JJ Lee’s ‘total history’ of modern Ireland: Still required reading 30 years on

Historian’s classic account lacerated the country’s mediocrity and begrudgery

When introducing his short history, Ireland in the Twentieth Century, published in 1975, historian John A Murphy noted that "in the absence of both perspective and documentation, it is obvious that analysis and assessment can only be tentative" but also that "no Irishman writing about his own time can honestly claim to be academically remote from it all: he must try to be fair but he cannot escape feeling involved". There was, nonetheless, something worthwhile in "combining contemporary observation with the analysis born of professional experience".

Fourteen years later, his Cork colleague JJ Lee published his Ireland 1912-85: Politics and Society, considered a landmark publication. Lee’s book, now 30 years old, caused a great stir precisely because of the mix of contemporary observation and historical analysis. It was also, at 700 pages, a much weightier affair than was possible in the 1970s, because of what Lee referred to as “a massive expansion in the available archival material”, though he warned that such expansion could “obscure perspective beneath mounds of detail” and make the historian too complacent about “the enduring quality of necessarily provisional conclusions”.

FSL Lyons had noted the historian of modern Ireland was condemned to make bricks without straw. JJ Lee had plenty more straw and a lot more attitude

Born in Kerry in 1942, Lee studied economics and history at UCD; he then moved to the Institute of European History in Mainz where he worked on the history of German urbanisation and went from there to Cambridge. His short but seminal book The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 was published in 1973, skilfully delineating the post-Famine evolution of Irish nationalism in the context of changes in the social structure and asking new questions of 19th-century Ireland by using his knowledge of European social history. One of his concluding flourishes was that "far from being the prisoners of the past the modernisers created the past in their image of the future". In 1974, he took up the post of professor of history in University College Cork.

While Roy Foster’s sweeping and probing Modern Ireland 1600-1972 appeared in 1988, prior to Lee’s 1989 tome, the most comprehensive history of the period Lee focused on was FSL Lyons’s Ireland Since the Famine (1971) in which Lyons had noted the historian of modern Ireland was condemned to make bricks without straw. Lee had plenty more straw and a lot more attitude, all the more striking given that when Terence de Vere White reviewed the Lyons book in 1971 he found the tone “admirable . . . he is invariably polite. So a scholar should be”.

Lee was much spikier and adamant about the need for the historian to rise above narrow specialisation in order to “transcend the fragmentation of perspective characteristic of the contemporary mind”. He desired to craft a “total history”, not in the sense of covering everything, but by “seeking to reveal the relevant linkages between the varieties of thinking” he was concerned with, and to engage in comparative perspectives; what he referred to as “a shift in the angle of approach”.

While allowing for Ireland’s distinctiveness, he insisted, “comparative perspective can illuminate our understanding of the Irish condition”. He provided, for example, bountiful references to Finland, Denmark and Austria; he was critical of the idea that Britain should be the main point of comparison; this was just an excuse for failure (whether through blame or emulation) and an endurance of the “serf-mentality”. He acknowledged, however, that he was writing from a southern Irish perspective and the partitionist mindset he shared with his peers: “southern Irish historians like myself are likely to be as ambivalent towards the North as are citizens of the Republic in general”.

He also declared when introducing the book, “my own preferences are not concealed”. That was quite an understatement. The final section of Lee’s book, at 177 pages, was titled “Perspectives”, starting with the question “How well has independent Ireland performed?” He did not hold back in relation to Irish institutions, intelligence, character and identity. Irish economic performance had been “the least impressive in western Europe”; there had been a “long-term mediocrity”, and “patriotism proved powerless, except in brief and specific conjectures, against the instincts of the possessing class”. This was one of his towering themes: national adherence to a “possessor” principle rather than a “performance” principle with the concomitant rewarding of vested interests – property owners, public sector employees, comfortable farmers – rather than genuine effort, with many outside of these interest groups forced to emigrate.

Lee lacerated the “incapacity of the Irish mind to think through the implications of independence for national development”. Consider, for example, his damning comment on Irish emigration: “few people anywhere in the world have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards”. In similar vein, he concluded the state was controlled by “the flint-minded men and women whose grandparents had done well out of the Famine and who intended to do better themselves out of the Free State”. He also admonished the Irish cardinal sin of begrudgery: “The Irish carry from their mother’s womb not so much a fanatic heart as a begrudger one.”

Lee’s book was deliberately provocative; evaluating the performance of a sovereign people, he noted, “is not destined to win him the affection of all his Irish readers”. Nor did he spare historians for their failures; “the historians, who were in a unique position to contribute deeper understanding, failed”, chiefly due to an excessive concentration on political and diplomatic history.

