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The best books on Modern Irish History

recommended by Richard Bourke

A "powerful and aggravating absence of consensus" came to define the Irish political experience, says the historian Richard Bourke. Here he picks the best books for gaining a range of perspectives on Irish history, singling out James Joyce as offering insight into the divergence of nationalist opinion.

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Richard Bourke

Richard Bourke is professor in the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas and co-editor of the Princeton History of Modern Ireland

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Richard Bourke

Richard Bourke is professor in the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas and co-editor of the Princeton History of Modern Ireland

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You’ve chosen one collection of essays, one novel, and three very different Irish history books. Could you offer your thoughts about how you came to choose these five books, the underlying rationale that drew you towards them?

Anyone who seeks to represent a subject, by means of just five books on it, is going to be faced with an overwhelming problem. What I aimed for, in a way, was diversity. There are common preoccupations in these texts—obviously there must be because the subject is Ireland—but the figures I’ve chosen come at the subject with very different baggage. They are of different generations, as well. I thought a range of opinion could best be captured by representing these very different authors. I certainly didn’t see it as my business to use them as vehicles for expressing my views, which would deliver an entirely different result.

It’s interesting you mention the generational point because Ireland’s sense of itself, perhaps even more than other societies, seems, to me, to be extraordinarily influenced by when we are talking about. When you come to the early 1970s, for example, there’s a hugely strong feeling…

Absolutely. Bearing in mind the works I’ve chosen — by that stage, James Joyce was dead. I picked Joyce because he provides an essential cultural hinterland to debates about Irish nationalism, society, and politics. We then skip forward, in chronological terms, to Conor Cruise O’Brien, who, at the start of The Troubles, was a fully fledged adult. By comparison, Eamonn McCann, who wrote War and an Irish Town, was an angry youth. Roy Foster was just in training as a southern Irish university student. Seamus Deane, like McCann, is also from Derry, but became a literary scholar, both a critic and historian, and doesn’t share McCann’s worldview. Since my aim was to relay a diversity of perspectives — never was that diversity greater than in the fallout from the period that you’re referring to, in other words, never was it greater than in the aftermath of 1968.

This sense of trauma, of fissure, of apocalyptic wrongness at that time, is this a little how Ireland felt in the second half of the 1840s as well?

The 1840s [the time of the Great Famine] was largely a period of social and economic dislocation. There’s some political upheaval, with a movement of revolutionary insurgency in the late 1840s, but that was a minority affair. It was not a mass national movement at the time. So while the 1840s was clearly a period of fundamental crisis, I would say that was more a socioeconomic crisis which, later, was interpreted as a historical precondition for political crisis. The Irish political crisis more obviously dates from the post-1890s period. That’s certainly Joyce’s view.

“All subsequent Irish writers are, to some extent, living in the shadows of Yeats and Joyce.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is really a book about cultural, social and political upheaval generated in the aftermath of the 1890s, specifically following the fall of Parnell. [Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish MP, was instrumental in bringing Home Rule to the forefront of British/Irish politics]. For me, the reason to choose A Portrait in a discussion about Irish history is not, clearly, because it was decisive for historiography. The great parent of historical writing in Ireland was not Joyce, but W. E. H. Lecky. Yet Joyce was surely a subtly probing historical analyst. His insights were presented in the form of fictional, not historical narrative, yet they set an agenda for cultural commentary that also impacted on historiography.

A thought that occurs to me is that one of the deprivations that Ireland’s peculiar history has provoked is that it hasn’t yet achieved a sufficiently clear picture of itself to enjoy a political identity, let alone political structures. It hasn’t yet got that sense of completeness till quite late.

I don’t, myself, think of history as aiming for completeness, but the Irish political experience since, say, the 1840s has been one of divisiveness rather than placid cohesiveness. You can contrast that with other national histories, though placid cohesiveness might be an outlier with respect to any national experience. But certainly if you compare British to Irish history, there has been, in the Irish case, a powerful and aggravating absence of consensus.

So looking in more detail at your first choice, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Why would you have a novel as a topic for discussion about Irish history?

