STORY OF IRELAND:
IN SEARCH OF A NEW NATIONAL MEMORY
There cannot be many books with a more ambitious subtitle than this one. The inability to forget has long been regarded as Ireland’s curse – but as this highly readable account makes clear, the sofa of history contains a good deal that has slid into the recesses of the upholstery. I was, I have to confess, completely unaware that the early Irish had established colonies in Wales and Cornwall, and that the nineteenth-century Fenians had spent twenty years making raids on Canada from the United States.
Story of Ireland began as a joint BBC/RTÉ television series written and presented by Fergal Keane. The book, however, is written by the Derry-born historian Neil Hegarty, with Keane simply contributing an introduction. Fortunately the two men have the same starting point: a desire to put the events that shaped Ireland into a broader context, and to show that these were seldom (if ever) black and white.
That most emotive and horrifying of episodes, the Famine, provides a good example. Hegarty points out that the potato blight of the 1840s affected the whole of Europe (though no other country was so dependent on the crop) and that the famine of 1740-1 – often overlooked, because it had fewer political consequences – killed an equal proportion of the population. Scrutinising John Mitchel’s claim that ‘the Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created the famine’, he finds that Mitchel’s fellow Young Irelanders had earlier condemned the idea of humanitarian aid as degrading. British economic polices and incompetence did, Hegarty concludes, exacerbate the suffering, but one cannot deduce from this ‘an intention to create a famine in order to weaken and diminish Ireland’.
The ‘simple paradigm of the Irish against the English’ – and Catholics against Protestants – is comprehensively refuted. Strongbow’s Anglo-Norman invasion was opposed by a combination of native Irish and Norsemen; Cromwell massacred English Royalists and Irish Catholics alike at the Siege of Drogheda, and the 1798 rebellion (led by the Protestant-raised atheist Wolfe Tone) saw Catholics fighting alongside northern Presbyterians. Class was another source of division: the Irish Republican Brotherhood declared in the 1860s that ‘Our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish’, and in the following century the IRA espoused Marxism – apparently not realising that Marx had inveighed against the killing of London proletarians by Fenian bombs.
The book begins with the establishment of Christianity – heralded not by St Patrick (according to St Prosper of Aquitaine) but Pope Celestine’s emissary Palladius. Hegarty emphasises the political dexterity of St Patrick and the other early Church fathers, particularly St Columba and St Columbanus, who not only preserved Christian learning during the Dark Ages but carried their teachings boldly into Britain and the Continent. A tradition of close involvement in temporal affairs soon took root, though Hegarty argues that it was not until the end of the seventeenth century (with the introduction of anti-Catholic penal laws) that Catholicism became an essential part of nationalism. Even then, the interests of the two all too often diverged.
The ‘internationalism’ embodied by St Columbanus (who was born in Leinster and died in Bobbio, high in the Appenines) is another central theme. Ireland’s position on the edge of Europe was no deterrent to adventurous seafarers – and, of course, made it the door to America. Viking Dublin ‘lay at the heart of a vast semi-circular trade route that ran from Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Russia through the Baltic to Norway, Iceland and Greenland’. A millennium later, Ireland’s government was one of the first to see the advantages of joining the European Economic Community – a relationship tragically undermined by the banks’ reversion to Viking principles.
This openness to the wider world, Hegarty believes, played a vital part in the fight for independence: indeed, he locates the fuse for the 1916 uprising in the Boer War. The plight of a small agrarian nation oppressed by Britain struck a deep chord; Maud Gonne’s husband John MacBride was among those who embarked for Africa to fight as volunteers (often, ironically, against their compatriots in British uniform), and the exploits of ‘MacBride’s Brigade’ gave new courage to nationalists at home.
Occasionally Hegarty tries too hard to find an unusual perspective: I’m not sure that the victims of the Siege of Drogheda would be happy to hear that ‘it was only with Cromwell’s departure that true war began’. But his book is an admirably even-handed one, and though – as he admits in his conclusion – it may be generations before a ‘new national memory’ replaces the ingrained chronicle of repression and reprisal, we should be grateful for such an intelligent attempt to hasten it.