The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland

(2005; €19 Profile Books, paper; New York:
Overlook, hardcover $37.50)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 14 June 2006

A lecturer at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University, Ferriter, barely in his mid-thirties, has produced a massive compilation of Ireland's 20th century worthy of a professor's lifetime's worth of research and reflection. The fault with this book is its abundance of riches: the level of detail combined with the breadth of topics creates a volume overwhelming the casual reader in its heft. In 760 pages of text (and another 120 adding citations, a bibliography, and index), Ferriter combines his own interpretations of Irish historiography with a survey of past historical study- along with many primary sources from archives, novels, biographies, journalism and memoirs. Ferriter largely builds upon Joe Lee's Ireland 1912-85, often commenting upon Lee's findings before adding his own qualifications. In his introduction, Ferriter explains that due to the rapid changes in the past twenty years, another look at Ireland's momentous shift from First World location with Third World subsistence economy, hero worship, and clerical ethos to the current more multicultural, liberalised, and secularised consumer culture impels his investigation. Ferriter listens to the famed and the nearly anonymous and gives all ample hearing. He avoids grandstanding or polemic even in such treacherously tempting areas as republicanism, priestly scandals, DeValera's visit of condolence to the German Legation after Hitler's death, feminism, or the constant blaming by so many of his countrymen of all their problems on England-even as they often rushed eagerly into its hearty embrace for employment, emigration, and entertainment.

To avoid recounting past events, my review will point out a sampling of points-of-interest along the long march from Queen Victoria and Maud Gonne up to Eamon Casey and Eurovision. Early on, Ferriter recognises the arguments both of revisionism and those who reject its reassessments: 'But there is also the danger here of acute nostalgia; of shelter from modern-day concerns by taking mid-century political rhetoric and promises at face value, and applauding a revolutionary generation for the dignity of their aspiration rather than their concrete achievement.' (4) This concern animates his judgements. Transformation addresses the century-long tension between idealism and pragmatism, slogans and paychecks, that bedevils the Ireland that a hundred years of Sinn Féin's presence has exacerbated. Its necessity for separation from Britain led to an inability to run a Free State as self-sufficient economy. In turn, the Republic attempted to turn towards Europe but found itself drawn back into witnessing and sometimes disastrously trying to assist- as in the Arms Trial- those in the North still battling as rhetoric met reaction.

Tom Garvin, paraphrased by Ferriter, teaches how an Irish Republic under DeValera could be revolutionary and reactionary. Those who led it grew up in Edwardian years, full of nationalist yet anti-modern romanticisation of a return to a rural and aesthetic purity. 'They rebelled against their elders but, according to Garvin, were sceptical about the possibility or desirability of mass democracy.' (76) Sharing newer findings by historians such as Patrick Maume, David Fitzpatrick, and Peter Hart, Ferriter agrees that clerical conformity guided the rebels along a small-town, 'middle-agrarian' perspective often angled oddly against the urbanised cadre that comprised so many of the lower ranks of the IRA.

In his narration of the wars, Ferriter remains fair-minded. Page 234 quotes a Limerick monsignor's witnessing of a Black and Tan atrocity; page 235 informs us that one of those labelled as 'agents' killed the morning of Bloody Sunday 1920 was a member of the Veterinary Corps sent over to buy mules for the British army- whose second cousin was Michael Davitt. Fratricidal mayhem expressed pithily. Ferriter shares the dreams of those out in '16 and after without glossing over the hard-headed realism of those with whom they shared bed and board. Seán Ó Faoláin's autobiography Vive Moi! is used well: in it, Séan recounts how his wife Eileen told him and his comrades: 'You are all abstract fanatics.' (255)

After the wars came the uneasy peace. Ferriter examines the controversy over Angela's Ashes. Roy Foster castigated Frank McCourt's pose: 'if any message is to be read out of the book, it is that you have to get out early as you can and head west.' (qtd. 361) Ferriter adds: 'The weakness of this criticism is that it fails to acknowledge that for many this was a necessity rather than a choice.' With the limits on American immigration post-1924, most fled east. DeValera's ideology trapped itself defensively. Protestant Britain equalled Catholic Ireland's foe. That the two nations shared far more than they divided was shunted aside. Morally, the Church formed the bulwark against not only the C of E but the secular forces that were overwhelming nominally Christian England and much of Western Europe in the 1930s. Ferriter refers to Freud's 'narcissism of trivial differences' that distorted minor differences to mask major similarities. Those left behind, Ferriter more than once asserts, put on the poor mouth a bit too often. When JFK visited, a red carpet was not laid out for fear it be rained on, at a projected damage of £250. Ireland for most of its independence could not have sustained even the stunted prosperity it earned if not for the remittances of its emigrants, the emptiness of its villages, and the lack of competition among those who remained for farms and spouses.

