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Nationalism and historical scholarship in modern Ireland

  • Brendan Bradshaw (a1)


The object of the present essay is to suggest that the mainstream tradition of Irish historical scholarship, as it has developed since the 1930s, has been vitiated by a faulty methodological procedure. The study falls into two parts. The first considers a similar exercise conducted in this journal by Dr Steven Ellis in 1986. The intention here is to suggest that Ellis’s analysis of the problem is misconceived. The second part seeks to explore the problem ‘as it really is’ and ultimately to prescribe a remedy. Continuity between the two parts is provided by the fact that the issue comes down to a consideration of the place of nationalism as a formative influence on modern Irish historical scholarship. In short, Ellis sees nationalism as a proactive force in this connexion and identifies ‘whig-nationalist’ preconceptions as the basic source of confusion. The first part of this study, therefore, is concerned to refute that analysis and to show that the evidence adduced by Ellis does not sustain it. The second part argues that the modern tradition actually developed in self-conscious reaction against an earlier nationalist tradition of historical interpretation and aspired to produce ‘value-free’ history in accordance with the criteria of scientific research elaborated in Herbert Butterfield’s The whig interpretation of history. It will be argued that that is precisely the problem.



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1 Ellis, Steven G., ‘Nationalist historiography and the English and Gaelic worlds in the late middle ages’ in I.H.S., xxv, no. 97 (May 1986), pp 118 .

2 Ellis, ‘Nationalist historiography’, pp 6–10. A similar case is argued, though with English whig-nationalism in mind, in Kearney, Hugh, The British Isles (Cambridge, 1989), pp 19 .

3 Ellis, loc. cit., pp 2–7.

4 Ibid., pp 10–18. In this regard Ellis’s argument complements that of Frame, Robin for an earlier period in English lordship in Ireland, 1318–1361 (Oxford, 1982), passim.

5 Hall, A. Rupert, ‘On whiggism’ in Journal of the History of Science, xxi (1983), pp 4559 at pp 53–4. For a more extended exploration of the methodological problem involved, see Wilson, Adrian and Ashplant, T.G., ‘Whig history and present-centred history’ in Hist. Jn., xxi (1988), pp 116 .

6 This phenomenon of ‘degeneracy’ was first fully delineated in the statute of Kilkenny (1366), the terms of which were to be reiterated in parliamentary legislation thenceforward down to the Reformation parliament (1536-7). For a discussion of Anglo-Irish degeneracy in terms of the anthropological concept of acculturation, see Watt’s, J.A. analysis in Art Cosgrove (ed.), A new history of Ireland, ii (Oxford, 1987), pp 308-13, 386–8.

7 For a succinct discussion of the constitutional point, taking account of recent debates, see Art Cosgrove, ‘The Yorkist cause, 1447–60’ in ibid., pp 557–68 at pp 564–6.

8 Ellis, ‘Nationalist historiography’, p. 4, n. 14.

9 Compare ibid., p. 4, n. 14 and pp 2–3. Although Lydon was an undergraduate at University College, Galway, his postgraduate study was at the University of London.

10 For Ellis’s identification of Cosgrove as a serious offender, see ‘Nationalist historiography’, p. 2, n. 6.

11 Cosgrove, Late medieval Ireland, 1370–1541, esp. ch. 5. The same measured approach characterises his historiographical study of the theme of Hiberniores ipsis Hibernis’ in Cosgrove, Art and McCartney, Donal (eds), Studies in Irish history presented to R. Dudley Edwards (Dublin, 1979), pp 114 .

12 Ellis, ‘Nationalist historiography’, p. 2. The circularity of Ellis’s argument at this crucial point should be noted: the modern school of Irish historiography is nationalist because the establishment of the nation-state in 1922 created the need for a nationalist school of Irish historiography. No consideration is given to the historical circumstances in which the modern school originated.

13 The main source is Edwards, R.W. Dudley and O’Dowd, Mary, Sources for early modern Irish history (Cambridge, 1985), pp 20113 , esp. pp 208–11. An earlier sketch was provided by Edwards, in the early pages of his ‘An agenda for Irish history, 1978–2018’ in I.H.S., xxi, no. 81 (Mar. 1978), pp 319 ; see also the personal communication of David Quinn to Steven Ellis in Ellis, , ‘The economic problems of the church: why the Reformation failed in Ireland’ in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, xli (1990). Cf.Edwards, , ‘T.W. Moody and the origins of Irish Historical Studies’ in I.H.S., xxvi, no 101 (May 1988), pp 12 .

