Problems and Perspectives in Irish History

John Murphy reviews Problems and Perspectives in Irish History since 1800, George Boyce and Roger Swift (eds), Four Courts Press,ISBN 1-85182-759-5, £65, €65 hbk

Problems and Perspectives

THIS BOOK is a 'festschrift' for Professor Patrick Buckland, who established the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpoool University in 1991 and was an authority on Irish unionism. Its eleven articles are models of their kind and give interesting, well-researched accounts of their diverse subects.

Alan O'Day describes the centrality of Ireland to nineteenth-century British politics. He deals with the theme of political "Britishness" and the difficulty of assimilating predominantly Catholic Ireland to a notion of Britishness that was closely intertwined with Protestantism during the period of high imperialism.

Today most British people are no longer even vestigially Protestant, which has the effect of leaving Ulster unionists as an historical throwback, proclaiming their religion as the essence of their "Britishness" when this makes no sense to the people of Britain itself.

He gives too much credence though to Benedict Anderson as an authority on nationality. Anderson did useful work in showing how the invention of printing and the dissemination of books and pamphlets facilitated the self-consciousness of modern national communities and encouraged nationalist political movements everywhere. But the title of his book, Imagined Communities, has time and again been misused by denigrators of nationality and the nation state to suggest that national communities are in some sense not real entities.

Anderson's thesis is that ethnic communities are necessarily "imagined" in that they link groups of people together who have no direct physical acquaintance with one another, and the invention of printing makes possible links between them.

But Kerrymen, Londoners, Catholics, Manchester United fans and U2 groupies are quite as much "imagined communities" in this sense as are the Irish, French or Portuguese. Ethnic nations have quite special real characteristics, most obviously a common language, contiguous territory and shared history and culture, factors whose importance Anderson's emphasis on the ability to read and spread books has been quite wrongly used to play down.

Mark McGovern considers changing interpretations of the siege of Derry. In the the heyday of nineteenth-century imperialism Derry was a symbol of an outpost of the British Empire, much like Khartoum, the scene of another famous siege of imperialist forces. It has shrunk now to a symbol of local unionism on historical retreat.

Christine Kenealy describes the sectarian conflict in the small village of Dolly's Brae, Co Down, where, on 12 July 1849, dozens of Catholics were killed by marching Orangemen, an incident recalled in the well-known Orange song.

Marvyn Busteed shows how street ballads in mid-Victorian Manchester illuminate the outlook of the immigrant Irish of the time.

Frank Neal describes how the Poor Law permitted paupers claiming workhouse relief to be transported back to their parishes of origin throughout much of the nineteenth century. Between 1846 and 1853 some 68,000 persons were removed from the two cities of Liverpoool and Manchester back to Ireland, having been refused poor relief. This covered the Famine period when nearly 300,000 Irish landed in Liverpool in 1847 alone, of whom 116,000 were officially described as paupers and therefore penniless.

The human misery of the flow into Britain was paralleled by the misery of another, smaller, return flow to Ireland.

There are valuable essays on Isaac Butt, on the Non-Conformist Protestant equation of Home Rule with Rome rule, on the contemporary Irish history play and on the political use of Celtic mythology North and South in Ireland.

Roger Smyth, who has done so much, along with Sheridan Gilley, to tell the story of the Irish in Victorian Britain, is brilliant on Thomas Carlyle's attitudes to Ireland and the Irish. Carlyle's views were as contradictory and paradoxical as his famous prose style, but he had such influence as a moral prophet in Victorian Britain that his generally negative stereotypes formed the basis of a whole tradition of negative historical writing about the Irish in Britain which has been corrected only in recent decades. This book is a valuable addition to that corrective.

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