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Irlande Vision(s) / Révision(s)

Martine Pelletier

New Ways to Kill Your Father

Colm Tóibín

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1In 1969, two years after my father died, my mother, my sisters and I went to Wexford for the launch of a new history of the 1798 Rising called The Year of Liberty by Thomas Packenham. The Rising was important for us: from our housing estate we could see Vinegar Hill where "our side", the rebels, had made their last stand. From early childhood I knew certain things (I hesitate to say facts) about the Rising, how the English had muskets whereas we just had pikes, how the English poured boiling tar on the scalps of the Irish and when the tar had dried, they peeled it off. The names of the towns and villages around us were in all the songs about 1798, the places where battles had been fought, or atrocities committed. But there was one place that I did not know had a connection with 1798 until I was in my twenties. It was Scullabogue. Even as I write it now it has a strange resonance. In 1798 it was where "our side" took a large number of Protestant men, women and children, put them in a barn and burned them to death.

2It does not come up in the songs, and I have no memory of my father, who was a local historian, talking or writing about it. The landscape of north Wexford where I was born is dotted with memorials to 1798, but there is nothing, as far as I know, at Scullabogue. Its memory was erased, for good reasons, from what a child could learn about 1798. It was a complication in our glorious past, and our glorious past was essential if our present in what the Irish historian Roy Foster calls "the disillusioned tranquility of the Free State" was to have any meaning. This was what our ancestors fought for; we had it now ; it had to be good.

3At the launch of his book Thomas Packenham sat on a podium at the top of the room. A few introductory speeches were made, and then a man whom I recognised, who had been a friend of my father's, stood up to speak. "The history of 1798 has still to be written," I remember that his voice shook with angry conviction as he spoke. This book was not the real history, he said. He pointed accusingly at Packenham, I did not understand.

4I understand now because I have been grappling with Packenham's book for years. In the early drafts of my novel The Heather Blazing, the protagonist is working on a history of the rebellion not from the British side, which is what my father's friend accused Packenham of doing, but from "our" side, the Irish side. The following passage from Packenham's preface interests my protagonist:

Today sources are embarrassingly rich on the loyalist [British] side... On the rebel side, lack of sources makes it impossible to do justice to the movement. I have found fewer than a hundred revolutionary documents of 1798. For the most part I have had to make do with second-hand (and sometimes second-rate) material ; contemporary spy reports, mid-nineteenth century biographies, folk-songs and hearsay... With the volume of written sources weighed so heavily to one side, it is impossible to avoid giving offence.

5The rebels left no documents, then, only songs and stories, and the victors got to write history, until Irish nationalists like my father and his friend became the victors in their own state, to find that there were no reliable papers written by the rebels, no letters, few memoirs. Secondhand, second-rate things, as Packenham so starkly (and perhaps tactlessly) put it. And the hollow nature of the native Irish past was the source of the anger that day at the launch of Thomas Packenham's The Year of Liberty in Wexford. We had founded our state, but outsiders were still coming to write our history.

6"I have tried to be fair,"Packenham wrote in his introduction."For the events of 1798, T. Packenham's The Year of Liberty (London, 1969) is unequalled," Roy Foster wrote in his bibliographical essay at the back of his Modern Ireland 1600-1972. But sometimes, despite the fact that I am not an Irish nationalist (or at least I hope I am not) when I read Packenham's book about the central event in the history of the place where I was brought up, I find the tone and the use of language offensive and hurtful. For a few seconds I become the man at the launch hectoring Packenham. For example, Packenham writes:

The next three days passed in mounting hysteria for both the inhabitants of Wexford and their prisoners. The mob made some sort of attack on the goal. By good fortune, two of the dozen or so Catholic priests in Wexford at this time happened to reach the jail in time to drive off the people. Crowds again gathered outside Lord Kingsborough's lodgings and tried to break in.

7"Mob" suggests a sort of mindlessness and a lack of civility. "Some sort" is also dismissive. "By good fortune" for whom? Hardly for "the mob". "Drive off" as opposed to persuade, or convince, or warn even. "Drive off' suggests they were animals. And yet all over Wexford there are monuments to them, and songs about them, and the committee to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of their rebellion is already in place.

  • 1 Foster, Roy. "We Are All Revisionists Now" The Irish Review, 1, 1986.

