Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fenians

During my Honours year I was the first person to introduce myself in the Irish History seminar, and I told the class that my father’s family was very proud of its Irish heritage. That fact, surprisingly, resulted in two small problems for me. One was that I had already been exposed to the Irish Diaspora history, which meant that reading any kind of Irish history made my heart pound as well as my mind. And secondly the rest of the class, not of Irish descent but still aware of Irish pride, started deferring to me as the ‘Irishman’ in the class.

Considering the topic of the first seminar – Revision of Irish history – these two problems really brought home to me the challenges of looking at Irish history. One historian said that ‘in Irish history myth is part of the reality’, and in each seminar of the semester the myths of the Irish Diaspora turned me into a slightly emotional speaker and my audience into deferential listeners. Even though we weren’t Irish nor in Ireland.

Our tutor proposed that the overall discussion of revision of Irish history can be best summed up by a warning given by a sceptical local to a social investigator in Northern Ireland, “anyone who isn’t confused here doesn’t understand what’s going on.” The introductory seminar for Irish History was focussed on the ‘revisionist’ debate in the field of Irish history; who was involved, what was at stake and what were the main arguments for and against revisionism.

Revisionism of Irish history involves the Irish and the Irish Diaspora, involves Irish historians in Ireland and around the world, and involves the political everyday of Ireland; Irish history is generally parochial and an important political tool used by the Government and the populace. Revisionist historians face the challenge of dismantling the myths of Irish history and replacing it with a more specific social history of the country, redefining Irish history as the story of the people, not of the conflicts, the religion and the English. At stake are the identity of a nation and a Diaspora who are defined by their historical myths, the scholarship of historians and the political equilibrium of a country with obvious ‘troubles’.

Revision of Irish history would entail a move away from Anglo-centrism, away from commemorations of conflict and uprising and away from Diaspora tourism. It would entail a new construction of Irish history along social history lines, removing the overarching mythological themes of oppression and insurgency and starting to document the personal and specific facts of the history of the Irish. The causes and the results of each major event would have to be represented as they were recorded, not as they were perceived, preventing the myths of victim and oppressor from expanding beyond the facts of the situation, the actors and the acts themselves.

Throughout the unit we surveyed how the revisionist debate was shaping up in Ireland at the time, and most interesting was the impact the social reality of Ireland was having on the questions about the social history revision of Irish history. Ireland in the last few decades has become an active member of the EU and has expanded its creative output from the traditional literature and drama of a nation of poets to the science and technology of the Celtic Tiger. Most importantly for a historically racially homogenous society, the rate of immigration had brought radically new cultures into the mix.

Even beyond that commentators have observed a difference in the commemorations of the inflammatory events of Irish history under English rule. History is used as national therapy instead of national mobilisation for more violence. Urban populations are becoming disconnected from the rural Irish past. The Diaspora is now the larger user of personal commemorations and pursuers of comfort history. Irish history is being revived certainly, but it is linked to present international themes and is increasingly existent alongside less parochial creative endeavour.

On the weekend I took my parents and a friend of theirs to the play Catalpa. As proud members of the Diaspora with family connections to the Catalpa story, all four of us loved being amongst the Irish and American accents in the excited audience. The story was both utterly familiar, the Catalpa Caper is one of Western Australia's greatest claims to Fenian Fame, and a fabulous celebration of the personalities that made up the well-known story. Des Fleming's performance was nothing short of extraordinary; he performed a pitch perfect and word perfect performance of at least 10 characters in a two hour one man play. Everything about his time in the lights that night made him a hero of the stage.

The writing itself was soaring and spectacular, but most importantly in view of my experience of academic Irish History, there was not one direct mention of the English in the play; it was a play written entirely in the context of the Australian and American Diaspora Myth. The pride of the Irish and American characters in the play was not in their oppositon to the English, but in the huge effort put into rescuing men suffering unjust imprisonment in the middle of nowhere. It was a story about a journey and jailbreak that happened to undertaken by Americans, Irishmen and Australians, not a specifically Irish journey.

Even better, it was a story about American and Australian History, played out in Irish accents certainly, but full of American uprightness and Australian larrikanism. My Irish Diaspora pride stirred not at all during the play; mostly I loved the characters, the extraordinary actor bringing them to life, and I left the theatre marvelling at the men who wouldn’t let oceans stand between them and freedom.

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