“The best history,” says Roy Foster, “is written when we realize that people acted in expectation of a future that was never going to happen.” While this is the case for many countries, it’s especially true of Ireland — the land of The Troubles, of colonization, of revolution and reforms. This sympathy within his scholarship sets Foster’s work apart. Not content to simply document the facts of what did happen, he’s undertaken the role of reconstructing the motivations that animated the Irish people throughout its storied history — without which we cannot truly understand the Ireland of today.
Roy joined Tyler to discuss why the Scots got off easier than the Irish under English rule, the truths and misconceptions about Ireland as a policy laboratory for the British government, why spoken Irish faded more rapidly than Welsh, the single question that drove a great flowering of Irish economic thought, how Foster’s Quaker education shaped his view of Irish history, how the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Rising cemented the rift between the Northeast and the rest of the country, what went wrong with Irish trade policies between the 1920s and 1970s, the power of Irish education, why the re-emergence of The Troubles in the 1960s may not have been as inevitable as many people believe, the cultural effects of Ireland’s pro-Allied neutrality in World War II, how Irish visual art is beginning to be looked at in a similar way to Irish literature, the social and economic changes of the 1970s that began to radically reshape Irish society, the reasons for Ireland’s openness to foreigners, what Irish Americans misunderstand, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded February 22nd, 2022
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m here today with Roy Foster, who is arguably Ireland’s greatest historian, some might say ever. I recommend his classic work Modern Ireland. He’s also written a two-volume biography of Yeats — one of the best biographies written ever, I think — and numerous other books on the history of Ireland and also England.
Roy, thank you for coming.
ROY FOSTER: Thank you for asking me, Tyler; delighted.
COWEN: I have many questions about Irish history. If we go back to the 17th century and earlier, why is it that the equilibrium ends up that the English are so much more brutal to the Irish than to the Scots?
FOSTER: That’s a very good question. The comparison between Ireland and Scotland and their relative experiences vis-à-vis the powerful neighbor goes on through many centuries, but to the 17th century, notably. I think, as in so many other cases, it comes down to religion and ethnicus, if I can put it that way: a kind of cultural, ethnic identity.
The Irish were overwhelmingly Catholic. In the global political world of the 17th century, that meant being against protestantized England. They were seen as an entry point for continental political influence from Spain and from France, who were at war, effectively, for much of this time with England, and therefore they were ipso facto disloyal. This is in the view of the English.
Their first loyalty was to the pope; their ambition was to be an independent, sovereign country — which became stronger and stronger through the 19th century.
The Scots, on the other hand, adapted — at least lowland Scotland, which was rich Scotland, adapted to being part of the union. They united with England in the union of Great Britain in 1707. And the Scots made a good thing out of it because proconsular figures all over the British Empire, so many of them are Scots; look at generals in the British Army, so many of them are Scots.
The Highlands are different. The Highlands have their Catholic identity to a certain extent; they have their poverty. They are exploited in the way that Irish tenants are exploited by absentee landlords. But that’s a minority element in Scotland. The majority of Scots do well out of the union with Britain and have done until very recently. I think we may be seeing the end of that era right now.
COWEN: Adam Smith made the claim in one of his letters that the Scot elites did poorly out of union because a lot of the positions they would have taken in the home country in essence went to English people. He argued, well, the union is good for the country, bad for the elites. Do you think he was wrong?
FOSTER: I’d take a more nuanced view. I think the elites did a lot better than Adam Smith, for his own purposes, was admitting.
COWEN: If we look to the 17th century, we see England, in particular, being ideologically radicalized along numerous dimensions — including religion, so much open talk of tyrannicide, politically — and Ireland doesn’t seem to be. What accounts for that difference?
FOSTER: It’s an enormous question; but there are older loyalties in Ireland. The Irish adopt the Stuart, the Jacobite cause; the Irish definitively have adhered to the old faith, to Catholicism. It rules them out from the Cromwellian dispensation, which revolutionizes England in such a total way in the 1640s — well, from the 1630s through the 1640s, right through to the Restoration in 1660.
Ireland has a different social basis, really, in many ways: in landowning, in a history of colonization and dispossession from the Elizabethan period on. But in the 17th century, that process of colonization and dispossession takes a very particular shape of expropriating native landowners in favor of English incomers and of planting, as the word went, in a plantation, of Scots and North-of-England people into the northern corner — the northeastern corner — of the island.
From that day to this, of course, we’ve seen the effects of that.
There’s radicalization going on in a different way, if you like, in Ireland, and for different reasons. But it’s a radicalization that essentially expropriates the old Catholic aristocracy, the landowning aristocracy, in Ireland; it reduces them to a tiny minority west of the Shannon in the badlands of Connemara.
COWEN: If we think of the 19th century, as you know, I think it’s in 1831 that free universal schooling comes to Ireland. Are there ways in which, in the 19th century, Ireland is more modern than Britain?
FOSTER: That’s a very interesting and subtle question.
There is a theory that Ireland is used as a laboratory for British government and that they will apply further afield, in India and the Caribbean, models and lessons that they’ve learned in Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as Britain’s oldest or England’s oldest colony.
I have a slight problem with that, because Ireland is a very special kind of colony, if it’s a colony: it’s a metropolitan colony. The original inhabitants remain, one could say, in a far stronger position than in many of the areas of the British Empire, where they are effectively either enslaved or wiped out. But the point is really that what’s happening in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century is, as I’ve said earlier, a kind of dispossession.
But at the same time, there are elements — and this is true from the Act of Union, which abolishes the old, very elite Irish Parliament in 1800 — there are elements of experimentation in the British government of Ireland which aren’t (I have to say this) entirely malign, and you zero in on education. The attempt that was being made in the early 1830s was to introduce a nondenominational form of primary education for the Irish people.
