Glad you’re enjoying the crack, Billy. It is a lot of fun, this forum, as well as being challenging and stimulating.
Our clampracht na staraí
continues in the current issue of History Ireland
. Dr Morrison robustly defends her position on the Kilmichael controversy but it is impossible—for me at any rate—to concur with her conclusion that “[Peter Hart’s] research into the Kilmichael ambush has been broadly vindicated”. Her “considerable coaxing by Fr Chisholm” could not unreasonably be construed as the priest putting words into his interviewees’ mouths, as Sean Kelleher chooses to interpret it, going on to dismiss the heterodoxy that Dr Morrison argues existed among Kilmichael veterans.
In her essay Dr Morrison does indeed present evidence for such heterodoxy, but Mr Kelleher, son of a Kilmichael veteran, claims that discussion “at annual commemoration ceremonies ... often centred on the Auxiliaries’ bogus surrender call”. Add this statement to John Young’s adamant denial of what Dr Morrison was rash enough to claim in print last month and she is in an unenviable position. Further defence of her thesis seems likely to draw attention more to its weaknesses than to its strengths. She has to decide whether in future exchanges she is trying
to score points or trying
to solve a problem, and to bear in mind that she probably cannot do both, given the invidious position her misjudgement has led her into.
In brief, the Kilmichael controversy has attained an importance that the military or historical significance of any shoot-to-kill policy does not warrant. Reinvigoration of the controversy has become a damaging distraction—and potentially damaging to professional careers. Besides, as Bannerman says, the exact truth will never now be known. Time to move on.
Elsewhere on the letters page of HI
David Fitzpatrick promises a “detailed and footnoted riposte to John Regan’s charges in a forthcoming issue of History
”. One can only hope that this riposte will be comprehensive and convincing enough to place the Trinity History Workshop beyond accusations of fostering any political agenda. With assaults already being made on history in the school syllabus, the academy cannot afford to take any hits on its integrity.
Desmond Fennell, elsewhere in History Ireland
, also is concerned with problems in history—if with rather different problems. He “argues that Irish historians are failing to narrate the Revolution as it really was”. Respectable revolutions, it appears, are characterised by “common traits” or stages, which Mr Fennell proposes to “explain” and “narrate”.
I intuit from his essay that revolutionary traits or stages are everyday items of conversation in the rarefied air of those drawing rooms and lounges in which revolutions are discussed (and, for all I know, plotted); and, while I’ve been educated by enumeration of these theoretical traits or stages, and other incidentally interesting material in his piece, Mr Fennell leaves me beset with questions:
• Exactly which “Irish historians are failing to narrate the Revolution as it really was”?
• All of them?
• In what ways are they “failing”?
• What, precisely, is the way the Revolution “really
• Who says so?
Lack of space may have imposed constraints on Mr Fennell, but he seems extraordinarily prescriptive after a vital and exciting couple of decades in historical scholarship, from the Rocky Mountains to the Urals, has so opened up and enlivened the discipline—Irish history not least. Yet in the teeth of all this Mr Fennell brazenly advocates an anti-revisionist pedagogy.
For example—directly relevant to our thread here—he advocates that any narrative of the War of Independence period should
in particular [tell] that the Republican leadership worked towards its vision of Catholic-Protestant fraternity in an all-Ireland sovereign state...
—one that would be
morally and materially superior to the existing one.
This sounds glorious—but the awkward unglorious fact is that the vision mentioned, however admirable in the abstract, was utter anathema to most of the Protestants the Republican leadership sought to embrace. Nor does Mr Fennell’s proposed narrative apparently acknowledge that “the Republican leadership worked towards its vision” by deliberately starting a war designed to impose this anathema on 20 percent of the island’s population—at best a whimsical interpretation of “morally ... superior” and “fraternity”, and certainly closer to rape than embrace (“I promise, you’ll love it”). Nor does his proposed narrative tell how the predictably-inevitable defeat of such coercion encompassed not merely failure to subjugate Irish Protestants to their enemies (as they saw Republicans), but failure of the Republican project for all time—i.e. that partition of the island would be permanent, with all the human, political, social and economic evils partition brought with it. To say nothing of the horrors that war always brings with it and in its wake.
