In 1969, two years after my father died, my mother, my sisters and I went to Wexford for the launch of a new history of the 1798 Rising, The Year of Liberty by Thomas Pakenham. The Rising was important for us: from our housing estate we could see Vinegar Hill where ‘our side’, the rebels, had made their last stand. From early childhood I knew certain things (I hesitate to say ‘facts’) about the Rising: how the English had muskets whereas we just had pikes, how the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and then, when the tar had dried, peeled it off. The names of the towns and villages around us were in all the songs about 1798 – the places where battles had been fought, or atrocities committed. But there was one place that I did not know had a connection with 1798 until I was in my twenties. It was Scullabogue. Even now, as I write the name, it has a strange resonance. In 1798 it was where ‘our side’ took a large number of Protestant men, women and children, put them in a barn and burned them to death.
It does not come up in the songs, and I have no memory of my father, who was a local historian, talking or writing about it. The landscape of north Wexford, where I was born, is dotted with memorials to 1798, but there is nothing, as far as I know, at Scullabogue. Its memory was erased from what a child could learn about 1798. It was a complication in our glorious past, and it was essential for our past to be glorious if our present, in what Roy Foster in his new book of essays calls ‘the disillusioned tranquillity of the Free State’, was to have any meaning. This was what our ancestors fought for; we had it now; it had to be good.
At the launch of his book Thomas Pakenham sat on a podium at the top of the room. A few introductory speeches were made, and then a man whom I recognised, who had been a friend of my father’s, stood up to speak. I remember that his voice shook with angry conviction as he spoke. ‘The history of 1798 has still to be written.’ This book was not the real history, he said. He pointed accusingly at Pakenham. I did not understand.
I understand now because I have been grappling with Pakenham’s book for years. In the early drafts of my novel The Heather Blazing, the protagonist is working on a history of the rebellion, not from the British side, which is what my father’s friend accused Pakenham of having written, but from ‘our’ side, the Irish side. The following passage from Pakenham’s Preface interests my protagonist:
Today sources are embarrassingly rich on the loyalist [British] side ... On the rebel side, lack of sources makes it impossible to do justice to the movement. I have found fewer than a hundred revolutionary documents of 1798. For the most part I have had to make do with second-hand (and sometimes second-rate) material; contemporary spy reports, mid-19th century biographies, folksongs and hearsay ... With the volume of written sources weighted so heavily to one side, it is impossible to avoid giving offence.
The rebels left no documents, then, only songs and stories, and the victors got to write history, until Irish nationalists like my father and his friend became the victors in their own state, to find that there were no reliable papers written by the rebels, no letters, few memoirs. Second-hand, second-rate things, as Pakenham so starkly (and perhaps tactlessly) put it. And the hollow nature of the native Irish past was the source of the anger that day at the launch in Wexford of Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty. We had founded our state, but outsiders were still coming to write our history.
‘I have tried to be fair,’ Pakenham wrote in his Preface. ‘For the events of 1798, T. Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty (London, 1969) is unequalled,’ Roy Foster wrote in his bibliographical essay at the back of his Modern Ireland 1600-1972. But sometimes, despite the fact that I am not an Irish nationalist (or at least I hope I am not), when I read Pakenham’s book about the central event in the history of the place where I was brought up, I find the tone and the use of language offensive and hurtful. For a few seconds I become the man at the launch hectoring Pakenham.
For example, Pakenham at one point writes: ‘The next three days passed in mounting hysteria for both the inhabitants of Wexford and their prisoners. The mob made some sort of attack on the gaol. By good fortune, two of the dozen or so Catholic priests in Wexford at this time happened to reach the gaol in time to drive off the people. Crowds again gathered outside Lord Kingsborough’s lodgings and tried to break in.’ ‘Mob’ suggests mindlessness and lack of civility. ‘Some sort’ is also dismissive. ‘By good fortune’ for whom? Hardly for ‘the mob’. ‘Drive off’ as opposed to persuade, or convince, or even warn. ‘Drive off’ suggests they were animals. And yet all over Wexford there are monuments to them, and songs about them, and the committee to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their rebellion is already in place.