Ireland being Ireland, it was rapidly denominationalized: the Catholics used it for their purposes and the Protestants used it for their purposes. But the theory of it was that you had to overcome the religious differences, which by the early 19th century seemed to dictate everything that was happening in Ireland.
The great novelist William Thackeray, who was married to an Irish woman, said when he did a tour of Ireland and wrote his Irish Sketch Book, “Where to get at the truth in this country: it is not possible. There are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth.” By the early 19th century, this seemed all too true.
COWEN: Why did popular spoken Irish fade more rapidly than, say, Welsh?
FOSTER: Welsh-speaking continued in the areas that became industrialized and prosperous in 19th-century Wales, the areas of the slate quarries, the coal mines. People there spoke Welsh. The areas of Ireland that were comparatively prosperous — and there were much fewer than the areas of Wales into the 19th century — were in the East of the island and in the Northeast, where Irish was not spoken and had not been for many, many years.
It remained the preserve of the distant western fastnesses: Connemara, the islands off the coast, certain pockets elsewhere. Irish speaking, therefore, became identified — and this is when we get what we call the Celtic Revival from the 1890s — became identified with a pure, prelapsarian view of an unmaterialistic, ancient, almost pre-Christian civilization, which inspired people like Yeats.
But Irish speaking ipso facto was part of that distant time and was not seen as relevant to the modern, go-getting, materialist commercialization that was affecting much of the rest of the country.
COWEN: Now, my own field is economics, and it’s striking to me in the 19th century how much excellence there is in Irish economics. You have Mountifort Longfield, who maybe first understood supply and demand. John Elliott Cairnes, Richard Whately, Isaac Butt. Why this great flowering of economic thought in Ireland?
FOSTER: I’m so glad you mentioned Isaac Butt, who I think is one of the great neglected figures of Irish history. He founds the Home Rule Party for autonomy within the empire, but before that he is — as you and too few other people know — is a very interesting and intellectually original economist who lectures in economics at Trinity College Dublin and declares at the beginning of one of his first lectures that the great question of economics is “Why are the many poor?” Applying that to Ireland brings him straight into the thorny thickets (this is the 1830s, of course — 1820s and ’30s) of protectionism and landowning.
Butt is a radical land reformer in theoretical terms long before the land reform issue galvanizes Irish politics in the 1870s and ’80s. He is a protectionist for Irish purposes. He becomes, I think, a Home Ruler, somebody who thinks that Ireland must get some form of autonomy back, because of what he sees happen in the famine.
The theory of the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain was that Ireland would be treated as any other part of the United Kingdom. The fact of it — when Irish people starved and died in their hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions, during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s — the fact of it was that they were not treated as if they were “any” part of the United Kingdom. They were treated as a special case, and Irish property — landowners, such as it was — were left to take the brunt, which they didn’t, in many cases, accept.
Butt saw this happening all around him, and it radicalized him as a politician, as well as an economist.
I think, to your larger question, Tyler: The reason why economics was something that intellectuals turned to in 19th-century Ireland — and [William] Lecky, the great historian, was also a sophisticated and interrogative economist — was simply that there was that question that Butt kept asking: “Why are the many poor?” Why was Ireland so poor when it had so many natural advantages?
To some people, there’s a simple political answer: English domination. But there were intrinsic, infrastructural reasons as well, many of them to do with the way land was used and the way the population was going. These questions had to be answered.
COWEN: Another very popular question is, How far back can we go to explain why Ireland developed so many first-rate writers and poets? Why is that, in your opinion?
FOSTER: Well, this is something that has preoccupied me more and more. I started life as a straightforward historian and wrote a book about Charles Stewart Parnell, which was a contextual biography. I then wrote another biography of a British politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston. I then wrote my book Modern Ireland, which I think you mentioned earlier.
But, especially writing Modern Ireland, I was fascinated to see how often a radical and questioning discourse emerged through creative and fictional and poetic writings in Ireland.
Then, almost I would say serendipitously (but it was a tragic case, really), the person — a great mentor of mine, F. S. L. Lyons — who was to write the authorized biography of W. B. Yeats died before he could write it, and the task passed to me. In writing about Yeats, I also had to write about the heft and the power and the originality of Irish writing in the English language, which is so notable in the period when Yeats comes to prominence — where you also have Joyce, you have Shaw, you have (slightly later) Beckett. You have a great number of less well-known writers, like George Moore, who I think is a very underrated and experimental novelist of this time. They’re using the English language in a completely new way.
Now, part of this — and structuralist critics following the great Russian critic [Mikhail] Bakhtin would say it’s because they’re writing in a language that is at the corners of change. There are traditions of a different language, the actual Gaelic Irish language, which you mentioned earlier. There are also uses and changes and moldings of English that happen in the island of Ireland which you don’t get outside.
You still will get this. I had an aged Volvo once (this is not irrelevant), and I was on holiday in Ireland in the summer, as I usually am, and the boot — which you call the trunk — jammed. I went in to the local garage man in my Kerry village and said, “I suppose I should take it to a Volvo dealer.” He lifted up a monkey wrench and hit the back of the car where the boot was jammed with a great belt. As he hit it (and it did spring open), he said, “In matters like this, Volvo dealers wield no special magic.”
I thought at the time that could be something that Yeats could have heard, or Lady Gregory collecting sayings of the people traveling in the West of Ireland. There is an original twist to the English language in Ireland which is unique.
As I wrote about this more (and I wrote another book called Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritances), I felt that, looking back through the 19th century and into the late 18th century, the time when the Irish language begins to spectacularly decline and English takes over, the novelists of the early 19th century — Lady Morgan (that’s Sydney Owenson), William Carleton, Sheridan Le Fanu, many others — who used to be seen as rather crude and farouche and slightly-rough-around-the-edges writers, now look to us, looking back through Beckett and Flann O’Brien and other experimentalists, as far more subtle, sophisticated, intentionally destabilizing writers of the English language than they used to be accepted for. I think critical opinion would agree with me in this.
