably and influentially depicted the war years primarily in terms of Irish isolation. Lyon’s argued that Ireland has basically hidden in isolation while the war raged on. When after six years Ireland re-emerged into European affairs.  This image was to shift with the publication of new research. The title of the most recent collection of essays relating to the topic, reflects the new thinking. ‘Ireland in World War Two’ – as Donal O’ Drioscoil notes that the ‘in’ of the title is a very deliberate statement by the editors against the isolationist depiction. In spite of Irelands neutrality the Free State did play a considerable role in the global conflict. Rather than being untouched by the war, all elements of national and cultural life were shaped by it. Ronan Fanning’s brief survey,‘Independent Ireland’ (1983), emphasised the secret realities of wartime co-operation with the Allies in its treatment of the period, giving the list of co-operative measures prepared by the British dominions secretary for the cabinet and pointing to the equally close co-operation with the United States, to the

extent that the Pentagon recommended that three of Ireland’s highest-ranking officers

be awarded the US Legion of Merit. In 1943–Trevor Salmon, a political scientist, brought some controversy to the issue with his polemical ‘Unneutral Ireland: An Ambivalent and Unique Security Policy’ (1989).In this publication he challenged Ireland’s claim to neutrality in the war years and after, and also rejected the consensual view, encapsulated by Fanning and Keatinge, that Irish nationalism before and the Irish state after 1922 had a ‘neutral tradition’ which provided the foundations for its wartime policy. Salmon’s thesis was founded on an alternative interpretation, rather than new sources. For Salmon, the partiality shown by the extensive co-operation with the Allies, the lack of ‘due diligence’ with regard to defence and the permitted contribution by the state’s citizens to the Allied war effort meant that Ireland should be more accurately described as a non-belligerent rather than a neutral. While Geoff  Roberts argues that the pro-Allied bias of Irish neutrality has been exaggerated and that de Valera’s ‘“constructive ambiguity” makes the real situation difficult to interoperate.  He puts forward an anti-neutrality narrative, based on a counter-factual ‘what might have been’, and even ‘what should have been’, scenario. Mark Hulls book ‘Irish Secrets: German Espionage in Wartime Ireland, 1939–1945’ (2003) is the result of extensive work in the archives by a historian with a crucial qualification: a background in military intelligence. His grasp of the area gives the book a reassuringly authoritative feel. Donal O’ Drisceoil argued that Irish neutrality was more was of more value to the British war effort than if Ireland had entered the war.  According to O Drisceoil the war of words played out on the international stage was merely a phoney war. The historiography of neutrality in Ireland is an extremely interesting one. It has gone about three different phases, orthodox, revisionist and now under O Drisceoil post revisionist which is a merging of the two. While managing to recognize and include popular public perceptions he has managed with the use of evidence (Mi5 documentation) to show what was going on in the government of the time.

Since the 1970s, Irish history has been dominated by two distinct approaches to Ireland’s past. These two approaches are better known as the “traditionalist” and the “revisionist” views. The Traditionalist Approach tends to be sympathetic to a “nationalist” interpretation of Ireland’s past. The Revisionist Approach Unlike the traditionalist view is ratter difficult to fully explain historians Boyce and O’Day claimed the following: It is said that revisionists remain objective when concerned with the history of Ireland. However, it can be argued that it is near impossible impartial when studying the past, as one is bound to take sides to some degree. The revisionist approach didn’t fully surface until the 1970s, as a result it is seen as a deliberate reaction to the already popular traditionalist approach. The simple premise of the revisionist approach is that many conclusions agreed upon by traditionalist historians are far too simple and misleading. The revisionist approach gained little popularity before the 1970’s. Over the past sixty years historians have searched for an appropriate framework to understand Irish History. This is actually a rather complex issue and unfortunately the search for an answer is still ongoing. Brendan Bradshaw believes that the historian must emphatize with the past. There is a is complex issue over placing Irish history in some sort of a framework and this was dealt with in the Irish historical studies publications between Dr Brendan Bradshaw and Steven G. Ellis. It is here that we can clearly see the problem faced by historians. The problem we are faced with is how we explain the relationship between the past and the present and the role of revisionist history.   D. George Roy Foster argue that ‘the popular image of historical revisionism today is 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’[21]. Foster adopts this rather damming poostion against the Irish. One must praise Foster for his fluid writing style. However he also has another talent and that is his ability to omit and ignore entire periods of Irish history which do not conform to his revisionist thesis.

