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Response to Review no. 175

Patrick Maume’s comments on my book are both generous and challenging – which is a rarer combination of qualities in a reviewer than one might wish. I am indebted to him for his care and courtesy. As he says, Ireland and Empire, as a wide-ranging survey, is in great part reacting to (and sometimes against) a pre-existing secondary literature ‘and reviews, like surveys, must to a large extent be reactive’. Part of my response, by the same token, must react to the reaction to the reaction: though in conclusion, I shall try to raise some broader, and less abjectly inter-textual, issues.

Maume deftly and accurately summarises the book’s main themes, before proceeding to some specific suggestions and criticisms. The positive suggestions are all illuminating, and genuinely helpful. He is surely right to say that my work tends to lament rather than adequately to explain the successive failures of Radical-Liberalism and Labourism in Ireland, and especially in the North. More specifically, the appeal of anti-liberal rhetoric (as expressed in its most extreme forms by figures like John Mitchel – toward whom, perhaps surprisingly, Maume thinks me ‘too lenient’) to many Irish nationalists needs further exploration. Commentators have tended either to take it for granted as a natural, even desirable, aspect of anti-British cultural renewal, or to regard it as something inexplicably deplorable and retrograde. Maume may well be correct, too, in suggesting that Arthur Griffith’s complex and rapidly-changing ideas deserve more sympathetic appraisal: though he is unduly self-deprecatory in attributing unfairly hostile judgements on Griffith partly to the influence of his own earlier work. Similarly, I must concur with Maume that my brief discussion of James Connolly’s historical writings understates their originality. I was, no doubt, overreacting against the near-canonisation of Connolly so widely encountered, especially on the Irish left. In relation to the more recent politics of Northern Ireland, it is undoubtedly fair to say that the withdrawal of so much of the middle and upper classes from local political life has been a more significant phenomenon than I had allowed for – although I did not entirely neglect it. More attention might also be given, as Maume suggests, to various intriguing ideological crosscurrents in contemporary northern Irish life, including the ‘defenders of Unionism.from Catholic/nationalist backgrounds’ whom he mentions. I’m not sure, however, that it is quite fair to say I ‘overlook’ these – several of the individuals concerned are discussed quite extensively in the book, as are some figures who have ‘crossed over’ in the other direction, and indeed my Acknowledgements page may hint how important some of these have been to my thinking. Nor am I quite certain that it is necessarily discreditable to admire C.S. Lewis, or even to enjoy Scottish ‘kailyard’ novelists, as Maume seems to imply. (Personally, I’ve long had a certain sneaking regard for S.R. Crockett, if only on the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ principle).

On a broader issue, the relationship between culturalism and statism in Irish nationalist thought, Maume also has important things to say, some modifying and some supplementing my abbreviated (and, perhaps, over-polemical) account, and drawing on his own major recent work The Long Gestation. I regret that the latter appeared too late for me to make use of it. I regret almost as much my failure to discuss David Hume’s intriguing little book on the United Irishmen, to which Maume refers, either in Ireland and Empire or in my History Workshop article on commemorations of the 1798 rising. 1

Maume’s argument that there is a need ‘to respect and decipher the unfamiliar and sometimes unpalatable idioms in which the maimed tried to express their situation’ is well taken. I had tried to explore some of the dilemmas involved here in a previous book and associated writings on visions of the African past. 2 Quite possibly a desire not to repeat myself resulted in my not being sufficiently explicit about these dilemmas in the Irish context. I did, however, signal clearly that my too-brief critical discussion of Irish nationalists’ attitudes to international, colonial and racial questions did not intend to suggest that these were unusually reprehensible, but rather that (contrary to much subsequent myth-making) they were very similar to those of radicals and of small-nation nationalists elsewhere in Europe: similar not least in their inconsistencies and their racially-inflected occlusions. I really don’t feel that this ‘too easily shades into wholesale dismissal of nationalist viewpoints’, as Maume suggests: though he is right to say that there were more exceptions than I allowed for, not least among the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