Why this is, is something to do with the decline of Irish and the way it seeps and filters into the way English is used. Part of it is to do with the way that the English language is often a way in which — a medium which Irish people in the 19th century use to conceal the truth or evade uncomfortable conclusions when they’re dealing with land agents or police or bailiffs. Or the army, when it comes to that.
Part of it is the oral tradition of storytelling and using slightly idiosyncratic but vivid turns of phrase — like car dealers “wielding no special magic.”
COWEN: Why did Frederick Douglass visit Ireland and then spend six months there?
FOSTER: Douglass’s trip to Ireland is something people are looking at more and more now because there are so many perceived parallels between the position of the native Irish and other oppressed or excluded elements in different cultures, such as the Native Americans and, of course, Black people in the antebellum and indeed postbellum states of America.
I think myself that historical parallels and historical precedents can be used as rather a blunt instrument. But certainly, there was a feeling among radical politicians, nationalist politicians in Ireland and Black politicians in the United States that they had a certain common cause.
There’s also the overwhelming fact — and this I think is very relevant to Douglass — that the great leader of Catholic Ireland who brought about the so-called emancipation of Catholics — when they were finally allowed to sit in Parliament, in 1829 — this great leader, Daniel O’Connell, was a very passionate antislaver and abolitionist. And many of the people in his Catholic movement and then his movement to repeal the union with Britain and Ireland felt the same way.
He was a great radical in the cosmic sense of radical politics, Daniel O’Connell, as well as being a founder of Catholic freedoms and an avatar of national autonomy.
COWEN: What do you think Douglass learned in Ireland?
FOSTER: I suspect that Douglass, who was a subtle and clever politician, learned that the parallels between what seemed to be the oppression of the native Irish and the very real oppression of Blacks in the United States were not exactly commensurate to each other. The extent to which he absolutely noted that isn’t proven, but I feel that — and here I’m chancing my arm, rather — that anyone as analytical as he would have seen that what Irish natives suffered under in mid-19-century Ireland, it was nothing like what Black slaves suffered under in mid-19th-century America.
COWEN: Now, my last name is Cowen, and I’m Irish American. Can you tell me anything about Cowens and Irish history?
FOSTER: Tyler, I’m going to have to pass on that one, I’m afraid. I’ll send you to the genealogical office in the National Library of Ireland, where they will tell you everything they can about Cowens.
Now, you grew up in Waterford, correct?
COWEN: How do you think that influenced your subsequent views on Irish history? The Waterford background — not from Dublin, right?
FOSTER: Not from Dublin. And neither of my parents were from Waterford, either. One came from the border county: my father came from County Cavan. My mother came from County Wicklow, very beautiful county south of Dublin.
But the school that they taught in and where I was taught was a Quaker school. We weren’t Quakers — we were nominally Church of Ireland — but the ethos of the education — and very many of our friends were Quakers, and Waterford was a strong center of the small but disproportionately influential Quaker presence in Ireland.
The older I get the more I admire what Quakers stood for, what they did, what Quaker values are; and the more I am conscious that those values infused the — I think — very impressive education that I was lucky enough to be exposed to.
You ask for Waterford and I give you Quakers. But Quakers were an intrinsic part of the history of Waterford, and I was brought up at the center of that.
COWEN: You think your views on religious toleration and the history of religion in Ireland were shaped by that background?
FOSTER: I think they couldn’t not have been. Quakers had been dissenting Protestants in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They had been rather discriminated against by the established Church of Ireland, one would have to say the Anglican Church of Ireland. Therefore, they felt — I think — more at one with the Catholic majority of the island. Anyway, that squared with the Quaker beliefs in equality, which go back to Charles Fox and beyond.
I think, yes, if you take a Quaker view of Irish history, you will have a more intrinsically sympathetic view to the varieties of religious experience that exist in Ireland than you would if you were either coming from a hard-line Church of Ireland background or a devoutly Catholic background. Quakers sit rather attractively, to me, in a middle territory, and a territory that doesn’t privilege privilege, if I can put it that way.
COWEN: If we think of Ireland in the mid-to-late 19th century, do you think there was a path where British union with Ireland persists, is at least moderately liberal, and is permanent? Does that involve earlier home rule? Or giving Catholics access to the spoils system?
How does that look? Was it ever on the table? Was it just fantasy?
FOSTER: There are two great missed chances. One is when the Act of Union happened in 1800–1801 and did away with the old Irish Parliament. This was later seen as a great injustice, but it should be remembered that that old Irish Parliament was a very elite Protestant monopoly. Implicitly part of the promise to the Irish for doing away with their Parliament was that Catholics would be, in the phrase of the day, emancipated and be allowed to sit in British Parliament and have access to the great offices of state.
Thanks to the opposition of King George III, this was ruled out, and Catholics felt very reasonably that they had been misled and cheated. It took nearly 30 years, till 1829, under Daniel O’Connell, as I’ve mentioned, for that injustice to be rectified. There’s a very good recent book about it by Antonia Fraser. This, I think, was a missed chance for reconciliation. Those 29 years between the union of 1800 and Catholic emancipation of 1829 were suffused with bitterness, which need not have been the case.
The other great missed chance is in 1886, when Gladstone converted himself and a large part of his ruling Liberal Party in Britain to the cause of Irish home rule. In the greatest speech of his life, for nearly (I think) two and a half hours, he tried to persuade the House of Commons that if they rejected giving Ireland an autonomous parliament within the empire, indeed within the United Kingdom, they would regret it in the future and it would be a very ominous sign. They did reject it, the House of Commons. They passed it a few years later, but it was rejected by the House of Lords.
