"Ireland is a little country which raises all the great questions."
        - Gustave de Beaumont

"This book is not intended to be a concise history of Ireland, for many important aspects of Irish history are not discussed here. Nor is it only about Ireland. It is a personal inquiry into the shape of Irish history rather than its content, and, at a deeper level, into the nature of history itself... the word 'history' has two meanings. It can mean either the past, or what historians write about it. They are not identical, but Irish people often act as if they were. And the reality of the past (even what little we know about it) is so intimidating that most historians steer clear of discussing it. This book deals with history in both senses.
I am fully aware that every syllable is open to contradiction by some historian with specialised knowledge of a particular period. But this is an exercise in painting with broad strokes, in the hope of illuminating patterns and shapes rather than surface details."
        - Preface

1 ~ The 10.14 from Clontarf
2 ~ The Case of the Missing Millennia
3 ~ The Book of Invasions
4 ~ A Tragedy in Three Acts
5 ~ Hibernia Curiosa
6 ~ The First Republicans
7 ~ The Restless Nation
8 ~ Revolution
9 ~ The Cain-Abel Business


For some people Irish history is a burden, to be cast aside as soon as possible if the country is ever to prosper. For others it is a kind of Fermat's last theorem, a problem to which one day some clever person will find the answer. For most Irish people though, it is simply a family heirloom, a fine old painting in a gilt frame, which they would miss if it was no longer there. The varnish of time has darkened the scene, so that it is no longer easy to see exactly what is depicted. This hardly matters, because everybody knows that it shows a proud and independent nation emerging from captivity.

Irish history has not been entirely a process of fermentation in a sealed flask. It is not true that all the ingredients of Irish history are home grown, or that Ireland's troubles are in some way unique. Again and again - in 1641, in 1690, in 1798, in 1918 and in 1969 - outside influences can be seen operating massively on events. This is one of the classic patterns of Irish history, manifest in the earliest days in migration and culture, and in later times in the rich interaction of ideas and influences.
There are certain dominant themes in Irish history that we may visualise as 'vertical'. They have grown up organically from earlier history, and are, or have long since become, peculiar to Ireland. At specific times Ireland is profundly affected by powerful European or global influence which may be seen as 'horizontal'. At the point where these vertical and horizontal lines intersect a new and dramatic element is added to the island's history. The new product will be distinctively Irish, however, often modifying the outline and even the essential nature of the influence, adapting it to specific Irish circumstances... to a remarkable degree, the ripples of global influence take on a very Irish colour when they reach Ireland. Always the vertical grain reasserts itself and the dominant direction is resumed.

The amateur in history may dine at an ample table, and choose according to appetite.

People often say 'I wish I had learned more Irish history' as if there was nothing they could now do about it. They even, on occasion, blame their schools, or the government, for keeping it from them for wicked political ends. There is not, in this age, much of the spirit which inspired weavers to learn Greek from a lexicon perched on the clattering loom.

"By its very nature it is a labyrinth and chaos, this that we call Human History; an abatis of trees and brushwood, a world-wide jungle at once growing and dying. Under the green foliage and blossoming fruit-trees of Today, there lie, rotting slower or faster, the forests of all other Years and Days."
        - Thomas Carlyle

Academic historical investigation is becoming more and more a police procedural, often with Inspector Plod in charge. One would like to think, however, that there is always room for the 'private eye' who will emulate the skills of Agatha Christie's hero, Hercule Poirot. Captain Hastings, Watson to Poirot's Holmes, stands for the popular view of history. 'Ha!' says Hastings, looking at the 1916 Easter Rising, 'This is the work of Sinn Fein'. 'On the contrary,' says Poirot, 'Sinn Fein is the work of 1916'. He knows that before 1914 Sinn Fein consisted of a small coterie of people around Arthur Griffith, who had the eccentric view that the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy might work for England and Ireland as well, that is, Ireland should be a monarchy not a republic. Hastings was misled because in 1916 British soldiers and the citizens called every insurgent a Sinn Feiner.
The whole of Irish history is a challenge to Poirot in this way, not least the Case of the Missing Millenia, with which our investigations begin. Perhaps the investigator needs also something of the pertinacity of Inspector French, the irreverence of Inspector Dalziel, the thoughtfulness of Mr Campaion, the patience of Miss Marple and the innocence of Father Brown.

The old fashioned literary historians of the 19th century felt none of the restraints which press so heavily on academic historians today, and used their written evidence to discuss the human condition in the widest terms - explaining, moralising, preaching. Thus Carlyle, who is now often judged to be unreadable, but who once commanded a readership beyond anything a modern academic historian could dream of, was always ready to take the reader into his confidence, and share his opinions with him.


