False History for Ireland

How Not To Write The History Of Ireland

The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland Edited by R.F. Foster, 1989, 382 pp, £17.50
Reviewed by Brendan Clifford

The illustrations in this coffee-table book are very good but the history is very bad. If the proportion of text to pictures was less it might be treated as a picture book. Unfortunately there is a great deal of text, and the editor is the fashionable historian of the moment, and the blurb claims that it is “the most authoritative history of Ireland ever published for the general reader”. So it must be reviewed according to its pretensions.

The book begins with prehistory and comes down to the 1980s. It comments on current affairs. All histories are in some degree written backwards – they look backwards from the vantage point of the present. Occasionally a historian becomes immersed in some remote period and writes about it apparently on its own ground, but if he writes intelligibly what he does is make that period understandable to his contemporaries even though all organic connection with it may be lost. Even in such a case the present is always the viewpoint from which things are seen.

In the case of a history of an existing society the function must be to show how it came to be what it is – to show the various strands which came to together over time to constitute it and how they interacted on each other, and also to show the strands that were destroyed along the way. The end is given – it is what we are. There can be no question of writing about each phase as if the end was not given. And yet if a history bastes every phase of the past with the fashionable gravy of the present, as Foster’s book does, it might as well not have been written.

A history is the story of a people. The fashionable Althusserian Marxism of the seventies and early eighties denied that such entities as peoples existed, or at least denied that they were “subjects of history”. But where is Althusserian Marxism now? Peoples are what history is about Economic statistics come and go but peoples endure.

“The Irish people” are not a subject of history because the population of Ireland has not constituted a single people for a great many centuries, but has consisted of a number of peoples. These peoples can of course be abstracted into a single people by economic statistics, as the French and British might also be. But the substance of things will not be represented in such abstractions, and mysteries will be concocted.

Though peoples last a long time they are not eternal. Comprehensive breaks in social evolution occur. There was a time when the English people did not exist. It has definitely existed since the 16th century, and present-day England is clearly recognisable in the disputes of the later part of Elizabeth’s reign. A lesser continuity can be traced back to the reign of Henry II. Beyond Henry II the link with the present becomes very tenuous.

Evolutionary continuity in Ireland goes back to the 17th century at its furthest reach, and for much of the country it only goes back to the early 19th century. The peoples of Ireland were, by comparison with the English people, forged in recent times.

From the 12th to the 17th centuries there were two peoples in Ireland, the Gaelic Irish and the Norman English, both more or less accepting the overlordship of the English Crown. The Normans were then the people of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Gaels had incorporated a superficial Christianity into their culture, subordinating it to the much older culture of the clans. The Norman Invasion of Ireland had been authorised by the Pope for the purpose of establishing the discipline of the Roman Church in Ireland, but in the event Roman discipline was scarcely established beyond the limits of the English settlement (the Pale).

In some parts of the country, especially in Munster, the Norman lords married with the native Gaelic aristocracy and were accepted as Gaelic lords while at the same time retaining much of the English world-outlook. Then during the Reformation the English in Ireland by and large remained Catholic. And the Gaelic Irish, subjected to intense Counter-Reformation missionary activity by Rome which was intent on making Ireland a base for operations against heretical England, gradually became more Catholic. On the basis of intermarriage and a common religion the Norman English (now known as the Old English) and the Gaelic Irish merged into a single people in the 1640s, in the situation created by the English Civil War. And during the period of English disruption they formed a Parliament known as the Confederation of Kilkenny. The Confederation raised taxes and maintained armies and supported Charles 1 against the Puritan fanatics who controlled the English Parliament. The Confederation was technically in rebellion against the Crown, but its aim was to become the King’s Irish Parliament. Charles had trod warily in the matter because anti-Catholicism was becoming rampant in England. But in 1646 he negotiated a Treaty with the Confederation by which it would become his Irish Parliament (and thereby his main political base) and sent an army to England to defend the authority of the Crown against Parliament. If put into effect this Treaty would have reversed the historic relationship between Ireland and England.

Obviously it was not put into effect. The reason was that in 1645 an ambassador from Rome, a Papal Nuncio, had been sent to the Confederation. Rome did not want a settlement on the basis of religious toleration. It wanted to wipe out the Protestant heresy, and saw Ireland as one more battlefield in the crusade against Protestantism then being fought in Europe (the 30 Years War). The Irish Treaty of 1646, if put into effect, would have been a major step in the establishment of religious toleration and the erosion of spiritual totalitarianism. It was therefore denounced by the Papal Nuncio and the Government of the Confederation (the Supreme Council) was excommunicated by him.

