Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970 BY R. F. Foster. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 240 pages. $30.

The cover of Luck  and the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970

I grew up in the town of Enniscorthy, in the southeast of Ireland. Every year in the summer, we held a strawberry fair, and every year, too, the elders would meet to select a Strawberry Queen. One year, they asked a contestant what she would do with the prize money if she won. “I’d feck off to England,” she said.

I was a youth then, and the words stuck in my mind when I heard them, confirming everything I’d suspected. England appeared before me as a haven of freedom and pleasure. I longed for England. That idea in the Irish mind of England not so much as a conqueror and traditional enemy but as a place where people are let alone remains an important, if much ignored, element in Ireland’s richly ambiguous relationship with the other island. So much so, indeed, that many Irish writers, intellectuals, and citizens have been happiest and most themselves on a ship of their own invention on the Irish Sea between the two places. Even if there were a storm, it seemed safer, somehow, and more promising, irrespective of which way you were facing.

This liminal, floating space is the territory of the historian and biographer R. F. Foster, a professor of Irish history at Hertford College in Oxford. On his deck, so to speak, causality and grim historical imperatives have a very uneasy foothold, and below them the cargo and baggage of race and memory and even the facts themselves shift uneasily. Nothing is stable. Foster’s work, in all its skeptical range, has been dangerous and disturbing to those who have adhered to traditional pieties about Ireland. Since those pieties no longer have as much power as they did, Foster himself can take pride in the idea that he is partly responsible for the creation of the Ireland that he now seeks, in his new book, Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change from 1970, to chart.

It has been twenty years since he published his enormously influential Modern Ireland 1600–1972. The importance of this book at the time lay not in the sweeping judgments it made but in the way it refused to read the story of Ireland as a single one of conquest, with constant rebellion leading to liberation. Instead, in tones tentative and full of nuance, Foster sought with real care to sift the evidence not to find continuity or coherence but to watch for shifting per­spectives, ambiguities, false starts, and trails. At times, he refused to interpret, offering instead suggestions; at others, he insisted on reinterpretation, making clear that previous efforts to write the history of Ireland needed to be reexamined as much as the events and trends themselves.

Some of this made for difficult reading for those of us who viewed the Irish nineteenth century and its legacy as rather specially disastrous. But it also offered no comfort to anyone who wished to use history as an excuse for tribal warfare or ethnic cleansing. Foster made the Irish past too rich and complex for that, and it was clear—sometimes very clear—that he knew he was doing this as he wrote about British policy and the great Protestant legacy in Ireland. It gave the book a passionate, political edge. This way of reexamining the past was called revisionist history, and Foster, with Modern Ireland, became our most controversial historian.

Foster’s two-volume biography, published between 1997 and 2003, of one of the central and most protean figures in modern Ireland, W. B. Yeats, is a stunning piece of work whose methodology works triumphantly. Yeats, like Ireland, resists a clean and coherent narrative. Foster responded with relish by refusing to give him one. The poet was capable of being a nationalist in the morning, a pre-Raphaelite poet and dreamer in the afternoon, a socialite in the evening, and a deeply sensual and practical man at night. Yeats regularly crossed the Irish Sea not only physically but spiritually and politically as well. Foster accepted all of this as quite natural, allowing Yeats not to be confined in a single personality that could be easily interpreted. Whereas in Modern Ireland, Foster seemed at times to give English policy toward Ireland too much sympathy, this refusal to narrate from a single position was the only method that could possibly give Yeats his full due.

Ireland since 1970 remains as puzzling, if not quite as fascinating, as Yeats. Despite the vast quantity of journalism, reportage, and analysis by commentators, political scientists, and economists, two strands at least of what has happened over the past thirty-five years seem to require explanation. Why did the conflict in Northern Ireland, in all its brutality, go on for so long, and why did it end? And why did the Republic of Ireland become so run-down culturally and economically and then suddenly become so rich?

