Bolder and wiser: our new and improved history of Ireland

Thomas Bartlett and Jane Ohlmeyer on compiling The Cambridge History of Ireland

The Cambridge History of Ireland: UDA members at a bonfire barricade. © Bobbie Hanvey

The Cambridge History of Ireland: UDA members at a bonfire barricade. © Bobbie Hanvey


A new history, to help us see the wood for the trees

By Thomas Bartlett
When I mentioned to my history colleagues, about five years ago, that I had agreed to act as general editor for a proposed four-volume history of Ireland to be published by Cambridge University Press their reaction was surprisingly uniform. “You have got to be kidding,” was one response; another was, “You cannot be serious,” swiftly followed by, “Why?”

Did I not know that mobilising historians of Ireland was a task akin to herding cats? As well, the project was environmentally unsound: think of the further depletion of the Amazon rainforests. More pertinently, I was regaled with cautionary tales of A New History of Ireland, conceived in the 1960s as a multivolume project but brought to completion, in a much modified form, only in the early years of this century. Based on that precedent I could be well over 100 by the time The Cambridge History of Ireland saw the light of day.

I shared these fears: that the project was too ambitious, that it would be beset by delays, that it was undeliverable within a reasonable time frame. That these concerns proved groundless is due entirely to the commitment and energy of the editorial team of Profs Jane Ohlmeyer, James Kelly and Brendan Smith – as well, of course, to the enthusiasm of the contributors (more than 100, from 39 universities and research centres) who responded with alacrity (mostly) to the call.

A new synthesis was badly needed, one that would pull together the most significant writings on Irish history and provide a stimulus to further research

I agreed to be general editor of this series because I had become concerned that the explosion in publications in Irish history over the past 40 years had rendered the subject all but inaccessible both to the student and to the interested reader. Hence a new synthesis, drawing on the most recent scholarship, was badly needed, one that would pull together the most significant writings on Irish history and provide a stimulus to further research.

When I began the serious study of Irish history, in the 1960s, relatively few scholarly monographs were available – perhaps no more than 20 – that met the key requirements for evidence-based research and scholarly rigour. Total publications – books and journal articles – would scarcely have reached 300 a year. Progress was slow: by the 1970s about 500 items a year were being published, but from then on there was an exponential rate of increase. By 2000 about 2,500 items were being published annually, and currently the figure is around 3,000.

In the past four decades the number of publishers (and journals) that specialise in Irish history has grown dramatically. In Ireland, Four Courts Press alone publishes about 50 works on Irish history each year, and Cork University Press, UCD Press, the Royal Irish Academy, Irish Academic Press, Lilliput Press and the Ulster Historical Foundation also publish very significant works on Irish history on an annual basis. In Britain the university presses at Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Liverpool, and in the United States those at Princeton, Notre Dame and Wisconsin-Madison, also publish regularly on Irish topics.

Quite why books and articles on Irish history continue to be published in such large numbers (and here there is a sharp contrast with the situation in Scotland, where historians of that country struggle to find a publisher) must remain a discussion for another day. (The short answer, that Irish history books sell but Scottish history books don’t, is true enough yet raises other important questions in turn.) Whatever, the fact remains that publications (and PhD theses) on Irish history have proliferated over the past 40 years. In addition, many articles of Irish interest are frequently published in the leading international journals. As a result we are seriously in danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees. This makes the need for a new synthesis all the more pressing, and this is what The Cambridge History of Ireland aims to provide.

There is a further reason why a new four-volume work on Irish history is justified. And here I come back to the last multivolume work on Irish history, A New History of Ireland, which Oxford University Press published, in nine volumes, between 1976 and 2005. The brainchild of TW Moody of Trinity College Dublin, this was an amazing enterprise for its time, imaginative, creative and with many wonderful chapters that set new standards of scholarship. It remains a very valuable addition to the writing of Irish history.

But it was also a work of its time, as shown by its almost entirely male cast of contributors (four of the projected early team of some 50 scholars were women); its emphasis on politics, usually high politics; its rather dull writing (the rhetorical flourishes of earlier writers on the Irish past were firmly discouraged – no exclamation marks!); and its general lack of interest in social or economic matters.