14 Edwards & O’Dowd, Sources.

15 Ibid.; McGuire, James, ‘T. Desmond Williams (1921-87)’ in I.H.S., xxvi, no. 101 (May 1988), pp 37 ; Aidan Clarke, ‘Robert Dudley Edwards (1909-88)’ in ibid., xxvi, no. 102 (Nov. 1988), pp 122–3.

16 On the impact of Butterfield’s polemic, see Tosh, John, The pursuit of history (London, 1984), p. 122 . Owen Dudley Edwards has expressed to me his conviction, based on his father’s later reminiscences, that the well-known ‘Cambridge connection’ with Irish historical research dates from these early years. The link, prominently involving Butterfield and T. Desmond Williams, is clearly evident from the following decade (McGuire, ‘Williams’). Aidan Clarke’s perceptive memoir stresses the formative influence on Edwards of his research supervisor, Canon Claude Jenkins (Clarke, ‘Edwards’, p. 122). Clarke’s account complements the one offered here.

17 As above, n. 13. On the pre-existing nationalist interpretation, see Foster, R.F., ‘History and the Irish question’ in R. Hist. Soc. Trans., 5th ser., xxxiii (1983), pp 169-92 at pp 174–7.

18 In that regard the first fruits of the training of the early pioneers set exemplary standards: Dudley, R. Edwards, Church and state in Tudor Ireland: a history of the penal laws against Irish catholics, 1534–1603 (Dublin, 1935); Moody, T.W., The Londonderry plantation: the city of London and the Irish Society, 1609–41 (Belfast, 1939); Quinn, D.B., ‘Tudor rule in Ireland, 1485–1547’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1933).

19 Butterfīeld, The whig interpretation, ch. 5. See Edwards’s comment on Moody’s Londonderry plantation: ‘it might be suggested today that dullness was the price paid at times for ... objectivity’ (Edwards’ & O’Dowd, Sources, p. 209). The same comment might be made about Edwards’s Church and state.

20 Tosh, The pursuit of history, ch. 7; Passmore, John, ‘The objectivity of history’ in Gardiner, Patrick (ed) The philosiphy of history (Oxford, 1974), pp 145-60.

21 Butterfield, Herbert, Christianity and history (London, 1949), ch. 4. The reference to the mid-nineteenth-century famine is intended to refer to the scale of a disaster which was, it is clear, humanly avoidable; it is not intended to carry connotations of genocide. See Gráda, Cormac Ó, Ireland before and after the Famine (Manchester, 1988), esp. ch. 3.

22 On this espisode, see Bradshaw, Brendan, The Irish constitutional revolution of the sixteenth century (Cambridge, 1979), pp 1727 . For a revisionist interpretation of the government’s Draconian reprisals, see Ellis, , ‘Henry VIII, rebellion and the rule of law’ in Hist. Jn., xxiv (1981), pp 51331 .

23 A recent account which highlights this theme with particular reference to Smerwick is Berleth, Richard, The twilight lords: the epic struggle of the last feudal lords of Ireland (London, 1979), pp 16276 . Significantly for the case argued here Berleth is an American author and a populariser rather than a professional historian. His account owes nothing to the Irish school of value-free history.

24 A definitive account of the massacre at Mullaghmast is now provided in Carey, Vincent, ‘Gaelic reaction to plantation: the case of the O’More and O’Connor lordships of Laois and Offaly, 1570–1603’ (unpublished M.A. thesis, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, 1986). The massacre at Rathlin Island is treated in Canny, Nicholas, The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland: a pattern established (Hassocks, 1976), pp 14153 .

25 The ‘darkness’ of this phase of European history is emphasised in Kamen, Henry, The iron century (London, 1976), esp. pt IV. See also Hale, J.R., ‘Sixteenth-century explanations of war and violence’ in Past and Present, no. 51 (1971), pp 326 . On the ruthlessness and violence of the conquest and colonisation of North America, see Jennings, Francis, The invasion of America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975), esp. chs 9, 17, 18.

26 Ellis, S.G., Tudor Ireland: crown, community and the conflict of cultures, 1470–1603 (London, 1985); Canny, Nicholas, From Reformation to Restoration (Dublin, 1988); Brady, Ciaran and Gillespie, Raymond (eds), Natives and newcomers: essays on the making of Irish colonial society, 1534–1641 (Dublin, 1986).