"Not only politicians and journalists but historians, linguists and perhaps geographers too have been known to refer to the Irish as a Celtic race because they once spoke Gaelic."
        - E Estyn Evans

Instinctively we regard even a Swift or a Voltaire with sympathy because they were forced to live in an age more backward and benighted than our own. All the evidence suggests the contrary. One searches in vain in the 18th century for an Auschwitz or a Hiroshima. If we are no wiser than they, are we not better informed? And, at least, we are cleaner and healthier. Well, perhaps, but progress is not on a broad front. If we measure it purely in terms of antibiotics and the dentist's chair, no one wants to travel back in time, and no doubt Swift would have enjoyed television and Voltaire had great fun with a personal computer, but neither they nor anyone alive today has out-written Shakespeare or out-painted Rembrandt. If we are to understand anything of the human mind we must approach the people of the past with humility rather than an overconfident superiority.

The first genetic map to be prepared for the whole of the British Isles has shown that there is no significant genetic variation. The Institution of Molecular Science at Oxford profiled 6,000 people and compared their blood samples with DNA extracted from the remains of Stone Age people. There was a 99 per cent correlation. This suggests that the original gene pool has hardly been disturbed by the waves of invading Celts, Gaels, Romans, Vikings and Normans. These findings have predictably not been weel received by enthusiasts for national and regional identity.
All such techniques have been rapidly advanced by the widespread use of computers in the sciences. We are only at the beginning of a very exciting process, and in the 21st century the revelations of scientific archaeology may change the face of history.

The phrase 'contrary to all expectations' rings through the story of the progress of human knowledge. It was 'contrary to all expectations' that the Earth was found to revolve around the sun, and not the other way round, and that a mould growing in one of Dr. Alexander Fleming's dishes was found to be capable of destroying bacteria. When in 1989 the spacecraft Voyager 2 got close enough to the planet Naptune to take detailed pictures of the surface, they were 'contrary to all expectations'.

Even hard-harded business people talk un-selfconsciously about 'the Celtic fringe', 'the Celtic tiger' and so on, and separitist groups in Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall proclaim their solidarity with the Irish struggle against the Saxon. Yet the astonishing fact is that no one in Ireland claimed to be a Celt before 1700.

We no longer need to imagine an invasion of megalith builders from sunny Spain to explain so many court cairns. We generally underestimate the immense lapse of time over which assimilation takes place. After all, we do not need to draw the conclusion from the prevalence of electric light-bulks or Japanese television sets that Ireland was once successively invaded by Americans and Japanese. Ten thousand years from now it may be difficult to measure the time gap between the arrival in Ireland of these two products. The idea of an 'economic invasion' is perfectly feasible in prehistory, and the court cairns can be explained as the adaptation of a ubiquitous European idea by an otherwise indigenous population.

The question then remains: did the Celts conquer Ireland, or did Ireland conquer the Celts? Only since the 18th century has Gaelic civilization been seen as the 'fons et origo' of the Irish nation, but the assumption is all but universal.

In one sense Ireland was, in the end, conquered. The tree rings indicate that something very strange happened in or about 540 AD which caused a darkness over all the land. Sources as diverse as Gildas, Zachariah or Mitylene, Procopius and the Chinese chroniclers record mists and everlasting gloom, unprecedented cold, and flashing lights in the sky. At first the dendro-chronologists thought that these phenomena might be explained by massive volcanic eruptions, but recently Mike Baillie has suggested that the coincided with the close approach of a comet and shower of meteors, perhaps falling in the Irish Sea. One thing they undoubtedly coincided with was the first terrible visitation of bubonic plague, usually called the 'Yellow Plague', or 'Justinian's Plague'. It reached Ireland in AD 544. This marks the beginning of the ill-lighted stretch of European experience which historians have called the Dark Ages. It may literally have been dark. But the last breath of Roman influence in the West carried with it the spark of Christainity, and the fire took hold. Where Ireland was concerned, it created the distinctive Celtic Church, a beacon of light which was to send its beams throughout Europe.