Those able to live mid-century in Ireland, contrary to so many ballads, may have regretted their residence. 2.5% of married women were employed, according to reports in 1945. During the 'Emergency', only 740 autos were licensed throughout the 26 Counties. In 1954, 64% of Irish remained unmarried. Across the border, in Fermanagh, 58% of occupied dwellings were deemed uninhabitable. Poet Anthony Cronin in the last issue in July 1954 of the quixotic publication of non-conformist intellectuals, The Bell, diagnosed the malaise. 'Here, if ever was, is a climate for the death wish.' (462) However, Ferriter relies heavily on Brian Fallon's An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-60, which argues for a much more vibrant and iconoclastic undercurrent than is conventionally granted those thinkers and writers who stayed. Even John Charles McQuaid, as John Cooney's biography has shown thanks to the opening in the late 90s of archives, had a modicum (at times) of forward thinking despite their own Tridentine limitations. Ferriter never forgets that such leaders as the Archbishop, Dev and Collins, like us, are prisoners of their own time and training. Heroic missionaries, craven abusers, corrupt pols, ecumenical neighbours. He balances the reality that is recorded against the distortions and stereotypes that too many lazy and facile commentators on Ireland have peddled during the last two decades.

Ferriter quotes Joe Lee again to good effect. Emigration to England helped Ireland, in my analogy, much like Mexico benefits from the $15 billion sent yearly back by American migrants. Lee: 'few people anywhere have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards.' (472) Perhaps revisionism at its 1989 harshest, but Ferriter accepts the brunt of Lee's attack. Earlier, a late 50s Tuairim study group sought to upend the 'contradictory "Sinn Féin" myth in Irish economic thinking.' (543) Patrick Lynch is quoted: 'it is because so many emigrate that those who remain at home are able to afford a standard of living that could not be maintained if Irish political independence implied the obligation to cater on their own terms for all the people born in Ireland since the state was established.' Lynch, as would Lee three decades later, exhumes a disturbing truth. Politicians ignorant of economics could not run the capitalist state. The Church, Ferriter documents, repeatedly interfered with social activism, preferring to exalt the poor towards spiritual uplift rather than risk communist-delivered or socialist-tainted tangible but soul-deadening gains. The myth that Ireland wept as her children left for exile, Ferriter's sources demonstrate, must be abandoned for financial triage. Often, the parents were all too glad to see their weans off, perhaps subconsciously to be sure.

Economic fables and political pandering interfere with later Irishmen and women seeking the self-sufficiency trumpeted by the rebels as Ireland's goal. Nationalist legend also sought to trump facts. Ed Moloney's history of the IRA is often relied upon as Ferriter's main source for recent developments; it proves much more useful than Before the Dawn does for Ferriter! Fintan O'Toole's 2000 observation is quoted: 'the largest number of republican paramilitaries killed in the conflict were murdered, not by the RUC or the British Army, or the loyalist terror gangs, but by their own comrades. The INLA and the IRA have been responsible for the deaths of 164 of their own members. The British Army, RUC, UDR, and loyalist paramilitaries killed 161.' (637) Ferriter efficiently presents all of the complications of the past thirty years in his final section. Like all of the chapters, chronological division allows him to roam about topics organised under brief captions, these quoting an apropos phrase from the primary source he cites to make his main point for that page or two. While this approach makes the book more like a series of short essays rather than a narrative history in the usual sense, it also slices up the immense text into portions better able to be read at leisure. This is not a book to plow straight through, but one to be waded in. Albeit opposite from Don Akenson's idiosyncratic and semi-factual A History of Irish Civilization (reviewed by me recently), the Canadian and the Irish historians share an ability to serve up heaps of history as digestible bite-size pieces. The nourishment derived from both of these affordable textual repasts should fuel many mental workouts.

Rarely does Ferriter cause me to pause puzzled. But here is one crux. He relates an interviewee in Fionnuala O'Connor's In Search of a State who notes how republicans nimbly shift goalposts and frameworks in arguments, never tiring of outwitting their conversational foil. Ferriter relates how knee-capping and 'tyranny' carried out by republicans in their own communities meant they were by default the police when it came to child abuse, for example. SDLP supporters turned to the IRA for backup as well. Ferriter concludes: 'The IRA developed an extraordinary capacity to ignore violence that did not fit their own concept of legitimacy,' going on to tell how the RUC bore the brunt of the IRA's antagonism due to the police's position vis-a-vis 'the hatred that existed in oppressed working-class republican areas.' (642) How the IRA ignored illegitimate violence escapes me. Ferriter's further definition of legitimate violence as codified by the IRA might clarify what becomes beyond the pale.

