Our book today is R. F. Foster’s 1988 masterpiece, Modern Ireland 1600-1972, easily the finest history of modern and ever-so-slightly pre-modern Ireland ever written. Foster takes as his admittedly arbitrary starting point the year in which the great blowhard and bullshitter Hugh O'Neill made his march south down the island with the intent of sweeping the invading English forever from Ireland. O'Neill was the same Earl of Tyrone who the previous year had sat down across a makeshift table from the brash, youthful, and hopelessly stoopid Earl of Essex and, in a field of asphodel with songbirds chirping, fed Elizabeth I's gallant courtier - who'd been sent to Ireland to break Tyrone and wrap the country up in a pretty Tudor bow - such a line of codswallop that hardly a Sligo child of ten would have believed a word of it.
Essex was very good at believing unbelievable things, Elizabeth I less so - with uncomfortable results for Essex. He and his men roistered aplenty in Ireland, talked a great deal of revelatory talk, and even after the whole lot of them were recalled, refused to believe they'd been sold the sunrise by as good a talker as God ever made to stand upright. In his defense, Essex wasn't really concerned with Ireland or Irish politics - nor was Elizabeth, except as Ireland made for an easy back-door through which the Spanish could land mercenaries and equipment to harass her own state.
O'Neill didn't care much for Irish politics either, except for the fiscal policy by which money made its way into his pockets - but from time immemorial, that had always been sufficient motivation for an O'Neill to raise a rabble and call it the army of the Lord. And that's what O'Neill did, taking Spanish promises and marching south to meet the Queen's next emissary, a man named Mountjoy who had no poetry in him and consequently had an excellent ear for the crack of well-placed arabesques.
The resultant Battle of Kinsale in 1601 is hardly anything the Irish like to talk about, and Foster is right to draw a line there and call it the beginning of modern Irish history. It was at Kinsale that the idea of a free and separate kingdom of Ireland - something that could and would resist the incessant coveting pawing of England - was finally stuffed in a coffin from which it would only emerge, chastened and ill-fittingly sobered, centuries later. In between those two times, cheap sentimentalities and epic petty grudge-matches were planted like praties from Belfast to Dingle, and those sentimentalities have in one way or another managed to color virtually every Irish history ever written.
And how could they not? After all, it goes without saying that the only people who could possibly be qualified to write an Irish history would be themselves Irish - for is it not their story, and are they not reckoned the best storytellers in the world? But by the same token, if they're Irish all their history is both recent and extremely personal, and how can such things make a great, dispassionate telling? When my grandparents would begin an argument at the ancestral kitchen table, in English, about the electric bill, it would invariably end up (an hour later, at peak volume, in the Irish) being about the Battle of the Boyne.
Somehow Foster, despite being Irish, has managed it; Modern Ireland is entirely, even Olympianly dispassionate, watching all developments with equal, thorough attention, raising no ire anywhere, finding saints and blackguards among every persuasion on every side of every issue. Pretty much the only way you can tell he's Irish at all is because the book, despite being 662 pages long, reads like a great ravishing dream.
It's all here, the same familiar sad story, the same parade of usual suspects. The Tudors, the Stuarts, the black interregnum of Cromwell, the bumbling Hanover era, Home Rule, the brief age of Parnell, the Fenians, Robert Emmet, Daniel O'Connell, Michael Collins, the vile Eamon de Valera, the Duke of Ormond, Patrick Henry Pearse, the disgrace of Roger Casement, the Easter Rising ... and through it all, Foster is the same equable, plainly eloquent voice. He tells the story in big, careful strokes of his pen, and he's aided in making it a fluid story by a practice he adopts from the start and uses throughout: when his narrative first tosses up a new name, like a rock from underneath a plow, he keeps going and puts the necessary potted biography at the bottom of the page. The reader is thus filled in with all the pertinent personal details without needing to pause in their enjoyment of the story. Not only does this work as a way of keeping things running smoothly, but it it allows Foster to indulge in a little dry, humorous deadpanning in those little footnotes. They're like treats, scattered throughout an already-delicious text.