"I am a genuine typical Irishman, of the Danish, Norman, Cromwellian, and (of course) Scottish invasions."
        - George Bernard Shaw

The first framework of Irish history was the creation of Celtic scribes and churchman, and we have not yet abandoned it. The whole culture of modern Ireland since independence draws its strength from a Gaelic past revived in the laste 18th century, and to a large extent reinvented in the 19th. That in itself is an accident of history, the chance convergence of a second Gaelic revival with a particular set of circumstances in Anglo-Irish politices. The political activists of the period deliberately sought an Irish culture in the past which would have no taint of Saxon England about it, though on the same amount of evidence both countries might have claimed a Celtic past.

Many of the characteristics which are regarded as 'typically Irish', for instance, are demonstrably the lagecy of the Old English, or the Anglo-Irish, or the Lowland Scots just as much as they are of the Celts, whom we now call Gaels.

By the end of the 19th century, a revival was under way, and Gaelic culture was being presented to the Irish people as the indigenous culture. Relatively speaking, the Gaels are quite late 'invaders', not the first merely the first of the most recent series - Gaels, Vikings, Normans, Old English, Welsh and Scots, and modern Scots. They are the first of which we have written evidence, and this of course gives them a high value in the eyes of historians. Amd the Irish language is the key element in the survival of their traditions. We simply do not know what language was spoken by their precursors, but it is no longer possible to believe that they spoke no language at all. As we have seen, some archaeologists now think the invasion was that of a culture and not a people, for they can find no evidence of invasion in the military sense.

The Viking settlements gave Ireland its first towns, at Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, and established a trading economy for the island. The existence of these Norse settlements was a complicating factor in the ceaseless internecine wars of the Irish Gaelic Chieftains. The Vikings of the enclaves intervened in these wars, taking sides and making treaties, until they were finally defeated at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 by Brian Boru, who was killed in battle.

The Norsemen were to have a second chance when they re-entered Irish history in their later, and much better publicised guise as the Normans who conquered England in 1066. Another century would elapse before they would take a serious interest in Ireland, but their first landing there is for nationalists the beginning of 'the eight centuries of English oppression'. The erroneous assumptions to which the use of the word 'English' in this heart-warming cry gives rise are legion. Quite apart from the fact that the speaker will in all probability have an English name, and Anglo-Norman blood coursing in his veins, it takes for granted that, when we are talking about the 12th century, 'Ireland' and 'England' mean what they mean today, distinct countries with distinct histories.
These chain-mail men laid the foundations of English power in Ireland, and they appear in Irish history as the first English invaders. Yet they were neither English nor invaders. Their leaders, Maurice Prendergast, Henry de Montmorency and Robert Fitzstephen, were Norman lords from the Welsh marches. They and their followers were a mixture of Anglo-Normans, Welsh and Flemings. It is doubtful whether any of them could speak English. They came to Ireland, not as invaders or conquerors, but merely as mercenaries hired by Dermot MacMurrough, ther King of Leinster. Ireland was not then, nor would it be for centuries to come, a united country. Dermot was but one king among five.

The tragedy of Ireland, it has often been pointed out, is not that the English conquered Ireland, but that they failed to conquer it, a failure which would in time created the 'Irish question'. From the 12th century onward the inhabitants of the larger island have desired both to rule Ireland and to leave it alone, and often they have succeeded in doing both at the same time.

The most malign stroke of British history was that Henry VIII's experiments in Ireland would become entangled forever with his matrimonial difficulties. Not the least of the consequences was that Ireland became a pawn on a Europe-wide chessboard.

The principle of 'surrender and regrant' ran counter to the Gaelic laws of land-holding. The English system of primogeniture conflicted with the Irish custom of gavelkind, whereby the land was communally owned by the tribe and the chieftainship was to some degree a conferred honour. The chiefs who were ambitious exploited the law of primogeniture, and this was a source of friction with their kin and their rivals. In general the Gaelic system was attuned to war rather than peace, and gradually it became obvious that Henry's blueprint would work only if it were preceeded by reconquest.

The pattern of foreign intervention concealed ambivalence. The Spanish episode had the backing of the papacy, the intervention of Louis XIV on behalf of James did not; and whereas the French support for Irish rebellion in the 1790s came essentially from the French Revolution, all the earlier French attempts were associated with the ancien regime, and were motivated by Catholic solidarity and enmity to England more than by the novel idea of the brotherhood of man. In other words, the pattern transcends the changing ideologies, and becomes a shaping element in Irish history. The intervention of foreign powers, for their own political ends, becomes the hope and expectation of dissident Irish nationalists.


The 17th century is very popular with journalists, politicians and clerics who, despite all evidence to the contrary, think we are still living in it. The bad news is that we are living in the present and all the things that are happening in Ireland are happening now. In some respects they may remind us of the darker episodes of the 17th century and its wars of religion, but there is a barrier between is and the people who lived there, a glass wall through which we can see but may never travel.

