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Evaluating models for Irish history

Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture
Oxford, Oxford University Press
pp. 334
ISBN 0.19.820825.1; £25.00 (hb)

This is an important book. It is strongly to be recommended to anyone interested in Irish history and politics, particularly, though by no means exclusively, to those who have tended to fall victim to the cruder assumptions of Irish nationalism and/or reductive variants of postmodernism (pp. 107-45).

In the main, Howe suggests that conceptualisations of phases of Irish history and of contemporary politics in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in terms of colonial models have only limited validity. As he convincingly elucidates, a definition of colonial relationships as unadulterated oppression often underlies the deployment of such rhetoric. Yet this definition is problematic in almost any historical context, and modern historical scholarship, and parallels with other episodes in world and European history, provide justification for applications of such a framework only to some aspects of Irish history. Howe demonstrates that the language of colonialism and postcolonialism stereotypes the complex social and historical circumstances of individuals and groups, and can (though does not necessarily) act as a substitute for due consideration of both the past and the present among apologists (conscious or unconscious) for political violence: `this is a view people will kill and die for' (p. 162). In such cases, the absent due consideration might have exposed the inadequacies of the language and of the political strategy.

The uncritical insularity and lack of comparative perspectives dominant in Unionist and (especially) nationalist historiographical traditions in Ireland have facilitated the influence of such crude concepts (p. 82-106). However, Howe also demonstrates that the language of colonialism and anti-colonialism has also been replicated by outside observers of the Northern Ireland conflict, including sympathisers with Republicanism on the British left (p. 183-6). Howe's strictures against the latter target are generally well directed, and it is a shame that further consideration of the consequences of the insularity and ignorance of British opinion about Northern Ireland falls outside of his remit.

Two more detailed observations —not altogether criticisms—arise from a reading of Howe's text. Firstly, I find the following judgment surprising: `the model of internal self-government [in Ireland] within an imperial framework, that which in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appeared to be operating with marked success for Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the Cape, had perhaps been foreclosed for Ireland already by the events of 1798-1801. Even if not, it expired some time between the death of Parnell and that of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand' (p. 68). This seems a rather sweeping dismissal of at least two decades of Irish history following the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, not to mention large swathes of British and Irish political thought. Indeed `the model of internal self-government within an imperial framework' not only influenced the treaty of 1921, but received further definition from it. The implications of Howe's generalisation are by no means limited to this one passage—references to "Free State" in Howe's text, as the index suggests, are few and cursory. It seems more profitable to attribute the further political and cultural separation of nationalist Ireland from the British empire after 1921 to the errors of nationalist Ireland's leaders, rather than to the inevitable process Howe seems to have in mind, as it was by no means regarded by all contemporaries as inevitable. The individuals from nationalist Ireland who fought with the British forces in two world wars last century have been edited too often from accounts of Irish history influenced by nationalist `notions of republican predestination',1 and I am sorry to see their significance missed in a book which otherwise does so much so well to challenge such myths. This omission is the more noticeable since fuller consideration of such neglected aspects of Irish history would surely support Howe's nuanced reading of the concept of colonialism and its applicability to aspects of the history of relations between Britain and Ireland. There was a possible vision of the British empire which marked out aspects of its influence as liberalising and civilising, and, as Howe implies, the historical implications of this vision cannot be dismissed altogether (p. 9). If even this notion of imperial partnership was inherently racist (and it was), it was nonetheless a partnership in which many (nationalist) Irish people were prepared to take full participating places amongst the privileged white elite. The only point at issue was often whether "Ireland" should constitute a distinct sub-group among the elite.

Secondly, Howe fairly minimises the role that any `imperialist historical discourse more or less openly serving as ideological justification for Ireland's conquest' played in provoking an Irish nationalist historiographical response (p. 79). While assumptions of the prevalence of such a discourse have underpinned some entertaining and thought-provoking recent commentaries on Anglo-Irish history,2, Howe demonstrates that a British critique of the history of British policy in Ireland has been at least as prominent a tradition. Howe prefers to emphasise the role of a plurality of British "discourses", colonising and integrating, about Ireland during the years of the Union—and he again stresses that Ireland was by no means unique in this (pp. 67-8). It could be argued however that Howe misses an opportunity to organise his commentary on this plurality of "discourses" around the concept of nationalism rather than colonialism. Howe charges Irish writers with failing to consider wider comparative studies of nationalism (p. 89). Yet his eventual hypothesis that it is possible, necessary and/or desirable to `transcend … the identities concerned' (p. 241) within contemporary Northern Ireland suggests a highly debatable reading of a debate which is far from being limited to an insular context.3 (It could be argued that Howe does not sufficiently highlight the nature of this debate.4 The view has in fact been articulated within such discussions that nationalism is more embedded than Howe (if I understand his position) suggests. Reading nationalism as a discursive formation could explain both how it provides the context in which individuals act and think,5 and how it is thus unwise to conflate such a "discourse" with the interest of any ruling elite(s). Critical tools may thus be provided whereby such a "discourse" (or "discourses") can be decoded without indiscriminate resort to concepts such as "colonialism" and "British interests"—even Howe seems to invoke the latter unreflectively (p. 70). Howe acknowledges that the task of unravelling the tortuousness and tensions of British political language towards the Irish national question in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be a fascinating historical project; and this, again unfortunately, falls outside of the remit of his book (p. 68). It is more significant that Howe's emphasis on the value of comparative perspectives might have been valuable in this context in fertilising notions of how the "transcending" of national identities might take place, especially given the difficulties of such a process in a wide variety of contexts.6 Personally, I felt Howe's closing passages failed to achieve this, and this failure may have wider implications for the theories of nationalism he implicitly endorses.

However, these are minor distractions from an otherwise valuable text.

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