Revisionist History


A Chara, - I was surprised to find that editorial policy allowed Kevin Myers to devote his Irishman's Diary (September 3rd) to a scurrilous attack on a paper I delivered to the Greaves Summer School while omitting to report what I actually said on that occasion, a summary of which was circulated to the paper two days previously. As so often, Myers's method of rubbishing the contents of my address was to wrest a few phrases out of their context and by reading unwarranted implications into them to blacken the whole.

One such implication was that I favoured fabricating the historical record in order to provide a version amenable to the nationalist community. Let me now say categorically that I subscribe to the norm of professional integrity which requires the historian to seek and relay the truth about the past at all times.

However, I also believe that the historian has a public role to fulfil which impinges on the manner in which the truth is relayed in the present. This arises from the fact that history crucially affects the perception of itself which the community holds. To forget your past is to forget who you are, as Cicero observed. Here a distinction between the bald historical facts and their interpretation is to be noted.

To take a rough analogy, the same truth is conveyed by the statements that the bottle is halfempty (pessimist) and that it is half-full (optimist), on that the Dominican smokes while praying (sinful), while the Jesuit prays while smoking (virtuous). Thus, nearer the knuckle, it may be a matter of historical fact that 28 children lost their lives in the course of the 1916 Rising. Does this serve to vilify the rebels (Myers), or is it to be taken as a tragic consequence of war in any case, precisely the kind of consideration that led the humanitarian-minded rebel leaders to surrender sooner rather than later (nationalists).

I shall draw out the relevance of the distinction further in conclusion, but first Myers's account of my criticism of revisionism requires correction. In brief, the revisionist enterprise I criticised is not the commendable practice of refining and/or correcting previous historical accounts in the light of new evidence or deeper insights. Rather, it is an enterprise designed to debunk the traditional nationalist version of Irish history by engaging in an orgy of iconoclasm against the heroes of the nationalist pantheon and to filter out the trauma of Ireland's catastrophic history - ruthless military conquest, colonisation, a discrimatory legal code, immiseration - by normalising it or simply ignoring it altogether. The Irish people deserve better than that. They also need something better since history has inflicted a deep scar upon the collective psyche.

That is the background against which I attempted to sketch a methodology for a new approach to Irish history at the Greaves Summer School.

At its pivot I placed qualities of empathy and imagination by which the historian is enabled to enter into the actuality of the historical experience, replacing the pervasive scepticism by which the revisionists sought to debunk the truly great figures of the Irish past and to problematise the horror of the record. Further, I urged, the methodology must reach out more comprehensively than hitherto to engage with the totality of the historical past.

One feature here, as Myers mentioned, would be a gender-inclusive approach. Another, more to the point, which he chose to ignore, would be a British dimension - "a two-traditions" history, if that description is preferred. Loyalists both deserve and need their history to be told, as the nationalist community does, in a way that will enable them to take legitimate pride in their heritage and will acknowledge their unique contribution to the creation of the Ireland which now faces the dawn of a new millennium with confidence.

Revisionism Irish-style is now on retreat as younger historians increasingly follow the lead of the few senior colleagues who have sought to interpret the record of the Irish past in a more sympathetic way than was generally considered proper. The future lies with the latter. In the new millennium revisionism will be seen as a thing of the past, a feature of a phase now gone in Ireland's postcolonial "coming of age". - Yours, etc., Brendan Bradshaw,

Queens' College, Cambridge.