Page 6, 6th March 1981

6th March 1981
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Page 6, 6th March 1981 — Unravelling a skein
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Locations: Washington, Dublin, Belfast

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Unravelling a skein

Ireland by Robert Kee (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £9.95).

ROBERT KEE, with the guidance of Professor F S I Lyons, Historian of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Dublin, and others, has produced a television series of magnificence and brilliance. and this is the permanent record of his work.

Until the series. made possible by the co-operation of the BBC and RTE and the production genius of Jeremy Isaacs, there was, for far too many years, an enormous blank on British television screens concerning the political state of affairs in the six, counties.

Kee has broken through all this, and follows up his highly readable and successful -The Green Flag, A History of Irish Nationalism-, with this quite impartial and important work.

The television series. and this book, have been criticised by all coi.tenders in the Irish Political stakes today. thereby bearing witness to its non-partisan views. It takes a historian, and an Englishman of the author's sincerity and application and tenacity. to produce such a welcome up-to-date history. No solutions are offered, but as the writer hopes, "History is indeed a difficult prison to escape from, and the history of Ireland is difficult as any. It is not the business of an historian — even of a television historian — to propose how escape should be effected.

"Yet change is the business of history and the historian has a vested interest in seeing change come about.

"Having traced the foundations on which the prison of Irish history was built, he can only wait and hope to see British and Irish alike, one day walk away."

Robert Kee stresses in his preface that his book is, "primarily for people who have very little knowledge of the history of Ireland", and that the book is. "a permanent reminder to viewers of what they saw and heard in the television series. enabling them to recapture more fully, and perhaps even capture for the first time. argument and detail which they may have m issed" .

It is to be hoped that even those with entrenched views will read and re-read this admirable book. as it is really one of the most positive of steps to place the history of Ireland. and its relations with Britain, in to a proper perspective. It may even effect change in public opinion.

While reading this history. it is as well to have your copy of The Green Flag at hand, for more detailed reference of some particular aspect of Irish history.

The "further reading" list on page 249 is well worth noting for the sources are given of books fairly easily available, mostly still in print. and at reasonable prices. On page 227 are four historic photographs; Dr Ian Paisley, in full flow, complete with microphone; Terence O'Neill, former Prime Minister, now retired to live in England, and to take an active part in the House of Lords: Jack Lynch. former Taoiseach, now retired to quieter pastures, and a young Charles Haughey, photographed at the chess table, hand on Knight's Pawn. then Minister for Finance. now An Taoiscach.

"History", said Henry Ford. "is bunk", and ,a French Statesman once said "History is a lie agreed upon". Robert Kee debunks the myths in Irish history' and comes .as near the recent historical truth as his Irish and English witnesses will permit.

Every reader will have his own idea of where the book has its weakness and its strength. One weakness may be that it over estimates the influence of the Castle Catholics and the West Britons in Dublin and the Pale, whereas the grass roots of Ireland, the real Irish, were always the men and women of rural Ireland.

It understates, perhaps, and a map would have helped, the desire of the majority of the inhabitants of Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Armagh. to be part of a United Ireland. leaving three and a half counties, and that mostly Belfast, a beleagured garrison of "planters", innocent survivors of a colonial past.

Or are they all so innocent? As the author points out, Craigavon and Co never seriously thought that they could hold on for fifty years, but of course. they did.

What does not come out so strongly. is that the Craigavons and Craigs and landed aristocracy and generals, and shipyard workers, never had it so good for fifty years, based on a regime which had all the hallmarks of a totalitarian state.

Also. less strongly. is the point made that the problem of Ireland and England today is basically the question of the defence of Europe. The second world war years saw a benevolently neutral Ireland, yet one which was obliged to deny Britain the defence of her Western approaches in her struggle for survival.

To the Irish desk in Washington, to second world war does not figure at all in this book, and so, perhaps the third question not very fully dealt with is. how strongly were American politicians interested in the Irish question, and how successful were. and are, the Irish politicians in manipulating the Americans?

"If blame is to be apportioned for today's situation in Northern Ireland, concludes Kee, "it should be laid, not at the door of men of today, but of history. If personal villains are wanted, then perhaps they should be sought among those successive British Governments, who. traumatised by the events of 1916-21, abrogated their responsibilities in Northern Ireland for so many years thereafter.

Paradoxically those British Governments which, since new troubles started in 1968 and 1969. have been \rnOst blamed by the Irish and the outside world, have at least tried harder."

Robert Kee gives credit where credit is due, for after all, they have tried harder, the "B" Specials are gone, Stormont is gone, and at least Sunningdale was tried.

This book deserves to remain for a long time in the best-seller's list.

Terence J. Sheehy




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