Monday 23 October 2017

'Ireland did not become what the revolutionaries expected'

Professor Roy Foster, who will speak about the 'Promise of 1916' in Galway, has spent a lifetime debating the revolutionary period

Professor Roy Foster photographed with his book Vivid Faces in Kentish Town, London. Photographs: Tony Kershaw
Professor Roy Foster photographed with his book Vivid Faces in Kentish Town, London. Photographs: Tony Kershaw
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Roy Foster, who recently retired as Professor of Irish History at Oxford University, will speak at the '1916-2016 The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty' conference in Galway on the 'Promise of 1916'.

He will explore how a generation of young revolutionaries with radical ideas ushered in the birth of a state that quickly turned conservative.

The historian, who grew up in Waterford and moved to London in 1974, says he became fascinated by the revolutionary generation and their way of life when he was researching his two-volume biography of William Butler Yeats.

Foster devoured correspondence, not only between Yeats and his friends, but also letters about him.

"I was interested when I was reading a huge amount of letters from the early 1900s how you get a sense of a change of perspective.

"People started signing their names in Irish, and expressing the view that Sinn Féin have something to be said for them and that they are not just a bunch of crazy cranks.

Roy Foster believes this year’s 1916 commemorations have been much more inclusive than 50 years ago.
Roy Foster believes this year’s 1916 commemorations have been much more inclusive than 50 years ago.

"They started writing more dismissively about the British government in Ireland, and the Home Rule party."

In his book, Vivid Faces, Foster describes how a cast of characters - often from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds - created a mood of revolutionary ferment.

Many were students, actors, writers, teachers and civil servants, who not only rebelled against Britain, but also against the old order of John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party and against their parents.

"In my lecture, I will be talking about the people who made the revolution, and what they expected the country to become.

"It did not become what they expected, and I will look at the reasons why it didn't."

Foster says that a lot of the revolutionaries were old-fashioned nationalists devoted to faith and fatherland, and were inspired by the Fenians.

"But there co-existed with them a whole cohort of people who were secular-minded, anti-clerical, feminist and often socialist.

"They saw the oppressors as not only the British state, but also the church and their parents."

They were the "vivid faces" in the Yeats poem, Easter 1916, and by examining their way of life, Foster explains how the country was "changed utterly". 

Foster, who has retired from his Oxford post and plans to take up a part-time chair at the University of London, says he spent eight years studying the revolutionary generation.

He chose to work from contemporary documents, rather than retrospective accounts.

The historian, who was educated at the Quaker Newtown School in Waterford as the son of two teachers from a Church of Ireland background, remembers how the Easter Rising was taught when he was a teenager.

"In my school days, history stopped in 1916. It was the culminating point. You were briefly told that it led to independence, but the Civil War was never mentioned."

In Trinity College, Dublin, where Foster studied history, the approach was different, but he himself became immersed in the earlier Home Rule movement and Labour history.

As a 17-year-old in 1966, Foster came up to Dublin to watch the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Rising. The historian welcomed the approach taken in this year's commemorations.

"They were a lot more nuanced.  The government has a very good historical advisory committee with people like Diarmaid Ferriter."

Professor Foster believes this has resulted in more inclusive, much less triumphalist coverage.

"People were allowed to raise awkward issues about 1916, such as the derailing of the Home Rule project and the making of Partition inevitable."

So how did the radical ideas of many of the generation become submerged, with the new state preferring a rigid conservative orthodoxy?

Foster believes the turning point came when the Catholic Church came on board with Sinn Féin in the campaign against conscription to the British Army in 1918.

"That helped to bring in a conservative social agenda. When votes for women came in in 1918, it came at exactly the time when the re-stabilisation of the revolution was beginning, and women started being put back in their box."

Foster says it was also significant that Ireland had already had its social revolution through the Land War and the Land Purchase Act which led to the transfer of holdings from landlords to tenant farmers.

"If the Land War had coincided with the nationalist campaign for independence, it would have been much more like a social revolution."

Earlier in his career, Roy Foster was often at the centre of heated debates between historians, who were perceived to be nationalist on one side, or revisionist on the other. He was the best known historian branded "revisionist".

He says: "It was dragged into politics. There was a notion that some historians were writing to an anti-nationalist agenda, encouraged by governments in Dublin and London. That is not the way historians operate."

Foster has said that in the past he has occasionally been referred to as "unionist", a description which he has described as "so far from the mark that it's ludicrous".

The historian says he is relieved that the passionate debates between those labelled revisionists and anti-revisionist have receded into the mists. Recently, Foster has been exercised by the implications of Brexit and during the referendum campaign warned of the "disastrous" consequences for the North.

Roy Foster History man 


Robert Fitzroy 'Roy' Foster


January 16, 1949, the son of two teachers


1972 Aisling O'Conor Donelan (two children Phineas and Nora).


Newtown School, Waterford; Trinity College, Dublin (MA; PhD 1975).


1974-91: Lecturer, reader, and professor of modern British history, Birkbeck College, London;

1991-2016: Carroll professor of Irish history, Oxford.


1976: Charles Stewart Parnell: the Man and his Family

1981: Lord Randolph Churchill: a Political Life

1983: Political Novels and Nineteenth Century History

1988: Modern Ireland 1600-1972

1989: The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland (ed)

1990: The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue and other essays by Hubert Butler (ed)

1993: Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in English and Irish History

1997: WB Yeats, The Apprentice Mage

2001: The Irish Story, Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland

2003: WB Yeats: the Arch-Poet

2007: Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change, 1970-2000

2011: Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances (pictured)

2014: Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923

Irish Independent

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