8In an essay published in 1986" We Are All Revisionists Now "Roy Foster, who is certainly the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation, wrote that" the last generation to learn Irish history only from the old nationalist textbooks will soon be middle-aged men and women "and went on to say" it is occasionally tempting to feel that something has been lost as well as gained ; to miss the compelling Manichean logic of the old' Story of Ireland' view, with a beginning, a middle and what appeared (up to about 1968) to be a triumphant end."1 Twenty years earlier, in the Republic, there were whole-hearted celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which included an exciting drama documentary on television, marches, days off school and, even for this eleven year old, a feeling of national pride.

9As the Irish nation wallowed in its "liberation", a Jesuit priest Father Francis Shaw submitted and essay to the Jesuit journal Studies which contained what Roy Foster calls a "swinging expose of lacunae in [Patrick] Pearse's ideology", but it was not published for six years. The editors felt that Ireland was not ready for a critical examination of Pearse. For those involved in commemorations in Ireland in 1966 as now, history has no complications or ironies of half-truths; one thing leads to another ; there are heroes and traitors and villains. This was not simply the history taught at school in Ireland to those of us "who will soon be middle-aged men and women"; it was everywhere in our culture. But in the universities there had always been dogged individuals working against the national grain, dealing with the complexities rather than the simplicities of Irish history. Now in the 1960s, larger numbers of serious historians (I hesitate to use the words trained" or "professional") with louder voices and more confidence and, in some cases, a political agenda began to work on Irish history, and by the end of the decade as the North blew up they realised that they had a central role to play in moulding and Irish professional class away from ancient pieties.

10They tried it on me. I went to University College Dublin in 1972 to study History and English. If there was a forbidden "f' word, while we studied there, or a forbidden" c "word, they were" Fenian "and" colonial ", because all the Irish history we studied was parliamentary and constitutional. The nineteenth century was made up of O'Connell and Parnell, and there was much emphasis on their time at Westminster. Young Ireland, the Fenians, even the poor old Land League were presented as non-constitutional headaches for O'Connell and Parnell. Michael Collins was a Treaty negotiator rather than a war lord.

11Outside in the world there were car bombs and hunger strikes, much of it done in the name of our nation, in the name of history. Inside we were cleansing history, concentrating on those aspects of our past which would make us good, worthy citizens who would keep the Irish twenty-six county state safe from the IRA and IRA fellow travellers.

12One day in the library I was reading an essay by Joseph Lee in a book called The Irish Parliamentary Tradition (this title may seem like an elaborate oxymoron, but it was the sort of book published at that time) about 1782 and Grattan's Parliament, an important moment in Irish history, according to our school-books. Parnell, Roy Foster points out in an essay in Paddy and Mr Punch, constantly referred to this parliament, believing, as our school-books did, that if offered Ireland Home Rule. Joseph Lee made clear that if offered Ireland no such thing, and that it was not "Grattan's Parliament", in any real way, since Grattan had no real power in it. It was all myth, all nonsense.

13I remember feeling a huge sense of liberation. I photocopied it and made everyone else read it. I was in my late teens and I already knew that what they had told me about God and sexuality wasn't true, but being an atheist or being gay in Ireland at that time seemed easier to deal with as transgressions compared to the idea that you could cease believing in the Great Events of Irish nationalist history. No Cromwell, as cruel monster, say; the executions after 1916 as understandable in the circumstances; 1798 as a small outbreak of rural tribalism ; partition as inevitable. Imagine if Irish history were pure fiction, how free and happy we could be! It seemed at that time a most subversive idea, a new way of killing your father, starting from scratch, creating a new self.

14I became a revisionist, luckily, just as the word was coming into vogue; it was a term of abuse used about historians who were peddling anti-nationalist views of Irish history. The most seriously revisionist text, however, to appear in these years was John Banville's Birchwood, a novel published in 1973, the year of Ireland's entry into the EC. Here, Irish history was an enormous joke; a baroque narrative full of crack-pot landlords and roaming peasants and an abiding sense of menace and decay. In 1975, in his book of poems "The Snow Party", Derek Mahon allowed one of his characters to be "through with history". I understood that to be the whole point of revisionism.

