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Response to Review no. 704Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Author: 
Richard English2010-01-22T16:55:24+00:00

I am grateful to John Regan for his very thoughtful review of Irish Freedom, and also to the editors of Reviews in History for allowing me to respond. I will do so in two stages. First, I will address specific points made about my book by Dr Regan, and will attempt to demonstrate that they are unjustified. Second, I will briefly situate Dr Regan’s review within the wider reaction to Irish Freedom, extending the discussion outward: from the comparatively trivial matter of responses to my book on Irish nationalism, to the far more significant question of how the debate about my book might illuminate our approach towards Irish and world-historical forces. I Dr Regan’s criticisms of my book can be grouped under three headings: framework; morality; and particular interpretative disagreements. I am attacked for supposedly restricting my framework to the study of ‘separatist nationalism’ in Ireland. This is an unsustainable charge. Many of the people whom I discuss in my book were not truly separatists at all, and so Regan’s phrase is itself very misleading. But even if he does mean (as I assume he does) that my crime is to write about Irish nationalism rather than also about British or unionist nationalism in Ireland, then again it is a charge which can be dismissed. My book focuses overwhelmingly on Irish (rather than unionist or British) nationalism, because it is a book about Irish nationalism rather than about unionism or British nationalism. Nor is it fair to suggest that Irish Freedom ignores the important ways in which British and unionist actions in Ireland have framed, explained, interacted with and mitigated Irish nationalist actions, whether this involved the attempted Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (pp. 46–56), efforts at making Ireland British in the 17th (pp. 58–65), the proscriptions and suppressions of the 18th (e.g. pp. 88–90), flaws of British government and timing in the 19th (e.g. pp.130–1, 161–71, 195–7), or security-force violence and harassment as well as unionist misgovernment during the 20th (e.g. pp. 287–8, 357, 364, 370, 401). Were it possible to do so, then of course one would prefer to write a book on Irish nationalism which also offered more sustained analysis of those forces to which Irish nationalists responded and with which they engaged. But clearly no book – even one of over 600 pages, such as Irish Freedom – has sufficient space to cover everything. Dr Regan’s own valuable study of rival Irish nationalisms during 1921–36 (a book of 475 pages) contains only three index references to unionism, despite the significance of that political phenomenon for the evolution of Irish nationalist debate and practice during those years.(1) Moreover, the charge that my book operates within a narrowly Irish nationalist framework is further undermined by the fact that I have already written extensively on those very subjects that Regan criticises me for not discussing (Ulster unionism, and the British state).(2) No historian can cover everything in every book; but readers who want to address a scholar’s arguments on related subjects might be expected to follow the footnoted and bibliographical signposts to work already published by that scholar on those topics (and such signposts are conspicuous enough in Irish Freedom: pp. 530, 561, 582). Yet again, the charge that my framework is narrowly focused on Irish nationalism seems utterly unjustified in light of the book’s sustained integration of Irish experience with wider comparative and theoretical perspectives on nationalism elsewhere. Though Regan does not discuss this properly, my own book not only offers a lengthily systematic analysis of nationalism as such, but also directly integrates this with the historical narrative of Irish nationalist experience. For all of these reasons, the charge of a narrow framework seems to me entirely misplaced. Dr Regan’s second charge seems to me even weaker, and it concerns the deployment of moral argument in historical writing: ‘what [Regan asks] is a moral argument doing in a historical treatment?’ And again, ‘moral arguments offer nothing that is of historical value’. These comments reflect an approach of such extraordinary naivety that I was at first inclined politely to ignore them. On reflection, however, I think it is better to discuss them. For I cannot conceive of any serious historian who would want moral argument to be missing from historical research and reflection and writing, and shelves of historiographical analysis from a variety of perspectives would reinforce such a view. To take two stellar examples, moral seriousness and purpose are essential to the argument of Eric Foner regarding ethnic inter-relations in the United States, and of Richard Evans concerning history and the Nazis – and necessarily so in each case.