September 15, 2017

Myth and the Irish State

John M. Regan, Myth and the Irish State: Historical Problems and Other Essays (Irish Academic Press, 2013, 296 pp, €27.99 PB, €44.99 HB, ISBN 978-0-7165-32125)

John Regan has been developing a research profile in the field of historiography for some years now. His recent writings have concerned the influence of the violent conflict in Northern Ireland on the writing of twentieth century Irish history. These writings have ruffled a few feathers in Irish academia and kept the letters pages of History Ireland fluttering with activity. Following the debate between Regan and (principally) David Fitzpatrick has been almost like a guilty retreat into sweet soap opera oblivion for those of us engaged in the writing of twentieth century history. We enjoyed a period of water cooler (or coffee queue) gossip at conferences that was intensified on the publication of Regan’s Myth and the Irish State by Irish Academic Press in late 2013.

The appeal of light conversational material between academics aside, Regan’s work in this area has raised some serious questions about historical scholarship in Ireland. The majority of the book’s chapters had been published in respected peer-reviewed journals (Irish Historical Studies, History, Journal of British Studies, Historical Journal). Other chapters are formed out of extended book reviews and packaged together with the articles and an original introductory chapter. Some have been critical of this approach and the repetition that results. This criticism is valid in some ways. The repetition is undoubtedly tiresome, but it also becomes revelatory in some of the later chapters as the reader follows Regan’s critique from suspicion to condemnation over time. The pre-published work that constitutes the book has made its mark in some academic circles, but putting that work in paperback form and into the bookshops brings it to another level. The access and impact that comes with an affordable sticker price should not be underestimated, and perhaps criticism of an ‘inaccessible’ academic style and structure should be left aside for the readers to judge for themselves.

Two of the most headline grabbing themes in the book relate to Michael Collins and the late historian, Peter Hart. Regan’s engagement with the latter has been evolving for quite a few years and one of the chapters here is based on the author’s review of Hart’s The IRA at War, 1916-23, published in 2003. In this period, Regan was less concerned with Hart’s use of primary sources than he was with his having professed to offer a new history of the revolution. A lack of sufficient critical engagement with the literature and attempts to blend contradictory arguments are the main issues piquing Regan’s attention here. In regard to accusations against Hart relating to his use of self-collected interview materials, Regan states that his accusers had to prove beyond doubt that Hart was either duped or had fabricated evidence. Otherwise, Hart should not have been prevailed upon further to clarify, as he was honour bound to protect his sources. Hart’s passing before clarity was brought to the controversy has meant that it continues to rumble in historiographical and public discourse. Regan’s position has become increasingly skeptical to a point where he is now critical of Hart for misinterpreting or misrepresenting statistics of deaths in Cork. The recently published findings of Andy Bielenberg and James S. Donnelly in relation to sectarian killings in the county would appear to vindicate the skepticism that Regan and many others have directed towards Hart’s work, which has been doggedly defended by many prominent historians for years.

The sections in the book relating to Michael Collins have attracted much attention due to Regan’s discussion of the Big Fella’s dictatorial tendencies in the months leading up to his death. This approach to analysing Collins’ political actions in 1922 allows examination of his attempts to centralise power and the role of the IRB in such endeavours. The points are well argued and supported with empirical evidence. That other historians have met such scholarship with surprise and derision is actually indicative of Regan’s central thesis – that the historical profession in Ireland has largely set itself up to buttress a narrative supporting southern Irish nationalism and the state.

The more damning sections of the book are those that concentrate on this very issue. Regan explores some of the most well respected scholarship on the revolutionary period and on Irish nationalism generally to construct his argument that a foundation myth has been perpetuated by historians through use of language and elision of sources. His analysis of language use is one of the strongest elements of the book and should be seriously considered by anyone engaged in writing about the period. At a very simple level, the democracy versus dictators narrative of the Civil War is rightly taken to task. The simplistic vision of the Civil War divide based on the 1922 pact election results has been swallowed by too many historians, who, if engaging in their trade properly would attempt to complicate that narrative by introducing some of what Regan outlines, such as the British threat of war and the large vote for parties and individuals not linked to Sinn Féin. This information is not new. The fact that it needs to be raised in a discussion about the historical profession, however, is quite damning.