The 17th century was an age of religious wars, treachery and barbarity, very complicated and bad for almost everybody. Ireland shared these horrors to the full; other people's troubles were indeed the cause of most of the confusion in Ireland, and make it one of the most challenging periods of Irish history to study. In Ireland it was an era of turmoil and upheaval, and for half of it the country was ravaged by war.

The century ended with a Catholic king, deposed from his English throne, but reigning legitimately in Ireland, at cross-purposes with his Irish subjects, while his Protestant subjects flocked to the banner of a foreign monarch, who happened to be his son-in-law and also his nephew.

Political and administrative power in Ireland, under conflicting kinds of English suzerainty, passed from the hands of the Old English (descendants of the medieval settlers) into those of the New English (the newcomers associated with the newer plantations and military campaigns). The chief attempts to reverse the process, during the Confederate and Jacobite wars, brought defeat and ruin on those elements of Irish society which (paradoxically) supported the English monarchy against the English parliament in both cases.

James I called a parliament in Ireland in 1613, and in order to increase the power of the New English he created a large number of new boroughs by royal charter (including Belfast). The Old English vainly petitioned the King to suspend the new charters, and made a determined effort in parliament to halt the erosion of their privileges. It was the beginning of a process which was eventually to equate loyalist with Protestant, and force the Old English to cross the fatal line which divided the planters from the "King's Irish enemies".

The sudden rebellion of the Irish chieftains in 1641 followed closely on Thomas Wentworth's removal... in the north the native Irish rose and seized most of the towns, then turning to massacre thousands of the colonists spread thinly over the Plantation. At first only the English were attacked and the Scots left alone, but gradually the killing took on the familiar trappings of a holy war. Londonderry became a place of refuge for the planters, while Enniskillen, Carrickfergus and Belfast also remained in Protestant hands.

There is naturally great sensitivity about allegations of genocide in Ireland, though no fair-minded historian would ever attribute a monopoly a slaughter to any religious sect.

At Drogheda, after Cromwell's first attack had been repulsed, he gave the order to spare none of the garrison. By the rules of war at the time he was justified in refusing quarter to a town taken by storm after it had rejected a call to surrender, but this was a call sparingly invoked. The garrison and such recusant clergy as could be found were slaughtered, a savage act of war without doubt, but 'there seems to be no foundation for later stories of an indiscriminate slaughters of the whole civilian population'.
Whatever the facts, the sack of Drogheda has earned Cromwell the undying hatred of the Irish people ever since. In one way this is quite unhistorical, to select one episode from a war and a century which overbrims with sacked towns and massacres; the Thirty Years War which had ravaged Europe had just come to an end. But all Irish historical memory is like this, and indeed derives its special vitality from the ability to select without balance. Drogheda is lamented and 1641 played down. Drogheda might just have slipped into the semi-oblivion which engulfs most sieges had it not been for Cromwell's ostentatious lack of pity, and his justification of his actions as divine retribution on the Irish people.

Conquest was followed by confiscation. In 1652 the English parliament passed 'an Act for the settlement of Ireland'. Every proprietor who could not prove 'constant good affection to the interests of the Commonwealth of England' was to forfeit a proportion of his estate. This proscription included almost everybody who was either loyalist or rebel, and the Old English were finally classified with the enemies of the English state. To clear a way for a new plantation, all the forfeiting lanlords were required to remove themselves west of the River Shannon, where they would be granted an equivalent portion of land. Cromwell did not, of course, say 'To Hell or Connaught', nor did anyone else at the time. That was the rallying cry of Protestant extremists in County Armagh at the end of the 18th century, in the effort to drive Catholics out of the county; but the whole of Irish history is an all-purpose arsenal of abuse.

The name of Oliver Cromwell is execrated in Ireland, to such an extent that a proper historical evaluation of the period in hardly possible, yet in all probability his son Henry, by the authority of the Commonwealth, saved for posterity one of Ireland's greatest treasures, the Book of Kells. It seems more than likely, though it cannot be proved absolutely, that he oversaw its transfer to the library of Trinity in 1653 when acting as Chancellor of the university.
The Headfort books, along with most of the medieval records of Ireland, were destroyed in 1922 when the Four Courts in Dublin were blown up by the IRA. There could be no greater irony: the Book of Kells saved by a son of Cromwell, and Ireland's medieval heritage wiped out by patriots.


