Not the Place It Used to Be

By Bew, Paul | The Spectator, October 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Not the Place It Used to Be


Bew, Paul, The Spectator


LUCK AND THE IRISH: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHANGE, 1970-2000 by R. F. Foster Penguin, £20, pp.240, ISBN 9780713997835 £16 (plus 2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Roy Foster's new book has its origins in the Wiles Lectures delivered at Queen's University Belfast in May 2004. This is a distinguished lecture series initiated in 1954 by Herbert Butterfield's Man on his Past with such high points as Alfred Cobban's The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1964) and Eric Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism (1990), but it is fair to say that no previous set of Wiles lectures witnessed the excitement and large audiences attracted by the Carroll Professor of Irish History on his return to his home country. It may be that some of those attending were attracted by the guilty pleasure of seeing Dublin -- after so much hectoring the other way -- being 'lectured' from a Belfast podium. The normal format for the Wiles series is four lectures, but Professor Foster has added a separate chapter for this book, 'Big Mad Children: The South and the North', which deals with the play of the Northern issue in Southern politics. Some in the North will be aggrieved by this title, but is there not something childlike in the pleasure our erstwhile ethnic warriors take in the newfound perks of office and respectability?

Because these lectures are so witty and droll, it may be possible at times for readers to miss the cold intellectual steel which lies at the core of Foster's historical approach.

The book is essentially a survey of the transformation of modern Ireland -- from poor to rich, from Catholic to post-Catholic, a country now rather more like others in the sense that a belief in a specific national/religious mission has disappeared: a matter of some importance in a society which once prided itself in a strategic role as not the largest Catholic country in the world but the largest English-speaking Catholic country. It may be of significance that one of the many cultural commentators discussed by Foster, Desmond Fennell, no longer attempts to save what he saw as the core ideological values of Irish nationhood and has transformed himself into a general commentator on Western culture.

There are times when Professor Foster's approach will offend because of its occasional brisk dismissiveness -- even, perhaps, a certain condescension. For example, in his brilliant chapter 'How the Catholics Became Protestants', he discusses D. Vincent Twomey's book The End of Irish Catholicism (Veritas, 2003). Foster notes, not without justice, that 'the television set had become the confessional box', and drily comments on the inability of traditional Catholics to come to terms with the appalling record of sexual exploitation by clerics ... It is striking, indeed semi-miraculous, that in a book by the editor of the Irish Theological Quarterly published in 2003 and called The End of Irish Catholicism, there is much about the dangers of the liberal agenda and not a single word about scandals. …

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