I think 1886 was probably the last moment when, conceivably, there could have been united Ireland between the increasingly different Northeast and the rest of the island, with an autonomous parliament on the Canadian model within the empire, which I suspect would have disengaged itself over the next 50 years by peaceful steps, as indeed the Irish Free State after the Irish revolution disengaged itself from the Commonwealth by peaceful steps.
But by then Ireland was partitioned, which to me is an inevitable tragedy but still a tragedy. And that could just about have been averted had Britain given Ireland home rule in 1886.
COWEN: How contingent was that partition in the 1920s? Is there a scenario where there’s an attempt to make all of Ireland independent that is anything other than just a very bloody civil war?
FOSTER: No. I think certainly by the early 1920s, that’s the case.
I think the First World War, which is one of the defining events in Irish history, split a deeper rift than ever between the Northeast and the rest of the country. Mind you, very, very many — more than 100,000 — Irish men volunteered to fight on the side of the Allies in the First World War, but the real commitment came from the Northeast, the Protestant culture of the Northeast, which was determined to use the war effort as a way of showing that they were part of Britain, not part of a putative home-rule Ireland.
The Battle of the Somme, which decimated the flower of Ulster’s youth on the western front, put this into stone, just as the 1916 nationalist rising a few weeks before, at Easter 1916, and the executions of all the leaders of that, built into stone the resentment of the nationalist Irish against British rule, leading to the extremely traumatic guerrilla war of independence and then the civil war which followed.
COWEN: So you also think the periodic World War II talk of Ireland giving up its neutrality in return for unification — that was never serious, in your view?
FOSTER: No, I think it was Churchill with one too many drinks in him, frankly.
COWEN: If we look at the economic history of Ireland from, say, the Republic now, 1920 through the 1970s, it seems there’s some bad trade policies, the economic gap with Britain widens, there’s not that much industrialization. What went wrong during that era in terms of policy, or culture, or whatever?
FOSTER: Well, I think [Eamon] de Valera, the leader of independent Ireland from 1932/3, took protectionism to its limit. There was a trade war, an economic war with Britain, over the disagreement about outstanding payments for land reform.
Incidentally, Tyler, as an economist, I think we’ve got to mention the extraordinary achievement of land reform in Ireland. When I went to live in England in the 1970s, I was amazed at how feudal the English land system was: the size of huge estates, the fact people in villages in Norfolk and Dorset didn’t own their own properties. This was so different from Ireland, where, thanks to the Land Acts from 1881 right through to 1909, with a great deal of government money, the Irish occupying tenantry were enabled to buy out their own holdings from the landlords, who were given enormous sweetener payments by the British government.
This is one of the Irish revolutions that is less often mentioned. It created a very solid, conservative, small-property-owning rural petite bourgeoisie. In that one fact, in that one sentence, you have a large explanation for why the Irish revolution, when it did come, was politically radical in some ways but socially very conservative.
You also have the reason for the (I have to use the word) backwardness or conservatism of Irish farming in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. It was the small family farm and the absolute determination of the landholder to hold onto what he (or, more rarely, she) had fought in the land war of 1879–81 to get hold of. The stem system of inheritance, the ruthless emigration of redundant siblings to leave one inheritor for the farm — all this led to a fairly stagnant agricultural economy.
There was also a stagnant industrial economy for much of the 20th century, until the 1950s, when a very brilliant civil servant called T. K. Whitaker brought in a whole new schedule of economically liberalizing measures and began to invite external investment into Ireland and set up an industrial development authority to work on Ireland’s resources.
It did have resources. I’m not talking about turf in the bogs and endless winds to drive electricity, although this has now come to be the case. I’m really talking about the existence of a highly educated and quite disciplined and intelligent workforce, because Irish education has always punched above its weight. We’ve seen this in the years of the so-called Celtic Tiger as well.
From the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, the Irish economy did expand in a way that it had never done under the years of de Valera (and you as an economist will know this), partly because I think the general tendency began to be to look outward and welcome influences coming in from the outside world. Whereas de Valera had — and this goes back to the years of the Celtic Revival, in which he was immersed — de Valera had a vision of Ireland which was inward-looking, which was purist, which was anti-materialist, which was not going — he said this frequently in speeches — which was not going to privilege the creation of wealth and material comfort if it meant losing the essentials of what he conceived of as Irish identity.
COWEN: If we think about the Troubles, they seem to heat up again in the late 1960s. Why does that happen at that time?
FOSTER: Well, many books are published about this. The most recent ones, actually, have started emphasizing the examples of global movements, of civil and libertarian unrest, notably in America, on a generation that had been educated to know how discriminated against the Catholic people were.
I think there’s a question as to whether the outburst of violence that began in 1968/9 — and then continued, as you know, until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 — there’s a question as to whether this was the bursting of a boil, which was always going to happen because of the way the Catholics in the northeastern counties — the statelet set up by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 — that this was always going to happen.
More recently there’s a more nuanced view that sees movements towards reconciliation, movements towards peaceful civil rights demands, movements towards liberalization within a certain wing of the unionist party — that sees this as happening in the early and mid-1960s. And all that followed as a lurch into violence that could have been avoided, had the unionist establishment behaved with more intelligence and foresight.
I think I incline rather to that view, and I believe that it was the view of Seamus Heaney as well, about whom my latest book is. Certainly when you read about his life and those of his peers in mid-1960s Northern Ireland, you get a sense of: finally, some new territories of interaction, cultural interaction, social interaction between the two communities opening up. But due to the violence with which civil rights demonstrations were put down in 1969 and due to the rise of the Provisional IRA as a result of that, that was not to be, and we had 30 years and 3,500 deaths instead.
