Last summer when old sectarianism disturbingly resurfaced in Northern Ireland, there were calls for the different traditions to "acknowledge the wrongs of the past" even to "apologise" for them. There are few places in the world where history (or different versions of it) is invoked so frequently to explain contemporary situations. Most people are embarrassed by the historical myths which sustain the troubles. But like some old comfort blanket, they are reluctant to let go. Historians of Ireland carry an extra burden, for history is public property and they are watched with a suffocating vigilance. Among other things, they have been accused of iconoclasm, of ignoring "the pain" of Irish history, even of absolving England of the many wrongs attributed to her. Gerry Adams sees "revisionism" in Irish history as akin to McCarthyism, "disinformation ... putting things you thought of as constants under attack". The "constant" to which he refers is the traditional nationalist reading of Irish history which saw Catholic Ireland as the nation proper, involved in a centuries-old struggle against English oppression. Why is Ireland so obsessed by its past? Why do the divisions in Northern Ireland seem so intractable?
three of these books - those by Liam Kennedy, George Boyce and Alan O'Day, and Brian Walker - attempt to answer these questions. All select key areas of controversy, showing how modern stereotypes were arrived at and challenging the popular view that Irish history has been uniquely painful and traumatic. To varying degrees they are infused by a desire to counter attacks on so-called "revisionist" historians. At their crudest, such attacks have sought to deny to scholars the right to challenge the "sacred cows" of the past and they have a tendency to tar all historians with the same brush. Thankfully these three books are more measured in their response. Rather they counter the more considered criticisms by displaying the sheer variety of Irish historiography over the past 30 years. But they also highlight great gulfs of ignorance and a desperate need for more, not less research in Irish history. While I enjoyed these books, therefore, I must admit some irritation that so many excellent historians are frittering their time countering negative criticism rather than getting on with the research that is so needed.
Part of the problem in the revisionist/antirevisionist debate, explains Kennedy, is the gulf between the historian's emphasis on discontinuities and the popular sense of continuities, "enduring patterns" and predictable outcomes. "Such a narrow perspective", he warns, has the effect of robbing people in earlier generations of much of the complexity and diversity in their lives." In an intriguing series of wide-ranging essays, he then goes beneath the political questions which have so skewed Irish historiography to focus on economic issues. Yet although they all tend to undermine the traditional traumatic reading of Irish history, he also presents ample evidence that some of the old orthodoxies are not yet ready to lie down and die, even if their survival offers little cause for triumph by any of the contending traditions. A sectarian economy did indeed work against rural Catholics prior to the 19th century; but equally thereafter the trend was towards the long-term decline of Protestant communities everywhere outside Ulster. By the 20th century sectarian conflict had ceased over much of the south of Ireland because the Protestants had literally "vanished".
Much as Kennedy may show that there is historical life beyond the nationalist issue, even he feels compelled constantly to confront it. "The dangers of present-mindedness", as Boyce terms it in The Making of Modern Irish History, of reading past history through the present, haunts contemporary Irish historical writing. The Boyce/O'Day essays are an invigorating riposte to those who criticise the direction of Irish historiography. Yet they also show the professionalisation of Irish history as a recent development and the long way it has to go. As Sean Connolly and Mary Daly show, the Irish landlord may have been largely rehabilitated by historians, but even the Great Famine has been under-researched. While John Hutchinson argues that, despite the attention lavished on the subject, we still lack a convincing explanation of Irish nationalism. Is it because the Northern Ireland troubles have shattered any consensus?
Certainly all three works show how the crisis has impacted on both history writing and politics, and the interconnection of the two. The confident, forward-looking politics of Ireland today would have been impossible only three decades ago and the rethinking of nationalist canons by historians has played a major part in the change. Yet these books also highlight a general neglect of the history of Ulster. "The north was to most southern Irish historians what Africa had been to the Victorians", writes Boyce, "a largely blank map, with few guiding features, and inhabited by unknown, and possibly unknowable, beings". The "revisionism" which has transformed our understanding of Irish history, has not occurred for that of Ulster, and the failure to do so feeds directly into the apparent intractability of northern politics. Ulster Protestants have traditionally shied away from Irish history as something hijacked by republicans. They cling to the old myths propagated long before history writing was professionalised. But northern nationalists are not far behind. It takes a confident sense of identity to reconsider one's history. Few in Northern Ireland possess that.
This is particularly acute on the Unionist side, as revealed in the essay by Alvin Jackson in The Making of Modern Irish History. Here we have ample evidence that Unionism has been unable to respond to the broadening political debate because of its simplified reading of its historical inheritance. Yet its adherents are not entirely to blame, for what can they read for a clearer understanding of their past?
