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Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Pioneering and comprehensive exploration of Irish history

Book review: Nicholas Canny’s sophisticated critique presents the story of the Irish people

This remarkable scholarly study is eloquent testimony to Nicholas Canny’s inspirational passion for and commitment to Early Modern Irish History. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Imagining Ireland’s pasts. Early Modern Ireland through the centuries
Imagining Ireland’s pasts. Early Modern Ireland through the centuries
Author: Nicholas Canny
ISBN-13: 978-0198808961
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £90

The fundamental problem that has confounded historians of Ireland in every century since the 16th has been to define what is, or might become, an Irish nation. Despite producing an array of competing and conflicting narratives, historians have failed to reach consensus on what ought to be the theme of any grand narrative for Ireland’s history.

Nicholas Canny’s aptly titled Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland Through the Centuries offers a pioneering and comprehensive exploration of how, over four centuries shaped by ethnic, cultural and political considerations, these narratives have represented and distorted the history of this contentious period.

While the book proceeds chronologically, it does not trace a linear development in historical narratives, as Canny is especially interested in examining the work of historians who used recollections of particularly tumultuous events from the early modern period to serve present purposes. As he demonstrates, the pursuit of such polemics through history persisted down to the late 19th century, by which time it became clear that other pasts, besides that of early modern centuries, were deemed more suitable to serve present needs.

Readers will be particularly captivated by Canny's probing exploration of the most thorny issues that have divided historians for centuries

Drawing upon his exceptional understanding of early modern Ireland shaped by a lifetime’s research, writing and reflection, Canny presents a sophisticated and thought-provoking examination of the relationship between history, memory and identity as represented in an extensive corpus of scholarly works, popular histories, pamphlets, printed ballads and songs down to the mid-20th century. His skilful introduction and contextualisation of authors, events and historical narratives from the late 16th century onwards allows readers who may have little or no familiarity with the early modern period, or indeed successive centuries, to follow and comprehend the commentary with ease.


Through his incisive critique of works by a range of authors from diverse backgrounds (Richard Stanihurst, Edmund Campion, Philip O’Sullivan Beare, Geoffrey Keating, John Mitchel, Margaret Anna Cusack [The Nun of Kenmare], JA Froude, Mary Agnes Hickson, WEH Lecky, RD Edwards, TW Moody, Hugh Kearney, Aidan Clarke and many more), Canny clearly elucidates their unique approaches, insights, biases and influences on history-writing. At the same time he highlights recurrent motifs and new trends, notably the gravitation towards pursuit of historical inquiry within the secular domain and growing reliance on documentary evidence to support interpretations.

All of this is framed in the context of the overarching political, social, economic and intellectual developments of the time, ranging from the Renaissance, Reformation and advancing colonisation in the Tudor era, through the tumultuous 1641 rebellion, Cromwellian settlement and Penal Laws of the 17th century, the era of Enlightenment, improvement and revolutions in the 1700s, intensifying rivalry between nationalists and unionists, and increasing dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and finally, the professionalisation of historical research in Ireland from the 1930s onwards.

While this substantial book comprising 12 chapters is best read in its entirety, Canny has anticipated that some may be drawn to particular episodes or authors. His incorporation of succinct introductory and concluding synopses in individual chapters is especially helpful, allowing each to be read in isolation.

The first two chapters are highly recommended as they exemplify the balanced and measured approach that characterises the work as a whole. Canny begins with a chapter on the writing of Ireland’s history from the 1570s onwards, showing how all historians who wrote in English during this era, be they Catholic or Protestant, vied to denigrate the native Irish just as the chronicler, Gerald of Wales, had done in the 12th century by claiming their lack of civility meant they had no history. Canny then complements this with a fascinating critique of the main polemic works produced by Catholic writers in Ireland and on the Continent, including Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, all of which presented the recent struggle in Ireland as primarily religious in character and strongly asserted that being Catholic was a prerequisite to being Irish.

Canny suggests that our knowledge about the past may be enriched if historians become less judgmental

Readers will be particularly captivated by the probing exploration of the most thorny issues that have divided historians for centuries and served as totems in Protestant and Catholic memories of Ireland’s history: foremost among these are the English conquest in the 12th century and the bitterly sectarian 1641 rebellion. Chapter 4, on the 1641 rebellion and Ireland’s contested pasts, is exemplary for its clarity in delineating Protestant and Catholic interpretations of the insurrection and explaining their profound influence on history-writing in the centuries that followed.

A vital foundation for this finely nuanced study is Canny’s acute understanding of the mentalities of men and women writing history from within different traditions and their divergent aspirations for the country’s future. This is especially evident in his handling of historians’ conflicting views on vexed questions, such as whether the memory of religious persecution and dispossession should be set aside to advance conciliation and inclusivity or kept alive to justify Catholic calls for the relaxation of the Penal laws.

With similar acuity, Canny explores themes that include Richard Musgrave’s interpretation of the 1798 Rising as a re-enactment of the 1641 rebellion; Daniel O’Connell’s politic representations of Irish history; Thomas Davis’s idealistic drive to identify heroes in whom the whole population of Ireland might take pride; the impact of the Great Famine on history writing; and the conflicts that time and again caused historians to re-think their commitment to inclusivity.

Written in an authoritative and engaging style, this remarkable scholarly study is eloquent testimony to Canny’s inspirational passion for and commitment to early modern Irish history. A landmark contribution to Irish historiography, it is essential reading for anyone interested in how Irish history has been remembered and used to serve present purposes down through the centuries.

Concluding with a characteristically incisive reflection on the fundamental problem of defining an Irish nation, Canny suggests that our knowledge about the past may be enriched if historians become less judgmental and disregard what so many of our predecessors regarded as a teleological imperative.

Marian Lyons is professor of history at Maynooth University