Regan further illustrates his point when examining the language used in some of the most respected writing about the Civil War. For example, the commonality of the use of the term ‘Irregular’ to describe those fighting under the IRA Executive in 1922-23 is worrying. The term ‘Irregular’ was that used by the government at the time and can be interpreted as propaganda due to its negative connotations. For historians to unquestioningly use such a term partly illustrates the acceptance of a narrative that sees the Civil War, and therefore the process of Irish state building, in black and white terms. The concentration on southern Irish nationalism by professional historians further entrenches the state foundation narrative. It would not be unreasonable for someone with a passing interest in Irish history (as a great number of Irish people possess) to assume that the Civil War was an island-wide experience. The ‘Irish Civil War’ was, of course, a twenty-six county experience. Nationalist opposition to the new state in the north was essentially crushed by the time the Four Courts was attacked in June 1922. Conversely, the history of Ulster in the 1918-25 period is massively under researched to the extent that it is almost seen as a sideshow to events in the south. The issue of sectarianism in Cork, while hugely important for historians to discuss and investigate, is the subject of much debate but the fact that almost every Catholic family in Lisburn were forced from their homes in 1922 seems more like a ‘hidden history’. Partition, the actual division of the country into two separate entities and probably the most important development in twentieth century Irish history, is not given the attention it so desperately deserves. This is typified by the cessation of most studies of the period at the end of the Civil War in 1923, rather than with the solidification of the border in 1925.

Examination of the historiography of Irish nationalism is further exemplified in Regan’s review of Richard English’s well received Irish Freedom, published in 2006. In perhaps one of Regan’s most simple but cutting criticisms, he wonders why a purported history of such a wide movement as Irish nationalism concentrates only on its separatist variant. He argues that this colours the author’s conclusions on nationalism generally. Regan’s scratching below the surface of English’s apparently judicious analysis is one of the most interesting and illuminating parts of the book. In the review, he uses Irish Freedom as an example of his major gripes with the writing of political history, and does so to great effect. Many of the arguments that Regan employs throughout the book are directed at English’s book in a highly detailed review that I’m sure environmentalists are relived was published online.

There is much more in the book that one could comment on, and no doubt more will, but Regan also raises another very important point about the writing of history and what influences it in Ireland. While the outbreak of violence in the north is the issue dominating all others, discussion on the use and impact of patronage on the writing of history is to be welcomed by all those struggling to write, publish and teach history that rubs against the accepted narrative. Regan draws attention to the work of Bernard Lewis, who in the 1970s wrote about the encouragement of invented history to serve the political ends of the state. There is comparison of Ireland and Israel, the latter being a much more extreme case, but the issue remains one of concern to members of the profession in Ireland. Can we really expect the current and next generation of political historians to produce truly innovative scholarship when those who question established narratives are largely excluded from the privilege of tenured academic positions? There are exceptions of course, with many brilliant historians in university history departments disrupting all kinds of accepted narratives, including that of state foundation. There are many more, however, who stand outside the academy without access to the resources necessary to pursue their research to its full potential.

On the negative side, there are problems of consistency with Regan’s strongly held line of argument. His criticism of Hart and others for their use of language that is influenced by present politics is maintained throughout the book. However, he freely uses the term ‘dissident’ to describe non-mainstream republicans in the 1930s. There is no suggestion here that Regan’s use of the dissident tag is meant to make connections between anti-state republicans in the 1930s and those who remain outside the constitutional setting today. However, more careful use of language, or explication of choice, would be welcome in a book that is severely critical of others for similar actions.

What such points highlight are the debate over whether or not Irish historians are consciously engaged in the process of reinforcing a state friendly historical narrative through elision or negation of evidence. Some historians might well be engaged in such processes and Regan presents compelling evidence to suggest such a scenario. It is more likely, though, that the construction of the narrative in question was brought about through unconscious acts and influences. Being labelled a Provo sympathiser, struggling to find a job in one’s profession, and being surrounded by an atmosphere where the narrative is so widely accepted is surely a recipe for unconscious osmosis of such ideas. Perhaps there is also an unconscious recognition of this that can produce the kind of reaction that Regan’s work has faced over the years, and particularly with this book bringing it all together into a damning compendium.

Despite the fact that the majority of what is included in the book has been available elsewhere for some time, this remains a significant and highly worthwhile publication. It should be essential reading for every undergraduate student of Irish history and placed prominently on historiographical reading lists by their lecturers. Essays on the historiography of twentieth century Ireland would make for much more interesting reading if the arguments presented here were considered seriously and grappled with by students. Historians currently working on histories of the revolutionary period who have not read Regan’s work before have little excuse now that this book has provoked some level of public debate. Any history of the period written without consideration of the issues addressed therein will be a very poor history indeed.

Adrian Grant is the editor of Irish History Review.