Daniel Snowman meets the historian of modern Ireland and biographer of Yeats.
On the face of it, there is nothing particularly controversial about the Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. With his mop of hair and casual-chic style, Robert Fitzroy Foster seems the very model of the modern don, a thoughtful, sophisticated historian at ease among books and bookmen, whose own erudite, elegant writings have won widespread plaudits.
Widespread, but not universal. For Roy Foster, malgré lui (as he might say), has also stirred up periodic pockets of protest. Furthermore, he is routinely labelled a ‘revisionist’. To you and me, that might simply mean someone who checks and revises the conclusions of his predecessors, perhaps upsetting accepted nostrums in the process. It is what any good historian is bound to do. But, in the hothouse that is Irish history, ‘revisionist’ is used by some as a term of abuse levelled at those like Foster who don’t accept the traditional totems and taboos of the Irish past. When Foster writes of the great emblematic milestones of Irish history – the Battle of the Boyne, the Wolfe Tone rebellion of 1798, the Easter Rising – he does so with the cool intellectual detachment of one who has actually re-examined the evidence. Not for him the celebratory mythologising that still sometimes passes for Irish history. If previous interpretations are not borne out by the facts, Foster regards it as his duty to say so.