The Shape of Irish History, by A.T.Q. Stewart

Second paragraph of third chapter:

This ceaseless mixing of the population makes nonsense of all the familiar assumptions of ‘Gaelic origins’ or ‘the Irish race’. The distinctive nature of Irishness arises specifically from the interaction of newcomers with natives (the perennial cliché of Irish historical writing). Strictly speaking, there are no natives; or, to put it the other way round, all the Irish are natives. ‘Irish’, if it means anything, simply means being born in Ireland, even if, like Swift or the Duke of Wellington, you did not want to be. Many of the characteristics which are regarded as ‘typically Irish’, for instance, are demonstrably the legacy of the Old English, or the Anglo-Irish or the Lowland Scots just as much as they are of the Celts, whom we now call the Gaels. Interest in the Gaels, in their language which Irish people still spoke, in their literature and culture generally, revived in the eighteenth century. More specifically, both Protestants and Catholics, though divided from each other politically by the penal laws and structures based on them, tried to establish a connection with the Gaelic Irish culture, which was still extraordinarily healthy. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was in decline, and speaking Irish was regarded as a mark of social inferiority, something associated only with backward rural communities. Then, by the end of the century, a revival was under way, and Gaelic culture was being presented to the Irish population as the indigenous culture.

A.T.Q. Stewart was a colleague of my father’s in Belfast, and his sons were friends of ours – indeed I shared a house in Cambridge with one of them for a year. His perspective was a bit different, as one of the few prominent Irish historians of our parents’ generation who came from the Unionist tradition. I found a 1977 review in Fortnight of Stewart’s award-winning The Narrow Ground, written by my father, which began:

This is one of the most depressing books yet published on Ulster.

and concluded:

His book is beautifully written, as readers of Dr Stewart’s previous books will expect. Again and again, one pauses with pleasure at some felicitous phrase. ‘Ireland, like Dracula’s Transylvania, is much troubled by the undead’. (p.15) ‘The factor which. distinguishes the siege of Derry from all other historical sieges in the British Isles is that it is still going on’ (p.53) ‘What the Catholics have been saying for fifty years about the Ulster government springs from a well that was made bitter long before Stormont was built’. (p.179) I wish I could write like that. But I wish also that Dr Stewart had used his literary gifts to write a more constructive work.

My father also criticised Stewart in 1977 for not reading in other scholarly disciplines beyond history, including anthropology in particular. It’s interesting that in the opening chapter of The Shape of Irish History, published in 2001, eleven years after my father died (and nine years before Stewart’s own death) he too appeals to historians to read beyond their own discipline, particularly anthropology (E. Estyn Evans was a key figure in the history of the history of Ireland). There is probably not a direct connection with my father’s review.

The Shape of Irish History is a quirky book, probably written knowing that it would be the author’s last substantial work. I find the basic thesis very attractive: that we should not regard Irish history as a train on a direct journey (“The 10.14 from Clontarf”) with an inevitable destination; if we analyse people and events in the context of their own times, rather than trying to fit them into a story of national destiny, we will learn more. Subsequent chapters look at interesting diversions off the course of the train, especially in the eighteenth century, where I recently read a very interesting microstudy of one particularly vicious cultural practice of the time (duelling). I also learned a lot from the very brief dissection of what actually happened in 1798. There are lots of fun facts here, including the ballooning career of Richard Crosbie.

At the same time, my father’s observation from 1977 about style and tone still stands. It’s beautifully written, but the conclusion is thoroughly depressing:

There is no misunderstanding between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, none whatsoever. Nor do they need to get to know each other better. They know each other only too well, having lived alongside each other for four centuries, part of the same society yet divided by politics and history. This is not just a clash of cultures; it is a culture in itself.

This embrace of the inevitability of perpetual conflict is as unjustifiable as the narrative of the inevitable ‘10.14 from Clontarf’ train to Irish national destiny, which Stewart rightly criticises. There’s very little reference to other countries, and none to other conflicts, beyond the British Isles here. Stewart had clearly integrated the findings of other scholarly disciplines about Ireland into his worldview between 1977 and 2002; it’s a shame that he didn’t also look further afield.

Anyway, it’s not a book for beginners in Irish history, but it will be of interest to anyone who is already familiar with the basics. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book acquired in 2016 still on my shelves. Next on that pile is Comparing Electoral Systems, edited by David Farrell.