Troubled times: the aftermath of an explosion in Belfast. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey
Troubled times: the aftermath of an explosion in Belfast. © Bobbie Hanvey

Perhaps more importantly, the entire project was conceived in the 1960s, when most academic historians believed that the furies that had beset the history of Ireland were comfortably in the past and that a bright, trouble-free (and Troubles-free) history beckoned. Irish history could now finally be told because it had been removed from Irish politics. Here is Moody in 1968, announcing his plans for the New History: “It could hardly be said that Ireland is in the van of ecumenism, but in a surprisingly short time a great deal of theological ice has been thawed out, and laity and clergy have been talking to each other in public as well as in private in a way that would have seemed impossible a year or so ago,” all of which, he noted, “creates an atmosphere favourable to the pursuit of history.”

It is easy to scoff, but scarcely anyone foresaw what was slouching down the track in 1968. And other historians were equally sanguine about the future: the popular historian AJP Taylor, the first “telly don”, had declared that the “Irish question” was over – solved by David Lloyd George, no less. The result was that when the Troubles broke, the entire concept that underlay the New History, at least in Moody’s vision of it, was revealed as flawed.

This did not derail the project, of course, but there was a cautious tone to the writing throughout, an understandable desire not to add fuel to the mayhem in the North and thus a shying away from the uglier aspects of Irish history – massacres, evictions, sectarianism and colonisation, for examples – that rendered the finished product uneven and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Every Irish historian has to raise a glass to the archivists who were instrumental in making this material available

The historians writing in The Cambridge History of Ireland, by contrast, have for the most part come of age in the era of the Troubles and are thus all too mindful of the furies that lie below and sometimes above the surface of Irish life, and their chapters to an extent will reflect this. Not that there will be a focus on atrocity, or that the rosy optimism that underpinned the New History will be replaced in The Cambridge History of Ireland by a gloomy pessimism, but rather that, where appropriate, the role of violence in the making of Ireland will be considered, and that the definition of atrocity might be extended to cover such questions as the treatment of orphans, unmarried mothers and the poor and the destitute.

And therein lies the final justification for the publication of a four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland: in the years since the publication of the New History “new” questions have been addressed by a remarkably talented cohort of historians – on gender, sex, print, environment, culture, sport, leisure and memory, among other topics – that were scarcely touched on in the earlier volumes.

The launch of the Cambridge History of Ireland

In addition these “new” questions, along with “old” questions about the Vikings, politics, the land, insurgency, the economy, social life and religion (indeed the entire early modern period from 1500 to 1850) have benefited in their treatment from the enormous amount of new material that has come on stream in the past four decades. The study of medieval Irish society, for instance, is being radically transformed as a result of the huge increase in archaeological activity that accompanied the economic growth between the early 1990s and 2007. A short list of these new sources might include the vastly improved calendars of state papers for the Tudor period, witness statements from the “Irish Revolution” (and from the 1641 Rising), Corpus na Gaeilge, Early English Books Online and the digitised records of the medieval Irish chancery, among many, many more.

The chapters in The Cambridge History of Ireland reveal the influence of these new online materials – and here every Irish historian has to raise a glass to the archivists who were instrumental in making this material available. As with the Irish historians of old, this history is dedicated: Dochum glóire Dé agus onóra na hÉireann. 

Thomas Bartlett is professor emeritus of Irish history at the University of Aberdeen. He was formerly professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin

A state-of-the-art state of the nation

By Jane Ohlmeyer
The four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland covers 1,500 years of Irish history. Aimed at a general as well as an academic readership, it offers an up-to-date and exciting synthesis of modern scholarship since the seventh century, and a fresh assessment of the state of Irish history writing at the turn of the 21st century.

These volumes are being published at a sensitive moment. They are appearing in the midst of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, which spans the years from 2012 to 2022, and on the eve of Brexit, in March 2019. The nation having negotiated with great dignity the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the first World War, in 1914, and of the Easter Rising, in 1916, Brexit now provides the backdrop to some particularly contested anniversaries: the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, from 1998; the 50th of the outbreak of the Troubles, in 1969; and the 100th of the political partition of our island, in 1920, and the outbreak of civil war, in 1922.

Brexit itself illustrates how the “Irish question” never dies; it just gets reformulated. The historic and human links between “these islands” date back to the early Middle Ages, of course. Ireland, although an integral part first of the English and later the British Empire, was also England’s first colony. From the mid-16th century about 350,000 people from England, Scotland and Wales migrated to Ireland. By the early 18th century society in Ireland was ethnically diverse, with more than a quarter – about 27 per cent – of the population of immigrant stock.

