1916: The Mornings After review: Tim Pat Coogan’s arrogant travesty of Irish history
Ireland’s ‘best known historical writer’ utterly fails in this badly researched ‘personal perspective’ of the Irish century, says Diarmaid Ferriter
By page 20 of this truly dreadful book Tim Pat Coogan has puffed himself up to the extent that he has an important announcement to make: he is publishing a “hitherto unpublished” letter from Patrick Pearse to the Fenian John Devoy in New York, written in August 1914.
“I consider the document to be so important as to merit being published in full,” Coogan declares. The problem is that the text of the letter is not previously unpublished. It is an exact copy of the letter that Pearse sent to Devoy’s colleague Joseph McGarrity the same day and that was published in full 35 years ago, in Séamas Ó Buachalla’s The Letters of PH Pearse.
On the basis of this example and many others Coogan is not remotely interested in looking at what others have written on 20th-century Irish history. He describes this book as a “strongly personal perspective” on Ireland since 1916. But he does not appear interested in context and shows scant regard for evidence. He does not attempt to offer any sustained analysis in relation to the challenges of state building, the meaning of sovereignty, economic and cultural transformations, or comparative perspectives on the evolution of Irish society.
There is no indication whatsoever that Coogan has engaged with the abundant archival material relating to the subject matter he pronounces on. There is no rhyme or reason when it comes to the citation of the many quotations he uses; the vast majority are not referenced. For the 300-page text, 21 endnotes are cited and six of them relate to Coogan’s previous books, a reminder that much of this tome consists of recycled material.
Nor is there much accuracy about dates. Contrary to his assertions, Arthur Griffith did not found Sinn Féin in 1904 (it was 1905); the Ulster Volunteer Force was not established in 1912 (it was 1913); Erskine Childers did not organise the smuggling of arms to Ireland “in the summer of 1916” (it was 1914); and King George V did not open the Northern Ireland parliament on June 7th, 1921 (it was June 22nd).
Villainous de Valera
Coogan rushes through his starter – a highly superficial narrative of the War of Independence eulogising Michael Collins – so that he can savour his preferred main course, which involves, yet again, making a cartoon villain of Éamon de Valera: “One of his unmatchable ploys was to enter towns at eventide wearing a long black cloak and mounted on a white horse, preceded and followed by a column of marching men shouldering pitchforks to which blazing sods of turf were affixed.”
De Valera’s career, Coogan would have us believe, was mostly about luck, and he is depicted as petulant, egotistical, dictatorial and hysterical.
Coogan is also a master of sweeping, inaccurate generalisations. How about this for a description of rural Ireland: “in large measure this remained a land of ghost stories and superstition where comparatively little of an intellectual light penetrated easily”. Or: “Irish society was characterised . . . by poverty, shabbiness and conformity”.
There are many other varieties of codswallop: “Fianna Fáil cumainn became IRA flying columns by night”. Strange, then, that the IRA was declared an illegal organisation by a Fianna Fáil government in 1936.
We are informed that during the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 “not a drunken shout, fight or unseemly incident” marred its course. In truth there was plenty of drunken shouting during the congress. Special legislation had extended the opening hours of pubs, and the morning after the opening night a man charged with assault was berated by a judge for bringing shame on the city and the congress.
Coogan skips through the 1945-73 period until he settles down to an analysis of Charles Haughey. A measure of the indulgence here is that his narrative is about choosing between different unreliable anecdotes: “If I had to choose from all the rumours, I would choose to believe . . . ”
The two chapters dealing with the Troubles and the peace process are occasionally interesting because of Coogan’s experiences as a formidable journalist and editor during these decades.
He reserves his final blast of ire for the last few chapters, which cover the “age of scandal and betrayal” that he suggests represented a departure from the ideals of those who framed the 1916 Proclamation.
There is certainly no shortage of scandals to list, and Coogan’s disgust at what he accurately calls “the indefensible being perpetrated on the defenceless” is entirely justified. But, once again, evidence frequently does not feature: “to this day the Irish landscape contains mass graves, the final resting places of the mothers and babies” who were institutionalised. Where? When? How? What is the evidence? We are not told. I wonder why.
The revelations in 2014 of the grave at the Tuam mother-and-baby home and alarming child-mortality figures caused understandable outrage and led to the establishment of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. If Coogan has evidence of similar graves he should produce it and give it to this commission. If he does not he should not be making such claims.
In relation to the era of the child-abuse scandals it is asserted that “paedophilia is unfortunately one of the areas in which the Irish demonstrably punch above their weight”. He also refers to the “escalation of suicide rates in the Republic” by about 40 per cent. The source for that figure remains unexplained.
Given the seriousness of these subjects – institutionalisation, suicide, child abuse – there is surely an onus on Ireland’s “best known historical writer”, as Coogan describes himself, to provide some concrete backing for these assertions. That he does not even nod in the direction of evidence is a measure of the arrogance on display here.
It is also embarrassing that for all the attention he gives to institutional abuse he cannot even manage accuracy about the purpose of the landmark report of the Ryan commission, published in 2009. This, Coogan writes, “investigated the history of abuse in boys’ reformatories in Ireland”.
It did a lot more than that: the commission investigated schools, industrial schools, reformatory schools, orphanages, hospitals, children’s homes “and any other place where children were cared for other than as members of their families”. It was not just about the abuse of boys in reformatories.
Towards the end of the book a catalogue of “moral sickness” is churned out. In the absence of sufficient mediation this just amounts to selective ranting about the foot-dragging and doublespeak in the Vatican in relation to sexual abuse; a “pendulous, pretentious and enpurpled gaggle of prelates”; the treatment of the families of the 1981 Stardust fire victims; corruption highlighted by tribunals into planning and payments to politicians; and the vengefulness of the State in dealing with the hepatitis C victim Brigid McCole.
Coogan concludes with the bankruptcy of the State. There were, he observes, “a handful of economists” who spoke up for the virtue of prudence during the excesses of the Celtic Tiger period. He includes Pat Leahy as one of these, but Leahy is not an economist; he is a political editor.
At the start of his survey Coogan reminds us that Gen John Maxwell, sent to Ireland to suppress the 1916 Rising, was “not a cruel or a stupid man. He read up on Irish history.” Neither is Tim Pat Coogan a cruel or stupid man; he is a decent, compassionate man who has made a significant contribution to Irish life. But he has not read up on Irish history; indeed, such is the paucity of his research efforts that this book amounts to a travesty of 20th-century Irish history.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His book A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23 is published in paperback by Profile Books
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