Prescient and a little dusty

Nationalism and Independence
September 19, 1997

Nicholas Mansergh (1910-1991) was one of the most distinguished of modern Irish historians. His first book appeared in 1934, his last in 1991, and his work combined expertise on Irish detail with an international perspective. He wrote on Northern Ireland, independent Ireland, and Anglo-Irish and Commonwealth-Irish relations. His impressive career in Oxbridge and London included a decade as master of St John's College, Cambridge, and his widow (Diana Mansergh) has now gathered together some of his essays and papers in a volume of great historiographical interest.

Most of the chapters have been published elsewhere. But there is also unseen material, including diary entries from the 1930s and notes on conversations with leading Irish political figures. The latter include Eamon de Valera, J. A. Costello and Sean Lemass - all dead and all influential in the independent Ireland which they served as prime ministers. These conversations reflect the fact that Mansergh was able to converse with characters now studied from some chronological distance. And while the nature of Irish historical research has changed greatly in the years since Mansergh started - an archival revolution has, for example, transformed the study of much 20th-century Irish experience - none the less his preoccupations remain central to Irish and Anglo-Irish politics today.

There is an essay reprinted here on the constitutional nationalist leader John Redmond, whose reputation has been revived by Irish historians. And Mansergh's expertise on the subjects of partition and of Ireland's relation to the Commonwealth locates him firmly at the centre of Anglo-Irish debates. His conclusions are worthy of close examination.

He observes that the attempt to achieve both Irish self-government and Irish unity defeated not only John Redmond, but also successive generations of Irish nationalists after him. In an essay on partition in Ireland and India he suggests that the constraints on the relevant actors' movement have traditionally been underplayed: "conventional assessments of the interplay of men and events, and of the extent to which there was freedom of manoeuvre as the climax neared, may need downward adjustment. By contrast... the importance of concepts in the determining or predetermining of policy needs to be revised sharply upwards. There were in varying degrees conceptual imperatives for all of the parties concerned in Ireland and in India, which, once formulated and receiving popular sanction, imposed rigorous constraints upon the freedom of action even of the most powerful of political leaders." Those attempting, or expecting, to resolve the Ulster conflict might do well to note these words.

Mansergh's observations sometimes point in directions in which subsequent historians have marched; his description of de Valera as a man "ready to compromise when he has got what he wants" hints at the rather critical attitude struck by many current scholars. But, unavoidably, much has also moved on in ways which make Mansergh's work occasionally look slightly dusty. If, for example, one wanted to learn about Freddy Boland (Irish representative at the United Nations) then Joseph Skelly's excellent Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations (1997) is incomparably richer. Again, Mansergh's suggestion, in a 1965 essay, that the evidence relating to the 1916-23 Irish revolutionaries is thin no longer holds good.

But the spirit of Mansergh's central arguments retains its relevance and its power. In 1948, he observed a growing appreciation among Irish people that "the field of common interest" between Britain and Ireland was expanding. This was surely prescient. It is also worth considering the tone and intention of the writing. Measured, urbane and cautious, Mansergh argued that the study of history required "detachment with sympathetic insight into man's way of life, his preoccupations and concerns at points in time". Despite such detachment, he often hinted at sharper conclusions than those initially suggested by his courteous style; and he robustly believed that the work of historians possessed some measure of practical usefulness: "knowledge of history should at the least help one to avoid courses that had proved unsatisfactory, or still more, disastrous in the past".

Richard English is reader in politics, Queen's University, Belfast.

Nationalism and Independence: Selected Irish Papers by Nicholas Mansergh

Editor - Diana Mansergh
ISBN - 1 85918 105 8 and 106 6
Publisher - Cork University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 264

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