Ireland became the fourth element in the United Kingdom in 1800, arguably displacing Scotland as the ‘second kingdom’. How the island's history should be interpreted was already a well-established battleground and, ‘rightly understood’ furnished lessons for the present. When that history ‘began’, who controlled it and in what direction it pointed, was fiercely contended, particularly in the circumstances of the union. Ireland was not part of Great Britain. The title of the state recognized that fact. No new name had been found, or perhaps could be found, which sublimated both ‘Great Britain’ and ‘Ireland’ in a new ‘national’ entity. Even so, the issue was whether de facto Ireland became, as it did in certain eyes, ‘West Britain’ increasingly assimilated into the greater whole or whether union was a temporary aberration, at least on the basis on which it had been established, to be challenged and rejected.63 There were, of course, ample and recent revolutionary strands to hand and a heady mixture of insurrection and suppression on which to feed. The failure of the United Irishmen was wrapped in oratory which still implied an independent republican future. Robert Emmet asked that his epitaph should not be written until his country again took its place among the countries of the earth. Yet even such an accomplishment might not necessarily imply a complete separation.64 There was, of course, no natural antipathy between the people of Ireland and the people of England. It was the British government which constituted the problem. What the liberation of Ireland really meant settled into a continuity of contention. Even the precise goals of ‘the Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell, could be variously interpreted.65 Was the Duke of Wellington an Irish hero? Could all the elements in the Irish past, conquerors or conquered, be brought to shelter under a common Celtic umbrella?66 And was ‘Irishness’ bound up with an Irish language now apparently in free fall? Who was inside and who was outside the Irish net? In Modern Irish, apparently, the word Albanach means both ‘Scotsman’ and ‘Ulster Protestant’.67 What message does that contain? The Nation newspaper, started in 1842, was the mouthpiece of Young Ireland and again advanced the notion of a shared race struggling against foreign domination. One of its founders, Thomas Davis, was much influenced by French historical writing, particularly that of Jules Michelet and Augustin Thierry. Much attention was given to ‘race’. By the late 1840s both friend and foe were using ‘Celt’ as a synonym for Gaelic Irish.68 The great potato famine of 1845–49 was a cataclysmic event. Its causes and pattern cannot be considered here but it cast a long shadow. A new generation of scholars, born in its aftermath, again drew messages. Eoin MacNeill (1867–1945), a Catholic Ulsterman who became professor at University College, Dublin, devoted himself to the early history of Ireland. His conclusion that there was a country-wide sense of Ireland from the sixth to the twelfth centuries fitted congenially with his own convictions as a political activist. In the years following the publication of Phases of Irish History (1919) he was to hold a number of portfolios in the new Irish Free State.69 The volumes of G. H. Orpen's Ireland under the Normans (1911–20) minimized the coherence of native Irish institutions and any sense of pan-insular ‘national’ consciousness. Orpen was a unionist. Such work, as has been observed, demonstrates that the transition from popular to scholarly history did not erase, indeed it confirmed, partisan commitment. W. E. H. Lecky (1838–1903), perhaps the most celebrated Irish historian of his time, was a noted figure both in Ireland and in England, and wrote on the history of both countries. It was not a Gaelic past, however constituted, which attracted but rather Ireland in the eighteenth century, in particular the period of Grattan's parliament. He contrived to be both an articulate opponent of Home Ruler and a critic of English rule in Ireland. His opposition to Home Rule, however, stemmed more from the assault on property which might accompany it than from a doubt whether Ireland constituted a nation. Latterly, he sat at Westminster as M.P. for Trinity College, Dublin and had happily collected honorary degrees from Glasgow, Oxford and Cambridge.70
