Volume 3 Number 2
Aid to Understanding Today's Ireland
01 February 1990

The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland Edited by RF Foster Oxford University PressDr Roddy Evans

This is a beautifully published volume, lavishly illustrated, of Irish history from prehistoric times to the present decade. It is divided into five periods, each written by a noted Irish historian. A final chapter, entitled `Irish Literature and Irish History', reviews the history of Gaelic and English art and literature and their relationship and influence on historical developments. The numerous illustrations add greatly to the feeling and understanding of the text. The editor, RF Foster, is the author of the best-selling Modern Ireland 1600-1972, published last year.

A statement on the back cover describes the work as `the most authoritative history of Ireland ever published for the general reader'. I beg to suggest that the general reader would benefit most if he already had at least a rudimentary knowledge of Irish history. In a little more than 300 pages the book manages to convey an overview of the flow and continuity of many centuries of the development of an island nation and its relationship with its larger neighbour.

The present 20-year conflict in Northern Ireland can only be understood in its historical context. As William Rees-Mogg comments in The Independent, London, `To lack knowledge of the past is to be deprived of understanding of the present.' A paragraph from page 80 illustrates this: `In 1276-7 the Irish bishops in Munster petitioned to have all native Irish outside the palatine earldom of Ulster granted the same access to common law as the colonists enjoyed. This was a step that would have promoted the integration of the two nations in Ireland... no such grant was elicited from Edward I.'

This implies that a decision taken at this early date meant that Ireland was to be governed under the Crown at one remove by a ruling caste and not to be integrated, as Scotland and Wales subsequently were to form Great Britain. This was compounded nearly 100 years later by a series of laws, the Statutes of Kilkenny, enacted to prevent the degeneracy of the ruling caste. They legally designated the native Irish as `the King's Irish enemies'.

The historian James Bryce writing 100 years ago wrote, `Of all possible modes of administering a dependency that of leaving it to a dominant caste is the worst. The operation of natural forces is interfered with: a natural remedy is prevented by the power of the superior country. The latter remains ignorant of the facts and insensible of her responsibility. The dominant caste ceases to have patriotism, because it looks to the superior country for support and remains alienated from the mass of its fellow-countrymen. It has an interest in checking any progress which may threaten its own ascendancy.'

After eight centuries, this policy was abruptly abandoned in 1972 when direct rule from London was introduced. How long this present policy will be adhered to is not possible to say.

Historians are rightly reluctant to evaluate recent events. However a verdict expressed in the concluding paragraph of this history is beyond dispute: `The troubles have belatedly demonstrated the futility of a constitutional "settlement" which left the Catholic third of Northern Ireland's population to fend for itself in a state whose rulers regarded Catholics rather as Joshua and the chosen people regarded the unfortunate inhabitants of Jericho.'

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0