“Mo Ghile Mear”, lyrics composed later in the the 18th Century lamenting the failing of an earlier Rising, a traditional Irish air at least generations old, combined in the 1970s, sung today in great style.
I have not researched the origins of this myself but the theme is well-known, so from relying on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “Mo Ghile Mear” (translated “My Gallant Darling”, “My Spirited Lad” and variants) is an Irish song. The modern form of the song was composed in the early 1970s by Dónal Ó Liatháin (1934–2008), using a traditional air collected in Cúil Aodha, County Cork, and lyrics selected from Irish-language poems by Seán “Clárach” Mac Domhnaill (1691–1754).
The lyrics are partially based on Bímse Buan ar Buairt Gach Ló (“My Heart is Sore with Sorrow Deep” (but “Gach Ló” means “every day” and there is no mention of “My Heart” in the title – D. Breatnach), c. 1746), a lament of the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The original poem is in the voice of the personification of Ireland, Éire, lamenting the exile of Bonnie Prince Charlie.Mo ghile mear is a term applied to the Pretender in numerous Jacobite songs of the period. O’Daly (1866) reports that many of the Irish Jacobite songs were set to the tune The White Cockade. This is in origin a love song of the 17th century, the “White Cockade” (cnotadh bán) being an ornament of ribbons worn by young women, but the term was re-interpreted to mean a military cockade in the Jacobite context.
Another part of the lyrics is based in an earlier Jacobite poem by Mac Domhnaill. This was published in Edward Walsh‘s Irish Popular Songs (Dublin, 1847) under the title of “Air Bharr na gCnoc ‘san Ime gCéin — Over the Hills and Far Away”. Walsh notes that this poem was “said to be the first Jacobite effort” by Mac Domhnaill, written during the Jacobite rising of 1715, so that here the exiled hero is the “Old Pretender”, James Francis Edward Stuart.
The composition of the modern song is associated with composer Seán Ó Riada, who established an Irish-language choir inCúil Aodha, County Cork, in the 1960s. The tune to which it is now set was collected by Ó Riada from an elderly resident of Cúil Aodha called Domhnall Ó Buachalla. Ó Riada died prematurely in 1971, and the song was composed about a year after his death, in c. 1972, with Ó Riada himself now becoming the departed hero lamented in the text. The point of departure for the song was the tape recording of Domhnall Ó Buachalla singing the tune. Ó Riada’s son Peadar suggested to Dónal Ó Liatháin that he should make a song from this melody.
Ó Liatháin decided to select verses from Mac Domhnaill’s poem and set them to the tune. He chose those that were the most “universal”, so that the modern song is no longer an explicit reference to the Jacobite rising but in its origin a lament for the death of Seán Ó Riada.
THIS RENDITION is to my mind and ear an excellent one in traditional-type arrangement and voices (not to mention looks of certain of the singers) and all involved are to be commended. I have not always liked the group’s rendition but this is just wonderful.
In history, we fought in Ireland for two foreign royals at two different times and on each occasion they left us in the lurch.
A mixed audience of anti-fascists were entertained on 23rd November by a range of artists from the Irish trad-folk scene and a Spanish band performing to commemorate on its 80th anniversary the return of the Irish survivors of the International Brigades to Ireland. The event, “The Return of the Connolly Column” was organised by the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland (FIBI) and the venue, the Workman’s Club on Wellington Quay of the Dublin City Centre, was packed.
The event began with Dougie Dalby introducing Harry Owens, a Spanish Civil War historian and founder member of the FIBI. Owens gave a speech, recalling how the social-democratic PSOE Government in the Spanish State in the 1980s had not wished to support the marking and conservation of graves of International Brigaders who had fallen in battle but had been convinced to do so by Edward Heath, British Prime Minister and by the leader of the Irish Labour Party at the time, Dick Spring. FIBI had become part of that commemoration effort in visiting some of the sites but also in erecting monuments and plaques in various parts of Ireland.
Colm Morgan from Co. Louth followed, with guitar and voice, with some of his own compositions, including one about Frank Ryan – excellent material in my opinion – to be followed by Mick Hanley (guitar and voice again) accompanied by Donal Lunny. Hanley and Lunny have history, of course, not least in that great band of the past, Moving Hearts; both belong to that honourable class of Irish musicians who have not been afraid to support progressive causes including some in their own country – and who have never performed for “any English King or Queen”.
Lunny accompanied various artists at different times during the evening, sometimes on keyboard and sometimes with guitar, as well as adding vocals once also. After his pairing with Hanley, he accompanied Tony Sweeney’s excellent lively accordion-playing which drew more than one whoop from the audience. All however quietened down for Justin McCarthy reading “The Tolerance of Crows” by Charlie Donnelly, Irish poet, member of Republican Congress and Field Commander of a unit of the International Brigades and who fell at the Battle of Jarama on 27th February 1937.
After the break excellent singer Muireann Ní Amhlaoibh sang (accompanied by Lunny) and her rendition of Sliabh Geal gCua na Féile, a song composed by an Irish emigrant working in a Welsh coalmine in the late 19th Century, was particularly beautiful. It is a lament for home and language by Pádraig Ó Míléadha, from the Déise (‘Deci’) area of Wateford.
John Faulkner, virtuoso composer and singer-songwriter, raised in London of Irish background and for many years a resident of Kinvara, Co. Galway (but almost Co.Clare) accompanied himself singing a number of songs, including Patrick Galvin’s great composition Where Oh Where Is Our James Connolly? He performed an anti-war song by Eric Bogle also, All the Fine Young Men, which he introduced saying that some wars need to be fought.
Andy Irvine took the stage second-to-last of the acts for the evening, another London import to Ireland for which Irish folk and traditional music is very grateful, a composer, singer-songwriter and player of a number of instruments, accompanied once again by Lunny, who shares a history with him in Moving Hearts and Planxty. Irvine performed a number of songs, including Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists Bound to Lose which, though not very creative in lyrics has a chorus with which the audience joined enthusiastically.
Last on for the evening was Edinburgh-based Gallo Rojo1, anti-fascist musical collective, opening with a reading in the original Castillian of La Pasionara’s farewell speech to the International Brigaders at their demobilisation parade in Barcelona (see Links). It seemed to me that this would have worked better for an Irish audience with a simultaneous or interspersed reading in English but it received strong applause from the audience. This was followed by Ay Carmela!, then Lorca’s Anda Jaleo! I had to leave after that but I could hear the band starting on Bella Ciao, the song of Italian anti-fascist resistance of the 1940s but based on an older song of oppressed women agricultural workers.
It did occur to me at that point that among all the great material of the evening, I had heard no song to represent the International Brigaders of nations other than Ireland which is often the case at such events. More unusually, no reference I could recall was made to growing fascism in Europe and especially in the Spanish State (it never went away there), nor to antifascists facing trial arising out of mobilisation against the attempted Dublin launch of the fascist organisation Pegida in February 2012.
Immediately outside the concert hall, the bar area held a large number of people, perhaps as many as a quarter again of the audience inside. The performances inside were being conveyed by electronic speakers to them too but I am unsure how many were listening. There was a FIBI stall there too selling antifascist material.
Overall, the audience appeared to be mostly Irish with some foreign nationals and from a broad range of political backgrounds: Communist Party of Ireland, Sinn Féin, Anarchists and independent supporters and activists of mainly socialist and/or Republican ideology.
I am informed that FIBI are currently finalising the editing of a video of the concert and this will be available as soon as possible.
1. THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES
The International Brigades were raised through Communist parties around the world to assist in the defence of the republican Popular Front Government of the Spanish State against a military coup with Spanish fascist (and Basque Carlist) support, aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Brigades consisted of volunteers from at least 65 nations2 and included Jews from a number. Early Irish volunteers enlisted chiefly in units of British and USA organisation but were present in groups from Australia and Canada too but later some made their way directly from Ireland; later too some of the Irish came to be known as the Connolly Column. The English-speaking units and some others were formed3 into the 15th International Brigade (originally the Fifth, but when added to the ten indigenous brigades of the Spanish Republic – Spanish, Catalan and Basque – became the Fifteenth). Not all foreign anti-fascist volunteers enlisted through the International Brigades, some joined Anarchist or Trotkyist militias4 and at least one, an Irishman, joined a Basque unit.
The Republican Government of the Spanish state disbanded the International Brigades on 23rd September 1938 in an unsuccessful bid to have the non-fascist European powers5 pressure their German and Italian fascist counterparts to withdraw their logistics, soldiers and airforce support from the Spanish military-fascist forces. By that time many of the “Brigadistas” were dead or captured as they had borne some of the heaviest prolonged fighting at Madrid (1936); Jarama, Brunete and Belchite (all 1937); Fuentes del Ebro and the Ebro itself (1938).
Their formal demobilisation parade with their auxiliary recruits (including women) was held in Barcelona on 28th October, where they received the famous oration from the Basque Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionara”, prominent anti-fascist and activist of the Communist Party of Spain (see Links). It is notable that she addressed her oration to “communists, socialists, republicans, anarchists” as not only communists fought and died in the ranks of the Brigadistas.
2. A DIFFERENT IRELAND
The Irish Brigadistas returning to Ireland found a society very different from that of today. Anti-communist hysteria was prevalent, whipped up in particular by the Catholic Church and supported in particular – but not exclusively – by Fine Gael (which formed in part from Blueshirts6). The Fianna Fáil Government was not fascist but was of the Irish capitalist class relying heavily on Catholic Church support and so contributed to anti-communism; all of the main media was anti-communist and finally the IRA, as well as having forbidden any of its Volunteers to fight for any other cause than Ireland’s, had expelled communists from the IRA in 1934. As with the time of repression of Republicans by the Free State, the USA seemed a good option for some of the Irish Brigadistas (some had enlisted there anyway) but there too, many antifascist war veterans found themselves subject to anti-communist hysteria and even later, when the USA was fighting fascist powers, labelled as “premature antifascists”!
Today here in Ireland the general attitude is one of respect or even pride in that part of our history, when Irish Volunteers went abroad to fight in defence of democracy and socialism against fascism7. The best-known song to date about the Irish Brigadistas is undoubtedly Viva La Quinze Brigada8 by Ireland’s best-known folk singer-songwriter, Christy Moore. Published accounts by Irish participants include The Connolly Column byMichael O’Riordan (1979) and Brigadista (2006) by Bob Doyle. Moore’s song is very popular in Ireland (and among the Irish diaspora in Britain) and a plaque listing some of the Irish martyrs is fixed to the wall by the entrance to the Theatre building of the major Irish trade union, SIPTU.
Michael O’Riordan survived the War and was prominent in the Communist Party of Ireland, dying in Dublin in 1983. Bob Doyle was the last surviving known Brigadista from Ireland; on 22nd January 2009 he died in England, where he had been living and had raised a family. On February 14th that year his ashes were carried by relatives and admirers in a march from the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin city centre to Liberty Hall, where a reception was held. An optimistic photographer with the byline of “anarchaeologist” reported the following day in Indymedia: “…. in a display of left unity and solidarity we will doubtless see more of on the streets of Dublin over the coming months ….. Groups attending the celebration included the main unions, Éirigí, the WSM, the IRSP and Dublin Sinn Féin. Banners were also carried by the International Brigades Memorial Trust and the Inistiogue George Brown Memorial Committee. Supporters of the Dublin branch of the Irish Basque Solidarity Campaign demonstrating outside the GPO dipped their flags as a mark of respect as the crowd passed by”. The DIBSC actually wheeled in behind the march as the tail end passed, though the reporter seems not to have noticed that.9
FRIENDS OF THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES IN IRELAND
“The aim of the concert was to honour the enduring legacy of the 15th International Brigade and its ongoing contribution in the war against fascism”, a spokesperson for FIBI said in a statement. “As such, it was both a commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the disbandment of the Brigade and the subsequent return of the survivors to Ireland but it was also a celebration of their spirit in choosing to sacrifice everything for working-class principles.”
FIBI is an entirely voluntary organisation but does incur costs in erecting memorials, research, promotion etc. “This concert was designed to raise a modest amount to ensure the continuation of this work without having to resort to piecemeal fundraising over the next year or two. We are delighted to say we met our twin objectives of hosting a fitting occasion to coincide with the 80th anniversary of what became known as The Connolly Column and raising funds to help us continue with our efforts to ensure those who went are never forgotten.”
With its work of commemoration ceremonies and erection of plaques and monuments around the country, a work which not only reminds us of the Irish contribution in general but also links it to specific individuals from specific areas, the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland has been deepening the wider attitude of respect for the International Brigades and pride in the Irish volunteers which has been growing steadily.
Hopefully all of this will combine with and inform any action necessary to halt the rise of fascism throughout the world and of course to prevent it taking hold in Ireland.
3 The Balkan Dimitrov Battalion and the Franco-Belgian Sixth February Battallion.
4George Orwell, who wrote Homage to Catalonia, probably the most famous English-language account of the war by a participant, enlisted in the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unifacción Marxista), a coalition of Trotskyis organisations (but whose alliance with the Right Opposition was renounced by Trotsky himself). The much larger anarcho-syndicalist trade union and movement Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), closely associated with the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), also had militias, of which the Durruti Collumn was the largest and is the best known today. Some foreigners also enlisted in those militias.
5These powers, such as France and the UK, were following an allegedly “non-interventionist” policy but effectively forming part of the blockade preventing the Republican Government from receiving aid. Later the governments of those two states in particular tried a policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy which was unsuccessful (except in encouraging further aggression) and they ended up going to war.
6Former IRA leader Eoin O’Duffy had, with Irish Catholic Church endorsement, recruited many more Irishmen to fight alongside the Spanish military-fascist forces but they acquired a reputation for ill-discipline and in one of their only two brief military engagement mistakenly fired on fascists; they went home in disgrace in late June 1937 (a year before the International Brigades were demobilised and the surviving, non-prisoner Irish were able to return home.
7Republicans and Communists had fought the fascist Blueshirts in Ireland too and the significant contribution of participants from the Irish diaspora to the famous antifascist victory of the Battle of Cable Street (and following guerrilla attacks on fascists at Hyde Park) in London has more recently been recognised (though not yet on the main relevant Wikipedia entry).
8Originally written as Viva La Quinta Brigada (i.e “the Fifth”); however that is the name of a song in Castillian contemporary with the War and later versions of Moore’s song include a line acclaiming “the Fifteenth International Brigade” which would be “la Decimiquinta” which has three syllables too many and so “Quinze”, i.e ‘Fifteen’.
9The DIBSC had already scheduled and advertised a picket to take place on the same day in Dublin’s main street, protesting against Spanish State repression of the Basque independence movement and treatment of prisoners. Upon learning of the planned march to honour Bob Doyle’s memory, I suggested holding our Basque solidarity event earlier, lowering the flags in respect when the march approached and then following it as the tail end passed us. I was unsure of what the reaction of Doyle’s relatives and supporters might be but as soon as those at the front saw what we were doing, a number of them raised clenched fists. It was an emotional moment for me, certainly.
