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boundary 2 31.1 (2004) 179-205

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The Revisionist Debate in Ireland

Kevin Whelan


Over the last three decades in Ireland, a vigorous, and at times vicious, historiographical debate has proceeded alongside the Northern Troubles. In a country where current political divides were based as much on the past as on contemporary social divisions, and where that past was claimed as a mandate for political action, the appeal to history was ever present in public discourse. The pressure on the past to explain and justify the present intensified the historiographical debate, propelling the anxious search for a history that would liberate Irish people from their history. In the 1990s, there was an audible collective exhalation of the national breath: with the advent of the Celtic Tiger, the IRA cessation, the public disclosure of long-hidden abuses within the political system and the Catholic Church, there was a palpable sense that modern Ireland was at last shucking off a baleful historical inheritance. In turn, that 1990s moment also threw into sharper relief the project of historical revisionism that had dominated the writing of Irish history from the 1960s to the 1990s. This debate itself requires [End Page 179] historical contextualization, as historians have treated it as an internal disciplinary issue, a technical matter of historiography, properly divorced from broader political and cultural settings.1 The historians' approach misses the point, as the challenges to this dominant revisionism have come from outside the orthodoxy of disciplinary history. In this respect, the Irish debate echoes the wider questioning that has occupied historians since the challenge of structuralism to their ontology first surfaced.2

This essay has three main sections: an initial framing of the Irish independence project and its loss of nerve; the identification of revisionism as part of this retreat and the tracing of its different manifestations; and a detailed analysis of historical writing on the Great Irish Famine to illustrate these more general points.

1. Setting the Political Stage

The revisionist debate should be seen in a long-term perspective. There had been a spectacular efflorescence of cultural and political energies in the late nineteenth century—the period of the Irish Literary Revival. The generation born during or just after the Famine who came to maturity between 1880 and 1920—notably Michael Davitt,3 Michael Cusack,4 [End Page 180] Douglas Hyde,5 Patrick Pearse,6 W. B. Yeats, and Daniel Corkery7 —pioneered a remarkably experimental culture, founding the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Irish Literary Revival, the Abbey Theatre, and a nationalist narrative of Irish history.8 It was also much admired outside Ireland.9 The creativity of that 1880–1920 generation rapidly shriveled as it was formalized in the new state into a reified command culture. This raises the key question: Why did the independent state so spectacularly lose its nerve? It is important to contextualize the choices open to it.

While the conservatism of the Irish Free State and the failure of its social and cultural imagination are well known, the development of southern Irish society after independence demands also to be assessed against wider European and postcolonial contexts. It was born in blood with the enormous damage to national self-confidence inflicted by a bitter civil war. In many respects, the social revolution in Ireland had been accomplished in the Land War a generation earlier, and the enormous emigration following the Famine drained the constituency for sweeping social change. The Catholic Church, a powerful conservative influence within the society, had also remodeled itself in the post-Famine "Devotional Revolution" and was settling strongly into institutional rigidity. In 1922, the novelist James Stephens formulated the issues facing Ireland: "In my own country of Ireland, man is now in the making, and in a very few years our national action will tell us what it is we may hope for culturally, or what it is that we may be tempted to emigrate from. But Irish national action and culture can no longer be regarded as a thing growing cleanly from its own root. We have entered the world. [End Page...


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pp. 179-205
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