Anodyne nuns and peppy pre-Normans

The Oxford Companion to Irish History
July 31, 1998

Companions" are a growing and evidently successful breed. Whether they are worth the immense labour that goes into volumes like this is a more difficult question. Irish history certainly needs to be better known, not only outside Ireland. Is a compendium like this more help to "ordinary everyday readers" than a good general history? Freedom from the need to maintain an overall narrative form does clearly help inclusiveness. Most general histories will give an account of Sinn Fein, say, but not many will do the same for street lighting. Five editors and 80-something contributors massively outnumber most authorial groups, and the 1,800-odd entries are directly accessible, since Oxford wisely sticks to a simple alphabetical arrangement.

This is a big book, but, mercifully, not so big as some earlier Oxford companions - it is handy enough for everyday use. But the editor's admirable self-restraint carries a price in the ruthless paring-down of marginal material. This must have caused him and his four chief advisers long days of agonising. Broadly speaking, the result seems right: a sensible mix of biographical, geographical and political entries, with a wide range of thematic essays, which allow the book to take off into a slightly different sphere from that of the ordinary reference book. So we get essays on "patriotism" and "politicisation" as well as "pigs", "police", "potatoes" and "poultry". Comprehensive cross-referencing fulfils the editor's expressed hope that this will be "a book to explore rather than merely to consult", embracing perspectives that "even specialists may find new and revealing".

S. J. Connolly is a skilful and confident editor. He effectively pre-empts cavilling about the biographical entries by pointing out, very reasonably, that this could not be a dictionary of Irish biography, and certainly not of literary biography (covered in another recent Oxford companion). Even so, the armchair editor will probably fall easily into the "if so-and-so, why not so-and-so?" routine. If Austin Stack (whose contribution to the Irish revolution was equivocal) is included, why is Sean MacDermott (the principal organiser of the 1916 rebellion) left out? If we have King George IV, why not Queen Victoria, or indeed George V (who played a role in two major Irish crises)? Should the entry for Terence MacSwiney be so much less informative than that for his sister? A case could be made that readers are more likely to need information about less prominent figures than about those who are regularly made the subject of biographical studies - say, about Joseph Plunkett rather than about Charles Stewart Parnell. Yet clearly the big names cannot be left out. An answer might be to standardise the length of biographical entries, as happens (accidentally, it seems, but happily) here with some very different people - Harry Midgley and John Mitchel, for instance.

The thematic essays are much more variegated than the biographical entries. While some of them, such as "citizenship", "class", or "political policing", are unlikely to be anyone's first point of entry into the book, most of them are balanced and informative, and many indicate well-chosen further reading. An essay like the lapidary account of Irish newspapers here would be hard to find anywhere else. There are no doubt some inconsistencies: the Irish chief secretaryship gets an entry, the under-secretaryship does not (though one or two under-secretaries do). There is some duplication, inevitably, but also signs of a deliberate effort to avoid it - which can present its own problems. The crucial Government of Ireland Act of 1920, for instance, is not included or even referred to in the essay on "home rule". Cross-referencing also breaks down in the case of the act's main architect, Walter Long, whose biographical entry stops in 1916, when his most significant contributions to Irish history were still to come. Some problems may also face the reader who starts with a keyword that the editors have discarded - say the Easter rebellion: this actually appears as "the rising of 1916", though 1798 is tagged as an "insurrection", and 1848 as a "rebellion". If these are to be seen as significantly different terms, we are not told why. Though there is no index as such, there is a subject index that is quite helpful - but rebellion does not appear in it. All these phenomena appear under the heading "armed conflicts". Fair enough, but not immediately helpful.

The subject entries include major towns, but not counties - though there is a short essay on counties in general, reminding us that the only part of Ireland in which these quintessentially English administrative units do not function is the part under direct British rule, Northern Ireland. The book abounds in such illumination, though it is short on systematic provision of information that some readers will want. On political parties, for instance, a few tables showing election results would be a useful addition to these deft interpretative essays. The expertise on display here is impressive, but it sometimes misses points that may not be obvious to non-Irish readers. A fine essay on "housing" concentrates on pre-20th-century design, and has only glancing reference either to modern urban housing crises, or the impact of ideal-bungalow building in the countryside. And though there are essays on "agriculture" and "farming" as well as "land tenure", there is no statistical analysis of farm sizes (a source of some common misunderstandings on the part of English readers, such as the oft-repeated idea that Michael Collins came from a "small farm" of 100 acres).

A map would help here; in fact the half-dozen maps provided are decidedly skimpy. The only illustration of any developments since the 15th century shows contemporary communications (in fact a better map of Irish railway development, for instance, can be found, somewhat ironically, in the latest volume of the Oxford History of England). Elections, like population changes, or language use - a potent symbolic issue for modern Ireland - would also lend themselves to mapping. (It is sad to record that an Oxford reference book offers a map showing "principle" towns.) One of the more difficult tasks the editor set his team was to ensure that, in dealing with "contested areas", "differences in interpretation are fully and fairly represented". Historical study is by its nature a revisionist enterprise, in the sense that new approaches and new evidence continually alter our understanding of the past. Normally this is a fairly uncontentious business. But in Ireland there has been an unusually direct hostility to "revisionism", which is seen by some of its opponents as a deliberate attempt to undermine Irish national self-esteem. It is probably true that a number of younger historians who had grown up under what felt like a deadweight of conventional pieties have, in the name of objectivity, set about demolishing some treasured national myths with too-evident relish. A sometimes acrimonious controversy has shown that the boundary between a sterile myth and a vital folk memory is hard to draw. The Irish famine and the 1798 rebellion (or insurrection), commemorated this year, are both sensitive examples.

Not all the contributors rise to this challenge with equal determination. Although there are good essays on the Gaelic language, for instance, there is almost no recognition of its political contentiousness. Religion likewise gets a rather anodyne treatment, and the casual reader of the essay on nuns would hardly gather from the statement that "most Catholics would have encountered nuns as they worked with the poor and working class in refugial or custodial institutions" that a virtual gulag for moral deviants (such as unmarried mothers) was maintained by one order until quite recently.

The editor cautiously acknowledges the possibility that, as anti-revisionists allege, "the pursuit of a neutral, value-free history may have introduced its own distortions and evasions". Fortunately this does not signal a wholesale retreat into blandness. There are plenty of peppy essays like the one on the high kingship of pre-Norman Ireland. Fellow-historians are especially likely to enjoy the entry on "history", which itself takes a revisionist line on the heroes of revisionism, the founders of Irish Historical Studies ("unfortunately the declared commitment to new standards was not always matched by the production of significant scholarly work"). Connolly is himself a tough-minded "revisionist", and we get here an interpretation of the penal laws, for instance, that is substantially at variance with the cherished Catholic folk memory of wholesale persecution. A deceptively brief entry on "mass rocks" reinforces this in lapidary manner. Mass rocks have recently become more prominent in Belfast republican iconography, to underpin a vision of deep-rooted struggle against persecution. But the Companion notes that any use of open-air sites as substitute churches in the 18th century "reflected lack of resources rather than persecution", and adds with crushing accuracy that "mass rock traditions, if they have any historical basis, probably relate instead to the short-lived religious repression of the Cromwellian era". That use of the adjective "short-lived" is surely a classic example of the revisionist determination to confront popular myths. This is, all in all, a good companion - pretty reliable, but individual with it.

Charles Townshend is professor of modern history, Keele University.

The Oxford Companion to Irish History

Author - S. J. Connolly
ISBN - 019 211695 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 618

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