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The Fight for Irish History December 13, 2007

Posted by guestposter in Ireland, Irish History, Irish Politics, The Left.


A post from our contributor Garibaldy….

As every good lefty knows, the cold, dead hand of history weighs heavily on the living generations. And that has certainly been the case in Irish history, as the recent Hidden History programme set out to explore. If a sense of history has been a key factor in Irish identity, second perhaps only to religion, then it should be no surprise that in an era that has seen the reshaping of Irish identity, by a range of economic, social and political forces, that the interpretation of Irish history has been hugely controversial. The Republic of the Celtic Tiger requires a new narrative, one of achievement, of verve, of success, of progress – in short, of triumph. The worries about the Vanishing Irish of the 1950s, of emigration, of the grinding poverty of the majority of the population have been forgotten. They are the past – in the words of the old cliché, a foreign country. The emergence of a new historiography telling a newly confident society what it wants to hear is inevitable, and the shoots of this historiographical revolution sprouted in the writing surrounding the commemorations of the 1990s. Controversy would inevitably follow, most noticeably with the publication of Tom Dunne’s Rebellions, which denounced the 1798 commemorations. While economics lies at the heart of the transformation of Irish people’s sense of themselves, the Troubles had already produced a comprehensive questioning of the old verities among the Irish political and intellectual classes – the dreaded Revisionism.

However, revisionism (with a small ‘r’ to use Brendan Bradshaw’s distinction) had deeper roots stemming from the way history in Ireland has been written since the 1930s, when Robin Dudley Edwards and Theodore W. Moody – influenced by time spent at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research – and others set up Irish Historical Studies. The aim of the new journal was to professionalize the writing of Irish history – in other words to ensure that arguments would be based on archival evidence and to remove the political passions and myths from the realms of academic history. The approach quickly spread throughout the island’s universities, and all subsequent history undergraduates have benefited or suffered as a result. One product of the new approach was the submission in 1966 to the Jesuit journal Studies of an article by Father Francis Shaw on ‘The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge’. The piece was rejected for fear of provoking uproar during the 50th anniversary of 1916. Eventually published in Studies in 1972, it is sometimes regarded as the first example of Revisionism. In fact, this point was made in Hidden History, but without reference to the fact it had first been written in 1966. Revisionism’s roots therefore lie not in the Troubles but in the failures of the Irish state to deliver on the promise of 1916.

Undoubtedly, it was nevertheless the Troubles that made Revisionism a major factor in Irish culture and politics. As Irish historians collectively recoiled in horror from the violence of the north, they set about rethinking how they wrote history, desperately seeking to avoid giving credence or succour to terrorism (the idea that propaganda needed and received a riposte from the academy expressed in the programme). Historic uses of violence in particular came under close scrutiny, and new virtues were found in figures like Redmond. Again, Tom Dunne’s book is the most revealing insight into this process. By 1983, Roy Foster could triumphantly declare ‘We are all revisionists now’. In 1989, Brendan Bradshaw published his ‘Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland’, which mounted an attack on supposedly value-free history, ironically in Irish Historical Studies. Effectively, Bradshaw argued that history served a social function in bonding society together, especially in a country like Ireland with its history of conquest, colonization, and conflict. Bradshaw consciously echoed of the debate over the Whig version of history that had allowed the British to feel so smug about their parliamentary government in the 19th century by convincing them they were the most liberal and advanced nation of earth. In a telling phrase, he defended the traditional version of Irish history, “its wrongness notwithstanding”.

This argument was the background to Hidden History, which brought together many of Ireland’s leading historians. It was referred to, but never really brought out fully. The programme mixed some questions of the type liable to cause arguments in the pub, like the most overrated and underrated events in Irish history (alright, in a very nerdy pub anyway) with more academic issues like the basic principles that should guide a historian. For anyone familiar with the newspaper columns of Ronan Fanning, his absolute rigid adherence to the theory of writing history in a cold unemotional way may have seemed surprising. A historian does not have to write propaganda to be influenced by his own beliefs, and while historians may like believe to they work in a value-free zone, the reality is very different. Very many historians, including some of those on the programme, are thoroughbred political animals, and it is not intellectually honest to pretend otherwise. John A. Murphy’s point that an historian needed the imagination to emphasise with the mindsets of the people he studied seems much more realistic, and more useful than the illusion of objectivity.

One of the failures of Revisionism has been that it has undoubtedly created a gulf between the mindsets of historians and the people they have studied regarding violence, nationalism, and (and this is due to secularism rather than Revisionism) religion. This failure to understand the mentality of previous generations, added to the application of ahistorical, 20th and 21st century values, has poisoned our understanding of many areas of Irish history, especially in the 20th century. The participants in 1916 or 1919-23 are denounced as blood-crazed, undemocratic, solipsistic, fascists, while the formation of the UVF and events in the north are ignored. The cooperation of elements of republicanism with Germany is decried while the Blueshirts are exonerated from being fascists, and the widespread support for Germany and anti-semitism within both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are ignored. The list could go on. The Troubles unbalanced the writing of Irish history, and we have not yet found a satisfactory corrective approach.

This was the aim of the post-revisionists who emerged in the early 1990s, and who were backed by the Irish government. The key figures here are Bertie Ahern, who has openly criticized revisionists, Martin Mansergh, and Kevin Whelan. Again, the north is key. The 1990s saw the 150th anniversary of the Famine, and more importantly for historiography, the commemorations of the events of the 1790s which were noticeable primarily by their absence from the Hidden History programme. Firstly, no-one mentioned 1798 as either over or underrated – the one time when Protestants acted in pursuit of national independence – nor was the sustained argument over the packaging of history to suit the government’s political agenda in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement mentioned. Although the programme was clearly short on time, making the absence of economic and social history understandable, there is little excuse for ignoring the emergence of a new school of history specifically aimed at the post-revisionists, and openly sponsored by the government. There is a major challenge here to the value-free Irish Historical Studies tradition (Moody would never have declared himself a croppy historian in the way Whelan did). Is this challenge old nationalist wine in new postcolonial bottles, or does it represent something else? What of the embracing of the 1916 celebrations last year by the public? These are major issues for the Irish state, culture and society, and they were regrettably absent.

Brendan Bradshaw stood out as different from the rest. He clearly retains the feeling of membership of an historic Irish nation that the others lack. Where Roy Foster and Ciarán Brady displayed an inherent skepticism about the room at the Shelbourne where the Free State constitution was crafted, Bradshaw felt at home because of the amount of history and politics discussed there. Although others like Bew felt a sense of history, only Bradshaw felt connected to the room and what had happened there. And in fact it is exactly this sense of connectedness, of being part of a state with a continuous political history, that the New Labour government is trying to foster among British schoolchildren. In an Ireland with mass immigration, the creation of a communal, civic identity is also of increasing importance. It could be that while the past belongs to the Revisionists, the future belongs to Bradshaw.


1. ejh - December 13, 2007

They are the past – in the words of the old cliché, a foreign country.

Well, the words of LP Hartley actually.


2. ejh - December 13, 2007

Incidentally, Paul Bew is reviewed by Roy Foster here.


3. Starkadder - December 13, 2007

Interestingly, I was reading “Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism” by Ciaran Brady in the public library
last week. The book contains essays by Desmond Fennell and
Bradshaw attacking “revisionism” (of the Roy Foster school) as
a movement designed to discredit Irish nationalism and glorify
British rule in Ireland. Indeed,Fennell’s essay in the late
eighties arguably brought the “R” word into the public sphere
in Ireland. Although I’m sure the late Liam De Paor was
attacking “anti-nationalist” Irish Historians in the mid-70s.


4. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007


I’d have thought that the term was in public use before Fennell’s argument, not least because of the Cruiser. Foster’s article ‘We are All Revisionists Now’ is from 1986 and not 1983 as I said above. If you look at the reviews of Foster’s ‘Modern Ireland’ from 1988 you can see references to revisionism in them. I’m fairly certain that nationalists were denouncing revisionists by the era of the Hunger Strikes, but can’t say 100%. That collection is very interesting, but the anti-revisionists do come across as slightly hysterical in it, especially Fennell.

I also meant to say in the piece above that Revisionism is not monolithic. People like Bew in the 1970s and early 1980s were attacking the old story of Ireland from a completely different perspective to the likes of Ruth Dudley Edwards and O’Brien. That was lost in the programme too.


5. Idris of Dungiven - December 13, 2007

I’d say also you could argue that James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History is the first ‘revisionist’ work of Irish history, in that it tackles head on what were then a lot of the official myths of Irish history.

Revision, after all, is the normal business of historians. It all depends on what is being revised, and why, and whether or not the revisions in question take us closer to what really happened or further away from it.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I used to know Peter Hart socially, in a vague sort of ‘say hello if we meet on Botanic Avenue’ kind of way).


6. Fred - December 13, 2007

Good article but I think it is draw back to even mention Bertie Ahern as having a view on anything but lying his own pockets. as someone who works near to him I think I can state that he is one of the blankest most moronical things I’ve ever seen.


7. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

Fennell’s ideas are completely barmy, even for a right-winger.

Great article, Garibaldy. Irish historiography still has to confront Hayden White and Metahistory, never mind a widening of subject matter include genuine “people” history, or history from below. A lot of what passes for historical debate in Ireland is the concern with the intepretation of the same events and the same facts. As Emmet O’Connor puts it, Irish historiography is constantly reinventing the nationalist wheel. At the same time, vast areas of our past remain untouched.


8. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

Even now, we’re in danger of discussing a definition of “revisionism” – of revising the word and its use in Ireland instead of actually getting down to what constitutes historical study in Ireland.

Can I just cut to the chase and say that Revisionism depends on what you want to revise. In America, for example, revisionism is associated with holocaust denial. Let’s not go down the road of assuming that Irish historiography can get around some serious critical analysis by attaching itself to a word which lacks a universal static meaning. Call yourself a revisionist historian in America and you’re saying “the holocaust never hapened.”

Revisionism depends on what you want to revise. and the one thing that is NOT revised by the revisionists in Ireland is the placing of the Catholic Middle Class at the centre of its own Whig history.

Irish revisionists revise nationalist myths. They do not seem to revise the object of study. Of course, that is changing, but slowly. I’m thinking of the ongoing research into 19th century Ireland based around the Irish poor law system.


9. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

Sorry for all of this. I should just head off and think first, but I just wanted to say that there is a small but significant difference between the revisionism of Irish Historical Studies in1938 and the Revisionism of the 1960-1980s. Moody and co. were concerned with revising myths and methodology, whereas in the last 30 years or so, nationalist myths/facts has remained the focus. Methodology, per se, has not been revised. The object of study, a little bit more, but not much.


10. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007


I mentioned Ahern not for his intellectual capacity, but because without his personal involvement in, and enthusiasm for, the commemorations, they would not have been so extensive. There was a lot of money into them by the Irish state, and I thought it important to include him. Mansergh is the intellectual driving force, but without Bertie’s support, he could have achieved a lot less.


I agree entirely with your last post, no.9. Bradshaw made that point in the documentary, and I think WBS referred to it in his post of the programme, which I tried not to replicate, so maybe I should have been more explicit.

I also agree Irish historians need to pay more attention to other factors. Except for Louis Cullen (an interesting absence as he was also central to the revision of the revisionist version of 1798), Liam Kennedy, and Cormac Ó Gráda, economic historians of standing are few and far between. Social history has seen some fantastic work, influenced by E.P. Thompson/George Rudé/Eric Hobsbawm, but many of those historians have been drawn towards the political.

One of the weaknesses of Irish historiography has indeed been its almost total refusal to engage with the theory of history (Fanning typifies the majority approach), but I think that we’re all better off without Hayden White! Leave postmodernism to the French and the Yanks.


11. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

I didn’t see the programme so I can’t really talk about it, but I’d be a big fan of Hayden White. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything, but his ideas are certainly challenging.

And that’s where I have a problem. Where’s the challenge to Irish historiography? I mean, what is it for? When you think about White’s ideas around style and story-telling, you can certainly apply them to Ireland.

Also, because Irish historiography has simply ignored the ideas of Hayden White, it means that it has missed out on the rebuttal of some of those ideas by the likes of Paul Ricoeur, for example. This thirty-year debate on the philosophy of memory and history has passed Irish historiography by. Now, during those thirty years it declared that a revisionism was going on, but it was one that, in essence, remained a Whig interpretation of events – all of Irish history is one great march towards the rise of the Catholic Middle Class, instead of, in very simple terms, the previous view of all of Irish history is one long march towards freedom.

This is before you get into the mentality that Irish history was marching towards partition, and the rise of the Southern Irish middle class.


12. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

It’s a fair point about the insularity, and how we are getting a new narrative of the glory of the southern bourgeoisie. I think we’ll see more of a Whig version emerge in the next decade or so (think of all the commemorations the government can splurge cash on). Revisionism I’d say was motivated to a much greater extent by depression and the belief in the unchanging nature of an atavistic struggle. Paul Bew’s new book, Ireland 789-2006, The Politics of Enmity is a depressing return to this type of history by someone so much more sophisticated and imaginative in the past.

