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War of the Three Kingdoms or English Revolution? November 14, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in History, Ireland, Media and Journalism.

A rather surprising article from Ronan Bennett in the Guardian. Bennett is both someone who possesses a Phd in the history of the mid-seventeenth century (“Enforcing the Law in Revolutionary England: Yorkshire, c.1640-1660”) and a supporter of Gerry Adams, who often comments on his experience as a prisoner in Long Kesh (see here, here, and here for examples) though somehow his keen historical mind neglects to mention that he was in the Offical and not the Provisional IRA cages. Naturally, anything he says relevant to the events of the period that saw the execution of Charles I and the establishment of a British Republic, religious war in Ireland and the Cromwellite invasion and land settlement will be of interest. See his review of Micheál Ó Siochrú’s recent study of Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland for example.

All of which makes his article from today’s Guardian all the more strange. The article is an analysis of Channel Four’s new series The Devil’s Whore, and a comment on the absence of this period in British popular memory. Bennett notes

Charles Stuart was beheaded shortly before 2pm on Tuesday, January 30 1649. A week later, the parliament voted to abolish the House of Lords, and the following day it decided that, having done away with the monarch, it might as well dispense with the institution of monarchy itself. The necessary legislation was enacted within a month and England became officially a republic. The unthinkable had happened: it was, in a phrase from the time and much used since, “the world turned upside down”.

Bennett is impresed with the programme.

But The Devil’s Whore has a great deal to commend it, in particular Flannery’s focus on the radical spirits who flourished as the old order faltered, before they were themselves crushed as the new regime under Cromwell turned against the very militancy that had propelled it to power. It would have been easier – and probably more crowd-pleasing – to have retold the already familiar story of cavaliers and roundheads, avoiding politics for a dashing romp among the young blades and buxom lasses of merry old England. Instead, Flannery does us all a great service in reminding us of a revolutionary past of which the English often seem embarrassed, ignorant or in denial.

All of which seems fair enough, although the programme hasn’t been on yet so we’ll have to take his word for it on the quality for now. Why then am I writing this piece? For three decades now, since J.G.A. Pocock’s article British History: A Plea for a New Subject (1974 and reprinted in his The Discovery of Islands from 2005), the early modern history of the Atlantic Archipelago/British Isles/these islands has undergone great change. Pocock called for a new type of history, Three Kingdoms history, which would no longer be the history of England with stray references to events elsewhere but an integrated history of both islands.

Nowhere has this call been better answered than in the history of what used to be known as the English Revolution or Civil War, and which has now become – especially among Irish historians – The Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Events in Ireland and especially Scotland were absolutely crucial to the struggle between the monarch and Westminster, and to some extent shaped them, and it is impossible to write the history of this period as simply a history of England any longer – and in fact, some historians are replacing the term Three Kingdoms with four nations instead lest the Welsh feel discriminated against (much to the jealousy of Cornish nationalists no doubt). Although Bennett’s article does question why there is no reference to Scotland during what he calls the civil wars, he fails to mention Ireland. Which for someone with his background is, frankly, bizarre. Perhaps his message that English people needed to reclaim their radical heritage was more important to him in this piece than voicing any Irish nationalist sense of exclusion and grievance, unlike in his review of Ó Siochrú’s book.

The article serves as a reminder, then, of the political uses of history, and the faddish nature of it. Given that over the last few days, we have been discussing politics and the writing of history here and here it is refreshing to see that even the ancient grievances that motivate much of our hatreds and fuel a great deal of our rhetoric can be set aside in the interest of other axes to grind. But of course, history is an objective profession. Honest.

For what it’s worth, I think that basically the period in question was at heart an English Revolution, albeit influenced by events outside England. So in that sense, I find myself agreeing with Bennett. Can’t say that happens a great deal. I also plan to watch The Devil’s Whore – with that title, how could one not?


1. Satanic Verses? Me on The Devil’s Whore and Ronan Bennett at Cedar Lounge Revolution « Garibaldy Blog - November 14, 2008

[…] Verses? Me on The Devil’s Whore and Ronan Bennett at Cedar Lounge Revolution See here for a discussion of an article by Ronan Bennett on Channel Four’s forthcoming TV show The […]


2. Dunne and Crescendo - November 14, 2008

Well spotted re Bennet’s prison record Garibaldy. He certainly tends to suggest that he was with Adams and co. all along. Why is he embarrassed about having been an Official?


3. Garibaldy - November 14, 2008

Everyone likes a winner I guess D&C. We could suggest it’s because he doesn’t want to confuse English audiences, but I doubt it.


4. John - November 14, 2008

He was also one of the six defendants in the Persons Unknown trial, ostensibly a group of anarchists.



