Friday, December 26, 2014

More from Roy Foster, or Irish history can be fun, especially when Charles Haughey is part of it

Roy Foster’s Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change Since 1970 picks up where his Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 leaves off. It grew out of a series of lectures, and its more informal tone brings Foster’s delight in wordplay and verbal zest, his own and others', to the fore. Here are some of my favorite examples:

“Gerry Adams, his gaze at this point still firmly fixed on the past, liked to claim that Irish profits were being sucked away by `England', but in fact it was America that predominated.”
“(I) one looks at the Republic of Ireland over the last thirty years in religious terms, it is hard not to think of that standard exam question for students of Irish history: `Why did the Reformation not succeed in Ireland?' And answer: `It did, but it took four hundred and fifty years.'”
“…that other power struggle going on south of the border, down Merrion way: the battles within Fianna Fail.”
“To catch a vote, the playwright Hugh Leonard wrote, [Charles Haughey] would unhesitatingly `roller-skate backwards into a nunnery, naked from the waist down, singing "Kevin Barry" in Swahili'.”
“As power was assumed by a figure variously compared by his opponents to Salazar, Nixon and Dracula, the shape of a new kind of New Ireland came into view.”
“[Conor] Cruise O'Brien once remarked that he would not believe Haughey's political career was over until he saw him buried at a crossroads with his mouth full of garlic and a stake through his heart. Politically speaking, that point had finally been reached.”
“O'Neill's clipped, pragmatic, patrician tone … owed far more to the style of metropolitan Conservative Party cabals than to the sclerotic huddles of Ulster village politics.” 
Charles Haughey
Foster is no mere comedian, though, and the book is no mere cartoonish collection, like those slim volumes one finds at the cash register of bookstores full of zany things said by or about Sarah Palin or George Bush or Bill Clinton.  Foster’s good jokes are always in service of his theme, as when he quotes an outrageous eulogy to Haughey’s sympathies to Northern Ireland, which extended to running guns to the IRA, and contrasts this with the later noticeable cooling of Haughey’s zeal for the North. Rather than merely cite this as one more instance of opportunism by a political crook on a scale unimaginable in most countries, Foster ties his antics and his shifting sympathies to a changing mood in Ireland, and thereby makes him more than an adorable, venal rogue.
Thirty-six years after the 1970 trial precipitated by Haughey’s gun smuggling, Foster writes:
“what seemed much clearer was how quickly he had distanced himself from the `problem of the North'. This strategy had enabled him to return to the forefront of politics by 1979 – and, once in power, his Northern policies diverged more and more from traditional pieties. Haughey's own story reflected events and movements in the nation at large.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Unknown said...

Your postings about Irish history remind me of my readings in English history -- especially the 16th century. The English schemes to subdue and dominate Ireland through plantations and militarism were reprehensible. But the arrogance of colonialism was all the rage for too many countries for too many centuries. Ironically, even the U.S. could not seem to learn from English history. Well, at least we have no plantation schemes (yet) in Iraq and Afghanistan. But perhaps I am trying to create corollaries were none exist. In any case, I think I am on the verge of revisiting my readings 16th century English history. Thanks for the provocation.

December 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As it happens, one of the targets of Foster's occaional barbs at Irish nationalism is its atavistic sniping at England rather than the U.S. when people began to be alarmed by extensive foreign investment during the Celtic Tiger economic boom.

December 29, 2014  

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