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Reimagining Irish history.

SOME YEARS AGO I was invited by a Long Island Irish-American cultural society to give a version of a paper I had delivered recently at a meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies. The presentation looked at the effects of the Cromwellian transplantation in Co. Kilkenny. While certificates of transplantation were issued to perhaps 190 Kilkenny landowners, Robert C. Simington (The Transplantation to Connacht, 1970) has established that fewer than 70 from the county were actually transplanted. My audience included a number of elderly Irish-born men and women; two or three in the audience vociferously denounced my conclusions. Cromwell, they had been taught in National School, had indeed given Irish Catholics the choice of Hell or Connacht. One gentleman insisted that all Irish Catholics had been banished to Connacht or Clare. While it is doubtful that Cromwell ever uttered that now infamous phrase, there is no denying that the enormity of the transplantation scheme and the hardships and suffering that followed in its wake, guaranteed that future generations of Irishmen would neither forgive nor forget. Constructing the past, as Roy Foster claims in the introduction to Constructing the Past: Irish History, 1600-1800, "comes readily to Irish historians, and to people generally--as well as reconstructing it, reimagining it and reinventing it" (1). what people believe happened and what actually happened are not always the same, and as much recent history has shown us, myths can be more powerful than facts. How "historians, clerics and publicists of various kinds [have constructed] national identities by manipulating the past" (4) is the unifying theme of the essays collected in Constructing the Irish Past. "[T]his concept may be applied to almost any era in Irish history," but according to Foster, "it is perhaps most immediately relevant to the early modern period. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of the patterns that stamped Irish history were laid down" (1).

The nine essays in this collection began life at a conference organized by graduate students at Oxford's Hertford and Jesus colleges. This, as Forster notes, reflects the fact that Irish history is now recognized by British academe "as a subject of intrinsic and internmational importance" (5). Section I, "Foundations," contains essays by Bernadette Cunningham, Mark Williams, and Alan Ford. Cunningham's essay illuminates "[t]he emergence of a 'rhetoric of nationhood'" (9) in the writings of Geoffrey Keating, Micheal O Cleirigh, and Michael Kearney. The works of all three men were concerned with shaping the historical method by establishing the antiquity and integrity of the Kingdom of Ireland. Mark Williams' "History, the Interregnum and the Exiled Irish," examines the histories written by the exiles of the 1650s and their influence on nineteenth-century nationalists such as the Young Irelanders Thomas McGee and Fr. Charles Patrick Meehan. For these men, Williams concludes, "the 1640s had become their 1840s, the necessity to visit the past in order to imagine the future was no less urgent. The past, as such, remained as immutable as the present" (48). "'Making dead men speak': Manipulating the memory of James Ussher," Alan Ford's contribution to the collection, looks at the work of Archbishop James Ussher and how high-church Anglicans, moderate Anglicans and hard-line Presbyterians all used Ussher's writings to defend and define their preferred ecclesiastical settlement.


In Section II, "Revolutions," Richard Ansell looks at competing versions of the Irish past published between 1689 and 1691. Protestant literature, he notes, emphasizes the depravity of the Irish and argues that their collective guilt for the massacres of 1641 justifies the Protestant land settlement. Gaelic poets, on the other hand, do not consider the events of 1689 as a repeat of 1641, but rather "a fulfilment of the delivery for which the Irish had been struggling for a century" (89). Toby Bamard's contribution, focusing on the career of Sylvester O'Halloran, explores the commercial resistance to publishing learned histories of Ireland, while "The Volunteer Evening Post and Patriotic Print Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland," by Martyn J. Powell, examines the way historians have used--and not used--Irish newspapers to assess the development of Anglo-Irish politics in the eighteenth century. while the Volunteer Evening Post is regarded by some "as a Dublin lapdog," Powell's case-study reveals that "its modus operandi was much more complicated [and] can actually be seen as a mid-1780s representation of an alternate strain of patriotic culture" (114). Ulthn Gillen's analysis of how counterrevolutionaries--members of both the Protestant Ascendancy and the Catholic hierarchy--constructed history to support their political positions concludes this section.

A particularly interesting entry in Section III, "Re-evaluations," challenges traditional Irish historiography that Commonwealth policies towards lay Catholics in Ireland were grounded in Cromwell's hatred of Catholics. If, as R. Scott Spurlock notes, this were the case, why did Catholics in Scotland fare better? Why in fact did some Scottish Catholics actually "herald Oliver Cromwell as the 'saviour' of Scottish Catholics" (158). The transplantation, transportation, and martyrdom of lay Catholics, he concludes, were driven by financial necessity, not "genocidal hatred." Raymond Gillespie's concluding essay, "Nature, Politics and Historians in early modern Ireland," also challenges traditional historiography. Political and land holding changes in early modern Ireland were not necessarily driven from the top down. Such changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Gillespie warns, must not be seen as a single revolution concerned with "dispossession and expropriation," but rather as the products of linked revolutions in areas of everyday life such as the economy and the legal structure, the rise in literacy, changing patterns of landownership, agricultural developments, and the rise of towns. Recognition of this "has introduced a healthy dose of agency into our understanding of the native Irish community who can no longer be seen as the passive victims of change imposed from above but rather could make choices that made some winners and others losers" (182).

The essays in Constructing the Irish Past offer an interesting and refreshing look at the ways in which the events of the past, in this case the early modern period, can be "constructed" to convey particular political or religious viewpoints or to justify the actions of a particular group. Students of Irish historiography and the early modern period should find this collection to be particularly useful in that it challenges much of what can be considered traditional in the field of early modern studies. Graduate students can benefit as well from numerous references to early modern manuscript and printed sources and to questions of current historiographic debate that bear further investigation.


--St. Joseph's College, New York
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Title Annotation:Constructing the Past: Writing Irish History, 1600-1800
Author:Brennan, Monicas
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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