At that moment a great victory had been won at Benburb against a Scottish Calvinist army sent over to defend the Ulster Plantation. The Scots army was comprehensively broken, and Ulster lay open before General Owen Roe O’Neill. But Owen Roe was a Spanish soldier. He had spent thirty years fighting Protestantism in the armies of Spain. In the autumn of 1646, a few weeks after Benburb, the Papal Nuncio called on him to march on Kilkenny and overthrow the Government which had made a Treaty with a heretical king. Owen Roe obeyed without question. The Government was imprisoned and a Revolutionary Government headed by the Nuncio took its place. Three years of Irish ci vii war followed.

Cromwell’s Puritans emerged triumphant in the English Civil War in 1649. But, despite the disruption of the Confederation, the Cromwellians held only a few towns in Ireland and they were under threat. The execution of the King in January 1649 had caused the Ulster Presbyterians to declare against Parliament, and they joined with Catholic forces in putting the city of Derry under siege. (Derry was held by Cromwellians.)

Owen Roe had acted as the Nuncio’s agent for three years in disrupting Catholic organisation. The Nuncio returned to Rome in the spring of 1649, leaving Owen Roe disorientated in a chaotic situation. What he did in the summer was make a Treaty with the Cromwellians and attack the force besieging them in Derry. Parliament then disowned the Treaty, and Owen Roe, hearing that Cromwell was coming with a large army to conquer the country, marched south to do battle with him, but died on the way.

Even with the Confederation disrupted, disrupted, the Cromwellian conquest took three years. But for the Counter-Reformationist interference of the Nuncio, Ireland would have been impregnable to Cromwell and the Ulster problem would have been nipped in the bud.

The catastrophic history of the Confederation was well known to Catholic leaders in Ireland during the next century and a half, and acted as a spur to their determination to keep Rome at arm’s length

Here is how The Oxford Illustrated History relates that event of fundamental consequence for the future of Ireland:

“This interlude [the English Civil War] should have given the dissidents in Ireland the opportunity to mobilise themselves for the final onslaught against the British settlers in Ireland, but divisions quickly appeared in the Irish Catholic ranks. The essential problem derived from the hope of the Old English that they would still be received to mercy by their king; they refused to concede military leadership in Ireland 10 Colonel Owen Roe O’Neill. Owen Roe … had spent his career in the Spanish army of the Netherlands and knew from his experience with religious conflict on Continental Europe that the Irish lords had now no choice but to make a determined effort to eliminate the last vestige of British power in Ireland. This appraisal was not welcomed by the Old English landowners who stood 10 lose most, and they constantly refused 10 provide adequate support to O’Neill in his attempt to confront and expel the Scottish Covenanter Army” (p. 146, in the chapter on ‘Early Modem Ireland’ by Nicholas Canny of University College Galway).

No mention of the overthrow of the Irish Government by Owen Roe on the orders of the Nuncio; no mention of his treaty with the Cromwellians; no mention at all of the Nuncio except in a blurb to a photograph; no mention of the fact that the Nuncio saved the Ulster Plantation by directing Owen Roe to Kilkenny after the battle of Benburb.

The true history of the Confederation was widely known until the early 19th century. From then until about 1970 it had to be misrepresented by the historians of Catholic-nationalism, and the line was adopted that the division of the 1640s was between the Old Irish and the Old English. I could find no grounds for that view. The division caused by the Nuncio ran through the Old Irish and Old English, who had ceased to regard themselves as separate peoples. The staunchest military opponent of the Nuncio was the chief of the McCarthys and his Roman adviser was Luke Wadding, of the Old English.

Owen Roe’s army was recruited from the remnants of the Ulster clans who had their eyes on the Plantation. They followed Owen Roe to Kilkenny in 1646. Then, reflecting that he had cost them their hereditary lands, many of them deserted him in 1648 when the Nuncio excommunicated a second lot of dissident Catholics and ordered Owen Roe to make war on them.

Such things were very awkward for the Catholic-nationalist historians of the century and a half prior to 1970. But those historians came much closer to telling the story of the Confederation than the “revisionist” historians of the past twenty years have done.


