Books: All Dublin Cries: Impartiality Me Ould Arse! ; Potato Famine or Mass Outbreak of Anorexia? When It Comes to Ireland, Cal McCrystal Finds There's No Such Thing as a `True' History; the Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland by RF Foster ALLEN LANE Pounds 20
McCrystal, Cal, The Independent (London, England)
In the preface to a History of Ireland, decaying on my family shelves for a century or so, Thomas Wright declares that the multi- volumed work is "sufficiently copious, and at the same time of a character to be placed in the hands of the general reader". He goes on to promise "a true picture of Irish history" painted with the "strictest impartiality".
According to Professor Foster, historians are often exhorted to write for "the general reader" - "though for most practising academics, the `general reader' is a bit like the stray neighbourhood cat: you feel vaguely sympathetic towards it, you know it's someone's responsibility to look after it, but you're damned if you're going to do it yourself." Nor is a "true picture" possible. In his Early Irish History and Mythology, Thomas O'Rahilly concedes, among other things, that "no trust can be placed in the pedigrees of pre-Christian times." As for impartiality, I can hear all in Dublin cry: "Impartiality me ould arse!"
Nothing terribly surprising there. If the general reader believes the contents of his history book he is comforted, perhaps inspired. If what he believes is too old to be susceptible to fact-checking, all the better. The eminently thoughtful and alert American historian, the late James Harvey Robinson, once observed that our sentiments teem with embarrassing anachronisms of which we are usually quite unconscious. "Both old and new elements enter into all life's perplexities. The old... always enjoys the right of way."
Yet the "new" (contemporary events, discoveries, reinterpretations, political necessities and the like) often does influence how the "old" story is narrated and how we react to it. In recent times, Irish history has been the subject of hectic revisionism. Roy Foster's examination of this sometimes startling, sometimes risible process is conducted with his usual eclat.
In the slanging match among conflicting revisionists some good jokes have emerged, the most famous of them defining an Irish revisionist as "someone who thinks that the Famine was caused by a mass outbreak of anorexia nervosa".
Equally arresting are his wry comments about the "Irish Story's" current fate at the hands of theme park designers, gombeen historians, and advocates of polemical correctness. He asks: "Why do we now see a boom in pop history, with a distinctly make-believe feel to it, and the revival of simplistic and fusty versions of the Story of Ireland, just at the point when it seemed that the analysis of Irish history had reached a new level of professionalism, impartiality and nuance?" Part of the answer, he suggests, is the "Northern nightmare" and its effect of "turning a searchlight upon various disputed versions of our national past". Less than impartial creations, or recreations, jostle to be in the beam. Faction leaders wear their historical interpretations like priestly vestments. Foster quotes a remark about Gerry Adams being "comprehensible" but unforgivably "sanctimonious". Indeed if Sinn Fein ("ourselves alone") called itself Sinn Bealchrifeach ("ourselves sanctimonious"), few might notice the difference.
To be fair to earlier revisionist movements, I sense a perfectly understandable need to dress up what others, through malice, prejudice or thoughtlessness, had belittled. Swift referred to "the savage old Irish", and Berkeley wrote of them as growing up "in a cynical content in dirt and beggary to a degree beyond any other people in Christendom". WEH Lecky, an historian of European ideas and Anglo-Irish realities, used the phrase, "torpid and degraded pariahs". And so on. Until less than a century ago, illiterate Irish peasants could recite as unhesitantly as prayer - and in Gaelic - a quatrain which goes: "'Tis not the poverty I most detest, / Nor being down for ever, / But the insult that follows it, / Which no leeches can cure."
Until the Yeats-led Irish cultural renaissance at the close of the 19th century, the Irish Story wasn't so much garbled as ignored. …