The Blanket

Publish & Be Damned
Birth Of A Republic, by Eoin Neeson. Published by Prestige. Price £16.99
reviewed by Anthony McIntyre (Summer 1999)

 

There is much to be said for the concept ‘published and be damned’. Indeed the Stevens Team investigating the death of Pat Finucane, is currently attempting to damn the journalist Ed Moloney for publishing a damning account suggesting RUC collusion in the Loyalist killing of the Belfast solicitor. But seemingly the author Eoin Neeson was prepared to publish but not to be damned. He allowed himself to be drawn into a dogfight with the reviewer Brian Maye over his book Birth Of A Republic.

While the literary fracas stoked my interest it is, nevertheless, an over-sensitive or insecure writer who responds to reviews critical of their work. Jonathan Stevenson and Liam Clarke are cases in point. But they were no where near as prolific as Neeson. It remains a sad fact of literary life that many reviewers seem not to read the book in full to begin with. So why bother engaging them on matters not fully investigated never mind understood ? He does protest too much.

Neeson complains that over the past thirty years people seem to know less and less about the Rising of 1916. But in his 1937 book on Michael Collins, Frank O’Connor then commented that the post-Rising generation was ‘utterly indifferent to the great story that began in Easter 1916 ... even bored by it’. It cannot, therefore, be that modern ‘revisionist’ writing must bear sole responsibility for the latest indifference.

At one level Eoin Neeson is clearly intent on challenging what he considers to be this revisionist historiography. But like so many who attack revisionism he fails - despite his caveat that ‘judicious and prudent reassessment of accepted and standard versions of historical events is a very proper and desirable thing’ - to distinguish between history that is intellectually revised and that which is revised politically. There can be nothing whatsoever wrong with intellectual revisionism. We sincerely hope that the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday intellectually revises the findings of Lord Widgery who subjected the original evidence to political revisionism.

Furthermore, Neeson is less than illuminating when he quotes Bryan McMahon as saying ‘the greatest mistake a commentator can make is to pass judgement on "then” in the context of “now”. But unless we do precisely that, tyrants of the past such as Pinochet can cite context not immediately germane to our present understanding in defence of their crimes against humanity. Throughout the work the author persistently rejects all criticism of the 1916 Rising on this basis. And even if we do agree that in relative terms his point is correct this brings us nowhere nearer to solving the methodological dilemma of evaluating the “then” from the perspective of the “then” as opposed to the “now”. As none of us now exist in the “then” we are compelled to create our sense of the “then” from what we know now. The point can be fought over endlessly. But in this sense it is strange to see Eoin Neeson struggling with the question of whether Roger Casement was homosexual. No one should seek to defend Casement against allegations of homosexuality for the very reason that no one should be defended against allegations of heterosexuality. The only concern in this matter is the perfidy of Britain. But if by the standards of Casement’s day homosexuality was wrong then it is inconsistent for Eoin Neeson to consider the merits of the issue from today’s less repressive perspective.

In his bid to distinguish between revisionism and revision Neeson fails to appreciate that revisionism never occurs merely for its own sake. And given that history is invariably constructed from the perspective of the present there remains the very real danger that those more powerful are the very people most able and most inclined to indulge in political revisionism. It is arguable that the flourishing of local history networks such as Glandore in West Belfast’s Ballymurphy is fast becoming the site of a struggle to protect the veracity of historical development from political revisionism. Eoin Neeson is aware of the problems but apart from vacuous truisms offers little in the way of strategising a course out of the fog.

This review does insufficient justice to the many interesting areas in Birth Of A Republic. But as an author of ten plays and fourteen books Eoin Neeson has deservedly made his mark. And the methodological questions were of such significance that comment followed need.

 

 

 

 

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