The Ulster Protestants survived the 1640s and have had their own distinct history as a people ever since. The Anglo-Irish were inserted as a ruling caste after 1690 and the official history of Ireland centred on them for about a hundred and fifty years. The Catholics formed a distinct community under the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. They were not Catholic-nationalist. Until the late 18th century they were Jacobite in sentiment, but not rebellious Jacobites like the Scottish Highlanders. They would probably have accepted the Ascendancy as a social nucleus if the Ascendancy had not repelled them. But the Irish (Ascendancy) Parliament insisted on aggravating them until Britain bribed it into liquidating itself in 1800, and then for a further thirty years it aggravated them by its monopoly of borough corporations.

In the early 19th century a new nation was forged – a very remarkable nation which combined the outlook of medieval with the spirit of the French Revolution. In the course of the 19th century it eroded the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and came up against the Ulster Protestants, who were not a superior caste but a distinct people.

I don’t think it would be possible for the most acute reader to gather this story from The Oxford Illustrated History. Roy Foster wrote the chapter on the 18th century and most of the 19th. The story of the United Irish movement in Ulster is not told at all by him, though it is a remarkable story, and is full of consequence. He does not even mention its great political pamphleteer, William Steel Dickson, or its mass newspaper, the Northern Star.

Nor does he mention the great controversy amongst Catholics on the appointment of Bishops, the Veto controversy, which raged from 1808 until the 1820s, and in the course of which Catholic-nationalism was forged and the basis for the uniquely Irish dominance of Church over State was laid.

He skates over the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, which was a valiant effort by liberal Protestants and Catholics to head the growing nationalist movement away from the exclusive Catholic-nationalism of O’Connell, and which, though it failed, was the source of the better aspects of nationalism in subsequent generations.

And he does not even mention Thomas Carlyle, who was the philosophical inspiration of the Young Ireland leaders. He was to them much as Marx was to Lenin, and they felt so indebted to him that they even forgave him for editing Cromwell’s speeches and praising the great man. And they personally conducted him on a tour of Ireland, which in those days took a long lime.

Nor does Foster mention Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of the Young Ireland paper, The Nation. In rebel Cork around 1950 I learned (not in school) that Duffy was one of the great men of the 19th century. All I have found out since I was obliged to become a historian confirms that view.

Foster’s very poor account of his period is made unnecessarily irritating by flip remarks such as this:

“an Irish Poor Law Act was passed, against the advice of the experts and at odds with the underlying pattern of Irish poverty, but which at least provided a new political force in the Boards of Guardians” (p.197).

The “experts” were agents of the landlords and were against a Poor Law on the grounds that it would ruin “the country”, the country being themselves. O’Connell tried to rally Protestant landlords to his Repeal movement by assuring them that he would have no Poor Law in a restored Irish Parliament. Protestant Ulster was also against having the English Poor Law in Ireland, but it could at least plead that it operated its own informal Poor Law, which was not the case in the South.

The Westminster Parliament pressed ahead regardless of Irish ( upper class) opposition and set up a country-wide Poor Law system under the 1838 Act and compelled the landlords to fund it. It was a revolutionary measure with ever-widening consequences and the secular lay-out of modern Ireland begins with it.


The other economic revolution with far-reaching social consequences was the Land Act of 1903. It gets half a sentence on page 219 (in a chapter by David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College).

Fortunately J have neither the time nor the space to review the subsequent phases as I did the 1640s. The account of modern Irish history begins badly and does not improve. It is unfocussed and badly informed – the two probably being connected. The great problem for Irish historians today is that they are uncertain of what the present is. They lack the Catholic-nationalist certainty of the recent past but they have not had it in them to restore what Catholic-nationalism suppressed. All they have really done is bowdlerise the material they inherited from the previous generation.


It is now in fashion to disparage the 1916 Rising, and this book is in fashion. It chastises Pearse for his “blood sacrifice”. But it says nothing about the massive blood sacrifice in which Britain was involving Ireland just then, even though it mentions that only 64 insurrectionaries were killed in 1916 while 25,000 Irish were killed in the Great War. It swallows the camel but strains at the gnat.

The Great War is simply accepted as given. Not a word is said about the British decision in 1914 to have a world war. In my view that monstrous decision itself justifies the Easter Rising if only as a gesture of dissent.

James Connolly is said to have joined the Rising out of frustration (page 237). In fact, as he explained in his newspaper in 1915/16, he reckoned that the cause of socialism required a German victory. In 1914 he called for working class revolutions as preferable to the war launched by Britain. When that didn’t happen he made a clear statement of support for Germany on socialist grounds, and did what he could to help achieve it. But the readers of The Oxford Illustrated History are not told that.


This article appeared in July 1991, in Issue 24 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.