Published at the very end of a disenchanting decade ravaged by economic failure, emigration and cultural civil wars, the book was discussed on The Late Late Show with Lee revelling in the spotlight, as comfortable as he was articulate, continuing in voice the same sharpness, humour and honesty that were characteristic of his disputatious, often acerbic prose. Lee’s tone was so scalding and so driven by his personal perspectives and passions that the book generated both consternation and accolades. It was a bestseller and won numerous awards including an Irish Times-Aer Lingus Irish Literature prize.

Huge influence

The book was published the year I entered UCD as a history undergraduate and was a huge influence, not just because of its ferocity but because it highlighted areas that needed further excavation, which encouraged history students down various research paths. It was also lambasted by some feminist historians who were justifiably aghast that such a dense tome severely neglected the experiences of women. Margaret Ward, for example, was withering about "a mere five substantive references to women" and the tendency to name women in masculine terms; Kathleen Clarke is "Mrs Tom Clarke" while Maud Gonne is referred to by the men in her life: "Seán MacBride, son of Major John MacBride, executed in 1916, and of Maud Gonne, of Yeats fame". Ward concluded, "Lee could hardly be more hostile to the notion of women's autonomy . . . the male 'gatekeepers' continue to do their job very effectively". Lee defended himself against this criticism in 1995: "there was a lack of women in public policy-making . . . it was overwhelmingly men who exercised that power at that time". It was an unconvincing defence given the inclusion of the word "society" in the book's title.

There were other criticisms: his damnation of intellectual and cultural shortcomings was regarded by some as too sweeping and the very range of work by economists, sociologists and anthropologists that he synthesised in the book did not suggest a cultural wasteland. He strangely neglected the media, and some queried his comparisons of international gross national product and the appropriateness of the economic models he used. There was also ambiguity about what he termed "a particular cast of Irish mind" or "a certain type of Irish mind" and the frequency with which he referred to "the Irish" ("the Irish insisted on living in a dream land"). As Charles Townshend saw it, these were "casual indictments of the nation" and unsubstantiated. Another question that arose was whether his arguments were vitiated by his assertion that it was "arguable that in the prevailing political circumstances, no alternative structure would have served the state as well as the inherited one".

But Lee's excavation of politics and the civil service was remarkably insightful. His analysis of the political state-builders – including William T Cosgrave, Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass – was multi-layered and nuanced and his dissection of the arrogance of the Department of Finance prompted unequivocal conclusions: "The Finance perspective was even more myopic than that of the politicians, who at least often looked as far ahead as the next election. Finance gave the impression that it rarely looked beyond the next budget".

‘Patriotic intelligence’

Tom Garvin suggested the book's main achievement was its innovativeness, "in part because of its own contradictions . . . the product of an energetic, fertile and patriotic intelligence". Responding to his alleged sins of omission and commission, Lee insisted: "You can't please everybody, and you shouldn't try, because you will simply finish up in a morass of mediocrity". His profile soared, which saw him elected as an Independent NUI senator and after leaving UCC in 2002, he took up the position of Glucksman Professor in Irish Studies at New York University, retiring last year.

Crucially, Lee's book was written before the avalanche of revelations that engulfed Ireland from the 1990s; we cannot now look at Ireland in the 20th century without that scandal-inspired lens and the exposure of the hidden histories and cruelties. The revelations vindicate some of the claims Lee made: he referred to "the cover-up techniques that came as second nature to a society that placed such value on inheritance and appearance". But they also suggest he was overly kind and conservative, especially in relation to the Catholic Church which he depicted as "a bulwark, perhaps now the main bulwark of the civic culture".

Lee lauded the administrative and managerial sophistication of the church; he also, as a married, middle-aged, Catholic history professor, sermonised about sexual mores: “It seems clear that much of the general drift in terms of sexual morality was based on mere hedonism”. Clear to whom exactly? And what of the hedonism of many of the denouncers of immorality? Lee was correct, however, about an excessive, but too often superficial focus on the church occluding too much else: “If the nature of Irish Catholicism cannot be ignored in discussing any major question of significance in modern Ireland it is by no means the only factor requiring scrutiny.”

The generation of historians that followed Lee engaged in their own “shift in angle of approach”, implicitly and explicitly challenging some of Lee’s contentions, but also, by continuing to excavate new archives, rising to the challenge Lee laid down: to “perceive the inter-relationships” between the cultural, social, spiritual, intellectual and economic spheres. None, however, have matched the quality of his writing and the depth of his analytical probing of politics and policy formation in the formative decades of the Irish State. The claim made by Lee’s publisher 30 years ago that his book would “become required reading for all who wish to deepen their understanding of the nature of modern Irish history” was no empty boast; after 30 years, the same assertion is valid.