COWEN: Why did the British intervene as much as they did — because that had not been the general pattern, right?
FOSTER: No, absolutely not. One of the first pieces of crusading journalism that drew attention to the way Northern Ireland was run, and gerrymandering and discrimination and all the rest of it, was in the British Sunday Times, which was then, amazingly, quite a crusading paper, which it no longer is. The article was called “John Bull’s Political Slum.”
And it was a political slum. And one reason it was a political slum, Northern Ireland, was that the British threw money at it when demanded by the unionists but kept their faces firmly averted from the kind of culture of discrimination that had been built upon and encouraged ever since the measures like the abolition of proportional representation in voting, right back at the beginning in the 1920s. When they did intervene, it was, I believe, reluctantly.
There’s a simple nationalist version, which is that they were determined — the British were determined — to hang onto Northern Ireland for military reasons no matter what, and that’s why they poured the army in. Absolutely unproven, and I think proven to be untrue by the recollections and the evidence that’s come to light since.
Northern Ireland was never going to be anything but a running sore for the British, and many of them secretly and covertly would have really done their utmost to wash their hands of it, as indeed they may almost unintentionally be doing now because of the nonsensical position in which the catastrophe of Brexit has put Northern Ireland in relation to the larger island and in relation to the Republic.
COWEN: How much permanent cultural influence do you think it had that the Republic did not fight in World War II?
FOSTER: Again, a very incisive and interesting question. Many Irish men, and I think they probably were men, did sign up to fight for the Allies. Many Irish women went over and worked as nurses and doctors in British hospitals during the war. In my wife’s family, that’s very true. In my own family, four of my uncles fought for the Allies. But when they came back after 1945 to Ireland, they were not welcome. Certainly they were not welcome to talk about their experiences.
There was a kind of doublethink in that — I think the vast majority of Irish people were engaged in what might be called a pro-Allied neutrality. Certainly Allied airmen who were shot down over Ireland, for instance, during the war, if they were from the Allied side, were quietly repatriated to Britain. If they were Germans, they were interned. There was a different approach.
Too much emphasis is put, perhaps, on de Valera’s correctness in going to pay his respects on the death of Hitler at the German embassy — or the German legation, as it was — in Dublin at the end of the war. You can’t really read from that that he was essentially pro-Nazi, though some Irish republicans certainly were. He simply felt that as a head of state, he was doing exactly what he should do when another head of state died, in whatever circumstances. But this is often raked up against Ireland, implying that Ireland was pro-German during the Second World War. It wasn’t, by any means, but preserving a position of neutrality was I think probably politically inevitable for de Valera.
I think one interesting fact is that so very few politicians in Ireland from the opposition’s side ever queried it. I can only think of one, James Dillon, the Fine Gael leader, who was very much antineutrality and believed that Ireland should have entered on the side of the British. It was, I think, as I’ve said, a pro-British neutrality, but a neutrality nonetheless.
It’s one of those subjects in Irish history which has recently been coming into focus — and the histories and the treatment of those people who did volunteer to fight on behalf of the Allies and came back to a cold welcome. Or, if they were soldiers from the Irish Army who’d gone to fight for Britain, they were actually disciplined when they came back. This is now coming under view, and a number of very interesting studies have been written about it.
It’s one of those many issues in Irish history, like the abuse of children and women in the so-called industrial homes run by the Catholic Church. It’s one of those no-go areas that is very recently coming under examination by a new generation of, I think, very impressive Irish historians.
COWEN: After the war, the Republic switches its electoral system to a version of the single transferable vote. Why did they do that, and how has it mattered for Irish politics?
FOSTER: It’s mattered because it has encouraged, as STV PR systems do all over the world, a likelihood towards coalition governments, often between unlikely allies.
I think this is a good thing. Living in Britain, where they have what I think is an archaic and crude first-past-the-post system, which has given repeatedly sweeping powers of government to parties who have not received anything like a national majority — I think it’s a much less admirable system than what Ireland manipulates.
The general line is often taken that it’s too difficult for voters, but actually anyone who’s at all interested in where their vote is going knows very quickly or finds out very quickly the advantages and disadvantages sometimes of tactical voting in a PR system. The Irish are exceptionally good at it.
The disadvantage might be that it produces a rather clientelist kind of politics, and there’s a lot of horse trading and pork barrel (as you would say in the States) politics that go on, especially in rural constituencies, as deals are hammered out for who gets what and what votes go to whom. But in the end, I think it’s produced — I think this has to be admitted — it’s produced a remarkably stable political system in a postrevolutionary country.
When you look at the numbers of revolutionary regimes that were set up in European countries after the First World War — and I think Ireland should be seen as one of those — when you look at what was happening in Central Europe, when you look at the rise of fascism, especially in Italy but also in Germany and to a certain extent in France — Ireland, though it had a miniature parafascist party in the 1930s, kept a stable democratic system going. And it kept it going through the crises of war and poverty and a number of internal crises within the government itself, right through to the present day.
At the moment, we have, again, a coalition government in Ireland between the long-standing enemies, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, that emerged out of the civil war divide. Which is yet another of those, until recently, rather unexplored areas of Irish history: the traumatic civil war that followed the Anglo-Irish War in 1921.
I think the PR system that Ireland adopted has stood it in good stead, and I think that Ireland at the moment seems a far more mature and effective polity, in political terms, certainly than Boris Johnson’s England. And I say “England” advisedly, because I think both Wales and Scotland are in a rather questionable position vis-à-vis the unity of the UK at this moment.
COWEN: There’s so much focus on Joyce and Yeats as writers, but how does Irish modernism differ, in your understanding, if you view it through the lens of the Irish visual arts and painting? Stained glass, sculpture?
