R.F. Foster's 'The Irish Story': thrashing history's stereotypes


No body of historic writings, mythology and conjecture on earth is richer than that of Ireland. To say that it is the nature of the race is pathetically simplistic. To say that it is the consequence of oppression -- some tellers of the story of Ireland make it 5,000 years or so of sequential conquests -- is condescending.

One element of the phenomenon is the Irish love of literature: In this tiny country -- 3.8 million people in the 26 counties of the republic and 1.7 million in the 6 counties of the British province of Northern Ireland -- virtually everybody is fluently literate and conscious of history. You can always find an argument about football in the most modest pub on the island, but it's far easier to get into a debate about a single week in 1798, complete with footnotes.

The outpouring of literature from Ireland has ever been enormous, and nothing seems to stem it, or to reduce the excellence of the best of it. Occasionally, amid that plenitude there emerges a book that startles and provokes to the point of demanding extraordinary attention.

Such a book is The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland, by R. F. Foster (Oxford, 282 pages $28).

Foster maintains that the Irish, himself included, "have an idiosyncratic approach to telling stories. A powerful oral culture, a half-lost language, the necessary stratagems of irony, collusion and misdirection which accompany a colonized culture, maybe even the long wet winter nights -- all these give a distinctive twist to the way the Irish account for themselves."

His central theme, or approach may be a better term, is "the way that narrative itself has come to be seen as an agent of making history." He concisely cuts through the half-dozen or more fancies that have captivated academics and explores the manner in which history is used by examining how histories are made.

Foster is the Carroll Professor of History at Oxford University. He is author of Modern Ireland and W. B. Yeats: The Apprentice Mage, the first volume of what is already recognized by many authorities as the ultimate work on Yeats. He is editor of The Oxford History of Ireland.

This does not suggest he is free of controversy. Nothing in Ireland is immune to condemnation and dismissal -- as well as hagiography -- on the basis of sect, region, caste or historic origin. Foster is of Protestant origins -- just like many of the most distinguished leaders of Irish nationalism for centuries. More, his scholarly background began in Trinity College Dublin, the seat of modern "revisionist" Irish history -- characterized by a revisiting of original sources, often with the effect of puncturing popular mythologies.

Foster's sense, and use, of irony is exquisite. He bemoans the Irish government's exploitation of history by trivializing it to drum up tourist trade. He cites the Irish Tourist Board's official intent: "the creation of strong brand image of Ireland as quality heritage destination, with unique heritage attractions." Foster concludes: "This suggests that, if America was allegedly the only country to pass from barbarism to decadence without experiencing civilization, Ireland seems to have moved from archaism to postmodernism without really allowing the time to become modern."

Foster delights in ridiculing the deserving: "It is hard to feel comfortable with the idea of historical memory as a feelgood happy-clappy therapeutic refuge, or as a fantastical theme-park" -- of which there are now many scattered about Ireland.

Much of this is not light reading. The mass of information and contention, of scholarship and curiosity, invites close attention and disciplined consciousness. But Foster writes beautifully. His vocabulary is clear and his rhythms energetic.

And his work is accessible and relevant to both the general reader and the intent and seriously interested one. "Historians are often exhorted to write for 'the general reader'," Foster writes, "and some try to -- though for most practicing academics, the 'general reader's a bit like the stray neighbourhood cat; you feel vaguely sympathetic towards it, you know it's somebody's responsibility to look after it, but you're damned if you're going to do it yourself."

His literary and scholarly heroes include Yeats, of course, and James Joyce, but also Frank O'Connor, Anthony Trollope, Hubert Butler and Elizabeth Bowen. The list is long. In contrast, no aspect of the exploitation and abuse of stereotypes distresses Foster more than the work typified by that of Frank McCourt.

Writing of Angela's Ashes, Foster declares "The language is monotonous, the incidents repetitive, the characterization perfunctory; people are identified by formulaic strap-lines, which are trundled out again and again each time they appear." That is among his milder dismissals of McCourt -- in Angela and its sequel, 'Tis.

He then goes to the record, pointing out a series of factual inconsistencies -- which have been raised before in other venues -- and wryly flipping him off with "It is impossible to escape the sneaking feeling that the literary classics devoured by the youthful McCourt and used in his later career as a teacher have heavily influenced his 'memoirs.'

Foster goes on to examine the ostensible autobiography, Before the Dawn, of Gerry Adams, president of the Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Adams, who served, among other tasks, as chief of staff of the IRA's Army Council, never mentions terrorism. Oh, well.

I read both books with intense interest, and find nothing to quibble with in Foster's conclusions -- though I must say that I found and find McCourt's tawdry libel against Ireland and its largely decent peoples and institutions more offensive than Adams' transparent bundle of mendacious political posturings.

Finally, this book reconfirms that no one knows how to end an argument in Ireland. In Ireland, history is a tyrant and a tool, a loyal ally and a nettlesome nemesis. I know a bit about Ireland -- a friend calculated once that I had spent almost exactly a year there, cumulatively, in trips for both work and play. (I have remote family connections there, both Catholic and Protestant.)

In the course of that fascination, I have read more books than I could possibly recount or responsibly remember. But today I can think of no book that more clearly, provocatively and intelligently delineates the important underlying contemporary truths of Ireland and the Irish than this insightful, courageous and splendid work.

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