Born in Waterford, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, he holds the Carroll Chair of Irish History at Oxford. Researching the life of Yeats, he has also found time to write formidably learned essays on the diverse relations between Ireland and England as manifested in Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Parnell, Lord Randolph Churchill, Trollope, Thackeray, Yeats, Synge and the cartoonists of Punch. These essays, many of them splendid, are collected in Paddy & Mr Punch.
His themes are vivid and, several of them, topical. The more we understand the connections between Ireland and England the better, I suppose, even though no degree of understanding will ensure peace in Northern Ireland. Foster doesn't deal with the North directly, though he writes lines between which we may read his mind on that incorrigible subject. His official themes are more urbane. It is worth learning from him why Punch portrayed Irishmen as Paddy O'Caliban the ape while presenting Miss Ireland as a beautiful, neo- Greek woman. (Not that readers at this late date are likely to find such prejudice surprising.)
In another essay Foster shows how it became conventional to believe that the Easter Rising of 1916 was the inevitable conseqence of literary and cultural deeds after the death of Parnell in 1891. In the essay on Bowen we find she was not only an Irish nove1ist but, at her own request, a spy for the Ministry of Information during the War. She can hardly have gleaned much from neutral Ireland.
Foster's book is vivid on all these matters, but the most intriguing parts of it are the pages in which he allows his political attitudes to emerge. 'Irishness is a flexible identification,' he says. So it is. In an essay on 'Varieties of Irishness' he says that these 'can be complementary rather than competing'. No harm in that claim. But when he refers to 'a certain unity behind our diversities of culture' and to 'a culturally diverse inheritance within the polity', I wonder who is in charge of this unity, which polity he has in mind, and who exerts power there. I think he must mean Westminster, not Dublin or Belfast. When he speaks of 'those of us who long for unspectacular but real steps, taken forward together', I ask myself who the 'we' are for whom Foster has undertaken to speak, and from what point of vantage the steps of togetherness are to be taken. In 'The Use and Abuse of History' Nietzsche recommends that 'we seek a past from which we may spring, rather than that past from which we seem to have derived'. Perhaps that is what Foster is seeking and the incitement of the historical revisions he offers.
His first step in these essays is to prescribe a certain historical context, such that several centuries of conflict in Ireland may be deemed to have been superseded. Our story is not to begin with, say, the Plantation of Ulster or the Battle of the Boyne or 1798 or 1867. We are to start about 1891 and agree that the reality of Ireland has then been determined by England. The Act of Union is in place, there is incessant discussion of Home Rule, so no one in Ireland should be resorting to arms or even talking about independence. Foster sounds like Matthew Arnold in The Celtic in Literature (1866), smiling at the sentimental Irish 'always ready to react against the despotism of fact'. Arnold's best hope was in the commingling of 'the steady-going Saxon temperament and the sentimental Celtic temperament'. In the service of English polity, of course, and subject to English jurisdiction.
Foster would seem to think that Ireland after Parnell's death should have accepted the genial despotism of constitutional fact, persisted in local politics, furthered the aims of the Irish Parliamentary Party, supported Horace Plunkett's efforts in agricultural cooperation and been ready to cheer John Redmond and 'Home Rule within the Empire'. 'Cultural self-confidence can exist,' he says, 'without being yoked to a determinist and ideologically redundant notion of unilaterally declared nation-statehood.' Such a notion is fine, apparently, in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe, but not in Ireland.
As for the future, or the revised past from which we may spring, 'cannot a secular ethic now be taken as a reasonable aspiration in both parts of the island'? The means to be used is 'integrated education', which should be seen 'not as an anodyne and deracinating mish-mash, but as an affirmation of differences which might lead to mutual acceptance'. 'There may be grounds for hope,' Foster says, 'that the discovery of an outward-looking and inclusive cultural nationalism, not predicated upon political and religious differences, will be the salient business of young and not-so-young intellectuals and educators at this current crisis of both Irish states.' In other words: let Ireland emulate England.
As Gandhi is supposed to have said when asked what he thought of western civilisation: 'It would be nice.' But Foster might well start his own outward-looking progress by questioning his language: for example, his ironic reference to those who opposed the Treaty of 1921 as 'guardians of the pure Republican flame', or his designation of nationalist fervour as indulgence in 'separatist heroics'. He calls members of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association 'chauvinists', and in several essays describes those who held to some value he disapproves of as 'brokers' of it, as if only mercenary motives could explain their actions. In the essay on Elizabeth Bowen he derides some unnamed people as 'obsessed either by colonial imitativeness or purist narodnik Irish-Irelandism'. These are spirited phrases, but they don't speak well for the ecumenism that Foster claims to recommend. He sounds, at times, exasperated with Ireland and its history, revised or not.
My own sense of Irishness I take from James Joyce's Ulysses, the scene in which the Citizen challenges Leopold Bloom: 'What is your nation if I may ask?' Bloom answers: 'Ireland . . . I was born here. Ireland.' Nothing marginal about that Dublin Jew.
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