By Arthur Aughey


I was struck by a comment of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ (2015) on public interest in the anniversary of the 1916 rebellion. ‘All Ireland seems to be hosting history fight clubs these days’. Headline exaggeration apart, her point is well-made. Those who have observed the way in which 1916 is presently being commemorated in the Republic of Ireland would likely agree with Fintan O’Toole’s (2016) judgement that, officially at least, ‘the commemorations of the Rising have been doing a pretty good job of restoring more complex realities, treating the rebels as neither saints nor terrorists but real political actors in a wider European conflict…The context of the first world war, the central role of women and Dublin’s horrendous poverty are all being written back into the story’. One might propose an initial, if tentative, comparative history of 1916 commemorations.

In 1966, the 50th anniversary, the events of 1916 were commemorated in a historical vacuum, as if not only the Proclamation of the Republic came fully formed from the heads of what Dudley Edwards calls ‘the seven’ but also all that went before and all that came after were defined by the political incarnation of that moment. In 1991, the 75th anniversary, as I claimed in an essay at the time (1991), what was living in the tradition of 1916 in the Republic – the functioning of stable statehood – was dead in Northern Ireland and that what was dead in that tradition in the Republic – the violent propaganda of the deed – was very much alive in Northern Ireland. The close ideological relationship between the two, if not publicly acknowledged, meant in practice that there was a muted official response to commemoration while the IRA’s campaign continued, at that time seemingly without any end in prospect. In 2016, now that the Northern Troubles no longer figure prominently, that more complex and open mode (I am reluctant to say ‘inclusive’) to which both Dudley Edwards and O’Toole refer has become possible. ‘Yet’, as O’Toole concedes, ‘ the struggle has always been to decide whether it is history or current affairs, something that has happened or a harbinger of something yet to happen, done and dusted or unfinished business’. To say that it is both history and current affairs raises questions about the appropriate distinctions, especially this one: when we talk of the past is this the same thing as history? Or, to put that another way, what is history’s relationship with the past? I want to discuss this as a tale of two books.

The first is a novel. Recently our university library has been ‘de-cataloguing’. I don’t know if that is the correct bibliographical term and in popular usage the term would probably be ‘dumping’ – not, to be fair to Ulster, in the literal sense of consigning to the rubbish heap but in the financial sense of releasing onto the market poorly performing stock. Very generously, staff were given the opportunity to cast an eye over these old books, perhaps to redeem them and to give them a new home. Browsing the trollies of battered fiction ranked alphabetically from A to Z, I arrived at ‘M’. On this trolley there was a fair number of Iris Murdoch novels – I have to admit to never having read an ‘Iris Murdoch’ all the way through so I can understand why students avoided taking those novels out on loan. I thought that I was familiar with all her titles but was surprised by one of the stock. I found one that I had not heard of before which, unexpectedly and serendipitously, dealt with the 1916 Irish rebellion. That book, The Red and the Green (1965) (I suppose one can call it a historical novel), turned out to be the first ‘Murdoch’ I did manage to read to the end – not because I found it a compelling story (which I didn’t) but because there were striking passages every now and again which encouraged me to keep reading.

In one of those strange coincidences of reading and life, when I had completed the novel I discovered that this year’s March edition of the Dublin Review of Books included an interesting article on The Red and the Green by Pauline Hall as part of the DRB’s literary reflection on the Rebellion’s centenary. The article served only to show that my ignorance of the book had nothing to do with its history but merely with a gap in my own reading history. It is The Red and the Green (not, as one might have expected, The Orange and the Green) because Murdoch ‘links the apparently local romantic movement for Irish independence with international socialist struggles’. Indeed, the book ends with an Epilogue set in 1938 in which Dublin 1916 is discussed with reference to the Spanish Civil War. Hall notes the significance of the novel’s date of publication. In 1965 there was a ‘lull’ in Irish history which she identifies as ‘just short of fifty years after the Easter Rising, on which the action of the novel converges, and four years before the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland’. For those old enough to remember that year, this comment has some force (and for some the years of the middle sixties remain either a time of lost innocence or a time of missed opportunity). This is far from being yet another example the truth that old men (and women) forget. Historians have made similar observations without, of course, claiming that there was any golden age. For example, J.C. Beckett proposed in his celebrated The Making of Modern Ireland, first published in 1966, that the great achievement of the Government of Ireland Act had been to secure stability in Ireland which it had not experienced for 300 years. And we know what came shortly afterwards, events influenced by ideological currents flowing from the anniversaries of both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rebellion. Hugh Kearney has also written that in that ‘lull’ people did expect old antagonisms to be moving towards resolution. The violence of the next thirty years ‘was a future quite unforeseen in the 1960s’. And Marc Mulholland, working on the premiership of Terence O’Neill, wrote of his sense of shock when surfacing from his immersion in the documents of the period at the Public Records Office in South Belfast he considered ‘the disaster that overtook Northern Ireland in the years following’. Not only did these years take a shape that seemed inconceivable in the period that preceded it but also the violence appeared incommensurate with what was ‘the Northern Ireland Question’ of its day. That historical note of contingency, unpredictability and disordering of expectations is useful when thinking about the past of 1916.