In an essay published in 1986, ‘We Are All Revisionists Now’, Roy Foster, who is certainly the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation, wrote that ‘the last generation to learn Irish history only from the old nationalist textbooks will soon be middle-aged men and women.’ He went on: ‘it is occasionally tempting to feel that something has been lost as well as gained; to miss the compelling Manichean logic of the old “Story of Ireland” view, with a beginning, a middle and what appeared (up to about 1968) to be a triumphant end.’ There were wholehearted celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which included an exciting drama documentary on television, marches, days off school and, even for this 11-year-old, a feeling of national pride.
As the Irish nation wallowed in its ‘liberation’, a Jesuit priest called Father Francis Shaw submitted an essay to the Jesuit journal Studies which contained what Roy Foster calls a ‘swingeing exposé of lacunae in [Patrick] Pearse’s ideology’. The piece was not published for six years. The editors felt that Ireland was not ready for a critical examination of Pearse. For those involved in commemorations in Ireland, in 1966 as now, history has no complications or ironies or half-truths; one thing leads to another; there are heroes and traitors and villains. This was not simply the history taught at school in Ireland to those of us ‘who will soon be middle-aged men and women’: it was everywhere in our culture. But in the universities there had always been dogged individuals working against the national grain, dealing with the complexities rather than the simplicities of Irish history. Now in the Sixties, larger numbers of serious historians (I hesitate to use the words ‘trained’ or ‘professional’) began to work on Irish history with louder voices and more confidence and, in some cases, a political agenda; by the end of the decade, as the North blew up, they realised that they had a central role to play in guiding an Irish professional class away from ancient pieties.
They tried it on me. I went to University College Dublin in 1972 to study History and English. If there was a forbidden ‘f’ word or a forbidden ‘c’ word while we studied there, they were ‘Fenian’ and ‘colonial’; all the Irish history we studied was parliamentary and constitutional. The 19th century was made up of O’Connell and Parnell, and there was much emphasis on their time at Westminster. Young Ireland, the Fenians, even the poor old Land League were presented as non-constitutional headaches for O’Connell and Parnell. Michael Collins was a Treaty negotiator rather than a warlord.
Outside in the world there were car bombs and hunger strikes, done in the name of our nation, in the name of history. Inside we were cleansing history, concentrating on those aspects of our past which would make us good, worthy citizens who would keep the Irish 26-county state safe from the IRA and IRA fellow travellers.
One day in the library I was reading an essay by Joseph Lee in a book called The Irish Parliamentary Tradition. (This title may seem like an elaborate oxymoron, but it was the sort of book published at that time.) The essay was about 1782 and Grattan’s Parliament, an important moment in Irish history, according to our school books. Parnell, Roy Foster points out in an essay in Paddy and Mr Punch, constantly referred to this parliament, believing, as our school-books did, that it offered Home Rule to Ireland. Joseph Lee made clear that it offered Ireland no such thing, and that it wasn’t Grattan’s Parliament in any real way, since Grattan had no real power in it. It was all myth, all nonsense.
I remember feeling a huge sense of liberation. I photocopied the piece and made everyone else read it. 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.
I became a revisionist, luckily, just as the word was coming into vogue; it was a term of abuse used about historians who were peddling anti-nationalist views of Irish history. The most seriously revisionist text, however, to appear in those years was John Banville’s Birchwood, a novel published in 1973, the year of Ireland’s entry into the EC. Here, Irish history was an enormous joke, a baroque narrative full of crack-pot landlords and roaming peasants and an abiding sense of menace and decay. In 1975, in his book of poems The Snow Party, Derek Mahon allowed one of his characters to be ‘through with history’. I understood that to be the whole point of revisionism.
‘In a country that has come of age, history need no longer be a matter of guarding sacred mysteries,’ Roy Foster wrote in his 1986 essay. One of the sacred mysteries remained the 1916 Rising. When in the early Seventies I had imagined a history in which the executions after the 1916 Rising were ‘understandable in the circumstances’, I meant it as a flight of fancy, much like imagining a future in which the Pope would marry or fish would fly. Now, in 1988, in Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972, which would be declared a masterwork by most historians who reviewed it, the section on the aftermath of the Rising began: ‘The draconian reaction of the authorities to the rebellion should be understood in terms of international war and national security.’ When I read the book first I spent some time pondering the ‘should’ and the ‘national’. I wondered, suddenly my father’s son once more, what nation Roy Foster could possibly be talking about.
