A Very Special Case

The Making of Modern Ireland: 1603-1923

by J.C. Beckett
Knopf, 496 pp., $8.95

The Irish Question: 1840-1921

by Nicholas Mansergh
University of Toronto, 412 pp., $7.00

Ireland Since the Rising

by Timothy Patrick Coogan
Praeger, 370 pp., $6.95

There is nothing commoner in history than oppression—of one class by another, of one religion by another, of one people by another. Even in this dismal record Ireland is a very special case. Nowhere did oppression go on longer, and nowhere was it so compact of all three characters, class, religion, and nationality. Ireland is a special case in another way. Nowhere, except in one corner, has liberation been more complete, and even the remaining grievance of the Border is losing its harshness. The nations of eastern Europe also liberated themselves after oppressions of varying durations, but only to fall under the domination of Soviet Russia. The Irish are truly their own masters. Nothing remains of the old tyranny except burnt-out barracks and ruined mansions. Odder still, the Irish, after a triumphantly successful revolution, have settled down into a prosaically conservative existence. Their bright boys complain that life is dull. Few would really have it otherwise.

The strangeness is not all on one side. The oppressors were also a very special case. This was not a story of despotic tyrants—Sultans, Tsars, or Kaisers. It was not even the story of a race usually brutal and ruthless, as, say, the Prussians have been. Quite the contrary. The English have been renowned throughout modern history as champions of liberty. Yet the more advanced and enlightened a British statesman was, the worse he behaved in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell cut off the king’s head and defended religious freedom; he was responsible for the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. William of Orange, The Liberator, led the Glorious Revolution; he was responsible, whether he liked it or not, for the broken treaty of Limerick. Lord John Russell promoted the Great Reform Bill; he was responsible for mass starvation during the Famine. Joseph Chamberlain, the great nineteenth-century radical, defeated Home Rule; Lloyd George, the great twentieth-century radical, launched the Black and Tans. Only Gladstone, among British statesmen, had a spotless record, and his vision matured late in life. Otherwise an Englishman can only bow his head in shame. And now it is all over. The history of Ireland can be written in detachment, all passion spent, as though the oppression ended centuries ago. There is no resentment, no repetition of fradulent legends, and it is often difficult to tell whether the writer is a Republican, a Unionist, or even an Englishman.

THE THREE BOOKS REVIEWED here are all examples of this historical impartiality. Taken together, they give a full and rounded picture of what is, fortunately, no longer “the Irish Question.” Mr. Beckett was born in Belfast and is now a professor there. No one would guess this from his book, which is the best general history of modern Ireland. It is uniformly fair to every party from the Fenians to the Ulster covenanters. The Curragh mutiny and the Easter rising are presented in the same even tones. O’Donovan Rossa and Sir Edward Carson would have been alike surprised at the charity extended …

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Letters

Irish History October 20, 1966