FOSTER: This, again, is another area of Irish history that has been reopened with a number of analytical treatments of Irish art, putting it in the mainstream of European modernist art rather than as an interesting variant on the British experience, which was far too often the case in the past. That may be true of, let’s say, Irish 18th-century landscape painting, but it’s emphatically untrue of Irish painters of the fin de siècle, great painters like [William] Orpen and [John] Lavery, who are much more like French painters, and also have studied in France in many cases, rather than being variants of the British norm.
You mentioned stained glass, Tyler, and that of course is with artists like Harry Clarke and Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. That is another area, a medium in which modernism and cubism even, in the case of Evie Hone, finds its way into Irish art at a time when the British are turning away or averting their faces from it.
There’s a great crisis — not crisis, a controversy — in Irish art around the early years of the 20th century when a man called Hugh Lane, a great collector of art, tries to set up a modern gallery in Ireland of impressionist and even early postimpressionist art, and tries to give his great collection to the Irish people to form such a gallery. I can’t go into it now, but it becomes a disputed issue when he dies in the Lusitania, leaving a disputed will, and the paintings are grabbed by the National Gallery in London where they largely still reside, though a new arrangement for sharing them with Dublin has just been recently worked out.
The interesting thing is that Lane and many Irish people had an eye for the new French painting, as did some Scottish collectors, long before they became valuable in the eyes of the English art establishment, so I think there’s always been a case for arguing that Irish art looks to Europe in many ways; many Irish artists train in Europe.
An exception, someone who doesn’t train in Europe, is perhaps one of the greatest if not the greatest Irish painters of the 20th century, who is Jack Yeats, brother of W. B. Yeats. There is this absolutely wonderful huge exhibition of his work in the National Gallery in Dublin at the moment, where the radicalism and power and poetry of these very expressionist paintings is just mind-blowing. You can’t think of any English painter at the time who’s doing anything like it. You can think of [Oskar] Kokoschka, you can think of some of the German expressionists, some of the colorists, and you can see parallels. But it’s a very definitively un-British kind of painting.
So that’s visual art. We’ve long been used to the idea of Irish literature existing in a different — a much more international, a much more radical — framework than English writing of the — certainly of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But I think an interesting development that’s happening now in cultural history and cultural criticism is that Irish visual art is also being seen from this angle as well.
COWEN: Why is Jack Yeats still so undervalued in international art markets? You can still buy a top one for what, a little more than a million British pounds? If you compare it to prices for, say, continental artists, it could be 10 or 20 million pounds or euros.
FOSTER: A million pounds is still a lot of money, Tyler, in my book. [chuckles]
I think he is underestimated, but — well, there is one very practical reason, which is that Jack Yeats didn’t prepare his canvases, and they’re fragile things. Sometimes when you look inside the glass along the bottom of a Yeats painting, there are flakes of paint that have fallen off. That’s a very practical reason for perhaps not hitting the very highest values.
But during the boom of the Celtic Tiger, I think a million would have been cheap for a major Jack Yeats. They were hitting large prices. And recently they’ve been hitting them again.
I think to compare them — if you’re thinking of the tens of millions, you’re thinking of Picasso and Matisse, and I think that’s a different ball game, really. I don’t think Jack Yeats — I think what you’re buying with a major Picasso or a Matisse is a statement of a change in the history of art that affects the entire artistic world. I imagine, though I’m by no means an expert, that that’s one reason for the astonishing prices that these command — as with, to take a very different example, Andy Warhol.
If you’re buying a Jack Yeats, you’re not buying into a work that has changed the practice and effect and achievement of world art. You’re buying something very special and, if you like, idiosyncratic, and I think every bit as beautiful as a Matisse or a Picasso — but that’s perhaps a biased opinion.
COWEN: Do you think it’s fair to say that Ireland is not a country of utopian theorists?
FOSTER: That requires a bit of thought about . . .
No, I think if you look at modern Irish fiction, which is very often a barometer of how a country thinks about itself, in the early decades of Irish independence, let’s say the ’20s and ’30s, you had the short stories of Seán Ó Faoláin and Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor. And you had a kind of — not utopian, but often a rather idealized, though often quite a bitter view of Irish, especially rural, life, as well, but certainly a sense of specialness and removedness, and a celebration of a certain kind of Irish identity. This is, I think, true of many lesser-known writers as well.
What seems to me to have happened since the 1970s, when the whole focus of Irish literary achievement shifted from the short story to the novel, when you have writers like John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, they’re going for a different kind of thing. They are not in the least utopian, though very often a novel will end with some kind of resolution. But I think dystopian might be more the world that many of them are working in or are working to represent.
The novel of family life has become, in many cases — and Dermot Bolger is another example here — a novel that explores imprisonment, rather than safety and refuge. The novel of rural life, and think of the great John McGahern here, is often a novel of cruelty, hardness, exploitation, rather than a novel of pastoral beauty. The novels of Sebastian Barry sent his characters often wandering all over the world to get away from a terrible Irish past — though, as I’ve said, there’s often a resolution at the end.
Colm Tóibín, who has also extended the range of the Irish novel immensely, writes about the memory of the war of independence and the encoded cruelties and violences in Irish life. So I think we’re not in a position at the moment, or we’re not in a situation at the moment, where utopian theorists are going to be found writing about Irish life.
We’re at a very different moment, partly because we’re talking about things that had not been talked about. I’m thinking here of the so-called mother and baby homes, and many other scandals about church authority. We’re talking about things that, for many years, were not to be spoken of.
COWEN: John Stuart Mill once wrote this in a letter: “I know tolerably well what Ireland was, but have a very imperfect idea of what Ireland is.” Is that still true? Was it ever true?