Although the above remarks do not claim to constitute a full evaluation of all the Histories of Ireland that were written from mid-century to the eve of independence and partition, there are sufficient grounds for arguing that no ‘single track’ emerged. The ‘ownership’ of Irish history and the nature of the space that was Ireland remained contested.71‘Home Rule’ of course was on the political agenda in the latter part of this period but it eluded Gladstonian efforts. Whether ‘Home Rule’ then, or in its pre-1914 Asquithian form, would ever have ‘worked’ can only be a matter of speculation. ‘Home Rule’ might have allowed the continuation, indeed the elaboration of an ‘Irish-British’ historiography which did justice both to the particularities of Irish history and its place in pan-insular history. The nineteenth century witnessed the arrival of substantial Irish populations in the urban centres of England, Scotland and Wales. The circumstances of their arrival across the water, particularly after the famine, were such as to make the creation of stereotypes relatively straightforward. The greeting from ‘fellow-Celts’ was no warmer in South Wales and the West of Scotland from what it was in Manchester or London.72 The Great War of 1914–18 (and the suppressed Easter Rising within it), the subsequent armed insurrection (and the methods used to contain it), the creation of the Irish Free State (and the civil war that followed) all combined, in one way or another, to destroy historiographical bridges. A new state would naturally wish to be given an emphatic identity which eliminated complexity and saw the Irish past in simple terms. The history of Ireland, at least in school textbooks, was the story of seven centuries of struggle against English domination and oppression.
The fact of partition, however, and the creation of ‘another Ireland’, in itself rendered impossible the maintenance of a simple story line. Northern Ireland, equipped with an autonomous government in domestic matters in Belfast had a claim to be Irish even if, for the majority of its newly-created population, it did so in a way that was also ‘British’. Northern Ireland is customarily described as a ‘province’ (of Ireland, not of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the latter state is not divided into ‘provinces’). ‘Ulster’ is one of the four provinces (the others being Leinster, Munster and Connacht/Connaught) of the island of Ireland but in fact Northern Ireland consists of six of the nine counties which make up the province of Ulster. Use of the term ‘province’ to refer to Northern Ireland is therefore an ironic comment on its Irishness/Britishness. Further, the most northern tip of the island of Ireland is within the territory of the Republic of Ireland (sometimes referred to generically as ‘the South’). There is arguably an ‘objective’ basis in socio-economic terms for regionalization in the Republic of Ireland but it has been partly the existence of Northern Ireland which has fostered the notion that ‘the South’ is a homogeneous whole.73 It is not surprising, therefore, that the term ‘territories’ is often currently used. It avoids having to make a statement about either nationality or regionality within ‘the Isles’. None of this, of course, can be understood apart from history and historiography since 1800. It was not until the 1930s that Irish history took a regular and formal place in the teaching of the History Department at the province's then only university, the Queen's University of Belfast.74 The ‘Six Counties’ had no antecedent ‘national’ history and the ruling Unionist Party did not aspire to statehood, indeed, ironically, had simply opposed ‘Home Rule’ and not sought status as a statelet. ‘Ulster’ now needed its history and myths were not lacking.75 Ulstermen, locally or London-based, produced serious but justificatory studies.76 A Welsh cultural geographer saw in the distinctiveness he identified in Ulster megaliths a pointer to its twentieth-century separateness. A Dutch cultural geographer argued that the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State did indeed constitute a cultural divide of great antiquity. Structurally and organizationally, however, although they now existed in academic institutions in two different countries, many historians self-consciously sought to promote Irish Historical Studies, to take the name of the journal founded in 1938, in a way that catered for all backgrounds and allegiances. Decades later, a multi-volumed New History of Ireland emerged from this ambience. An associated ‘revisionism’ stood at a distance from the state orthodoxies then prevailing in both parts of the island of Ireland. For some, however, the ‘revisionism’ of this period was itself ossifying into an orthodoxy. It would be unwise to make a direct correlation between such historiography and political change in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the troubled decades since the suspension of the Stormont parliament in 1972. The twists and turns of this troubled period cannot be tackled here but historiography has undoubtedly played its part in an unsteady ‘peace process’ which does depend, for its ultimate success, on an accommodation with ‘Others’.77