"Large are the treasures of oblivion... and much more is buried in silence than is recorded and the largest volumes are but epitomes of what hath been."
        - Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

The history of Ireland in the 18th century exhibits a curious imbalance. For three quarters of the century hardly anything seems to happen; then, after 1775, too much happens. It is as if the century had developed a list, and all its cargo of interesting events had slid into the last quarter.

Earnest researchers looking for evidence of radicalism in the earlier part of the century were surprised to discover not only that it existed, but that this fact was widely known in the 19th century - historians, it seems, do not merely discover new things about the past, but forget what they already knew. Radicalism, republicanism, godlessness rising crime and the irresponsibility of the media - all these appear in the public debate of the time. People believed the country was going to the dogs. In 1738, during a heated discussion in the House of Commons, one MP declared: 'The people of Great Britain are governed by a power that was never heard of as a supreme authority in any age or country before... the government of the Press'. He might have been speaking in 2001.

The famine of 1741 was the worst in Irish history. It has been estimated that almost a third of the entire population perished, so that proportionately it was worse than the famine of 1845-7. Yet it is barely mentioned in history books, and has no place at all in popular imagination. How are we to explain this?
The forgotten famine of 1740-1 was the direct consequence of the climatic catastrophe which overwhelmed the whole of Europe, 21 months of freak weather from December 1739 until September 1741. It followed 30 years of benign winters, and only the oldest people had a memory of very bad conditions in the 1680s. To this day it is the longest spell of extreme cold in modern European history.

The experience of famine was by no means new in the 18th century. The past is a deep well, and the deeper a historian goes, the more astonishing evidence of replication he finds. The past is a deep well, and the deeper a historian goes, the more astonishing evidence of replication he finds. The frequent visitation of famine through the centuries is well documented, though in earlier times the failure of harvests if most often aggravated by rebellion and war.

Why then, with all this background, is the last Irish famine the only one to be remembered? The failure of the potato crop in 1845 occured when the full light of public concern was on Ireland and its problems, in an age of rapidly developing communications, when scores of newspapers disseminated the news to every part of the globe, an age when science had effectively lifted the threat of famine from every other country in Western Europe amd when there was an expanding United States  able and eager to receive the Famine emigrants. By the 1840s, there was in place a whole grammar and vocabulary of Irish famine which was already centuries old.


"The province of Ulster is filled with Dissenters, who are in general very factious - great levellers and republicans... the dissenting ministers are for the most part very seditious, and have great sway over their flocks."
        - the Duke of Rutland, on his vicregal tour of Ireland (1787)

There are, buried in these quotations, words which provide valuable clues - 'levellers', 'republicans', 'Fifth-monarchy men'. They take us back to the English civil war, to 1647 and those tremendous debates at Putney when the army of parliament drew up blueprints for universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, biennial parliaments, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, freedom of conscience, equality before the law and the redistribution of property. It was, for a brief moment, a gap in the curtain, a time warp before the 17th century closed in again.
The terrible gulf between theory and practicality was plain for all to see, and Cromwell certainly saw it. Nevertheless, on 19 May 1649 an Act of Parliament decreed that England should henceforth be governed 'as a Commonwealth. or a Free State, by the supreme authority of this nation'. For the next decade Ireland too would governed as a republic. How strange that the birth of Irish republicanism should be attended by the unlikely figure of Oliver Cromwell.

The French Revolution degenerated into bloodshed and tyranny, and began to use the international appeal of its ideas simply as an instrument of French foreign policy and espionage, exactly was the Soviet Union was to do in the 20th century.
The enthusiasm (of Ireland's middle-class leaders) for the Revolution waned as the shadow of the guillotine loomed over it. It cooled altogther when the French overthew the Dutch constitution, invaded the Protestant cantons of Switzerland, and finally threatened war against the infant United States.


"Let two peoples, both unconquered, agree to a petpetual compact with equal laws."
        - William Pitt, quoting Vergil, speech to Parliament in favour of Ireland's union with Britain

"The artificial suppression of revolution."
        - AV Dicey, "England's Case Against Home Rule" (1887)

The refusal of George III to go along with William Pitt's masterplan, and honour the implicit understanding that the Union would be accompanied by Catholic emancipation, sealed its fate. Henceforth the Act was regarded as a kind of national swindle.

In the case of the Act of Union with Ireland, it is perfectly legitimate to ask which country has suffered more, though the question is in fact never asked. In general English people are too busy apologising to the Irish for past history to even consider the wrongs which Ireland has inflicted on England, and that is the way Ireland would like to keep it. But one might fairly ask this question. Would a single member of the Westminster parliament have voted for the Union if he had the gift of prophecy?
...Why did England, while conceding so much to Irish demands, refuse to repeal the Act itself until well into the 20th century, and then only in response to a vicious guerrilla war and widespread violence?

