Thursday 21 November 2019

Review: The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty

BBC Books, €22.99

Neil Hegarty

'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," said James Joyce's hero Stephen Dedalus, meaning the ceaseless echo chamber of Irish history, and this was without the poor man having to face the navel-gazing of the 1916 era and the Northern Troubles, which the rest of us have had to endure.

This book is a spirited contribution to such self-analysis, for those who relish such absorption: especially since it tells more or less the whole story in a single volume, and one that comes in at 336 pages, which is no mean achievement.

However, the concluding lop-sided focus on the recent conflict in the North means the book doesn't leave itself with much room to comment on the recent economic and political upheaval in the rest of Ireland, which is a shame given the momentous events which have occurred. But then "the North" makes for good TV -- all those bombs and defiant Orange banners -- and this is the book which accompanies the current TV series, made by BBC and RTE and fronted by the wistful Fergal Keane.

Keane has claimed that post-boom southern Ireland can find a way out of its crisis by learning from the Northern peace process, but this is an unconvincing argument and the book's lop-sided focus on this might have more to do with the fact that its author, Neil Hegarty, hails from Derry. But it also tends to create a possibly unconscious bias, and some rather forgiving blurring. For example, there is a list of Northern atrocities but with no responsibility apportioned and an uninformed reader might assume that the IRA was not responsible for most of these.

By contrast, the sins of the British government, and Bloody Sunday in particular, are pored over in detail. Meanwhile, there are just six pages on the Republic of Ireland from 1969 to the present day.

Apart from this, however, the book is a most impressive sweep through the preceding centuries of Irish history, and a compression of fact and argument, which is no less readable or compelling for the breadth of its narrative. Although whether it offers much that is new is another matter, despite the claims of the publishers. "Ireland's history is usually told as an epic story of Celtic Utopia evolving into a centuries-long struggle for Home Rule" we are told, and the book will be a corrective to this and "will show that from the early Catholic missions into Europe to the embrace of the euro, the real story of Ireland has played out on the larger international stage". But this is an exaggeration surely and, besides, the anti-linear, or deterministic, version of our national story is one that has, by now, been well made by many historians, from revisionist to post-revisionist. And can we really regard a country so blithely untouched by the Second World War and the Cold War to have "its destiny played out on the international stage"? The world may have watched and wished us well, but at the end of the day, it was indeed the dreary steeples of Fermanagh, reasserting themselves, and the integrity of the local quarrel.

However, in his deft and fluent precis of existing material, Hegarty does locate the country's narrative in the wider international context, from the coming of Christianity in the first half of the 5th Century right through the religious wars and revolutionary periods. In the process, he challenges many conclusions and myths, but not needlessly in the way ambitious young historians seem to feel the need to.

On the Famine, for example, he confirms everything we already know, but with a freshness that penetrates in terms of that cataclysmic event. There is a fairness at work, and while exempting the British government of knowingly allowing the Great Famine to take its toll, he lays at the authorities' door the incredible reckless cruelty and market orthodoxies which allowed such a catastrophe to take hold. Its long-term effect on the country is worth reflecting on when we talk currently, and sometimes wildly, about our current economic and social crisis.

Elsewhere, the narrative brio is such that it makes you want to revisit other more detailed writings on certain period such as the Williamite Wars and before that, the effects of the English Civil war, which Hegarty recreates with great vividness, not least the depradations of an allegedly God-directed Cromwell. In the same vein, he illustrates how the fervour of feelings raised by the European Reformation paved the way for much of the colonial ruthlessness imposed on Ireland in the earlier period. Hegarty's main theme is the linkage of Irish events to Europe and the wider world. However, even without this aspect, this book is an engrossing and highly readable account of the sweep of Irish history. Poor old James Joyce: he wanted to escape the nightmare of history by Hellenising Ireland, and immersing it in Europe, a sentiment Hegarty would applaud. But in recent times we at first rejected both the Nice and Lisbon treaties on European Union, events which are not mentioned in this otherwise impressive summary.

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