Uncertain Futures: Essays about the Irish past for Roy Foster
Edited by Senia Pašeta
Oxford University Press
Roy Foster, the recently retired professor of Irish history at Oxford University, likes to cook. Thus this slim but rich volume in his honour should appeal to him as a sort of history tasting menu. Uncertain Futures consists of 22 essays by those who have worked with Foster, studied under him, and been influenced by the sheer exuberance and electricity of his writing and his ideas. The essays are of high quality – hardly surprising, since doubtless the book could have been three or four times its length, with scholars queuing up to pay tribute to possibly the finest historian-writer of his generation.
The undercurrent flowing through this collection is, of course, the validity and legitimacy of what is known as the “revisionist” movement in Irish history, a term that has become pejorative and frequently abusive. While Foster was just only one of its initiators, he has perforce become its bellwether, its lightning conductor.
No bad thing, maybe. Foster has always had the intellectual nimbleness and capacity to soak up what the critics throw at him, and to answer them persuasively and courteously. His influence in this regard is well brought out in Matthew Kelly’s “Sense and Shite” – Roddy Doyle, Roy Foster, and the Past History of the Future, in which “the broad cultural reach of historical revisionism” is demonstrated in an original and entertaining way.
The historical record
Foster, a Waterford Protestant, has spent his entire career as an historian in England, first at London and then at Oxford. The latter is where his teaching and seminars brought the study of modern Irish history into a serious and accepted space. Indeed, Foster himself has become part of the historical record, of the historiography of the Irish in Britain.
It is appropriate, then, that of the three “Life” essays here, two deal extensively with Roy’s influence in “Hibernia’s Other Island”. Marianne Elliott writes of Foster from the perspective of the Irish emigrant, whereas Toby Barnard looks the other way, at Foster’s contribution to Oxford and to Hertford College in particular.
Along with Tom Dunne’s comprehensive RFF: A Writing Life, these essays colour in Foster, and go a long way towards explaining what moves and grounds him, and what makes him the historian, writer, teacher and public intellectual that he is.
Foster, too, has spent much of his historical life excavating what makes people tick. Colin Reid’s illuminating essay on Denis Gwynn complements Foster’s 2014 examination of the pre-Rising revolutionary generation (Vivid Faces), while Caoimhe Nic Dhábhéid on the post-revolutionary generation counterpoints it.
Ultán Gillen co-opts one of Foster’s favourites, Hubert Butler, into a discussion of identity through the prism of Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Common Name of Irishman in 1960s Ireland. Erika Hanna, speaking to Foster’s sense of the significance of place, evocatively dissects modern urban identity in terms of Dublin’s built environment, and what it says about Ireland’s “uncompleted and unexpected future”.
Historian as recoverer
As Felix Larkin has pointed out elsewhere, the so-called revisionist movement of the 1970s and later has been as much about the recovery of historical knowledge as the reinterpretation of that already known. Many of the essays here are “recoverist”, reflecting the influence of Foster’s first book, Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and His Family (1976). The challenge he faced was the “complete dearth” of Parnell family papers, necessitating forays into wider territory, especially literary sources.
Here, this adventurous trope is notably present in essays on Elizabeth Bowen by Hermione Lee, on Synge and Yeats as a distorted mirror to Ireland’s pre-revolutionary soul by Ben Levitas, and Lauren Arrington’s fascinating Feeding the Cats: Yeats and Pound at Rapallo, 1928.
Other essays are forensic examinations of lesser-known aspects of modern Irish history. Vincent Comerford’s analysis of the impediments to freehold ownership of land is historical salvage at its best, with its emphasis on the centrality to the Land War of the 1880s and early 1890s of legal and economic considerations. It is matched nicely with Marc Mulholland’s Land War Homicides.
Similarly, Tim Wilson’s The Strange Death of Loyalist Monaghan, 1919-1921 retrieves the history of a frontier community stranded just on the wrong side of the tracks, one of the “outposts of Ulster” according to Edward Carson in 1913. Charles Townshend continues this recoverist theme with an erudite examination of Force, Law and the Irish Revolution. Paul Bew’s contribution marries recovery and revision in subjecting Foster’s books on Parnell and Lord Randolph Churchill to a penetrating elaboration.
Historian as writer
Tom Dunne’s introductory essay captures Foster’s true essence, which is as a writer who happens to be a historian. Foster was fortunate in his generation. Although Ranke’s “scientific history” had heavily influenced Irish history research and writing from the foundation of the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences in 1938, by the 1970s, when Foster learned his trade, style and language had not been entirely suppressed by rigid rules and the box-ticking of the PhD industry.
David Fitzpatrick’s idiosyncratic essay is a fitting nod to Fosterian flair. Words and Irish History: an Experiment is a wild and wonderful exploration of “tendentious terminology”, or how Irish history can be distorted into shapes that owe more to preconception than reality. A piece of fun with serious intent, it demonstrates the dangers posed by the polemical, and how difficult it actually is to corral Irish history within a linguistic demilitarized zone.
Foster has successfully attacked most forms of literary prose, from a magisterial multivolume work (the Yeats biography) to short semi-journalistic commentary pieces. In one area, though, he excels: the essay, where he can use to full effect his acumen for words, a genius for research, and an insatiable curiosity about life. As Paddy and Mr Punch (1993) and The Irish Story (2001) demonstrate, a historian can seldom be neutered or ignored, if he can write.