Irish intellectual life is deeply indebted to its literary culture. In Ireland, in the 20th and the 21st centuries, there’s been a relative dearth of what you might call dedicated intellectuals and, by comparison, a dominant role played by the image of the writer, in a more traditional literary sense. This undoubtedly has something to do with the subtle hegemony exercised by priestcraft in Ireland, coupled, over the longer term, with the declining fortunes of philosophical ingenuity within Catholic thinking. The figures of Joyce, Yeats and Heaney, for example, have been very prominent on the cultural landscape. Their contributions were meant to serve, rather self-consciously, a purely literary program; they did not see themselves as intellectuals, philosophers or political thinkers. For that reason, it’s important to begin any discussion of Irish history and Irish culture with an iconic figure of the literary efflorescence of the early 20th century, in this case James Joyce.

“Poetry, drama and the novel provided means of negotiating the past while promising to transcend it.”

Within the novel itself, Joyce develops a view of the vocation of literature. The job of literature, as he sees it, is partly to provide liberation from history. To achieve that goal, a vision of history is included in that ambition. It is not an accident that the most prominent and successful forms of Irish intellectual culture took the form of an avowedly literary culture. Poetry, drama and the novel provided means of negotiating the past while promising to transcend it. They dealt with an immediate historical predicament with a view to processing the legacies of the past.

It seems to me that one of the things which frustrates Joyce–particularly thinking of the hero’s father—is the sentimentality which attaches to a lot of nationalism.  It’s a sign of a jejune debate that Joyce is getting at. You can apply that also to his attitudes towards the Catholic hierarchy to whom he is exposed. Do you agree with that and, if so, how does it chime in with your own intellectual understanding of how Irish people understand their roots?

You’re asking about the figure of Stephen Dedalus’s father, the elder Dedalus, in the book. I see the novel as very much about the boy liberating himself from the heritage of the father in various ways. The idea that he is rescuing himself out of the shadow of the father overlaps with the larger narrative of the book, which presents Stephen freeing himself from his own inherited culture. This involves a shift in perspective as a new prospect is opened up. There’s a promise of handing initiative to a new generation, from father to son; but the son is still finding that he is a prisoner of the world of the father. The world of the father is not simply the father’s worldview, but also a world in which the father has had to struggle to cope.

He is struggling and isn’t quite coping.

That’s completely right. Joyce’s depiction is one of Ireland in the aftermath of the fall of Parnell. At the start of the 1890s, much of Ireland glimpsed the prospect of national unity based around Parnell himself, embodying a national project, whilst offering credible leadership. This, as the Portrait reflects, fell apart under the weight of sexual scandal and ensuing religious polarities.

There’s that terrible scene at the Christmas lunch, isn’t there?

One can see all the characters participating in the Christmas dinner scene as representing different strands of contemporary Irish opinion. Casey, Dante, Mrs Dedalus, Mr Dedalus — all of them had been united around the figure of Parnell. In the world of the novel, this has now been shattered by the fact that Parnell has fallen into disgrace in the eyes of, first of all, Victorian Britain and its mores, but also the Irish Catholic Church. Irish nationalist opinion then divides.

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You can see these divisions around the dinner table collide in various ways. There’s Dante, who represents a strand of Catholic piety, there’s Casey, who is the representative of a Fenian strand of nationalism, and there’s Dedalus senior himself, the anti-clerical Parnellite. The collision between these perspectives leaves the child dismayed and baffled; the narrative of the novel plots his emergence from the concussion induced by that bewildering experience.

As a Jesuit-educated child myself I’m absolutely fascinated by the intensity with which Stephen attempts to re-embrace his faith when he’s lost it and finds, basically, that it’s too much like hard work. That seems to me a wonderful metaphor for Ireland’s extremely conflicted relationship with the Irish Catholic church.

I also wanted to ask you about the brutality in Joyce. There’s the episode where Stephen is beaten with a pandybat. In case you haven’t had it, I have, and it hurts. But later you see he’s not reflecting on the physical pain from the beating he endured but from the sheer verbal and psychological assault which is the pupils’ daily portion. 

There’s a great poignancy arising from Stephen Dedalus’s relation to the Catholic church. Obviously, from early on, the central character has a longing for escape. There is at first a prospect of liberty supplied by Catholicism itself, in the sense that it provides release in the form of intellectual absorption. It’s an intellectual investment, and it offers a structure of thought. The poignancy arises from the gradual discovery that this structure is actually oppressive and disabling. And I see this as one strand of the national culture from which he feels obliged, ultimately, to free himself.

