Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Garry O Brien on Wed Jun 29, 2011 8:11 pm

Hi all, slightly off topic, but Padraig O' Ruairc is giving a lecture on friday week, see viewtopic.php?f=4&t=1786
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Fri Jul 22, 2011 10:27 am

Jd66 writes:

This is a book review of William Sheehan's 'A hard local War' - an account of the War of Independence in Cork from the British Army perspective.


Stimulating review, John. I look forward to reading A Hard Local War (eventually: “so many books; so little time”).

Its author’s frank acknowledgement of an agenda seems a curious admission; for by making it one would think he was sabotaging his very agenda. Your own overall evaluation of the book,
a good piece of research but let down by 'revisionist' bias against the IRA


seems fair, but others, who favour a different “frame”, will use Mr Sheehan’s very admission to discount his work in total—as “revisionist”.

It’s a pity we’re stuck with this term—or rather, it’s a pity we’re stuck with a pejorative connotation of the word “revisionist”. Your observations in your preamble to your review strike a chord with my own reflections on this problem.

I can’t think of any instance where revisionism has failed to improve our understanding of the past. The turn taken by British historians on the Great War in the 1930s is the nearest to an exception that I can come up with; and even though the general consensus that emerged out of that was simplistic—that the war had been “futile”; “unnecessary”; an “imperialist conflict” fought by “lions led by donkeys”—at least it focused criticism that more recent scholarship has been able to better place in a complex context thanks to further revisionism.

The more recent (still ongoing) revisionism in that particular field is producing exciting discoveries and has revitalised Great War studies—and stimulated comparative work in other fields. Likewise the historikerstreit. All to the very great good of history.

“New Western History” similarly has served well. Up until the 1970s historians of the American West were rather sniggered at as big boys playing at cowboys and Indians. In more recent decades New Western History has become a vibrant field of study, and scholars like Patricia Limerick, John Mack Faragher and Elliott West command well-deserved respect.

Getting back from all that to our own thread and your preamble: it strikes me that the “jostling of rival ‘frames’” may account for both the ready acceptance of New Western History and the contrasting hostility to revisionism in both Great War history and Irish history.

New Western History emerged out of Women’s Studies and was eagerly embraced by Hispanic, Black and other “studies” and it became so successful because it fitted in with the increasingly popular “studies” approach to scholarship and because it stridently challenged Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history.

Obviously there were other reasons for its ready acceptance—most important of all the value and absorbing interest of what emerged from the revitalised field of study—yet it seems to take the ascendancy of the left in American academe to explain the easy birth of New Western History. Apart, perhaps, from Klansmen and John Birchers, I don’t believe there was any anti-revisionist opposition to it.

But the same politics that fostered New Western History militates against anything that could be construed as not anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment or anything else incongruent with fashionable faux-liberalism. As in our own case.

Both the Irish revolutionary years and the Great War are among the most exciting fields of historical study in recent years, thanks to revisionists. The anti-revisionists seem a pretty poor lot by comparison. John Laffin rather gives the game away in the very title of one of his books, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One, which implies the tiresome, jaded polemic that indeed is delivered. (To my enduring embarrassment, I once wrote a favourable review of that awful book.) Denis Winter sabotaged his own career with Haig’s Command, the “manufactured fraudulence” of which goes far beyond polemicism.

I seldom read such stuff nowadays, but it once was the staple of my reading diet. And it seems that the tone of such writers was one of petulance and righteous anger. (Though in fairness, not all; and though I’ve been onto the old rogue for years, I still read AJP Taylor with pleasure.) Such emotionalism cannot but rub off on readers, and emotionalism gets in the way of critical evaluation.

Even the more plausible anti-revisionists seem to lack credibility. They rebut rather than engage; at best they seem (to me, at any rate), to nitpick on details; and, to the very best of my evaluation, they don’t make a convincing case. Julian Putkowski, for instance, complains at how revisionists object to the BBC’s series The Monocled Mutineer—yet he had been historical advisor to that and had resigned in protest at what he himself had admitted back then was “riddled with error”! Now he takes issue with those who object to the ahistorical abomination that he himself had walked away from.

Elsewhere Mr Putkowski dismisses revisionists apparently “because [of] their accommodation of barbarism and the brutality of war”. It’s unclear quite what he’s saying here, but it seems to be that high moral dudgeon is preferable to exploring the physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional realities and conundrums with which the actors of history and its horrors had to engage.