Equally, people from Ireland have also been colonising Britain for centuries. The UK census for 2001 showed that 869,093 people living in Britain were born in Ireland and that about six million had an Irish-born grandparent. This figure exceeds the current population of the Republic of Ireland – 4.75 million – and equates to nearly 10 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom.

In keeping with this pattern of intertwined historic and contemporary destinies, a significant number – about a third – of the contributors to The Cambridge History of Ireland, including two of the editors, are based at UK universities: Aberdeen, Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, London, Oxford, St Andrews and York. It will, as a consequence, come as little surprise that the British and Irish academic community would prefer Brexit not to happen. We are, as a recent survey published by the Royal Irish Academy highlights, deeply apprehensive about the impact it might have on education, research and the ongoing peace process.

These volumes offer fresh appraisals of key figures and the familiar events that dominate the traditional historical landscape

Of course the university affiliations of the contributors to The Cambridge History of Ireland also highlight the global character of historical research on Ireland. The volumes bring together 100-plus contributors from 38 institutions in China, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and, of course, Ireland.

More than half of the contributors are based in Ireland, where research funding was transformed by the establishment, in 2000, of the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. (It became the Irish Research Council in 2012.) The welcome injection of funding for doctoral and postdoctoral research into all aspects of history has had a positive impact on the extraordinary growth of high-quality history publications discussed above by Tom Bartlett.

So much for the contributors. What do they have to say? The chapters in these four volumes offer new perspectives on the political, military, religious, social, cultural, intellectual, economic and environmental history of Ireland between 600 and 2016 and analyse why people acted as they did. They address issues of sovereignty, power, language, identity, citizenship, culture, migration, population, religion and belief, violence, inequality, gender, economy, hunger, sport and recreation that are as relevant today as they were in the Middle Ages.

These volumes challenge the traditional chronological emphases in order to stretch boundaries of expertise and to move beyond the familiar. They provide a multiplicity of perspectives, from above as well as below, high culture and fine art side by side with demotic and popular culture. They offer fresh appraisals of key figures and the familiar events that dominate the traditional historical landscape. Well-known men and lesser-known women, usually members of the elite, are re-evaluated alongside ordinary people, who are so often absent from the historical narrative, along with their families and local communities.

Until the 1930s Irish history writing was vigorously partisan, and was used to win an argument or to prove a case. The Norman invasion was either a “good thing” or a “bad thing”, for example; the same held true for the plantations of the early modern period. There was little interest in carefully evaluating evidence or searching for appropriate sources. As a result, nuance, complexity and measured judgments were rigorously avoided. Today this approach characterises history writing in some countries where the state strives to use the past to construct a narrative that justifies its politics in the present. Thankfully, this is no longer the case in Ireland. These volumes do not present a consensus view of Irish history; indeed there are sometimes conflicting interpretations of the same event or contested historiographies in and between the volumes.

We are also acutely aware of the limitations of the evidence and of the dangers of overrelying on the English-language archives of the State. History is all too often written by the winners. To invoke the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” In these volumes every effort has been made to interrogate all available evidence in whatever language it exists and in every form that it survives – written, visual, material, physical and oral.

These volumes represent this generation’s take on the scholarship of the past 40 years. It is an attempt to offer a synthesis of the published and unpublished research done since the 1970s. It is not an attempt to replace Oxford’s nine-volume A New History of Ireland, which is and will remain a milestone in Irish historical scholarship and a very valuable addition to the corpus of Irish history writing. Further, these volumes do not claim to be comprehensive in their coverage of the rich, complex and diverse tapestry of Ireland’s history, but they do offer a fuller, more nuanced narrative than is currently available. And, of course, the hope is that they will provoke debate, discussion and further research as new archival riches become available and we continue to look with fresh eyes at the existing record.

The Cambridge History of Ireland: Billy parish, in Co Antrim, from the Down Survey © Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
The Cambridge History of Ireland: Billy parish, in Co Antrim, from the Down Survey © Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Thanks to technology many archives are now more accessible than ever before. Scholars have unprecedented access to digital collections of State papers, correspondence, newspapers and pamphlets; to more niche corpuses, like the Celt – or Corpus of Electronic Text – project, the 1641 Depositions, military migration datasets, Sir William Petty’s Down Survey maps and the archives of the Bureau of Military History, 1913-21; and to big data, like the Books of Survey and Distribution of the later 17th century or the census records for 1901 and 1911.

