The old country

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Ireland This Century By Tony Gray Little, Brown Pounds 16.99. 0 316 90739 1 Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America By Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner. Aurum Press Pounds 18.95. 1 85410 307 5

Paul Bew on Ireland and the Irish Americans.

Tony Gray's book starts well with a wry acknowledgement noting all "those endless hours (and days and weeks) in sunny Colindale", the British Museum newspaper library. Too many professional scholars still funk this endurance test: so this is a good thing. Indeed this book is largely based on material culled from Irish newspapers interspersed with the author's occasional asides based on his long experience of serious reporting and writing on Ireland.

There is no doubt that this approach produces unexpected and interesting results: there is, for example, a lovely contrast in W B Yeats's response to the Nobel Prize ("And tell me, Bertie, how much is it worth") as against Samuel Beckett's (gloomy grunt of "catastrophe"). What will Seamus Heaney say when his turn comes as it surely must? The author's asides brighten up the text in this way, though the main value of the book lies in its careful chronological recreation of the public press account.

This has its own decided value though a more ambitious history would have to include more private voices (diaries, letters, etc) and policeintelligence reports. The author once worked as a kind of speech writeradviser to Charles J Haughey and a rather conventional but very amiable - he has a particularly sharp eye for the prudery of de Valera's Ireland - nationalist world view pervades the text. At times, the reasoning is just a little too casual. Gray condemns, for example, the IRA bombing campaign which preceded the Second World War but notes: "Yet curiously enough, Irish people living in England were less often required to explain this indefensible campaign of violence than they were called upon to defend Ireland's neutrality in the war, which was a natural and obvious outcome of the separatist policy the Irish nationalists had been pursuing since 1916, and a proof to the entire world that Irish independence had finally been achieved".

But it is hardly curious at all: English people are quite inclined to believe that the Irish have some sort of grievance even if they are vague about what it might actually be. But only if you take the view that a 26 county form of Irish independence is some kind of transcendent good in itself are you likely to be enthused by Irish neutrality in the war against fascism: a neutrality which enormously strengthened Ulster Unionism by giving London the belief - now explicitly abandoned in the Downing Street Declaration - that Britain had a selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, whatever the majority wish of its inhabitants.

Out of Ireland is a superior coffee table production; it has excellent pictures and a lucid text sprinkled with carefully chosen emigrants' letters. Such letters can be difficult to handle and interpret as they have, perforce, the "missing you already""wish you were here""missing the 'old country'" tone of the genre. The quality of the text is hardly surprising: since the tragically early recent death of Philadelphia-based scholar Denis J Clark, whose warmhearted and scholarly intuitions enliven parts of this text, Kerby Miller is the outstanding historian of Irish America.

Yet in many ways this is a traditionalist history; its understandable emphasis on British heartlessness during the 1798 Rising or the Famine will appeal to green "patriotic" sentiment. But some hard questions are avoided. The Irish America of this book is a Catholic and nationalist Irish America, yet of the more than 40 million Americans who claim Irish descent, perhaps a half are Protestant. The illiberal McCarthyite attitudes and racism of significant parts of the story receive little stress. Catholic Irish America is now one of the richest communities in the USA, why then is it so under represented in the key cultural institutions of US life, for example, the Ivy League universities?

Above all, there is the role of a small but vociferous section of Irish America which has acted as a cheerleader for the IRA and thus for the carnage in our cities. This activity has culminated in the recent coronation of Gerry Adams as citizen of New York. The principal effect of all this has been to increase (create?) a more Unionist spirit in mainstream British public life. But why do some Irish Americans do it? In part, because of the prevalence of a version of history which, like this one, dwells on the shameful aspects of the British connection with Ireland without serious reference to UK treasury financed massive reform and subsidisation either in the last three decades of the Union or the last quarter of a century in Northern Ireland. After all, an Irish person under the Union of the 1890s or 1900s was considerably less likely statistically to have to emigrate than an Irish person in the 1950s under Eamon de Valera's rule.

For all its prominence in the current media coverage of the peace process,Irish America is most definitely not the organised political force it once was. A weak presidency has, for purely conjunctional short-term reasons, some reason to pay some court to it. It helps too that the end of the Cold War has massively reduced Britain's significance to Washington. Mr Adams has perhaps accidentally performed the UK state some service by driving home these new realities. Ulster Unionism is not the force it was either, but it has, again for purely short-term reasons, an increased influence with a British Prime Minister who, so far, has conducted his Irish policy with great skill. There is a neat symmetry here but who will be the more important in the long run?

Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. His Ideology and the Irish Question is published by Oxford University Press, while Serif publish his Northern Ireland 1921-1994: Political Forces and Social Class next month

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