In Modern Ireland Lord Mountjoy, who ‘successfully commanded the English forces that drove the rebels from the Pale 1601-1603’, is described as ‘a humane man’. On the other hand, the United Irishman Napper Tandy who, in a biographical note, is said to be ‘eulogised in national folklore’, is described by Foster as ‘the ludicrous Napper Tandy’. I do not know how it is possible to apply such adjectives from the 20th-century perspective to any figure in the 16th century, especially a figure sent by England to Ireland with an army, nor to any figure in the 18th century, even one eulogised in national folklore. The main problem in making such throwaway and offensive (to Irish nationalists past and present) and wrong (Mountjoy was not humane, at least not in Ireland) judgments and using such an arch tone is that it gives the game away. It suggests that underneath the brilliant insights and real originality in Foster’s Modern Ireland there is an ideology perhaps not as crude as that of any nationalist historian writing school texts in the Twenties, but just as clear.
In Modern Ireland Foster is concerned to make Irish history dense and complex. He refuses to take the Whig view of Irish history, which sees the events that led up to 1916 from the perspective of 1916. The style is, by necessity, nervous and jerky; his judgments are qualified by local studies or detailed work. For anyone who wanted to ‘use’ history, who wanted to claim eight hundred years of misunderstanding between Ireland and England (as, according to Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs, Garret FitzGerald did in talking to her), Foster’s book would be puzzling and not very helpful. There are continuities in Modern Ireland, but they are difficult to trace. His book, because of his command of detail, and his ability to construct a narrative, is deeply convincing and valuable.
The problem, perhaps, is not his, but ours. The underlying message in Foster’s book, his revisionism, is best defined in an attack on revisionism by Desmond Fennell, an Irish commentator: ‘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.’
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. It can be argued that many of these historians did not ‘seek to show’ anything, they merely and dispassionately showed it, and the implications of what they showed happen to coincide with public policy. But this cannot be argued with much conviction. In 1971, in that same book The Irish Parliamentary Tradition, the most senior and respected Irish historian, F.S.L. Lyons, wrote: ‘The theories of revolution, the theories of nationality, the theories of history which have brought Ireland to its present pass cry out for re-examination.’ As the historians set out to re-examine Irish history, they did so not in an ivory tower of disinterest, but in a country of car bombs and warring factions.
Every night during Easter Week 1966 our family watched the drama-documentary about Easter 1916 on state television. A friend of the family who had been in the Rising and had known the leaders came to watch it with us. The executions were drawn out, each moment dramatised – the grieving family, the grim prison, the lone leader in his cell, writing his last poem or letter. Sometimes the emotion in our house was unbearable and when it came to James Connolly’s turn to be executed my mother ran out of the room crying. We had never seen her cry before.
In less then ten years we moved from a time in which the state sponsored such emotions to a time when the songs we learned at school were banned on the state radio. Such sudden shifts cannot occur without consequences, and these were best described in a pamphlet by the poet Michael O’Loughlin written from his exile in Amsterdam in 1988:
For my generation the events of Easter 1966 were crucial, so much so that I think it is almost possible to speak of a generation of ’66. People from that generation tend to share a number of characteristics. An almost total alienation from the state, a cynicism with regard to national institutions and political life ... an unspoken assumption that everything emanating from official sources is a total lie ... In my school, and in other schools and in the media, republican emotions, if not republican principles, were openly encouraged ... What [later came] from Northern Ireland was republicanism with a vengeance. The South’s political lies were finally catching up with it. One of these was that 1916 was the culmination of the 700-year struggle for an ‘Irish Republic’. This lie ... eventually became too embarrassing. In an act of astonishing political opportunism, 1916 was revised.
One can hardly blame the historians, however: most of them believed they were going against the grain in the service of truth, believing themselves under attack from Republicans – a belief, as Roy Foster makes clear in his introduction to Paddy and Mr Punch, that some of them still hold. They never realised that they were justifying the new state, an Ireland cleansed of its history, which politicians had planned. The received wisdom about the 1916 executions was that they stirred the Irish population into instant and then constant anger. I had always been suspicious of this, especially the constant part, and Foster’s analysis in Modern Ireland remains judicious: he makes a case for viewing the aftermath of the Rebellion as much in the light of the First World War as in that of the Rebellion itself. If this is revisionism, it is something we badly need to help us think straight about the recent past. But the sudden shift in the state view of the Rising hung heavily on those of us who were watching television in 1966.