On memory, there are a couple of things you might be interested in if you can get a hold of them. One is edited by Ian McBride and is called something like History and Memory in Modern Ireland. And the other is Guy Beiner’s book, called something like The Year of the French, about the folk memory of 1798 in the west of Ireland, and which is the first Irish history book to seriously engage with the history of memory at a theoretical level.


13. ejh - December 13, 2007

It’s not really “revisionism” that’s the problem to much as the desire to psychopathologise – to treat certain individuals, movements and organisations and simply embodiments of mental abnormality, motivated by “hate” or a lust for power or what you will. This of course mirrors a tendency in a certain strand of politics to do just that, to delegitimise all political ideas and experiences outwith a certain, narrow band of politics associated with the socially progressive and economically conservative professional classes.


14. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

I hadn’t heard of Guy Beiner’s book, so I must check that out. Cheers. There’s a couple of interesting things coming out of Anthropology with relation to Ireland. I’m thinking of Marilyn Silverman’s book on the working class in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny.

By the way, it always makes me laugh that, according to the mainstream, Ireland is the only country in the world to have developed a middle class without, apparently, a concurrent working class or ruling class.

Rather like the Golgafrinchans in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ireland’s middle class exist outside of a class dynamic. They arrive, in their bathtubs, and that’s it.

Ejh, I agree. A section of Irish revisionism has taken on the traits you describe.


15. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

EJD – a brilliant description of the Harrisites.


The point you make is well taken. Part of the reason it’s so depressing to see Bew turn his back on that type of history.


16. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2007

Actually I have an interesting piece written by Henry Patterson on the State of Marxism in Ireland from back in the day from a WP publication which dovetails with this. I might post it up if you like over the weekend…


17. Starkadder - December 13, 2007

I would suspect that a certain type of “revisionism” was promoted
with the explicit aim of undermining the Provos. EJH is right that it
has the aim of completly demonising its targets-Harris is
an excellent example.

Another example of anti-Provo “revisionism” (and forgive me for going back to one of my interests) was in the magazine “Workers Weekly”
in the 1970s. This was the B&ICO’s journal, and in the Jan. 18th
1975 edition they praised John A. Murphy’s work for finally
breaking free from the “Catholic-Nationalist” model of History.

Another citation would the Cruiser’s infamous book “the Siege”,
which recasts Ulster Unionists, Zionists and Afrikaners as
oppressed minorities.


18. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2007

Hmmm… any chance of scans of those articles?

I’d agree entirely. There was a strong political aspect to a lot of this. And it melded with a media that was beginning to flex its muscles across a range of areas. It also, and here I think it runs in contradiction to the program was during a period where the complexities of history were much easier ignored in favour of simple supposed nostrums about Irish history (Garibaldy’s point about the ahistorical readings, or actual ignoring of the more difficult aspects of Irish history i.e. the Blueshirts, or the original UVF.. are written out of the picture). Complexity is their enemy – although in fairness, ‘800 years’ is a pretty straighforward simplification as well…


19. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007


Posting that Patterson thing would be most interesting. Although again, I think Patterson is working on the internal politics of the Ulster Unionist Party as opposed to class conflict now. This is of course a reflection of the decline in social history, and the shift among former left historians to other types of history, particularly cultural history.

Many revisionists say they are about complicating Irish history – in fact this was something that several people on the programme mentioned. I just worry that the northern situation has resulted in the reading back of current tensions back to the past, without regard for differences. So instead of a single story of resistance to British oppression, we get a single story of sectarian hatred. With no space for anything else, or the other futures that might have happened. 1798 again being the key one, though Bew’s new book uses the Act of Union is another. A Union with Emancipation, he implies, would have short-circuited the development of nationalism in the 19th century, and Irish people would indeed have become west Britons.
Conor’s points about other types of history come into their own here.

I think Starkadder’s point is a good one – although BICO might be seen as anti-everybody instead of just anti-Provo.


20. Starkadder - December 13, 2007

As for “revisionism” in other countries, I’d say Howard Zinn
and James W. Loewen are revisionist in challenging the
traditional narrative of US history with their attention to
class and race in that history. Both are firmly on
the political left.
But in an Irish context,I’d say Foster, Dudley Edwards, etc.
would be on the right in this context. Their ideas would
be opposed by both “traditionalist” (anti-revisionist) and
Marxist historians like Anthony Coughlan and D.R. O’Connor

WBS, if I ever get the scanner working again,I might send
you some old documents. The early issues of the
Irish Political Review are very different to the modern incarnation.
Lots of Avro Manhattan-style anti-Catholicism, praise for
the SAS for shooting the Gibraltar trio (April ’88) and a fairly
chilling hagiography of Stalin by John Martin (Sep. ’88).
Oddly, there were also attacks on the Workers Party (May ’88)
and C.C. O’Brien (Sep. ’89)-people normally thought to
be on the same side as B&ICO.


21. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

I don’t think BICO and The WP were ever on the same side. Some people did come from BICO to The WP. And elements within the soon to be DL did begin to parrot crypto-BICO rhetoric, but WP policy was never anything close to BICO’s, and relations were never particularly friendly. For a start, one was commited to an all-island republic, and the other wasn’t.

The political position of revisionism defintely depends on the context. There is no international revisionist position. So as Starkadder says some US revisionists are left wing, but as was point out earlier in the comments, Holocaust deniers there are also known as revisionist. Marxist historians like Bew and Patterson were revisionist in Ireland, whereas revisionists in the French Revolution were anti-Marxist. I think a better classification of Irish revisionists than right-wing is liberal – they wanted a more plural, secular state that was not in thrall to Catholic social teaching. And a historiography that was not in thrall to Catholic nationalism. Hence the sometimes overemphasis on people like Yeats.

I’d love to see that IPR from April 1988 Starkadder if you can get it sorted out. I might even go to the library for it myself sometime if you can’t.


22. Lalor - December 13, 2007

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”-Milan Kundera.
Harris is hardly a historian, more a propagandist. But one does get the impression that the Harris coterie,-be they regarded as historians or propagandists-do have some preconceived ideal version of the course Irish history would have taken but for.. this or that, but for republicanism, but for failure to concede Catholic emancipation, etc. There is an aspect of this in the current developing debate around the Good Friday agreement-the settlement could have occurred back when, but for…
Hazelkorn years ago wrote a piece about Marx and Ireland lamenting that Marx was looking at Ireland through green glasses, that Marx lost it when it came to Ireland, that he was not being ‘marxist’. One still gets the distinct impression that ‘revisionism’ is an attempt to force the interpretation of Ireland’s past into a preconceived schema, one that supports the established power structure. Can historiography ever be ‘purged’ of ideology?


23. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

It certainly can’t be purged of ideology.

It’s interesting that people now see revisionists as supporting the establishment, when they always regarded themselves as challenging the establishment. I think it’s true to say now that some of the controversialist revisionists in the newspapers write in support of the establishment, but 25 or 30 years ago pushing a class interpretation of Irish history (sometimes as part of a broader political agenda) was hardly supporting the establishment.


24. Starkadder - December 13, 2007

Ellen Hazelhorn and her husband Eric Byrne were
invovled in the “right-wing” (Harrisite) faction of the WP, I’m sure. Another part of their coterie was Austen Morgan,
whose biography of Connolly is reportedly the worst book
on its subject. Strong anti-Provo agenda there.

I agree with Garibaldy about people wanting a more secular
Ireland, and emphasising their history accordingly.
(Athough Yeats, though anti-Christian, was hardly secular-
he believed in Magic,Theosophy, and Spiritualism!).


25. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007


They were involved in the people who went DL (though the future DL were also involved in expelling Harris). Morgan was never a member, though I agree entirely with your assessment of his Connolly biography. The study of Yeats and his circle is part of the (correct) agenda of studying diffferent types of Irishness, and that was how I meant him fitting into a more liberal/secular agenda.


26. Eamonn - December 13, 2007

You can believe in magic, theosophy and spiritualism and still be a secularist. Secularism means thinking that the state should keep oout of religion and that the religious have no right to have their views being given special consideration by the state


27. Eamonn - December 13, 2007

Howard Zinn, friend of/apologist for every propellor-headed bunch of religious nutjobs going, is a leftist?


28. Eamonn - December 13, 2007

At the risk of stating the fecking obvious…

The writing of history, if it’s being done any way seriously, is an intrinsically revisionist activity regardless of the class perspective of the author.

Summarising on an operatic scale: Hayden White = what happened in the past is *all* a matter of opinon. If we go down that road then we can forget about any concept like justice. Being a leftie involves a committment to the idea that some sort of stab, however cautious and limited, can be made at separating facts from opinions . That goes for the past as well as the present.

Those who haven’t already should read Richard J. Evans, “In Defence of History


29. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007


Thanks for the info on Zinn. And agree entirely on the fact that the Left must reject postmodernism, otherwise it stops being the left. Evans’ book is excellent, although I’ve found common sense to be enough to avoid the trap of White’s thoughts.


30. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

One small point. Hayden White does not say that what happened in the past is all a matter of opinion. White highlighted the use of literary device in the act of telling the past, and explained how these devices influence the “plot” that the historian/ author has decided on. while everyone else was going on about sources, White shows us that style influences the “plot” of historical writing just as much as the sources themselves. The recent little storm over Coolacrease is just crying out for a Hayden White approach. In fact, the “plot” approach of many Irish histories would get ripped to shreds by Metahistory, and rightly so.

White, however, doesn’t have it his own way on this. To summarise in one line, Paul Ricoeur says that the act of storytelling is not divorced from the act of reporting the truth. We make sense of the world through stories, not in spite of them. The act of the historian is to tell the story of the past, but in such a way as to ensure that it retains its truth-function. to quote Ricoeur:

“today it is a lost cause to bind the narrative character of history to one particular form of history, narrative history. In this regard, my thesis concerning the ultimately narrative character of history in no way is to be confused with a defense of narrative history. My second conviction is that if history were to break every connection to our basic competence for following a story and to the cognitive operations constitutive of our narrative understanding… it would lose its distinctive place in the chorus of social science. It would cease to be historical.”

Of course, Irish historiography can just ignore that such an international debate has taken place, and carry on with its business of working out whether Sinn Féin are cunts or not.


31. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

Just to clarify, I’m talking about Irish historiography here, not the commentators on this board.


32. ejh - December 13, 2007

Howard Zinn, friend of/apologist for every propellor-headed bunch of religious nutjobs going, is a leftist?

Yes and don’t be silly?


33. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

Great stuff Conor. Although of course, very few – if any – Irish historians would regard themselves as part of the social sciences, and in fairness this would be the case in the UK and quite of the Anglophone world. So in that sense Ricoeur is starting from a point Irish historians would not recognise. The crude empiricist approach has constricted Irish historiography. I like theory personally, particularly the use of anthropological and sociological techniques, within sensible bounds. But I think the whole White thing and the responses to him were a dead end to start with. And in fairness many Irish historians are aware of these types of things, they just feel it has little to add.


34. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2007

Fair point about secularism Eamonn.


35. Garibaldy - December 13, 2007

Indeed it was. One of the reasons Yeats gets dragged up so much was his opposition to the banning of divorce by the Free State in the Senate. He’s a good person to use for that. Although funnily not as much is made of his fascism.


36. WorldbyStorm - December 13, 2007

Yes, that’s true as well.


37. Conor McCabe - December 13, 2007

What gets me about sources is that Irish historiography has decided that documents are King. Now, for someone working in social/ working class history, this presents a couple of problems. first of all, the type of people we’re talking about do not leave their memoirs with the National Library. for the most part, they do not enter the world of Irish historical documents in the way that, say, political or cultural enter it. so, from the start, the documents are limited.

Secondly, when working class people DO enter the world of Irish historical documents, it is usually through government reports on crime, poverty, health, housing, etc. In other words, the main way for the working class to enter Irish historiography is through the documents/reports created in response to the problems of working class life. The idea of working class as a problem is the defining characteristic of mainstream Irish historiography, if for no other reason than the fact these reports remain the mainstay of the Irish historian.

Now, in order to get around this, those of us who are interested in exploring the life of the Irish working class need to look at ways of analysing the type of information that IS left behind by working class people. That means stuff like wedding photos, postcards, wallpaper, sports, pubs, gigs, – physical places, and the ephemera invested in such. On top of that, we need to start exploring oral interviews – in other words, the techniques explored by disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology AND history- the marriage of which European circles goes back 60 years.

now, personally, I find all of this quite exciting. and yet… where’s the energy? Programmes in RTE about who shot who in the bollicks? More PhDs that are reinventing the nationalist wheel? discussions about the Irish working class in terms of crime, health, poverty, emigration? and, in the case of 1912-1923, complete and utter dismisiveness as we already know the “plot” – the consolidation of the inevitable: the rise of the Southern Irish Middle Class?

tiny point at the end. I’ve given enough papers at history conferences to know that there’s more reaction from a rabbit in front of a headlight than from an Irish historian when Hayden White’s name is mentioned. Most of them haven’t read him. As I mentioned, Coolacrease wouldn’t last 15 seconds under a White analysis. and again, rightly so.