5. Joe - November 14, 2008

I quite liked his award winning novel about religion and stuff in an English town around about Cromwell’s time. Title escapes me right now.
Is there a thesis to be written on how come so many more ex Officials than ex Provos are successful journalists and writers?


6. Gypsy - November 14, 2008

Havoc, in its third year is the novel Joe. I also liked The Catastrophist. Damn I even liked Zugzwang which pretty much got panned but then I read it in its original serialisation in the Observer. Didn’t he also do something moviewise about the WTC disaster?


7. Garibaldy - November 14, 2008


Interesting point.


I only read a few of those serialised things but wasn’t much impressed. I haven’t read any of his other novels.


8. ejh - November 14, 2008

I even liked Zugzwang which pretty much got panned

Rightly so, I have to say, it’s pretty poor.


9. Starkadder - November 14, 2008

On the subject of TV Historical Drama and the Left, there’s an excellent
article by Johann Hari on why so many Classicists threw a tantrum over
the HBO/BBC series “Rome”-it departed from the traditional history of
Roman society that the conservative Roman authors gave us.

The Devil’s Whore looks interesting,but I wonder what it will show about
Cromwell and the Scots & Irish? And will we see any Levellers or Diggers
in it?


10. Starkadder - November 14, 2008
11. Bartholomew - November 14, 2008

I thought Havoc in its third year was one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. I usually avoid them for two reasons – (a) there is usually some point where the action or dialogue strikes me (correctly or not) as totally anachronistic, and (b) the study that the novelist has done sticks out, with period details being thrown in which are unnecessary to the plot, just to create the right ‘atmosphere’. Sometimes, if you know the area well, you can even work out the specific history books which the novelist used. Havoc didn’t have either of these – I got the impression that Bennett had read so deeply in the writing of mid-seventeenth century English religio-political writers that he ended up being able to think like one himself. I didn’t know until now that he had done a PhD on the subject, but it explains a lot.


12. Garibaldy - November 14, 2008


Thanks for that Hari link. Great stuff indeed.


13. Starkadder - November 15, 2008

Yes, although in his discussion of past images of the Roman Empire, Hari seems to have forgotten about a certain Kubrick film based
on a Howard Fast novel,whose hero is a rebel against Roman slavery.


14. Garibaldy - November 15, 2008

Fantastic film.


15. Starkadder - November 15, 2008

Saw “Spartacus” years ago-must have a look at it again.

It was quite surprising to learn Cicero may have been the Roman equivalent of Kevin Myers,hating poor people and opposing any
reform. I remember reading G.E.M. De Ste. Croix’s massive
“The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World”, and he had some very harsh words about Cicero, Plato, Alexander the Great, and other
classical icons.


16. Garibaldy - November 15, 2008

Cicero was clearly an aristocratic politician, who served the interests of his class in the courts, in the senate, and in government. I still find the fact Marc Anthony had his head brought to him in his hands a little entertaining. It seems to me Ancient Rome at that period was unadulterated class warfare, though exploited by aristocratic factions.


17. dessalines - November 16, 2008

on rome, have a look at chris parenti’s ‘assassination of julius caesar’–a solid revisionist study that manages to be accessible to the non-specialist while being solidly grounded in the historical literature. on the sticks and media, are you serious? they ‘made it’ as journalists mainly because they were/are completely inoffensive to the british and irish establishments. and they had a certain degree of ‘influence’ a rte didn’t they?


18. Garibaldy - November 16, 2008

Thanks for the hints on that Caesar book.

On the media, while there might be a sense of my enemy’s enemy, I suggest you read the Cruiser on his expanded censorship to see how The WP was viewed by the southern establishment., whatever the positions obtained by some people in RTÉ. Those who made it as journalists from The WP, by the by, often benefited from experience in WP publications and sources, but virtually all turned on The WP, and have gone on to greater success since then. How to explain that? Some ability is surely necessary. Plus several prominent journalists who cover NI have been blatantly hostile to The WP and at the least sympathetic to other groups, so the picture is more complex than it might seem at first.


19. Seán Ó Tuama - November 16, 2008

On sticks and the media,took the words straight out of my mouth, dessalines. Do (very) ex-sticks also count? On that basis I might be in for a Nobel prize. Word has it that at a certain time one of the main questions one was asked at an RTE interview was one’s opinion of the Irish Industrial Revolution document. Do you think that if you were mildly critical and said,à la Garibaldy, that it was, after all, only a discussion document, you could have still got the job?

BTW, despite what Garibaldy says, I can remember very little difference between that document and the Warren/BICO Imperialism is progressive line.


20. Garibaldy - November 16, 2008

I have no idea if that question was ever asked at an interview, but all things are possible I guess (although it seems to me far too unsubtle for a supposedly secret branch). Clearly there were people at RTÉ who didn’t follow The WP line. The current President of the southern state being the most obvious example – in fact did not Harris et al do their nut at the coverage of the hunger strikes? I think that while clearly certain people were influential within segments of RTÉ they never held anywhere near the power that people liked/hated to think.