Hall remarks that one of the novel’s characters makes the surprising announcement that Ireland ‘doesn’t have any history to speak of’. Murdoch, she thinks, would have been ‘well aware of the irony of this observation’. She may well have been; though there are two contrasts made in the novel which deserve closer attention and which may make that announcement less contextually surprising. For the character who announces thus also asks with some exasperation (40): ‘Why do people in Ireland always talk about history?’ It is a question prompted by a national contrast: ‘English people don’t talk about English history all the time’. To which her interlocutor responds: ‘They don’t have to ask the question, What went wrong?’ and the reason for the difference is simple: ‘For them nothing went wrong’. That contrast is one of the familiar tropes of popular Irish thinking, a variation on that old familiar saw of Anglo-Irish misunderstanding: that the Irish always remember their history while the English always forget theirs. In 1916, then, the English forgot about ‘the dead generations’ from which Ireland ‘receives her old tradition of nationhood’. But the Irish remembered and the rebels were proved right that Ireland’s ‘children’ would heed the call to rally ‘to her flag’. For the first time, history would go ‘wrong’ for the English and go ‘right’ for the Irish. Ireland’s destiny, immanent in all its history, was fulfilled as a consequence. Whatever the truth of that popular proposition about the Irish and their history (and I think there’s none) it remains a powerful current in nationalist self-understanding. As the key rebel character in the novel puts it succinctly: ‘His parents had had little Irish patriotism and this lack was for him a part of their utter commonplaceness. His own recognition of himself as far from commonplace came with his early sense of his Irish destiny, his sense of belonging not to himself but to some design of history’. That design required ‘a pure Ireland of the mind, to be relentlessly served by a naked sense of justice and a naked self-assertion’. In this historical drama there were only two characters, ‘Ireland and himself’. There is a chilling and disturbing quality to that patriotism, a terrible beauty indeed. However, it is the second of the novel’s contrast which is more interesting.

Towards the end of the Epilogue, the Irish mother attempts to keep the peace during yet another argument between her romantic son who is considering, on the basis of the family’s legendary association with 1916, volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War and her pragmatic, sceptical English husband who dismisses the former as nonsense and the latter as one group of barbarians fighting against another. She has experience of pouring oil on troubled waters and in this case recalls the wisdom of her father who was opposed to any kind of extremism. The contrast is made thus: ‘He said the Irish talked nothing but history, but had no historical sense at all’. Is that not yet another ironic observation, a novelist’s delight in the paradoxical and which is ultimately meaningless? I think not and would argue that it goes to the heart of those questions which continue to occupy academics (and not just academics) today – questions of ‘memory’, of ‘commemoration’ and, in Northern Ireland particularly, of ‘dealing with the past’.

The second book is an intellectual’s notebook. At the same time as I was reading The Red and the Green I was also working my way through Michael Oakeshott’s (2014) recently published Notebooks, 1922-86 (and perhaps there is more than a casual link here because Oakeshott and Murdoch were at one time lovers). Here was another serendipitous moment. One of the great themes of Oakeshott’s thought is the problem of historical understanding, what distinguishes it and what compromises it as a ‘mode of experience’. The Notebooks provide a remarkable insight into how fragments of ideas and immediate reflections are later worked up into influential philosophical texts and there is evidence of Oakeshott’s consistent wrestling with the idea of history. (It is worth a fleeting speculation to consider whether he and Murdoch shared their thoughts about history, for the distinction between talking about ‘history’ and the ‘historical sense’ is one which is central to Oakeshott’s own view).

