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Response to Review of Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?

Writing from John Bull’s Other Island I welcome Professor Penelope Corfield’s thoughtful and at times provocative exploration of themes in my book, Unhappy the Land. I mean provocative in the sense of challenging me, and Irish historians more generally, to meditate on some of the great themes of modern Irish history and the writing of history more generally. Her manifesto-like observation on the value of history bears repeating: ‘All humans need to learn from history, because it is the collective log of all our experiences’. Amen to that.

An overarching argument in Unhappy the Land is that the Irish historical experience, when viewed in European historical perspective, is bloody and brutal at times, but no more so than that of most European societies. The past is a pain-filled place. In fact, arguably, because the island is located well to the west of the European mainland, Irish people have been protected from some of the worst ravages of religious and national wars that ravaged the continent of Europe. This is unquestionably the case for the 20th century. One thinks of Poland, the German lands, Ukraine, Russia, the Balkans. One could go on unfortunately. Lying beyond the European mainstream had its advantages. To take a much more extreme instance of geographical isolation, there is the case of Iceland. No one wanted it badly and it did not lie in the path of advancing and retreating armies, though in the 1780s as a result of the Laki and Grimsvötn volcanic eruptions, it did suffer an ecological and human disaster that exceeded that of the Great Irish Famine of six decades later.(1a)

But Ireland was not Iceland. We did of course have Britain, or Great Britain, interposed between the island of Ireland and the European mainland. First the Anglo-Normans, then the English and finally the British, have had their sights on the westerly isle pretty well continuously over the last millennium. It is perhaps the consistency of ‘England’ in Ireland’s affairs, and the singularity of this relationship (unlike the diverse sources of oppression affecting many other European societies), that gave such potency to Anglophobia in Irish nationalist discourse.

Not that Europe was ignored or forgotten. Historically, parts of the fragmented polity of Ireland maintained strong contacts with the mainland, most obviously with Spain, the Papal States and France. Frequently and hardly accidentally, these tended to be the enemies of England and later Britain. Yet for all the enmity, 200,000 Irishmen fought for the United Kingdom in the First World War. Thousands of volunteers from independent Ireland threw their lot in with Britain and her allies in the Second World War, as Professor Corfield notes.

So, as I try to show, and the reviewer brings this out well (as one might expect of a historian of the longue durée and the author of a major thesis (2a) on Time and History), the political, social and economic relationships binding these two island peoples have been far more complicated than old-fashioned nationalisms, either of the Ulster unionist or the Irish nationalist variety, would suggest. Uncomfortably for the latter, notions of the fíor Gael (the true or the truly Irish person) are belied by the history of waves of new arrivals – variously invaders, settlers, immigrants – mixing their genes with the host populations they encountered. Similarly the presumption of a pure Ulster Protestant lineage, unsullied by inter-ethnic contact, is one for the birds.

I appreciate the perspicacity of the reviewer in teasing out that I do not subscribe to the conventional two-traditions view of Irish history. Admittedly this is a useful shorthand nowadays for a deeply divided Northern Ireland but in the 17th, 18th and for much of the 19th century ideological, social and cultural divisions between Presbyterians, largely of Scottish origin, and members of the Established Church, largely of English origin, were deep and enduring. A three-traditions historical model has greater validity, viewed over the long run, and this is before one tries to capture the cross-currents of labour, class and gender. These also need to be integrated into a more holistic account of the social forces engaged in the making of Ireland historically.

The Great Irish Famine looms large in any treatment of modern Irish history. Politicised interpretations of the Famine tend to emphasise British culpability, and there was much that was blameworthy from the workings of Lord John Russell’s Whig cabinet to the callousness of Irish landlords and strong farmers, and not forgetting the incompetence of the Irish political representatives. Some are prepared to go much further, including English ideologues possibly suffering from post-colonial guilt or disillusioned with their own non-revolutionary working classes, in claiming that the Famine was a case of genocide. But no serious historian who has researched the catastrophe of the Great Famine believes this. Nor in contemporary times do most Irish people take this view, though it has a currency among Irish ultra-nationalists, particularly on social media, and among sections of Irish America.

As it happens, while penning this response, I was gifted with an alternative review from an email correspondent, whose name I shall withhold. The subject heading was ‘Genocide’. It reads (without doing violence to the original and distinctive grammar):

Did you get attention for your self by denying the genocide that went on in this country ??? Hope your happy you west Brit narcissistic idiot .

You've got your 5 minutes of fame crawl back under your rock 

History making in Ireland is a serious business, it is clear. The correspondent, and there have been others, illustrates the important point that in certain quarters there is still a hunger for affirming this sense of victimhood. But why the appetite for masochistic claims on history that are indistinguishable from propaganda and that are at variance with the available evidence?

My academic reviewer, at least implicitly I feel, is similarly puzzled. It is a big question and one I haven’t addressed sufficiently. I offer some suggestions in the chapter on the MOPE mentality (the self-image that the Irish were the most oppressed people ever). But the answers are far from complete. It occurs to me that it might be revealing to pursue the frequency and intensity of feelings of victimhood across a range of other national and ethnic groups, with the Irish perhaps as a comparative reference group.  

Finally, Professor Corfield wonders if some potential readers might be misled by the title, Unhappy the Land, given that the thrust of the book is to suggest that the Irish historical experience is far from being unique and is not spectacularly woe-laden by comparison with other European societies. Unhappily for my publisher, this is probably true. But at least those who read carefully across what Professor Corfield has written will be happily enlightened.

Notes

  1. T. Thordarson et al., ‘The Laki (Skaftár fires) and Grímsvötn eruptions in 1783–1785’, Bulletin of Volcanology, 55 (1993), 233–63.Back to (1a)
  2. Penelope J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (New Haven, CT, 2007).Back to (2a)