I think there is a world of difference between raising the idea that native capitalists had failed to create their own gravediggers through a lack of industrialisation and that if foreign capital did create a larger industrial proletariat, that would be a good thing, and saying that imperialism was progressive. Look at the stuff coming out in the party manifestoes or policy documents or Presidential Adresses or in the newspapers for anything that resembled BICO stuff and I doubt you’ll get it.


21. dessalines - November 16, 2008

i spent a bit of time in their orbit myself, a very long time ago. they were obsessively anti-provisional. and i do mean obsessively. i remember reading a mimeograph pamphlet they had produced (shark on the cover, i seem to recall) that argued in as clumsy and inferential a manner possible that since right-wing southern political figures had played a [minor] role in the launch of the provos etc that they were therefore a cia front. and the only people worse than provos were trots.

of course the cruiser had trepidations about the role they might play, and others of you will know a lot more about this than i do, but the wp play an important function in my view in giving a left cover for a fairly despicable and aggressive attack on civil liberties in the south. o’brien led the charge but i’m sure he figured out pretty quickly that the wp were useful allies in the context.

there is a book to be written, i think, on the trajectory of a whole generation of prominent stalinists–in britain and ireland, but more noticeable in ireland–who have ended up on pretty cozy terms with the neo-conservative project. i’ve my own ideas about how and why that happened, but its very striking i think.


22. Garibaldy - November 16, 2008

In fairness dessalines, I don’t think the argument was ever that FF played a minor role in the creation of the provos.

I also think that if The WP was as obsessed with the Provos as people like to think, it would never have reached the position it did in the 1989 election in the south. Surely its success was based on confronting the issues that mattered to people in working class areas, especially in Dublin? And just to prove I’m not obsessed with the provos I didn’t point out they have yet to match that achievement. Oops. 🙂


23. Seán Ó Tuama - November 16, 2008

The current President of the southern state was by her biographer’s account, more or less, pushed out of RTE; It was only when it became totally obvious in RTE, after election victories by H -Block candidates, that the situation could no longer be ignored, that it began to be covered. And much later still, that De Rossa finally got asked certain questions on RTE.

I do not see much difference between positively welcoming multi-national corps as the only way Ireland can develop and saying that Imperialism is progressive. Do you now accept that the IIR was an official party document?

On another thread, you may be embarrassed that I largely support your position against O’Toole ( a significant surname at at least two levels) and WBS on the sovereignity issue. I would differ with you only in seeing sovereignity residing in nations, nationalities and regions rather than states and in thinking that only a decentralised form of socialism can work as opposed to an increasingly centralised EU.

More power for the EU does not necessarily mean more state intervention (in any case not the same thing as socialism). It could also mean more liberalisation. In my view, the EU is more likely to continue its corporatist mix of both, dominated by the interests of the larger states, which is probably the worst of both worlds.


24. Garibaldy - November 16, 2008


The IIR was never a policy document, but a discussion document published by the party. I don’t know if that is what you mean by recognising it as an official party document, but I suspect you mean a policy document.

I had meant to add objectively a good thing to my comment above. That is why I used the gravedigger phrase, to make that point. I do think there is a world of difference between saying that if a bigger industrial proletariat is going to come about in the south, it is most likely to come from multi-national investment, and saying that imperialism (and I’m unsure if by that is meant the highest stage of capitalism or the influence of Britain or America in Ireland, or some combination of the two conceptions of what imperialism might be) is a good thing, that further integration with Britain is necessary to improve NI etc (although whether BICO was saying that when Warren came out I don’t know – Starkadder I imagine can help me out).

As for our points of agreement, glad to hear it. I think I would like to see sovereignty residing in peoples rather than states. I am all in favour of the creation of more centres of democracy in politics, society and economy. I think you are right that the EU can force (and has forced) the state to back out of certain areas, especially in the economy. That too is a surrender of freedom of action as much as saying we will allow our foreign policy to be set by others.


25. John O'Neill - November 18, 2008

“Well spotted re Bennet’s prison record Garibaldy. He certainly tends to suggest that he was with Adams and co. all along. Why is he embarrassed about having been an Official?”

Whats to be embarrassed about? Sure isn’t Adams an Official?


26. The Devil’s Whore review « Edward Vallance - November 24, 2008

[…] at this blog, there’s an interesting review of Ronan Bennett’s Guardian article inspired by the […]


27. The Devil’s Whore « Chronologi Cogitationes - November 26, 2008

[…] Ronan Bennett’s for the Guardian (of which a review-of-a-review can be found here), and a pleasingly irreverent one at Watch Am […]


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