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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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Speech at the launch of the Cambridge History of Ireland

Dublin Castle, Monday 30 April 2018



“Our history is the inheritance of all our people, its interpretation a matter for all of us, and a republic worthy of the name would seek to organise the material of history to make it as accessible as possible to all the people.”

Dear friends, 

May I begin by thanking Jane Ohlmeyer for her very kind introduction, and may I also take the opportunity to thank Tom Bartlett for his invitation to launch what is a most important contribution to Irish history writing. At a time when the importance of scholarly endeavour in the humanities is under pressure, or even disdained, these four volumes stand as an intellectual riposte to those who doubt the vital importance of the study of history in our universities and in our society. I was kindly provided with galley proofs of the Cambridge History of Ireland six weeks ago, and I can attest to the rigour of the scholarship contained within its pages. 

May I then commend the editors, Professors Smith, Ohlmeyer, Kelly and Bartlett, the 103 contributors from 38 different countries, and the Cambridge University Press not only for the quality of the essays contained within the volumes but also for the alacrity with which you set yourselves to this task. As a former lecturer myself, I know that the burdens and pleasures of teaching and administrative work are considerable – indeed, I know that they are growing – so it was no small thing to complete this enterprise in four years. 

Tréaslaím leis na heagarthóirí agus leis na staraithe uilig.

As a number of the contributors have noted, these volumes, in their scale and ambition, will no doubt be compared to the New History of Ireland, itself a remarkable project which continues to stand as a literary landmark in the writing of Irish history. Such a comparison might best be made to elucidate the continuing and constant re-invention and revision of Irish historiography in light of new methods, new sources, new approaches and new theoretical frameworks, some influenced by the social sciences, others by historiographical approaches adopted abroad, and yet others by innovations undertaken by Irish historians themselves. 

One of the first and most striking illustrations of this re-invention was the decision by the editors to resile from the traditional dating conventions of such volumes. Any periodisation of history is, of course, reflective of the perspective of those demarcating the periods, and a reminder that we often cannot, despite our best efforts, escape being induced or seduced by grand narrative arcs of history, nor do all of the authors resist making what will be to colleagues and readers what will be at times contrarian judgements regarding the role and nature of the great economic, political and social forces which have shaped human thought and action throughout history. 

The New History was itself revolutionary in its dating conventions. At the time of the publication of its third volume, ‘Early Modern Ireland, 1534-1691’ my former colleague, Nicholas Canny, remarked that the use of that term was itself a ‘landmark in Irish history’, departing from the practice of demarcating periods by regnal years, by, for example, taking the period from the rise of the Tudor monarchs in 1485 to the death of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, in 1714. The use of the dates 1534 and 1691 was a declaration of particular Irish experience of the Early Modern period, one commencing with the Tudor conquest of Ireland and concluding with the victory of those forces which launched the Glorious Revolution in England.  

The advantage of eschewing any specific periodisation is illustrated throughout the Cambridge History of Ireland, as the contributors have made ample use of the freedom offered to them to supply temporal interpretative frames that enlighten and facilitate the identification and explanation of broad economic, social, political and cultural processes. 

Indeed, if I may take one example, the question of periodisation is confronted directly by Ciaran Brady in his account of the strategy of the sixteenth-century Tudor court and its representatives in Ireland to draw attention to the false starts and inherent contradictions that characterised, and ultimately sustained, the recrudescence of English rule in Ireland. 

Equally, and again to take but one example, the transformation of the Irish demography and economy in the ‘long eighteenth century’ identified by David Dickson enables a greater understanding of the changes undergone by an economy increasingly integrating into an Atlantic economy whilst also subject to all the depredations and advantages brought on by the incessant maritime wars engaged in by a still precocious British Empire, with all their attendant effects on the structure of the Irish agrarian economy. 

We are reminded that it was this Atlantic World – a term which owes its origins to recent historiography –  and its economic interconnections that sourced the first great wave of transatlantic emigration from our island, in the form of often young, rural, Presbyterian men leaving the ‘Linen Triangle’ around the Lagan valley and the poorer counties of Ulster west and south of the Foyle to start new lives in the trades or become indentured servants in the colonies of North America. 

Let us also recall the contribution of Hardt and Negri through their ground-breaking account of the centrality of slavery to this Atlantic economy, and of the interaction between the growth of colonial slavery and of capitalism.

The character of this eighteenth-century migration from Ireland of perhaps up to 250,000 people has been cemented in the popular mind through the use of the term of ‘Scots Irish’, which, as Professor Patrick Griffin’s contribution demonstrates, was itself a nineteenth-century appellation rather than one which might be familiar to the migrants themselves, indicating not only the fluid character of migration within these islands and the New World Colonies, but also something of the ideological environment in which ethnic categories were later constructed and mobilised. 

The re-interpretation of the nature of this wave of Irish migration, and I use the term ‘Irish’ deliberately, is important not only for our own historiography but for historical debates within the United States, where the immigration that followed An Gorta Mór is very often thought of as, in an excessively exclusive way, the foundational event in Irish-America, and of what we have come to know as ‘the Irish diaspora’, a term that encompasses all those who claim Irish ancestry today, with all the diversity and complexity that implies. 