Thus, in an extended note added in 1958, Oakeshott reflected on the ‘legendary & the historical’ and headed his remarks with the title: ‘Their different structure.’ In the former, he wrote, all that is ‘casual, secondary, unresolved, truncated, obscure oruncertain is absent’. Agency reveals only a few simple motives according to a unity of feeling. There is pattern and types and, ultimately, everything is ‘exact & nothing is confused’. By contrast, the latter is ‘confusion, contradiction, individuality, lack of arrangement, uncertainty, events which lead nowhere & complicated motives & circumstances; obscurity, variety – & yet a kind of intelligibilty’. He concluded this note with his characteristically subtle ambivalence. ‘To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend’. It is a conclusion repeated in his essay ‘The Activity of Being an Historian’ (1962) where we find it rephrased thus: ‘And if in so new and so delicate an enterprise [the historian] finds himself tempted into making concessions to the idiom of legend, that perhaps is less damaging than other divergencies.’ That is why he is convinced that the ‘past is past only for history; elsewhere it is present’. In other words, though the historical event is gone and is now only accessible (if at all) by disciplined historical research, it continues to have another life ‘in fable, in gesture, in turns of speech, in habit, and above all in myth’ (2014).

It is this other life of fable, gesture, turns of speech, habit, and myth to which Murdoch is referring when she wrote of the Irish always talking history and which, in Oakeshott’s more austere moods, is not history at all. Indeed, he likened this engagement with the past to a field in which people exercise their moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on Sunday afternoon. 1916 has (and continues) to reveal energetic whippet exercising, an occasion for indulging in self-pity, self-righteousness and maudlin sentimentality. And to this list we can also add self-justification, as if it were all about us. By contrast, the historical sensenot talking ‘nothing but history’ – refers the ‘circumstantial to circumstances – a whole in which everything is contingent – even the whole’. Historical sense, then, is concerned with occasions and not causes. For Oakeshott (and I think this is the point Murdoch is also making) much of what passes for ‘talking nothing but history’ is either celebration of ‘cause’ or demonstration against it. He was firmly convinced of one thing: ‘there is absolutely no point in demonstrating against the past’, at least the ‘historical sense’ as Oakeshott understands it. If one does, it means not engaging with history but with politics. Herbert Butterfield’s famous formulation of the study of the past with one eye upon the present as ‘ the source of all sins and sophistries in history’ becomes here two eyes on the present with no historical sense whatsoever.

History, of course, would be meaningless if it had nothing interesting to say to the present and as our present changes so too does our past. It is difficult to keep still the whippets of moralising, difficult to avoid finding lessons, impossible not to ‘revise’ and, if there is deadliness in ‘doing’ there is even more deadliness in observing the dead burying their dead, an activity which can only recommend silence. As Oakeshott admitted early in his career there is indeed something decadent, something even depraved, in such a rigorous historical sense, one that would ‘renounce for the time being everything which can be called good and evil, everything which can be valued or rejected as valueless. And no matter how far we go with it, we shall not easily forget the sweet delight which lies in the empty kisses of abstraction.’ For the historian, those sweet but empty kisses are what everyone else would call life. Perhaps one can put it this way: being able to understand that difference, and knowing that there is a line to cross between the two, distinguishes the historian’s interest in making sense of the past from the propagandist’s interest in making a political point or the active citizen’s concern for the commonweal (Is it possible, as Edna Longley once asked, to make the past serve as a homeopathic dose against violence? Or does celebrating events just keep the pot simmering until needed?)

I suppose public commemoration can only give people what the people themselves are ready to accept. If we compare where we are now with where we were 50 or even 25 years ago, what the public will expect or accept of commemorations has modified significantly. Perhaps one can argue that in 1966 the commemoration of 1916 involved talking ‘nothing but history’, a celebration of the republican legend of the Rebellion expressed in ‘a unity of feeling’. In 2016 the commemoration qualifies that legend with greater historical sense (it hasn’t replaced it), now involving greater contextual complexity, one which acknowledges ‘complicated motives and circumstances’. Perhaps that tentative, comparative history has some truth in it even though it may not hold true when the 125th anniversary comes around.

Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics, Ulster University


Arthur Aughey, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in the Ideal of 1916?’, in Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan (eds.), Revising the Rising (Derry, 1991).

Ruth Dudley-Edwards, ‘Some awkward questions on the Easter Proclamation’, Irish Independent 18/10/2015

Pauline Hall, ‘A Terrible Thing’ March 2016

Hugh Kearney ‘Visions and Revisions: Views of Irish history’, Irish Review, 27, 2001 113-120.

Marc Mulholland Northern Ireland at the Crossroads. Ulster unionism in the O’Neill years 1960-9, Basingstoke 2000

Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green (London 1965)

Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks, 1922-86 (Exeter 2014)

Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge 1990)

Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Activity of Being an Historian’ in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (New York, 1962), pp. 137–67,

Fintan O’Toole, ‘The terrible beauty of the Easter Rising remains alive today’1/2/2016

Image source:×300/Dame-Murdoch.jpeg

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