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A Short History of Ireland

By John Davison | Published in History Today 1987 
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John Biggs-Davison reviews a revised edition after 30 years.

  • A Short History of Ireland
    J.C. Beckett 191pp. (The Cresset Library, Hutchinson, first published 1952)
It is said that the Irish live too much in the past. However that may be, books like this would help them understand it better and teach the English something too. This is the sixth, revised edition, in paperback, of a work that has stood the test of thirty years.

Professor Beckett does not ignore the fate of the early Pictish people as do nationalists ready to condemn later invaders and imperialists. Ulster loyalists, for their part, have lately been showing interest in the Cruthin whom the Gaels slaughtered or subjugated. Too often the papally-inspired and partial conquest of the twelfth century is portrayed as an English aggression rather than, as the author depicts it, an extension of '1066 and all that'. True, the Pope was from England; and it would have made a fine Anglo- Norman 'double' if Henry II had succeeded in becoming Emperor. In the fourteenth century the Anglo-Norman 'foreigners' in Ireland received Gaelic gratitude for rescuing them from the fire and sword of Edward Bruce, King Robert's brother. Only two Irish bishops resisted Henry VIIl's Royal Supremacy. (A nugget for this reviewer was the statement that the first book printed in Ireland was the Book of Common Prayer.)

England's enemies have often sought to strike at her from Ireland. Bonaparte lamented that he went to Egypt, not Ireland. So for the younger Pitt the Act of Union was 'military necessity'. The rebellion of 1798 convinced him that it was essential. Legislative Union was opposed by the privileged and what was much more than Stormont later 'a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people'. The Orange Order defended, as would Sinn Fein later, government by 'the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland'. Most Catholic bishops welcomed the Union; and it was tragic that Catholic emancipation, which Pitt intended and promised should be its accompaniment, was delayed. George III found that his Coronation oath forbade the grant to the Irish of rights already accorded to the French Catholics of conquered Quebec. 1798 led to the Act of Union. Professor Beckett observes also that it began 'a tradition of revolutionary violence', opposed then as now by the Roman hierarchy though not by all their clergy. Neither Jacobin nor Marxist persecution of the Church has prevented the seduction of some by a 'liberation theology'. Despite legislative Union, a separate Executive, a Viceroyalty and Court continued in Dublin. There was no 'genuine incorporation'. Without that, can there be an end to 'revolutionary violence' in Northern Ireland?

  • John Biggs-Davison is author of The Cross of St. Patrick: The Catholic Unionist Tradition in Ireland (Kensal Press, 1985).

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