Lifting the blarney stone that held down history

October 19, 2001

Myth-making and storytelling have helped to repackage Ireland's recent history. Sean Coughlan meets the man who is determined to reveal the truth beneath the idealised vision

Storytelling has a deep-rooted place in Irish culture - and Roy Foster has a better sense than most of how this instinct for a good tale has discoloured and sometimes conflicted with the more serious business of history.

In his new book, The Irish Story , he casts a cold eye over how Ireland has begun to repackage its past into heritage-flavoured chunks, turning away from the gritty awkwardnesses of real history and producing a simplified and misleading image.

Its essays, which often challenge the notion of Ireland's national story as a moral drama between victim and oppressor, delve into the constant re-inventions and myth-making in the 19th and 20th centuries that accompanied the political and military battles for independence. And in this tension between history and story, Foster shows how truth has often been the first casualty of storytelling.

While an idealised vision of a "pure and unsullied" Gaelic Ireland freeing herself from the depravities of British rule was a useful image for those founding an independent state, Foster says that such myths have become an obstacle to untangling relations between Ireland and Britain.

"Nowadays, as a fully fledged independent European country, it is a moment for examining the creation of these myths and not buying wholesale into the victimhood package that has been responsible for a great deal of fuzzy thinking about Irish history and Irish identity," Foster says when we meet at Oxford University, where he is professor of Irish history.

This "fuzzy thinking" cast an unhappy fog over some of the history projects in the 1990s that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Irish famine, Foster says. In the book's introductory essay and in another essay, "Theme Parks and Histories", he attacks the way that the famine was subjected to the "psychobabble" of recovered memory and other modish techniques.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder stalked the land, buried 'memories' were indiscriminately exhumed, and 'survivor guilt' was ruthlessly appropriated from Holocaust studies and exhibited in the marketplace," he writes.

Foster also expresses doubts about the co-option of history into official commemorations, which he says have an agenda unlikely to be headed by a concern for historical accuracy.

"The trouble with commemorative history is that if those distant people were saying unwelcome things, it is all too tempting to put words in their mouths."

And Foster highlights the tackiness that can occur when history collides with tourism, such as the setting-up of a famine theme park, which promised to allow visitors to "experience first hand... how 1,000 people struggled for survival".

But an essay on "Remembering 1798" illustrates that the manipulation of anniversaries has a long tradition. It examines the ways that the evocations of the 1798 uprising were used by political movements in the 1890s. Public events and statue-building that accompanied the centenary were used by constitutional parties and radical groups to promote competing versions of Irish nationalism.

Underpinning many of the essays in this book is the suggestion that not facing up to the past makes it more difficult to face the present. For Ireland, this has "obscured the continuing and inevitable, and not always deleterious, cultural interaction with Britain", Foster states. In other words, the past is still coming between these neighbours.

The "liberation story" version of Irish history, in which generations struggled to evict the colonial British, does not leave much room for the memory of the thousands of southern Irish soldiers who volunteered to fight for the British army in the first world war. And what has happened, Foster says, is that for many years such experiences were written out of the script.

The relationship between Britain and Ireland, and its related tensions between Catholic and Protestant within Ireland, are the subtext to many of the literary examples that Foster uses to examine the different stories the Irish have told to themselves about themselves.

The Irish Story includes essays on Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Trollope, Hubert Butler and William Carleton. It is a distinctive selection of writers, a collection of outsiders and people who straddle borders rather than those who might be considered to be at the epicentre of Irish writing.

But the great lightning conductor in this book is the towering figure of W. B. Yeats. Foster has already published the first volume of his biography of the poet and is working on the second.

Yeats's life and work corresponded with many of the fault lines in Irish identity - and Foster explores how Yeats's relationships with the emerging nationalist movement and his own Anglo-Irish background went through a constant process of readjustment.

In a fascinating essay on "Yeats at War", Foster looks in detail at how the poet responded to the competing calls of the first world war, the Easter uprising and the later war of independence - and how the process of Yeats's writing and revising the poem "Easter 1916" was paralleled by a re-writing and revising of his political position.

This poem, with its refrain "a terrible beauty is born", has become one of the great icons of the uprising. But Foster shows how Yeats, while preparing the poem, was negotiating a careful path, keeping open channels of communication with politicians in London, before finally committing himself to the cause of independence.

It also underlines the self-consciousness of so many of Yeats's stances throughout his long career, with his own personal myth-making and his shifting visions of national identity all constructed with the same deliberation as his verse. As Foster says, he had "painted himself into the fresco".

In his capacity as purveyor of uncomfortable truths, Foster also looks at the small-minded way that the memory of Yeats was squabbled over by his fellow countrymen in the immediate aftermath of his death. This included those who decided that, as a northern Protestant, Yeats had never really been Irish at all.

This would have been no surprise to Yeats himself - and Foster includes Yeats's observation that "no people hate as we do in whom (the) past is always alive".

Foster suggests that the great public interest in history in Ireland - expressed by anyone from a newspaper columnists to a pub philosopher - reflects something unresolved and ambiguous in what it means to be Irish, as though history were still unfinished business rather than something packed away and gathering dust.

Foster's background includes some of these different versions of Irishness. Brought up in a Protestant family in southern Ireland, his parents taught Irish in a co-educational, progressive Quaker school, a combination of circumstances that would be enough to inoculate anyone against making generalisations.

And a recurrent theme in The Irish Story is a resistance to smoothing out the past and ignoring the contradictory evidence. In a chapter on "Selling Irish Childhoods", Foster puts an elegant boot into the memoirs of Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, accusing him of "evasion" in failing to address his relationship with the IRA and of excising the past of anything that might clash with the arguments of the present. The airbrushing of awkward truths stands in the way of honest dialogue, he suggests.

These are enjoyably argumentative essays that use a finely tuned sense of irony to debunk a whole line-up of modern Irish tribes, from pop stars to populist politicians. Foster himself now belongs to another growing Irish tribe, made up of literary and academic celebrities. When I visited him at his Hertford College base, the first person he met on the staircase was Tom Paulin, the poet and pundit who has taken lugubriousness to new extremes.

But contemporary Ireland is a fast-moving target that has undergone massive social changes in a single generation, and these essays have a feel of signing off the last century, rather than signing up to the new one.

Figures such as Yeats have cast a long shadow across the national culture of Ireland throughout the 20th century, but it remains to be seen how much he will mean to the youthful, consumerist Dublin of the 21st century. When modern Ireland is wearing Gap clothes, shopping at Tesco and watching The Simpsons , will the arguments about the pieties of the past hold as much sway?

The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland is published by Penguin on October 25, £20.00.

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