Mary Daly contemplates that the most frequent theme that has reoccurred at conferences is revisionism. She notes that few journals published in the last ten years have managed to escape this topic. It has now become a major preoccupation with television documentaries, radio programmes, journalists and scholars. Ciaran Brady has traced the origins of revisionism in Ireland back to the founding of Irish Historical Studies in 1938. R.D Edwards and co. set themselves the ambitious goal of producing a journal that would address the needs of specialist historians, teachers and general readers they were also determined to create a value free history. The growth of historical scholarship in Ireland as elsewhere has brought greater specialization, while trends in philosophy have called the idea of ‘value free history’ into question. ‘For many years revisionist’s historians have delighted in debunking nationalist interpretations of the Irish past. In general revisionism has been triumphal in arguing against nationalist historiography after another’.

However the revisionists were to face a serious challenge from Brendan Bradshaw. He was to argue that the revisionist’s were imposing their anti- nationalistic prejudices on the past under the smokescreen of ‘value free history’. He believes Revisionists place national heroes in the dock and examine them as criminals. He and others accuse revisionists of viewing the British and even the Unionists with far more sympathy then they extend to the Irish nationalists. Essentially Bradshaw wonders have revisionists distorted our past rather than furthering our knowledge and understandings of its precarious relationship with the present. Almost inevitably interpretations on such issues as the 1916 Easter Rising or the Great Famine either fall on nationalistic or unionist lines. Regardless of what school one prescribes, everyone must agree that the emergence of revisionism in Irish historical debate has without doubt contributed to debates around such areas and has helped to challenge widely held beliefs. All parties must realize the importance of debate of re-examining of ‘facts’ in order to further our understanding of the past.

             Steven G Ellis has noted the recent phenomom of revisionist history is at the bottom a manifestation of the continuing need to reinterpret the past. In its Irish context it also reflects the emergence of a more tolerant atmosphere and attitude among historians and among the vast majority of Irish people too. At least modern revisionist attacks on traditional nationalistic or unionist interpretations of the relationship between the past and the present arise from a more concentrated attempt to understand the past.

                        Putting the issue of revisionism aside ‘more Than one contributor commented with approval on the increasingly professional writings since the 1930’s and the gradual dissaperance of the old crude nationalism British or Irish in the writing of Irish history’. While scholars of the 1930’s wished to avoid controversy at all costs and appear to have been quite anxious to avoid re-igniting old controversies or giving any countenance to the traditional nationalistic-populist view of the famine[26].Considering also the fact that ‘no history later that 1800 was studied in Queens on the grounds that nineteenth century Ireland could not be approached with scholarly objectivity’, while in 1938 the Irish historical studies journal placed a ban on history after 1900 as it was deemed  sensitive to the imperative of Irish history as revolutionary propaganda[27]. From the 1950’s onwards Irish historical debate had progressed. Perhaps these new approaches were facilitated by a sense of new found confidence? At this point the state had well established its independence and was taking its place in the UN and the European Economic Community (ECC). They now felt that the orthodox nationalistic histories were no longer required to bind the nation together. There was no longer a feeling that the historians job was to justify the past.110. Much of this progress however was facilitated by the release of new material from the British archives after 1967, and soon after the secret Dial debates on the Treaty would be published. However expected progress was halted by the outbreak of the troubles in the North. Today, in every library shelf or bookstore we can find a range of themes and varying approaches to Irish history. Historians interests include social, economic, cultural as well as the political and military and various other sections of society that are re examined in great detail. In adopting such varying approaches, looking critically, and by examining complexities Irish historians have closed the gap in professionalism that existed between Irish historical examination and their European counterparts.

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