Britain has been obliged since 1800 to pour wealth and resources into Ireland on an astronomical scale, and to this hour it continues to spend billions of pounds in the protection of Northern Ireland from terrorist violence, billions which the North can never hope to repay. In English eyes, Ireland has been, at least since Tudor times, a kind of bottomless sink into which money disappears as if by magic.

With O'Connell, as with the United Irishmen, we tend to take what was said for what was actually achieved. It is the perennial Irish failing.

However we regard it the Famine must appear as a watershed in the Union period. It too, was a revolution, but not one brought about by any human agency. Academic historians now hesitate to blame England, or the Irish landlords, or any single specific source for the magnitude of the disaster. What happened after 1845 was a natural catastrophe. magnified by human frailty, short-sightedness and at times cold indifference, but these are not simple absolutes applicable to whole nations or even whole groups and classes of people. Alongside them, and interacting with them, were strength, far-sightedness, warm compassion and sacrifice.

The way in which the Famine has been remembered has cuased the scale and dedication of the relief efforts to be forgotten. Quite apart from the public attempts to mitigate the disaster, there were impressive contributions by voluntary charities. Lionel de Rothschild, heading the efforts of the Jewish community, helped to set up the British Association for Relief in Ireland, negotiated a Famine loan of £8 million, and diverted his own ships to Irish ports with cargoes of grain he had paid for himself.
Subsequently the lack of vision and humanity was all that was remembered, and remembered with ever-increasing bitterness. Many nations (most, indeed) have the gift of forgetting their worst experiences but not Ireland.

The aggregation of circumstances which history calls the Irish Famine is not, however, a single catastrophic event in 1845. It was an accumulating disaster which sent shock waves through Irish society for two decades or more. Blight continued to affect the potato crop for the next five years. The major cause of death was not starvation but the terrible epidemic diseases which swifty followed in the wake
of food shortages and malnutrition - typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery and in 1849, cholera.

The transfer of authority in Ireland into Irish hands was really completed by the legislation of Conservative governments between 1895 and 1905, as they attempted to 'kill Home Rule by kindness'. The strategy was to separate Home Rule from the land campaign. It failed because it turned out that the Irish wanted, not the substance of Home Rule, but the letter. As George Bernard Shaw was to point out, self-determination is not for the good of people, it is for their satisfaction. It was just at this time that the 'new nationalism' was born, leading ultimately to the last of the revolutions of the Union period, and  the only one which goes by that name in the history books, and in the national consciousness.


One of the fascinations of historical research is to seek explanations for those apparently complete changes which overtake an entire population in the course of a few years. Certain rhythms in history are obvious. Sons disown the mental baggage of fathers, and grandsons reclaim it. The pendulum of popular opinion swings far in one direction and inexorably retraces its path. Revolutions begin, not when things are at their worst, but when things are getting better.

The view of Ireland which is held by people who are not Irish is that nothing ever changes there; attitudes and prejudices are ingrained. This is obviously true at one level; but it is not entirely borne out by Irish history. Irish opinion can be surprisingly malleable. It is impossible to assign one simple reason for the dramatic change which occured in Ireland before the death of Parnell in 1891 and the 1916 Rising.

By 1900 Ireland, which had suffered much, was in the fortunate position of enjoying all the harvest of the Industrial Revolution without having to undergo the horrors of the satanic mills. While the country could not be said to be in the van of Europe's technical and scientific progress, most of its blessings were to reach Ireland in time. Many of those blessings came from the hand of the oppressor, but earned him no praise.

Irish nationalists in the last quarter of the 19th century felt that Ireland was becoming more English in culture, and that the old, distinctive Irish culture (meaning largely the Gaelic version of it) was rapidly attenuating.
A century later, Ireland still balances uneasily between enjoying the technical wonders of the global village and wallowing in the sentiment of a rich cultural past of a rain-soaked island cut off from the contamination of the world.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was, like the revolt of the American colonies, not a revolution in the fullest sense. It did not overturn or destroy the structure of society. The republicanism it proclaimed had been the most conservative force in 19th century Ireland... the Rising was a sudden flash of lightning that revealed to what extent the main features of the surrounding landscape had altered.

