Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History

By Hugh F. Kearney | Go to book overview

Chapter Eleven

The Irish and Their History
(1994)

In 1907 John Millington Synge met with bitter criticism from the Gaelic League for his alleged insults to Irish womanhood in The Playboy of the Western World. In 1926 Sean O'Casey ran into similar trouble in Dublin and New York for certain scenes in The Plough and the Stars. Both playwrights are now regarded as leading luminaries of the Irish literary renaissance. During their lifetime, however, their work seemed to touch a sensitive nerve in Irish nationalist circles, much as Caradoc Evans offended Welsh nonconformity during the same period.

Something of a similar sort seems to have occurred, though no doubt on a less elevated literary level, when historians from University College, Dublin lectured in London in the late 1980s. At one session, on “the Flight of the Earls,” a member of the audience is said to have protested against the revisionist tone of the lecture by calling out, “For God's sake leave us our heroes.” Another speaker was denounced in The Irish Post as a West Briton. What the native-born scholars regarded as legitimate historical criticism seemed to London-based Irish exiles to be misleading and offensive.1 Within Ireland itself a clash between nationalist and revisionist interpretations of Irish history is also in full swing. Something of the same kind may also be discerned in the United States, where Kevin O'Neill recently criticized Roy Foster's study of Irish history for being anglocentric. It would be surprising if Irish communities in Britain remained immune from such tensions.

In recent years, revisionism, in the sense of a critical approach toward received orthodoxy, has been in the ascendant in Irish academic circles. The latest revisionist piece, Professor J. J. Lee's disenchanted look at Irish life in his successful book Ireland 1912–1985, Politics and Society (1989),

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