Contemporary Irish history exists in the shadows of a number of different conflicts: the “Troubles” of 1969-98 (a euphemistic term that avoids naming what was in reality a regional civil war of the United Kingdom), the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21 (which, for reasons that have always been unclear to me, is commonly labelled “the Irish Revolution”) and, probably less well known outside of Ireland, a charged historiographic debate of the 1980s and ‘90s. This latter debate took place between “Revisionists” (very empirical, academically-trained historians whose dry tone attempted to be dispassionate) and their opponents, often called “anti-revisionists”, who were often just old-fashioned nationalists. Of course, these arguments were often intertwined. The verbal violence of the revisionists was bound up with the problem of how to think about, and respond to, the still live conflict in the North.
The field of Irish history-writing has settled since the 1990s. Periodically there is an argument, but this is generally only episodic and momentary and has little ongoing impact on the methods or foci of Irish historical research. If anything, Irish history-writing is, today, too peaceful, too lacking in debate. Maybe still bearing the scars of the debates of the 1990s, Irish historians often go out of their way to avoid arguments. Or maybe it’s just that Ireland is a small country: there are only around a dozen universities on the entire island along with a smattering of smaller colleges. When everyone knows everyone – and often comes from the same social background – too many arguments are just a bit too gauche. Even in Britain, Irish historians are a small community and the realities of the ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland, and more recently those generated by Brexit, hang in the background. In other English-speaking nations such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the long history of Irish immigration to those lands often dominates those histories. For postcolonial scholars, Ireland plays a particular role in the long, messy, comparative role of British imperial politics.
In contemporary Irish academic history-writing, there are no clearly defined schools of thought, theory is not really foregrounded, critical methodologies are avoided (Marxism most especially), comparative work is the exception rather than the norm, and most Irish historians have the Anglo-Saxon disease of monoglotism (notwithstanding the fact that the Republic of Ireland is an officially bilingual state). In the revisionism fights, there was palpable anxiety around the use of postcolonial theory, particularly by literary critics. Perhaps as a result, there is now very little cross-pollination with other disciplines. Since 2012, Irish historians have been involved in public commemoration of key events in the two countries’ modern histories, and yet what is most striking now in hindsight is how few arguments academic historians had during moments when they were asked to make meaning of the past for the present. Consensus is not necessarily a good thing, particularly when it shuts down debate. Irish historians would do well to learn how to have meaningful arguments again. And with the quarter-century anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, coupled with the obvious post-Brexit fact that Westminster still has not solved its (Northern) Irish questions, this is an opportune time not just to reassess Ireland's and Northern Ireland’s histories but to make the case for why anyone should take the time to learn more about their contentious pasts.
In the series of blog posts that follows – partly inspired by Ian McBride’s recent article in the Journal of British Studies – I invite a range of specialists in Irish history, broadly writ, to state explicitly and unambiguously where they stand on issues of critical importance to a wider British Studies intellectual community. What is their school of thought? What do they think this history helps us to understand, and why should British Studies scholars, as well as those in other disciplines, continue to care about the Troubles? Where do they place the conflict in Northern Ireland in relation to broader comparative, transnational, intersectional, and (post-)colonial contexts?
The scholars participating in this series will explore what terms such as “democracy,” “ethnicity,” and “religion” mean in Northern Ireland and how these categories relate to “the political.” But I also ask them to think about other categories of belonging and exclusion. For example, where does capitalism fit into Northern Irish histories? Even if their works have made little impact in Ireland, scholars as diverse as Immanuel Wallerstein and Cedric Robinson have recognized that Ireland exists, and is determined by, a capitalist world-system and within racial capitalism. Northern Ireland is rife with gendered and sexual contradictions: it looks, from afar, to be conservatively religious, but the history of the Troubles is inseparable from the history of assertive female-led organizations and female leaders like Bernadette Devlin. The largest party in the North, Sinn Féin, is led by Michele O’Neill and the Democratic Unionist Party also had a female leader until 2021, and yet abortion was only made recently legal by an act of British Parliament. Clearly, gender and sexuality should play a role in our analyses. But perhaps more importantly, what can gender and sexuality reveal, as analytical lenses, that other conceptual categories cannot? What vocabulary should we use then to navigate a complex morass of identity categories that include but are not limited to religion, class, ethnicity, political allegiance, region, nation, gender, and status as colonizer/colonial subject? And finally, what might historians learn from other disciplinary approaches?
This series of blog posts, which will appear over the next few weeks, thus ask us to contemplate what is really at stake in these debates over how best to make sense of the Troubles?
Aidan Beatty is a historian from Galway, Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Chicago. His research focuses on Irish and British History, Jewish and Israeli History, Masculinity, Nationalism, Race, and Capitalism and Socialism. He is a lecturer in the History Department at Carnegie Mellon University and has previously taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Wayne State University and the University of Chicago. He currently serves as Vice-President of the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS), on a term from 2023-2025. From 2025-2027, he will serve as president of ACIS.
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