Book of the Week - Ireland: A History

Don MacRaild salutes a witty, readable and epic journey through the many-hued past of the Emerald Isle

August 5, 2010

Ireland is particularly well served by single-volume modern histories, such as those by J.C. Beckett and Roy Foster, which pick up the story at the conclusion of the Nine Years' War (1594-1603). And accounts of the past two centuries, when Ireland broke free of British rule, are commoner still, and include standard works by F.S.L. Lyons, K. Theodore Hoppen, Alvin Jackson, Paul Bew and others. None of these authors, however, approaches such an epic periodic scale as Thomas Bartlett's well-paced and readable study.

Traditionally, relations with England and Britain have dominated Ireland's national history. More recently, Irish history has been conceptualised as part of a three-kingdoms/two-islands approach and within both European and Atlantic frames of reference. Bartlett recognises these layers and charts them well. While Ireland: A History is front-end loaded in favour of the modern period, it begins in 431, the year Ireland received its first bishop. The period to 1500 is dealt with in two chapters. Obviously, this has the effect of racing us through the earlier period: Colm Cille (St Columba) gets a couple of pages, as do St Patrick and the Vikings, and so on. Approximately two-thirds of the book examines the period from 1541 to the present day. From this point, the chapters are long and detailed, with some occupying more than 100 pages. Here, the detail is both good and clear.

Throughout his narrative, Bartlett questions some common assumptions about Irish history. The Anglo-Norman identity of Henry II's army, which invaded in the 1180s, is downplayed. They called themselves English, Bartlett tells us. Their military superiority, which is part of the propaganda of the invasion's major chronicler (Giraldus Cambrensis, who was in the English king's baggage train), is also questioned. For Bartlett, it was Irish disunity, rather than social and military backwardness, that aided the English cause.

Henry's victories established four centuries of English lordship over Ireland and a back-and-forth struggle between Gaelic and English customs and rule, with the sideshow of a Scottish invasion in 1314 by Edward Bruce, who sought to capitalise on the triumph of his brother Robert at Bannockburn. Bruce's Irish invasion was a bloody affair, set against the backdrop of severe weather and famine. Edward declared himself king of Ireland but did not enjoy the fruits of the office for long. In a classic example of Bartlett's eye for the amusing encapsulation, he cites a contemporary source describing Edward's death at the Battle of Faughart (1318) as "the best thing that had happened 'since the beginning of the world'".

While many Irish lords remained aloof from Bruce, others accepted his claims to be uniting peoples of common ancestry (the Scots and Irish) against a common enemy (the English). The subsequent despoliation and violence suggests Celtic brotherhood had severe limits - limits that would be demonstrated again with the Scots role in the plantation of Ulster.

Bartlett rightly sees the period between Henry VIII's declaration of the Kingship of Ireland in 1541 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 as crucial in shaping modern Irish history. Between these dates, Gaelic lords were fought and defeated and the Pale around Dublin was protected with extensive plantations, especially - though not exclusively - in Ulster, whereby Scottish and English settlers were granted lands seized from the native Irish in an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

Even after the Boyne, when the Protestant Ascendancy was guaranteed and Ireland was brought meaningfully under the Crown, the country remained divided on religious, linguistic and ethnic terms. English kings and queens had destroyed Irish leaders wherever they found them: the House of Kildare in the 1530s, the Gaelic earls of Ulster in 1603 and the Confederacy of the Cromwellian period. But none of this colonialist savagery expunged Gaelic language and culture.

Here, Bartlett's coverage of the elongated 18th century takes us well into the 19th - in Ireland's case, to 1829, when Catholic Emancipation finally ended the penal era in which Catholics were second-class citizens. The 18th century saw the rise and fall of the Irish Parliament and the creation of modern urban-civic centres with fine architecture and institutions of culture and learning, but it also witnessed sharp contrasts between wealth and poverty, and continued grievances at the harsh treatment of Catholics. The United Irishmen's rising against British rule in 1798, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, showed once again that the Irish would resist colonialism. Britain's answer - military suppression and the Acts of Union 1800 - demonstrated equally that the British would not tolerate dissent.

Bartlett finds much to admire in the peaceable acquisition of Catholic civil rights in 1829 - something Catholic Poles would not have wrung out of the Russians, he avers. However, crucially, he also sees in emancipation the seeds of the destruction of British rule in Ireland. For at this point, the people were Catholic, and the Protestants were - as Daniel O'Connell, the lay leader of Catholic Ireland, said - "foreigners". Robert Peel recognised that emancipation would not be the end of the challenge to British authority in Ireland; whereas in quite obverse fashion, William Gladstone, in the 1880s, imagined that his home rule plans would deliver a final reform to appease Ireland and bring her into the fold. The book's fifth chapter, examining the period between Catholic Emancipation and the Great War, considers the movements for and against the union of Britain and Ireland.

Bartlett's treatment of the 20th century takes a genuinely two-Irelands approach: both the North and South are analysed in detail and with sound and fair judgements. Eamon De Valera emerges as a strong, consistent character, notwithstanding his foolish condolences following Hitler's suicide. The North outwardly gained more from the Second World War (the period of Ireland's "emergency") than did the South, with its neutrality. The North also went on to a period of economic modernisation in the 1950s and 1960s. But Ireland, which had suffered nothing of the rest of Europe's fate, clung to the increasingly outmoded, protectionist economic policies of the 1930s and stagnated until membership of the European Economic Community and, latterly, its "Celtic Tiger" phase, delivered the country into the modern era. The North, however, according to Bartlett, failed to match economic modernisation with a shake-up of its sectarian politics. Thus the seeds of the Troubles were sown.

This book attempts a tone and style that will appeal to the intelligent general reader. In this, it is a success. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Ireland: A History sitting on the shelves of people who own very little Irish history but wish to read some. It is enhanced by over 100 beautiful black-and-white images, the light use of endnotes and minimal historiographical discussion.

The author's amusing asides about historical characters and institutions also break up the narrative and hold the reader's interest. Even Colm Cille's near-contemporary, the highly influential monk Columbanus, is not spared. "In addition to vows of poverty, mortification and fasting," Bartlett tells us, "Columbanus appears to have sworn never to walk away from a dispute." Levity such as this, of which there are many examples, should not mislead the reader: this is a serious work.


Thomas Bartlett is chair in Irish history at the University of Aberdeen. His interest in history was sparked by "indulgent" librarians who allowed him "the run" of Belfast Central Library as a boy.

He studied for his undergraduate degree and doctorate at Queen's University Belfast, and gained a master's from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.

He worked at University College Galway until 1995, when he became professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He was "lured away" to Aberdeen in 2007, where he most recently led a project to digitise more than 19,000 documents on the 1641 Irish rebellion.

Away from academia, Professor Bartlett is a "very moderate better" on horse racing and likes to follow the sport, although he does not always enjoy the results. Asked how successful his betting was, his reply was succinct: "Not very!"

Ireland: A History

By Thomas Bartlett

Cambridge University Press 648pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780521197205

Published 3 June 2010

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