It’s funny how the Irish revisionists talk about confronting myths, but have ignored the most significant figure in the analysis of the structure of historical writing itself. I would have thought Hayden White would be a breath of fresh air for Irish historians in the 1970s and 1980s who were looking to tear down the nationalist myths. Maybe, just maybe, it would have meant tearing down the Whig middle class ones as well.

finally, Riceur had enormous respect for what White has done and what he was achieved. If anything, Ricoeur simply added to the debate, not tear it down. One last quote from the man, my favourite, if only for the emotion. I think it has parallels with what you were saying Garabaldy, about how Bradshaw connected with the past. anyway, Ricoeur again, from Time and Narrative, vol.1:

“We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes in its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative.” (p.75)

you should read Ricoeur on the importance of poetics and imagination. An amazing philosopher.


38. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007


The average Irish history graduate student certainly doesn’t read White, and quite a few of the younger professionals haven’t either. So I can understand the blank looks. However, I imagine the people at the very top of the profession probably have.

As for your points about documents. I agree totally. That is the crude empiricism I was referring to, and of particular importance are UCD and Cambridge. Large numbers of historians, including many on the programme, were educated in one or both. I agree on the interviews, though they come with their own problems. You should definitely read Beiner’s stuff. He wrote an article a few years back on the 1998 commemorations in Éire/Ireland which was partly based on interviews with those involved round the country. The sort of anthropological stuff you would love I’d say. David Dickson’s book on Munster is the closest we have to an Annales approach, but there is a lot to be gained from it. Still hard to beat, a good old-fashioned bit of Marxist crude economic reductionism 😉


39. Conor McCabe - December 14, 2007

It’s true that oral interviews come with their own problems, but if the document sources are not there, then we have to work around them. As for those at the top of their profession having read White and engaged with those types of arguments… very few. Very very few. Most are scared and actually bring more of a Harold Bloom approach to literary texts, never mind the actual process of historical writing. (The Canon appeals to Whig history, no?) There’s more than a bit of “I don’t know much but I know what I likes” when it comes to theory. In fact, it’s only recently that Benedict Anderson has started to show up in the footnotes and bibliographies of established historians. He’s engaged with because, guess what, he talks about nationalism 🙂

For me, the crux of the matter is this: Is the history of Ireland explained by the Whig interpretation, by the ‘story’ of the rise of the southern Catholic middle class? I think not, and I do not think that the story of the majority of Irish people is explained by such a template. The idea that the Irish middle class – at the same time reactionary and revolutionary, conservative and radical – can explain what happens in Irish history is summed up for me by Michael Laffan in his 1985 article “Labour must wait: Ireland’s conservative revolution.” Here, Laffan argues that the support for Labour in the 1922 election was an anomaly, and that in the 1918 election established the voting patterns of the Irish people, more or less. He says that the 1923 election showed the true support for Labour. It is one that ignores the support Labour gained in the 1920 local elections, and also one that ignores the gains Labour made in the 1927 election. Labour got support in 1922 because there was a wage war going on. The party, under Johnson, decided to ignore those concerns in the interests of “constitutionalism”, and as a result they lost votes in 1923. By 1927, they retook a lot of that lost ground. It was not an “anomaly”, just a terrible decision by Johnson, one for which the party took a knock. But… a wage war is not part of the middle class whig history, so how can it be important? Amazingly, the idea that 1918 established voting patterns is echoed by the Labour party itself.

What I’m saying here is that the real debate about Irish history has not taken place. The middle class remain centre-stage – not only that, they remain centre-stage for causation as well. I do not see anywhere in revisionism the challenge to that assumption about Irish history.

I started off talking about Hayden White, but even the ideas of English historians like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm remain at the fringes. Worst of all, when those ideas are engaged with, the template for working class is taken from the English model. In a repeat of the introduction of the poor laws in the 1830s, Irish historians, more or less, have taken conclusions drawn about the English working class and applied them to Ireland. And they don’t fit. An examination of the working class in Ireland is about the search for a better understanding of what happened, and why it happened, otherwise we are left with Aristotelian circles to explain the movement of the planets. What we need is a Copernican revolution. And Revisionism, with its hermetically-sealed middle class and nationalist universe, is not it.

so, for me, I’d love to see more debate over the type of issues as above, instead of the stuff that dominates historical debate in mainstream Irish intellectual (and middle class) life – basically, military history and biography.


40. Conor McCabe - December 14, 2007

sorry about this, but I always think of something else AFTER I’ve written. Just to say, I’m not interested in replacing a Whig Middle Class history with a Whig Working Class history. We need to do the ground work in order to get at a history of Ireland that has a Truth-Value at the level of causation. The Middle Class are a force, but that doesn’t mean they can be used to explain everything. The idea that they can, and that Ireland’s story matches exactly their story – with the rest of us as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to a Middle Class Hamlet – is where the debate needs to take place.


41. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007


I agree with what you’re saying about the need to focus on popular history, but not in a crude way. This will require an adoption of new perspectives on methodology. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. We live in a reactionary period, and social history has last its attraction. Or it is going down highly specialised routes that have little broader application, when it’s not doing things like the history of fashion. It’s part of the crisis of the left. This isn’t specific to Ireland, and it will take a change in the intellectual climate for that to change.

I think though you might be being a little hard on the Thompson/Hobsbawm front. People like Sean Connolly, Jim Smyth, Nancy Curtin, Tom Bartlett, even Maurice Bric have used their ideas to great effect, but altered them to fit the local context. I’m not sure though that the Thompsonian model has much to say beyond the 18th century.


42. Conor McCabe - December 14, 2007

well, I do tend to be a bit strict alright. When we get to the synoptic histories, though, we’re dealing with a weakened understanding of the history of Irish working class. When mentioned, if at all, it tends to be in relation to the trade union movement, and that’s not the same thing. The only thing we can do, with regard to social history, is just keep on plugging away, researching and writing articles, presenting papers at conferences, and doing what we can to get the analysis out there. One of the more promising developments in recent years has been the establishment of the Sports History Ireland Conference. There’s something that’s perfect for a social history approach. and again, there’s the huge project that’s underway at the moment to analyse the 19th C. poor law system, under the supervision of Virginia Crossman over in Brookes College. The work is being produced, within the academy, and outside as well. Nowhere near enough, but still, it is there. Also, Saothar is still published once a year, as is the IESH journal.

But isn’t is interesting how almost none of this seems to have been discussed on the hidden History programme? from the discussions above and on WBS’s post it seems to have been about the nature of the Irish strand of revisionism rather than the idea of Irish history itself – what’s there and what’s missing.


43. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

I guess people find it easier to analyse the historical writing in terms of politics. Which given how important it’s been, is totally fair enough.

Hidden History does need to branch out. I didn’t see the one on Murphy, and again it’s biography, but it must at least have addressed the social issues. Part of the problem with that particular series I think is that it’s all posited around the ideas of revelations. So showing that O’Duffy was gay, or that the IRA was really sectarian fits the agenda much more than studying, say, what it meant to go to the cinema at the same time. Or graphs of employment in modern industry.


44. Conor McCabe - December 14, 2007

They should have just gone the whole hog and said that the IRA was gay.

Still, if nothing else, we got to hear Joe Duffy tell us that from 1917-1923 the British army was the only legitimate army in Ireland – one thing both nationalists and Unionists agreed upon it was that the British army was NOT the only legitimate army in Ireland. But there you go. His housewife caller from Clontarf must have told him that.


45. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

Excellent! What do you expect from a Maoist gone populist?


46. Ed Hayes - December 14, 2007

Who is Hayden Whyte? Just got the Phoenix and theres a big feature on Diarmaid Ferriter; one of the good guys or the bad guys, history boys?


47. Pete - December 14, 2007

Garibaldy, where do you get the idea that Joe Duffy was ever a ‘Moaist’ – he was always a good little catholic boy – he got some support from Maoist elelments to do over the stickies at USI but never adhered to any of their maddness – the virgin mary and angels was what got him going – think your view could be a result of another distorting influcence of Irish
Historiography the tendency of the stickies to stick all those elements opposing them into easy to grasp categories – this is good when trying to fire up a new national political dynamic but not good when trying to understand past events.


48. Idris of Dungiven - December 14, 2007

Funnily enough, I was going to post on the need for a Zinn-style ‘people’s history of Ireland’, but I see I was beaten to it.

The Hidden History programme on Murphy was a pretty good example of the vulgarised and debased form of revisionism that dominates the media. It gushed on for ages about the rising Irish middle class, only to bring on the workers in time for 1913, without any context whatsoever.

As for Ferriter, I thought the Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000 was very good indeed. Ireland certainly didn’t look the same after it. But Ferriter’s a professional historian. You’d never get him making a statement like Sebastian Barry’s contemptible assertion that De Valera was ‘our Stalin’. For all his faults, Dev didn’t have millions of innocent people killed. The point for the likes of Barry, as for Myers or for Joe Duffy is just to strike a radical posture, to get on one’s hind legs and bray about what a fearless questioner of traditional Irish historical myths one is. The fact that the old school of ‘Oi hate dem Brits’ historical mythology was defeated long ago makes no difference at all to this bunch of narcissists.


49. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

Pete, I was told by some those involved he was a Maoist at the time, and they are well capable of differentiating between different types of opponents, but you may be right.


Conor can fill you in from a much more sympathetic point of view and more comprehensively than me, but briefly Hayden White wrote a work arguing that historical narrative itself was very much a story, a literary construct just like any other. Documents had to be looked at in this way. In other words, there was no such thing as a recoverable historical truth. In doing this he opened the door for a lot of postmodern bullshit where every opinion and story is just as valid as every other. Some historians believe this opened the door for holocaust denial. If there was no such thing as truth, and the eyewitness testimony of those who survived the death camp was impossible to take at face value, then how could we know what happened in the death camps? That seems to me to be a bit excessive, but there is an element of truth in the criticism.

Another and very related thing he greatly contributed to was the linguistic turn – the argument that the world is comprehensible only through language, and so everything is linguistically determined. Therefore language must be studied to decode meanings. But even then, they had changed, and again, no truth is knowable as we are never talking in exactly the same terms as those from the past. So a brick has no objective existence – it depends on us being able to describe it to each other, and agree on what it is. I’ve often wondered why somebody didn’t just hit him with a brick and see how linguistically determined that reality was. Some major historians like Quentin Skinner have taken a much more sensible approach to the study of language, and very fruitful it has been to. I suspect though that others may well wish to disagree with the picture I’ve presented here.


A shocking statement indeed from Barry. Comparing the man most responsible for saving Europe from fascism with the consoler on Hitler’s death is utterly sickening, and an insult to the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who fell defending us all from the greatest evil in history.


50. ejh - December 14, 2007

You’ve been doing well up to here, don’t spoil it….

often wondered why somebody didn’t just hit him with a brick

I know most jokes are old, but didn’t Johnson do basically this joke for the benefit of Bishop Berkeley?


51. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

He might well have done. But the point stands. The linguistic argument makes no sense. Which is part of the reason a lot of people in Ireland never bothered taking him that seriously. As well as the general hatred of theory.


52. Starkadder - December 14, 2007

“Funnily enough, I was going to post on the need for a Zinn-style ‘people’s history of Ireland’, but I see I was beaten to it.”

There is a book about the “Irish Working Class” by
Peter Berresford Ellis, but I read it and thought it was
just a standard RSF view of Irish history.
There’s another book by D.R. O’Connor
Lysaght called “the Republic of Ireland” which is a
Marxist history of this country. I’ve read it
and thought it was much superior to Ellis’ book (P.B.E.
should stick to the Ancient Celts) .


53. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

Has anyone read TA Jackson? Reflects its time, but interesting.
Ellis, who has a column in the Irish Democrat, brings to mind the total degeneration of the Connolly Association into a purely nationalist organisation with practically no socialist consciousness in its propaganda.


54. WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2007

ejh, my thoughts exactly… re Johnson. Having said that – while I bow to no-one in my appreciation of considerable tranches of post-modernism – certain aspects of it undigested can seem to lead to such conclusions… And those who use it undigested often seem to be saying that… Can I say? Brilliant thread a chairde… great comments… a pleasure to read.


55. Garibaldy - December 14, 2007

Ah, but aspects of postmodernism do you appreciate? The modernism bit?


56. Bartholomew - December 15, 2007

What a wonderful discussion. Can I submit a few pedantic points?

