In Defence of Irish Revisionist Historiography
February 11, 2015 § 3 Comments
I’m reading Guy Beiner’s masterful study of the folk memory of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland for my Irish Public History class. In it, Beiner, like nearly every single Irish historian of the past two decades, goes off on Irish revisionist historiography. For those who are unfamiliar with the wars of Irish Historiography, revisionism in the Irish context dates back to the 1920s. In that decade, young scholars, educated at English universities, became frustrated with the fundamental lack of critical studies of the Irish past. Thus, centred around T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards, they began to re-assess Irish history. They eschewed myth and folk tale for fact. They abhorred Irish nationalism for its warping of Irish historiography. They sought a dispassionate, “value-free” national historiography.
Revisionism became the dominant vision of Irish historiography for a period from the 1930s through to the 1990s. In the late 1980s, however, revisionism came under attack for its inability to deal with the more traumatic events in the Irish past. One of the problems with revisionism, critics charged, was that in its desire to view Ireland as un nation comme les autres, it whitewashed calamity: 1641, 1798, 1847, 1916, 1922, etc. At its fundamental core, revisionism is incapable of processing the fact (I know, ironic) that Ireland was an English, and then British, colony from roughly the 13th century until the 20th (there is also the complicating factor of Northern Ireland, still a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland).
I certainly have no great love for the revisionist project, in part because it denied the colonial fact of Ireland. This means that those moments of atrocity, most notably the Famine, get played down. Revisionism tends to shy away from criticising the English/British for their actions in Ireland. But sometimes, as during the Famine, it is simply the fact of the matter that Britain did little to alleviate the starving and misery in Ireland whilst at the same time continuing to export food from the nation.
However. In reading Beiner’s devastating critique of revisionism, I am reminded that it DID serve a purpose. Once. A long time ago. When Moody and Edwards were organising their critique of Irish nationalist historiography, their corrective WAS a necessary tonic. Moody argued that nationalist histories were harmful to an understanding of the Irish past, arguing that it was a matter of “facing the facts of the Irish past” as a means to countering the falsehoods of mythology. In the 1930s, for a newborn nation, this was an essential process. The problem is that revisionism went too far and was never able to accord to its internal contradictions. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once necessary.