As to specific criticisms, I am in a sense surprised – and naturally pleased – that Patrick Maume did not identify more errors of fact or judgement than he did, especially in relation to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish politics. Few if any historians are better equipped to tug at my loose threads or qualify my over-hasty generalisations than is Maume. One or two of his remarks, however, may have slightly misinterpreted what I had written. I did not, for instance, say that Tory Unionism died with Ian Gow. That would indeed have been an exaggerated, if not downright false, claim – as a reading of almost any weekend’s Sunday Telegraph will confirm. In context, the comment related specifically to parliamentary politics, and my claim was that Gow was the last ‘really influential and able’ supporter of a traditional kind of Unionism in the Commons. Peter Hitchens, whom Maume cites in contradiction, is not an MP or a party-political figure as such, and opinions might differ as to whether he is ‘really influential and able’, for all the eloquence of his laments at Old England’s passing. Gearoid O Crualaoich does not, indeed, proclaim that myth is superior to reason – nor did I suggest that he does so – but the argument he presents is more far-reaching, and in my view more vulnerable, than the bland and unexceptionable notion that myth can convey meaning. I did not criticise James F. Knapp for attributing Lady Gregory’s primitivism to social conservatism, but for deriving it from her supposed position as ‘both colonizer and colonized’, as an instance of what is by now a routine, cliched application of colonial discourse theory to Irish literary works.

Maume begins his review by pointing out that the intimacy of Irish intellectual life often means that criticism is either ‘muffled by tact or excessively personalised’. He suggests that Ireland and Empire is by contrast ‘uncompromising in praise and criticism’. I take this as a compliment, though a slightly edgy one. I had myself noted how ‘explosions of rage are lurking, barely concealed, beneath the surface of much of the writing we are examining’. It is tempting, if potentially rather self-indulgent, to ruminate on how receptions of one’s own work relate to such patterns. Certainly not all have been as calm or judicious as Maume’s. Although Ireland and Empire is, in part, unabashedly polemical, and although responses to my previous work have made me no stranger to controversy, I have been surprised by how angry, indeed ‘excessively personalised’, some reactions have been. Unexpected, also, was the extent to which Unionist commentators have in the main liked the book more than nationalist ones have seemed to do: for whatever the book is, it is not ‘Unionist’ in sympathies. Less surprising is that hostile responses have come mainly from literary and cultural critics, positive ones from historians, sociologists and political analysts; and that the angriest (indeed in my view maliciously distorting) reaction so far has come not from Ireland or Britain but from New York.

A final thought, which may be ungenerous or at best premature: as Maume rightly says, much of the impetus behind my book and associated articles 3 was to urge the value of comparative analysis of the Irish past. None of the responses I have so far read, including even Maume’s, takes up this challenge. Assumptions of Irish exceptionalism – often mirroring, as I have suggested, the yet older and stronger ideology of the ‘peculiarities of the English’ – continue to be the reigning orthodoxy. One of the paradoxes of my subject is that analyses of Ireland as ‘colonial’ or ‘postcolonial’ have tended to reinforce rather than modify such intellectual habits.

1.‘Speaking of ’98: History, Politics and Memory in the Bicentenary of the 1798 United Irish Uprising’ History Workshop Journal 47 (1999). I suspect, however, that Hume’s work has not circulated far outside Lurgan – it does not appear even to be listed or stocked by its publisher, the Ulster Society. The point Maume extracts from it, on the specifically Scots-Presbyterian roots of 1790s radicalism in eastern Ulster, has been well made also in more widely accessible works by A.T.Q. Stewart and Ian McBride.

2. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London 1998); ‘L’Afrique comme sublime objet d’ideologie’ in Francois-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar et.al. (eds.), Afrocentrismes: L’histoire des Africains entre Egypte et Amerique (Paris 2000).

3. For instance, ‘The Politics of Historical “Revisionism”: Comparing Ireland and Israel/Palestine’ Past and Present 168 (2000).