Finnegans Wake seems to me to sacrifice both pathos and argument to experiment. ”

The other strand is the national story populated by a succession of heroes constituting what amounts to a republican tradition, hoping to realise final political deliverance. There’s a scene in the novel where Stephen is having a conversation with Davin, one of his college friends, and finally we realize that he’s come to the conclusion that the Irish national self-entrancement, if you like, is really a system of delusion. The reality has been that Ireland has ‘devoured’ its own train of would-be liberators. For this reason there’s a disconsolateness about the novel in the face of the lived realities of Irish social, political and religious history.

Have you read any other Joyce?

Yes, though this is my favourite novel, without a doubt. Ulysses is palpably a work of genius but I prefer the realist depiction of the Portrait. I like the subtle, psychological, nuance rather than the intense literary experimentalism of Ulysses which just doesn’t captivate me to quite the same extent. Dubliners, again, is a masterpiece of insight and concision. Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, seems to me to sacrifice both pathos and argument to experiment.

Let’s talk about the Roy Foster book next, which is about as different as we’re going to get. One of the ideas which I felt came across really, really strongly, particularly in the earlier chapters, is the idea of different kinds of Irishness. Why did you choose it?

I chose Modern Ireland because it is clearly a classic text in the history of Irish historiography. It covers the whole trajectory from 1600 to 1972. It’s been a large presence—if not to say a dominating presence—on the Irish historiographical landscape. It brings together with great adeptness the results of post-war Irish historical scholarship, interlacing them with the author’s own nimble cultural commentary. Rather than being a political or social or economic historian, Roy Foster is, or at least became, very much a cultural historian in the old sense, particularly interested in the progress of high culture. Laterally, he has been interested in the course of literary history.

“The history of Ireland could be written as the history of property from two angles.”

A large influence on Foster was exercised by one of his teachers, F.S.L. Lyons, who, amongst other things, wrote a book called Culture and Anarchy in Ireland. This was about the collision of Irish cultural stereotypes. In many ways, Modern Ireland  comes out of a similar tradition of historical writing, except Foster was keen to see the varieties of Irishness as not necessarily settled on a pre-determined highroad to collision. He is more interested in the play of possibilities opened up by the conspicuous diversity of Irish attitudes. That’s very much the keynote of the book. If you need an organising thread for an overarching historical narrative, it’s a very enticing instructor.

Foster puts a great emphasis on the different systems of land ownership in Ireland. That there was a terrific psychological hold, in terms of Irish identity, through the different ways land was held, and that that is linked to a sense of nationhood is an idea he puts forward quite strongly, does he not?

I think the history of Ireland could be written as the history of property from two angles. First of all, the history of the national property, which is the struggle over jurisdiction. The second would be property in the sense of landholding. That’s partly a result of Ireland’s explicitly colonial history, and I mean that in the literal, technical sense of a settled population who arrive to cultivate (from the Latin ‘colere’) the territory. There were colonists in that basic sense, settling as planters, as they were called, first of all in the 16th century, but then in increasing waves of intensity through the 17th century, especially after the Cromwellian conquest, and then again after the Glorious Revolution.

“ There are many stages in this story, but it is certainly right to say that property is at the centre of it. ”

What that meant, in practical terms, was a massive overhaul in the sectarian distribution of property such that, by the beginning of the 18th century, the majority Irish population had very little land — having held the great majority before the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the middle of the 17th century. That is the background to another struggle in the 19th century about peasant landholding. There are many stages in this story, but it is certainly right to say that property is at the centre of it.

You mentioned the 18th century. Foster is quite keen to take apart the idea of this glamorized Georgian Ireland, he says that this has been overblown. It is not that special, it is not that fine, it is certainly not all about beautiful country houses. I feel that’s quite a significant contribution of the book because the received image is still quite sentimental, isn’t it?

One of the received images of Ireland is a Yeatsian version of aristocratic ascendancy. In some of Yeats’s poems of the 1920s, he represents his somewhat faux historical image of ascendancy in architectural terms. I would say that for Foster generally, the impetus behind the book is to debunk previous, spurious accounts of the Irish national past. This would be one example. The book’s mood was very much determined by the 1980s. It was published in 1988 in a period in which it was felt, certainly in southern Ireland, that certain politically constricting versions of Irish history had come to national prominence. Professional historians felt that they wanted to dismantle these doubtful, politicised stories with more subtle, more accurate versions of the past.