This is what Foster has set out to examine in Luck and the Irish. What he has produced is fascinating not only for its intelligence and breadth but for its methodology, which is to question, as he did in Modern Ireland and indeed in his Yeats biography, any single explanation for anything. He allows drift and luck, both good and bad, to explain, or almost explain, some events; he finds roots that led to results in unlikely places; he traces backward to find credible and often unnoticed beginnings for trends that later became dominant. He sees nothing as inevitable and looks at past possibilities without insisting that they were always going to lead directly to present events.

Foster is unusual among Irish historians in having a deep understanding of how culture and politics became, and remain, intertwined; he can also deal easily with high politics and economics while not losing sight of areas of importance such as the women’s movement, which was crucial in the development of the modern Republic of Ireland. Like the rest of us, he has blind spots, and these include any understanding at all of the benign role that sport, especially Gaelic games, played in creating stability and continuity in many parts of the country.

It is interesting to read the events of the past thirty-eight years presented as history. Foster makes clear that the economic miracle of the 1990s cannot be explained by and was not caused by a single policy, or even a single set of policies. He agrees that its sources lay in an impulse toward modernization, which included investment in education and reforms made by politicians in the 1960s. He marks milestones such as the opening of the economy in the late ’50s and membership in the European Union in 1973. He is more comfortable dismissing certain easy or foolish theories of why things happened than proposing any firm theories of his own; nothing for him is ever that simple. He moves slowly and carefully through a mass of statistics, drawing tentative conclusions and searching with his customary subtlety for underlying, hidden factors.

These included the rebranding of Ireland not only as an economy in which multi­national industry could flourish but also as a society moving away from narrow Catholicism and nationalism and also, and just as important, as a culture moving away from insularity with the help of rock musicians, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, and novelists who, unlike Joyce and Beckett and many others, were comfortable living in Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland made clear, once Northern Ireland began to burn, that it wished only for stability there, it wanted no flames coming south. It took Mrs. Thatcher to understand this and Tony Blair to get its full implications. Dublin did not want to govern Northern Ireland; instead, it wanted the border to remain without having to say so too loudly. Foster’s analysis of the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Thatcher and Irish prime minister Garret FitzGerald in 1985 is serious and original. The agreement, which gave Dublin merely a consultative role in the North, was as far, Foster makes clear, as the republic wished to go. “[It] gave,” he writes, “the Republic of Ireland exactly as much of a role in the North as it needed to save face, and no more.”

In the meantime, there were other matters to preoccupy the republic such as liberalization of various types, to which Foster devotes a great deal of space, and the battle for the old nationalist soul of the Fianna Fáil party, which has ruled Ireland for most of the time since 1932 and remains in power. Foster makes clear his own distaste for the more atavistic and backwoods strains of the party and his support for its more, let us say, enlightened members, who worked closely with leaders such as Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch in the ’60s and ’70s. He thus has no trouble expressing his dim view on the style and politics of Charles Haughey, who led the party from 1979 to 1992. “His model of grandeur was an odd combination of Napoleonic enigma, Ascendancy hauteur, Gaelic chieftain and Tammany boss,” Foster writes.

I lived in Ireland most of the time Haughey was prime minister, and I developed a great dislike for him, which I understand was reciprocated, and yet I noticed certain policy decisions during his flawed reign (he was, among other things, secretly and corruptly amassing a fortune) that need to be looked at closely and sympathetically by historians: the creation of agreement between the social partners in the republic that offered a climate of stability; the decision that Northern Ireland would have to be dealt with by the sovereign governments of Great Britain and Ireland as much as by the tribal factions; the handling of the economy after 1987; the understanding of the importance of culture. (It was he who gave artists and writers tax-free status, and it was he who restored some of the most beautiful public buildings in Dublin.)