(Written in London as the death of Bobby Sands was imminent or had just occurred, after the author had attended pickets and demonstrations in solidarity with the hunger strikers in attempt to avert their deaths by pressurising the British Government to accede to their just demands. Bobby Sands died on 5th May 1981, to be followed by nine others in the weeks and months that followed. The struggle was one for the human dignity of Irish Republican political prisoners of Britain in the Six Counties British colony).
Bobby Sands, who was the first of the ten hunger strikers to die in 1981, had written a number of articles, songs and poems. One of the latter was arranged for song by Christy Moore, calling it “Back Home In Derry” to the air of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (by Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot).
The rendition here by Diarmuid Breatnach is to a new air composed also by Breatnach. Although he has been singing it for some years in song sessions, this is the first time it has been posted as a video.
“I thought that the lyrics and the original author deserved a new air”, said Breatnach, a Dublin singer. “Christy Moore did a great job arranging the lyrics for song. I hope the new air becomes at least as popular as Gordon Lightfoot’s.”
(A few days ago Nóirín O’Sullivan, Gárda Commissioner — the most senior position in the police force of the Irish state, gave six hours’ notice of resignation from her post. She took over from Martin Callinan, who had also resigned his post in the midst of controversy over widespread false reporting of drink-driving stop-and-test by Gardaí; also the attempt to silence, discredit and smear as a paedophile Garda McCabe who exposed the frauds. Another Garda officer who whistleblew was also hounded. Subsequently, the scandal of the holding of bank accounts in individual officer’s names in which government police funds were being kept also erupted.)
Of what use is history? It’s a question we may ask and, I would contend, should ask ourselves.
A lot of people would suppose that is of no real use at all – just part of one’s “education”, by which they mean gaining test certificates with favourable results, a number of which, at a high enough percentage of marks scored, will help gain access to desired employment. A probably smaller number would believe it is of some use, probably in giving them a sense of pride of belonging to a group. From my observation, it would seem that this sector, in Ireland at least, is mostly composed of working and lower middle class people. Some of these will go to third level education and study history – but very few.
Since History is a core subject on primary and secondary schools’ curricula in most countries around the World, and since at third level education entire departments of universities cater for the subject, one assumes that it must be widely considered to be of some use — by educational authorities at least. But those university departments receive funding so there must be people in political parties and perhaps industry who also think history is of value.
Many extensive libraries could be filled easily with published books of and about history, without taking into account related subjects of social studies and archaeology (for examples), not to mention historical novels, poetry and songs dealing with history, biographies, paintings, drama …. Clearly enough people think history sufficiently important to write it or to integrate it into their writing and enough companies can make a business out of publishing those products.
However, though many might agree that history is of use, the precise nature of that ‘use’ is a matter of some debate. It is linked to the question of what history is — and there’s an ongoing debate about that too. So it would be worthwhile to look at that issue first, if only to ensure that we agree on what we’re talking about.
WHAT IS HISTORY?
Los Angeles Police Sergeant Joe Friday, in the Dragnet television series of the 1950s, often asked witnesses to a crime to give him “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”. Which is actually what most people probably think of as being history – the facts or “what happened”. They might add “when”, “how” and even “why” to the definition “what happened”. But “what happened” is not, of itself, history. And when “what happened” IS history, there’s a lot more to it than just the bare facts.
Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. We might say that those are facts, if there is sufficient evidence for them and, in a “history” of the event, they should be recorded. But more happened. John was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed as being in a coma; he was operated on and put on life support regime. Those too are facts that should be recorded in the “history”.
But there are a myriad of other facts involved; for example: where John was going and why, what he was thinking, what his general health was like, what he was wearing, what he had for lunch – and that’s just about John. We could ask lots of questions also about the vehicle driver, staff at the hospital, relatives and friends visiting the hospital. And about the vehicle, the weather, the road ….. In fact, we could smother the story in an avalanche of facts. We have to select the facts that seem to us relevant and confine ourselves to those, if we want to write a meaningful (and readable) history of the event.
And how do we know which are the relevant facts? We don’t, at least not all of them – the selection of them is based on subjective opinion which may or may not be “informed” by experience. But also by ignorance, superstition, prejudice, bias – and even experience is not infallible, since it too is conditioned by place and time, among other variables.
Ask two people what, in their experience, are the dangers to watch out for in crossing rivers: the person accustomed only to African conditions might say that the main dangers are drowning, being killed by hippopotomus or being eaten by crocodiles, while another, accustomed only to European conditions, might say that drowning or slipping and incurring an injury in falling are the only possible dangers and perhaps, in winter, contracting pneumonia after hyothermia. Yet others around the world might reply “Being cheated by the ferryman” or “Bandits on the other side” and still a fifth might consider contracting illness from polluted water to be the most prevalent risk of all.
Obviously, the same question can receive different but equally valid answers in different contexts.
BIAS AND SUBJECTIVITY IN HISTORY-WRITING
EH Carr directly addressed the question we are discussing in a series of lectures which were published by Cambridge University Press in 1961 under the very title: “What Is History?” I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the study of history to the ordinary reader who, if she or he were to read nothing else about the subject would, despite its publication date and the volumes written on the subject since, gain a good basis for understanding what history is and what it is about. And it is short.
In an extract from The Uses of Facts, historian G. Kitson Clark comments on EH Carr’s work:
“Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, he chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study.
“At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity. He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.”
The historian is an observer but she is not impartial. She has her national or ethnic cultural background conditioning her, her class background, her gender, her sexuality and her political-religious-philosophical outlook. She can try for detachment but can never truly achieve it and, if as became the fashion for a while, she claims detachment or lack of bias, her history becomes accordingly suspect. Those historians who truly believe in their objectivity are the most dangerous of all. The historian herself is in the march of history, another actor – and people in her generation will be influenced by her writing to some degree, as may others in generations to come … and future historians will have something to say about her history writing.
The bias of the historian affects not only his interpretation of what he sees but also wherehe looks and what he looks for. Investigating a historical battle, for example, our past traditional historians would look to see who were the generals, who the overall commanders, what regiments participated, what weaponry and tactics were deployed and, of course the political-military objectives.
The political social historian will look for the economic causes underlying the conflict and the objectives of each side, the class and ethnic make-up of the leading participants but also of the participating masses, their culture and even their food. And at the attitudes to the conflict and the battle in the home grounds of the participants. Emperors may command (thinks this historian) and generals order battle … but which economic class rules and benefits or loses? Who does the actual fighting? What do they think? How fare the people at home and those where the military campaigns are being fought?
These are not small matters, even in affecting the outcome – we know the effect of morale on soldiers. The Russian Tsar’s participation in the First World War was one of the precipitating causes of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – it exacerbated civilian class tensions and economic complaints, as well as impeding delivery of food from the countryside to the cities as the use of trains was diverted instead to transporting troops. Lack of supplies and effective leadership, as well as defeats, affected the morale of soldiers; the failure of Kerensky’s Government to abandon that War was even more a cause of the October Socialist Revolution later that year. Soldiers and sailors took a decisive role in supporting both revolutions.
A year earlier, the morale of the insurgents in the 1916 Rising in Dublin was such that they were able to put up amazing resistance to attacking forces at least ten times their numbers, armed with artillery and machine guns, of which the insurgents had none. Later, during the War of Independence, in May 1921, General Sir Nevil Macready, in command of all British land military in Ireland, reported to the British Cabinet on the adverse impact of the resistance of the Irish people, both military and otherwise, on the morale of the British soldiers and police under his command.
Morale was also a big factor in the long attritional but successful defence of Leningrad, Stalingrad and of Moscow against Nazi forces in WWII, grimly positive on the defenders’ side and slowly seeping into negativity among the invaders.
