Unhappy the Land by Liam Kennedy review: sceptic debunks Irish history as hysteria
Essay collection questions whether the Irish really are the most oppressed people ever
Unhappy the Land - The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?
History is for losers. You’ll have heard the sentiment uttered by neocons, Republican hawks and bootstrap capitalists ever since Francis Fukuyama published his essay The End of History some 25 years ago. As heresies go, it’s only half wrong. History is for losers when it’s written by the oppressed. Empire always tells a different story.
For those of us who received our history from the mouths of national school teachers and Christian Brothers (the dolmens around our childhood, to bowdlerise John Montague), the past came freighted with some heavy psychological baggage. We had sepia-tinted grievances by the score: the Great Famine, slavery, revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil wars, land wars, poverty, suppression of our indigenous language and culture . . . Irish history often translates as one big persecution complex.
In his new collection of essays, Unhappy the Land, Liam Kennedy, professor of economic history at Queen’s University, sums up the syndrome thus: “Sighing harps, the riveting of chains, Erin betrayed and enslaved by the Saxon: here were soft-focused images that, with the superlatives of politicians, would help fashion a national rhetoric to thrill the generations of newly English-speaking Irish people.”
This cult of persecution persists among a certain generation and caste. Earwig on the casual conversation in small-town charity shops and pop-up retailers and you’ll still hear the language of the awfuliser, the fatalist, the catastrophist. An obsession with sickness, scarcity and death notices; an abiding suspicion of change, modernity, travel. My old vocational school history teacher, in one of his bleaker moods, put forth the notion that the best and brightest of the Irish race emigrated in the 19th century, leaving the dregs to repopulate the country. He might well have been playing devil’s advocate. Playing devil’s advocate might be a substantial part of the historian’s duty.
Liam Kennedy spends a fair amount of time assuming the role of advocatus diaboli in Unhappy the Land, a book that repeatedly debunks the notion of Ireland as a special case when it comes to global suffering. He writes: “There is an almost palpable sense of victimhood and exceptionalism in the presentation of the Irish national past, particularly as reconstructed and displayed for political purpose. It is a syndrome of attitudes that might be summed up by the acronym Mope, that is, the most oppressed people ever. Less extravagantly stated, the claim is to being one of the most oppressed people in the history of world civilisation. But the burden of the story so far is that there was a large gap between images of singular oppression and the material and cultural conditions which were the lot of people in Ireland.”
In other words, subjectively spun history can function as false memory, unreliable narrator, a drama queen, distorting and awfulising the nation’s creation saga. And when one comes of age in a country that dwells in the continuous past tense, the psychological effects are significant. Over-identification with victimhood means you remain a victim in perpetuity.
“Once framed in terms of misery and catastrophe, as exemplified by repeated and unspeakable wrongs, history assumes a mythic continuity,” Kennedy writes. “This beguiling framework, which speaks as much to the emotions as to reason, has been enormously influential in shaping historical thought on Ireland, both at the level of folk history and academic writing.”
The antidote, according to Kennedy, lies in the hard – and sometimes unpalatable – facts. In an age of 1916 centenaries and rebellion retro-chic, he offers uncomfortable counter-narratives. For example, one of the first fatalities claimed by the republicans in the Easter Rising was an unarmed Irish-speaking 28-year-old Catholic Dublin Metropolitan Police constable, likely executed by Constance Markievicz. Many more Irish people (some 40,000) died fighting on the British side in the first World War than in the Easter Rising (485). And for every Volunteer killed during Easter week, three civilians were slain.
As for the nation’s sacred texts, both the Ulster Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic are, Kennedy says, “manipulative documents . . . replete with contradictions, evasions and silences . . . Each has its quotient of make-believe.”
Kennedy seems to regard the historian’s role as somewhere between professional sceptic, state pathologist and investigative journalist. Such a figure is obligated to dispel myths, undermine entrenched assumptions and question historical determinism. So while Unhappy the Land doesn’t baulk at chronicling the horrors endured by the Irish over the past three centuries (not least the atrocities of the Civil War), it also calls for a steward’s inquiry into the medals we award ourselves at the Global Misery Olympics. The Irish have suffered, it says, but many peoples have suffered. Compared with Stalinist Russia, the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the siege of Sarajevo, our revolutions and counter-revolutions have incurred a relatively minor body count.
No such thing can be said of the Famine of the 1840s, or the haemorrhaging of emigrants that followed. Here, Kennedy’s gripe is with those who seek to classify the Great Hunger as the Irish Holocaust, and he spends an entire chapter systematically dismantling all comparisons between the Jewish and Irish experience. By contrast, an essay that questions whether or not the British government’s treatment of the starving Irish meets the UN’s definition of genocide – a preoccupation of Irish-American lobbyists – is largely left open-ended.
Elsewhere, studies of 19th-century economics and the nationalist and unionist movements require close and careful reading, mainly because of the labyrinthine political machinations and social complexities involved. It’s to the author’s credit that, despite all the graphs, charts and statistics, he mostly eschews academic jargon in favour of clear, persuasive prose.
So, the past: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Unhappy the Land is an often compelling and rewarding read, but not an easy one. History never is.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber)