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Weighty but never ponderous: 20C Ireland's arc

  • Jun 14, 2006
Rating:
+5
A lecturer at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University, Ferriter, barely in his mid-thirties, has produced a massive compilation of Ireland's 20th century worthy of a professor's lifetime's worth of research and reflection. The fault with this book is its abundance of riches: the level of detail combined with the breadth of topics creates a volume overwhelming the casual reader in its heft. In 760 pages of text (and another 120 adding citations, a bibliography, and index), Ferriter combines his own interpretations of Irish historiography with a survey of past historical study- along with many primary sources from archives, novels, biographies, journalism and memoirs. Ferriter largely builds upon Joe Lee's Ireland 1912-85, often commenting upon Lee's findings before adding his own qualifications. In his introduction, Ferriter explains that due to the rapid changes in the past twenty years, another look at Ireland's momentous shift from First World location with Third World subsistence economy, hero worship, and clerical ethos to the current more multicultural, liberalised, and secularised consumer culture impels his investigation. Ferriter listens to the famed and the nearly anonymous and gives all ample hearing. He avoids grandstanding or polemic even in such treacherously tempting areas as republicanism, priestly scandals, DeValera's visit of condolence to the German Legation after Hitler's death, feminism, or the constant blaming by so many of his countrymen of all their problems on England-even as they often rushed eagerly into its hearty embrace for employment, emigration, and entertainment.

Tom Garvin, paraphrased by Ferriter, teaches how an Irish Republic under DeValera could be revolutionary and reactionary. Those who led it grew up in Edwardian years, full of nationalist yet anti-modern romanticisation of a return to a rural and aesthetic purity. `They rebelled against their elders but, according to Garvin, were sceptical about the possibility or desirability of mass democracy.' (76) Sharing newer findings by historians such as Patrick Maume, David Fitzpatrick, and Peter Hart, Ferriter agrees that clerical conformity guided the rebels along a small-town, `middle-agrarian' perspective often angled oddly against the urbanised cadre that comprised so many of the lower ranks of the IRA.

In his narration of the wars, Ferriter remains fair-minded. Page 234 quotes a Limerick monsignor's witnessing of a Black and Tan atrocity; page 235 informs us that one of those labelled as `agents' killed the morning of Bloody Sunday 1920 was a member of the Veterinary Corps sent over to buy mules for the British army- whose second cousin was Michael Davitt. Fratricidal mayhem expressed pithily. Ferriter shares the dreams of those out in `16 and after without glossing over the hard-headed realism of those with whom they shared bed and board. Seán Ó Faoláin's autobiography Vive Moi! is used well: in it, Séan recounts how his wife Eileen told him and his comrades: `You are all abstract fanatics.' (255)

After the wars came the uneasy peace. Ferriter examines the controversy over Angela's Ashes. Roy Foster castigated Frank McCourt's pose: `if any message is to be read out of the book, it is that you have to get out early as you can and head west.' (qtd. 361) Ferriter adds: `The weakness of this criticism is that it fails to acknowledge that for many this was a necessity rather than a choice.' With the limits on American immigration post-1924, most fled east. DeValera's ideology trapped itself defensively. Protestant Britain equalled Catholic Ireland's foe. That the two nations shared far more than they divided was shunted aside. Morally, the Church formed the bulwark against not only the C of E but the secular forces that were overwhelming nominally Christian England and much of Western Europe in the 1930s. Ferriter refers to Freud's `narcissism of trivial differences' that distorted minor differences to mask major similarities. Those left behind, Ferriter more than once asserts, put on the poor mouth a bit too often. When JFK visited, a red carpet was not laid out for fear it be rained on, at a projected damage of ₤250. Ireland for most of its independence could not have sustained even the stunted prosperity it earned if not for the remittances of its emigrants, the emptiness of its villages, and the lack of competition among those who remained for farms and spouses.

Those able to live mid-century in Ireland, contrary to so many ballads, may have regretted their residence. 2.5% of married women were employed, according to reports in 1945. During the `Emergency', only 740 autos were licensed throughout the 26 Counties. In 1954, 64% of Irish remained unmarried. Across the border, in Fermanagh, 58% of occupied dwellings were deemed uninhabitable. Poet Anthony Cronin in the last issue in July 1954 of the quixotic publication of non-conformist intellectuals, The Bell, diagnosed the malaise. `Here, if ever was, is a climate for the death wish.' (462) However, Ferriter relies heavily on Brian Fallon's An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-60, which argues for a much more vibrant and iconoclastic undercurrent than is conventionally granted those thinkers and writers who stayed.

Even John Charles McQuaid, as John Cooney's biography (reviewed by me) has shown thanks to the opening in the late 90s of archives, had a modicum (at times) of forward thinking despite their own Tridentine limitations. Mary Kenny's Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (reviewed by me) is employed to good efect. Like Kenny and Louise Fuller in her own recent account of the decline of Irish Catholicism since 1950, Ferriter never forgets that such leaders as the Archbishop, Dev and Collins, like us, are prisoners of their own time and training. Heroic missionaries, craven abusers, corrupt pols, ecumenical neighbours. He balances the reality that is recorded against the distortions and stereotypes that too many lazy and facile commentators on Ireland have peddled during the last two decades.

Ferriter quotes Joe Lee again to good effect. Emigration to England helped Ireland, in my analogy, much like Mexico benefits from the $15 billion sent yearly back by American migrants. Lee: `few people anywhere have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards.' (472) Perhaps revisionism at its 1989 harshest, but Ferriter accepts the brunt of Lee's attack. Earlier, a late 50s Tuairim study group sought to upend the `contradictory "Sinn Féin" myth in Irish economic thinking.' (543) Patrick Lynch is quoted: `it is because so many emigrate that those who remain at home are able to afford a standard of living that could not be maintained if Irish political independence implied the obligation to cater on their own terms for all the people born in Ireland since the state was established.' Lynch, as would Lee three decades later, exhumes a disturbing truth. Politicians ignorant of economics could not run the capitalist state. The Church, Ferriter documents, repeatedly interfered with social activism, preferring to exalt the poor towards spiritual uplift rather than risk communist-delivered or socialist-tainted tangible but soul-deadening gains. The myth that Ireland wept as her children left for exile, Ferriter's sources demonstrate, must be abandoned for financial triage. Often, the parents were all too glad to see their weans off, perhaps subconsciously to be sure.

Economic fables and political pandering interfere with later Irishmen and women seeking the self-sufficiency trumpeted by the rebels as Ireland's goal. Nationalist legend also sought to trump facts. Ed Maloney's history of the IRA (reviewed by me) is often relied upon as Ferriter's main source for recent developments; it proves much more useful than Before the Dawn does for Ferriter! Fintan O'Toole's 2000 observation is quoted: `the largest number of republican paramilitaries killed in the conflict were murdered, not by the RUC or the British Army, or the loyalist terror gangs, but by their own comrades. The INLA and the IRA have been responsible for the deaths of 164 of their own members. The British Army, RUC, UDR, and loyalist paramilitaries killed 161.' (637) Ferriter efficiently presents all of the complications of the past thirty years in his final section.

Like all of the chapters, chronological division allows him to roam about topics organised under brief captions, these quoting an apropos phrase from the primary source he cites to make his main point for that page or two. While this approach makes the book more like a series of short essays rather than a narrative history in the usual sense, it also slices up the immense text into portions better able to be read at leisure.

This is not a book for beginners into Irish history, but one to enter after you've learned the basics from briefer works. Also, this is not a book to plow straight through, but one to be waded in. Albeit opposite from Don Akenson's idiosyncratic and semi-factual A History of Irish Civilization (reviewed by me), the Canadian and the Irish historians share an ability to serve up heaps of history as digestible bite-size pieces. The nourishment derived from both of these affordable textual repasts should fuel many mental workouts.

(This is excerpted and re-edited from a longer review to be published in the online Belfast-based journal The Blanket.)

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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This book isn't a political history of 20th-century Ireland; it's more a chronicle of the social reaction to the events that shaped that century. Perhaps the most interesting part covers the last 40 years of the century. In 1959 the brilliant Seán Lemass finally became prime minister and set the tone for the future by finding bright, young ministers and letting them run their departments without interference. The dark side of Irish life is also explored: the church/state role in the Magdalen laundries, cleric pedophilia and other secrets that have come to light in the last decade. And a very deep feminist streak informs the text, from the War of Independence, to the fight for birth control in the 1970s, and the election of two women presidents in the last 15 years. No stone of social significance is left unturned, be it the problems of the Traveling People (Gypsies), crooked politicians or the needs of the urban poor. This book can be a rogues' gallery at times and a good knowledge of Irish history is helpful but not necessary. Ferriter (coauthor,The Irish Famine), a lecturer in history at St. Patrick's College, Dublin City University, has written an informative, funny, at times derisive book that takes a fresh approach to 20th-century Ireland.(Oct.)
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ISBN-10: 1585676810
ISBN-13: 978-1585676811
Author: Diarmaid Ferriter
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover

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