Book Review: “A Short History of Ireland” — A Concise Past

Gibney’s volume offers a wide range of readers with an introduction to the complexities of Irish history, including questions of what exactly constitutes the national history itself.

A Short History of Ireland, 1500-2000 by John Gibney. Yale University Press, 296 pages, $25.

By Lucas Spiro

I had a professor in graduate school who would always remind us of the importance of history when studying Irish literature. Despite having written what is arguably one of the most significant non-Marxian social histories of Ireland in the twentieth-century, he would also quote Edward R. Murrow’s contribution to Walter Bryan’s The Improbable Irish: “Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”

One master’s degree later, and I’m still confused, but I cannot claim to understand the situation.

Irish history is distinctive because few can really agree on what exactly counts as “Irish” history. The degree I was award at Trinity College Dublin was called Irish Writing and a good deal of the course was arguing about what constitutes “Irish” letters. The course used to be called Anglo-Irish Literature, which is itself a problematic designation laden with historical and political baggage. Questions of historiography and categorization, especially when it comes to the fundamental notion of a national history or literature, exposes the limitations of such categories, and quickly leads to philosophical speculation or genre/departmental sectarianism.

John Gibney’s recent volume A Short History of Ireland: 1500-2000 (Yale University Press) attempts to shed some light on the development of modern Irish history, and takes as part of its structure the various historiographical arguments that have shaped the context of Irish history, both past and present. For a country where so much of history, literature, and culture has been viewed through the lens of nationalism, Gibney usefully contextualizes Ireland’s past within the broader trends of European and global history without losing sight of his subject.

Gibney provides a concise, accessible narrative covering the major themes of Irish history over the course of half a millennium, dividing his chapters by centuries. The departure point Gibney chooses, 1500, “is often assumed to separate the medieval from the modern.” The period is in the historical neighborhood of a number of significant developments that would shape early modernity: “the capture of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine empire in 1454; the development of printing; the renaissance; and, of course, the Reformation.” It is the Reformation that has the most direct relationship with the events that would shape Irish history, because it brings the country in closer contact with religious, political, social, and economic fabric of England. Gibney writes: “Ireland at the start of the sixteenth century could be divided into two distinct cultural and geographic blocs… with a considerable grey area in between.” It is this “grey area” that, I think, causes much of the confusion in Irish history generally. The early parts of modern Irish history often chronicle the tension between landed elites, both Irish aristocracy and Anglo-Irish, and the English crown’s attempt to reign in their regional power. Distinctions between “Irish” and “English” were both deeply entrenched, but also somewhat mutable, depending on shifting allegiances.

What often comes across when reading Irish history, and Gibney’s book is no exception, is the obsession with the ownership of land as the leading contributor to the process of historical development. While primarily refraining from making blatant ideological critiques, Gibney demonstrates how a significant portion of modern Irish history amounts to the systematic deprivation of land by a series of English conquests at the expense of the landed Irish (mostly Catholic) gentry. However, historians sometimes disagree as to whether or not the history of early modern Ireland should be understood as taking this form of systematic colonization; they could also be perceived as events derived from the actions of competing land owners and earnest attempts at state craft. Such instances, such as the Ulster Plantation and its blatant attempts at social engineering, are not convincing: it is almost laughable to consider Ireland’s relationship to England as anything other than that of colonizer and colonized. The 18th century included “the necessity for political and military conquest,” and “political, economic, religious, and cultural change was to be imported and imposed.” This hegemonic program was, of course, in addition to issues raised by representations of the “barbarous” Irish that postcolonial discourse has drawn attention to in academia, and the fact that English power often rested in the use of brutal force. The dynamic was often undisguised: an occupier sought to control the resources and activities of a disgruntled local population, even one so “close” to the English as the Irish and Anglo-Irish were.

Although problematic at times, perhaps the real value of Gibney’s addition to the well-trodden territory of the single volume history of Ireland is his attention to historiographic framing. The historian ends each of the centuries with a brief chapter on where historians disagree about various issues. While maintaining an admirably balanced position throughout the book, Gibney manages to also offer a wide range of readers with an introduction to the complexities of Irish history, including questions of what exactly constitutes the national history itself.

Of course, maintaining neutrality in the writing of history is impossible. Gibney, to his credit, treads lightly when making judgements, but even this attempt at detachment comes off as calculated: it means his narrative remains staid even recounting truly raucous and fraught periods of history. Beyond a mere “what happened” version of events, Gibney glosses over contemporary events in Ireland to propose that the history of the nation is due for a kind of revisionism. What form that revisionism will take is he leaves to future generations of scholars, a subsequent book, or even the general public and students, who are the real audience for this book. Irish history has been bedeviled and stilted by its inability to have its parameters sufficiently defined, as well as its devotion to over-essentialism along along the lines of nationalist ideology.

Despite its revolutionary history, Ireland has always been a conservative state. But with the recent election victories by independent and left wing candidates in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (during which Ireland was hit particularly hard), the passing of marriage equality by popular referendum (the first country to do so), and the possible repeal of the 8th amendment on the horizon, Gibney notes a slight shift to the left in Irish politics. This may be true, but no true left has emerged.

The left in Ireland is much like the left in the US and other liberal democracies. Comprised of disparate activist movements that focus on particular issues (housing, mental health, LGBTQ rights, abortion etc.), it is not forcefully committed to the politics of class or anti-capitalism. The nation itself has been the most palpable, effective, and galvanizing force in creating its history. Yet the nation no longer seems to exist, and at a time that a sinister nationalist trend is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. So Gibney, by opting to highlight conservatism in his narrative, raises an important question about the future direction of Irish historiography. Will the undercutting of the idea of the nation and its history be replaced by a more fervent nationalism? Or will an honest reexamination of the facts lead to a more sobering understanding of Ireland’s national past?

Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occassionally, he is joyous.

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