Living with History: Occasional Writings
by Felix M Larkin (Kingdom Books, €24.00/£20.50)
Felix Larkin will be well-known to readers of the books page of The Irish Catholic for his many perceptive reviews of books about Irish and American history. He is a former senior official in the Department of Finance and was later in the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA).
All the while, he has also been an historian writing about many topics, most notably the history of Irish newspapers, something he first took up as a graduate student as far back as 1971. He made a special study of the Freeman’s Journal, a paper that survived many changes of owners and editorial stance, from its foundation in 1763, up to its eventual closure, and incorporation into the Irish Independent, in 1924.
Felix Larkin’s work on newspapers has given him a unique window into contemporary Irish public opinion, over two centuries.
This book also focuses on commemorations, and their official use in shaping popular opinions about what is supposed to have mattered in history. Popular opinions about history frequently involve mythologising certain events, and over simplifying the choices that were available to decision makers at the time.
For example, Felix Larkin robustly challenges the popular view, endorsed in his recent book by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, that the border was ‘imposed’ on Ireland, against its will, by the British in 1920.
Mr Larkin points out that Redmond and Carson had accepted some form of partition in principle in 1914, and again in negotiations after the Easter Rising in late 1916. So also did the majority of TDs, who had been elected under a Sinn Féin banner, when they accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 by a vote in the Dáil.
On each occasion, the Irish leaders in question shrank from the prospect of a prolonged and bitter sectarian war – and even more deaths – that would have been necessary to impose a united Ireland on a resisting unionist population.
They were realists, facing their unpleasant responsibilities, and realists are rarely suitable subject for romantic historical commemorations. We are being reminded of this by recent events.
As Mr Larkin sees it, the role of the historian is to debunk myths about the past.
An unrealistic understanding of the past can lead popular opinion, and politicians, into tragic errors. This is real risk today.
The historian’s role is to recognise that nothing that happened in the past was necessarily inevitable. History is the result of an accumulation of a series of individual decisions, each one of which could have been different. Politicians and citizens are, and always were, the shapers of their own destiny within the constraints that existed at the time.
So the study of history, and the well-chosen commemoration of past events, should enable us, by learning from the consequences of past decisions, to make better decisions in the future.
It should encourage the taking of responsibility, rather than undue submission to victimhood, nostalgia or the blaming of others.
This book covers many other topics, the contrast between the ideologies that inspired the 1798 and 1848 rebellions, the successes and failures of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the varying attitudes of the Catholic hierarchy to political violence.
It also explores the appropriation of the religious feast of Easter by the faction of the IRB that launched the Rising, including through the use of religious imagery and notions of blood sacrifice in the Proclamation.
Even to this day, in secular Ireland, the 1916 Rising is commemorated on Easter Sunday, whenever that falls under the Christian calendar, rather than on April 24 each year, which is the actual anniversary. This purely secular commemoration should probably not be conflated with the Resurrection of Christ. Each should be recalled by modern Ireland on their own merits.
Mr Larkin believes democracy should infuse commemoration, so the foundational event of this State should be recognised as the anniversary of the meeting of the duly elected First Dáil in 1919. This was a democratically sanctioned event, whereas , as a matter of historical fact, the 1916 Rising was not.
Felix Larkin’s book deserves to be widely read. It gives a very personal perspective, and offers insights that will help all residents of this island, whatever their allegiance, shape a peaceful future, free of grievance and myth.
John Bruton was Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997.