Thus we waited for the 75th anniversary of the Rising with considerable interest. This time state television did not re-show the drama documentary and there were no days off school. State television, instead, interviewed various historians and public figures about the Rising: did they think it was right or wrong? Did they think it should be commemorated? Roy Foster said: ‘Celebrating 1916, or commemorating it, I think there’s a big difficulty there. To celebrate something is, presumably, to say it was wonderful and to, in a sense, reenact it as a communal ritual. I would think that is undesirable.’ This time, if anyone ran out of the room crying, they were crying tears of rage, but most people in Ireland remained reasonably indifferent.
Paddy and Mr Punch contains a brilliantly detailed and lucid essay about the uses to which Irish history has been put. In the essay, Foster talks about 1991: ‘When the 75th anniversary of 1916 arrived in 1991, it was treated by the Irish government as a sensitive issue, to be approached in a deliberately restrained way – very different from the unequivocal celebrations of 1966. This caused a small-scale but vociferous old-Republican reaction – featuring not historians but out-of-office politicians, freelance journalists, ex-Sixties activists (including, quaintly, a Pop Art painter) and the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band.’ There is a sense here that Foster really enjoyed writing the word ‘quaintly’ and, since this book appeared, there have been earnest letters to the Irish newspapers to point out, among other things, that no one can remember ‘the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band’ being in Dublin for the 1991 commemoration. Even for this over-sensitive, former-nationalist reader, the inclusion of the Flute Band in Foster’s list is extremely funny. It must have been even funnier in Oxford, where Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History.
Things were not as simple in Dublin, however. I had planned to be in Seville for Easter 1991, mainly because I get very depressed in Ireland on Good Friday when the pubs close all day and the sky is low and the churches are full. In the middle of February I received a letter from an organisation called The Flaming Door which, using state money and with state encouragement, sought to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising by asking Irish writers to join in a marathon reading at the General Post Office in Dublin, where the Rising took place. I thought of attending to read from Beckett’s ‘First Love’: ‘What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.’ But I decided it would be easier to decline. I did not want any work of mine (or any work of anybody else’s) being used by the state to replace its own half-heartedness about the past and insecurity about the present. As far as I know, I was the only writer who turned down the invitation.
But others were planning commemorations elsewhere. I met a local politician in Wexford whom I knew and liked. He asked me to join other descendants, mostly grandchildren, of the men who had fought in the Easter Rebellion in the town of Enniscorthy, where I was born and where my grandfather had fought, in a march through the town on Easter Sunday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Rising. This was closer to home; there would be no quoting Beckett in Enniscorthy. No one at any of the meetings to plan the march, I was assured, had expressed the slightest doubt about the Rising; no one knew anything about revisionism; it had filtered from the universities to the middle classes in the cities, but not beyond. People in Enniscorthy were simply proud that the town and their forebears had been involved in the Rising. I would love to have marched with them. I wandered around Seville that Easter wishing things were simpler, wishing that I was not in two minds about everything.
Roy Foster loves two minds, the dual inheritance. Although the essays in Paddy and Mr Punch were written for different occasions and contexts, there is a single concern running through the book: the way in which the intersection between Ireland and England affects individuals and institutions. He is always deeply aware that this intersection can be dangerous and dark, but in a few essays, he shows that it has also been enriching, and these essays are important and original.
This is a better and more relaxed book than Modern Ireland because Foster can choose his ground, write about things which fascinate him, notably individuals such as Parnell and Lord Randolph Churchill (about whom he has already written books) and Yeats (he is writing the authorised biography). Other figures to appear are Trollope and Elizabeth Bowen and Maud Gonne. It is clear that Foster is more interested in posh Protestants than in the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band or their like. It is also clear that he does not favour Irish commemorations, even ones which occurred in the past: ‘The great Anglophobic outburst of the 1798 centenary celebrations should be seen as therapeutic Anglophobia as much as an endorsement of separatism.’
My grandfather and my grand-uncle took part in those celebrations, as my father and uncle did 50 years later in 1948. They were complex men who had read a great deal of English literature, and they were not much given to Anglophobic outbursts, nor Anglophobia, however therapeutic. It is a pity that Foster is not prepared to offer the same level of nuanced study to the contradictions and complexities in the Irish revolutionary tradition, or to the individuals who took part in it, as he is to, say, Elizabeth Bowen. Thomas Pakenham’s ‘mob’ awaits its historian.