(3) Likewise, the history of Irish nationalism cannot seriously be written without an eye to morality. It was what I wrote about the Nazis that prompted John Regan’s objection here. He is upset at my pointing out ‘that the IRA colluded with Hitler at a time when unionists (such as future Northern Ireland Prime Ministers Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark) and future victims of republican violence (such as Lord Mountbatten and Airey Neave) were fighting against him’ (p. 340). Despite what Dr Regan suggests, it seems to me entirely reasonable (and important) to point out what was done in the Nazi period by the IRA, and to situate this within the moral economy of nationalist-versus-unionist argument as it has evolved. As Regan knows, modern Irish republicans have presented the IRA as historically fighting in the vanguard of struggles for freedom and against tyranny, and have presented Ulster unionism as representing repressive (indeed, fascistic) politics. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to point out what was occurring at a moment when a genuine choice existed about how to respond to fascistic tyranny, and to point out who was on which side. I do not suggest, as Regan claims, that there is any ‘equivalence’ between fighting Hitler in the 1940s and fighting against the IRA after 1970. What I do point out is that, in one of history’s starkest cases of a choice about what to do in regard to tyranny, the IRA chose to side with it and Ulster unionists against it. As I have pointed out elsewhere, sharp-sighted and admirably courageous Irish republican militants at the time saw this clearly enough, to their lasting credit.(4) Again, on the more modest moral canvas of Northern Irish nationalism, it seems to me one of the historian’s tasks to assess whether the choices respectively taken by the Provisional IRA and their constitutional nationalist rivals, the SDLP, were morally justified when set against prior history, immediate context and subsequent achievements. Indeed, any historian unwilling to face such a challenge seems to me to be avoiding an important aspect of their work. In addition to issues of framework and morality, Dr Regan also raises some particular interpretative disagreements. He claims that I fail to test the word nationalism analytically; and yet my book has as one of its central features a systematic interrogation of what nationalism is and how it functions, including an essay of over 70 pages explicitly to that effect (pp. 431–506). Put another way, can Dr Regan name another book by an Irish historian which devotes more systematic attention to analysing the word ‘nationalism’? Regan also claims that I exhibit ‘an attitude unreceptive to nationalism as a positive force within society’. Given that much (if not most) of the argument I allude to above, concerning the dynamics and nature of nationalism, is explicitly devoted to explaining why it is understandably so appealing to so many people, and why it provides so much meaning to their lives, this seems a ridiculous claim. Nor is it true that I am unwilling, for example, to offer sympathetic depictions of particular Irish nationalists, whether in descriptions of Theobald Wolfe Tone (‘one of the most alluring and attractive of Irish political figures’), James Connolly (‘fabulously impressive’), D. P. Moran (‘a cultural nationalist of formidable journalistic skill’), or in my references to the ‘brilliance’ of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘dignity’ of John O’Leary or the ‘courage’, ‘commitment’, ‘seriousness’ and ‘importance’ of Provisional Irish republicans, whose ‘positive, communal, humanly sympathetic’ qualities I stress (pp. 104, 135, 183, 237, 266, 375–6, 378, 402). Given all this, I utterly reject Dr Regan’s suggestion that I aim ‘to undermine rather than to understand mainstream separatism’, or that I ‘reduce separatism to an expression of Catholic identity’ (a manifestly false claim, given my book’s emphasis on the rich range of personal, psychological, economic, historical, cultural, ethical and other important aspects of Irish and other nationalisms). John Regan is quite right that my book was intended as a work of public history and I stand by that decision. But his suggestion that because Irish Freedom is ‘a self-conscious literary enterprise’ its method is therefore not ‘historical’, seems to me an absurd observation. (Do