15In a country that has come of age, history need no longer be a matter of guarding sacred mysteries, "Roy Foster wrote in his 1986 essay. One of the sacred mysteries remained the 1916 Rising. When in the early 1970's I had imagined a history in which the executions after the 1916 Rising were" understandable in the circumstances ", I meant it as a flight of fancy, much like imagining a future in which the Pope would marry or fish would fly. Now, in 1988, in Roy Foster's Modern Ireland 1600-1972, which would be declared a masterwork by most historians who reviewed it, the section on the aftermath of the rising began:" The draconian reaction of the authorities to the rebellion should be understood in terms of international war and national security..."(484) When I read the book first I spent some time pondering the should" and the "national". I wondered, suddenly my father's son once more, what nation Roy Foster could possibly be talking about.

16In Modern Ireland Lord Mountjoy who "successfully commanded the English forces that drove the rebels from the Pale 1601-1603" is decribed as "a humane man". On the other hand the United Irishman Napper Tandy who, in a biographical note is said to be "eulogised in national folklore" is described by Foster as "the ludicrous Napper Tandy". I do not know how it is possible to apply such adjectives from the twentieth century perspective to any figure in the sixteenth century, especially a figure sent by England to Ireland with an army, nor to any figure in the eighteenth century, even one eulogised in national folklore.

17The main problem in making such throwaway and offensive (to Irish nationalists past and present) and wrong (Mountjoy was not humane, at least not in Ireland) judgements and using such an arch tone is that it gives the game away. It suggests that underneath the brilliant insights and real originality in Foster's Modern Ireland there is an ideology perhaps not as crude as that of any nationalist historian writing school texts in the 1920s, but just as clear.

18In Modern Ireland Foster is concerned to make Irish history dense and complex, something constantly awaiting further study and elucidation. He removes the Whig view entirely from Irish history, refusing to see the events which led up to 1916 from the perspective of 1916. The style is, by necessity, nervous and jerky  his judgements are qualified by local studies or detailed work. For anyone who wanted to "use" history, who wanted to claim eight hundred years of misunderstanding between Ireland and England as Garret FitzGerald did to Mrs Thatcher, according to her memoirs, Foster's would be puzzling and not very helpful. There are continuities in Foster's Modern Ireland, but they are difficult to trace. His book, because of his command of detail, and his ability to construct a narrative, is deeply convincing and valuable.

19The problem, perhaps, is not his, but ours. The underlying message in Foster's book, his revisionism, is best defined in a attack on revisionism by Desmond Fennell, an Irish anti-revisionist commentator:

  • 2 Desmond Fennell. The Revision of Irish Nationalism (Dublin : Open Air Press, 1989) 64.

A retelling of Irish history which seeks to show that British rule of Ireland was not, as we have believed, a bad thing, but a mixture of necessity, good intentions and bungling ; and that Irish resistance to it was not, as we have believed, a good thing, but a mixture of wrong-headed idealism and unnecessary, often cruel violence.2

20This is precisely what our state needed to establish once the North blew up and we joined the EC, in order to isolate Northern Ireland from us and our history, in order to improve relations with Britain, in order to make us concentrate on a European future. Foster and his fellow historians' work became useful, not for its purity, or its truth, but its politics. It can be argued that many of these historians did not "seek to show" anything, they merely and dispassionately showed it, and the implications of what they showed happen to coincide with public policy. But it cannot be argued with much conviction. In 1973, in that same book The Irish Parliamentary Tradition, F. S. L. Lyons, the most senior and respected Irish historian wrote: "The theories of revolution, the theories of nationality, the theories of history which have brought Ireland to its present pass cry out for re-examination". As the historians set out to re-examine Irish history, they did so not in an ivory tower of disinterest, but in a country of car bombs and warring factions.

21Every night during Easter Week 1966 our family watched the drama-documentary about Easter 1916 on state television. A friend of the family who had been in the Rising and had known the leaders came to watch it with us. The executions were drawn out, each moment dramatised, with the grieving family, the gaunt prison and the lone leader in his cell, writing his last poem or letter. Sometimes the emotion in the room in our house was unbearable, and when it came to James Connolly's turn to be executed my mother ran out of the room crying. We had never seen her cry before.

22In less than ten years we moved from the state sponsoring such emotions to a time when the songs we learned at school were banned on the state radio. Such sudden shifts cannot occur without consequences, and these were best described in a pamphlet by the poet Michael O'Loughlin written from his exile in Amsterdam in 1988:

  • 3 Michael O'Loughlin "16 on 16" in D. Bolger (ed) Letters From the New Island (Dublin : Raven Arts P (...)

