The Problems of Writing Irish History

In this article, Roy Foster seeks to explain the many difficulties that are faced by Irish historians.

In the summer of 1982 the Irish premier, engaged in fighting off a concerted challenge to his leadership and caught in the worst economic crisis since the foundation of the state, still found time to make a day's pilgrimage to an archaeological site. Though not known for expertise in historical study, or any other branch of culture, he was photographed reverently holding a Celtic ornament of great antiquity which had recently been excavated, and made speeches extolling the significance of such a find. While visiting foreigners found this sense of priorities curious, it is perfectly in keeping with an approach to public life which requires that an Irish politician be legitimised by association with the past: that he make a claim of personal identification with the national history. This illustrates two problems encountered by those who attempt to analyse that history – the political use to which Irish history is put, and the fact that in Ireland history itself has an active and continuing role as actor in current political events.

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