On the shoulders of giants: Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History

Review: Alvin Jackson’s collection of thought-provoking essays draws on a storehouse of scholarly work

The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History: the authors draw on the storehouse already accumulated in substantial careers by leading scholars.

The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History: the authors draw on the storehouse already accumulated in substantial careers by leading scholars.

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 10:51


Book Title:
The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History


Edited by Alvin Jackson

Oxford University Press

Guideline Price:

Prof Alvin Jackson has put together a collection of 36 highly competent “state of the art” essays fully up to the standard of the celebrated Oxford Handbook series. Most of the authors here do not aim for any particular conceptual or empirical originality, but rather draw on the storehouse already accumulated in substantial careers by leading scholars such as Prof Nicholas Canny, in Galway, or Prof Henry Patterson, in Belfast. If I had a private wish to be fulfilled, it would be that students in Belfast read Canny’s contribution while students in Galway read Patterson’s.

Jackson’s fine opening essay draws on his widely admired archival research on the avatars of professionalism in the Irish historical scene – Robin Dudley Edwards, TW Moody and JC Beckett.

He does not quite convey the extraordinary good luck involved in the formation of the early Moody/Edwards friendship as graduate students in the Institute of Historical Research, in London, in 1932. The institute’s director, Alfred Pollard, was seen in Ireland as an apologist for a Tudor Protestant imperialism, and by 1933 the influential Prof Timothy Corcoran SJ was insisting in the Irish Monthly and Catholic Bulletin that Irish research students should be sent only to reliable centres of Catholic scholarship such as Louvain.

Moody, at least, would have been an unlikely Louvain graduate: instead the two young Irishmen in London imbibed the most modern methods of historical scholarship without necessarily accepting the Pollardian view of the Tudors.

Moody and Edwards formed a friendship which, although it was not to last, gave Ireland a much-needed standard of historical discipline embodied in the journal Irish Historical Studies, founded in 1938. It has proven to be an abiding achievement.

Those men were not without their flaws. Moody disappointed the family of Michael Davitt by failing to complete his biography, even though the family had provided him with a first-class set of papers. Edwards also did not publish as much serious work as he could have.

Television don

Jackson is more drawn to the kindly and scholarly Beckett, who he rightly also sees as the first Irish history television don. Even so, Beckett’s diaries show that while he admired the intellectual capacity of his male graduate students, he hardly seems to be aware that in Marianne Byrne (later Marianne Elliott) – represented here by an interesting essay on religion – he had a young scholar who was to write one of the greatest books ever written in Irish history in her Wolfe Tone.

The fact remains that this generation established standards of scholarship, in a country much given to polemic, without which a volume like this Oxford Handbook would be inconceivable.

This is not to say that they had any special insight into the future. I remember Beckett saying to me in the admittedly horrible days of the Troubles, in the late 1980s, that he pitied me as a young man as I would have to live through a wholescale catastrophe while he, at least, would be dead.

Beckett died in 1996, two years before the Good Friday Agreement. None of the scholars in this volume predicted the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, but Philip Ollerenshaw, Owl of Minerva like, gives a good retrospective account of how it happened.

At times, the tone of some of these discussions should inspire debate. Niall Whelehan’s valuable essay on the nature of the Irish revolution and, in particular, Peter Hart’s thesis on the sectarian nature of the IRA campaign would have been enriched by a discussion of the rhetoric of senior Catholic clergy, which clearly implies that something rather dark and terrible had happened.

Perhaps, more profoundly, we need to define what we mean by sectarianism in Irish history. For a crime to be sectarian, does it have to be directed against someone “purely” on religious grounds because they were Protestant or Catholic?


Marianne Elliott’s thoughtful essay on religion provokes the following reflections. The modern Irish conflict has not been about religion in the sense that it was not about a dispute over differing and more or less viable routes of going to heaven. Catholics and Protestants are divided by historically formed and differing assessments of the role of the British state in Ireland and this is the key driver of conflict. Catholics, even before the more recent development of diluted à la carte Irish Catholicism, have long been uninterested in the Protestant religions. A minority of Protestants, mostly spoken for by Ian Paisley in the last century, had a definite, negative interest in the forms of Catholic faith. But as Paisley openly stated, most of those who vote for him never darkened the door of a church.

Religious feeling historically had the capacity to unify the power of a bloc. In 1912 Belfast Protestant church leaders declared not just that Home Rule was a bad idea on economic and social grounds but that God knew it was a bad idea, and they expected (rightly) their flock to believe this claim.

In 2012 the mainstream Protestant churches quietly tiptoed away from the centenary celebrations and re-enactments of Ulster Covenant days. Equally, powerful Catholic religious symbolism infused the mass sympathy for nationalist hunger strikes in 1920/21 and 1980/81. It is difficult to imagine the same intensity of feeling, more than three decades later. This is one of the neglected clues to the end of the Troubles.

Yet we still have sectarianism or communalism – that is, a heavy-duty tribalism – as the defining quality of much, though not all, of the politics of the north.

Finally, one last quibble. Eunan O’Halpin’s superb essay on Irish neutrality draws attention to Winston Churchill’s judgment in 1943 that we must “save these people from themselves” which is described as “idiosyncratic”. But it is only idiosyncratic if placed outside Churchill’s long and passionate interest in Ireland. In 1912 he had braved aggressive Belfast loyalist mobs to make the case for Home Rule. In that year, he became the first British cabinet minister to kiss the Blarney Stone and, more importantly, see for himself the importance of Cork’s facilities for the British Navy.

In 1921, he bonded with his new best friend of the London social season, Michael Collins, to produce the Treaty compromise.

He watched in dismay as de Valera dismantled the Treaty settlement and won back the Treaty ports. Yet, as he claimed in 1948, he had a more intimate, imaginative engagement with Ireland than any other British politician. Consider his 1934 film script for Alexander Korda about a Belfast “mixed” marriage. Consider his brilliant essay on Parnell, written in 1937. Churchill’s problem was that he took Ireland a lot more seriously than Ireland took him.