One of the great contributions, I thought, of Foster’s book was when he talks about the overlapping or competing loyalties or hatreds and fissures which can exist—Catholic and Protestant, English and Irish, British and Continental—and I really enjoyed one in particular, religion and land.

He’s trying to displace an older, monolithic perspective. That’s what gives the book most of its energy, disparaging what it sees as a traditionally nationalist or republican perspective on Irish history. I suppose the controversial aspect of the book is the extent to which there’s a tendency to parody the object of criticism—the representation of nationalism and republicanism in particular—when you get to the 20th century. For this reason the coverage of the period from 1890 onward is arguably the least dispassionate in the book, partly because the period in which it was itself conceived and written, the 1980s, was a period of turmoil during which legitimating ideologies had their roots in the earlier era. I think there’s a tendency to reduce Irish antagonism to the ongoing imperial connection to a kind of cultural animosity, whereas I believe the motives animating anti-government sentiment were altogether more varied than they are sometimes made to appear.

Interestingly, Foster’s more recent book, Vivid Faces, moves in an altogether different direction. It’s far more concerned with restoring to Irish popular opinion, in the early 20th century, its nuanced complexity and variety in a way that is not fully captured in Modern Ireland. Nonetheless, because Modern Ireland is the more monumental study, and succeeded in contributing to the transformation of Irish historical debate, it’s the place where any historian has to begin.

And the fact that he ends in 1972 not only leads us very neatly to McCann, but also seems to me emblematic of a bigger issue: there’s no such thing as a normal year—but if there ever was a year that wasn’t normal it was 1972.

It’s a good point to end the book because it marked a critical turning point, opening up into a new, unexpected, unpredictable future. It was the closing of a chapter, knowing that the story would ineluctably proceed, but without really being able to thematize the new story because everything was still up in the air.

So, focusing on the McCann now. We already mentioned the anger of the book. What I’m wondering, from your perspective as an academic, is the usefulness of the book: is it as a memento mori or as analysis?

War and an Irish Town is a powerful memoir by an angry youth possessed of tremendous intellectual and political confidence, whether wisely or not we’ll leave to one side. He occupied a very individual position in the face of events. I find his analysis overly cramped and dogged when it comes to deeper social questions, but intense and immediate in documenting lived experience.

He’s a committed Marxist. That was part of the book’s fascination for me, that bit of Marxist history.

Absolutely, and, in that sense, it really does belong to its time. I find McCann doctrinaire in his social philosophy, but I don’t find him doctrinaire about the situation in Northern Ireland. Here he tries to understand — whilst not endorsing — ‘Provisional’ republicanism [the militant wing, which endorses violence]. He is also disposed to criticise the rival Official Irish Republican Army and party. He thus takes issue with a range of nationalist opinion, but I think what is valuable about the book is its on-the-ground perspective.

There’s a compelling passage, at one point, where he is talking about experts being wheeled in to discuss the Northern Ireland problem, and pronouncing on the importance and necessity of separating die-hard militants from the moderates in the ghettos. Yet, as McCann points out, what the self-appointed cognoscenti haven’t realised, is that in practice that means separating fathers from sons, brothers from sisters, mothers from fathers…

This is a man who minds. There’s nothing sentimental about the book, but there is a huge sense of hurt and abandonment — not so much personally, but at the way the Irish had been abandoned. 

I would certainly say that a very strong and unreconstructed impulse in the book is to ascribe responsibility for the current conflict — as it then was — to one primary agent, and that’s British government forces. I myself see that as overstrained and implausible. Nonetheless, it does capture the sense of Catholic disenfranchisement in the aftermath of 1968. There’s an appeal to the British government against the local Protestant administration, and there’s a sense that that appeal is not going to meet with an adequate response.

“Just 10 years previously the Catholic population had been publicly professing a settled reluctance to revisit the issue of partition.”