27 Ellis refers to the phenomenon more frequently than the others, but fails either to examine it or to indicate its central significance. Elsewhere Ellis has attempted to explain away the Draconian reprisals following the Kildare rebellion by the interpretative strategy of ‘normalisation’ (Ellis, ‘Henry VIII & the rule of law’)• Canny’s sin is all the greater for the fact that his early monograph on the Elizabethan conquest was a pioneering examination of the phenomenon (Canny, Elizabethan conquest, ch. 6).

28 Moody, Londonderry plantation; Perceval-Maxwell, Michael, The Scottish migration to Ulster in the reign of James I (London, 1973).

29 Gillespie, Raymond, Colonial Ulster: the settlement of east Ulster, 1600–1641 (Cork, 1985); MacCarthy-Morrogh, Michael, The Munster plantation: English migration to southern Ireland, 1538–1641 (Oxford, 1986). A third recent monograph, Robinson, Philip, The plantation of Ulster (Dublin, 1984), does discuss the ‘native dimension’ but as a marginal issue. A more satisfactory treatment — the exception which proves the rule — is provided in Clarke, Aidan, ‘Pacification, plantation and the catholic question, 1603–23’ in Moody, T.W. et al. (eds), A new history of Ireland, iii (Oxford, 1976), pp 187231 . For a penetrating critique of the ‘normalising’ approach, see Morgan’s, Hiram review of Gillespie and MacCarthy-Morrogh in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, xxxix (1988), pp 12831 . For reference to ‘normalising’ interpretations of eighteenth-century Irish violence, together with a critique of this approach, see Bartlett, ThomasAn end to moral economy: the Irish militia disturbances of 1793’ in Past and Present, no. 99 (1983), pp 4164 at p. 42.

30 Edwards, R.D. and Williams, T. Desmond (eds), The Great Famine (Dublin, 1956).

31 The study in question is Daly, Mary E., The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk, 1986). These criticisms have been powerfully argued by Gráda, Cormac О in a review of Daly’s book in I.H.S., xxv, no. 99 (May 1987), p. 333 , and more fully in his Ireland before and after the Famine (Dublin, 1988), esp. ch. 3, and ‘For Irishmen to forget?: recent research on the great Irish famine’ (University College, Dublin, Centre for Economic Research Working Paper 88/3).

32 The same point is made in relation to the concern of professional social and political scientists to achieve ‘critical distance’ by McCann, Graham, ‘Vulnerable science and ordinary pain’ in Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 May 1988, p. 13 .

33 Butterfield, Christianity & history.

34 Bartlett, ‘An end to moral economy’.

35 The failure of the ‘demythologised’ version of Irish history to make a perceptible impact at the popular level has been a source of pessimistic comment in revisionist writings. A recent instance is Foster, ‘History & the Irish question’, pp 190–92.

36 Butterfield, Christianity & history. A similar point is made concerning the ameliorating role of the social and political scientist in McCann, ‘Vulnerable science’.

37 The revisionist mood of the early pioneers is vividly recalled in Edwards & O’Dowd, Sources, pp 201–13, esp. pp 208–9.

38 The trend was established, as can now be seen, by a crudely debunking piece on the leaders of the rebellion of 1916, written by a mild-mannered Jesuit professor of Old Irish and published posthumously, Shaw, Francis, ‘The canon of Irish history: a challenge’ in Studies, lxi (1972), pp 11352 . Continuity between the modern revisionist enterprise and the ‘objective’ historiography of the school of the 1930s is claimed on behalf of the revisionists by Ronan Fanning in ‘The meaning of revisionism’ in Irish Review, no. 4 (spring 1988), pp 15–19 at pp 18–19.

39 Above, pp 335–6.

40 Above, pp 337–8.

41 Fennell, Desmond observes in ‘Against revisionism’, his riposte to Fanning, ‘The meaning of revisionism’, that revisionism is ‘primarily a new moral interpretation’ (Irish Review, no 4 (spring 1988), pp 2026 at p. 22).

42 Recent examples of revisionist iconoclasm are Dunne, Tom, Theobald Wolfe Tone: colonial outsider (Cork, 1982); idem, ‘Haunted by history: Irish romantic writing, 1800–50’ in Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich (eds), Romanticism in national context (Cambridge, 1988), pp 68–91, at (for Davis), pp 76–9; Ruth Edwards, Dudley, Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure (London, 1977). They are all the more insidious for the elegance of the treatment. The latest iconoclastic study of Connolly is Morgan, Austen, James Connolly: a political biography (Manchester, 1989), esp. pp 196203 . A survey of recent revisionist studies of Connolly is a review article by Walker, Graham, himself a revisionist, in London Review of Books, xi, no. 19 (12 Oct. 1989), pp 22-3. A recent revisionist study of post-Famine revolutionary nationalism is Garvin, Tom, Nationalist revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858–1928 (Oxford, 1987).

