The long battle of the history men
Two of Ireland's heavyweight history authors have squared up over the legacy of Eamon de Valera
Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30
The Irish Civil War may have been bloody, but the legacy of its chief protagonist, Eamon de Valera, is still causing carnage and conflict - as witnessed by the latest episode in the tit-for-tat skirmishes between author Tim Pat Coogan and historian Diarmaid Ferriter.
Last weekend it was the turn of Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin and author of Judging Dev, to unleash a biting critique of Coogan's new book, 1916: The Mornings After - From the Courts Martial to the Tribunals.
The spat has taken on all the appearances of the Civil War itself, with Ferriter, the academic historian in the Dev corner, and Coogan, the popular historical author in the Collins colours.
But many found Ferriter's review of Coogan's recent book shocking - it has since been described as "scathing", and "vituperative".
"I am deeply shocked that Ferriter who I would not have considered in that camp (revisionist), has now matched them for vitriol," wrote Niall O'Dowd of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York.
Diarmaid Ferriter didn't like Tim Pat Coogan's book from the get-go, describing it as "truly dreadful" in the first line of his lengthy review. He then goes on to say that Coogan is "not remotely interested in looking at what others have written on 20th-century Irish history" before getting into some aspects of the book which he describes as "many other varieties of codswallop".
After listing what he believes are a catalogue of factual errors, Ferriter balances the scales somewhat by describing the colourful Coogan as "a decent compassionate man" but then concludes that 1916: The Mornings After is "a travesty of 20th-century Irish history".
While the initial reaction was one of horror, this was tempered in recent days by a comments such as: "None of them takes issue with any fact stated or conclusion drawn by Prof Ferriter in his review."
Observers of book reviewing might be heartened on one level - there is a tendency among the reviewing community for authors, historians, academics and journalists who know each other on a personal level to praise each other's books when they review them.
That certainly didn't happen in Ferriter's lengthy review of Coogan's book in The Irish Times on Saturday, November 21.
Both men attended the Irish Book Awards on Wednesday night, although their paths did not cross.
"It is dust beneath the chariot wheels," said Coogan phlegmatically on Thursday, referring to the review. "It was just a piece of scurrility which is best ignored."
Meanwhile, Professor Ferriter remained unrepentant. "The review was based entirely on content, research and evidence, which I think is entirely sensible" he said. "If you are asking a historian to review a book about 100 years of Irish history then that is the focus of the review . . . people are trying to make out there is some sort of personal grudge or history between us, but that is just not true."
The two men have crossed swords previously, particularly in relation to Professor Ferriter's book, Judging Dev. In his review of that publication in the May/June 2008 edition of History Ireland, Coogan described it as "a work of cunning hagiography" and alleged that a list of episodes which would show De Valera in an unfavourable light were either "glossed over or ignored". He accused the professor of "straightforward suppressio veri", the legal meaning of which is 'suppression of the truth when a party is bound to disclose it'.
Added to the mix were comments by Coogan and the author Anthony Jordon questioning the involvement of RTE in promoting Judging Dev, and the distribution of the book to schools at the instigation, it was claimed, of the then-Fianna Fail government.
"Mr Coogan wrote two critical reviews of the Judging Dev book which, in my view, were fuelled by his personal antipathy to de Valera and because my book dared to challenge the conclusions of his own biography of de Valera," said Ferriter in a letter from Boston College, where he was Burns Library Scholar in 2009.
"In my view, Mr Coogan's assertion that the Judging Dev project was one 'with an obvious . . . beneficial knock-on effect for Fianna Fail' makes it clear he is incapable of distinguishing between past and present. He should not assume the same is true for others who are interested in Irish history," his letter concluded.
However, many people appeared shocked at last Saturday's review which was carried under the headline: 'A puffed-up travesty: Tim Pat Coogan's take on modern Ireland was taking things too far'.
"Tim Pat Coogan has obviously been writing for a long time and he is a very popular author, but I was asked to review the book and this is about calling him to account about his methodology and his history writing . . . that is what I do" said Professor Ferriter.
"He vigorously promotes himself as Ireland's best-known historical writer and he has very strong views, he doesn't agree with me and I don't agree with him. That is not personal.
"We have had personal exchanges which have been few but very pleasant. I went out of my way to make that point, why would I do that if I had a personal grudge against him?
"Nobody is about one book, Tim Pat no more than anybody else, so it's not personal. If you are making assertions about serious matters then you have to do the research and say where the information is coming from."
The Coogan/Ferriter maul is taking on all the appearances of great literary and academic rivalries of yesteryear - Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, Hugh Leonard and Ulick O'Connor, or the "furious and sometimes vicious" debates surrounding the books of the late Peter Hart, particularly in relation to his claims of the "ethnic cleansing" of Protestants by the IRA in Munster during the War of Independence.
What seems quite obvious at this stage is that neither of the two heavyweights intends to back down and they will agree to disagree along Civil War lines for some time to come.