That text is everywhere excellent in its own right - as noted, this very long book reads with a beautiful smoothness, even when its reporting some grim thing indeed, like the stagnant nature of rural Ireland even well into the 20th century:
... much in 1930s rural Ireland would have been recognizable to a reincarnated Victorian traveller. Housing remained dominated by the single-storey cottage; living conditions were basic; families large; emigration and tuberculosis part of life. (The childhood memoirs of Noel Browne, later a revolutionary Minister of Health, provide a chilling first-hand picture, with no room for nostalgia.)
Or the fitful dreaming of sainted Irish politician John Redmond at the outbreak of World War One:
At the time, Irish nationalists followed a more complex strategy. In a sense, the war clarified the position of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It could take the opportunity to demonstrate lofty independence, or it could prove that Home Rule was fully compatible with loyalty to Crown and Empire. Redmond chose to bet heavily on the latter strategy, and given that he had extracted a Home Rule Bill from [British Prime Minister and world-class boob Herbert Henry] Asquith he may not have felt that he had much choice. He offered full Irish support for the war effort, and suggested that all [British occupying] troops be withdrawn from active service, leaving Ireland to be guarded by the Volunteers, north and south.
In retrospect this may be judged quixotic, silly, and overspontaneous ...
And of course there's the Famine, casting its long shadow over a people and their culture. Foster spends a good deal of time on this singular catastrophe and its ramifications, which included the near-death of a national identity through willing suicide:
Catholicism in the post-Famine age provided a highly organized, coherent identity that helped Irish society cope with the psychological impact of disruption. The Gaelic language was increasingly abandoned: a large proportion of emigrants came from Irish-speaking areas, and those left behind were not anxious to preserve it. Its eradication was the achievement of ambitious parents as much as of English-speaking schoolteachers.
But the story isn't all grim, naturally - winks and smiles abound, especially when Foster's unflagging research uncovers - as it does again and again - the people just being themselves, to the inevitable chagrin of outsiders:
The overwhelmingly pastoral economy was reflected in the food people ate. Access to one or two cows was general, and butter featured strongly - for cooking meat in as well as providing the milky messes described in appalled terms by late seventeenth-century travellers, and served with the aggressively unstinting hospitality that was part of the Irish ethos.
Hee. That "aggressively unstinting hospitality" usually sounded something like, "what, our food isn't good enough for the likes of you?" Foster's phrase is a good polite one; you could picture your grandmother offering "aggressively unstinting hospitality" a lot easier than you could picture her telling her sons Seamus and Eamon to feed their haughty guest some cow-patties and see how he likes that menu.
But it's those biographical footnotes that provide the most consistent fun in a long, serious book that, for all its glories, doesn't have a great deal of fun to relate. In addition to spawning some of the most hopeless loonies ever to write plays or sire American presidents, Ireland has always attracted hopeless loonies of all nationalities - by calling, as it were, to their own inner hopeless loony. Certainly this was the case with Jack Harrington, a lieutenant and sometime boon companion of Essex, who gets perfectly potted by Foster:
John Harrington (1561-1612): twice dismissed from court under charge to grow more sober; translator of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, 1591; knighted by Essex during his Irish expedition, before presenting the Queen with a chronicle of his patron's time-wasting; sought Irish employment again, under James, enclosing with his application a view of the state of Ireland in 1605 that counselled a conciliatory policy towards the natives. Said of Ireland: "I think my very genius doth in a sort lead me to that country."
Some of you may know Foster's name from his thirty-volume 100,000-page biography of Yeats, as densely and fathomlessly boring as any book could possibly be, indeed as any book about the life of Yeats perforce must be. If so, try not to hold it against him when approaching this earlier work - remind yourself of the old truism about the worker being only as good as his tools, and all that. In Modern Ireland he wrote his abiding masterpiece, a thick, packed book you'll nevertheless love and re-read, or else the question will certainly be, "and what, his book's not good enough for the likes of you?"