Envoi: Taking Leave Of Roy Foster


After people have read this book, they might think that Roy Foster has given "revisionists" a bad name. Serious-minded revisionists may come to the view that their view of Irish history might be better served by a more cautious approach; that their project can be better served by a more earnest and scholarly method to the business in hand. But that is not how things happen in the real world.

Mr. Foster's 'methodology' was an essential part of the project—above all the understated attitude of intellectual superiority which permeates his pronouncements. Irish historians were meant to feel that the old certainties and assumptions were hopelessly inadequate and that the inherited body of national literature quite unreliable—and certainly unsuitable for transmission to a rising generation.

This sort of change of heart is not achieved with scholarly demonstrations. It is necessary to engage the emotions—and that is Roy Foster's trademark: readers are invited to feel contemptuous about Irish national ideology. A strong persona is projected with which readers can engage. It is not quite performance-art, but showmanship certainly is part of the methodology.

But, again, that alone would not have sufficed. The superior attitudes, smart remarks, and pithy quips had to be embedded in an erudite analysis. But those who have taken the trouble to follow through on Mr. Foster's allusions find that there is no substance to them. On closer examination his high-sounding pronouncements and theoretical flourishes turn out to be mere bits of other people's theories, gathered together to make a collage with no substance behind it. The writers he seeks to press into service turn out to be concerned with something quite different, nothing to do with the use to which their key phrases are put. By careful quoting these theorists can be made to appear to support his tendentious statements—but, when their work is looked at in its own context, it is clear that the conclusions Mr. Foster draws for the Irish context are simply not inherent in or consistent with the original analysis.

It would take several books to demonstrate this point conclusively. What is done in Part One of this book is to follow up some of the apparently erudite references, trace the train of thought of the originator, and then see just what the relevance is for Ireland. Readers will be surprised at just how empty Mr. Foster's erudition turns out to be.

The revisionist project needed more than a flamboyant leader, however. There has to be an intermediate stratum which will promote the personality cult.

Part Two of this work looks at Mr. Foster's reviewing circle in Britain and Ireland, and brings forward some general observations. Very often it is revisionist historians who 'talk up' each other's work. But it has been found that, in addition, there are media strongholds which serve as a propaganda platform. The leader in this field in Ireland is the Irish Times. Writers and journalists to provide the uncritical exposure required seem to be in ready supply.

So sycophantic has been this barrage of publicity for Mr. Foster's polemics that it was thought useful to examine it in some detail. With a few notable exceptions (which are also reviewed here), the 'critics' might as well have been working for Mr. Foster's publishers.

Part Three comprises reprints of relevant essays. David Alvey's Irish Revisionism, School History And The Invisibility Of Women examines Mr. Foster's strictures as regards the Irish school system. Brian Murphy's Past Events And Present Politics discusses Foster's ideas in the context of ideology

It would be wrong to leave anyone under the impression that "revisionism" is defined by Foster and similarly-minded people. The great Cambridge historian, Professor Brendan Bradshaw, carefully analysed what authentic revisionism was at a 1995 historical conference in New York. He accepted that all working historians are 'revisionist', in that they analyse new material that comes on stream, new sources that are opened, and private papers that are donated for research—all of which leads to new questions and obviously new conclusions. But there he departed from agreement with our revisionists.

Foster was present and felt the heat as Bradshaw outlined what he thought of him and others who abuse their position. The former and his adherents are ideologically-driven: they have, as Kevin Whelan stated, "political agendas which overcome their scholarship", and let their anti-nationalism so warp their work that it amounts to destroying Irish history. Some people contend that they are out to anglicise our history, but I contend that that is too simplistic.

The answer to the question of what the revisionist project is for can be found by looking at the purpose of 'history'.

A country without a history is like a person without a memory: it merely exists purposelessly, an organism without a soul or spirit.

'History' is the memory of a nation—and of course that is transmitted in the shape of a story, with heroes and enemies. By subverting memory, revisionists disable the nation, reduce it to a cypher which can easily be manipulated to an external agenda.

Ireland is in the unique position in the world of having given the guardianship of its collective memory to academics with agendas of their own. For some of these the idea of nationality is problematical. Some believe that the 30-year Provisional campaign in Northern Ireland was an expression of irredentism. (They are wrong: the Northern war was internally generated by an impossible Constitution forced on Northern Ireland by a British administration in 1920.) The motives of others are less creditable: they serve another country.

What cannot be denied is that university external examiners, who decide whether doctoral theses in Irish history pass muster, are in the pay of a different jurisdiction. The History Departments of Irish Universities have been colonised by those who are content with this situation.

Thus it was that Irish children were taught different versions of history in the schools and in the universities during a transitional generation. How long will it be before all the schools have the new Oxford line? David Alvey's warnings (Appendix One) are particularly apposite here.

In the universities, even the subjects which are chosen for research, and the parameters for investigation, are carefully controlled to prevent 'thought-crime'.

The yearly reading lists provided by each History Department throughout the Irish universities are not meant to be advisory, to be discarded if students consider they provide too narrow a focus. Rather they are litmus tests by which the student's attentiveness to departmental direction is gauged and marked. Naturally Foster is always on those lists.

Between like-minded internal and external examiners, the students are caught up in an ideological net with their very careers determined by how uncritically they reflect the revisionist ideology back to their examiners/lecturers.

And so the game goes on. Foster has been described as nothing more than a "showman", who flees questioners at conferences. But I think his presence is still baleful and powerful, while his books—which Bradshaw politely described as having "a natural anti-Irish bias"—remain on mandatory reading lists.

This project has been over two years in gestation. But, though some time has elapsed since the publication of the books and the reviews which form its subject-matter, the work unfortunately still remains as relevant as ever. But we hope that this 'Envoi' will enable us to 'take leave of Mr. Foster' and the whole revisionist agenda to manipulate the memory of Ireland.

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