So there is an overwhelming sense of disempowerment, if you like, part of which of course was stoked ideologically by people like McCann. But he remains incisive about popular perceptions. Of course, perception may operate at a remove from truth. His subject matter is less naked reality than the impact of tutored perspectives. The value of the book lies in its capturing sharply a particular viewpoint that ended up being highly consequential. What it succeeds in explaining is why there was such a huge swelling in the ranks of the Provisional republican position. That’s where I think the interest of the book lies, in explaining the drift towards militancy among large sections of the Catholic population, who just 10 years previously had been endorsing an entirely different agenda and publicly professing a settled reluctance to revisit the issue of partition, not to mention the almost absolute absence of support for any form of insurgency.

It’s got an interesting section about Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders, and employment statistics. He’s emphasizing economics, as he would – he’s a Marxist – but he’s absolutely right. There was not merely the Protestant ascendancy in Ulster but gross, gross impoverishment, which the British on the mainland neglected desperately.

It’s difficult to say that Britain was exactly neglecting it. I suppose, historically, British policy makers felt themselves to be between a rock and a hard place. They had originally supported a particular outcome, namely equitable reunification, but were seen as being identified with the obstacles to that outcome, and by extension with the provincial injustices that had developed in the six counties. Therefore, by the late 60s, Westminster was extremely reluctant to get involved at all. There was still an ongoing historical memory of the catastrophically counterproductive nature of British involvement in the teens and the 20s.

How far did the history of Ireland during the two World Wars — as opposed to what happened in the 20s — entrench popular attitudes?

World War I was a complicated story because lots of Irish Catholics fought and died in it. Thus a great many Irishmen fought in defence of the British Empire, or, perhaps more accurately, of a reformed Empire; that was the reality on the ground. In the midst of that, there occurred a counter-imperial insurgency, which was largely ridiculed and certainly took place without any ascertainable form of popular endorsement. Nonetheless, despite having been an unpopular, vanguardist insurgency, it belatedly and curiously, after the fact, won for itself popular acclamation. This complicates utterly the Irish relationship to the First World War because the anti-imperial position was, thereafter, in the ascendant. So that’s a very particular and complex moment, which polarised north and south; there’s no doubt about that. Southern Ireland can’t fully own the depth of its investment in the First World War, which it actually, originally did have. Whereas the north—  that is to say the northern majority Protestant population — can and does.

“Southern Ireland can’t fully own the depth of its investment in the First World War.”

The Second World War, I’m not sure was so profoundly formative, though there is no doubt that it entrenched divisions that already existed. Southern Ireland was neutral and Northern Ireland was actively involved, but I don’t think that this experience drastically polarised opinion between north and south; the die was already cast.

The post-war period was, in many ways, more consequential than the war itself because it transformed educational and social provision in Northern Ireland, and, in the context of declining industries, this proved deeply significant. It meant that the Catholic working classes achieved new levels of education. The generation of 1968 were beneficiaries of that change. Rising expectations among Catholics heightened awareness about established inequities relating to housing, jobs, the local franchise, and so forth. On the other side, there was a reviving Protestant posture of entitlement to an ascendant position, which, remarkably, was being stoked under conditions of declining economic security on the margins of a dissolving empire.

In the McCann, there’s a scene he describes where a man has basically been butchered – some kind of sexual criminal with young girls. He talks about the vigilante branches of the IRA. Two things struck me about this: firstly, the extent to which there was apparently no public popular dissent at this kind of vigilante brutality, and secondly, the extent to which this has persisted amongst loyalist paramilitary groups a generation later.

I think that the vigilante situation was indissociable from the lack of a cross-community, effective policing service.

And utter distrust of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary].

From a Catholic perspective there were good reasons to be distrustful in 1968 and 1969, there’s no doubt about that. I think the vigilante role was an outgrowth of the defence role. The defence role emerged especially after 1969, which saw the burning of Catholics out of their homes in ghetto areas. So the population swung behind defence organisations, and the most prominent defence organisations were the assorted versions of the IRA — principally the Official and Provisional IRAs. The story of McCann’s book really is how this popular street-level defence role was the vehicle by means of which popular consent swung behind anti-partitionist politics.

“I don’t myself regard this inevitabilism as productive of genuine insight.”

