The first professional historian to write a history of Ireland’s revolutionary era was Walter Alison Phillips, who came to the task very early with The Revolution in Ireland 1906-23 (1923), in his own words, “as the embers of civil war were still glowing in Southern Ireland.”
An Oxford graduate and history professor in Trinity College Dublin, Phillips obtained privileged access to some Dublin Castle records (the headquarters of British government in Ireland). But most of his information, and “often the most valuable, was obtained in conversation with men in responsible positions . . . whom I had every reason to trust”.
In a subsequent edition in 1926 he referred to the “avalanche of abuse” he faced after the first edition, and dismissed the criticism, including that his book was biased, as “nonsense”. His defence of his stance on the Ulster crisis of that era was hardly a ringing declaration of objectivity: “If there is no admission on my part that Ulster ever did wrong, there is equally no statement of mine that she did right.” There was no disguising, however, his disgusted, snobbish, unionist tone: the “Sinn Féin terror” was a “moral disintegration” underpinned by a “crude idealism”, and regarding the IRA, “the great majority . . . consisted of shop assistants and town labourers.”
An article on the book in this newspaper when the first edition was published underlined the perils of contemporary history: “That Professor Phillips should be wholly free from political bias would be too much to expect . . . no man who sits down to write a history of his own time, especially if it is a time of passion and conflict, can escape from himself or reduce his mind to an Olympian neutrality.”
The testimony was collected in the 1940s and 1950s and locked up until 2003
It was this book that prompted the minister for education in the 1930s, Thomas Derrig, to express a desire for an account of the revolution to counteract Phillips’s bias; what was needed, averred Derrig, was a “record of facts” from “the Irish point of view”. But what transpired instead was an oral history project, the Bureau of Military History, that organised the recording of testimony from almost 1,800 men and women active in the Irish Volunteers (subsequently the IRA) and Cumann na mBan from 1913-1921. It deliberately shied away from the Civil War. The testimony was collected in the 1940s and 1950s and locked up until 2003.
How to present and control historical accounts raises crucial questions about personal experiences, privileged access to records and contemporary political agendas. There was much coverage last week of a suggestion the British government is considering commissioning an “official” history of the Troubles, referred to vaguely in a statement by a UK government spokesman as possibly part of “a package of measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles that focuses on information recovery, so that families can know what happened to their loved ones, and promotes reconciliation”.
But under what terms could such a commissioned history have any credibility? Is it not just a diversion from awkward questions around amnesties and demands for inquiries and accountability that have been continually thwarted by the British government in response to repeated requests by families and indeed, the Irish Government? What records would be accessible and by whom? And if it is privileged access how can that history be transparent or properly peer reviewed? It is a myth, of course, that history writing, official or otherwise, can be entirely “neutral”, or that archives contain all the answers to difficult questions, but for a British government to sponsor a project along the lines reported would suggest an embarrassing level of self-interest at a fraught time.
That, to my eye, reads differently from the idea of an 'official' history, so what has changed and what agendas are at play?
In 2014, the Stormont House Agreement stated: “The Executive will, by 2016, establish an Oral History Archive to provide a central place for people from all backgrounds (and from throughout the UK and Ireland) to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles . . . A research project will be established as part of the Archive, led by academics to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles, to report within 12 months”. That, to my eye, reads differently from the idea of an “official” history, so what has changed and what agendas are at play now?
Many students of the 1913-21 period now use the statements of the Bureau of Military History; they are not definitive or wholly reliable and form just part of an extensive release of sensitive material into the public domain in recent years to enable us to confront some of the issues and legacies of that period, including violence and its impact.
Arranging for those affected by the more recent Troubles to record their experiences would be a similarly worthy endeavour, but alongside that, what is needed is not “official” history, but a decision to properly open sensitive archival material to facilitate the writing of evidence-based history. The political will to facilitate that is highly unlikely to materialise.