History goes marching by

Ireland – A History
Thomas Bartlett
Cambridge University Press

IT TAKES great professional self-confidence to write a history of Ireland from earliest times to 2010.

There is the danger – as with similar but not quite so ambitious studies – that the experts in each era will challenge the accuracy of a history drawn with such broad and bold brushstrokes. But whatever about those who might wait in the long grass to nit-pick, and there may be good scholarly reasons for doing so, Prof Tom Bartlett has written an elegant and stylish book which takes the general reader and specialist alike through the centuries with pace, assurance and the self-deprecation of a scholar who knows how to weigh and balance arguments in such a way as to dispel the complacency or doctrinaire attitudes of those coming to the text thinking they know it all and that history is nothing more than catechism – or rote learning.

The publishers, Cambridge University Press, and the author, have striven to bring this work to the widest possible international readership. The cover, a very well chosen detail of a stunning Paul Henry painting, is as attractive as it is effective. It is universally recognisable as Ireland. Like all good covers, it makes one want to pick up the book. CUP have not stinted on well-chosen illustrations which add greatly to the enjoyment of reading the crisply-written text. The size of the print is large enough to read without having to strain. The book is well structured. Divided into seven chapters, each has a very helpful introduction or overview of the general argument to be deployed. This provides a ready explanation of general historiographical trends for those readers who are not specialists. The author synthesises his arguments at the end of each chapter. Bartlett, like the experienced teacher that he is, has a way of keeping a reader on his or her toes. He summarises complex historical debate in an accessible style and with a contemporary frame of reference which will appeal to a broad international readership.

This book is replete with examples of how Irish history might have turned out differently. His section on the 1916 Rising emphasises the deadly intent of those who participated: “Had the Aud got through with its cargo of German arms, had [Eoin] MacNeill not countermanded the mobilisation scheduled for Sunday 23 April, had the Rising gone off as planned and had ‘our gallant allies’, as the Easter Proclamation described the Germans, done their bit in France, then all might have been changed utterly.” But on another level, he suggests: “In a sense the Easter Rising would see the first staging of a ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses’ concert,” a cultural reference which will provoke both irritation and speculation about which 1916 leader would be best played in a remake by Axl Rose. Either way, Bartlett’s gentle “irreverence” – characteristic of the book as a whole – will not leave any reader in a state of blandness and complacency about the Irish past. Open the book at most pages and one will find examples such as the one quoted above.

Writing on the mid-1960s in Northern Ireland, Bartlett – who is from Belfast – provides a different optic on the “winds of change” associated with the premiership of Terence O’Neill: “By 1965 there may even have been the beginnings of an authentic Belfast sound, with the group Them, fronted by Van Morrison, to the fore. In soccer, George Best of Manchester United and Northern Ireland was reinventing the dribble and the body swerve, and in snooker a very young Alex Higgins had begun to attract attention in Belfast’s clubs with his devastating potting and revolutionary use of screwback.”

That was the false dawn of burgeoning hopes for political and social reform. More conventional histories simply write about the inevitable defeat of a Unionist-led movement for change. But not Bartlett: “With poets like Heaney, musicians like Morrison and sportsmen like Best and Higgins, the unthinkable looked like happening: in both high and popular culture, Belfast and Northern Ireland might yet take the lead in these islands.”

The fact that Northern Ireland did so in a completely different and bloody way, does not negate the validity of the author’s view that the historical path might have been different.

Bartlett has a very wide register of historical reference and that simply adds to the pleasure of reading the book. For example, when he explains that, at the outbreak of World War I, there was no support in the British cabinet for the establishment of a regiment for John Redmond’s volunteers unlike the treatment of Ulster Unionist recruits who formed the 36th (Ulster) division: “… for Lord Kitchener, the recently appointed recruitment supremo, would have none of it. Kitchener, like the Duke of Wellington, may have been Irish born, but neither liked to be reminded of it and neither had time for Irish nationalism.” The many references of this kind, linking the personalities of one century with another, bring an even greater cohesion to the text.

What are his judgements on leading historical personalities? It may be argued that he misreads Éamon de Valera’s policy during the Second World War. He was not willfully blind about the fate of the victims of the Holocaust. Neither was de Valera “even-handed” in his handling of Allied/Axis relations. The Irish government operated a two-track policy which was secretly and clandestinely weighted overwhelmingly in favour of the Allies. He is unrestrained in his assessment of the arrival in power of Charles Haughey in 1979, when “a 30-year period of thuggery, skullduggery and sleaze was begun in Irish political life”.

The book, for all its virtues and they are many, has one significant drawback. Written for a wide audience, the publishers may have decided that it was best not to include detailed footnotes relating to the author’s secondary reading and his use of primary sources. It was a serious mistake to permit a book of this importance to have only a synopsis of the sources used and no general bibliography provided. In some cases, the authors of work cited in the very limited bibliography are not listed in the index. These matters ought to be addressed in the next edition if only to prevent some possessive historians claiming that their work had been used without full attribution. That can only be done satisfactorily by having a professional footnoting system together with bibliography.

In an accessible style, Bartlett has provided a challenging narrative, integrating and intertwining complex political, social and cultural themes. It will be difficult to surpass this refreshingly iconoclastic and innovative scholarly work.

Dr Dermot Keogh has recently retired as Professor of History at UCC. He continues to supervise graduate work and leads a number of international research projects.


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