He presents this as inevitable. I don’t really see it as having been inevitable. I think you could regroup for defence and hold your ground and not wish to raise the whole underlying constitutional issue again, i.e. the question of whether the state should be partitioned or not. McCann sees this outcome as having been predetermined, or at least inescapable under the circumstances. I don’t myself regard this inevitabilism as productive of genuine insight. Nonetheless, I do think the sense of vulnerability that McCann invokes, which drew people into local defence committees and therefore allied them to a particular political perspective, is a compelling part of his story.

He’s no pal of the Cruiser is he?

No, that’s certainly true. There’s a section in the memoir where McCann comments that he is aware that political turmoil has made the discussion of Irish history itself at once controversial and polemical. He talks about the deployment of history in Ireland for political purposes, parenthetically arguing that ‘of course this would not be understood by Conor Cruise O’Brien’ — namely, that history is a kind of resource, a fallback option, even a form of consolation for those who feel themselves to have lost politically. This, McCann urges, is what needs to be understood: that history had become both a weapon and a means of consolation. That, we can all see, is very unlikely to make for good history, but nonetheless we also need to grasp why people repair to it in that way. Their recourse perhaps deserves to be better understood instead of being made an object of condescending contempt.

On that note let’s move on to your next choice, States of Ireland. How much sympathy do you have—not so much politically, but as a coherent analysis—for Conor Cruise O’Brien?

I have more sympathy with his judgement regarding the potential for escalation than I do with the deeper analysis that he developed to uphold it. Conor Cruise O’Brien was a very—perhaps an incomparably—powerful intellectual presence in southern Ireland when I was a teenager: he exerted a considerable yet controversial influence. He was admired and reviled in equal measure.

That was an age when I was starting to read newspapers, so I certainly remember Sundays, when he was editor of the Observer.

O’Brien worked for the United Nations in the early 1960s. He then occupied the position of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Ghana. By the late 1960s he held an academic post at New York University. He then returned to Ireland and entered Irish politics as a Labour party TD [Teachta Dála, member of the Irish parliament]. In due course he ended up as a minister in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. After he lost his seat he became editor of the Observer newspaper in London. Thereafter he largely became a campaigner, a publicist, and a freelance writer. Some would argue that, ultimately, he descended into a parody of himself – as many fêted intellectuals-turned-polemicists do. Yet he certainly was, in the 70s, peerless in terms of his powers of political analysis.

I think he uses the phrase, in the book, of ‘the Shirt of Nessus‘. He talks about the Catholic north putting on the Shirt of Nessus. I can see why that doesn’t make him terribly popular. 

Conor Cruise O’Brien built his reputation as a critic of what he chose to term ‘nationalism.’ But the truth is that he was himself a southern Irish nationalist who saw nothing but destabilising potential in the rise of rebellious, irredentist doctrine in the north. So much of his project was about securing the stability of the South against the tremendous forces of disintegration in the north. He was very much a critic of what he saw as the most potent ideology capable of connecting the fate of the north to the south — namely modern Irish republicanism. That, in the end, was his real target. Of course, it’s true, Northern Irish republicanism did have enormous potential to destabilize the South — as it succeeded in doing in the late 60s and again during the hunger strikes. O’Brien’s analysis is not exactly false. However, his account of the motivations driving republicanism, though highly influential, seems to me fanciful – abusing his antagonists in terms of their supposed reversion to a species of atavistic tribalism. I find this less than convincing, even superstitious, in its own way.

There’s an element of detachment. He seems quite detached from the north.

I’m not at all sure that’s right, though it’s true that his constituency was down south. After Bloody Sunday, he almost swung behind the Ireland-wide nationalist option, so he wasn’t immune to the kind of sentiment he liked to denounce. I don’t see him as emotionally detached, but I do see him as having made a political calculation about the necessity for the south to detach itself. In actual fact, he informed himself about the north more than most, and spent some time there, and wrote about it sympathetically from fairly early on. I just think he believed it was essential not to get drawn in, emotionally, by the rhetoric of republicanism — which had been generated by the south in the 1912-23 period but had now found a home in the north. So while his bête noire was a southern creation, it persisted as a northern threat, and he wanted to dismantle it on the grounds of southern raison d’état.

It could come back and bite him in the backside, couldn’t it?

What he opposed covertly perhaps challenged his intellectual consistency, less the integrity of his political choices.

One of his ideas is the way the word ‘Protestantism’ is used as a generalised term of abuse.