Jumping forward in history, there was eventually huge civilian opposition to the Vietnam War in the USA as well as vehement support for it, which was splitting its society more seriously than probably at any time since the American Civil War. From 1969 to 1972 there were nearly 900 incidents recorded in which US troops in Vietnam attempted to or succeeded in killing or injuring their superior officers, typically by fragmentation grenade – they had become so common that the act gained a nickname: ‘fragging’. History records, ‘Rambo’ fantasies aside, that the USA lost that war.
THE CONSTRUCTION BASE OF THE NARRATIVE
There is no great mystery about the construction base of the story, the narrative of history. It is composed of primary sources, artifacts, secondary sources and bibliography.
Primary Sources are accounts by observers or participants, related or written (or otherwise recorded) during, shortly or a long time after the event. Those must be the most reliable, surely? Well, not necessarily. A soldier might want to justify why he ran from battle or a general to justify why he ordered a retreat or why he was defeated. A participant might want to denigrate one side, question their valour, discipline, intelligence or to depict their behaviour as bloodthirsty – while of course painting his own side’s behaviour in different colours.
We also know that witness accounts of the same event vary and that time and reflection and discussion or external manipulation can remove or add to some elements observed, in addition to ‘remembering’ ones that were not actually observed (imagined memory)1. Let’s imagine that John was knocked down in the road by a vehicle. What colour was the vehicle? Answers from witnesses immediately after the event may vary from green to blue to a number of other colours and shades. At what speed was it travelling? Some might say 40mpm, others 50 or 60. What was John’s behaviour immediately before? He wasn’t paying attention/ he was crossing with due care but the car was too fast/ maybe he could have avoided it had he been a bit more alert …. the brakes didn’t seem to work very well. And so on.
Now suppose John was well-liked and the driver whose vehicle hit him is unknown or a member of any group that might be the subject of mistrust or dislike. After a few weeks, all actual witnesses might be convinced that John had been crossing with due care and attention, the car had been speeding and driving erratically and had hit John without giving him a chance. Furthermore there might now be a widely-held belief, the origin and justification for which may murky, that the driver had been drinking. Or that he had been involved in previous accidents. Or a theory may even have arisen that the driver had some reason to kill John – it had been no accident!
On the other hand, can an investigator ignore the accounts of eye-witnesses? Of course not – but they need to be treated with caution.
Secondary sources is the name given to accounts written by people who gather the accounts of participants and contemporary observers and other evidence. What they report finding and their conclusions form the secondary sources – somewhat like the report of the investigator of a traffic accident. So surely the removed investigator, who writes a report, can be considered more reliable?
Well, perhaps the investigator didn’t like John or was bribed by a member of the driver’s family. Or she could be suspicious of or even hostile to the ethnic group to which the driver belongs. Perhaps the investigator drove the same make of car and thought the brakes were fine, or perhaps she was on a retainer from the car manufacturers. Or most of the witnesses were female and she felt they were trying for attention and tended to discount their evidence. Or she discounted the evidence of the witnesses from a particular social class because they used unscientific words and interjected swear words and on the whole she didn’t think their education was sufficient for her to rely on their accounts. Or she was aware that John was well liked and had a lot of powerful friends and that reporting that he crossed the road without due care and attention would do her career no favours.
No investigator is completely impartial and nor is the historian, as we discussed earlier.
Artifacts are a variety of inanimate objects such a trenches, weapons and fragments of tools and utensils, medals, uniforms and clothes, jewelry, tunnels, buildings, roads, vehicles, skeletons, grave stones, letters, graffiti, drawings, rubbish tips. All inanimate and, apart from some like drawings and gravestones, must surely bear impartial witness?
Impartial perhaps but they actually bear no witness at all – they must be evaluated, described and interpreted and it is the historian or archaelogist who does that. The investigator at the scene of the accident must measure the tyre skid marks, check the brakes, identify the model, check MOT examinations, collect the reports of the paramedics and pathologist. And remember, the investigator is never completely impartial and even less so is the historian.
Bibliography (or literature) is what other historians or investigators have written about the period or events, or biographies, or additional reading throwing some light on periods, people, lands, societies or some aspect covered in the history. Sometimes they contain accounts purporting to be primary sources which cannot be checked as they are anonymous or of which the source is not clear. It is not indeed unknown for some accounts to be deliberately falsified. But even without going to those extremes, we have already commented on the many sources of bias operating upon the historian.
The political social historian, the one who is consciously and admittedly investigating from apolitical and social standpoint will want to know what were the economic, social and cultural backgrounds of the combatants – and not just of both supreme commanders and their generals. She will want to investigate their conditions at home and at the war front, how well they were dressed and fed. What was their opinion of the war, of their officers, of the enemy?
Letters home and from home, testimonies and biographies, oral history records, courts martial records, food commissary records, equipment inventories, reports of public meetings at home, church sermons, political speeches, demonstrations for and against war – all these will be examined to build the story. Some of these are classified as Primary Sourcess, while others are Artifacts.
Of course the historian is unlikely to examine the original sources of all these and will be relying in many cases on special-focus work done by other historians, in published articles or books. Although their original authors draw on primary sources, unless the historian now goes to these directly herself but instead quotes from the literature, they become secondary sources, in the way that they are being used.
And here we have another factor – it is difficult to examine what cannot be found. If there were no letters or personal accounts surviving, as for example from the Peloponnesian Wars, we are reliant on the accounts of historians, while taking their probable bias into account – these contain Secondary Sources and are contained in theBibliography, i.e the books and articles written about the period or events.
In those cases we are reliant too on archaeological finds – back to artifacts again. To take another Greek example, the truth or otherwise of most of the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad are a matter of speculation and the factual existence of the city of Troy was established only by comparatively recent archaeology – later in the 19th Century (most historians by that time had come to believe it all a fable). More recent archaeology and geographical work has come to the conclusion that a battle or battles did occur and that the probable site of the Greek invaders’ camp corresponds with the account given by Homer.1
To continue with the role of archaeology, the investigation of the wiping out of five companies of the US 7th Cavalry in 1866, went some way to undermining the myth of Custer’s “charge” against hostile Native American indigenous people and a long “last stand”, of a static battle against the surrounding Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe who gradually wiped out his 7th Cavalry and himself. Many elements of this story were disputed by witness accounts of Indigenous people and by their folk history or “historical memory”. According to Indigenous accounts, the battle was a short running one, as Custer’s troop had tried to attack a camp, believing it to be mostly occupied by women, children and the elderly. He didn’t know it was full of braves sleeping late. As the warriors poured out of their tents, according to those accounts, Custer and his men turned to flee, firing as they ran but were soon killed “in the time it takes a hungry man to eat a meal”. Much later, archaeological work with metal detectors found a pattern of shell cases that tended to bear out the Indigenous account.
In 1955-’56, Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition team to Easter Island were told a legend in which the people on the island had been ruled by a group called “long ears”, who were represented in the giant carved stone heads, against which the “short ears” rose up. Across one end of the island, to which the “long ears” retreated, the story went, they had dug a trench which they filled with flammable material, ready to fire if they were attacked. During an actual attack, the “long ears” fired the material in the trench but the “short ears” had found a way around and attacked them from behind, forcing them into the flames. There was indeed a depression in the ground across that part of the island but the story could have been created to explain the depression rather than the origin being the reverse. Excavating in the trench, Heyerdahl’s group found charcoal and human bones and teeth.2
What there is left to examine is of course a great help to the historian but it can also be a curse. We know how useful the Internet can be but also how much trivia and even incorrect information is stored there. Sifting through and making sense of it now is difficult enough but what will historians centuries from now make of it? In some historical periods, large number of household accounts were kept and these were preserved. Useful information, certainly but since they were available they were examined and written about by historians to a degree that was arguably out of proportion to the historical value of the information extracted.
