Revisionisms and the Story of Ireland: From Sean O'Faolain to Roy Foster

By Markey, Alfred | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Revisionisms and the Story of Ireland: From Sean O'Faolain to Roy Foster


Markey, Alfred, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


Abstract: The telling of the story of Ireland, the received nationalist tale replete with heroes, villains and a host of stock elements, has a long history and has exercised a particularly important influence on the development of Irish identity. Yet, when the revisionist historian Roy Foster claimed in the late nineteen eighties that the telling of this traditional tale had come to an end it did seem as if, finally, Irish people were beginning to see themselves through different more complex narratives. Recent evidence, nonetheless, suggests Foster was precipitate in his claims and issues of the competing merits of history and myth remain to the fore.

In 1994 Foster delivered a lecture to the University of Oxford entitled "The Story of Ireland" in which he looked in depth at the history of the traditional narrative through books of the same title. Of these he only briefly mentioned a particularly interesting example of the genre, The Story of Ireland, written by Sean O'Faolain, for many Ireland's first revisionist. In this paper I consider the importance of this omission and through a look at both texts, as well as at other influential contributions to the revisionist debate, I suggest that O'Faolain and Foster practice fundamentally different revisionisms.

Key words: revisionism; history; historiography; identity; Ireland; Sean O'Faolain; Roy Foster.

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Towards the end of the eighties, Linda Hutcheon, in her seminal study exploring the interface of fiction and history, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, stated "history is now, once again, an issue" (1988: 87). She was, of course referring to the real world not to Ireland. History has always been the issue in Ireland and so it remains. Historical "facts" and their ontological and epistemological status have always either been taken with a healthy dose of scepticism or slavishly brandished whenever the occasion demanded. Perhaps unsurprising this cavalier attitude: in the wake of historians such as Froude (1) and the scientific race theories of Victorian Britain, (2) history and scientific truth are often seen to have had an uneven track record in Ireland. In 1988, when A Poetics of Postmodernism appeared and issues of historiography and narrative were to the fore internationally, Roy Foster published his exceptionally successful and influential Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 and "History and the Irish Question", so bringing to a heady blaze the controversy sparked off in Irish historical circles by Stephen Ellis's (1986-7) broadside at the nationalist tradition in Irish history writing and Ronan Fanning's (1988) presidential address to the Irish Historical Society insisting on the continued importance of the scientific scholarship tradition of the society's founders, T. W. Moody and R. D. Edwards and their heir F. S. L. Lyons. For all of these the imperative was the necessity of tackling the myth-making weakness at the heart of so much of Irish history writing. These are known as our "revisionists".

In the opening to Fanning's address he suggests that the "writings of three of the most eminent representatives of three successive generations of modern Irish historians, testify to a striking characteristic of modern Irish historiography: a continuous compulsion to confront myth and mythology" (146). The three chosen baton carriers are Moody, Lyons and Foster. They comprise a tradition, a canon of "real" historians who cut through the difficult thicket of myth to deliver a putative historical truth. It is surprising, nonetheless, to find in one breath such a championing of the most notable debunkers of the succession of heroes in the mythical, teleological tale of nationalist liberation, the "story of Ireland", as well as a seemingly unproblematic willingness to posit another alternative canon, a tradition of heroes fighting for a very different "cause". (3)

Ciaran Brady, in his introduction to the collection of key essays in the revisionist controversy, considers the genesis of the revisionist turn as coming out of a post-independence cultural shrinkage where censorship was increasingly the norm and public debate in retreat:

   In the resistance against this drift toward the
   suppression of cultural diversity, it was, as is
   well known, the decades' writers and critics
   rather than the historians who took the lead. … 

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