Ireland’s Revisionist Historians: A Generation of Vipers

Tadhg Gaelach

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#1
This is an excellent article by James Mullen, who is the author of the Irish Famine Curriculum, which is taught in many US schools.


The 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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#3
Quite a revisionists yourself there.
Historical Revisionism as such I believe to be a very good thing and by that I mean going back to re-examine data, looking at how emotional basis has distorted people's analysis of past events, etc. The problem with these so called "Revisionists" is that were and are engaging not in genuine historical revisionism but polemic. Than there is the really important question that goes beyond all historical accident of what objective values they were promoting in their polemicizing; judged from the standards of Plato and the New Testament their values were dirt, even less than vomit some degenerate celebrity chokes on. I came to these characters after reading and absorbing "The Protestant Reformation" by William Cobbet who remained an Anglican till the end of his life but was an early advocate of "Corporate Reunion" and who shows in that book the utter nonsensicalness of a lot of Protestant myths as well as showing the massive damage culturally and socially England suffered on account of the Reformation (he was a real historical revisionist and one of the original "Little Englanders"), "The Whig interpretation of history" by Herbert Butterfield and "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" by R.W. Tawney; if you read those books and than come back to the chancers Taigh was talking about in the OP they appear in a pretty horrific light. Which is not to say that the Irish Republican/Nationalist analysis of history should not be subject to scrutiny, it should be, but in the interests of objective truth.
 
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#4
As regards the OP I have heard that a lot of this comes from a group of people who came from the Ascendancy who's family left Ireland after the Treaty and installed themselves in Oxford's history department who than managed to sell their version of events to people from Catholic Irish backgrounds studying there. Oxford's history department to this day has a weird anti-Gaelic basis. Ulster working class folk on both sides of the "Peace Wall", well we have an awful reputation for being moaners with massive victim complexes and there is a degree of justice in this- however in terms of repulsive victim complexes and whinging the left overs of the Ascendency leave us all including William Frazer far behind, and this from the lads who brought the country the Great Hunger.
 
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Tadhg Gaelach

Tadhg Gaelach

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#5
As regards the OP I have heard that a lot of this comes from a group of people who came from the Ascendancy who's family left Ireland after the Treaty and installed themselves in Oxford's history department who than managed to sell their version of events to people from Catholic Irish backgrounds studying there. Oxford's history department to this day has a weird anti-Gaelic basis. Ulster working class folk on both sides of the "Peace Wall", well we have an awful reputation for being moaners with massive victim complexes and there is a degree of justice in this- however in terms of repulsive victim complexes and whinging the left overs of the Ascendency leave us all including William Frazer far behind, and this from the lads who brought the country the Great Hunger.
Yes, I would say there was a lot of that going on - and still is. But the fact is that the partitionist establishment, north and south, needed an intellectual fig leaf for continued partition and occupation - and any time power needs justification, there will be no shortage of academics to offer their services.
 
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#6
Yes, I would say there was a lot of that going on - and still is. But the fact is that the partitionist establishment, north and south, needed an intellectual fig leaf for continued partition and occupation - and any time power needs justification, there will be no shortage of academics to offer their services.
Yeah I agree basically the only reason this was/is a big deal is because of the Troubles and has as much genuine historical worth as Cold War propaganda. Its not what they were attacking didnt have distortions but their version was a hell of a lot more distorted. Strangely I think that the Troubles did as much damage to the South as they did to the North and that the damage they did down here was in the long term worse.
 
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Tadhg Gaelach

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#7
Yeah I agree basically the only reason this was/is a big deal is because of the Troubles and has as much genuine historical worth as Cold War propaganda. Its not what they were attacking didnt have distortions but their version was a hell of a lot more distorted. Strangely I think that the Troubles did as much damage to the South as they did to the North and that the damage they did down here was in the long term worse.

I fully agree. The damage done here was to the very moral fabric of society.
 
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#9
Quite a revisionists yourself there.
“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.”

Marianne Elliott claimed in Prophet of Irish Independence, that the Provisional Irish Republican Army & Sinn Féin, Irish Irelanders, Catholics & Romantic Gaels, had stolen Tone from the Home Rulers and the Ulster Presbyterians:

'It is the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin who celebrate the anniversary proper of his birth, and the apparent takeover of the Tone cult by the men of violence, has alienated the Ulster Protestants.'

In all fairness, that's like claiming Bobby Sands for the Parachute Regiment, or Dan Breen for the Tans.

The Labour Party TD Cathal O'Shannon said in the 1930's that it was hard to believe that 'the slaughter of the innocents was taking place in the Dublin Tenements', only 10 minutes walk away from the corridors of Leinster House. Anti-Republican historians and critics of Pearse, such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, conveniently forget that Pearse lived a stones throw away from the people described by O'Shannon. According to Edwards, Pearse '“acted and died for a people that did not exist'', but it's plausible at the the very least, that Pearse was speaking to O'Shannon's innocents, just as much as he was speaking to the people who populated the imaginary Gaelic world, that he had learned about as a child from his grandmother, when he penned the Rebel:

I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,
That have no treasure but hope, no riches laid up but a memory of an Ancient glory.
My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs
Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it,
Reddened for that they have served, they who should be free,
Reddened for that they have gone in want, while others have been full,
Reddened for that they have walked in fear of lawyers and of their jailors
With their writs of summons and their handcuffs, Men mean and cruel!
I could have borne stripes on my body rather than this shame of my people.


And now I speak, being full of vision;
I speak to my people, and I speak in my people's name to the masters of my people.
I say to my people that they are holy, that they are august, despite their chains,
That they are greater than those that hold them, and stronger and purer,
That they have but need of courage, and to call on the name of their God,
God the unforgetting, the dear God that loves the peoples
For whom He died naked, suffering shame.
And I say to my people's masters: Beware,
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men's desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!




This would have been the typical neighbourhood Pearse was accustomed to seeing in Dublin. Pearses grandmothers family were evicted during the Great Hunger, and that's what I am reminded of when he says that his mother had 'bore him in bondage', and that he was 'of the blood of serfs.' I am reminded of the Tenement people, just as much as the poor people of the Gaeltacht, a people who 'did not exist', in Edwards opinion, on whose behalf he had 'acted and died', when he says 'Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it', and again when he says, 'I speak in my peoples name, to the masters of my people.' O'Brien overlooks the fact that although the 1916 rebels may have had no ''popular support”, the Republic was ratified by the majority in 1918. If my memory serves me correctly, he was one of the Labour TD's who opposed the 1976 Easter Rising commemoration, and that vindictiveness, indirectly led to the imprisonment of Máire Comerford, who had fought in 1916 alongside the Countess. Revisionist is too polite a term for some people.
 
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Tadhg Gaelach

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#10
Since we're discussing Cromwell on another thread and the whitewashing of his crimes against humanity, this thread is relevant for consideration.