Last month, I had the honour to perform the official opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, an important exhibit currently on display in the Coach House here in Dublin Castle, important both as an intervention in our cultural life and as a powerful expression of our enduring bond with Irish-America. 

I should reveal that in preparing my address for that event I made extensive use of Volume III, and in particular the chapter on post-Famine migration by Kevin Kenny, which provides not only a suitable coda to Peter Gray’s chapter on the Famine itself and Andy Bielenberg’s on the pre-Famine economy and post-Famine adjustment, but also to previous chapters on succeeding patterns of Irish migration.  

If I may reveal something of my own historical schema and interpretative framework, I stated at that opening event one month ago that the Great Famine was a defining, if not the, defining event in the making of modern Ireland, one that was formed, and gave form to, a distinctive Irish modernity, one that, if I may cite the late Brendan Bradshaw, confronts all of us with the ‘catastrophic dimensions of the Irish past’. I know that in this audience I cannot affect any neutrality as to our own historiography - nor the revisionist controversies - our own ‘History Wars’, which have broken out from time to time over the past fifty years. Many of you know me too well. 

My own academic work concentrated on the role of brokerage, clientelism and patronage in Irish political and social life, and, after undertaking that research, I was, and remain, convinced that the post-Famine adjustment and the development of Irish society and our economy since that time cannot adequately be explained through the prism of a new fairly discarded modernisation theory, or by cleaving to any single unilinear model of development. 

The suggestion, all those years ago, that the credit transactions of the periphery were a crucial part of regional and peripheral political formation or context, was rather cursorily dismissed by some of those attracted to the functional neatness of seeing the banking system as part of the inevitability of an accumulative capitalism.

Yet, it was through the succeeding debates and disputations that I sharpened and indeed changed my own thinking. Looking back over the previous half-century of Irish history-writing, and indeed, comparing the New History with the Cambridge History, we witness a history that is constantly open to change – and the better for it - and subject to frequent revisions. 

New paradigms of thought have restored those previously excluded as subjects of history - and in the Irish context this so often means women – and has brought new analytical categories – class and gender being the most prominent – into frequent use. 

New interpretative frameworks, whether examining Irish history through the Atlantic World, European and imperial context, or indeed through the prism of human interaction with the environment, have provisioned us with new insights. 

For its part, the State has, admittedly gradually, begun to fulfil its duty to make historical sources more accessible, often by funding specific projects. The digitisation of the 1641 Depositions has facilitated public access to records of an event which shaped Protestant fears of Catholicism well into the eighteenth century, as frequent republications of Sir John Temple’s ‘The Irish Rebellion’ attest. 

Online access to the 1901 and 1911 Census has fulfilled not only public curiosity but provided an important insight into an Irish society on the verge of a revolutionary transformation, albeit a revolution forestalled. The online publication of the Bureau of Military Archives and the Military Services Pension Collection, during the centenary year of the 1916 Rising, has not only allowed families, including my own, new insights into the lives of their parents and grandparents, but has offered new perspectives on the Rising and War of Independence, and what I regard as the punishing tragedy of the Civil War. 

I hope that this commitment to admitting new material, developing new interpretations, continues, and indeed that it continues to expand, for so much of historical value still lies undigitised within our National Archives and National Library, and in municipal, church and private archives throughout the country. 

Our history is the inheritance of all our people, its interpretation a matter for all of us, and a republic worthy of the name would seek to organise the material of history to make it as accessible as possible to all the people. It is surely best achieved when the trading and confrontation of dubious certainties are referenced by the necessary courtesies of academic discourse. 

The historical profession itself has expanded, both in terms of the number of university and secondary school teachers of history and in terms of the numbers of history PhDs coming through our third-level institutions. At the same time, there has been, despite the prominence attached to history in our decade of commemorations, a diminution in the status of history, and of the humanities more generally, in our universities and in our education system.

I know that I share your deep and profound concern with the new Junior cycle, in which history is now no longer a core subject. A knowledge and understanding of history is intrinsic to our shared citizenship, to be without such knowledge is to be to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom. 

Moreover, to be without historical training, the careful and necessary capability to filter and critically interpret a variety of sources, is to leave citizens desperately ill-equipped to confront a world in which information is increasingly disseminated without historical perspective or even regard for the truth, and I refer now not only to social media but to the news industry more generally. 

Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.

I know that it is younger academics who are now carrying the hardest consequences of this new model. They constitute a particular form of the ‘new precariat’ – often employed on short-term and temporary teaching contracts. May I suggest that all those of us who have been fortunate enough to be in, or to have enjoyed, senior academic positions owe a duty of care and of solidarity to those at the beginning of their academic career, after the sometimes long, difficult and lonely years of a PhD – theirs is a cause that requires persistent advocacy within the university. 

Those young historians are part of the future of history-writing in this country. Today, we celebrate an important addition to the tradition of history-writing in Ireland, one that I have no doubt will be a reference work for many years to come. In time, if we continue to provide new opportunities for historians, amateur and professional, and if we continue to advocate for history as a crucial element of participatory citizenship, if we keep the study of Irish history alive and vibrant, a new generation – indeed, perhaps some of the younger historians in this room – will come to revise anew these volumes. That, I believe, will be the measure of our success in the coming years.