A wrong-headed view of revisionism

Robert Perry, Revisionist Scholarship and Modern Irish Politics (Ashgate Publishing £49.50)

Ian d’Alton

For the modern professional historian, schooled in the techniques and objectives of ‘scientific’ history, this short monograph will be a depressing read.

History in Ireland, it seems, can only be interpreted and understood in terms of a pejorative bipolarity – you are with ‘Irish nationalism’, or against it. Any attempt to step outside this way of looking at the Irish historical world is, quite simply, illegitimate.

The historian’s view of what constitutes historical revision – understood as building upon the work of past historians by the discovery of sources, the reinterpretation of existing hypotheses and the application of new techniques of analysis – is more or less dismissed here.

Political statement
Perry’s argument, I believe, is that revisionism is not a neutral form of academic or intellectual discourse, but is ultimately a political statement, a reflection of the historian’s proclivities and biases.

The historian is thus little more than a member of the commentariat – Fintan O’Toole and Vincent Browne with footnotes. In the Irish context, Perry sees revisionism particularly as shoring up Partition and the Northern Irish statelet.

Revisionism, he writes, is widely ‘and rightly’ seen to be anti-nationalist and pro-unionist, and blind to the shortcomings of loyalism/unionism.

The only mitigating factor, he suggests, is that this may not be the revisionists’ intended purpose.


Taking this to its logical conclusion, the enquiring historians will pack up their tents, and steal away into a dark night of ignorance. There is no point in historical investigation and enquiry for its own sake, for its results can only fuel current political controversy. 

In this reading, which is as close to a conspiracy theory as one can get, a dark cabal of ideologically driven historians has operated to an agenda to ‘denationalise’ Ireland.  

This reviewer is old enough to remember when school-taught Irish history quite simply stopped at 1921; and young enough to appreciate the opening-up of a much wider vista from the 1970s onwards, as a new, more numerous and better-resourced generation of historians – the ‘revisionists’, if you like –  got to grips with virtually virgin historical territory. 

And this raises an important point, not really covered in this book because of its obsession with revisionists seen as merely unionist apologists. 

Revisionism, even in terms of Irish politics, is concerned with a much wider canvas – labour history, Catholic Church history, that of under-studied groups such as Travellers, women, southern Protestants, and so on.

The book relies on interviews with prominent people, undertaken some considerable time ago, some as far back as 1989. A great deal of it is taken up with a catalogue of snippet-sized synopses of writers from the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien, through Roy Foster, to Desmond Fennell.

It will be of interest, as a reference work, for students of politics; I suspect that it has not much to say to historians.