The British Isles: A History of Four Nations
by Hugh Kearney
Cambridge University Press, 236 pp., $29.95
This timely book aims to correct many popular errors of which historians, of the British Isles at least, are guilty. Professor Kearney has taught at universities in Ireland, England, Scotland, and the US, so he is well equipped for his subject. The first error is to speak of “England” when we mean “Great Britain.” I am ashamed to say that I have committed this solecism in my time. A second error is to assume that the territories which we today call “England,” “Wales,” “Ireland,” “Scotland” always were England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. “Later national boundaries were extended backwards into a past where they had little or no relevance,” Kearney writes, “with the consequence that earlier tribal or pre-national societies were lost to sight.” A consequent error is to assume that the unity of each of these nations, in the form that it ultimately took, is good in itself, and that all history was inevitably moving in that direction.
So this is a refreshing book, especially salutary for English historians, but with lessons for Welsh, Irish, and Scottish historians too. The unity of Great Britain today was brought about by a great deal of bloodshed in the past. Englishmen tend to forget that Wales and Ireland were subjugated by military conquest. Anglo-Scottish relations were different because Scotland in the Middle Ages achieved a form of state, and a French alliance, which made it too tough a proposition for England to conquer, despite many attempts. In fact, when James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 the two nations were united under a Scottish king. The corruption and chicanery with which the formal union of 1707 was forced through were partially forgotten in consequence of the prosperity that union brought to the Scottish Lowlands; but they were remembered in the Highlands. The popularity of the memory of that unsatisfactory romantic hero, Prince Charles Edward, is testimony to lasting anti-English feeling there.
The most interesting chapters of Kearney’s book are the early ones, stressing the great diversity within what were to become the four nations we know today, and showing how little the present outcome was preordained. Kearney demolishes a number of traditionally accepted legends as he proceeds. “English historians of the Roman conquest,” he writes, “have seen it, on the whole, through the eyes of the victors, an understandable attitude in a society with its own strong imperial traditions.” Kearney stresses on the contrary that under the Roman Raj Britain was a colony, occupied by a powerful army (which never subdued the Highlands of what is now Scotland, and never tried to conquer what is now Ireland). Most towns originally had military purposes. The resources and raw materials of the colony were exploited for the benefit of the empire and its representatives. Slavery and forced labor were used to produce the necessary surplus. Roman culture prevailed among the elite in southern and eastern “England.” The Christian church, which had adapted itself through bishops to the Roman administrative model, began to spread Roman influences …