It is interesting to watch Foster, who, I imagine, has no personal or political sympathy for the Fianna Fáil party, take its policies and some of its leading figures very seriously, offering fresh interpretations of their commitments and contributions. But perhaps it is too much to ask him to do the same for Haughey. It is all too fresh. Or maybe I am wrong.

The title of Foster’s chapter on Northern Ireland in these years made me laugh out loud: “Big, Mad Children.” Yes, indeed. As you read on, and Foster charts the thirty years of death, mayhem, and destruction on one side and political foolishness on the other, it is clear that what happened in Northern Ireland remains a very dark stain on our island and our political culture and that of Britain, whose policies during these years Foster has no hesitation in condemning. His judgment is likely to be the judgment of history, and it is useful to have it now: “There was nothing inevitable about the sorry catalogue of ineptness, bullying, pusillanimity, political gangsterism and inadequate leadership that accompanied Northern Ireland’s thirty-year nightmare from 1968 to 1998.”

Ireland these days is a strange, interesting, and confused place. In the North, peace has broken out, and the first minister and his deputy are the former Presbyterian firebrand the Reverend Ian Paisley and the former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, respectively; they are known locally as the Chuckle Brothers because they cannot stop grinning at each other. They give me the creeps, both of them. But since I prefer the politics of the grin to that of the gun, I will have to learn to love them as much as they seem, as of now, to love each other. I pray, with many others, that Northern Ireland will have a thousand years of dullness.

Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and first minister, Ian Paisley, in Brussels, January 10, 2008.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and first minister, Ian Paisley, in Brussels, January 10, 2008.

In the republic, as Foster writes, between 1995 and 2005 output “increased by 350 per cent . . . personal disposable income doubled, exports increased fivefold, trade surpluses accumulated into billions, employment boomed, immigrants poured into the country.” These immigrants included something between 100,000 and 150,000 Poles. “The country,” Foster writes, “had apparently become vastly rich.” The new Irish wealthy go on regular shopping binges to New York, they buy property in Spain and central London and Manhattan. No one is in any doubt that the republic has been transformed.

And yet if you go to a football match, or a wedding, or a funeral, or even a discotheque, it is hard to see this change as radical. If you go to a new Irish play or read a new Irish novel, there is a sense of anguish perhaps even more intense than before. It is possible that the money has created full employment, and this has, indeed, made a difference: Irish people can do their suffering at home. But on some level that even a historian as subtle and ingenious as Foster cannot measure, Ireland may have remained the same. We cannot ask historians to open windows in our souls.

However, there has been, I think, real change in the public discourse about the past. In May last year, the Irish prime minister addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster using a language of peace, reconciliation, and friendship that depended on an almost total reinterpretation of the historical relationship between the islands. In his speech, he said:

British settlement, organised and otherwise, has given the island of Ireland a British tradition too—not just in history and language, borders and politics, but in a thriving community of unionist people proud of who they are, where they come from and what they hope for. They are a living bridge between us. . . . The origins of trade between our islands is lost in the mists of time itself. And today our trading relationship continues to go from strength to strength. . . . The people of these islands have woven a rich tapestry of culture over the centuries. This has given rise to a partnership of culture that is renowned across the world. One of the most creative moments in human history was the meeting between the English language and the Irish people. . . . In culture, as in sport, we share and together enjoy so much. And in all these areas, too, our endeavors are not divorced from our history but are built on it.

It is notable that among the distinguished guests invited to hear the prime minister speak was R. F. Foster himself. Even ten years ago, this would have been unlikely, as would some of the content of the speech. Foster, who proposed a version of Irish history in which the British role was not simply disastrous, and who challenged deeply held views on Irish identity, has moved from the periphery to the center. It must have been a funny feeling for him, hearing the new tone that came from his own scholarship and seeing his own sharp and combative mind become official. It is a strange aspect of Irish luck that he, and the rest of us, have lived to see the day.

Colm Tóibín is the author, most recently, of the story collection Mothers and Sons (Scribner, 2007).