(a) Neglect of Hayden White in Ireland: it’s a while since I read it, but wasn’t Foster’s ‘The Irish Story’ essay essentially an exercise in Hayden Whitery? And what about the devastating analysis of Foster’s own rhetoric by Seamus Deane in ‘Wherever Green is Read’, which shows the larger metaphors underlying his presentation of nationalism and unionism. Very like White, I’d say, particularly the emphasis on metaphor.
(In any case, White has modified his views recently, inspired by the holocaust. I have a vague memory that there was a conference in the US where he was confronted by Christopher Browning or Saul Friedlander or some other prominent holocaust historians, and recanted quite a bit, saying that the holocaust was irreducibly real.)

(b) On Ahern and revisionism, I’d agree with Fred, Bertie doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He launched David Fitzpatrick’s biography of Harry Boland a few years ago, and in his speech said that there was too much revisionism around and that we needed historians like Fitzpatrick to counter them. David Fitzpatrick!!!


57. sonofstan - December 15, 2007

I’ve been keeping out of this because my knowledge of historiography is undergraduate at best, but Garibaldy, the picture of PoMo you give in comment §49 is a bit Wheenish – ‘enough of you fancy frog nonsense, give me solid British facts’!

I don’t know Hayden White, and maybe he is as idiotic as you make out but I doubt it; certainly Ricoeur, to whom Conor links White upthread, and Lyotard, both of whose work I know, are nothing like that.

Indeed, a ‘skepticism about metanarratives’, Lyotard’s dictum would seem positively necessary in a historian. I think what you’re missing is the epistemological point at which the narrative does its structural work – it’s not looking at the facts and then concocting a story around them, or wilfully doubting those facts; ‘a fact’ in itself – or even more simply, an object, that philosophical staple, a table for example – in order to become an object of consciousness, has already taken its place in a narrative. What PoMo does, is show how its not just time and space and causality and substance and so on that structure our experience – its also ‘grand narratives’ – ideology, progress and so on. What PM cautions against is not ‘truth’ as such, but the idea of unmediated, uninflected access to truth, and a belief that there is some foundational principle or structure that underlies and explains all experience.


58. Conor McCabe - December 15, 2007

Only got back in from work now so that’s why I’m coming in late to the posts. what I find interesting is that while both White and Ricoeur are coming from the same area, the use of language and poetics in historical writing, each takes a different conclusion. Now, very simplistic, I apologise beforehand, but Ricoeur’s point is that we use poetics to make sense of the world, and as such any historical writing that avoids poetics is, basically, cutting off its metaphorical nose to spite its analytical face. an analysis without poetics is meaningless. Ricoeur on this:

“time becomes human time to the extent that it is organizes after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of a temporal experience… between the activity of narrating a story and the temporal character of human experience there exists a correlation that is not merely accidental but that presents a transcultural form of necessity.”

In other words, poetics is not an option in understanding, it is hotwired into the very structure of understanding itself. Ricoeur challenges White not on his criticism of narrative history, but on his criticism of poetics in historical writing. White’s analysis of the faults of narrative history remain valid, at least in the eyes of Ricoeur. and I, a mere mortal, agree with Ricoeur.


Seamus Deane and Roy Foster slugging it out brings us back again to the Irish strand of Revisionism. Neither are engaged in the type of debates typified by Hayden White or Paul Ricoeur – although both have a lot more in common with each other than with other strands of the revisionist/anti-revisionist smackdown. Both acknowledge the importance of social history in our understanding of the past. and both have done a lot in their own way to keep social history ticking over. As, of course, has David Fitzpatrick.

Starkadder and Garabaldy’s points about Irish working class histories got me thinking about something I wrote a while ago for Dublin Opinion. I’ve taken the liberty of quoting it below.

“The study of Irish labour history as a distinct discipline began in the 1970s, which saw the formation of the Irish Labour History society (ILHS), and the publication of its journal, Saothar. The 1970s also saw the publication of two studies that did much to redefine the subject : these were Arthur Mitchell’s Labour & Irish Politics, 1890-1930 (1974), and Charles McCarthy’s Trade Unions in Ireland, 1894-1960 (1977). Before then, studies of Irish labour tended to be radical interpretations of Irish history – with the emphasis firmly on the revolutionary power of the Irish working class – rather than studies of, say, trade union organisation or working class culture.

The best known of these studies is of course James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History, which was first published in 1910. Connolly saw in Irish history evidence to support the view that ‘only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.’ In Connolly’s eyes, ‘the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland.’ The book is structured around the timeline of the independence struggle, not the labour movement, in Ireland.

Labour in Irish History served to inform a number of studies. Connolly’s argument can be heard in W.P. Ryan’s The Irish Labour Movement from the Twenties to Our Own Day (1920), and O’Donnell’s The Story of Irish Labour (1921), although both works contain more on the labour movement than Connolly’s Labour. Other works which owe a debt to Connolly include Elinor Burns, British Imperialism in Ireland (1931), Brian O’Neill, The War for the Land in Ireland (1933), T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own (1947), D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, The Irish Republic (1970), and Peter Beresford Ellis’, A History of the Irish Working Class (1972). A more detailed examination of Unionism is included by Eric Strauss in Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (1951).

Works which lay outside of the ‘Connolly School’ include J. Dunsmore Clarkson, Labour and Nationalism in Ireland (1925), and Jermone J. Judge’s PhD dissertation, ‘The Labour Movement in Ireland’ (UCD, 1955). Before the 1970s, detailed Irish labour studies remained sparse, although trade union studies included works such as John Swift, A History of the Dublin Bakers and Others (1948), and T.J. O’Connell, 100 Years of Progress: The Story of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (1968), as well as significant articles by Rachel O’Higgins, Fergus D’Arcy, and D.W. Bleakley.

The establishment of the ILHS in 1973 saw the start of a concerted move to establish Irish labour studies as a distinct discipline within Irish historiography. The society’s constitution called for the promotion of ‘Irish labour history and of Irish people in labour history abroad and labour history in general; the appreciation of the importance of labour history in the educational curriculum; and the preservation of all records and reminiscences, oral and written, relating to the current and past experiences of the Irish working class and its organisations’. It was followed two years later by the first issue of Saothar (1975), which has recently (2006) reached its 30th edition.

Until recently, Saothar’s focus tended to be on the trade union movement. Research continues to develop and expand the subject of Irish labour history. However, a general history of Irish labour/working class, as defined by Saothar from 2002 onwards, has yet to be written.”

For me, a true revisionism in Irish historiography is not possible until the work of researching and interpreting the life stories of the Irish working class takes place. Now, not where the Irish working class fits in to the Whig history of the Irish middle class, but as a story in itself. One that needs to be told because it reflects the reality of millions of Irish people, those here now and those who had to emigrate. They remain, for the most part, on the fringes of Irish history, in part because the Irish Middle Class are too busy wearing whigs.


59. Garibaldy - December 15, 2007


I agree with Conor that what Deane and Foster are engaged in was not White-type stuff. Foster was applying principles first enunciated by IHS – the replacement of national myth, while Deane was applying the principles of literary criticism to Foster. So coming from a different angle to White I’d have thought. Bertie doesn’t know his arse from his elbow, but he knows how to sign (as well as receive) cheques, and he knows what appeals to the newly confident Irish bourgeoisie. Hence his interest in commenoration.


That comment in number 49 was a bit tongue in cheek. Although there is a somewhat serious issue behind it. Which is that history is written differently in these islands to the ways it is written in either America or France. In America, postmodernism and the rise of cultural history has massively changed the profession, to the extent that often American historians seem to be talking a different language. In France, history is much more of a social science. Both places are much more open to theory than these islands. Which is a good thing. But I happen to think postmodernism is a bad theory.

I didn’t mean to make White out as idiotic. Clearly he’s much cleverer than me. But I do think his stuff was a bit mad. Obviously it is important to be aware of the biases of sources and of historians, conscious and unconscious. But we don’t need postmodernism for that, and never did. Marxian historians brought these issues to the fore with social history, reading government documents in a new way. Postmodernism took this approach beyond its sensible limit I would suggest.

I would also suggest that a scepticism about metanarratives is a metanarrative in itself. One of the blind spots of historiography here and in Britain.


60. Conor McCabe - December 15, 2007

I agree with Garibaldy that Postmodernism, in terms of historical writing, has become a reactionary force. My point in raising White was to shaw the lack of debate in Irish historiography around the idea of history.

The idea of history in Ireland is dominated by Irish revisionism, and what I’m saying is that I believe that Irish revisionism has not revised Irish historiography. Certainly, when you think of the type of revisions of subject and methodology undertaken by the French school that Garibaldy mentions, Irish revisionism becomes a spat over interpretation, not methodology or even subject matter. Its concern is with the myths of Irish history – not a bad thing to revise – but the assumption that the Southern Irish Catholic middle Class should be at the centre of the story of Irish history still remains. not only that, the assumption that the study of the Southern Irish Middle Class can EXPLAIN Irish history for all, also remains.


61. sonofstan - December 15, 2007

I don’t think PM even is a ‘theory’……. I don’t even know enough about the stuff you guys are talking about to comment about the influence of the approach in history, but i’ve read enough bad literary and art crit. to know how cretinous it can sound.

Is there any decent overview of contemporary approaches to historiography that would help the amateur?


62. Conor McCabe - December 15, 2007

In terms of stuff around postmodernism and history, Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History is a great little introduction. Jenkins is an out and out postmodernist historian, and he explains the postmodernist arguments perspective very well. He also explains Hayden White. As a retort, Richard J. Evan’s book, In Defence of History, mentioned by Eamonn in comment #28, is a very readable retort, written by someone who gave evidence for the prosecution in the David Irving British libel trial – that’s the British libel trial now, not the one that led to Irving’s incarceration in Austria.

So, as an introduction, I’d say these two:

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997)
Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (London, 1991)

Also, the following articles:

Peter Zagorin, ‘History, the referent, and narrative: reflections on postmodernism now’, History and Theory, Vol. 38. No.1 (February, 1999)

Keith Jenkins, ‘A postmodern reply to Zagorin’, History and Theory, Vol. 39 (2000)

Michael L. Fitzhugh and William H. Leckie, JR, ‘Agency, postmodernism, and the causes of change’, History and Theory, Vol.40, (2001)

I have these articles somewhere on a disc, and as soon as I get them I’ll put them up as a downloadable zip file.


63. Conor McCabe - December 15, 2007

sonofstan, the articles are available in pdf format below. They’re in the rar file.



64. Eamonn - December 15, 2007

Conor and everybody else: Evans gave evidence for the *defence* not the prosecution. It was Irving that sued Lipstad and tried to have her book censored not the other way around. I have seen this mistake over and over again….


65. sonofstan - December 15, 2007

Thanks a lot Conor – more ways to distract me from what what I’m supposed to be doing!


66. Garibaldy - December 15, 2007

Conor is spot on to say that Irish historians have added practically nothing to the methodology of history writing, and that we have a spat over interpretation. However, I think people like Seamus Deane (not of course a historian per se, but on the cusp sometimes between literature and history) do carry weight beyond Ireland in terms of discussions of postcolonialism. At the same time, I think that
Foster’s Yeats volumes probably do stand as a model for literary biography. But should we be surprised that so small an island has not produced its own Foucoult, White, Habermas etc? After all these are the products of first rank countries with massive educational infrastructure, traditions and resources.

Cheers for the articles Conor.


67. Bartholomew - December 15, 2007

Conor and Garibaldy – thanks for your comments.

I wasn’t suggesting that Deane and Foster were engaged in a debate on the philosophy of history, but that they are actually aware of White and that their approaches are informed by the debates around Metahistory and similar books. They are much more complex than the early IHS revisionists, whose conception of myth meant basically propagandistic falsehood, which was to be replaced by empirical (ie documentary) fact. Here the debate is more about emplotment, to use White’s term, and alternative stories.
Another example of an Irish historian having read and absorbed White is in a book mentioned above by Starkadder (post no.3), Ciaran Brady’s Interpreting Irish History. Brady’s preface (if I remember correctly) explicitly invokes White and analyses Irish historiography in terms of the trope of irony.

Maybe a few scattered articles with a certain orientation doesn’t amount to a lot, (there must be lots more I haven’t heard of) but I would bet that the vast majority of history writing in Britain and America is as empiricist as in Ireland. Historians are like that. I recently read a review of French cultural historiography which complained that cultural historians in France were insular and not sufficiently theoretically engaged, and cited as proof the fact that there was no translation into French of, yes, White’s Metahistory, and that it had consequently had little impact. Just what you’ve been saying here about Ireland in fact.

I wonder if the impression of old-foginess given by Irish history in the programme under discussion was connected with the fact that it interviewed no one under 55 (Margaret O’Callaghan and Caitriona Crowe excepted).

Finally, I have a question – it is odd to have ‘stubborn lefties’ discussing the meaning of ‘revisionism’ without reference to Karl Kautsky. Was he not the first the term was applied to? And how did it get to Ireland?


