BOOKS

Haunted by history

A dispassionate look at Ireland’s past

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 31 1989
BOOKS

Haunted by history

A dispassionate look at Ireland’s past

ANDREW PHILLIPS July 31 1989

Haunted by history

BOOKS

A dispassionate look at Ireland’s past

MODERN IRELAND 1600-1972 By R. F. Foster (Penguin, 688 pages, $45)

By the time Robert Foster opens his sweeping survey of Irish history, the stereotypes are already firmly in place. Ireland, ran the conventional English wisdom of the early 17th century, was an enchanting but treacherous place. One administrator sent from Britain complained that the inhabitants were “a crafty and subtle nation” who defied understanding. A simple Englishman, the commentators of the time agreed, could not hope to grasp the “wild Shamrock manners” of the people across the Irish Sea. Many things changed over the next four centuries, but—as Foster amply demonstrates in this finely nuanced but demanding study—the chronic inability of their English neighbors and sometime rulers to comprehend the Irish was certainly not one of them.

Foster, who was born in Waterford, Ireland, and now teaches history at the University of London, has said that he hopes Modern Ireland will help to free Irish history from the accretions of myth that have grown up around it. That history has traditionally been written as a type of morality tale: the story of a Gaelic and Roman Catholic people struggling against, and eventually freeing themselves from, their English Protestant oppressors to form an inde-

pendent state. Foster draws on the work of contemporary researchers to paint a much more complicated, subtle picture. His scholarly conscience leads him to qualify every generalization—even questioning the existence of a cohesive Irish nation at the start of the modem period, preferring instead the more diffuse concept of “varieties of Irishness.” The result is a work that will delight specialists but may leave average readers struggling to keep up.

Foster is at pains to demonstrate that for most of the period he covers, there was no calculated English policy of oppressing the Irish as a nation. Such a dispassionate perspective is a refreshing antidote to reflexive nationalism, but it sometimes fails to do justice to the facts that Foster himself presents. The policy of settling Scottish Protestants in Ulster was a deliberate effort to impose colonial control. Oliver Cromwell’s military expedition to punish the Irish for their 1641 uprising was a bloody exercise that can be fairly described as genocidal in intent, if not in result. And the British government was shamefully neglectful in responding to the disaster of the Great Famine of the 1840s when as many as 2,250,000 Irish died or fled their homeland. Yet Foster remains so detached in tone that he gives little sense of the human dimension of such catastrophic events.

He is more effective in evoking the ironies surrounding the eventual secession from Brit-

ain of the 26 counties that now form the Irish republic. Well before the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, various formulas for Irish home rule were finding wide acceptance in Britain and, on the other side, most nationalists were becoming reconciled to the fact that Protestant Ulster could not realistically be included in an independent state—at least at first. In the end, more than two years of bloody civil war achieved a “Free State” incorporating not much more than had been previously offered. Whether the result was worth the cost, Foster asks in his laconic manner, “may fairly be questioned.” And while the nationalists may have won the war, he notes, the new state’s cultural isolation and economic stagnation in the first decades of independence make it g ‘ ‘tempting to conclude that on other levels they 5 lost the peace.”

g Even more sobering is Foster’s account of “ the depressing evolution of what is now Northz em Ireland—and how far back lie the roots of o its violence. As long ago as the early 1600s, the ï policy of settling Protestants in Ulster and enforcing their political supremacy over the Catholic population had already given the six northern counties what he calls, in typical understatement, an “edgy quality.” Ulster’s Protestant settlers, writes Foster, “believed they lived permanently on the edge of persecution.” Three centuries later, those attitudes had, if anything, hardened. If Foster’s work suggests that most of Ireland is finally emancipating itself from the burden of past centuries, it also shows how deeply one comer is still haunted by history.

ANDREW PHILLIPS