All those things, the artifacts, the records, the personal stories, the marks left on the land, become history. But only when they are spoken about (oral history) or written about (written history). And in telling or writing about them, the historian is looking at them through his bias and, in doing that, becoming part of history himself.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE OVERALL NARRATIVE ITSELF
One might say that history is a story, a story of how we became who we are. In telling that story, it must also come to some kind of belief or statement about who we are now. In fact, the story teller makes an assumption about who we are now, then looks back to history, then according to findings adapts the view of who we are now, then looks back again and adapts the view of who we were and the road we travelled to get where we are now, and so on. And it is a story. In order to be history, it cannot be a totally imagined story unrelated to artifacts or scientific knowledge — but it is still a story.
So history is a story — and it needs to be, to an extent, an interesting story. Who wants to listen to a boring story? But not just for the reason of not boring the audience – the facts need to be significant. If “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost”, as the old adage tells us, and that can be shown, then the loss of that nail was significant. But that doesn’t mean that every loss of a nail will be historically significant – indeed we might assume that most will not be. So we don’t want to fill every narrative with lost nails but nor would we want to exclude the loss of that particular nail, in that particular time, at that particular battle: the one for which the horseshoe was lost, and for which the horse stumbled, through which the king fell, and his troops lost heart and his kingdom was lost.
But was the nail loss, though significant then, a once-off, a chance in a million? If so, it is still history but not a general event in history, not one that we could apply to other battles. I don’t know, but perhaps examining horses’ shoes for possible loose nails became part of standard cavalry preparation for battle. Perhaps the cautionary tale arises from that practice and the knowledge that badly-disciplined or badly-trained cavalry or mounted infantry had suffered through insufficient attention to their horses’ shoes.
CHANCE IN HISTORY-WRITING
Some historians, especially perhaps from the Marxist school, have sought to eliminate the question of chance as factor in history. EH Carr was famous for his attack on historians who gave chance as an explanation for historical events and this is well expounded in the substantial Wikipedia article on his theory of history. What is not documented there, however, is that Carr conceded that chance had indeed influenced some important historical events and gave the example of the leader of an army who had become very ill at a crucial point during a military campaign. What Carr went on to say from that example was that yes, chance had affected the outcome but that one cannot generalise on chance and that therefore it is not worthy of historical study.
Despite my regard for Carr as a historian and a historiographer, i.e. as one who writes about the study of history itself, I wonder whether he was right on this. Napoleon famously asked about young officers being recommended to him, whether they were lucky. He seems to have ascribed great importance to “luck” and thought good luck accompanied certain people and bad luck others. He seems to have considered himself, on that basis, as lucky – but he did not neglect his study of military history, science or collection of current intelligence. His decisions then might have been influenced by feelings of luck but were not totally dependent on them.
And luck does seem to exist. Apart from the fact that we all know individuals who seem to be lucky and others who seem the opposite, some individuals are demonstrably more lucky at cards, for example. In scientific tests on drawing high or low cards, even when the human element is removed from the testers, some test subjects do score a higher than average rate of success. I don’t know but would expect that some subjects would also regularly achieve a lower than average score.
So it would seem to me that one can generalise about chance and luck – but only to extent that it is an unpredictable factor about which we need to be aware. Chaos theory in physics hints at this, although patterns are also being found in deeper study of chaos. And there exists a saying which sums up the importance of chance: “The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack.” This does not come from a famous military strategist but from a writer, Cory Doctorow, in a kind of science fiction novel, For TheWin (2010). This statement is becoming so widespread now that I expect it to become an adage widely quoted not only among civilians but also among military strategists.
WISE SAYINGS FROM LESSONS OF HISTORY
There’s a general warning in our cultures not to underestimate the enemy. And there are many examples in history of generals underestimating the fighting ability or determination of their opponents, or their ability to cross difficult terrain. The Romans under several successive military leaders underestimated Spartacus and his band, for example, until the end of the uprising, thinking that these were a rabble to be easily defeated by Roman soldiers. Those Roman leaders paid for their mistake with their lives and the lives of many of their soldiers.
The British at Singapore in 1942 had all their major artillery pointing to sea, because the Japanese could not march through the thick jungle on the peninsula mainland– but nobody told the Japanese that, so they did and took 130,000 British, Commonwealth and Empire troops prisoner after little fighting.
The German Nazis at Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad in 1941, thought they would take the cities in weeks at most; not only were the struggles there long and hard but they turned out to be locations or sources of disaster for the invaders. The leaders of the French military at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 did not consider that the Viet Minh could haul artillery up mountain sides in order to fire on the French forces below. The USA overall, in the Viet Nam war, a superpower fighting essentially a “Third World” enemy in a territory smaller than the US State of Virginia, expected to win through massive firepower, airpower and technology; history records that they did not.
So we could say that the danger of underestimating one’s enemy has been a constant throughout history with harsh lessons periodically for those who failed to take account of it. Presumably its opposite, overestimation of the enemy’s potential. is also possible and no doubt there are historical examples of this too.
But this article is about history and not all of history by any means involves military affairs, although certainly a great deal of it does.
HISTORY IN EDUCATION
When all of Ireland was under British occupation, for a time the Catholic Irish (which is to say the vast majority) were obstructed from receiving education of any kind. But in the 1830s the National School System was set up and it proceeded to teach a history that would make each Irish child “Thank the goodness and the grace …… that made me a happy English child” (short school prayer)3. Patrick Pearse, himself a progressive educationalist though without formal qualification in that field, called this system “The Murder Machine” and wrote an essay about it under that title4. It was important for Britain, as a colonial power, that the Irish should identify themselves ideologically and culturally with their colonial master, in order to reduce the likelihood of movements for self-determination gaining a large following or to reduce the supply of manpower for its imperial armed forces. This was a process imposed not just on Irish people by British colonialism but was the general rule practiced by colonial powers on their subject peoples.
After Ireland gained partial independence in 1921 and the new Irish state had defeated its internal Republican opposition, it was concerned that the education system foster a kind of Irish nationalism and, apart from the addition of the Irish language to the national education curriculum, this was perhaps reflected nowhere as much as in the teaching of history.
Nations are built from different elements and it is necessary for those involved in nation-building to create a narrative that validates that which upon they are engaged. Therefore a largely shared history is necessary and where there are different elements, these need to be stitched or woven into the whole – or some deleted. The narrative may be largely ‘true’ or largely ‘not’ but all nations and all states embark upon creating such a narrative.
The national historical narrative for Ireland was basically that the Irish were Celts, Irish-speakers, sharing a common culture and ruled by the Brehon Laws, until we were first part-occupied by the Vikings and then by the Normans. The Normans in Ireland became largely Gaelicised while their brethren in England became English and then, largely because of the English King declaring himself Head of the Church instead of the Pope, most of the Irish-Normans allied with the indigenous Irish and fought at a number of junctures during the 17th Century but were defeated and the old Gaelic order destroyed. Subsequently the Irish (now including descendants of invaders and settlers) rallied and rose up again but this time for an independent Irish Republic, which subsequently they kept doing or trying to do until the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence, when they finally succeeded in part-defeating the English and won Independence for part of their country. Such was the narrative.
Since the new state was a Catholic confessional one, in which the Church was in close alliance with the temporal power, it was important that the historical narrative reflect that too and so the representation of “the island of Saints and Scholars” was prominent and the Brehon Laws, which were essentially a product of a pre-Christian, i.e. pagan society and later of “Celtic Christianity”, were not represented in standard primary or in secondary education. Furthermore, as the almost exclusively Anglican and Presbyterian leadership of the United Irishmen in 1798 could not be swept under the carpet, nor the overwhelming Presbyterian membership of the Antrim rising, it became necessary to promote the Wexford and Mayo uprisings (although it also true these lasted longer than the others) and to promote the role of Catholic priests in the Wexford Rising. It should be noted that this is not a matter of falsification but a process of emphasising the desired and glossing over the undesired aspects.