That may be. I would think that needs some refinement, myself. In the south there was antagonism against northern unionist Protestantism, but I don’t think there was an energised hostility to Protestantism as a sectarian program commonly shared in the south. Of course, there’s a very small Protestant population, but I went to a mixed school in the south of County Dublin and growing up there, I don’t remember any religious hostility – ever, at all. Though perhaps my exposure was limited. I do remember, clearly, animosity to northern loyalism and unionism. In practice this meant Protestants. Southern Protestantism was altogether different, however.

Lastly, let’s talk about Seamus Deane and Celtic Revivals.

Seamus Deane, though viewing things from a different angle from McCann, was also deeply hostile to O’Brien. Again, he emerged out of a younger generation. He is also, crucially, from the north rather than the south, a product of Queen’s University Belfast who did graduate work in Cambridge, and then spent time in the United States. His great interest was the English literary tradition, together with its related intellectual traditions, though he was also naturally absorbed by specifically Irish culture and the conditions of its historical formation. Deane returned to Ireland to take up an academic post in Dublin, where for a number of decades he gained prominence as an effortlessly eloquent intellectual. He was very much taken up with the mood of outrage shared by Derry Catholics about developments in the late 60s and early 70s. That outrage was easily converted into periodic bouts of antagonism towards Conor Cruise O’Brien. Celtic Revivals is a luminous work of literary analysis and literary history. What is interesting is the extent to which the forces that shaped the historical profession in Ireland are also evident in this book — that is to say a preoccupation with the relationship between culture, moral outrage and history.

“All subsequent Irish writers are, to some extent, living in the shadows of Yeats and Joyce.”

I see the book as advancing the argument that a certain Irish literary predicament was shaped by a bruising historical past. The predicament in question can be encapsulated as follows: the burden of history is inescapable for the Irish writer, largely because their present is conditioned by a succession of dramatic, often violent and sometimes traumatic dislocations. Deane sees the Irish writer as unable to withdraw from the obduracy of history. Incarceration by the past ignited tremendous moral passion—rather than structured political insight or a program of action—and, as a result, the Irish writer is invariably driven to develop literary solutions to inescapably practical problems. Thus Stephen Dedalus—to take us back to where we began—is forced to navigate a course through the multiple legacies of Irish history. Yet in order to ‘fly’ by the nets of Catholicism and nationalism he embarks, in exile, upon the project of forging in the ‘smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ That is to say, opting to realise in imagination what was not available socially and politically. Joyce offered an essentially aesthetic response to seemingly intractable political difficulties.

Does Deane pick up Heaney in this collection?

Yes, he does; Heaney was a close school-friend and one-time collaborator of Deane, though his role in Celtic Revivals is rather tangential to the main argument. The book as a whole is structured around the rise of that more or less absurd abstraction, ‘Irishness.’ The story began, as far as Deane is concerned, with Edmund Burke who provided a singularly compelling diagnosis of the Irish political predicament. Elements of that diagnosis were duly adopted by Victorian men of letters, most creatively perhaps by Mathew Arnold. Arnold added his own mystical brew of dubious ethnic theory. In order to explain why it was that misshapen Irish political arrangements were not amenable to British liberal political solutions, Arnold came up with the idea of the Irish or ‘Celtic’ sensibility or ‘race’ being somehow culturally incompatible with ‘English’ Normanism and Puritanism. It was a benignly intended yet flabby thesis, prone to radical misconceptions. Arnold was thus among the first to develop an elaborate cultural stereotypification of ‘Irishness’, indirectly giving rise to much modern debate about national ‘identity.’ Deane is right that this was basically a misbegotten enterprise. Regrettably it still dominates much historical discussion.

Do you see modern Irish writers or literary figures contributing to this literary tradition? What about Colm Tóibín?

Traditions are usually belated constructions. I think Yeats and Joyce strove to escape the mental straitjackets imposed by prevailing attitudes in Ireland. They did so with energy and inventiveness, but also with eccentricity. All subsequent Irish writers are, to some extent, living in the shadows of Yeats and Joyce. They left an incredibly rich terrain for future literary cultivation. It remains to be seen whether their achievement limited the chances of innovation. One thing is certain: Irish history remains the defining horizon of the Irish literary imagination.

Interview by David Hargreaves

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