In this series of historiographical essays, there is a sense in Jackson's essay of "scraping the barrel", so few are the works available. Has past nationalist polemic made the topic unattractive? Is it the Unionist evasion of Irish history noted above, or perhaps the paucity of evidence available? Certainly Jackson provides disturbing evidence of the unusual rigour employed by British and Irish record offices in the selection of, and restrictions placed upon, materials relating to history, while leading Unionist politicians are "no less coy" when it comes to releasing private archives. "Given these restraints on evidence", he concludes, "even the most disinterested historian is bound to the sectarian arena".
Walker's Dancing to History's Tune is an irreverent romp through many myths and shibboleths. While the foregoing books are historiographical snapshots, suitable for a student/academic market, Walker's book is aimed at a general readership. It is upbeat and optimistic, arguing the fluidity of situations in the past - the implication being that if traditions are consciously created to suit modern needs, they can also be dismantled. He is impatient with arguments that the divisions in the north are entrenched in history. The assumed "siege mentality" among Protestants he does not find in folk memory. Rather he sees the late 19th-century Home Rule campaign as the crucible of modern divisions, for it accompanied the emergence of the modern party system, thereby dictating future voting, as later generations voted as their parents had. Thus he dates the progressive decline of a sense of Irishness among Ulster Protestants from the highly charged atmosphere of that era, even though there had been little problem with their Irish identity before then.
But "revisionism" of the past has its limits. One of the reasons it raises such hackles in Ireland is not because the Irish are peculiarly attached to their institutions, but because it often dismantles the props sustaining the intangibles of popular psyche. Religious identity is one of these. This is the subject of David Hempton's Religion and Political Culture and his conclusion is that the forces shaping religious history are "unamenable to the universal application of grand theories". Reproducing a series of public lectures delivered in Birmingham, this book is quite a tour de force. Modestly described by its author as "a religious tour of the British Isles", it analyses three centuries of English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish history to reveal the fundamental contribution of religion to national and local identity. A work of immense scholarship and stunning insights, it nevertheless carries its erudition lightly.
In lively essays on the Church of England, Methodism and Evangelicalism (particularly in Scotland and Wales), Hempton confirms the importance of Protestantism and anti-Catholicism to British national identity. Even though church-based Anglicanism declined from the early 19th century, many of its original values survived to infuse national life, imparting to British imperialism a crusading zeal, as Protestantism consciously battled it out with the expansion of Roman Catholicism overseas. Once again the Irish loomed large in this "contest", with the contemporaneous "Irish diaspora" - ably charted by O'Day in the Boyce/O'Day book - accounting for much of the expansion. Although the picture presented is one of the decline of Anglicanism and a future which Hempton considers "not altogether promising", he cautions against assumptions based on declining religious practice. Widespread "cultural and communal identification" with a particular religion can exist side by side with theological ignorance. He also highlights the fundamental importance of ecclesiastical propaganda to "the invention of tradition".
In this respect he sees both Protestant and Catholic traditions in Ireland producing "a powerful fusion of religion and identity unequalled in any other part of the British Isles". From its decidedly disadvantageous position in the 18th century, Irish Catholicism forged such an identification with nationalism that by 1921 it had become one and the same thing. As Hempton perceptively comments, it never needed to become an established church because its cultural values were so pervasive that it became the bedrock of the newly independent Irish state without such legal underpinnings.
Against this pervasive Catholic culture, Ulster Protestantism, with its heady infusion of apocalyptic evangelism in the 19th century, progressively defined itself. In a brilliant analysis, Hempton explains how the Ulster Protestant "world view" developed "a remarkably cohesive ideology, embracing past, present and future as well as religion, politics and society". Like Walker, Hempton sees the Home Rule crisis of 1885-1920 as cementing Ulster Protestants' belief that they were a godly people, in a chosen land threatened by pervasive "popery" - a belief "which subsequent events have done nothing to undermine". Like the evangelicalism which infuses Ulster Protest-antism, a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty simply entrenches resistance. Compromise is weak, even popish. Orange parades are, and always have been, about defining territory: "where you could 'walk' you could control". Hempton might not share the optimism of some of the writers reviewed. Perhaps it is because he believes that "revision, like confession, is good for the historical soul, but it ought not to be pressed too far". But in the most readable, brief and accessible analysis of Ulster Protestant mentality that I have read, he explains how "the inability of either the British state or Irish nationalism to coerce or accommodate this sturdy and peculiar minority has resulted in one of the most intractable problems in the modern world". Perhaps all the parties to the talks process in Ulster - not least the Unionists themselves - should read this work before they entrench themselves much further.
Marianne Elliott is professor of modern history, University of Liverpool.
The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy
Editor - D. George Boyce and Alan O'Day
ISBN - 0 415 12171
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £12.99
Pages - 245