In this collection of tribute essays, it is clear that the authors have striven to pay their respects to the genre in which Roy Foster moves so easily by the quality of their writing as well as their historical research.
Ian d’Alton writes on the history of southern Irish Protestantism. He a visiting research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.
Telling it our way. Essays in gender historyPublished in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21
(Arlen House, €25)
This book is a journey of discovery for both author and reader. Beginning with Maria Luddy’s dutiful summary of Cullen’s articles, we are introduced to Jane Austen’s views regarding history, which apparently consisted of ‘the quarrels of popes and kings . . . and hardly any women at all’. Ironically, Austen’s first work was a witty history of England with lots of kings and quarrels, plus a few queens as well. Not taking an author too literally and reading between the lines of evidence is one of the things that Mary Cullen does superbly in this book, which is a collection of her significant articles. Cullen’s approach is to conceptualise her material and explore official sources with a gendered eye. Beginning with a personal introduction, she admits that as a young woman in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, like many of her generation, she was unaware that there had been a women’s movement, in Ireland or elsewhere, in the early twentieth century. By the 1960s, when she was married with children, Cullen was influenced by ‘second-wave feminism’, in particular the work of British and American historians. Mary Cullen taught for three decades at NUI Maynooth and influenced generations of historians with her original insights as well as her thoughtful advice.
Cullen’s work dates from the 1980s and she has been generous enough to mention new and important work, such as the biography of Thomas and Anna Haslam, pioneering suffragists, by Carmel Quinlan, when adding to her own chapter on Anna Haslam. This was originally published in the significant collection of essays, Women, power and consciousness in nineteenth-century Ireland. Eight biographical studies, which Cullen co-edited with Maria Luddy. She also alerts the reader to new sources, such as the papers of the Irish Housewives Association, which have been given to the National Archives by Hilda Tweedy. These valuable papers were not available to Cullen when she was writing her chapter on Anna Haslam. She is also honest enough to correct any mistakes that appeared in the original publications of her work.
Cullen is not an archival-driven historian but she uses printed primary and secondary sources to excellent effect, particularly in her ‘Women of 1798’ essay, which draws on the excellent collection of essays published by Four Courts Press in 1998. When she uses primary sources comprehensively, a whole new world opens up, for example in her discussion of pre-famine poverty. Here she trawls the Poor Inquiry of 1835 for evidence of women’s economic contributions. She notes that their earnings, from poultry and pigs, ‘are accepted as the pattern, and not as occasional or exceptional’. For the family, a woman’s earnings ‘bridged the gap between relative comfort and distress’, and were ‘an important factor in the family’s standard of living and in the difference between surviving and failing to survive by independent labour’. This argument was also relevant in the twentieth century. Cullen’s article on widows, published in the Field Day Volumes, notes that widows were compelled to enter the workplace but earned far less than their male counterparts.
The most comprehensive chapter in this book is taken from the New History of Ireland Volume VII, and edited by Cullen’s NUI Maynooth colleague Jackie Hill. ‘Women, emancipation and suffrage: a long dialogue’ is the perfect introduction to women’s history for undergraduates. It includes much material from the 1970s, when Cullen herself was part of the women’s movement. Her all-Ireland approach, with due recognition of changes elsewhere in Europe, makes for an original chapter. Cullen’s last chapter, ‘The potential of gender history’, is also wide-ranging. She begins with something intangible that tends to be ignored—ideologies. In examining political ideas and modern feminisms, she notes that these ideas are not static. For example, the republicanism of the eighteenth century changed greatly over time. Cullen returns to the civic republican model in the twentieth century, as she sees its potential for women’s political development. It was a key part of the Irish Citizen newspaper, published between 1912 and 1920, and the demise of the gender equality it espoused was a theme of Irish feminism in the mid-twentieth century, which was subsumed into organisations such as the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers. This organisation had 35,000 members and gave revealing evidence to the Commission of Vocational Organisation in the early 1940s. The papers of the chairman of the commission, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, have recently been made available to historians; hence even more insights into the ideologies (and their critics) that dominated Ireland have become accessible. Cullen is not trapped by ideas, however: historians ‘have to consider to what extent political, social and economic relationships between the sexes resulted from agency’. This emphasis on human agency will provide much new research on Irish women’s history.
Arlen Press has done a beautiful job in producing this book, with the cover painting of ‘Three women fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge’ by Barry Castle, the daughter of writer Maura Laverty. Cullen’s book can be placed alongside Margaret MacCurtain’s Ariadne’s thread, also published by Arlen Press, in putting the publications of the pioneers of women’s history into the hands of a new public thirsty for historical explanations. As Cullen notes in her introduction, ‘gender history is as important for men’s historical identity as it is for women’s, and its absence is as detrimental to men’s self-knowledge as it is to women’s’. This book is a tribute to the energy and conceptual rigour of Mary Cullen; her insights will continue to influence generations of historians. HI
Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh works at Harvard University and is the author of Kathleen Lynn. Irishwoman, patriot, doctor (2006, 2011) and Quiet revolutionaries. Irish women in education, medicine and sport, 1861–1964 (2011).