Belfast Telegraph

Professor John Wilson Foster: The United Irishmen, the famine and Easter 1916 provide the narrative of Irish history


The Union flag and Irish Tricolour flying side by side
The Union flag and Irish Tricolour flying side by side

By Professor John Wilson Foster

The silence of the unionists is puzzling and from the academy, deafening. There is a swelling tide of support for a united Ireland with no breakwater in sight.

Until the Fitzgerald-Morgenroth paper out of Trinity College Dublin, that is. It at least should cause some to think twice, with its talk of "dramatic falls" and "major cuts" in living standards on either side of the border.

But even if the economics were reversed, unionist objections to being amputated from the UK, which is what "united Ireland" means, are not far to fetch. One objection is so huge it has been invisible. It is one that northern republicans will recognise instantly: The Story.

In The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature (1898), Eleanor Hull wrote that patriotism "rests upon what we may call the historic imagination. It connects itself with certain events in the past history of our country, or with occurrences ... that have stamped themselves upon the mind of the nation".

Hull was laying the foundation stone for what became the Irish Cultural Revival that in turn nourished the Irish war of independence.

The historic imagination suffuses everything of public note in nationalist Ireland. The flag, the anthem, the constitution, the proclamation, the speeches of the founding martyrs, the anniversaries, the Irish language, Gaelic sports, the pantheon of heroes and the sin-bin of traitors and enemies.

Southern Irish education, institutions, customs, values and worldview - these are all suffused. Ninety-Eight, the Famine, the Diaspora, Easter 1916, the founding of the Free State - these were the kilns in which Irish nationhood was fired.

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The Story is of colonisation and resistance, catastrophes and emancipation. A story of chronic adversity and penultimate triumph pending reunification of the homeland in an all-island republic. A story written from the moral high-ground from a minority perspective and engendering a free-floating sense of entitlement.

The Story was briefly interrupted in the 1980s by "revisionist" historians, but soon righted itself by what folklorists call the Law of Self-Correction. For the Story is a law unto itself. It dictates the reality its tellers are to see, instead of reality revising the story.

The Story wrote Fintan O'Toole's recent anti-Brexit book, Heroic Failure, which is why it is an anti-English outburst, a work of bizarre ventriloquism. Brexit has been a convenient pretext for a re-telling of the Story by the Dublin commentariat.

That recent radical changes in Irish society involving divorce, gay marriage, abortion, EU membership, immigration and the emptying pews of the Catholic Church have not seriously altered or enlarged the Story is testament to its resilience.

It still reiterates that England is the enemy and northern unionists are strangers in their midst (Yeats set the tone there), who must be made to see sense and acquiesce in an Irish republic.

The Story is a stirring and addictive narrative. But it is not my story, though I know it well. It is irrelevant that I prefer Dublin to Belfast and southerners to northerners. Mine is the British Story and the Irish Story, as it is written, cannot accommodate it.

It is not just the Ulster Scots story (though that, too, is stirring if not addictive), but the entire British narrative. Fifty years of studying Irish culture have confirmed that, as well as being Irish, I am British, bit and bundle, thumb and thimble.

Should the UK break asunder and the skies fall, my primary kinship would still be across the narrow water. For geography is irrelevant: try telling Alaskans, separated from their countryfolk by the Yukon and British Columbia, that they should unite with Canadians.

These Stories generate a deep ecology: they enter not just the hearts and minds, but the viscera. Like me, most Irish have internalised their Story and believe it to be indubitable.

So, what is the solution to the narrative deadlock on this island?

The Anglo-Irish Solution, whereby the original colonisers left, or, if they stayed, reluctantly bought into the Story, would not appeal to northern unionists. Nor, given the steep decline in the Anglo-Irish population after 1922, would their story reassure them.

Nor would the British Columbia Solution find favour with Irish nationalists, despite Ireland's pride in now being a multicultural society. It replaces national history in high schools with indigenous, Asian, or world, history, in order to create the multicultural Euro-Canadian citizen who lives by diversity, has her own cultural history airbrushed and cleaves to no excluding Story.

No: the Irish response to Brexit has signposted me in the only direction of betterment I can think of. Beneath the over-determined Irish hostility I sense alarm that the home-grown Ireland-UK "Schengen" area is under threat, even though the British have generously never used the common travel area as a way of concentrating Irish minds.

Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly wants to convene New Ireland Forum 2 in order to dispel unionist fears of the inevitable united Ireland.

But the fact that Senator Daly's office "is awash with nationalist emblems", as a recent profile tells us, shows that the Story is convening his Forum.

I suggest he convene instead a New Ireland Forum that explores the intimate mutual relations between the Republic and the UK. This would at long last shift the onus of self-examination from harassed unionists to nationalists.

Southern nationalists, at no cost, have assumed that the tide of history flows from north to south on the island, instead of admitting that it flows between the two islands. And that the interdependency of the UK and Ireland is asymmetrical and greatly in favour of the latter.

I can even suggest the panellists from England: Eamon Duffy, Roy Foster and Bernard O'Donoghue of Oxbridge; the journalists Mary Kenny, Brendan O'Neill and Liam Halligan; the writer Edna O'Brien; Daniel Hannan MEP and Conor McGinn MP; TV entertainers Graham Norton and Dara O'Briain; Orla Guerin, Joe Lynam and Fergal Keane of the BBC.

These sample figures work at the heart of British culture and help keep the blood of that heart pumping. How, they could be asked, is the Irish Story to be read in the light of their long experience in the UK?

This Forum would reassure unionists that any discussion of a united Ireland is not simply a vehicle for predestined Irish separatism.

It might also reassure northern nationalists that they are not marooned in the UK, that southerners, too, are inextricably entangled in British culture and that we all belong to these two magnificent islands.

But, meanwhile, it is "Now read on" with the Story. Leo Varadkar has suggested that April 18, 1949 - the day the Free State became the Republic - be annually commemorated each Easter Monday, when the Easter rebellion is already commemorated.

Entitled the Irish are to tell their Story. But when the Taoiseach says that, "Our history shows that symbols matter, dreams matter", he needs to remember that unionists have their symbols and dreams, too, just as potent and no less legitimate.

In a New Ireland Forum 2, we could finally show the huge positive overlap in the Stories of these two islands.

Professor John Wilson Foster was educated at Annadale Grammar School and Queen's University Belfast. His most recent book in Irish Studies is Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (2009)

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