FOSTER: It’s true of many people. It’s interesting you quote Mill, who wrote a wonderful essay called England and Ireland, which reflects, I think, that opinion.
He also said something which I’ve often quoted, which I like very much, which is that Ireland is in the mainstream of European history, whereas England is in an eccentric tributary. I think that’s very true, and a lot of what we’ve been saying today, Tyler, seems to me to bear that out, from the 17th century on.
What Ireland was, I think, is something that is also, in a sense, up for grabs, where we’re trying to reenvision it, we’re trying to revise it, we’re trying to reexplain it. Something I wrote long ago, which has been quoted once or twice, is that the best history is written when we realize that people acted in terms, in belief of, in expectation of a future that was never going to happen. And I think that’s very true of — well, it’s true of the histories of most countries, but very true of the history of Ireland.
The expectations in which the revolutionaries acted in 1919–21 were of a future that didn’t happen. The expectations of unionists and imperialists in Ireland, of which there were many in the late 19th century — they acted in terms of a future that was never going to happen either. We all act in terms of a future that’s never going to happen, but that imagined future is what dictates the way in which we behave.
I think, in a sense, John Stuart Mill’s very honest admission is relevant to that as well.
COWEN: As you probably know, Oscar Wilde once wrote to William Yeats, “We are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.” With so much Irish success today, how will that image have to change? Is Ireland culturally prepared to be one of the countries that’s doing better than all the other countries?
FOSTER: Well, again, if I can instance my own work, I wrote a book called Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change, 1970–2000, which is a study of how Ireland became rich, successful — a country into which people immigrated rather than exporting its own people for emigration. A country which was producing a large quantity of the world’s supply of Viagra, to take one example of its pharmaceutical revolution. A country in which not only Big Pharma but also silicon technology invaded from the 1990s and made a number of people very, very rich.
It all would collapse — no, actually, it wouldn’t all collapse. There would be an extreme check applied in the crash of 2006–2008, but now that we can look back from 2022, the upside is still there. Ireland is a great deal richer, more prosperous, more fully populated, and more, I think, optimistic than it was in the Ireland I grew up in in the 1960s and early ’70s.
I think Ireland has got very used to being a world player, or at least an EU player, if I can put it like that, and that can’t be underestimated. I think Ireland began being rich earlier than people think, just as Ireland began being liberal earlier than people think.
People think that Ireland cast off the shackles of overwhelming Catholic power and social morality with the scandals that emerged about bishops having children and the mother and baby homes and so forth. Not so. I think — and I said this in the lectures that became that book, Luck and the Irish — I think it began with the Irish women’s movement in the very early 1970s, when what the sociologist Tom Inglis has called the bargain, the implicit bargain between the priest and the mother that kept Ireland going, was broken radically from the mother’s side. When women were not going to be instructed by the church how to live their lives, and how to live not only their reproductive lives but their social and their work and their sexual lives.
That was an enormous revolution, and it happened both quickly and irrevocably from the 1970s. Similarly, I think Ireland became rich not just when the Big Pharma and the Silicon Valley began invading in the 1990s. It became much richer from 1972–3 when it entered the Common Market, as it was then called, and became the recipient of very many grants and handouts and also, more creatively, was integrated into the European government, always punching above its weight at Strasbourg and Brussels, and doing very well out of it.
Ireland took to Europe in a very committed way. Even during the years of austerity after the crash of 2006–8, when it seemed at the time rather draconian implementations of economic policy were being ordered on Ireland from the so-called troika of European financial authorities, it wasn’t objected to half as much as it was in Greece or in Spain, for instance. The medicine was taken because so much good medicine, or sugar, or whatever you like to use metaphorically, had gone down in the previous 20-odd years.
Ireland has come through a lot of its economic dislocation since then and is more — I think I’m right to say — more passionately and more committedly European than ever, especially in the light of what Brexit is bringing about in the larger island next door.
COWEN: As you know, Ireland has quite a low marriage rate. How do you think about the long-term repopulation of the country? Could you imagine, say 30 years from now, that half the population in the Republic is simply from the EU, and that that’s culturally stable, and everyone’s fine with it?
FOSTER: Why should everyone not be fine with it?
COWEN: There seems to be pressure brought upon politics in many countries when the percentage of non-native-born individuals, say, creeps over 20 percent.
Now, Ireland may be different, right? There’s less populism of a certain kind there — many other differences.
FOSTER: I think it is, Tyler. I don’t want to sound too chauvinistic about this, but it surprises me — there is, of course, racism in Ireland, as there is racism everywhere. But it surprises me, given the (and you’ve just drawn attention to it yourself) the extent of immigration into Ireland. It surprises me how comparatively easily that has been absorbed, and how little there is of populist, as you put it, or nativist movements against the incomer. Partly because I think emigration has created among the Irish a kind of global sense which opens the mind to such things.
There’s also such a thing as reverse emigration. A great many people from the boom years on — you wouldn’t say re-emigrate — returned, I suppose is the simple way of putting it, to Ireland, having emigrated earlier. And returned bringing with them, I suspect, an outward-looking and tolerant view, which perhaps they wouldn’t have if they had lived all that time in Ireland.
I think given what you see in other countries — and you’re absolutely right; it’s I think unusual for it to be so — but I think there is a far lesser degree of resentment and expressed bigotry against incoming people from different cultures in Ireland, partly because those people themselves become rather quickly what is called the New Irish.
COWEN: As Northern Ireland becomes at least as much Catholic as Protestant, does that increase or decrease the chances for a single Ireland?
FOSTER: To say that it would increase them is to perhaps assume too much that people’s political vote follows their ethnoreligious identity. It used to be so; it’s less so now.