historians not commonly reflect on their literary style and intention?) Dr Regan misquotes a passage (from p. 327 of Irish Freedom), omitting the significant word ‘millenarian’, and more importantly ending the quotation inaccurately. Dr Regan cites me as writing that the Irish revolution of 1916–23 ‘was a deviation, necessary or otherwise, from a familiar and stable path of constitutional democracy’. He then builds an argument to the effect that I am writing here about a Whiggish ‘British constitutional advancement’, and that I am contrasting Irish revolutionary activity with ‘the assumption of British constitutional stability’. The difficulty with this is that he has misrepresented what I actually wrote. I referred not – as in his quotation – to the ‘stable path of constitutional democracy’, but rather to the ‘stable path of constitutional democracy in Ireland’. Omitting the final two words of my sentence (presumably through carelessness) made easier his misrepresentation of my argument, which actually concerned the lengthy dominance of Irish nationalist constitutional politics in Ireland itself and in Irish nationalist politics and preferences. Had Dr Regan quoted my book accurately then my argument would have been less easy to obscure. Though he clearly takes issue with my book, Dr Regan is generous in his acknowledgement that it ‘goes far to achieve balance’, that ‘much of the commentary is measured’ and that the book ‘does attempt to acknowledge wider British contexts’. I would also like to state that, although I consider his criticisms of Irish Freedom unjustified, I welcome debate with a scholar whose earlier work I have greatly admired, and with whom I hope in future to be able to continue fruitful dialogue. II Prompting such dialogue was one of the main aims behind the writing of my book. So it might be useful to situate Dr Regan’s thoughtful critique within a wider pattern of response, and to link this very briefly to broader matters of historical understanding and future research and debate. For some of the responses to Irish Freedom clarify the ways in which the process of history as dialogue should be pursued, and I will here identify three. Much reaction to the bookwas very positive, whether in its being awarded prizes (the 2007 Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, and the 2007 Political Studies Association of Ireland Book Prize) or in its receiving a range of generous reviews, including those from scholars of various disciplinary backgrounds (including History, Political Science and English Literature).(5) Given that the book was written from the dual perspective of the Irish historian and the student of theories of nationalism, this interdisciplinarity of response is encouraging, as is the fact that the book has begun to inform, in however modest a manner, the work of brilliant scholars from disciplines other than history.(6) Of course, not everybody welcomed my book. The silliest response I have seen came from Professor Brendan O’Leary, (7)who so misrepresented Irish Freedom that his argument ultimately contained little of value. A few examples here will suffice. O’Leary claimed that I fail to appreciate the catastrophic dimension of Irish nationalist history and he directly mentions the famine; yet in Irish Freedom I explicitly refer to the mid-19th-century Irish famine as a ‘catastrophe’ (p. 171), emphasise the ‘appalling Irish suffering’ involved in this ‘horror’ (p. 167), clearly point out the inadequacy of British governmental response at the time (pp. 164, 166–7, 169), argue that Irish nationalist anger in response to the famine is ‘entirely understandable’ (p. 167) and stress how important the episode was in forming modern Irish nationalism (pp. 169–71). Again, O’Leary suggests that I praise ‘revisionist’ Irish historians, but not those who criticise them. Yet this is clearly not true. Joseph Lee’s Ireland 1912–1985 is emphatically not a revisionist general history of Ireland, and it is described in my book as ‘among the very best’ (p. 508) of such works. Diarmaid Ferriter has made clear his hostility to the ‘revisionist’ school of Irish history; Irish Freedom refers to his work as ‘excellent’ (p. 556). Likewise, the ‘powerful’ work of John Whyte (p. 527), Patrick Magee’s ‘highly intelligent’ book (p. 536), Gerard MacAtasney’s ‘valuable’ biography of Sean MacDiarmada (p. 534) and a series of other works praised in my book are emphatically not ‘revisionist’ in the sense deployed by O’Leary. Yet again, in stating that I manage to be generous to John Hume, O’Leary implies that I am reluctant to offer generous commentary on other Irish nationalists; as I have demonstrated above, this is not