Looking back, moving forward


HISTORY: MARIANNE ELLIOTTreviews Ireland: A History, By Thomas Bartlett, Cambridge University Press, 625pp, £25

TOM BARTLETT is one of Irish History’s great stylists. His many articles and edited works are a joy to read, which is why his admirers have wondered why he has not tackled more single-authored books. Fortunately he has now produced a quite splendid new overview of Irish history.

This is a very exciting new book, so let’s dispose of the few criticisms right away before expanding on its many strengths. Its lack of a bibliography will reduce its usefulness for the educational market. Its first section on early Ireland does not live up to expectations: too many semi-colons and endlessly long sentences (a trait which thankfully disappears in later sections). Gaelic Ireland also is under-discussed. Throughout there are frequent Frenchisms, when an English word would have served just as well. The many analogies (particularly with events in the 18th century, the area of Tom Bartlett’s particular expertise) don’t work and there are some pretty strange ones: the 1916 Rising as a Guns ’n’ Roses concert, for example. And quotations from other historians should have been acknowledged.

Against all of this, the typos can be numbered on one hand and it is a beautifully produced book. But most of all it is knowledgeable, measured and a joy to read. It even manages to make sense of notoriously complicated periods or events. Henry II’s 12th-century arrival in Ireland, was, Bartlett insists, an “English” conquest – none of this beating about the bush with Anglo-Normans or Cambro-Normans. While this is debateable and his use of the term “Anglo-Irish” is much earlier than most would allow, he asks sensibly why it did not happen beforehand and why the English proved such reluctant conquerors despite the traditional “Saxon foe” view of Irish history.

Rightly he sees the 17th century as the point of no return, identifying confiscation with Protestantism and Catholicism with rebellion. He even presents us with a very clear account of that notoriously difficult period in Irish history, the Confederacy of the 1640s, with its vertiginous changes of allegiances, its massacres and devastation of the country. “This was the war that finished Ireland,” according to a contemporary poet, with 20 to 40 per cent of its population having perished.

The jewel of the book is the section on 18th-century Ireland. This was the time that generations of moderate nationalists looked back to as the golden age of patriotism, when, as Wolfe Tone famously stated, all religious denominations might have come together in the common name of Irishmen. Alternatively, the other view that came to dominate Irish nationalism was of Protestant Ascendancy and the Penal Laws. In this section there is a good sense of the jigsaw that is Irish history, the pieces being moved around and re-positioned. Here the Penal Laws, once portrayed as uniting Church and nation in suffering, are scaled down to “a system of petty oppression” for Catholics and a “straitjacket” for Protestants, with Britain acting as a “buffer” and growing supporter of religious tolerance.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH recognised as much and was hostile to the separatists. Britain needed the Irish Catholics in its growing empire. Catholics in turn saw the Empire as opportunity, opportunity which continued up to and beyond the first World War and independence. Little wonder they had little love of the Protestant Irish Parliament, and happily supported its abolition at the Union in 1800.

And that is where things went really wrong. Not that the Irish Parliament in its then form was worth saving, for Catholics had not been allowed to sit in it. That is what Catholic Emancipation was supposed to deliver as part of the Union package. That it did not made Catholic Emancipation the defining issue of modern Ireland, and equated Catholicism with Irishness.

That religion has been the key issue of modern Irish history is a case well made throughout the book , throwing up interesting new perspectives, such as the War of Independence having had a whiff of sectarian civil war about it.

With continuing even-handedness this crucial period in the founding of the nation is reappraised. Unlike the story of “gallant flying columns, lonely patrols, hair-breadth escapes, deadly ambushes and poignant death-cell scenes”, that we were nurtured on, the war was largely “a grim, dour and unglamorous struggle that fell heaviest on those who were only slightly, if at all, involved”. And like most historians Bartlett is saddened – actually more so, since he sees it as a deliberate act of obliteration of memory – by the republican destruction of the Four Courts and with it the bulk of the records of Ireland’s past.

One of the great strengths of this book is its location of Ireland in the wider world and the scaling of our history accordingly.

Against the experience of other countries during and after the first World War, Ireland fared well. And just as key reforms were granted in the 19th century because Britain was a liberal state (the disastrous economic policies during the famine notwithstanding), so the emergence of two democratic Irish states from existing administrative structures was “painless . . . seamless . . . reassuring”. Admittedly it produced very conservative regimes and paired photos of the new governments in Dublin and Belfast in 1921 are interchangeable. However, unlike most of the new post-war states in Europe, Ireland survived and survived as a democracy. Even the much-maligned 1937 constitution looks good next to those of other countries at the time. Certainly the unfortunate moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly thought so and was denounced for having “clearly forgotten his [sectarian] script”. For women, however, it was “paternalistic” and “anachronistic” and the incorporation of the rich recent scholarship on Irish women’s history is one of the book’s many strengths.

Every decade in a country’s history needs a new overview of its past. Tom Bartlett has presented us with a very fine one indeed. There is no conclusion, though that may have been intentional, for there are many indicators in the last sections of the uncertainties facing both parts of Ireland now that the old identities are no longer fit for purpose. All historians live in hope that the framers of policies for the future might take some lessons from their work. Lord knows today they are in need of some new inspiration. Hopefully they will find it in this even-handed, often irreverent, frequently humorous and beautifully written new work by Tom Bartlett.

Marianne Elliott is Blair Professor and director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. Her latest book is When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Irish History – Unfinished History, published by Oxford University Press last year