Why was it necessary for the Union to end in an Anglo-Irish war? At Easter 1916 the administration of Ireland was, as far as local government was concerned, already largely in Irish hands. Home Rule had been on the statute-book for two years, its implementation merely suspened for the duration of the world war. Why did Britain so tenaciously refuse to let go?
One obvious element was to be found in the tangled history of the north, which disastrously complicated the whole question of withdrawal... but another part of the answer is to be found in an element which is often ignored because it is silent and unobtrusive: the existence of English nationalism. The history of the 120 years of the Union shows that England was prepared to concded, if reluctantly, every important point except one: its national security and strategic military defence.

The Catholic Irish state which emerged so bloodily from the turmoil of 1916-23 was the Ireland of O'Connell, not that of the terrorists and extremists. The war was fought in the south and west over the future of the six north-eastern counties, which the Treaty had allowed to opt out of the newly independent state and to remain in the United Kingdom. The 'Ulster' problem has been at the core of Anglo-Irish difficulties ever since. It is a double problem, combining the historic antagonism between the Protestant and Catholic populations within Northern Ireland with the nationalist determination to 'free' the six counties from British rule. They are by no means the same thing, although they are so regarded in England and abroad. The first is mistakenly identified as the cause of the second, but in fact the opposite is true.

For over a century now, Britain's problem has not been how to get into Ireland, but how to get out of it.

The partition of Ireland was never intendeded to be a permanent solution, but the steady development of the southern state as a predominantly Catholic state instead of a pluralist one meant that the gap between the two parts of Ireland widened. The alienation progressed further when, in 1932, the republican Fianna Fail party won the general election, and Eamon de Valera led his followers (some armed with handguns) back into the Dail, the Irish parliament. Cosgrave handed over the seals of authority to de Valera in what must be a very rare political occurence: 'the victors in a civil war peacefully relinquishing office to the representative figures among the losers in that war'. Once in power de Valera began a policy of unilaterally repudiating the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.


"What would you think of an attempt to promote fraternity amongst people living in the same street? There is already as much fraternity there as there can be - and that's very little and that very little is no good. Abnegation, self-sacrifice, means something. Fraternity means nothing unless the Cain-Abel business. That's your true fraternity."
        - Jospeh Conrad, speaking on the theme of international fraternity in 1899

A major component in the difficulties of Anglo-Irish relations has always been the geographical distribution of the two main religious groups. One thing which this pattern shows is that the concentration of Protestant population in Ulster is not just, as is commonly supposed, the result of James I's carefully planned and formally implemented plantation. Much of it derives from the free-enterprise Scots colonisation of Antrim and Down, for these counties were specifically excluded from the Plantation of Ulster. This in turn was built upon centuries of Scottish migration into Antrim. The earlier migration from Scotland was Catholic, and established a Catholic population in the Glens of Antrim, adding yet another complicating strand to the religious map. The mosaic has changed very little over the last three centuries.

All this religious geography is perfectly well known and understood by the inhabitants themselves, but not by outside observers. Violent clashes over territory have been occuring since the 18th century at least. Territory is what the form of the conflict is about, and explains phenomena like the serious annual disorders at Drumcree, which so baffle outsider observers but would be well understood in Yugoslavia or Cyprus.

"If a war has lasted twenty years, it can well go on to last a hundred. For war has now become a status. Polemocraty. People who have enjoyed peace die out... even impartiality is partial. He was of the party of the impartial."
        - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, "Aphorisms" (1793)

Since 1972 Northern Ireland has been a 'polemocraty', for polemics have replaced the normal process of government. The will of the people can no longer be determined, because the institutions through which it was expressed have all but collapsed. In such circumstances, the terrorist war, whether hot or cold, has generated emotions which have completed the polarisation of the entire community. Instead of extremists, who can be managed in a democracy, government (wherever it resides) has to deal withh two hostile populations who cannot agree on definition. Words like democracy, liberty, rights, esteem become porous, and the parrot-cries of party no longer offer any guide to truth.

During the last thirty years of the 20th century, all the irreconcilables of Irish history came to dwell in the North.

The nature of the troubles in Northern Ireland is frequently misunderstood by outsiders, and to a large extent even by people who live there. One major source is the error is the confusion between terrorist violence and sectarian violence. They are not the same, though they appear so.
Terrorist violence consists of a deliberately planned campaign of outrages intended to achieve a political purpose, and is directly aimed at coercing governments. Sectarian violence, on the other hand, is the continuing consequence of environmental and historical circumstance. It would occur just the same if Ireland were on united republic; the reaction to it might be a different matter. Confusion of the two kinds of violence is natural, because they interact at many levels. Rage at terrorist murders of members of one community or the other can provoke sectarian disorder in Belfast or Derry. Equally, sectarian disorders provide a convenient cloak for planned terrorist activity. The IRA, which was quiescent for many years after the ending of the 1956-62 border campaign, suddenly reappeared when serious civil disorders began in 1969.