It was less logical during the 20th Century that the oppositional national movement to the colonial State, the Irish Republican movement, should also seek to represent itself as Catholic in so many ways, from public praying with rosary for their fighters condemned to die, for example, to incorporating religious services and personnel into Republican political ceremonies. This accommodation might seem particularly bizarre in view of the abiding public hostility of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and much of the priesthood to the Republican Movement from the time of the United Irishmen up to the present.
Not only national states create a historical narrative but also national movements, both before gaining independence and after. In this narrative imagining an essentially Catholic nationalist movement, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army were represented as nationalists – somewhat different to the Irish Volunteers, perhaps, but nationalists nevertheless. It would not do for them to have been represented as socialists with a very different programme to that of the IRB and the Volunteers, however united they were in their desire to free Ireland from British colonialism.
As stated, not only the State created this narrative but also the Irish Republican movement, the leaders and members of which would see no contradiction in listing Connolly among the martyrs of 1916 and as one whose principles they were following while at the same time the IRA formally banned communists from membershipin the 1930s5 A song about the execution of Connolly sums it up in the title and refrain: “James Connolly, the Irish Rebel”: “He went to his death as a true son of Ireland” one of the lines of lyrics tells us but not one mention of the working class, the Irish Citizen Army, Connolly’s trade union or his socialist ideas.
The term “revisionist historian” is widely seen as a term of abuse in Ireland. This is understandable since for the most part revisionist historians in Ireland have sought to undermine or destroy the previously dominant nationalist or Republican narratives and even the anti-imperialist socialist narrative which was tentatively emerging in the 1960s and ’70s (and which laid the groundwork for the overturning of the ban on communism in the Republican movement at some point during those years).
Revisionist historians in Ireland have come to be viewed not only as hostile to nationalism or Republicanism but further, as apologists for colonialism and imperialism. They are associated in the minds of nationalists and republicans with character assassination on martyrs and iconic figures of the anti-colonial movement and with depictions of the anti-colonial struggles which are even more distorted and partisan than any of the nationalist-republican view. The media courting of these historians, seemingly out of all proportion to their academic importance or degree of rigour in their investigation and research, has deepened their effect on historical perception in Irish society and caused much bitterness among those holding to the previously-dominant narrative or to a general anti-colonial and anti-imperialist viewpoint.
But in many other countries, historical revisionism has been espoused and promoted by progressive movements. In those parts of the world, historical revisionism has been concerned to ask questions like “What did so-and-so period mean to the workers/ women/ ethnic minorities at that time?” Also, “What was the role of workers/ women/ ethnic minorities in bringing about significant historical changes?” Historical revisionism also exposed the collusion with the German Nazi Occupation in a number of European countries where historians had previously sought to show the people in those countries as overwhelmingly actively resisting the Occupation. This debunking of the previous post-Occupation narratives had both positive and negative aspects, as with the debunking at times came an undervaluing of the heroism and sacrifice of those who did resist. Completely different of course were the revisionists who sought to deny the extent of the Nazi Holocaust (on Jews especially but also on Roma, Sinti, communists and socialists, homosexuals, disabled people).
But what is revisionism, actually? It is going over previous narratives and re-examining them critically, looking at alternative sources and documents, examining from a different perspective …. In fact, one might say that ALL historical writing is revisionist, to one degree or another. And essentially, that is as it should be – shoddy and dubious methodology and political motivation apart.
SO – AGAIN: WHAT IS HISTORY?
So, we can say that history is an account of events which are judged (subjectively) to be significant to the culture in which the history is being written, based on available evidence (subjectively chosen) and human accounts (subjectively “remembered”) and the whole subjectively interpreted by a person who is product of a time and place and a social, political and economic environment.
So anyone’s history is as good as another’s? I don’t think so. A historian who makes no attempt to allow for his or her bias and subjectivity, to weigh the evidence for and against, is not writing worthwhile history. And a person who does substantial research and then all the required weighing and sifting, but neglects to attempt a judgement, or whose prose is so boring that merely reading it becomes a great effort, is not writing worthwhile history. Of course, that is my subjective opinion too.
The narrative should be meaningful, based on sound research, open about its author’s bias, honest in its evaluation of sources and artifacts– and readable.
OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?
Well, we have spent some time on answering the question “What is history?” — and now we need to go back to the original question, “OF WHAT USE IS HISTORY?”.
Of none, if we were to take Henry Ford at his word; “History,” he is famously quoted as saying, “is bunk!” Yet I doubt if even this anti-intellectual, anti-semitic and nazi-sympathiser Capitalist was entirely serious in that reply. He would surely have drawn some lessons from the history of motor-car development and mass production. Ford’s anti-semitic book, “The International Jew – The World’s Foremost Problem” (1920), drew on history and pseudo-history.
The Nazis, which Ford financed for a while, and who in 1938 presented him with their highest honour for a foreigner (though he subsequently made big money from the USA’s war against them) were certainly big on history. In proclaiming the start of the “Thousand-Year Reich” (“reign”, or “kingdom”), they were consciously seeking to surpass the 400 years of the Roman Empire; the adoption of the Swastika also drew on a historic (and pre-historic) symbol. Despite the non-Teutonic origins of the Roman Empire, the standards and flags of Nazi units with the eagle on top copied those of the Roman Legions and even the Nazi’s salute mimicked what is believed to have been the Roman salute.
The Nazis cared so much about history that they consciously went about searching for items that would agree with their view of the past and predict the future (upon some of which they had already decided), and consciously concealing items that would not support their view. Ironically, that process is most closely mirrored today in Israel’s study of the history of the Jews and of Palestine, which most non-zionist historians would agree is, for the most part, riddled with non-historical assumptions and inconsistencies. We may look with distaste or contempt at these attempts and yet need to be aware that all history is a construct and ‘national’ histories are constructed to suit a national identity. National identities in turn are constructed to suit a specific narrative which suits the dominant caste or class in the state in question.
HISTORY TELLS US WHO WE ARE, THE PATH WE HAVE TAKEN – BUT WHAT IF ….?
History tells us that we are human beings and, more precisely than any physiological examination of homo sapiens, of what we are capable – not so much as individuals, although that too, but as societies. It shows us that we are capable of measured reflexion and inflamed madness, of sadistic brutality and of great compassion, of incredible courage and craven cowardice, of sacrifice for principle and of self-seeking, of greed and of sharing, of honesty and of hypocrisy and deceit. And it also has something to say about which kinds of conditions have favoured the expression of one or the other attribute.
History shows us the path we have taken that has resulted in us being where we are now. In that, it is like an inquest or forensic examination (but on a living body), or a biography of an individual. Of course, in all cases there are some assumptions made about the body or the individual.
It also tells us what paths we have not chosen and we can only speculate, from educated to wild guesses, on what might have happened if we had chosen those other paths instead. Many historians have declared this “What If-ery” to be a fruitless field – “it didn’t happen and that’s that”, they say. Although indulging in endless “What If-ing” or failing to study what actually did happen may indeed be fruitless, it seems to me that some speculation on what might have happened is actually useful. Because we may be in a similar situation again and on that occasion may wish to try out a different path and having thought about it in advance will certainly be useful. Also, considering alternatives helps us to understand the nature and extent of what actually happened and its causes.
