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Dominion: England and its Island Neighbours, 1500–1707 by Derek Hirst (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 241-243 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0049

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Ostensibly, Dominion: England and its Island Neighbours, 1500–1707 is a narrative history of the interactions across place, kingdom, kingship, and religion between the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. What it aims to produce is a synthesis of narrative and understanding, elucidating a deeper perspective on the affairs, relations, and ideologies that shaped national interactions and were in turn shaped by them. While steeped in a rich level of detail in the production of the narrative, the actual history remains somewhat less than the ambition.

Hirst’s approach to his writing is that of a chronicler. This is useful for the close read he brings to the events across the four nations over two centuries, yet at the same time the chronicle style reduces his history to something arcane and distant. Lacking in context, the events he recites appear to be a procession of names and dates and titles, especially as he explores the multiple changes of governance that occurred in Elizabethan Ireland. The lack of accompanying material, such as a list of Lord Deputies in Dublin or even key counsellors in London compounds the unfortunate impression that this is a history only for those who are just as steeped in it as Hirst himself.

This is not to say that there is no analysis in the work, only that the key analysis is almost recused, isolated, and separate in the first seventeen pages of the book, split between a Part I which serves as thematic overview and context for the history, and the prologue to Part II, the rest of which is the sprawling narrative history which dominates the whole.

Indeed it is perhaps this that is Dominion’s major flaw, and which serves as an important lesson to other authors: the book appears hobbled by its structure. Part I takes a particular pamphlet – the Strange and Wonderful Prophecies and Predictions (1691) – and uses it as a focal point for the intertwining of national identities in the almost apocalyptic turmoil of the Glorious Revolution. However, Hirst does not then maintain this twining of the pamphlet throughout the rest of the narrative. Its ideals are set up and explored in Part I and then forgotten in Parts II and III, a broader tendency found in Hirst’s narrative treatment. When Part II begins, it is largely a detailed listing, a narrative of names and dates, unreferenced and unquestioned. The final Part III is a bibliographic essay, setting out key texts for the reader to explore independently, but without providing any clarity on which of these bolster or negate Hirst’s reading of Tudor history. The essay does not act as a conclusion as such, and even on the last pages of Hirst’s Part II, the author counsels against drawing conclusions from an ‘unfinished process’ (p. 281).

This compartmentalized structure hampers the volume by creating almost three different mini-volumes with little overarching coherence or cohesiveness. From this first, structural problem, the volume loses some of its heft, being demarcated in ways that do not help the reader. Certainly the key narrative depth of the history cannot be faulted; it does indeed explore, as the back cover suggests, local governance and broader historical shifts. However, both concepts are explored independently of each other and in parallel rather than being drawn together into an overall analytical framework. What Hirst produces is a history that gives no overt lessons and draws no conclusions, that tells tales without substance and with little impact.

It might have worked better if Hirst has threaded his themes and references to the pamphlet through the narrative history of Part II, building a theoretical framework to understand each oncoming event. A serious conclusion could have been used to bolster his argument, strengthening his ideas by demonstrating their currency in the history he explores. Instead both his ideas and the history itself lie normative and unquestioned across the pages. Without any real investigation and no actual use of primary sources it is difficult to ascertain exactly what Hirst may be leaving out of his constructed history.

Overall this is a shame. The field is fertile for new research, especially one that takes a...

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