Ireland's troubled past is fertile soil for propagandists, says Patrick West
Ireland and Empire by Stephen Howe, Oxford University Press £25 John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland by John Cooney, Syracuse University Press £23.35
THE RELEASE OP Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, is likely to test once more the patience of most Englishmen. The English are again spectacularly evil and mindlessly cruel, and the Americans are of Olympian build and Stoic sensibility, the perpetual victims of Sassenach sadism. We hear the English again cry out loud: why is history being distorted for demotic. jingoistic purposes?
If only it were just films. History, whether oral, visual or written, is always contorted to suit the prejudices of a desired audience. What makes Gibson notable is not that he is distorting history; his crime is that he has made it too obvious. Getting history wrong, said the historian Renan, is part of being a nation. Nationalism requires the past to be twisted into an appealing narrative, easily digested by the masses, where my tribe is good and yours is evil.
Were Gibson to have a go at making a film about the downtrodden Irish, he would fall upon fertile soil. The popular narrative of Irish history goes: In old times, the Gaels lived a happy Rousseauesque existence, the English invaded, Cromwell killed loads of Catholics, the Famine came along, then Liam Neeson (aka Michael Collins), liberation, freedom and the Celtic Tiger. Just one final push is required, to liberate the north-east of the country from English colonialism.
The central premise of most republican thought is that Ireland is England's first and last colony. It is this aphorism that Stephen Howe seeks to interrogate. The notion that Ireland was/is simply an English/British colony in the same vein as India or South Africa is a grand simplification, states the author. Indeed, before the 1960s, anti-colonial discourse was not employed by Irish republicans. Conversely, there had been little Irish sympathy for colonised people throughout the globe, and some distinct aversion. Douglas Hyde resisted comparisons of the Irish to a savage tribe or Red Indians, while John Mitchel, who fantasised about a free Ireland having its own slaves, lamented the famine in these words: Can you picture in our mind a race of white men reduced to this condition? White men? Yes the highest and purest blood and breed of men." At the beginning of the 20th century Irish nationalists were supporting the Afrikaaners; by the end of it they expressed solidarity with the ANC.
The attitude of the British overlords in Ireland differed too. There were those who thought of the Irish as biologically inferior, though their numbers were small compared to those who blamed Catholicism for Ireland's woes. If the best that could be made of Africans was civilised Christians, the English thought, the Irish could actually be turned into Britons like themselves — if only they could unshackle themselves from the commting and superstitious hold of their infernal Church. This may strike some as an objectionable view, but it was not racist. It was culturally imperialist: Irishmen were potential Britons to the degree that Africans never were.
There was invasion, displacement
and settlement by the Anglo-Scots in Ulster. But was this a colony? Perhaps. Yet history is a revolving door of invasion and displacement. The channel between Ireland and Scotland has seen an unending amount of two-way traffic since time immemorial. The "we were here first" claim is a dangerous one to make, because often we weren't. Indeed, Ulster historian Ian Adamson has popularised the idea of Ulster-Scots settlers being the descendents of the Cruthin, a people who were themselves driven out by the Gaels. Still, it's not a matter of who was here first. Its a question of who is here now. Is Ulster a colony now? No, says Howe. Unlike classical colonist communities, Ulster Protestants do not think of England or Scotland as home. Ulster certainly is not treated as a colony. The ostensible colonisers, the British, are very explicit about their desire to leave (Peter Brooke: "The British government has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland"), and as far back as 1948
have guaranteed its right of secession. Colonies normally don't have a majority who want to stay with the colonisers. And colonisers usually take money and resources out, not plough it back in to the tune of £5 billion a year. Ulster Protestants, believes Howe, are not colonists: they are a frontier people.
Ireland and Empire is not for the general reader looking for cheap simplicities. It is more of a swipe at those authors, academies and politicians who are unable to cope with the contradictions, ambiguities and
ambivalence contained in the past. If anything, the book is recommended for contrarians, those know-it-all menin-the-pub who like to retort: "Well, actually. .."
John Cooney's John Charles McQuaid. Ruler of Catholic Ireland, on the other hand, represents the very worst kind of cheap history-for-thepresent. Attacking old Catholic Ireland is about as novel and brave as denouncing paedophiles, which of course, is the raison d'eire of this tome. It is a pity that such a lengthy and extensive biography of this prelate, based on research in the McQuaid archives, should be an excuse for a predictable and tenuous polemic.
The idea that the late Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin imposed a theocracy upon a servile mass ignores the fact that much of Southern Ireland indeed desired and approved of this Catholic society. It is all very well to castigate him for banning Lady Chatterley's Lover and other such salacious works, but this ignores the will of a great many Irish not to have these kinds of books in their country. Censorship does not always come from the top down.
To claim that McQuaid was a bad thing for Ireland belittles the social welfare he provided for the Dublin poor. He founded the Catholic Social Service Conference, establishing food centres for the needy. He also founded the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau. providing material need for the Irish poor in Britain. He helped facilitate the building of countless schools in suburban estates, and helped maintain that Dublin hospitals in the care of religious orders readily had the highest standards of medical expertise.
BUT NO, McQuaid stands accused of being a paedophile. The proof, m'lud, is as follows. First of all, someonce called Noel Browne was once approached by a stranger who told him as much. Secondly, in his study, McQuaid once asked a boy, aged nine, if there was anything he wanted to talk about. The boy said no. Thirdly, a sixteen-year-old boy was asked by McQuaid if he felt he needed to talk about sex: McQuaid put his hand on the boy's knee. Fourthly, a pub landlord's son claimed that McQuaid edged closer to him on a settee, and he feared that he was intent on sexually assaulting him. Unable to speak and near to tears, the boy stood abruptly and fled the room.
Without old certainties, we seek out new demons. Phantom paedophiles are a prime example. Nobody is safe, least of all dead clerics accused of sexually abusing children on the basis of hearsay, unsubstantiated reports and an alarming dearth of proper footnotes. Maybe Mel Gibson's next film should be McQuaid: The Movie, with himself playing Noel Browne. I'm sure Alan Rickman, Charles Dance or some other lip-curling nasty Englishman could be persuaded to take the role of the Archbishop.