I hadn’t read the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay when I wrote the above but he makes a similar point: he said Carr’s dismissal of the “might-have-beens of history” reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation. Trevor-Roper said examining possible alternative outcomes of history is not a “parlour-game”, but is an essential part of historians’ work and that a historian could properly understand the period under study only by looking at all possible outcomes and all sides; historians who adopted Carr’s perspective of only seeking to understand the winners of history and treating the outcome of a particular set of events as the only possible outcomes, were “bad historians”.
History tells us some mistakes to be avoided but also tells us that doesn’t prevent people from repeating them. Nevertheless, it must surely be better to study those mistakes than to ignore them. In our own history, we saw a part of the Republican movement rely on non-interference by the USA’s ruling circles in 1886, when the Fenians invaded Canada; for their support during the War of Independence, when the movement sought representation at the Paris Peace Conference and at the League of Nations; yet again during the recent 30 Years War in the Six Counties. The notion that the ruling class of the USA, at the behest of a pressure group within, no matter how numerous and organised, would go against its own foreign interests and confront another imperial power to do so, was silly in the extreme. It was silly the first time it was thought of, although at that time the US had a solid gripe against British imperialism, which had helped the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But the second and third times, there was no excuse for thinking that whatsoever. US Imperialism DID confront British imperialism sternly, and French Imperialism too and even its own protege, Israel – it did so when those three, in alliance, invaded Egypt to overthrow Nasser and seize the Suez Canal. When US Imperialism publicly condemned them, however, its rulers did so in their own interests and were telling the other two which power was now Boss of the World.
History tells us about the political biases of historians and the times in which they have written. We need to be aware of this because most of what we are going to learning about history is going to be from historians. Historians’ bias was discussed earlier on but we need to be aware of it in the specific conditions of the historian and the time, in order to understand where their writing is “coming from”. That helps us to judge how much of it to accept, how much to reject and upon how much to keep an open mind for the moment.
History is not only often about battles but is itself a battleground. In our own time we see history written from a nationalist perspective clashing with not only that written from a colonialist perspective, for example in Britain, but also from a neo-colonialist perspective, by Irish historians apologising for colonialism and imperialism. But nationalist-perspective history has also come under attack from social democracy, revolutionary socialism, left-wing republicanism and feminism. And these historical viewpoints criticising nationalist history, also clash against one another.
History hints at the future. This is strange, because the subject of history is the past.
We may view the existence of humanity as a tree, or perhaps as a tightly-knit copse of interwoven trunks: the roots are our past and history, the trunk (or interwoven trunks) our present and the branches spreading overhead, seen dimly, our possible futures.
5 First published by PH Pearse in 1912 and later by Whelan’s (1916)
6. Up until the 1960s, children and teenagers in Irish schools were usually taught about Connolly as one of the Irish patriots who had signed the proclamation, whereas his socialist teachings and organisational actions were concealed. In the Irish Republican Movement, Connolly’s image was similarly employed while his teachings were ignored (apart from some with regard to colonialism) – indeed there was a ban on Communism in the IRA until the 1960s. While it is common today to find Irish Republicans as individuals and organisations openly espousing “Socialism” as part of their Republicanism, there exists a wealth of confusion about what that entails and how it is to be implemented.
Carr, E.H, What Is History? (1961) University of Cambridge Press.
E. H. Carr’s Success Story”, Encounter, Volume 84, Issue No 104, 1962 pp. 69– 77.
That was the subject of a debate between historians Tim Pat Coogan and Liam Kennedy on Wednesday 20th, organised by the 1916 Societies’ San Heuston branch and held in Club na Múinteoirí, Parnell Square, Dublin.
Coogan has a long track record as a journalist and historian of a nationalist/ Republican perspective: for nearly two decades Editor of the now-defunct nationalist daily Irish Press, broadcasterand author of many works including The IRA, Ireland Since the Rising and biographies of Michael Collins and Éamonn De Valera. Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of a number of articles and of books, most of the latter collaborations, including (with L.A. Clarkson et al), Mapping the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999). His most recent, on his own, is Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?(Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015).
Given that the Great Hunger or Famine is a subject on which historians tend to take oppositional sides and with at least one prominent historian on the panel, I would have expected a very large turnout. Therefore when I arrived and looked at the seats in the large hall of Club na Múinteoirí, I was surprised to see that although there was a respectable number in attendance, some of the seats laid out were unoccupied.
I had got the start time wrong (yes, even though I had shared the poster for the event on my Facebook page!) and so missed some of Tim Pat Coogan’s presentation (but a friend told me Coogan had mistaken the subject and began to talk about the 1916 Rising until he came back on track). When I entered, Coogan was dealing with the Great Hunger’s death toll and referring to the “accelerated deaths” method of calculating population loss that took into account further likely births had early deaths of potential parents not occurred. By that method, Coogan estimated the deaths at two million, not counting those who died on the “coffin ships” or after arrival at their destination.
Coogan said that New York State included study of the Great Hunger under “Holocaust Studies” which he thought entirely appropriate and concluded by stating that the Great Hunger was indeed genocide.
Liam Kennedy then took the floor and began with a personal anecdote of the unveiling of a stained glass window in Belfast, dedicated to the Famine, at which he had been invited to speak some years ago. It was a somewhat rambling story through which his audience sat quietly, awaiting his arrival at the question up for debate.
During his anecdote, Kennedy related that he had, in the course of his speech, referred to punishment shootings and “exiling” (instructions to leave the country) carried out by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, which had angered in particular his Republican audience, including Gerry Adams (which he described but did not name). So of course, in retelling, he was once again referring to it – in a debate about whether the Great Hunger was genocide or not. Kennedy related this in the alleged context of showing that the Hunger is a controversial subject – of course it is, so it hardly needs any other controversial subjects dragged into the discussion.
Kennedy went on to allude to “amnesia” around the subject of the Great Hunger, which he compared to a similar “amnesia” which he believed attached to the issue of the thousands of Irishmen who had “fought for the Empire (or he may have said “England”, or “the UK”) and for Ireland during WWI.” Yes, it seem to me that he was engaging in a certain amount of coat-trailing in front of his audience which, given the Dublin location and the 1916 Societies host, he must have assumed to have many Republicans in its midst.
Eventually he got the job for which he had been invited and began, helpfully, by quoting part of a definition of “Genocide”. I cannot recall which authority he quoted but a search reveals many definitions, most of which entail intent. One of the most recent authorities is Article 6 of the Rome Statute which provides that “ “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group …” and goes on to describe a number of means of carrying that out.
It was clear that Kennedy was going to rely on denying the intention to cause, rather than to deny the effect of the catastrophe; this was entirely as I expected and it is the stock approach of genocide deniers and colonial apologists (not always the same thing). But in reality he had little to say on this subject, other than to point at the “laissez-faire” nature of the UK Government’s economic policy at the time and the weakness of the Whig party in power, managing a minority government. To be fair, it is extremely difficult to prove lack of intent but all the same I would have expected something better.
In its absence, Liam Kennedy went on to talk about culpability, which is not the same thing – one might be to blame for something which one didn’t, however, intend. And Kennedy spread the net of blame pretty wide, throwing it not only over the British Government but on the Irish middle class (could have done more), the Catholic and Protestant Churches (opposition to emigration and continued church-building), the Irish landlords (absentee or callous), the Young Irelanders (had no solutions), O’Connell’s 40 MPs at Westminster (didn’t raise much trouble at Westminster, although they were supporting the minority government).
Kennedy didn’t stint however on the severity of the Great Hunger nor on its huge impact on Ireland and on its diaspora. On that he said he agreed with Coogan, although his estimate of deaths was closer to 1.5 than two million. Any disaster in which one in seven died was an extremely severe one — it was the worst disaster in Irish history and one of the worst internationally, Kennedy stated. And it was most severe on the poor – and here Kennedy quoted a sentence of Karl Marx – and proportionally struck hardest at the Irish-speaking areas.
