The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000

Alvin Jackson | Published in History Today

The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000
Diarmaid Ferriter
Profile Books  xi + 884 pp £30
ISBN 1861973071

This is an astonishingly accomplished performance from one of Ireland’s most prodigiously gifted young historians. Ferriter has set out to create a diverse and inclusive history of twentieth-century Ireland, investigating the histories of the hitherto marginalised or excluded alongside political-historical themes of a more conventional type. He has also set out to create what he calls a ‘post-revisionist’ work, liberated from the infatuations of earlier scholarship with the sectarian and national arena. His ambition and assurance are devastating, and they come close to being vindicated by his achievement.

This is indeed an inclusive history. Ferriter has an unrelenting social compassion, and gives space to the testimony of many who have hitherto been badly represented in general histories of this kind: the poor, disadvantaged and abused children, women and those marginalised because of religion or culture or sexual orientation. He seeks to embrace both the South and North of Ireland, as well as both the Nationalist and Unionist traditions on the island. He is fired by his material, and his enthusiasms (and predispositions) shine through; but he is never polemical. Indeed, one of the striking features of the volume is the extent to which the entire enterprise is suffused with empathy and  generosity. Even the formidable Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (a very easy target for liberal republican ire), is handled with extreme care and judiciousness, and with reference to the primary sources. The complex dilemmas of Irish policemen in 1919-21 (again, an obvious republican target) and the wider resonance of their fate are treated with a sensitivity unusual in a work of this kind. The abusive record of certain religious orders and individual priests is relentlessly exposed; but the wider achievement of the Church in education and social welfare is recognised.

Ferriter’s reading for this volume has been prodigious. He is very strong on social and economic material, as one might expect given his track-record of publications but he is also strong on political historiography. He has delved deeply into both the monograph and journal literature. Particularly impressive is the melding of literary fiction into his historical analysis: here again his range is impressive, spanning mainstream poets and novelists like Heaney and McGahern and lesser-known figures such as Robert Harbinson and Hugh Shearman. If there is a weakness in all of this, it relates to his coverage of Northern Ireland, where relatively prominent scholarly works such as Brian Barton’s biography of Sir Basil Brooke, Lord Brookeborough, (1988) do not appear to have featured in his reading. This possibly undermines his wider coverage of the North, but more obviously for the later twentieth century than for the first decades where his reading seems more complete.

Ferriter’s generosity of vision and secondary researches are complemented by a sharp eye for archival novelty. He has made good use of a range of recently released archives, most importantly the materials gathered by the Bureau of Military History in Dublin (and opened to researchers only in March 2003): the testimony of those small but critical players like Christopher Brady (who helped to print the 1916 Proclamation) is deployed to astonishingly good effect. But Ferriter has also had the opportunity to use papers relating to the late 1960s and early 1970s, and released under the thirty year rule: he does not always seem to have had the chance to explore these systematically, although he has certainly made the effort to investigate the holdings of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (not as common a feat as one might suppose among modern Irish historians).

But the achievements of the volume come, inevitably perhaps, at a price. Ferriter in fact pays at least three types of levy for the intellectual diversity and depth of his work. The first relates to a general weakness in the detail. Names and biographical details are sometimes problematic: thus we have ‘Atlee’ as British prime minister (p.455), ‘Enda’ Longley as the distinguised literary critic (p.457). Another distinguished literary critic, John Wilson Foster, is rendered instead as ‘the historian of Irish science’ (p.116). Though James Connolly’s religious beliefs are discussed in the context of the 1916 Rising, no mention is made of the debate surrounding his reconciliation to the Catholic Church (p.150). Some wider issues are misinterpreted: he seems unaware of the work of Feingold and Crossman on the Irish Poor Law guardians, and the extent to which the Poor Law boards might be interpreted as agents of democratisation in late nineteenth-century Ireland (p.38). There is a danger with lists of this kind, that small problems can be allowed to mask a big achievement but these (in many cases) simple errors of fact have to be identified and eliminated.

The second area where Ferriter pays a price relates to the structure of the work. The work is organised around eight chronologically-defined chapters which, together, span the entire twentieth century. But within each of these chapters there are numerous sub-sections which do not follow any immediately identifiable order, and which cover everything from high politics to the conditions of the working poor, health and gender. These sub-sections often embody brilliant micro-studies of a particular issue or episode: they provide a series of snap-shots of (often) very different aspects of Irish life. Their effectiveness is best appreciated cumulatively. But they do not assist the navigability of the volume. Neither do they aid sustained analysis or argument, nor help with the identification and unravelling of major themes.

The third price paid by Ferriter for his deeply layered exploration is (arguably) breadth. That is to say, at a time when historians such as Nicholas Canny are urging the profession to contextualise the Irish experience more widely, particularly in terms of continental Europe, Ferriter has chosen to deepen the representation of that experience within the confines of the island. The kinds of consistent European analogy which distinguish J.J. Lee’s Ireland 1912-85 (1989) are on the whole absent from this work.

Equally, Ferriter misses some other wider contexts: when he talks about the ‘parochial’ nature of the revisionist controversy within Irish historiography (p.750), he evades the point that – for some Irish historians – the force of this debate did not lie exclusively in its replaying of tradition national and sectarian grudge-matches. For many, the force of the counter-revisionist assault on mainstream Irish historiographical practice lay in the fact that it coincided with a much wider post-modernist critique of traditional historical epistemology. Aside from this, there is certain rude machismo in Ferriter’s treatment of the Irish historical profession since the 1960s. If there was (as he alleges) a ‘political convenience’ to the ‘normalising’ work of some scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, then the wider linkages between historians and their social and political environment have surely to be recognised more subtlely and exactly. It is hard to resist the suspicion that Ferriter himself may be supplying a caring, confident but also convenient image of Ireland at the beginning of the new millennium.

But the stimulus and intellectual charge of Ferriter’s Transformation of Ireland will already be clear. This is at root a deeply impressive achievement. Though there will be (and have been) begrudgers, the evidence of raw talent is clear for all to see. As Marianne Elliott has already said in her blurb, this work - for all its faults - will be very hard to surpass. Those planning to compete with Ferriter in the near future will need all the courage that they can muster.

Alvin Jackson is the author of Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000 (Phoenix Press, 2004).

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