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Wild, wild times

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile, pp.823, £30

There are, I believe, only two jokes in Diarmaid Ferriter’s latest voluminous tome: one, citing Liam Cosgrave, sometime Taoiseach, considered a rather dull character, who apparently said that ‘the Jews and the Muslims should settle their differences in a Christian manner’ (which is almost as insightful as the Tyrone newspaper which once carried the headline: ‘Catholics and Protestants unite against ecumenism’). The second is a quotation from a woman in Sandy Row, in deeply Loyalist Belfast, expressing her distaste for a United Ireland with the words ‘Dublin would have us practising celibacy on the streets’.

There is no reason for a historian to entertain humorously, and Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin, is a serious person, as the Irish ruling caste tend to be nowadays: Irish public intellectuals, television inquisitors and political figures have succeeded to the position previously held by strait-laced bishops, moralising priests and commanding reverend mothers. And Professor Ferriter has currently much authority in Dublin, where he is called upon regularly to discourse publicly on matters of history, culture and progressive ideas.

He is an outstandingly diligent researcher: he has the ability (and the industry) to amass a great number of facts and archive material and organise it all into a coherent narrative; in this case, pertaining to the Irish Republic during the troubled 1970s, when the optimistic changes of the 1960s were overtaken by murderous scenes in Northern Ireland (about which the Republic was ambiguous indeed — the Irish Tourist Board was very keen to distance itself from any united Ireland which included the North), and economic development faltered. There were also significant social changes, from the challenges to the 1935 law banning birth control, to the emergence of Co. Cork as a centre gastronomique.

This book will be a useful compendium for anyone who seeks to know about the inner workings of the Fianna Fail party, or the trade unions, or cultural matters, or what Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote about the IRA and their fellow-travellers, or Queen Margarethe of Denmark’s 1978 visit to Dublin. An accomplished archeologist, Margarethe was carefully kept away from the Danish Viking settlement in Wood Quay as the Fianna Fail administration was planning to build a concrete office block over a unique archeological site (they did, too).

Ferriter is masterly at marshalling facts and the facts are often revealing — for example, the Catholic church wasn’t all-powerful when it came to visiting IRA prisoners in Portlaoise jail: politicians firmly stopped bishops from making such pastoral visitations. But while he reports sedulously, he seldom analyses or contextualises. He cites some of the more ‘ranting’ Catholic (as he calls them) objections to contraception being freely available, but he doesn’t provide much context — such as the atavistic anxieties of an agricultural people (where barrenness represented failure) who had suffered a continuous pattern of de-population in counties like Mayo and Leitrim.

He makes allusion to Rose Dugdale, the IRA moll, but he could have profitably developed a significant aspect of her life, in the historical context — that she was an upper-class English debutante, a theme which recurs in the Irish republican canon:  Constance Gore-Booth (Markievicz) and Maud Gonne were from a similar milieu.

Ferriter does not often link, or explain, ambiguities relating to earlier points in history: he reports — faultlessly — on the campaign to allow Irishwomen to serve as jurors in court cases in the 1970s. Yet it would have been worth adding that Irishwomen had, previously, served on juries in the 1920s, but the Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins became so irked with women asking to be excused that in 1927 he had excused them altogether.  He describes the Knights of Columbanus as a ‘secretive, elitist and conservative’ religious organisation, but again it would be useful to explain that it was originally founded as a network for Catholic businessmen to rival the Freemasons and the Orange Lodges.

I am flattered that he mentions me, quite fairly, at several reprises, even if once as a ‘wild, wild woman’ of the 1970s: paradoxically, I now see the events described through a calmer prism of history, while the historian himself has done what is, in effect, a fine job of contemporary reportage.

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