Being as honest as I can, I cannot see how revisionism can fail to improve our understanding of the past. By its very nature, it challenges assumptions—and by issuing challenges, it can hardly fail to accept counter-challenges. Out of the subsequent fermentation of ideas comes deeper understanding.

Yet the disturbing fact is that, for all the impressive work that revisionists have accomplished in Great War studies, they meet with cynicism and downright hostility in public fora. Verbal abuse is sometimes offered—though more often flat rejection of the revisionist’s thesis, with varying degrees of politeness, always coming back to a variation on the expression, “I simply cannot accept what you say about…” And to hell with your evidence.

Never let truth stand in the way of a good story—like The Monocled Mutineer, which, indeed, is not a bad story. To quote journalist-historian Sam Gwynne: “There is history that is based on hard, documented fact; there is history that is coloured with rumour, speculation, or falsehood; and history that exists in what might be termed the hinterlands of the imagination”. The imagination is where all the best stories come from—but hardly the best history.

Moving from Great War studies to our own thread, can we discern similarity or continuity?

Putkowski seems to make the typical, rather feeble case for anti-revisionism; one based more on emotion and moral pressure than anything else—indeed, less on emotion than on sentiment.

Now, we Irish have long since made ourselves all but a by-word for sentimentality and story telling. Factor into the potential explosiveness of sentimentality the way “advanced nationalists” long ago took on to (a) define what it means to be “truly” Irish, (b) dismiss any who fail or refuse to conform with their definition as West Brit, seanin, etc, and (c) portray constitutional nationalists as not merely West Brit but bourgeois too. Now fast-forward a few decades dominated by the “official” diktat—one frequently hammered home by strap and cane (and, occasionally, the tearing out of pages from insufficiently-partial school texts)—introduce false dilemmas or other logical fallacies whenever the diktat is challenged, and it all simplifies the job of rubbishing anything that “lackeys” and “lickspittles” come up with in tales out of school.

Never let truth stand in the way of a good story.

Your approach to Mr Sheehan’s book, John, seems a fair and intelligent way to approach all accounts of the past: identify the “frame” only in order to infer as best we can the author’s stance, in order, in turn, to help evaluate the validity of his thesis, the strength of his arguments and the worth of his supportive evidence—whatever the politics his frame may imply.

It’s a pity that all too often identification of the frame serves rather to colour the reader’s view of what that frame contains: revisionist “heresy” or the “truth”.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Jd66 on Thu Jul 28, 2011 10:07 pm

Thanks Michael,

I think that one important thing to acknowledge in the context of Irish 'revisionism', is that there are not one, but two 'official versions' in play. The older nationalist one we're all familiar with, but it's equally important to remember that Irish governments from the 1970s right up to the 2000s downplayed and discouraged the republican tradition in the interests of the security of the state. A lot of 'revisionist' history was written against this background.

I think that almost all advances in knowledge, not only in history come essentially from conflict and the clashing of rival ideas, so whatever revisionism it is always an advance by definition, even when it gets things wrong. Buta lot of it, including the very good stuff, like some of Hart's work, has to be handled with care.

Re WWI I can't really comment, as I don't know enough about it, but I'm a little suspicious of the zeal of some historians in rehabilitating the British high command of that war. They still lost appalling casualties for very little result it seems to me.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Tue Aug 02, 2011 12:34 pm

John,

Your observation that there are “two ‘official versions’” of Irish history seems to make evident the problems imposed by the concept of revisionism as a sort of aberration. The title of Francis Shaw’s essay, “The Canon of Irish History—A Challenge”, makes it clear that it’s “revisionist”, so much so that it was deemed politically impossible to publish in 1966 anything that pointed out that the Easter Rising had been a disaster for nationalist Ireland, and that militant republicanism was “a gospel of hate”. Six years later, with the reality behind the sentimental songs and stories being stripped bare by gun-thuggery and murder, Father Shaw was seen to be making sense, and his essay was published and sagely nodded over. But it was the same essay, and if it was still “revisionist”, into which revisionist category does it now fit?

It fits into both, of course. But what matters is, is it good history?

And I agree: whether it’s labelled mainstream or revisionist, even “the very good stuff … has to be handled with care”.

