“This country of ours is no sand bank, thrown up by some recent caprice of earth. It is an ancient land, honoured in the archives of civilisation, traceable into antiquity by its piety, its valour, and its sufferings. Every great European race has sent its stream to the river of Irish mind. Long wars, vast organisations, subtle codes, beacon crimes, leading virtues, and self-mighty men were here. If we live influenced by wind and sun and tree, and not by the passions and deeds of the past, we are a thriftless and hopeless People.” – Thomas Davis
History is the highest value in the preservation of a nation’s honour and sense of self. It is from history we derive our great ballads, our literature, our customs, our political theories, and our consciousness as a nation.
Without its history, a nation ceases to know its lineage and thus ceases to have ability to develop on its own lines, it becomes influenced by external forces that inevitably inculcates a base self-hatred of the remnants of its history it can still claim to know.
English conquest had brought with it a full-fronted assault on Irish history; a debasement of its civilisation, literature, language and faith; the relentless inculcation of the Irish as an inferior race, of barbarians, whose destiny was to be a conquered people for all time.
From Eoghan Ruadh’s death at Cloughoughter Castle to the establishment of the United Irishmen, Ireland had virtually no real separatist cause. It maintained some remnants of a literature yet such literature had formed little more than a rearguard action against what seemed to be an inexorable march towards the ultimate triumph of the English historical canon in Ireland.
With the advent of the Young Irelanders and in particular, the prolific works of Thomas Davis, saw however the first real effort in the fight against what would become known as Ireland as “revisionism”.
The establishment of a “Library of Ireland” was first announced in a Davis article in the Nation; its goal was the establishment of an Irish nationalist literary canon.
Davis saw in the re-development of a national literature an essential weapon in the restoration of nationalist sentiment. Histories were written on the life and times of Hugh O’Neill (by John Mitchel), the Confederation of Kilkenny (by Rev. Meehan), The Confiscation of Ulster and the Volunteers of 1782 (both by Thomas MacNevin), a collection of balladry and poetry to be edited by Charles Gavan Duffy titled The Spirit of The Nation, and a memoir of Wolfe Tone to be written by Davis, yet due to his untimely death was never completed.
Mitchel’s work on O’Neill was the first great work on the life of arguably Ireland’s greatest military figure and would prove the first of many great anti-revisionist works by Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) and The Crusade of the Period being others. The Rev. Meehan would prove himself in much of his work to be an invaluable historian of Gaelic Ireland. Thomas MacNevin was a very promising writer who unfortunately had his best years cut short, Davis’s death affected him so deeply he spent his final years in an English asylum, his book on the Plantation likely the first that contended with it as an act of colonization, rather than an act of civilisation.
Around the same time, the authoritative work of the historian R.R. Madden in chronicling the life and times of the United Irishmen and the preservation of invaluable correspondence and memoirs of men such as Emmet, Russell, Hope and McCracken, was coming to fruition.
The work of the Young Irelanders would prove the basis of a development in a nationalist history canon that would last throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century on to the early twentieth century. Irish history eventually became predominantly a nationalist realm, and this domination of the institutions seeped into the aspirations of the people, who were now increasingly confident in their own ability and their own means.
When partial independence was achieved, the nascent nationalist administration sought to erect the vision of the Young Irelanders as the ethos of the new state, yet before long, this vision crumbled. And soon enough the old force of revisionism had returned in a different garb.
The second wave of revisionism was unique in that it was largely headed by a clique of mostly Irish historians who were guided by some fratricidal, self-loathing hatred of the nationalist view of history. And thus, Wolfe Tone soon became a failed bourgeois colonist who turned to republicanism out of bitterness. Pádraig Pearse became a violent fanatic, a “proto-fascist”, a homosexual, an autist, a paedophile, and many other strange calumnies. Irish nationalism became a deluded, fanatical violent cult akin to fascism. The Irish re-conquest of Irish history had been undone, and the old self-hatred had returned.
One of the great anti-revisionists throughout this period, although certainly one of a small band fighting against the tide, was the late Desmond Fennell, probably the greatest modern Irish theorist we had.
“It is not a case of the Irish, collectively, expressing aversion to Ireland and the Irish but rather of a considerable number of Irish individuals intimating that they subscribe to standards of right action or intelligent insight superior to those of the Irish generally: a sort of “Ascendancy” attitude. – Desmond Fennell.
The Irish Revolution was undone in many ways and succeeded in very few aspects; yet its gravest undoing was that in the realm of academia. The academia of today continues to this day largely to engage in hostility to what is left of the nationalist idols and literature of old. This hostility now an appendage of the universal development of Western academia towards a demeaning of the classics and of national literature more generally.
It should be as sane to us as it was to Davis and the Young Irelanders to engage in struggle against this revisionism, and to destroy it totally and utterly. It is undoubtedly a hard feat, we are a small community of people but indeed so are the revisionists, but we certainly have the means and perhaps the will. Any blow we can strike, however small or big; whether that be a short review dismantling a piece of revisionist literature, whether that be the preservation and re-popularisation of the old anti-revisionist literature, or the publication of new biographies and histories, will be worth something in this effort.
This publication has already in effect done much in this regard semi-consciously, republishing old material, writing short biographies and reviews, and so on. Let us then take up this fight in a more concerted effort and if we do not strike the final blow in this defensive war against the distortion of our history, that we be able to be the inspiration for the next generation to finish the fight.
“Why should not we, the sons and daughters of Ireland, take our rich inheritance?… So long as the Spirit of life is over us, I do not know, and I hope you do not know, why we in this country should not be worthy of our dead.” – Alice Stopford Green