68. Conor McCabe - December 16, 2007

Hi Bartholomew, as far as I remember, Kautsky’s revisionism was mainly of Marxism. The Irish form of revisionism came to Ireland via T.M Moody and R.D. Edwards, and was not Marxist-inspired but rather a more mainstream Revisionism: the application of Rankian methodologies to the writing of Irish history. And the idea that French historiography is not sufficiently engaged because of a lack of White’s translation – I think it says more about the reviewer of that article than the situation on the ground. I mean, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Lucien Febvre, and Foucault? Also, do you really need Hayden White to explain the fault-lines of meta-narratives and narrative history to you in a French translation when you have Jean-François Lyotard in the original? French historiography is probably a bit insular alright, but you got to look at what lies inside.

As far as theory goes, as Garibaldy says, postcolonial studies is somewhere were Irish writers and critics are making a serious contribution – and Seamus Deane is certainly part of that. But, I feel that colonial and postcolonial studies are being held back in Irish historiography because of the continuing debacle over Irish revisionism. At one level we cannot really go into the effect of the British presence in Ireland, and the various forms of acceptance and resistance to same, without stepping into the territory that Revisionism has marked out for itself: the questioning of Irish Nationalist myths. That’s their turf, and by God, they’ve gotten used to taking no prisoners.

and it is impossible to talk about the history of Ireland without bringing up the British presence. Even in Irish trade union history, you come across colonial attitudes within the leadership of the British trade unions that operated here. I mean, my speciality is the National Union of Railwaymen, and I can quote trade union leaders,and give examples of operational decisions, that reflect the union head-office colonial view of the Irish membership. I’m a social historian. Given the terms of debate as outlined in the Hidden History programme, my use of ‘colonial view’ puts me in with the anti-revisionists – simply because working class studies was not covered at all in the debate. The work of Saothar and the Irish Labour History society might as well not exist.


69. Garibaldy - December 16, 2007


I’d be inclined to agree with you that people like FOSTER AND deane are well aware of White. But that is a long way from trying to implement their methods. I’d say Fouco5t wnuld also be on their radar but seen as far fetched.


I think the colonial and postcolonial model clouds a lot more thdn it enlightens.


70. Conor McCabe - December 16, 2007

In terms of what I’ve come across with regard to the British labour movement and Ireland, I don’t think it does at all. In fact, I can only explain the likes of J.H. Thomas, former head of the NUR, in his dealings with Ireland in terms of a colonial mindset. One of the shortcomings of colonial and postcolonial studies in Ireland is the fact that it is somewhat weak on historians among its members, and top-heavy with literary academics. It’s a comparatively new subject, and of course there are shortcomings, and in some cases, serious fault lines, but it’s hard to tease out these short-comings and debate them when the debate invariably brings in revisionists and anti-revisionists. This is something we, the Irish, have to talk about. And yet we don’t at all. At least, not to each other.

I mean, take Joe Cleary’s latest book on the subject. Far from muddying the waters, I feel it throws a light on a lot of the issues. It has a lot to say about Ireland and the Irish, and a lot to say about the way we view the past.

and the view of the British labour movement as essentially colonial in nature is nothing new. It goes back to Jim Larkin and the establishment of the ITGWU. And Emmet O’Connor made it central to his interpretation of the Irish labour movement, 1830s to 1920s. There’s an idea floating around that colonial and post-colonial studies take away from a left-wing / Marxist reading as they reposit nationalism at the centre of the narrative. In some case, yes, in other cases, no, but, It’s hard to get at what’s helpful about colonial studies and what’s not as the discourse is dominated by revisionism and anti-revisionism – not a million miles from Bartholomew’s Deane and Foster example.


71. ejh - December 16, 2007

Finally, I have a question – it is odd to have ‘stubborn lefties’ discussing the meaning of ‘revisionism’ without reference to Karl Kautsky. Was he not the first the term was applied to?

Bernstein surely?


72. Garibaldy - December 16, 2007

I forgot about the Kautsky question.
I’d say that EJH is right about that.


Can you eloborate on what you mean
by colonial attitudes – was Ireland seen as
one of the colonies or was it seen as a
subordinate region, like, say, Scotland?
It seems possible to me without knowing the
details that it might be a case of centre versus region. more broadly in my opinion Ireland was too unlike the colonies
proper for the term to be appropriate.


73. Conor McCabe - December 16, 2007

This wasn’t a case of centre/periphery. The railwaymen’s executive had a history of making exceptions for Ireland with regard to wages and conditions, as in the 1913 national wage agreement and the 1915 and 1916 war bonuses. In all three cases, the Irish branches were exempt, as Ireland was a “special case.” In reality, the NUR did not fight the corner of the Irish branches as well as it should for fear of jepordizing any gains made for the other British branches. Union recognition was not conceded by the Great Southern and Western Railway until 1921, a full ten years after the same issue was settled in England. The point was not pressed home in Ireland because, again, the NUR executive did not want to damage the recognition it had received for its British branches. This remained a constant in the executive’s approach to Ireland: the Irish branches were secondary to advances made for “the mainland”. Under the leadership of J.H. Thomas the union went one step further and made it clear that it would not support any action likely to damage British Imperial interests, or of such a nature that could lead to the break-up of the UK. Overall, the impression given was one of an executive that saw its Irish membership as Irish first and railwaymen second, with the cultural notion of the Irish as problematic exerting its influence.

At a meeting in the Mansion House in 1912, J.H. Thomas said that there was a “moral obligation” on the part of the British government to see Ireland included in the first national pay agreement. There’s no question of Thomas telling the branches in Manchester or Glasgow that they were being left out of a national pay agreement until there was a change in the “morality” of the British government.


74. Pseudo-Radicals « El Nuevo Pantano - December 16, 2007

[…] By way of an interesting discussion over at the Cedar Lounge I came across a very silly paper  by Keith Jenkins, which you can download here, in which he […]


75. Garibaldy - December 17, 2007

Thanks for that Conor. What strikes me about what you have said is how it relates to Lenin’s arguments over the political limitations of trade unionism and the labour aristocracy.
I’m not at all surprised to hear that the BRITISH LEADERSHIP SUPPORTED imperial interests. So by colonial do you wean not so much it’s attitude to Ireland as its attitude generally?
I wonder if an attitude that Ireland is different is the same necessarily as a colonialist one, especially when the Irish had been saying this themselves through home rule etc.
I’d be inclined to see this as different attitudes to different parts of the metropolis.


76. Conor McCabe - December 17, 2007

This isn´t a case of attitudes generally. What I´m, talking about is the fact that in economic, political and cultural terms the Irish membership were treated diffierently to the rest of Britain. Not only that, the Irish membership were treated as a bloc. This wasn´t a case of Belfast being treated differently to Dublin , or Dublin being treated differently to Cork, but Ireland being treated as a bloc differently to the rest of the membership. “The Irish” existed as one entity. Nor was it a case of members on the Great Southern being left out of a deal while those who worked on the Great Northern got the pay rises. It was, quite simply, a case of the Irish left out of deals as to fight to bring them in could jepordize deals struck for the mainland. There´s a lot more to this but I cannot fit it all into these comments. I´m afraid I´ll have to refer you to my PhD on the matter, which is gathering dust AS WE SPEAK in the University of Ulster and British Library 🙂

On a slightly more serious note, this goes back to what I was saying abuout colonial and post-colonial studies and its relation to Irish historiography. These type of debates about causation should be taking place within the wider discipline instead of what happens now, where Irish historians sit around and wonder such-and-such an argument is revisionist or anti-revisionist. The paucity of theory leads to a situation were once the debate moves into theory, all that Irish historians have to play around with is Rankian myth busting. Debate gets stifled and then they´ll tell you its a good thing that Ireland doesn´t have any of that foreign mumbo-jumbo. It´s almost like Fukayama except, instead of the end of history, with Moody and the consolidation of the Irish strand of revisionism Irish historiography is happy to announce the end of theory. A Fukyborragh, if you will.


77. ejh - December 17, 2007

Jimmy Thomas didn’t end up Secretary of State for the Dominions, did he? Or am I hallucinating that due to an excess of years and a deficit of coffee?


78. The Left Archive: An article from the Workers’ Party “Class Politics” from 1983 « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - December 17, 2007

[…] by WorldbyStorm in Left Archive. trackback From another anonymous donation, and in view of the piece by Garibaldy from last week, here is an article by Henry Patterson, later of “The Politics of […]


79. Conor McCabe - December 17, 2007

He did indeed, ejh – he was secretary for the colonies. also, he had to resign from politics due to a financial scandal. He leaked details of a budget to speculators.


80. Garibaldy - December 17, 2007

Fantastic tale of the deparavity of Thomas.

I think that lots of people do just dismiss theory, postcolonial or otherwise. But I think that others do look at seriously, and then find it wholly unconvincing. There is also as you said the fact that theory is used as a cover for nationalist/anti-nationalist debates. So we get have digested Gramsci, or subaltern studies or whoever it is, more often than not made to serve a nationalist master. It does whatever theory no good that it ends up like this.

By the way, meant to bring this up earlier. There has been a book published recently that argues that the IHS people were in fact the first postmodernists. Aewsome hypothesis.


81. Bartholomew - December 17, 2007

Sorry ejh, yes, Bernstein. Maybe Kautsky was the first to use the term ‘revisionist’! (posts 71 and 71)
The question I was trying to ask in such a cack-handed way was this (following on posts 3 and 4): when the term ‘revisionist’ was introduced into public discourse in Ireland, was there a conscious or deliberate invocation of the Marxist origin and use of the word? If so, it’s remarkable how quickly it was taken up by all sides. And wouldn’t the term then imply that revisionists in Ireland would by definition have to be to the right of those whom they’re revising (posts 20 and 21)? That would explain one thing that’s always puzzled me about the revisionist debate, which is that, as far as I can see, two of the most thorough critics of the nationalist narrative of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Raymond Crotty and Joe Lee, and they were to the left of nationalism, in so far as they emphasised the class struggle between farmers and labourers. But they rarely if ever get described as ‘revisionists’ or as ‘anti-national’ either.

By the way, has anyone seen the new book by Evi Gkotzaridis, in which she argues that the original revisionists (Moody and Edwards) were forerunners of deconstruction? It’s called Trials Of Irish History, and there’s an intriguing list of contents at

And if anyone is interested, one book on Irish history by an Irish historian which is explictly informed by Foucault is Patrick Carroll Burke’s book on the penal system in the 19th century, Colonial discipline : the making of the Irish convict system, which was originally an MA in Maynooth.


82. Garibaldy - December 17, 2007


That’s the book I was referring to but couldn’t remember the name of. Thanks for that.

As far as I can tell, there was never any association with the Marxist origin of the term. It meant simply someone who set out to revise existing notions, which is pretty much how it is now used in all historiographies.

And you’re right about the Crotty and Lee thing. But because they both regarded Ireland as the subordinate of Britain they were accepted as ok by the anti-revisionists.


83. WorldbyStorm - December 17, 2007

I’m not sure about Lee – although I really like his approach. I always think he’s Nationalist with a small n. And socialist, well, not so much – although he’s very conscious of class as a factor of history. Actually if anything his work seem infused with a pragmatism. I was reading some of his thoughts today about the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the thought struck me that he was almost making the best of a bad situation. Although in retrospect he wasn’t too wide of the mark…


84. sonofstan - December 17, 2007

There has been a book published recently that argues that the IHS people were in fact the first postmodernists. Aewsome hypothesis.

Lyotard – in the Postmodern Condition- reckons Kant was PM avant le lettre; that post- modernism may, in fact, have predated modernism!

BTW, Garibaldy, you’re suggestion about Kant and Adam Smith in another thread has borne unexpected fruit – I’ve found a book by Samuel Fleischacker (a 3rd Concept of Liberty) where he makes a decent argument for Kant having been influenced by Smith on the subject of judgment; right up my street, but under the radar till now because he’s writing from the political science side rather than philosophy. So thanks.


85. Garibaldy - December 17, 2007

Thanks for that Son of Stan. Doesn’t sound like the very little of Kant I know. Glad that random association of ideas proved to be of use. Would they all were.


I think you’re absolutely right about Lee and pragmatism. He’s interested in power – social, political and Ireland and Britain.


86. Starkadder - December 17, 2007

I was fortunate enough to hear both Joe Lee and Dermot Keogh
lecture when I was in UCC. I remeber Keogh criticising Myers’
articles about Irish History, which means Keogh is opposed to
the type of extreme (pro-UK) revisionism Myers represents.
Another example of “Nationalist with a small n”.

On another tangent, (Peter Hart/IRA) I remember reading a
book about the War of Independence which stated a small
minority of the IRA carried out sectarian atrocities during
1922.. What the book stated was that IRA leader Tom Hales
condemned the attacks and offered Protestants protection.
The thesis that a minority of the IRA were
sectarian(presumably the group’s right wing) , rather
than the whole organisation (which I understand was Hart’s
accusation) strikes me as plausible.