43 On Brian Boru, see the suggestive treatment in Corráin, Donnchadh Ó, Ireland before the Normans (Dublin, 1972), pp 12031 . For Hugh O’Neill, I rely on Morgan’s, Hiram unpublished Ph.D. thesis, ‘The outbreak of the Nine Years War: Ulster in Irish politics, 1583–96’ (University of Cambridge, 1987). On O’Connell, , MacDonagh, Oliver, The hereditary bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775–1829 (London, 1988), provides the first volume of a classic in the making. Pearse emerges as a credible moderniser and a practical visionary in Lee, Joseph, The modernisation of Irish society, 1848–1918 (Dublin, 1973), pp 1418 . In the same mould is Edwards’s, Owen Dudley interpretative essay on de Valera, the last of the revisionists’ scapegoats, Eamon de Valera (Cardiff, 1988).

44 Otway-Ruthven, A.J., A history of medieval Ireland (London, 1968), p. 387 , n. 19.

45 Cunningham, Bernadette, ‘Native culture and political change in Ireland, 1580–1640’ in Brady, & Gillespie, (eds), Natives & newcomers, pp 148-70; Dunne, T.J., ‘The Gaelic response to conquest and colonisation: the evidence of the poetry’ in Studia Hibernica, xx (1980), pp 730. For a recent scholarly monograph along similar lines, see Leerssen, Joseph Th., Mere Irish and fiór-Ghael: studies in the idea of Irish nationality (Amsterdam and Philadephia, 1986). For the complementary interpretation of the colonial mentality of the Old English, see Canny, Nicholas, The formation of the Old English élite in Ireland (Dublin, 1975), and Clarke, Aidan, ‘Colonial identity in early seventeenth-century Ireland’ in Moody, T.W. (ed.), Nationality and the pursuit of national independence (Historical Studies, xi, Belfast, 1978), pp 135 .

46 Foster, R.F., ‘Introduction’ in Philpin, C.H.E. (ed.), Nationalism and popular protest in Ireland (Oxford, 1988), pp 115 .

47 For a representative example of studies in this vein, see Kohn, Hans, The idea of nationalism (New York, 1945); Seton-Watson, Hugh, Nationalism old and new (Sydney, 1965); Plamenatz, John, ‘Two types of nationalism’ in Kamenka, Eugene (ed.), Nationalism: the nature and evolution of an idea (Canberra, 1974); Gellner, Ernest, Nations and nationalism (Oxford, 1984).

48 For an elaboration of this approach, see Johann Huizinga, ‘Patriotism and nationalism in European history’ in idem, Men and ideas (London, 1960), pp 97–155. The evidence for a heightening of awareness of nationality in early modern Europe is overwhelming, however the phenomenon may then be interpreted. On this, see inter alia Ranum, Orest, National consciousness, history and political culture in early modern Europe (Baltimore and London, 1975).

49 For support for this thesis, see Corráin, Donnchadh Ó, ‘Nationality and kingship in pre-Norman Ireland’ in Moody, (ed.), Nationality & the pursuit of national independence, pp 136 ; Lydon, James, Ireland in the later middle ages (Dublin, 1973), ch. 5; Watt, J.A., ‘Gaelic polity and cultural identity’ in Cosgrove, Art (ed.), A new history of Ireland, ii (Oxford, 1987), ch. 12; Bradshaw, Brendan, The Irish constitutional revolution of the sixteenth century (Cambridge, 1979), ch. 9; idem, ‘Native reaction to the westward enterprise: a case study in Gaelic ideology’ in K.R. Andrews, Nicholas Canny and P.E.H. Hair (eds), The westward enterprise: English activities in Ireland, the Atlantic and America, 1480–1650 (Liverpool, 1978), pp 65–80; Buachalla, Breandán Ó, ’Annála ríoghachta Éireann is Forus Feasa ar Éirinn: an comhthéacs comhaimseartha’ in Studia Hibernica, xxii-xxiii (1982-3), pp 59105, esp. pp 7482 ; idem, ‘Na Stíobhartaigh agus an t-aos léinn: Cing Seámas’ in R.I.A. Proc, lxxxiii (1983), sect. C, pp 81–134, esp. pp 104–6; idem, foreword to 1987 reprint of Geoffrey Keating’s, Foras feasa ar Éirinn (Irish Texts Society, 1988).

