Myths, lies and half-truths which shaped religious identities examined

 

PATRICK GEOGHEGANreviews When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland – Unfinished HistoryBy Marianne Elliott Oxford University Press 330 pp, £16.99

THE BEANOwould seem to be an unlikely place to go for inspiration when trying to turn a series of lectures into a book. Yet it was precisely what Owen Dudley Edwards advised Marianne Elliott to think about when she was preparing her Ford lectures (a prestigious series of public lectures delivered annually in Oxford) for publication.

As Elliott recounts in her preface, she was told: “For heaven’s sake, put in dates all over the place. You zoom through time like Jimmy and his Magic Patch in the Beano comics.”

The point was a serious one. In a book like this, essentially a series of reflections on how religion divided Ireland throughout the centuries and how the past was used and abused to perpetuate that division, there is a danger that changes over time will be minimised.

That Elliott succeeds in avoiding this trap is a testament to her skills as a historian and her sensitive approach to writing about the different traditions on this island.

In this book, the layers of myths, lies and half-truths which have shaped Catholic and Protestant identities in Ireland are examined over eight chapters.

Elliott shows us why it is often so difficult to escape the tyranny of history. For example, we learn that during treaty negotiations in 1921, Lloyd George became angry when the Irish delegates kept bringing references to Cromwell’s atrocities in Ireland into every discussion. However, in 1936, when Éamon de Valera met the British dominions secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, Cromwell was not mentioned once, leading the British to conclude that relations between the countries were improving.

For Irish Catholics, a key part of their identity was the penal laws and the struggle for Catholic emancipation. For Irish Protestants, key to their identity was memory of the 1641 rebellion, believed to be a Catholic conspiracy to exterminate them.

From 1662, the anniversary on October 23rd was an official date on the Church of Ireland’s calendar, sanctioned by an Act of the Irish parliament. It was only dropped in 1859 when the British parliament decided to remove it.

Challenging accepted views of the past is never popular, but Elliott has never shied away from controversy. She recognises that it can also be traumatic for the people being challenged.

As Gerry Adams admitted in 1993, to find that cherished beliefs of the past were untrue was “like a family trauma, like discovering you’ve been adopted”. But, just as discovering you are adopted is nothing to be ashamed of, we should not be afraid of trying to find the truth in our history.

Elliott ends the book on a downbeat note. She reflects on the “endless self-congratulatory meetings” about how peace was achieved in Ireland and the confident attempts to export these lessons abroad. But she notes very little effort has been made to understand what caused and prolonged the conflict and why these atavistic forces proved impossible to contain for so long.

Elliott is a most perceptive commentator on modern Irish history. Here, she challenges us to forgo comic-book certainties about the past and confront darker truths of our complicity in where things went wrong.


Patrick Geoghegan teaches history at TCD and is the presenter of Talking History on Newstalk.

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