I think you get far more middle-class Catholics who will admit to believing in the union now than you ever would have before. You get, on the other side, I think, more — especially in the younger age cohorts — you get far more people from a Protestant background prepared to envisage a united Ireland. Partly, of course, because the Republic with which they would theoretically be uniting is such a younger, more outward-looking, less priest-ridden, more fashionable (to use the word) entity than the country that their parents or grandparents would have averted their gaze from.
At the same time, I think there’s much talk at the moment of a border poll and how it would go — a border poll meaning a vote for reunification. I think intercommunal tensions are so high at the moment in Northern Ireland — and that again brings us back to Brexit or has a lot of its origins in Brexit — that I think it’s the wrong time for such a poll. If it narrowly turned out in favor of a united Ireland, I think it would be fairly catastrophic. If it turned out narrowly the other way, it would probably be catastrophic too. I think at the moment things are too finely balanced to push it.
I suspect, and here I’m pushing the boat out a bit, that in about 30 years’ time the governing opinion in the six counties of Northern Ireland might well have shifted much more towards uniting with a European Republic of Ireland to the south than staying with what will by then be a sadly diminished England. But that’s just a personal opinion.
COWEN: In a scenario of that kind, does Belfast become Ireland’s second city? Or is it too deindustrialized? Is it ultimately going to be Cork in the South? How do you see the urban landscape of a united Ireland evolving?
FOSTER: Tyler, I’m not a prophet. [chuckles] I do know Cork would be very annoyed if it were to be demoted from the second city, since many people in Cork think they’re the first city anyway.
I think Belfast would — maybe I speak from the kind of slightly idiosyncratic Protestant culture I was brought up in, but I think that in a united Ireland, Belfast and what it stands for would supply something that was lacking, certainly, in newly independent Ireland: that quality that’s sometimes called Northern Iron. I think the creativity and — just think of the Belfast poets since the 1960s — the creativity and the history and the Belfast energy would be a valuable adjunct to the rest of the island.
That’s not to say that there aren’t great disadvantages in the case. In the economic situation, you as an economist would know the powerless state of the Northern Irish economy, and the fact that so much of Northern Ireland’s society subsists on handouts that come directly or indirectly from the larger island. That’s an enormous question of assimilation which we haven’t really touched on, and which is I think a great obstacle to a simplistic form of reunification.
But were there to be reunification, possibly after my 30-year period — yes, I think Belfast would supply something that would bring a new injection of energy and interest into the reunited island, one hopes.
COWEN: Does Derry, or some would prefer to say Londonderry, have an economic future? Or is it just stuck out there and it’s going to get smaller and people will leave it?
FOSTER: I’m not qualified to say. I mean, Londonderry/Derry City (as some people refer to it), because Londonderry/Derry has its own valuable traditions and, again, its own cultural traditions, but its hinterland culturally has often been seen as as much the Republic as Northern Ireland.
Derry/Londonderry would perhaps assimilate with a reunited Ireland rather easily than many places, because in a sense, culturally, so much of it has looked south anyway. But that’s, again, a semi-educated guess.
COWEN: Last question, to close — this is in some ways quite a large one: Throughout your entire life, you’ve taught Irish history to Irish people, to English people, presumably to Europeans, and to Americans. What are the main differences across those groups in terms of how they understand Irish history or how you teach it?
FOSTER: One of my favorite Irish novelists, Elizabeth Bowen, said that she wished the English remembered much more Irish history and the Irish forgot more of it. I tend to feel the same way. If you teach Irish history to Irish people, you can expect a certain parti pris, a certain attitude that is already there that you have to challenge.
I should say one of the great things about being an Irish historian is the sophisticated, engaged, passionate interest in history among Irish people. We see it at the moment in the Decade of Commemorations, so-called, commemorating that key decade, 1912–22, when so much changed in Ireland.
Living in England, I’ve been amazed at how little commemoration there was, let’s say, for instance in 1991 of 1691, of the Glorious Revolution, of the moment when Whig culture created essentially the modern British political system. Nobody gave a damn about it or remembered it. I was in France in 1989, and again, the extraordinary level of commemorativeness about the revolution was something you never see in England, perhaps because England is more secure and perhaps blinkered in its own views of itself and its past.
Moving on to teaching Irish history to English people, British people, I think it’s absolutely vital. I’ve done it in London for many years. I inaugurated the first chair of Irish history in Oxford, which is still there, with a very brilliant successor, I’m glad to say. Teaching English people, especially at the heart of the establishment, which you would have to say Oxford represents, is utterly vital, because these are the people who will be the civil servants and possibly politicians of the future.
The astonishing ignorance of English people about Irish history, apart from some set pieces, is one of the things that astonished me when I came, back in 1974, to be an academic in this country. That’s the obstacle you have to get over when you’re teaching Irish history to English people.
Teaching Irish history to Americans, which I have done a bit, is another question again, because you’re encountering the emigrant memory of Ireland in many cases. Irish Americans or people with some Irish blood in them will say “I’m Irish,” not “I’m Irish American.” It’s a sense of identity which I think societies of emigrants bring very powerfully with them and sustain very powerfully. But it does mean that, all too often, the memory of Ireland is the memory of the grandmother or the grandfather or the generation who emigrated. They’ve kept it in aspic, and it’s necessary to stir that around a bit, to change it, to accentuate the complications, the nuances, the ironies of Irish history, the unexpected futures, and the futures that were expected but never happened, as I mentioned earlier.
That’s what you have to try and get across to an audience that thinks they have a kind of historic tapestry, an immobilized tapestry or a mural of great national events, one after the other, leading in the end to liberation. It was all greatly more complicated and more difficult and more interesting and, I think, more creative than that.
COWEN: It’s been a real pleasure. Roy Foster: thank you very much.
FOSTER: Thank you, Tyler. I enjoyed it.