true. Brendan O’Leary also spends a long time establishing the obvious point that some people in later Ireland are descended from earlier inhabitants of the island; but I had not denied this, rather claiming that in ancient Ireland ‘there were no discernible natives in the sense of an original people than whom all others and their descendants are less truly Irish’ (p. 26). Unless one thinks that people with some link to ancient Ireland are indeed more truly Irish than those whose relatives arrived more recently, my claim is entirely fair and is in no way undermined by O’Leary’s little foray into ancient history. Again, O’Leary cites Bryan Sykes’s excellent work in an attempt to dispute my arguments against Irish nationalist Celticism; but Sykes in fact reinforces the views which underlie my argument, when he argues that we cannot posit an Irish Celtic identity as opposed to an English non-Celtic identity, and when he points out that there was apparently no mass migration of Celts from mainland Europe to Ireland. O’Leary also presents pre-modern Ireland as genetically homogeneous, while Sykes points out that there was, as I had argued, some considerable heterogeneity involved.(8) As I pointed out in Irish Freedom, I very much welcome fruitful disagreement. But the point here is that fruitful debate must be based on an accurate representation of what other scholars have actually written, and O’Leary’s response to Irish Freedom clearly fails that test. If genuinely sustained interdisciplinarity and accurate scholarly representation are vital in historical debate then so, thirdly, is recognising the ways in which the locally particular can illuminate wider world-historical themes. This was a central argument of my book – integrating as it did the Irish historical narrative with a thematic explanation of nationalism itself – and I am delighted that some outstanding scholars have now taken this forward, whether in terms of relating my work to wider debates on nationalism (9), or deploying it in the study of major global phenomena such as terrorism.(10) I have long seen the study of Ireland both as valuable in itself and also as a case study in world-historical phenomena (including socialism, nationalism, terrorism and the politics of intellectuals).(11) I am greatly encouraged that Irish Freedom has begun to reinforce – however modestly – that vision of what Irish historians and other scholars might between them achieve. December 2008 Notes 1. J. M. Regan, The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921–1936 (Dublin, 1999).Back to (1) 2. See, for example, Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture, ed. R. English and G. Walker (Basingstoke, 1996); R. English, ‘The growth of new Unionism’, in Changing Shades of Orange and Green: Redefining the Union and the Nation in Contemporary Ireland, ed. J. Coakley (Dublin, 2002); R. English and M. Kenny, ‘British decline or the politics of declinism?’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 1, 2 (1999), 252–66; R. English and M. Kenny, ‘Public intellectuals and the question of British decline’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 3, 3 (2001), 259–83; Rethinking British Decline, ed. R. English and M. Kenny (Basingstoke, 2000).Back to (2) 3. E. Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York, 2002); R. J. Evans, Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial (London, 2002).Back to (3) 4. R. English, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State 1925–1927 (Oxford, 1994), p. 273.Back to (4) 5. For reviews by scholars from various disciplines, see: Sunday Business Post, 19 November 2006; Irish Times, 16 December 2006; New Statesman, 29 January 2007; Irish Examiner, 9 December 2006.Back to (5) 6. For example, C. Gearty, Civil Liberties (Oxford, 2007); J. Mitchell, Paper Presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference (Boston, 2008).Back to (6) 7. B. O’Leary, ‘Cuttlefish, cholesterol and saoirse’, Field Day Review, 3 (2007), 187–203.Back to (7) 8. B. Sykes, Blood of the Isles: Exploring the Genetic Roots of our Tribal History (London, 2007), pp. 67–9, 80, 180–1, 192, 198, 200, 332, 334, 337, 338, 343.Back to (8) 9. E. F. Biagini, ‘Liberty and nationalism in Ireland, 1798-1922’, Historical Journal, 51, 3 (2008), 793-809.Back to (9) 10. M. Burleigh, Blood and Rage: a Cultural History of Terrorism (London, 2008).Back to (10) 11. R. English, Radicals and the Republic; R. English, Irish Freedom; R. English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (London, 2003); R. English, Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual (Oxford, 1998).Back to (11)

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