For my generation the events of Easter 1966 were crucial, so much so that I think it is almost possible to speak of a generation of'66. People from that generation tend to share a number of characteristics. An almost total alienation from the state, a cynicism with regard to national institutions and political life... an unspoken assumption that everything emanating from official sources is a total lie... In my school, and in other schools and in the media, republican emotions, if not republican principles, were openly encouraged... What [later came] from Northern Ireland was republicanism with a vengeance. The South's political lies were finally catching up with it. One of these was that 1916 was the culmination of the 700 year struggle for an 'Irish Republic'. This lie… eventually became too embarrassing. In an act of astonisging political opportunism, 1916 was revised.3

23One can hardly blame the historians, however; most of them believed they were going against the grain in the service of truth, believing themselves under attack from republicans, (and still do, as Roy Foster makes clear in his introduction to Paddy & Mr Punch), never realizing that they were justifying the new state, an Ireland cleansed of its history, which politicians had planned. The received wisdom about the 1916 executions was that they stirred the Irish population into instant and then constant anger. I had always been suspicious of this, especially the constant part, and Foster's analysis of this in Modern Ireland remains judicious, and he makes a case for viewing the aftermath of the Rebellion in the light of the First World War as much as the Rebellion itself. If this is revisionism, it is something we badly need to help us think straight about the recent past. But the sudden shift in the state view of the Rising hung heavily on those of us who were watching television in 1966.

24Thus we waited for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Rising with considable interest. This time state television did not re-show the drama documentary and there were no days off school. State television, instead, interviewed various historians and public figures about the Rising: did they think it was right or wrong ? Did they think it should be commemortated? Roy Foster said: "Celebrating 1916, or commemorating it, I think there's a big difficulty there. To celebrate something is, presumably, to say it was wonderful and to, in a sense, re-enact it as a communal ritual. I would think that it undesirable." If, this time, anyone ran out of the room crying, they were in tears of rage, but most people in Ireland remained reasonably indifferent.

25In a brilliantly detailed and lucid essay in his book Paddy & Mr Punch about the uses to which Irish history has been put, Roy Foster alludes to 1991 :

When the seventy-fifth anniversary of 1916 arrived in 1991, it was treated by the Irish government as a sensitive issue, to be approached in a deliberately restrained way - very different from the unequivocal celebrations of 1966. This caused a small-scale but vociferous old-Republican reaction - featuring not historians but out-of-office politicians, freelance journalists, ex-1960s activists (including, quaintly, a Pop Art painter) and the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band (17).

26There is a sense here that Foster really enjoyed writing the word "quaintly" and, since this book appeared, there have been earnest letters to the Irish newspapers to point out, among other things, that no one can remember "the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band" being in Dublin for the 1991 commemoration. Even for this oversensitive, former nationalist reader, the inclusion of the Flute Band in Foster's list is extremely funny. It must have been even funnier in Oxford, where Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History.

27Things were not as simple in Dublin, however. I had planned to be in Seville for Easter 1991, mainly because I get very depressed in Ireland on Good Friday when the pubs close all day and the sky is low and the churches are full. In the middle of February I received a letter from an organisation called The Flaming Door which, using state money and with state encouragement, sought to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Rising by asking Irish writers to join in a marathon reading at the General Post Office in Dublin where the Rising took place. I thought of attending to read from Beckett's "First Love":

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history's ancient faces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

28But I decided it would be easier to decline. I did not want any work of mine (or any work of anybody else's) being used by the state to replace its own half-heartedness about the past and insecurity about the present. The novelist Anne Enright and I were the only writers who turned down the invitation.

29But others were planning commemorations elsewhere. I met a local politician in Wexford whom I knew and liked. He asked me to join other descendants, mostly grandchildren, of the men who had fought in the Easter Rebellion in the town of Enniscorthy where I was born and where my grandfather had fought, in a march though the town on Easter Sunday to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Rising. This one was closer to home; there would be no quoting Beckett in Enniscorthy. No one at any of the meetings to plan the march, I was assured, had expressed the slightest doubt about the Rising; no one knew anything about revisionism; it had filtered from the universities to the middle classes in the cities, but not beyond. People in Enniscorthy were simply proud that the town and their forebears had been involved in the Rising. I would love to have marched with them. I wandered around Seville that Easter wishing things were simpler, wishing that I was not in two minds about everything.