WWI is off-topic except insofar as it illustrates what we’re saying about revisionism, but you’re hardly alone in being
a little suspicious of the zeal of some historians in rehabilitating the British high command of that war. They still lost appalling casualties for very little result it seems to me.


I’m not sure “rehabilitating” is the quite the word—in the case of some historians at any rate. Dr John Bourne points out that anyone dealing with General Haig can find himself making a stronger case for Haig than he might really want to, simply to redress the monstrous imbalance propagated ever since Lloyd George’s Memoirs. And while casualties were indeed “appalling”, as a percentage of forces mobilised Britain’s were little more than half of Germany’s, and well under half of France’s or Russia’s, despite the fact that through most of 1917 and all of 1918 it was the British who bore the brunt of the fighting (along with, of course, the Germans).

As for “very little result”: well, beating the finest army in the world and defeating German militarism seems a not-too-bad result.

Of course, it was bloody awful, tragic, heartbreaking. And casualties remain “appalling” and it’s right that we should feel outraged by the many mistakes that were made at the cost of human lives. But emotionalism is a poor approach to take to scholarship. There’s an increasing awareness and acceptance of the tragic fact that after siege warfare developed, with Germany in occupancy of almost all Belgium and industrial France, the occupied countries either had to accept German annexations and the sort of other harsh terms she imposed on Russia in 1918, or else do their best to drive out the invader; and as in any siege this meant frontal assaults, at whatever cost. And, to the surprise of many “critics”, after the siege was broken and open warfare restored, daily casualties were higher than at any time through positional warfare (the disastrous first day of the Somme the sole exception), as they were in Normandy in 1944.

The fact is that as General Fayolle put it, “Quoi q’on fais, on perde beaucoup de monde”—whatever you do, you lose a lot of men. And Fayolle was famously conservative of his men’s lives. Once Germany started that war, no less than in the next one she started, either she had to be beaten or Europe had to accept a militaristic anti-democratic system of government and all the evils that went with that.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Jd66 on Wed Aug 03, 2011 4:09 pm

Can't really comment on the WWI debate except to say that I remain suspicious of the 'British Army was the best in the world' stuff that's coming out now. And the 'saved democracy in Europe' line also. Seems to fit too neatly into a desire for a ressurection of national pride.

But re Ireland, was the Easter Rising a disaster in its results? Matter of opinion I would say. The best we can do I would say in terms of objectivity is to identify people's 'frames' - ie what they argue the story is essentially about and then look at their research on its merits.

You're quite right in saying that 'is it good history?' - ie is it source based, do the conclusions follow the evidence, are all the pieces given due weight - has to be the most important question.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby jimcabra on Thu Aug 11, 2011 1:02 pm

Hi,

I am a new member and have read with interest some of the posts on this page.

To be quite honest, I am an avid reader of Irish history and yet I am still not sure where I stand on revisionism in Irish history.
Or, for that matter, what revisionism really stands for any more.

Having said that, I am reading Gerry Mullins' 'Dublin Nazi No. 1' at the moment and really enjoying it. Where does Mullins stand in the whole debate? As a journalist does he count? There seem to be some grey areas around the whole revisionism debate and in some ways I think it's all a bit old hat.

An interesting new title that someone told me about is a new bio on Seán Lemass:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sean-Lemass-Dem ... 1848891229

Will be interesting to see what reaction this book gets on the forum.

Jim
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Na Fianna Éireann on Thu Aug 18, 2011 4:50 pm

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Na Fianna Éireann Fíor inár gCroíthe Neart inár Láimhe Comhsheasmhacht inár dTeanga.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Cathal on Thu Aug 18, 2011 5:25 pm

Wow - this is great!!! :shock:
...try always to be on the right end of the sword...
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby Na Fianna Éireann on Thu Aug 18, 2011 5:30 pm

whats great
Na Fianna Éireann Fíor inár gCroíthe Neart inár Láimhe Comhsheasmhacht inár dTeanga.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby DrNightdub on Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:48 pm

Shergar, just a small point but the 2nd Battalion was only formed in Belfast in late 1919 / very early 1920, so I'm not sure that they would've been a Brigade in 1916. Plus (more importantly), the likes of Roger McCorley were fairly disgusted that they didn't actually do anything in 1916.

Where's the banner for?
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