87. WorldbyStorm - December 17, 2007

Starkadder, a book I’ve always admired was Dermot Keogh’s one on Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland. Even better was his one on Ireland and Europe. Which is interesting because he and Lee are two of my favourite Irish historians. And again they both , as Garibaldy says, are interested in their own ways about power… I think I also like their – and this is particularly true of Lee – rather dry cynicism which avoids misanthropy or disdain but is actually quite empathic… (who else would actually express understanding of Faulkner during the internment crisis while pointing out how stupid a policy that was?).


88. Conor McCabe - December 17, 2007

Garibaldy, well this is it, isn’t it? Gramsci is sliding into the Irish subaltern. I mean, what I’m talking about with regard to the British Trade Union movement, and the NUR in particular, is the influence of the culture of colonialism – that colonialism wasn’t just an economic practise, but one that affected all strands of British society, including its trade unionists. I’m still teasing this out, working it through, but just to make the point that my interest in colonial studies came after the research. I didn’t sit down with a colonial theory suitcase and then proceed to pick the facts to bring with me. Rather, I kept on coming across these decisions and these cultural and political attitudes and headed off to find some way of contextualising them. It led me into Irish colonial studies, who are the only ones talking about Gramsci and Ireland that I know of anyway – whereas with regard to trade unionism and colonialism, Emmet O’Connor has written about that since 1989. Then I find that I’ve walked into the middle of a revisionist spat. whatever benefit Gramsci may have in explaining Ireland and Irish society is being lost in a points war between revisionists and anti-revisionists. That is what I mean why the negative effects of of what Irish revisionism – and by extension Irish historiography – has become. you mention Gramsci in a Irish history conference paper and you’ll have the revisionists coming at you like Jack Palance in Shane, throwing you a gun and telling you to pick it up.

By the way, can I just ask if any of the hard old lefties on this site have read any of Emmet O’Connor’s books? It’s just, I don’t hear him being mentioned at all, but I hear Joe lee and Dermot Keogh. It’s just a bit surprising to me that an actual historian of the left in Ireland is never mentioned. Same goes for Fintan Lane and Francis Devine.


89. Conor McCabe - December 17, 2007

Oh! That wasn’t a dig at you WBS, I’ve just seen where my comment fell in the order. I’m just trying to bring actual historians of the left in Ireland into the debate – rather like what you’ve done with the Henry Patterson article.


90. WorldbyStorm - December 17, 2007

And not taken as such Conor. No, that’s a very good point. How come left historians aren’t given more of a look in, even – or particularly – by the left?


91. Conor McCabe - December 18, 2007

Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, is it down to their analysis? If so, why are historians such as Lee and Keogh prioritised? Keogh did his thesis on the Dublin trades council and later turned it into a book with the misleading title of the rise of the working class, but even with that, they seem to have a higher profile among the left in Ireland than actual historians of the left (Keogh’s book excepted).

Take Emmet O’Connor’s history of Irish labour from 1834 to 1960. Has anybody else read it? and what do they think?


92. Conor McCabe - December 18, 2007

sorry again, I’m always at this. Posting three comments at a time. But let’s take Saothar, for example. I mean, there’s over 30 years of scholarly research into trade union, labour and working class life in that journal. Any thoughts on what it has produced?


93. Eamonn - December 18, 2007

A question for Starkadder and anyone else who might be interested; how might we go about recognizing right and left wings in the War of Independence IRA? Assuming we could do so, why should we think that sectarianism would have been the preserve of the right? Giving lip service to the rights of man never stopped physical-force nationalists in Ireland from carrying out sectarian acts, such acts usually being justified on the basis that their victims were not targeted because they were Protestants, heavens no!, but because they were servants of the Crown, collaborators, rich or whatever.
Hart doesn’t accuse the IRA of being sectarian, at least not in “The IRA and Its Enemies”, which is the only work of his that I have read. The book is a detailed, bottom-up reconstruction of revolutionary nationalist warfare in Cork and no one comes out of it very well, not the IRA and not its enemies. It’s that war is a hellish business, regardless of the nobility of the cause that is being defended, the basest instincts of combatants tend to be given free rein to and people considered loyal to the enemy or socially marginal tend to suffer inordinately. It was that way in every armed struggle for independence that I have ever read anything about. So, the question of whether the IRA was or wasn’t sectarian, in some metaphysical sense, doesn’t really mean anything. Sectarian acts were certainly carried out and, at least in Cork, on a pretty wide scale. In itself that can only be held to negate the worth of the struggle for independence by people who imagine that we won our independence by only killing people when there was no other choice, when the victim really deserved it and when there wasn’t a hint of the settling of local tribal scores involved.
One of the reasons that people always mention Lee might be that he writes really well. It’s a matter of taste, I know, but a good dash of dry irony usually does it for me and I agree with WBS about the awareness of class issues in his work


94. On Virgin Births « El Nuevo Pantano - December 18, 2007

[…] just posted the following considerations over at The Cedar Lounge Revolution arising from this comment. 1. A question for Starkadder and anyone else who might be interested; how might we go about […]


95. Bartholomew - December 18, 2007

[There has been a book published recently that argues that the IHS people were in fact the first postmodernists. Aewsome hypothesis.]

I once tried to read Moody’s biography of Michael Davitt, but gave up partly because it was cluttered with a huge amount of irrelevant detail. He gave the exact tonnage of every ship that Davitt ever sailed on, for example. In retrospect, I realise that it was an exercise in deconstruction, with a positivist narrative being continually undermined by the introduction of isolated, unembedded positivist ‘facts’.


96. Garibaldy - December 18, 2007


I think Hart’s book does a lot more than imply that the IRA was at its core sectarian in that area; I also think that in his public appearances he has been less guarded (e.g. references to ethnic cleansing). But again, it’s a case of his work being picked up and run with by others less nuanced. It must also be said that his conclusions on what he regards as purely sectarian incidents have been heavily shaken, as has his account of Kilmichael.

On right from left, there probably were some people who perceived themselves as being on the left who held sectarian attitudes. Certainly the right was represented on both sides of the Treaty split. But I think it’s safe to assume that the proportion of non- or anti-sectarian elements was higher in the left than in the right, whatever the attitude to the Treaty.


On your question about Emmet O’Connor, and labour historians being read more generally. As you know yourself, the political question remains the most compelling one for Irish historians, whatever period they might be in. In part this has been a reflection of the ongoing northern situation, in part it is a matter of sources (many of the sources used for some of the best social history simply do not exist to the same extent for Ireland as places like England or France), but I suspect a large part of it is because the biggest organisations that consider themselves to be left have come from the republican rather than the straight labour tradition, and so people influenced by them have been drawn in that direction. Certainly this was the case with some of the academics close to The WP (as Patterson’s article WBS posted provides a great example), and I suspect any future generation of historians who might be influenced by PSF (as seems quite likely in the north) will do the same.

On the Gramsci thing, I think it’s more often a rolling of the eyes than outright hostility, partly because it has so often been applied in such lax ways. Same for other theories. IIRC, Guy Beiner’s article in Éire/Ireland from a few years ago talks about organic intellectuals in the 98 commemorations, so perhaps it is going past the post-colonial types. But we must also remember, that Ireland is a conservative society, and it should be no surprise that its historians are too.


97. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

The sources are there. I mean, the amount of stuff relating to the Irish labour movement that’s sitting around, waiting to be analysed, is outstanding. apart from the hundreds of newspapers and Victorian statistical reports, one of the greatest depositories of trade unioninformation is the Modern Records Centre in Warwick, and yet it’s hardly touched. At the moment the irish poor law records are being analysed, so it’ll be interesting to see where that leads.

But, even with all of that, what about Saothar? There is 30 years of scholarly work in the pages of that journal, the majority of which deals with social, economic, and trade union topics. Hardly any deals with the political issue. The same goes for the pages of the Journal of the Irish Economic and Social History Society (JIESHS). Again, almost 30 years of work, and none of it seems to be read by the Irish Left.

Also, there are two strands to the synoptic labour histories of Ireland – the Connolly school, which seems to be read by the left, and the more research-based works, which don’t seem to be read by the left.

I do not accept that the political issue is the most compelling one for historians. (It is the most compelling one for revisionists and anti-revisionists alright.) not only that, 30 years of Saothar and the JIESHS shows that I’m far from the only one who thinks that way. What i’m saying is that, the work is there. It’s not a case of it being left behind due to a lack of research.

The problem is not one of a lack of interest from historians and researchers per se, the lack of interest seems to come from the Irish left-wing itself. We can always do with more research, but what I would like to know is why the Irish left doesn’t seem interested in what has already been produced, of which there is a lot.

I just find it amazing that Irish left-wing commentators can praise Lee for his rhetoric and sometime allusions to Class, and yet leave a proper Irish materialist historian like O’Connor on the shelf. how can anyone talk about class, and footnote Lee instead of O’Connor by doing so? That just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.


98. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007


I agree totally that Saothar has seen some fine work, as has IESH. Although it seems to me that that has moved a bit from its early incarnations with the decline of economic history. In terms of social history, the records for the late C19th and C20th are certainly as good in Ireland as anywhere else. But before that the situation is very different. The Hidden History Programme had the senior archivist from the National Archives on (I can’t remember her name) who talked about the destruction of the census records when the Four Courts went up, but even regardless of that a lot of the estate and church records that enable top quality social history in much earlier centuries just aren’t there.

I agree there is a vibrant tradition of labour/social history, with many fine people working in it. But in numerical terms, I think political history far outweighs any other type of history, especially in those with academic jobs. And academic historians talk to each other, reinforcing the problem.

I think the other main problem has been that left-wing historians have not produced a general history of Ireland that both consistently applies the insight of socialism and meets the criteria for “scholarly” history. Which is partly why people refer to the likes of Lee. What we need is for a materialist or left wing general history of the last, say, 2 centuries. Such a book would have had a bigger impact say 2 decades ago than now, but it would still prove hard to ignore. I also wonder if for many younger historians the whole revisionism thing is old news. The revisionists broadly have won, so people get on with the type of microhistories of aspects of political struggle that you were talking about earlier.


99. sonofstan - December 19, 2007

But we must also remember, that Ireland is a conservative society, and it should be no surprise that its historians are too.

Somebody above (I think) mentioned a WP notion of the lazy Irish middle-class – perhaps this laziness extends to academia? the republic never experienced the influx of working- class grammar school boys into universities in the 50s/60s/ 70s as Britain and the North did, an influx which established areas of expertise away from – and in opposition to – Oxbridge certainties. Perhaps as a consequence, even the big two Dublin colleges underperform as research institutions; going to college is seen as a passport to security, which i seem to remember Joe Lee maintaining was more important to the Irish middle-class than enterprise, and maybe this lack of ambition extends to a disinclination towards original research? or do the bright ones end up in the UK or US?


100. Ed Hayes - December 19, 2007

Conor, garibaldly, how would many left-wing activists read Saothar or other journals? They are only avialable in libraries or universities. I know everyone thinks that all the left are students but not entirely. Also the leadership of the SWM in my expereince and not Militant either as far as I know ever encouraged their members to read anythign that isn’t written by them (unless its Marx, Lenin etc).
Re Joe Lee. He is on record as saying Connolly is the most significant figure of the early 20th century here and asked questions that were unanswered. This was in History Ireland about a million years ago.


101. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

sosofstan, all of that is true, and goes some way to explain how Henry Patterson and Emmet O’Connor both ended up with jobs in the North and not down south. But, something has struck me while reading the comments on this post, and that is that the Left in Ireland does not seem to read Irish labour historians – at least, those who are not part of the Connolly school (see comment #58). Henry Patterson stands as an exception here, but really that’s about it. I mean, apart from O’Connor’s synoptic history of labour in Ireland, what about his study of syndicalism in Ireland,1917-23, which gives a strong materialist reading of the period, or his more recent study of Ireland and the comintern, based on original research in the Moscow archives? Or how about Fintan Lane’s study of early socialist movements in Ireland? Or John Cunnngham’s study of labour in the west of Ireland? Dan Bradley’s study of farm labourers in Ireland? Or Fergus Campbell’s county study of Galway? Or Brian Hanley’s study of labour-republicanism in the 1930s? and again, there’s the 30 years of Saothar journal. There is a fight for Irish history going on at the moment, but it’s not taking place within the revisionist / anti-revisionist spat. The fact that the level of labour/working class research is that much more fragile – for reasons mentioned by SOS – means it needs the support of the left in Ireland that much more.

OK. I’m going to go into speculation here, but is the lack of awareness of research-based Irish labour history a direct result of our education system?

I’m not talking about research-levels here, but actual awareness among the Irish left of the work already produced.

Irish labour studies does not form a part of any third-level institution’s timetable – at least in the South – and although some of the works might end up on a reading list, they’re hardly mentioned in the lectures. In more general terms, third-level-based working class studies in Ireland simply do not exist.

It’s just, if the Irish left was aware of the body of research into Irish labour and working class history, it would see the revisionist/anti-revisionist spat for what it really is: an academic parlour-game of “spot the Provo.”


102. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

Ed Hayes, Dublin city library, for example, has copies of all the books I’ve mentioned, and more, including John Boyle’s excellent study of Irish labour in the 19th century.


As for Saothar. It costs €25 a year to become a member of the Irish Labour History Society, and membership includes a subscription to Saothar.


If you don’t want to subscribe, the journal is available via Dublin city library as well. If your local library does not have a copy of any of the above titles – as was the my case when I lived down in Wexford – the Irish library system runs an excellent inter-library loan.


103. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

“I think the other main problem has been that left-wing historians have not produced a general history of Ireland that both consistently applies the insight of socialism and meets the criteria for “scholarly” history. Which is partly why people refer to the likes of Lee. What we need is for a materialist or left wing general history of the last, say, 2 centuries. Such a book would have had a bigger impact say 2 decades ago than now, but it would still prove hard to ignore.”

Garibaldy, Emmet O’Connor’s A Labour History of Ireland covers two centuries and was published in 1992. what is that book missing that Joe Lee has?


104. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

By the way, I’ve come across documents charting wage levels in Castlecomer that date back to the 1700s. Also, there are lot of church records still available. Then there are land surveys, estate records, statistical reports, in fact, all the documents that historians of the Middle Class have used, but which have not been read with an eye on labour/working class life. An example of what is achievable with the available sources is Marilyn Silverman’s “An Irish Working Class: Explorations in Political Economy and Hegemony, 1800-1950”.


105. ejh - December 19, 2007

Also the leadership of the SWM in my expereince and not Militant either as far as I know ever encouraged their members to read anythign that isn’t written by them

Hmmm. Both tend to run bookstalls and not everything on the table is either the Marxist classics on the party’s comments thereupon. Lots of book reviews in their magazines too.


106. sonofstan - December 19, 2007

By the way, I’ve come across documents charting wage levels in Castlecomer that date back to the 1700s

Wouldn’t Castlecomer be a big exception in Irish terms though, having a recognisable,wage- labour intensive industry (mining) going back that far? seems to me that corner of the country – Kilkenny/ Carlow/ Wexford (along with eastern Ulster) -was somewhat abnormal in having 1) a substantial mercantile, urban middle class, and 2) a wage earning working class in the 18th c ? or am I mistaking lack of research in to the thing for lack of the thing in itself?


107. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

Well, I’d say lack of research into the thing rather than the thing itself. I came across the wage levels because I was doing some research into Nixie Boran, who was a union organiser in the Castlecomer mines during the 1930s-1960s. He was a republican and a communist. But, the wage levels did not relate to the mines, but to the Wandesforde family estate. It got me thinking that maybe similiar documents exist in the estates of other families. I know there’s a decent archive in the Northern Ireland archives relating to the Belmore estate of Enniskillen. It needs a good dig through.

So yeah, it’s the lack of research into the thing itself. I mean, Henry Patterson in the 1983 article posted here was calling for a marxist reading of Unionist history. There’s nothing in unionist documents that automatically leads the historian to a marxist reading. In other words, the historian brings the analysis. historical writing is not a series of “Eureka!” moments – that’s journalism, and we’ve seen that approach quite clearly with Coolacrease – nor is it cut and paste. you’ve got to ask yourself: Can I find out anything about working life from this document? Is this offering me a way in here? what’s going on between the lines? Unless you ask those questions about the documents, you’re going to be left with the narrator as sole subject. The labourers and working class have a huge presence in the past of Ireland, but it is an abstract presence. They are not shouting from the front pages. historians go to Estate papers to ask questions about the history of the family who owned the estate, not to see if those papers can shed any light on the life of those who worked on the estate. It’s an approach thing.

One of the most wonderful sources on Irish labour and working class life that I came across is the Portadown News – that’s the original newspaper from the 1910s and 1920s, not the satirical online newspaper. It was a Unionist newspaper, but it carried, obviously, a lot of local news, and I found out a lot about the development of the trades council and trade unions in the area, housing and health issues, local politics, etc. documents don’t make it easy for you. They have to be critically accessed. you’ve got to ask the question: can this document tell me anything about labour/working class life?

And it’s that type of methodology – the almost total reliance on text with subsequent textual analysis- that makes Hayden White’s criticisms so devastating. I’ve had my forty days and nights in the desert with that one, though, and came out alive, clutching a copy of Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative.

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108. Dublin Opinion » Blog Archive » IRISH LABOUR HISTORY: IS IT SOMETHING WE SAID? - December 19, 2007

[…] an interesting post by Garibaldy over on Cedarlounge that deals with a recent Hidden History programme about Irish historiography. The post generated a […]


109. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007


O’Connor’s book (from what I remember of it many moons ago) is a high quality piece of work, but like most textbooks, is in severe need of updating 15 years after being published, especially with the expansion of the writing of Irish history since then. What we need is someone to sit down and trace social conflict, and how it is linked or not linked to political conflict within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain, in a general narrative history. It’s a mammoth task. I don’t know who will do it, but it’s urgently needed. What I think left historians need to do if their impact is to grow into political discourse is to get out of the history of socialism and of the labour movement – vital though they are – and into a social history of Irish politics.

You’re right to say that political activists on the left neglect this stuff. Partly that is because of other demands on their time, but partly I think it is also a reflection of the times we are in, with people engaged in much less reading than in the past.


110. Conor McCabe - December 19, 2007

Garibaldy, it is true that O’Connor’s book needs updating, not least because of the books and articles that O’Connor himself has written based on new material from the Moscow archives – opened as they were after the fall of the Soviet Union. But what gets me is the citing of historians by the left – the names that are mentioned above are standard undergraduate reading list names. Outside of Irish standard reading texts, going by the posts above, there seems to be a strong awareness of English and Scottish materialist historians, but not of Irish ones. The Irish names remain the mainstream historians.

Outside of the mainstream, the labour histories mentioned fall into the loose definition of the “Connolly School” of Irish labour histories.

I hope this is not too much up my own arse here but I’d have the impression that the well-versed and well-read of the Irish left both read and contribute to this site – the ABC1s of the Irish left, if you will. And, if the well-versed are sticking to standard, non-materialistic historians for insights into Irish history, but yet have no problem with embracing English and Scottish materialist historians, – and have had the time and inclination to read those English and Scottish materialists – what does that say about the state of the Irish left?

I mean, the fact that O’Connor’s book needs updating in light of his own research is no reason to go to Joe Lee searching for a class analysis of Irish history, because you are not going to get it.

I’m thinking now, and this is just thinking out loud, nothing more, that the conservative Irish education system is actually doing its job – even the Left is sticking to the standard texts and the standard conclusions.

and that’s just a general observation based on the commentaries. and as I said, it’s not like I’ve reached a defining thesis on all of this, but these are the thoughts I’m thinking now.


111. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007


Hobsbawm and Rudé etc dealt with big political questions (from the French Revolution to imperialism as well as the Captain Swing stuff) from a left-wing point of view. And political activists are interested in those type of questions. So take Emmet O’Connor’s book on Ireland and the Comintern. I’m sure it’s an exemplary piece of work. But is it a surprise that people are more likely to read Foster, or Bew or Lee, or Ferriter, who seek to provide explanations of major developments in Irish history? I don’t think people on the left can be faulted for reading that type of thing rather than more detailed studies of smaller, more localised developements. Historians, yes. But the average political activist, I’m not so sure.

Just on your point above about sources. There are sources available, particulkarly from around the C18th. But take the medieval history of England, where there is a major tradition of Marxist historiography. We can’t write similar stuff in Ireland because of the different system of landholding, and the absence of records. Equally, there are church records, but for much of, say, the early modern period, the Catholic church was unable to keep such detailed records as happened in other countires, and the Cof Ireland or Presbyterian records or whatever just don’t deal with a large enough sgment of the population. Though more could be made of the sources that do exist, absolutely.

I’ve been reading your piece at Dublin Opinion. I hope to respond over there in more detail. But just quickly. I wonder if the view of labour history you’re taking isn’t perhaps a bit too narrow. Take the work of the people you mention from before the foundation of the labour movement proper. Should we really say that writing the history of a peasant based popular protest movement agitating against rents and tithes, or of the crowd in Dublin in the C18th, or of the social programme of the Defenders and the United Irishmen does not count as Irish Labour history? Is it not just a reflection of the fact that there was a much closer link between politics and social protest, as well as a less defined conception of labour. There seems to me a danger in your approach of limiting it to the era of trade unionism.


112. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007

Oh, and you may well be right about the conersative nature of the history taught encouraging a concentration on traditional types of history among the left, but it’s not the only factor.


113. Ed Hayes - December 19, 2007

Good point. If I wanted to read about Ireland in the 1960s then I would read one of the above writers because as O’Connor’s book as I remember only goes up to about 1962 and while it is interesting it is focussed on unions/labour party/the left and occasionally republicans. Most Irish people, including workers, were never in all of the above (unions obviously to a greater extent).
The average history reader wants to know when did the Brits leave Dublin, what was the population when my grandad joined up during the emergencey, who was leader of the Unionists in the 1950s, when did the first TV start, what was the Mother and Child scheme all about, who invented Irish sex etc. Thats why popular history sells. labour history will always be a niche market.


114. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007

Labour history is liable to always be a niche market, but left-wing history doesn’t have to be.


115. sonofstan - December 19, 2007

Labour history is liable to always be a niche market, but left-wing history doesn’t have to be.

Maybe so, but 20 years ago, every socialist I knew in London could talk about The Making of the English Working-Class – not an easy read, either.


116. Garibaldy - December 19, 2007

Yeah but it was so popular because it dealt with the political history of labour in England. It tackled big issues. Part of the collapse of traditional social history has been the retreat away from big issues in to niche ones – be it sport, clothing, prostitution, education or whatever. These are all incredibly important. But they are not dealing with mainstream questions of interest to politically active people in the way Thompson et al did. Until left-wing Irish historians do that, they will remain marginalised. Look at the most successful ones – Patterson and Bew, at least in earlier incarnations. Both political historians. Social history much be expanded in Ireland, but not at the expense of the political.


117. eamonnmcdonagh - December 19, 2007

The range of of mainstream questions of interest to politically active people in developed countries has narrowed a lot in recent years, not that it was ever very wide in Ireland. So I wouldn’t be very hope ful about the future of left-wing history


118. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

But, we’re not talking about politics per se on this post, we’re talking about the fight for history. Also, the medieval history point doesn’t explain the absence of readership for labour left-wing histories from periods for which we do have records, particularly John Boyle’s The Irish Labour Movement in the 19th Century – another book ignored by the left-wing in Ireland. (Jut on the medieval point, if land ownership wasn’t a part of Irish society, how could a marxist reading of land ownership in medieval Ireland possibly explain a situation that didn’t exist? I don’t follow the logic. We don’t have medieval marxist readings of Irish land ownership because there wasn’t any land ownership, and because of that there’s no records, so we can’t do a marxst reading. Am I getting this right here?)

But, you keep on making out that there’s a lack of scholarly research and that’s the reason for the lack of readership. The scholarly work is there. but no-one seems to read it.

In my view, Irish labour history it’s more than trade unionism, and I’ve written more than once on Dublin Opinion of what I see as labour history. however, one of the problems with Irish labour historiography is the fact that it has focused too much on the trade union movement. It’s changing, and one of the things Saothar did recently was give its definition of what it means by labour history, which it now sees as the history of the Irish working class instead of just the trade union movement. It goes on:

“By the history of the Irish working class, we mean waged and unwaged workers, their lives, work, economic conditions, social and cultural relationships, leaders, organisations, movements, values and ideas. Studies of anti-labour organisations or anti-socialist groups are also of relevance [as are] studies that focus on the everyday life of workers and their families.”

Ed Hayes, I find it a bit worrying, the rush to dismiss historical research into the working lives of Irish people with, of all things on a left-wing post, a consumerist argument! The “that’s what the people want”. Apart from that, I’m not talking about what the type of history “the people” want in my comments, I’m talking about the type of history the Left-wing in Ireland wants – in particular, the readers and commentators on this blog.

On O’Connor’s “A labour history of Ireland 1834-1960” being some kind of niche market book missing the broad sweep of Joe Lee or Dermot Ferriter. The one thing O’Connor does in that book is analyse Ireland with a materialist, not a nationalist, methodology, using the labour movement to do it. That, it appears, has little appeal to left-wing political activists. Fine. But don’t tell me that you’re reading Lee for his class sympathies when at the same time you’re dismissing the only materialist history of Ireland written by an academic historian with the very sweep you’re asking for.

Also, I would argue that it is almost impossible to read Emmet O’Connor’s Syndicalism in Ireland 1917-23, and walk away with the same view of that period. It is one that simply demolishes the thesis that the Irish middle class are the force behind history in Ireland. Far from being a niche book, it is in fact an assault on revisionist and anti-revisionist historiography. and that’s what I see as the true fight in Irish history – the need for the left to stop taking its history from Irish revisonists and anti-revisionists, and start reading Irish materialist historians.

sorry. I just had to re-read that last part. I am actually pleading with the left-wing in Ireland to read Irish materialist histories.