The republican movement in the North is essentially Catholic, though not all Catholics are republicans. There are no Protestants in the IRA, and whatever political or social principles are bandied about for the benefit of the outside world, the Northern Ireland conflict remains in essence a war between two religious cultures. But not quite a holy war. The analogy is rather that of a family which is quarreling over a will.
Both sides profess to be Christian, and for much of the business of everyday life the total community operares as an integrated unit of modern western society. The community is united for some purposes and divided for others. In any event, most of the population are not going to resort to violence under any circumstances short of a final confrontation. That is why all efforts to promote 'reconciliation' are singularly futile. The people who are being preached at are already reconciled, and those who are not are impervious to such exhortation.

It is scarcely to be wondered at that English people have long since wearied of Ulster's genetically-modified feuds. They are colour-blind to that particular form of religious division, since it does not determine the government under which they live.

"There is a popular European inclination to assume that every conflict is essentially a misunderstanding, and with counselling and group therapy everyone will live happily ever after. But there is no misunderstanding between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine - and all of it - because they regard it as theirs. The Israeli Jews want the same country for the same reason. Rivers of coffee cannot resolve the issue of land. We need compromise."
        - Amoz Os, "Islands of Sanity"

There is no misunderstanding between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, none whatsoever. Nor do they need to get to know each other better. They know each other only too well, having lived alongside each other for four centuries, part of the same society yet divided by politics and history. This is not just a clash of cultures; it is a culture in itself.

The past is dead, and nothing that we can choose to believe about it can harm or benefit those who were alive in it. On the other hand, it has the power to harm us. There are many people of good intentions who would persuade us that if only we could discover the truth about our history, some of that harm might be neutralized. This is an illusion, for the myth is often more potent than the reality, and perhaps a different kind of truth.

History is not a branch of social welfare, and the only respectable motive for studying it is to explore the past for its own sake. Academic historians must resign themselves to the fact that they have little real influence on a nation's view of its past. What a nation thinks of its history is shaped rather by colourful narrative and the need for a political myth. The reality which is disinterred by patient scholarship is not so much disputed as simply ignored. We may try to forget history, but it will not forget us. To say we can do without it is like saying we can breathe without oxygen. It has made is what we are, and is in our bloodstream, in the language we speak, the culture we proclaim, the houses, streets and cities we live in. The call of the past to us is insistent; we cannot ignore it.

Every historian should have two small notices on his desk, one reading 'I do not know' and the other 'Everything is older than you think it is'.

Already we are someone else's past. One day libraries will be full of books about us, about our wars and politics and the funny clothes we wore. Students will spend hours trying to analyses us... they will come to the conclusion that our lives were fairly dreadful, but will draw comfort from our high standards of morality and the steadiness of our principles, such a contrast to the depravity of their own times. We would be very amused at the things they say about us, if only we could hear them.


"In his latest monologue, 'The Shape of Irish History', published by the ever admirable Blackstaff Press, Stewart introduces us to an Ireland that was always itself mired in provincial self-interest yet, at the same time, ready to join the wider world of ideas, philosophical, political and, when events conspired, revolutionary. As Gustave de Beaumont (quoted here) put it, Ireland is 'a little country which raises all the great questions', and it is operating on this humanist assumption that Stewart warms to his theme. Ireland's uneven struggle, which predates the 800 years and more of British occupation, to develop in its own way, is seen as vertical, running from ancient times right up to the present day. Cross-currents, arising from what was happening in the wider world, are characterised as horizontal.
Examples of the vertical would be the cultivation of the land, rites and religion, language and resentment of the foreigner in their midst. Horizontal influences include the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Great War and, in the 1960s, civil rights agitation in America and Europe, which gave rise to the 'Troubles'... Stewart makes the point that modern-day terrorism in Ulster consists of a deliberate campaign of outrages intended to coerce governments, while sectarian violence, on the other hand, is the continuing consequence of environmental and historical circumstance, which would continue just the same if Ireland became a united republic. The vertical and the horizontal are obliged, then, to coexist until some means is found to render their intersection benign."
        - from Walter Ellis's review in "The Times"

>> Also by Professor Stewart >> "The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster"

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