Contested tales in a storied country

The Irish Story
August 30, 2002

The Irish academy still has some verbal weapons to decommission. The intellectual upheavals associated with the Northern Irish conflict may have bypassed a few scholarly enclaves, but they have touched most academics who write on Irish history, Irish literature or their intersections. The situation is further complicated by literary theory and by the opportunistic uses to which it can be put.

R. F. Foster - historian of Ireland, biographer of W. B. Yeats, chief target of those who challenge Irish historical "revisionism" - is a veteran of this contested field. He knows that his new collection of essays, whatever its other qualities, will be read as an intervention in Irish cultural politics. Creditably, he neither disguises some polemical aims nor denies the theoretical issues that have problematised the historian's stock in trade. The punning subtitle of The Irish Story , "telling tales and making it up", points to specific problems where the question of narrative meets the Irish question. These problems, of course, extend to the book's own status and reception. Foster says that his subtitle "hints at reconciliation" as well as "fabrication".

Whether writing on commemoration, theme parks or Ireland as mediated by Anthony Trollope, Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen or Gerry Adams, Foster is alert to debates about representation and historiography. His splendid Oxford inaugural lecture, "The story of Ireland" (reprinted here), accepts both the constructedness of history and the extent to which stories of Ireland are conditioned by the narrator's cultural coordinates: "[F]rom the 1960s, the questioning of accepted versions of Irish history began to take a firmer and firmer hold, and to advance... into public debate. Irish historians, working in many areas, tried to break up the seamless construction of narrative incident that was presented as the story of Ireland and to analyse the moment rather than simply follow the flow. But at the same time, the compelling power of the old sequence held its mesmeric force. In that story, personal experience and national history remain woven into an apparently logical and self-referencing construction. And thinking about the shape of Irish history, or arguing about the accuracy and significance of certain generally accepted themes, one is struck again and again by the importance of the narrative mode: the idea that Irish history is a 'story', and the implications that this carries about a beginning, a middle and the sense of an ending."

Foster's concessions to relativism might not satisfy those critics who accuse Irish historians of theoretical naivety. Such critics might notice the revisionist thrust of "accepted" and Foster's continued faith in arguments about "accuracy and significance". For all his stress on "alternative histories", he does not abandon empiricist fundamentals or license a carnival of subjectivism and propaganda: "The dangers of new deconstructed history, with its stress on the personal and the unmediated, include complacent anti-empiricism and aggressive sentimentalism, often reinforcing each other, and often relying on assumptions that actually contradict recorded experience."

In "Theme parks and histories", Foster fleshes out this danger with reference to recent Irish commemorative excesses such as the false memory syndrome that sabotaged serious reflection on the famine. He also historicises the reasons why "we now see a boom in pop history... and the revival of simplistic and fusty versions of the Story of Ireland". These reasons include global trends, generational mood swings and peace-process politics. Shrewdly, he notes some "anniversaries that do not get commemorated" - dates linked with potentially reconciling figures such as Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Davis and Charles Stewart Parnell.

Foster is always a pleasure to read. Yet I can see why his manner might annoy the engagé . He repeats "bizarre" as a dismissive adjective, nuances "excited" as self-deceiving, and condescends to Ezra Pound's "erratic but from time to time impressive youth". Discussing the foundation of Irish Historical Studies in 1938, a key date in anti-revisionist demonology, he remarks: "To state, however urbanely, that Irish historical scholarship could benefit by following English example automatically raised hackles."

Yet Foster's writing is less urbane, more excited and hackle-raised than in its own self-perception. He uncoils some whiplash sentences: "As a general rule, the more hermeneutic and convoluted the post-colonial theorising in the text, the more reductionist, naive and reactionary the political views expressed in the footnotes." And "Selling Irish childhoods", his disturbing essay on the kitsch memoirs of Gerry Adams and the McCourt brothers, angrily exposes the overlap between solipsism and populism, between a sentimentally fixed universe and ethnic politics: "The stories that they tell are gauged for an audience in search of reaffirmation rather than dislocation - or enlightenment."

Foster's more general fascination with Irish autobiography generates fresh insights into how the interweaving of "personal experience and national history" influences historical thought. His own autobiography also flickers into view, albeit with an awareness that Irish Protestant stories are heard less sympathetically abroad, if heard at all. He rightly deplores the Irish lecturer who gave students historical books and asked them to guess their authors' religion. But as reductive sectarian forces work covertly, should intellectuals resist them by articulating their presence in the ground of argument?

Foster himself serves "dislocation" and "enlightenment" by conveying a strong sense of his Irish intellectual genealogy. This particularly flavours two essays: "Hubert Butler and his century" and "Leland Lyons and the interpretation of Irish history". Butler and Lyons can be called "Protestant nationalists": Protestants who insist on their own definitions of what it means to be "Irish". Of Lyons's seminal Culture and Anarchy in Ireland , Foster says: "It stems from an odd and little-noted subculture: Trinity College nationalismI the Trinity mind could be nationally minded in a manner which, if not nationalist, was not unionist either." Up to a point, he describes his own mind - also implicitly glossed by his warning that the "Irish Protestant intellectual tradition" cannot be "automatically assimilated to a 'British' view".

Whereas Butler constitutes a model of grace (ethical and stylistic) under pressure, Lyons was a mentor who preceded Foster not only as Yeats's official biographer but in moving from political history into "the literary-historical genre". Lyons apparently found the latter more "beguiling", and I suspect that Foster does, too. Yeats pervades The Irish Story : Foster discusses "Yeats at War", Yeats's template for Irish literature and the hostile obituarists who could not bury him. Not so much "theory" as the struggle between historian and poet may have refined Foster's view of history, narrative, memory and "therapeutic forgetting". The historian still predominates, and he sometimes reads Yeats politically when he should read him poetically. Nonetheless, these vivid essays connect literature and history in ways that are unavailable elsewhere.

Edna Longley is professor of English, Queen's University, Belfast.

The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland

Author - R. F. Foster
ISBN - 0 7139 9497 5 and 0 14 029685 9
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00 and £7.99
Pages - 282

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