It is a credit to Ferriter that few head-scratchers exist in his text. I only found one typographical error (an extra 'of'), and another error twice; while more than one man named 'Enda' appears in the text, when the surname's Longley, this critic's first name's 'Edna.' The attention to documentation once in a while leaves it slightly uncertain where a quote belongs, as the numbered superscripts sometimes take in more quotes than the numbers account for; I assume that the following quotes after the numbers are in the previously indicated source, but this is not ascertained quickly. These are minor quibbles. It's a pleasure to find so much scholarship packaged affordably, compactly, in a readable typeface and font size.

Over the last few years, among many rich topics for debate and analysis raised, Ferriter remarks on the 41% increase in alcohol consumption 1989-99: he finds 'ironic that what was blamed on poverty at the end of the nineteenth century was blamed on affluence by the end of the twentieth century.' (668) Egged on by the media-fueled, credit-card sponsored headlong rush towards self-centredness and the erosion of clerical morality and political propriety, what does Ireland now promise? As Mary Kenny in Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, a frequently cited source here (to be reviewed by me next), supports, Ferriter sums up well the Church's contested legacy. He cites 'radical journalist Vincent Browne' who despite his own bent longed sometimes to go back to 'those days of rosaries and the vale of tears'. (qtd. 739) Ferriter elaborates: 'The sense of camaraderie and solace that had been experienced in communal religious devotion had been replaced, [Browne] mused, by the individual subscribing "to the anonymous society, acquisitive, rootless, unbonded"'. As different a critic from Browne as Desmond Fennell, whom I discussed in The Blanket three years ago, shares Browne's unease and Ferriter's autopsy. Fennell (once an advisor to an earlier, more visionary, Provisional Sinn Féin in its 1973 propaganda campaign for Éire Nua) labels this unrest many of us feel as a 'postwestern condition' suffered under the sway of Amerope. This conglomerate combines corporation and nation and product. It overpowered Ireland after the rest of Europe and North America despite Irish attempts to hide behind the barriers of trade protection, clerical submission, and political shenanigans. The Irish facing now the same forces that have buffeted the rest of the West over the past two centuries, the past century surveyed by Ferriter shows that such transformations may be as painful and as inevitable as the loss of Edwardian innocence and the shove out into a post-Edenic expanse.

Wrapping up my considerations, Ferriter's later comments on republicanism, given The Blanket's audience, deserve attention. Eamon McCann earns many mentions in Ferriter's account; the historian urges what the organiser has, that more attention be paid to gender, class, and power issues when examining recent Irish political and cultural struggles. The Troubles dominate, understandably, but as Ferriter chides, study of the underlying social divisions has not followed pace. With studies like Transformation, the ground is now being prepared for such excavation by the next generation of activists and scholars. Even such academic departure from Troubles treatment, I concur, displays to some Irish partisans disloyalty to the Cause. Ferriter quotes O'Connor as to how, unlike loyalism, republicans tolerate less diversity and therefore there results little dissidence. She avers 'the major difficulty the rebel in northern Catholic society has always found, is the impossibility of being taken at his or her own word as an independent agent: stepping outside the tribe equated with going to the enemy'. Ferriter concurs. 'This was Sinn Féin's real trump card.' (658) History repeats in Transformation. The centennial of this party of republican idealists who must first in the South and now in the North reign as pragmatists demonstrates both the stoic endurance of the tribal clan and the stubborn defiance of the guerrilla dissenter.


 

 

 

 


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

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Index: Current Articles



14 June 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Mark of Cain
Anthony McIntyre

Debris of the Dirty War
Mick Hall

More Claims
Martin Ingram

Case Unproven
Anthony McIntyre

Chain Gang
John Kennedy

Better to Put the Past Behind US
David Adams

The Gamblers
Dr John Coulter

Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Profile: Caroline Fourest
Anthony McIntyre

Le «manifeste des douze» fait réagir
Caroline Fourest

Reaction to the Manifesto (English Translation)
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index


6 June 2006

We Believe Freddie McGuinness
Anthony McIntyre

Under Scrutiny
John Kennedy

Unionism's New Puppetmasters
Robert Matthews

Omens
Dr John Coulter

Two Peace Processes
Mick Hall

'The Beginning of the End has Past …'
Davy Carlin

How Many Grannies?
Dr John Coulter

Even the Dogs Bark in Irish?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bards for St Brigid's
Paul Dougherty

USA v Iran
John Kennedy

Threat to Iran Based on Duplicity
David Adams

Manifesto of the Third Camp against US Militarism and Islamic Terrorism

Profile: Bernard Henry-Levy
Anthony McIntyre

BHL: Bernard Henri-Levy
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index

 

 

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