THE DEBATE OPENED TO THE FLOOR
When Kennedy finished, the Chairperson Kevin Keane summed up the main points elaborated by each speaker and the meetings was thrown open to questions and contributions from the floor. I wanted to get my comment in early, as I was scheduled to sing as soon as the questions and answers were over; since for a moment no-one stirred, my hand was the first up. Handed the roving microphone, I thanked both speakers and remarked that the question of intentionality did not relate only to the Government of the time but also to the ruling class of the time – the British capitalist class. An analysis of their opinions as expressed in correspondence and in their media of the time, for example editorials in the London Times, has indeed revealed the intention to get rid of the Irish cottier class and, to a degree, the Irish landlord class too. They wanted most Irish agricultural land turned to grazing and deliberately used the opportunity to do so.
Other contributors talked about food leaving Ireland while people starved, the low numbers of Irish permitted to vote; another countered the criticism of the Young Irelanders by pointing to the Rising they attempted in 18481. Yet another contributor pointed to comparisons with famine in other areas due to the potato blight such as the Highlands of Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands – but did not express an opinion from those studies on the question being debated here. One contributor amusingly took Kennedy to task on standard academic grounds relating to questions on examination papers: “Read the question carefully, prepare your answers, ensure they are relevant …”
RESPONSES OF THE SPEAKERS
Returning to both speakers for the final responses, Kennedy admitted that the Government had wanted to get rid of the Irish cottier class but not by famine and disease. The “coffin ships” were only relevant to one year of the Great Hunger, he maintained and also that the Irish had, according to statistics, survived the journey in better health than for example the Germans, who had a much higher mortality rate during the journey and on arrival. On hearing that, I wondered whether he was taking into account the giant graveyard of Grosse Isle on the St. Lawrence, where “5,424 persons who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.”2
Kennedy returned again to the question of the “laissez-faire” economic doctrine and maintained that the rulers of the UK at that time were convinced that government interference in economics was not only undesirable but would make things ultimately worse. He also stated that we should not judge the people of then by the knowledge and beliefs of today – another argument often put forward by bourgeois historians (and to which I was going to reply in a very short poem I had written on the subject).
Tim Pat Coogan had the final say in the debate and wandered somewhat while however displaying the breadth of his learning. With regard to the Catholic Church he related that the Papacy in Rome had dictated to the Irish Church that they should continue building churches during the Great Hunger and he went on to criticise Rome in terms that might come as a surprise to those familiar with Irish nationalists/ Republicans of Coogan’s generation. He accused the Papacy, through a certain Cardinal, of instructing the Bishops in the Church to cover up cases of abuse, by the Cardinal’s admonition that the Bishops were to act as fathers to the priests and not as policemen.3 Coogan also defended O’Connell who was already sick then, dying in 1847, and the Irish MPs, having to go to Westminster, where they were in a small minority, to put their case and to where letters from Ireland could take a week to arrive.
Returning to the subject under discussion, Coogan made the trenchant point that the Government runs the country and ultimately responsibility lies with it; if it does not, then there is in fact no responsibility for anything, he implied. It was a good point with regard to culpability and he went on to deal with intentionality. He drew attention to a London gentlemen’s club whose members were influential in forming Government economic opinion, and a discussion reported among two members that one million deaths would be required to bring Ireland to a healthy economic state while the other disagreed, saying that two million would be required. “The potato blight gave them the opportunity and they took it”, said Coogan. “It was genocide.”
Some points which did not get a response in my opinion were the issues of “bad Irish landlords” and “chaotic land tenancy” and perhaps the others “to blame” apart, of course, from the British ruling class and their Government. Briefly, who was to blame for the absentee landlord situation in Ireland? Who stole the land for them and then protected them and their agents with soldiers and police? Who bought out the Irish Parliament in 1800, giving the political class even less reason to hang around in Ireland? This was the result of invasion, colonisation, planting, repression and bribery – the principal culprit all along was English colonialism.
Yes the peasantry (and landless tenantry’s) situation was chaotic and yes they depended too much on the potato crop. Whose fault was that? Who organised the land in that way (and refused security of tenancy, penalised tenants for improvements by raising the rents, etc)? Who stifled profitable Irish industry if it competed with English and taxed Irish production for the English Crown? Again, British colonialism. Could the country’s economics have been differently organised, to support that population (and even larger) in reasonable comfort? Of course it could — but at that point in history, it would have needed an independent national capitalist class to organise it, something Ireland did not have (and has not had since that section of it she had in 1798 was beaten by Crown forces).
In the last analysis, it does not matter how badly one group or another behaved during the failure of the potato crop – the British Government was the principal body with the power to act to avert catastrophe and the real power behind them, the British ruling class, were the ones with the interest in doing nothing to avert the disaster.
Finally, a thought worth considering: would the British ruling class have tolerated a disaster on this scale in Britain? Laissez-faire economics or not, I am pretty sure they would not.
The 1916 Societies and in particular their Sean Heuston branch have been putting on talks and debates on important Irish historical questions for some time, some of which I have been fortunate to attend. The Great Hunger debate was worth having and the contenders were well known with a track record in historical studies and public fame – the debate promised to be interesting. Despite this however, I found the event overall somewhat flat. Kennedy’s presentation manner was hesitant in speech and devoid of liveliness; Coogan wandered off the core subject too often. One cannot blame the 1916 Societies for that, however.
HISTORY AND “SKIBBEREEN”
I was called up to the stage to sing my song which had been announced earlier; by now there were about half the audience remaining. I explained that the song I was going to sing was called “Skibbereen”, published in Boston in 1880, not far from the time of the Great Hunger, and attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibereen. The song is in the form of a dialogue between a migrant father and his son but I sing it as though his dialogue is with his daughter. I also intended to omit a verse, one which has the man’s wife dying in shock during the eviction – I felt that women were much stronger than that.
“That’s revisionist!” interjected Tim Pat Coogan.
“That’s right,” I replied, “but progressive revisionism.”
“It’s revisionist!” Coogan said again.
I felt like reminding him that I had not heckled him during his public speaking. Instead I said
“All history is revisionist. The issue is what kind of revisionism.” “No it’s not – not good history!” Coogan replied.
I turned from him and read a short poem.
ALL our history is important,
not just 1916,
teaching us what we are
and what we have been.
How we came to reach the now;
of those who fought
or those who bowed,
through bloody pages,
down through the ages;
it relives the struggle to be free
and whispers soft what we might yet be.
(Diarmuid Breatnach, January 2016)
I then sang Skibbereen.
As I leaned over to hand back the microphone after finishing the song, Coogan told me his mother had loved that song. I took this as a peace overture and smiled, murmuring something about it being a good song to love. But no, I was mistaken: “And she liked that verse”, he added.
“Well, that was her opinion,” I replied, “and this is mine,” and left the stage.
Liam Kennedy was much more polite. Up in the bar, in passing, he thanked me for the song and added that he had heard the slogan “Revenge for Skibbereen” (also an alternate title for the song) alright but never the song. I expressed amazement at this, since the song is well known and even more so among people of his generation. Kennedy was born “in rural Tipperary” and, I believe, raised there too. There must have been many a kitchen and pub where that song was sung in Tipperary, surely?
1In a longer debate, I could have pointed out that James Connolly himself had criticised the Young Irelanders’ response the the Hunger but that his solution would not have pleased Kennedy either – Connolly wrote that the Young Irelanders should have led the people in breaking open the granaries, feeding the starving and preventing food from leaving the country.