30Roy Foster loves two minds, the dual inheritance. Although the essays in Paddy & Mr Punch were written for different occasions and contexts, there is a single concern running through the book - the way in which the intersection between Ireland and England affects individuals and institutions. He is always deeply aware that this intersection can be dangerous and dark, but, in a few essays, he shows that it has also been enriching, and these essays are important and original. It is clear that Foster is more interested in posh Protestants than in the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute Band or their like. It is also clear that he does not favour Irish commemorations, even ones which occurred in the past: "The great Anglophobic outburst of the 1798 centenary celebrations should be seen as therapeutic Anglophobia as much as an endorsement of separatism," he writes.

31My grandfather and my grand-uncle took part in those celebrations, as my father and uncle did fifty years later in 1948. They were complex men who had read a great deal of English literature, and they were not much given to Anglophobic outbursts, nor Anglophobia, however therapeutic. It is a pity that Foster is not prepared to offer the same level of nuanced study to the contradictions and complexities in the Irish revolutionary tradition, or to the individuals who took part in it, as he is to, say Elizabeth Bowen. Thomas Packenham's "mob" awaits its historian.

32But the descendants of the "mob" rule Ireland now, on both sides of the border, and do so with the happy conviction that the island is somehow naturally theirs, that history has offered them this birthright, and that outsiders (or indeed minorities) have no natural place on the island. The tone of openness in John Hume's rhetoric, for example, implies that this is his home, and he is ready to make the Unionists welcome here under certain conditions.

33Roy Foster has tried to establish what he calls in the final sentence of Modern Ireland "a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness", which has obvious political implications. Elizabeth Bowen, he tells us, "felt most at home in mid-Irish sea". That journey back and forth, the political ans spiritual dislocation involved, and how crucial it has been in the Irish experience, concern Foster. He is respectful about Elizabeth Bowen, as he is generally about people who did not support Irish nationalism. In his study of Bowen's Irishness Foster is perhaps at his best, prepared to sift through every nuance, examine every shade and never overstate his case, because he case is delicate, as delicate and complex as he wants the strands between the varieties of Irishness to remain. Bowen's Irishness is not of mere academic interest to him ; there is always the implication that Ireland must take Bowen and her tradition on board if Ireland is to survive.

34What, then, asks the ghost of my father's friend who rose in anger to tackle Thomas Packenham in 1969, are we to do about Elizabeth Bowen's activities in Ireland during the war years when she posed as a journalist or a woman-about-town when she was, in fact, spying for the British Ministry for Information ? Where was her Irishness then? In any other country, would this not be treachery? "She was now a kind of spy", Foster writes, referring to "the ambiguity of her stance".

35I know that ambiguity is what is needed in Ireland now. No one wants territory, merely a formula of words ambiguous enough to make them feel at home. If we cannot understand Elizabeth Bowen's Irishness, and her British allegiances, then there are other forms of Irishness, and other allegiances, more insistent and closer to us, that we will fail to understand as well. Foster's position is clear, he wants Ireland to become a pluralist, post-nationalist, all-inclusive, nonsectarian place. So do I. But there are other (I hesitate to use the word atavistic) forces operating within me too that I must be conscious of. Maybe it comes out in odd moments when I read Forter's work, or Thomas Packenham's The Year of Liberty, and know that I am not part of the consensus of which they are part. Maybe it would be good if they looked again at Catholic Ireland. We, in turn, are learning to talk in whispers. It will take time.



Farrell, Β (Ed), 1973. The Irish Parliamentary Tradition. Dublin.

Fennell, Desmond, 1989. The Revision of Irish Nationalism. Dublin : Open Air.

Foster, Roy, 1988. Modern Ireland 1600-1972. Londres : Allen Lane.

— 1993. Paddy and Mr Punch. Londres : Allen Lane.

Packenham, Thomas, 1969. The Year of Liberty, Londres.


1 Foster, Roy. "We Are All Revisionists Now" The Irish Review, 1, 1986.

2 Desmond Fennell. The Revision of Irish Nationalism (Dublin : Open Air Press, 1989) 64.

3 Michael O'Loughlin "16 on 16" in D. Bolger (ed) Letters From the New Island (Dublin : Raven Arts Press, 1991) 227.


© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1998

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