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Recasting the History of Modern Ireland

About a century ago Ireland became an independent country at the end of a revolutionary decade which started with the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant (1912), continued with the Easter Rising (1916), and was completed by Partition and Civil War (1920-3). From 2012 the centenary commemorations have been marked by an intense programme of both academic and public history events, in which most scholars in the field were fully involved. I contributed lectures, blogs, articles, a major conference and a rather unusual volume of essays, The Shaping of Modern Ireland, which I co-edited with Daniel Mulhall, the current Irish Ambassador to the US. Our book revisited a volume published in 1960 by the historian/diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien: in both cases the idea was to encourage a dialogue between historians, journalists, poets and other public figures, ‘an interrogation by a cross-section of contemporary Ireland of a significant cross section of its own past’. That in 2016 such ‘interrogation’ involved, besides a career diplomat, also a Cambridge-based Italian historian was in itself revealing of the extent to which the ‘territorialism’ and introversion which traditionally dominated the field has been replaced by greater self-confidence and a readiness to listen to different points of view.

This book was launched at a major conference on the Easter Rising, which I had organised in co-operation with the Churchill Archives. As the first major rebellion of an age of civil wars and revolts – one culminating with the 1917 October Revolution and the socialist and fascist upheavals which affected most of Europe throughout the 1920s – the Easter Rising proved both an immediate failure and a long-term success. The Churchill conference reflected some of the distinctive features of the Cambridge approach to Irish history, one that is comparative, includes the diasporas, and is attentive to the role of minorities. 

Easter rising

Working on these three guiding concerns, in 2017 The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland since 1740, which I co-edited with Mary Daly, proposed a multi-dimensional approach that sets the historian free from the grand political narratives of unionism and nationalism. The history of Ireland concerns the people who were born there, those who emigrated into Ireland, and those who left the island to settle overseas. Through such a people-centred prism many traditional questions can be recast in a different perspective, while different issues and new methods are constantly being formulated. 

The Shaping, the Churchill conference, and even The Cambridge Social History were first conceived at the Modern Irish History Seminar, which meets at Sidney Sussex College fortnightly in Term time. Besides being a ‘laboratory’ of new scholarship, the seminar supports regular cooperation with other universities and co-ordinates high-impact events in the ‘history & policy’ area. Thus, in December 2017 we organised the Third Cambridge-Edinburgh Joint Graduate Conference, and in March 2018 it will host the Third Brian Lenihan Memorial Lecture, dedicated to the Northern Ireland Process on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Our speaker will be Bertie Ahern – who, as Taoiseach in 1998, was a key figure in the peace negotiations.

Especially since Partition, the ‘Irish Question’ has been primarily about minorities. Though the latter have often been studied in association with sectarianism, I have always thought that there is much more to be said about their significance in democratic ‘nation building’. In December 2017 I secured a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2018-21), which will enable me to examine the question in a systematic way over the whole period from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. I am concerned with old minorities (in particular, Protestants and Jews), the new arrivals from the 1990s (including Muslims and Orthodox Christians), and the way the very notion of ‘minority’ changed in the twenty-first century. As a conservative Catholic ‘monocultural’ country transitioned into a pluralist society apparently at ease with diversity, religious difference and indifference became the norm and ‘minorities’ became about distinctiveness in life-styles and sexual orientation, rather than cultural segregation. While Ireland is none the worse for the change, the whole idea of what constitutes ‘the nation’ has been deeply affected.

The wider question is: What is it that makes democracy work? How does one inspire civic activism and patriotic culture? And what are the factors which destabilise and undermine a democratic culture? These are the issues which have always inspired my research and remain central to my current work and research projects. Engaging a large team of scholars from all over the world, I am currently in the process of exploring these issues in a global context and in a systematic way as the General Editor of a six-volume Cultural History of Democracy, from the early experiments to the present day. It studies the preconditions and reverberations of democratic ideas and practices, their shaping of cultural attitudes and expressions, including public and private discourse and material culture. While Ireland is a specific case study in the recasting of democratic identity and pluralism, this project will provide a new conceptual framework to understand the widest context of democratic life and the challenges that we now face.