All this, we are supposed to believe, was materially as well as morally superior to the prosperity and progress that had marked the decades prior to revolution.
Rather than explore
the historical complexity of those awful years, Mr Fennell proposes to narrate
an anti-imperialist fable, smug, pietistic and simplistic, and later to narrate
the “completion of the revolutionary programme in the 1930s”.
This narrative of “completion” is hard to square with his admitted failure
of the “revolutionary programme”: for the “Irish republic in all but name” that emerged out of the calamitous ’Thirties fell six full counties short of the revolutionaries’ “vision of ... an all-Ireland sovereign state”. As he is unconscious of inconsistency in his own argument, Mr Fennell is unlikely to have drawn the fairly obvious conclusion from this part of it: that since “completion of the revolutionary programme in the 1930s” was attained by diplomacy and negotiation, not by force, it leaves little reason to doubt that diplomacy and negotiation could have worked from the outset.
The time-scale toward full, 32-county, negotiated independence unquestionably would have been much longer; and counter-factual speculation always must be tentative. Yet the eventual island-wide democracy that might
have been born out of dialogue and negotiation must
have had a better chance of surviving than the crippled polity that limped out of the wreckage of failed coercion—given all the assets, resources and skills that 25 percent more citizens, most of them thrifty and with an admirable work ethic, would have brought to a true res publica
There’s something apposite in the word Mr Fennell uses throughout his proposal: narrative
connotes fiction rather than factual writing. In works of serious history narrative is often brief, setting the stage for deploying the other rhetorical modes: description, exposition and argumentation. Bald narratives are shortcuts to “understanding” for neophytes; they also, of course, are useful devices for propagating slanted versions of history to such neophytes and to novitiates of a political order (or revolutionary movement); but for the student of history, seeking to explore the past, in all its complexities and subtleties, they offer damn all.
Mr Fennell’s proposed narrative stops short of narrating the failure of, not merely the Irish Revolution, but the Three-Quarter Republic that it spawned. Perhaps failure isn’t on the list of traits or stages of revolutions approved for discussion in polite revolutionary company. Our country’s degeneration into a humiliated protectorate of the EU is testament to such elision, and its associated bluff and deception, bluster and bravado, arrogance and autocracy.
We can thank for the loss of our sovereignty the shambling idiots and clever bastards who led us to this pass and robbed us blind. Plebs who questioned their patrician pronouncements were told
that our betters had crystal balls or other organs into which they could gaze and therein descry what was good for us; if we continued to question we were told to take a jump—if we knew what was good for us.
Yet our loss cannot all be laid at the cloven feet of our preening kleptocrats, bullies and liars. All citizens of the Three-Quarter Republic bear some responsibility: we elected to govern us men whom we often knew
to be liars and grafters, if not worse.
Healthy democracies are not built upon revolutionary theory, lofty ideals, high rhetoric or the ripping yarns of their foundation myths. They are not built on selfless readiness to give our lives for some revolutionary cause; nor readiness to make mistakes at the start and kill the wrong people in the same cause until we develop the knack of killing the “right” ones; nor killing these.
No. What makes democracy work is individual responsibility and personal accountability—and, of course, acceptance of the will of the people. Ideally a people educated to the healthily sceptical point where they know that nothing that truly matters is ever simple, to distrust those who would pretend otherwise, and to utterly reject those do-gooders—“ideologues [with] a vision”, Mr Fennell prefers to call them—who know better than ourselves what we’ll really love after they’ve beaten it into us; those ready to die and kill for the good of us all.
Such democratic responsibility and accountability are unlikely to be better fostered in the future than they have been served in the past if we submit to anyone, anyone at all, arrogating to tell
us what our past “really” was.