Innovative use of technology and the development of user-friendly tools that allow us to interrogate these resources mean that we can ask questions of sources that were previously unimaginable. The digital age also poses challenges around the shape and form of future archives and how electronic resources might be sustained and conserved. We know that volumes like these or paper records will be around in 100 years, but what of tweets, websites and emails?

We hope that these volumes will also foster and encourage more comparative history. The fact that Ireland responded to similar sets of transformative processes as other states – globalisation, state formation, confessionalisation, the professionalisation of warfare, commercialisation and so on – and was part of a “composite monarchy” and the British Empire facilitates greater comparative and transnational approaches.

Where appropriate the contributors have responded to wider historiographical debates and adapted methodologies developed by the historians of countries where the archival landscape is richer, and applied them to Ireland, often with great effect. In a similar vein, chapters in these volumes have benefited from interdisciplinary cross-pollination between, on the one hand, history and, on the other, disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, art history, sociology, geography, economics, literature, gender and environmental studies, and computer and natural science. For example, to better understand the environmental history of early modern Ireland and the role extreme weather played in major historical events like the Nine Years War and 1641 rebellion we need to combine traditional historical sources like the Annals of the Four Masters and the 1641 Depositions, with scientific data on tree-ring-based precipitation and volcanic activity.

All four volumes situate Ireland in wider British, European and imperial contexts and assess how the Irish shaped the world and how the world shaped Ireland

All four volumes situate Ireland in wider British, European and imperial contexts and assess how the Irish shaped the world and how the world shaped Ireland. The openness of Ireland to outside influences, and its capacity to influence the world beyond its shores, are recurring themes. Underpinning volume one, for instance, is a comparative, outward-looking approach that sees Ireland as an integral but exceptional component of medieval Christian Europe. For medieval Europeans Ireland was a land of marvels. St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, in Co Donegal, attracted pilgrims from as far afield as Hungary, eager to sample one possible destination in the hereafter. Less popular was the cave at Oweynagat, at Rathcroghan, in Co Roscommon, which was known to contemporaries as “the gate of hell”. Ireland’s contribution to literature helped form the medieval imagination. The Voyage of St Brendan, or Navigatio Brendani, was the best-known legend of the European Middle Ages. Composed in Ireland in the 10th century, but copied and popularised by Irish monks living in the Rhineland, the Navigatio, with its tales of adventure and the discovery of new lands, inspired the imaginations of Dante and Columbus.

From the late 15th century Irish people engaged in global expansionism. William Eris (or Ayres) from Galway sailed with Christopher Columbus on his historic voyage of 1492 to the Americas; others from Galway voyaged with Ferdinand Magellan on his circumnavigation of the globe between 1519 and 1522. By the turn of the 17th century Irish migrants, merchants, missionaries and mercenaries were to be found in Britain and continental Europe, as well as in the French Caribbean, the Portuguese and later Dutch Amazon, Spanish Mexico, and English settlements in North America and India. These global interactions transformed commerce and facilitated the rise of cosmopolitanism and of cultural and intellectual exchange.

The Irish, those born in Ireland and those who claim Irish descent, are to be found in history as well as the present on every continent, from Europe to Asia, from the Americas to Australasia. It has been estimated that up to 70 million people of Irish descent live in the world today. Certainly 34.5 million people identified as Irish in the 2013 US census. The emigration that led to the worldwide spread of the Irish has, in the past 20 years in particular, been mirrored by new arrivals in Ireland. Today 20 per cent of people living in Ireland were born abroad. What, then, does it means to be “Irish” in the 21st century? What did it mean at the turn of the 18th century, when nearly a third of the population were immigrants, or in the seventh century, when our story begins?

These volumes will help to answer these and many other questions that are fundamental to understanding who we are and where we have come from. This is a history for our times, one that will serve as a springboard for further research and reflection in the future. 

Jane Ohlmeyer is Erasmus Smith’s professor of modern history and director of Trinity Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin

Thomas Bartlett is general editor of The Cambridge History of Ireland; he also edited volume four (1880-2016). Brendan Smith edited volume one (600-1550), Jane Ohlmeyer edited volume two (1550-1730) and James Kelly edited volume three (1730-1880)

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