Pouring water on the flames of ‘what if’ history

Opinion: ‘You do not need to be a historian to know that John Bruton’s assertion that “Ireland was given a similar opportunity 100 years ago” as Scotland was given in its recent referendum is patently false

Sir Richard Evans, the prolific professor of modern history at Cambridge, is in Dublin this weekend to speak about his book Altered Pasts, which does much to pour water on the flames of counterfactual or "what if" history. Observing with concern and disdain the popularity of the counterfactual genre in recent decades, Evans challenges the extravagance of those who present as history what is essentially fantasy. While Evans acknowledges that historians frequently and legitimately use short-term counterfactuals in order to weigh the decisions of leaders at key turning points, he suggests the more elaborate "what ifs" lead to historians doing what they should not do, which is to "lecture the people of the past on how they should have done better" and wish a personality change on their subjects.


That is the difference between the use of counterfactual history as a way of enunciating a historical sense about potential alternatives with adequate attention given to context and plausibility, and a counterfactual history driven by a contemporary agenda, where conservatives, in Evans’s words, “rewrite history according to their present day political purposes and prejudices”, chiefly to lament the passing of the great old order, an order sabotaged by liberals and leftist rabbles.

Evans’s arguments seem to have a particular relevance to recent discussion of Ireland 100 years ago, which have involved former taoiseach John Bruton revelling in his role as chief thrasher of the 1916 Rising, as he bulldozes through historical context to lead the charge for the commemoration wishful thinking brigade. You do not need to be a historian to know that John Bruton’s assertion that “Ireland was given a similar opportunity 100 years ago” as Scotland was given in its recent referendum is patently false.

“We won that opportunity for ourselves,” maintains Bruton. But what does “we” mean here? Bruton does not tell us. Numerous assertions have been made about Redmond’s sky-high status a century ago as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and attitudes of “the vast mass” or “overwhelming majority” of “Irish people”.


Such assertions are at best speculative. In the December 1910 general election, the last such election before the one in 1918 that destroyed the IPP, it won 84 seats in the Westminster parliament, but unopposed IPP candidates in that election numbered 53. This was a time when the Irish electorate consisted of a minority of wealthy, male voters; “national” self-determination did not exist. As historian LP Curtis observed: “The extent of uncontested elections makes it well-nigh impossible to calculate the popular support enjoyed by the Redmondite party”.


In 1918, the IPP’s Swift Mac Neill, MP for South Donegal, who had represented the constituency since 1887, decided to withdraw from the election on the grounds that “I have too long been a member for this constituency to be able consistently with sincerity or self-respect to solicit as a favour votes to secure my election to parliament”.

The crux of Bruton’s argument is that Redmond knew best, was on track to deliver for Irish people “that opportunity” of independence, and that “staying with the home rule policy would have saved thousands of lives”. This conveniently ignores Britain’s imperial priorities, its governments’ inept and dishonest Irish policy, a refusal to contemplate or tolerate Irish nationalist self-determination, and the militancy and militarisation of the era.

Bruton’s interventions are about wishing something else happened, not honestly assessing what happened and why. This state came into existence as a result of violence. Bruton can fervently wish otherwise, but the reality, as recognised by historians, not just recently by Ronan Fanning, but as far back as 1975 by Nicholas Mansergh, another Cambridge historian, hardly in thrall to republicans, was that “force, or the threat of it, delivered the goods, or most of them, where constitutionalism, after long trial, had not.”


In refusing to acknowledge the miscalculations of Redmond’s later years and the consequences of his insistence on the need for Irishmen to join the British army, Bruton is also, ironically, doing Redmond’s memory a disservice, by making his career and the home rule question one-dimensional. Bruton distorts a complex 18 years of leadership. Trying to tie motivations, identities and loyalties in Ireland during Redmond’s era into neat bows of constitutional nationalism or violent republicanism is simplistic; after all, Redmond was instrumental in the campaign for Fenian Tom Clarke’s release from prison in the 1890s; his efforts, in Clarke’s words “meant a great deal to us”. This was the same Clarke later executed as a 1916 leader.

Commemoration does, however, have its lighter moments. Recently, I received an invitation from a historical society to give a lecture on “Daniel O’Donnell and the contrasts with John Redmond”. A follow up message from the society’s secretary apologised for what he described as his “senior moment”, explaining, “of course I meant Daniel O’Connell. I am not even a fan of the singer”.

Poor old O’Donnell; perhaps he should write a song about Redmond and serenade Bruton with it.