But the descendants of the ‘mob’ rule Ireland now, on both sides of the border, and do so with the happy conviction that the island is somehow naturally theirs, that history has offered them this birthright, and that outsiders (or indeed minorities) have no natural place on the island. The openness in John Hume’s rhetoric, for example, implies that this is his home, and he is ready to make the Unionists welcome here under certain conditions.
Roy Foster has tried to establish what he calls in the final sentence of Modern Ireland ‘a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness’, which has obvious political implications. Elizabeth Bowen, he tells us, ‘felt most at home in mid-Irish Sea’. That journey back and forth, the political and spiritual dislocation involved, and how crucial it has been in the Irish experience, concern Foster in most of these essays, especially the last one entitled ‘Marginal Men and Micks on the Make: The Uses of Irish Exile c.1840-1922’. Marginal Men are ‘disaffected British people’ using Ireland ‘for dreams or ideas or insecurities too uncomfortable for home’. They include Trollope, Lord Randolph Churchill, Maud Gonne. It is perhaps easier to explain Micks on the Make; ‘Irish emigrants who went to England and made a good thing out of it’. They are too numerous to mention. There is a real sense in this essay that Foster is writing about these two categories in the present as much as in the past. Enoch Powell, Brigid Rose Dugdale, even John Arden could be included in his list of Marginal Men (and Women); Foster himself and Tom Paulin, to whom the book is dedicated, could easily join the ranks of Micks on the Make. (Paulin, however, also has some Marginal credentials.) Not to speak of Ronan Bennett.
Foster makes the point that Robert Barton, George Gavan Duffy and Erskine Childers, all of whom negotiated the Treaty on the Irish side and all of whom were educated in England, could serve as Marginal Men; just as Michael Collins, who spent nine years working in the English Post Office, could be a Mick on the Make.
W.B. Yeats, who flits in and out of these essays, managed to be both Marginal and Mick as he crossed and re-crossed the Irish Sea. Foster, at his most loftily revisionist, establishes the poet as a Protestant bourgeois, proud to be invited to the Big Houses. Foster writes that skill at fishing – especially trout-fishing – could often be ‘taken as an index of gentlemanly status’ and then begins a paragraph: ‘Yeats would have loved to be able to fish. He posed as a fisherman at Coole ...’ He then goes on to tell anecdotes about Yeats’s ineptitude. The next paragraph begins: ‘But still he wished he could fish.’ The life of Yeats, his creation of a self, is rivalled only by the Story of Ireland, as a narrative in need of thorough re-examination. Foster seems to be proceeding with relish.
He is more respectful about Elizabeth Bowen, as he generally is about people who did not support Irish nationalism. In an essay called ‘Protestant Magic’ he defines a context for a tradition in Irish fiction – 19th-century Irish supernatural fiction – which includes Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker and leads to Yeats’s interest in the occult. It is a pity that this essay is not placed immediately before the essay on Bowen, because there are interesting connections – some of which Foster makes – between Bowen and the writers of the supernatural.
In his study of Bowen’s Irishness Foster is perhaps at his best, prepared to sift through every nuance and examine every shade without ever overstating his case, which is delicate – as delicate and complex as he wants the strands between the varieties of Irishness to remain. Bowen’s Irishness is not of mere academic interest to him; there is always the implication that Ireland must take Bowen and her tradition on board if Ireland is to survive. What, then, asks the ghost of my father’s friend who tackled Thomas Pakenham in 1969, are we to do about Elizabeth Bowen’s activities in Ireland during the war years, when she posed as a journalist or a woman-about-town but was, in fact, spying for the British Ministry of Information? Where was her Irishness then? In any other country, would this not be treachery? ‘She was now a kind of spy,’ Foster writes, referring to ‘the ambiguity of her stance’.
I know that ambiguity is what is needed in Ireland now. No one wants territory, merely a formula of words ambiguous enough to make them feel at home. If we cannot understand Elizabeth Bowen’s Irishness, and her British allegiances, then there are other forms of Irishness, and other allegiances, more insistent and closer to us, that we will fail to understand as well. Foster’s position is clear: he wants Ireland to become a pluralist, post-nationalist, all-inclusive, non-sectarian place. So do I. But there are other (I hesitate to use the word ‘atavistic’) forces operating within me too that I must be conscious of. Maybe they come out in odd moments, when I read a book like this, or Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty, and know that I am not part of the consensus of which books like these are part. Maybe it would be good if their authors looked again at Catholic Ireland. We, in turn, are learning to talk in whispers. It will take time.