50 Above, p. 343 and nn 45, 46, 47.

51 For a recent statement of the case and a guide to the supporting literature, see Foster, ‘History & the Irish question’.

52 Butterfield, Whig interpretation, ch. 3.

53 Idem, The Englishman and his history (Cambridge, 1944), p. 3.

54 On all of this, see Cowling, Maurice, Religion and public culture in England, i (Cambridge, 1981), pp 220-33.

55 Butterfield, The whig interpretation, ch. 2.

56 Idem, The Englishman & his history, pp 4–11.

57 Ibid., pp 3–4.

58 Ibid., pp 4–11.

59 Ibid., p. 4.

60 Above, n. 38.

61 On the constitutional political tradition and the theme of liberty, see my ‘The beginnings of modern Ireland’ in Farrell, Brian (ed.), The Irish parliamentary tradition (Dublin, 1973), pp 6887 , and my Irish constitutional revolution, esp. pp 21–9, 258–88.

62 For Butterfield’s discussion of the ‘purposeful unhistoricity’ of the whig interpretation, see The Englishman & his history, pp 6–8. The book is mainly devoted to demonstrating the strategy in action in the moulding of English historical consciousness.

63 No small part of the problem here is the impoverished and confused notion of myth which has been adopted. See, e.g., Moody, T.W., ‘Irish history and Irish mythology’ in Hermathena, cxxiv (1978), pp 724 . For a brilliant example of an analysis which explores the positive dynamic of the mythology, see Lee, Joseph, The modernisation of Irish society, 1848–1918 (Dublin, 1973), pp 13748 . See also Tuathaigh, Gearóid Ó, Irehnd before the Famine, 1798–1848 (Dublin, 1972), a work which broke new ground in its exploitation of literary sources in English and in Irish to illuminate the history of mentalité. For examples of the revisionists’ puritanical response to ‘purposeful unhistoricity’ of this kind, see Foster, ‘History & the Irish question’, pp 184–91; Fanning, ‘The meaning of revisionism’, pp 16–19.

64 The studies cited above, n. 47, deal with various phases of the creation of an integral origin-legend.

65 Foster, ‘History & the Irish question’.

66 A survey history which exemplifies all the virtues and all the vices of the modern professional school is Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland, 1600–1972 (London, 1988).

67 To the works cited above, nn 43 and 49, might be added Ó Gráda, as above, n. 31, Bartlett, ‘An end to moral economy’, as above, n. 29, Ó Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine, and Lee, Modernisation of Irish society.

68 The notion has a long history in literature and philosophy; see Morrison, Karl F., ’I am you‘: the hermeneutics of empathy in western literature, theology and art (Princeton, 1988). It has increasingly come under attention as an analytical strategy in the social sciences and in psychology over recent decades; see Katz, Robert L., Empathy, its nature and uses (London, 1963), and Eisenberg, Nancy and Strayer, Janet (eds), Empathy and its development (Cambridge, 1987).

69 On imagination and historical understanding, see R.G. Collingwood, ‘The historical imagination’ in idem, The idea of history (Oxford, 1946), pp 231–49. For a more recent statement in the same tradition, see Leyden, Wolfgang Van, ‘Categories of historical understanding’ in History and Theory, xxiii (1984), pp 5377, esp. pp 57–61. Cf.Trevor-Roper, Hugh, History and imagination (Oxford, 1980), passim.

70 It is reassuring to find the scholarly contributions of MacNeill and Curtis linked in a handsome acknowledgement by an historian of impeccably non-nationalist ‘background and training’, Watt, J.A., ‘Approaches to the history of fourteenth-century Ireland’ in Cosgrove, Art (ed.), A new history of Ireland, ii (1987), pp 303-13 at pp 303–6.

71 I wish to thank the following for their help in enabling me to develop the ideas expressed in this study: Vincent Carey, Owen Dudley Edwards, Sheridan Gilley, Willy Maley, Hiram Morgan, Jim Smyth. Needless to say, the views expressed here are entirely my own responsibility. I also wish to thank the organisers of the Conference of Irish Historians in Britain for 1988, Seán Hughes, president of the Trinity College (Cambridge) History Society for 1987–8, and John McCafferty, auditor of the History Society, University College, Dublin, for 1988–9, for the opportunity to present earlier versions of the paper. Lastly, I wish to thank Elizabeth Murray of the History Faculty, Cambridge, for her forbearance and efficiency in typing the text.

Nationalism and historical scholarship in modern Ireland

  • Brendan Bradshaw (a1)


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