This is fucking bizzare.


119. Garibaldy - December 20, 2007


The point I’m making is that this is a multi-dimensional problem. One is as you say the lack of desire among left activists to read this type of stuff. But there are good reasons for this, not least the fact that the revolutionary tradition in Ireland has been about independence and not social conditions. People tend to view their antecedents in the IRA or Fenians or United Irishmen, not syndicalists or smaller socialist parties or whatever. This may be wrong of them, but it’s understandable. The reception of O’Connor’s book is a case in point.

If left-wing history is to get the audience it is looking for, then it needs to write the history of these organisations, of political struggle. There is a lot of scholarly research on Irish labour history but I do think that it has not addressed these areas sufficiently. The sweep I’m looking for is both chronological and thematic. We don’t need just a history of Irish labour. We need a materialist history of Ireland. And I don’t think the labour history tradition has provided that yet. O’Connor uses the labour movement to write materialist history. We need to use materialist history to write a history of everything else. Some of the work on post-Famine Ireland and the Land War seems to me to provide a good model. When work of that sort has been reproduced for most of the major questions in Irish history, then we will be close to getting the materialist history we need.

On the medieval thing, my point was simple. Ireland had a different pattern of landholding to places like France and England. That is different than no land ownnership, which is not what I was saying. But because of the different style of landownership, the type of detailed records that exist for production, tithe, births, deaths etc kept by feudal lords that exist for other countries and that enable such impressive social history to be undertaken simply do not exist for Ireland. And the loss of much of the government documentation in the Four Courts took away a great deal of other possible sources. In that light, the writing of social history (Marxian or otherwise) becomes much more difficult.

In terms of the relationship between materialist history and the revisionism debate, surely Bew and Patterson are proof that a materialist revisionism is entirely possible?


120. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

what you’re arguing for, then, is not the study of the working class as such, but the use of history as part of a wider revolutionary movement. That’s Connolly-school labour history, and you’ve already got more than a few of them. The more academic research stuff, then, doesn’t matter unless it fits the political agenda of the revolutionary movement, unless it can be used as a weapon for revolutionary left-wing politics.

Is this what you’re calling for?


121. Garibaldy - December 20, 2007

I want to see Irish history develop, and widen out both its techniques and the types of things it studies. But I do not want to see the use of materialist history confined to the study of the working class, but applied to all areas of history. Until that happens, I think it will be difficult for materialist history to find the audience it deserves. It’s a recognition of the way people think rather than an ideal solution.


122. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

“I think it will be difficult for materialist history to find the audience it deserves. It’s a recognition of the way people think rather than an ideal solution.”

Let’s go back to Gramsci, cultural hegemony, and the fight for Irish history. what I am getting from the comments, and not only from Garibaldy, is that the advanced left in Ireland – the advanced left – would rather get its history from the Irish middle class cultural hegemony, rather than from Irish historians working outside it.

It would rather go to Joe Lee for its history because he mentions class in a benign way, than to Emmet O’Connor, who gives a scholarly materialist reading of the War of Independence and Civil War that nobody seems to have read, or that seems to merit – among the advanced left in Ireland – the faint praise of ‘localised.’

That idea of the the working class studies as ‘localised’is the opinion of Irish cultural hegemony, of the view of the story of Ireland as the advance of the Irish middle Class. In this process it is following a well-trodden path: First you marginalise, then you ridicule.

I can understand that view being held among mainstream Irish society and opinion, but among the advanced left? Is Irish cultural hegemony so powerful that even the advanced left have bought into its myths about working class studies as localised?

But what really throws me is the defence of the current Irish cultural hegemony by the advanced left.

That is simply mind-boggling.

I mean, nobody seems to be saying “well I haven’t read O’Connor but I must check him out”. What i’m getting is “No! It’s localised and therefore unimportant!” That defence of Irish cultural hegemony, Man, where is it coming from?

An advanced left that can quote from English and Scottish socialist historians, that has read working class histories of Britain, France, Germany and Russia, can, at the same time and with the same breath, dismiss materialist readings of Irish working class and labour history as ‘localised’. Michael Laffan,Tom Garvin, and Ronan Fanning couldn’t have put it better. Even the advanced left has bought into the myth of working class studies as ‘localised’, and not really up there with the synoptic works of conservative, middle class Ireland.

God. This is depressing.

By the way, is there anyone who thinks I’ve got a point, or are my thoughts on the subject also ‘localised’ within the advanced left? going by the comments above, it seems I’m on my own here.


123. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

also, I’m willing to shut up after this. If it’s just me that thinks this way, then I’ll leave this topic here alone.


124. Ed Hayes - December 20, 2007

I’ve read Emmet O’Connor. I found out about the Comintern and Ireland and a bit about Fianna Fail and labour. But I wanted to basically know what happened between 1912 and 1985 so I read Joe Lee.


125. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

ok. Fair enough.


126. sonofstan - December 20, 2007

TBH Conor, I think what you’re pointing to – the left allowing ‘conservative middle class Ireland’ to set the terms of the debate within academic history – pretty much reflects the macrocosm of politics as well. And it’s not just that the right has history (in the sense of stuff that’s happening, not the discipline) on its side; it is, as Garibaldy pointed out earlier, the left doesn’t read enough anymore and has lost the ability to present a challenge to hegemony. As Zizek points out somewhere, only semi-facetiously, the problem now is not What is to Be Done? but What is to be Thought? – the left needs more theory not less, because a premature emphasis on praxis is premised on the acceptance of a framework which renders impossible the success of any leftist project.


127. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

what gets me, though, is that the Left in Ireland not only allows the historical debate to be set by Middle Class Ireland, it actively supports it.

The mainstream, the historical “authorities” are saying that working class studies is a localised area of study – and amazingly, not just the left in Ireland, but the radical/advanced left agrees. The argument being put forward here is that Irish labour historians have to come up with a synoptic history in order for the radical left to take them seriously. There’s no question of the radical left actually reading what has been produced already, and using it to challenge middle class myths – something that Emmet O’Connor, who gets damned with faint praise here, has been doing for decades.

The radical left has taken the middle class myth that nationalism is the only radical force in Irish history – even though the only two revolutionary moments in pre-independence Ireland arose out of seismic economic, political, and cultural events in Europe, not because of the waving of some middle-class nationalist wand. It is a middle class myth that the Irish sea acted as some kind of firewall to stop the economic and political turmoil in the aftermath of the Great War, for example, and that it’s all down to us middle class chappies.

i mean, I could go on and on and on about this, but the books are already there – scholarly works as well.

But what my jaw drop was the assertion that labour and working class studies is a localised affair in Irish history. Straight out of Ronan Fanning and Michael Laffan’s lecture notes. Incredible. and it’s that that makes me think about Gramsci and cultural hegemony.


128. Conor McCabe - December 20, 2007

Here I go again, making two comments when I should be making one (and this is after I said I was going to shut up as well), but I just want to make the point that I do not believe the fundamental problem lies with a lack of theory – much as I love theory – the problem is an altogether more basic one. The Radical left in Ireland has signed up to the mainstream view of Irish history – and this includes the revisionist/anti-revisionist spat – and it doesn’t seem to realize that that is what it has done. This is a case of cultural hegemony in full effect. and that is a bit worrying, to be honest.


129. Garibaldy - December 20, 2007

I think maybe what I intend as an analysis of why people read what they do may seem to be an advocacy for those reading habits, which is not what I intend.

On the localised thing. I said this in relation to why people read synoptic histories rather than say O’Connor’s history of Ireland and the Comintern. Working-class history is not localised or unimportant. But the history of the relations of relatively small Irish groups with the Comintern is a specialised area of the history of the last century. Not at all of uninteresting, and fundamental to the development of the left, but it is not as likely to attract the attention of a mass audience.

As far as I am concerned, the history of any society is fundamentally a history of power struggles between different social groups. Therefore, I want to understand not just the development of a particular group – even the working class or peasantry which forms the majority of society – but how the activities, actions and belief system of that group relates to the other parts of society. And, in the Irish case, to the question of the British presence as often as not. If materialist history limits itself to the working class, or to political organisations claiming to represent it, then as far as I am concerned it is not doing its job. I acknowledge the excellent work done by materialist historians in Ireland. But I’m greedy for more – a materialist explanation of the events that shaped society that studies all the players. That materialist general history has yet to be written.

It’s no accident that Bew and Patterson are regarded as fundamental to, say, the history of Northern Ireland while O’Connor, unfortunately, is not. The first two deal with the history of the labour movement within political power relations and the nature of the state and society. We need more of that. As far as I’m concerned, to say that is not to have internalised a bourgeois narrative.

Which leads us to the question of Gramsci and hegemony. As far as I understand the Prison Notebooks, when he talked about hegemony, Gramsci talked about how the revolutionary class could win to its side the rural and petit bourgeois elements necessary for an Italian Revolution, or the French Revolution, or the Bolshevik Revolution. He did not mean it in the way we often deploy the term. To put that another way, it was about the political, social, economic, and ideological relations within society. So to write a Gramscian history, it seems to me, we need a history of a society as a whole, written with his analysis of how class relations work in mind. The history of the working class alone is insufficient. Equally, without an adequate history of the working class, no full history of the society is possible. Which is why I am saying it is time for materialist historians to move beyond the history of labour. And I make no apologies for that, as it stands completely within the tradition of left-wing historiography and politics.

To attack the old nationalist myths and the link between Irish identity and Catholicism (be they articles 2 and 3, the ban on divorce, or the belief that everything was the Brits’ fault or that socialism was an alien idea that had no place on Irish soil) was a fundamental part of the left agenda (as Patterson correctly identified in the article WBS posted), in order to create the space for the development of progressive politics and the progressive writing of history. Revisionist approaches to history were therefore two-fold. Liberal and left-wing. It was vital that the left took its place in the assault on the old myths, just as it is vital that it mounts an assault on the new myths Conor identifies.


130. Ed Hayes - January 7, 2008

Conor, just in case you are not a reader of The Dubliner magazine, (!)its January 2008 edition contains an article on the ‘middle class’ which critiques your piece on class of some time ago on Dublin Opinion. Its shite really but you might want to have a look.


131. O'Donovan - January 10, 2008

I picked up on this blog by chance and, as an Irish history enthusiast, I just wanted to add my tuppence and say that I’m after reading Guy Beiner’s “The Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory” (University of Wisconsin Press) and I found it absolutely brilliant! In my opinion, it’s the most original contribution to modern Irish history to come out in a long time and well worth reading.


132. WorldbyStorm - January 10, 2008

Cheers, will give it a look…


133. Roger Casement, 1916 and Modern Ireland « Garibaldy Blog - September 26, 2008

[…] In these couple of sentences, Foster hits on many of the most important changes that have taken hold in Ireland over the last several decades (and analysed in his Luck and the Irish ). The decline of the Catholic Church, the desacralization of Irish nationalism, and the rapid transition to a secular society in line with the rest of Europe, except on the question of abortion. However, the transformation of Irish nationalism has not meant it has slipped out of existence, as some have assumed as traditional Catholic nationalism waned. The popularity of the government celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising demonstrated that. (I have commented previously on the debates on Irish historical revisionism here . […]


134. History Wars. Korean Style. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 19, 2008

[…] Arabs has caused outrage and major rows. We at Cedar Lounge Revolution have discussed before The Fight for Irish History, and just recently had an, ahem, lively debate on the hardly pressing topic of Soviet foreign […]


135. [deleted spam] - September 14, 2013

[deleted spam]


136. Logan - September 14, 2013

Funny that some spammer has brought this posting back to prominance on just the same day that Henry Patterson has an article in the Irish Times about the history of the Irish border in the Troubles period…


RosencrantzisDead - September 14, 2013

Programmes in RTE about who shot who in the bollicks

This is a great line and sums up a lot about the State broadcaster and Irish attitudes to the subaltern.


Bob Smiles - September 14, 2013

If someone shot me in the bollocks id be interested in finding out why they did it


Jim Monaghan - September 14, 2013

I would try and get treatment first

Liked by 1 person

137. rexio - September 14, 2013

I know this post is a few years old but just wanted to say I agree word for word with everything Conor McCabe has said vs Garibaldy.

The one thing that amazed me when I was a student was how I got much better training for being a historian from the English Lit course I took than anything from History with so-called historians. I was introduced to Hayden White’s work in an English Lit course, he was never mentioned in any history course I took until post graduate level. Even then it was completely dismissed as something not to be concerned with by aspiring historians, a bunch of gobbledy-gook. I found this argument both fascinating and disappointing.

My biggest problem with revisionists was never their anti-nationalism but their anti-intellectualism. They were just bad historians.


138. GearóidGaillimh - March 7, 2018

Hayden White has died aged 89. RIP.

Liked by 1 person

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