Beware of history as state propaganda

To what extent should the teaching of history act as an aid to reconciliation? It’s a theme with plenty of local echoes. The contemporary European historian Timothy Garton Ash has written this important piece in the Guardian announcing a campaign against official state sponsorship of positive thinking about the past. It starts with good motives – Never Again the Holocaust continues with imprisoning Holocaust deniers and ends us with contrary laws in different countries about the same event.

“In Switzerland, you get prosecuted for saying that the terrible thing that happened to the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman empire was not a genocide. In Turkey, you get prosecuted for saying it was. What is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia.”

There’s nothing terrible about history as celebration or keeping the old frameworks of history so long as we examine them openly and critically. What this current British debate lacks is the rigorous approach to Empire now current in research – not a hate thing, just unblinking coverage of the story. The effort to assimilate and understand continues in every generation. In Ireland, understanding requires both Irish and British contexts.

We’ve had more than one of revisionisms but none of it is laid down by any State thank God. No danger of State sponsored PC coming back in any part of Ireland is there?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Brian,

    Good stuff. I was going to post on this on my blog, but won’t bother now. There’s a fairly strong argument been made by people like Roy Foster in his The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland and Tom Dunne in his Rebellions that through the commemoration of events like the Famine and the 1798 Rebellion, the state has been twisting history to suit its purposes, especially 1798 for the era of the GFA. Never mind all the rewriting of the Troubles that has been done.

    On a broader note, regarding this European initiative, there has been a campaign mounted by communist and workers’ parties in Europe against the proposals to link fascism and communism. Which, you know, seems fairly reasonable seeing as the Communists saved us all from the Nazis.

    It does show however the dangers of prescriptive history through legislation. (my codeword is history – has someone done this deliberately?)

  • Jimmy

    We must as the post suggest be critical and objective to History, it is the Historians absolute duty to do so,if not they become, to put one way Production line Historians and dare I say it, even with the alleged Holocaust. An open objective non bias intelectual debate is needed, bringing out the Revisionists analysis for all to see and judge when victors write history many have the right to the alternatives. When we have the legislators of some countrys jailing and persecuting revisionists however unpalatable some in society sees them (and lets face it some of what they are saying could be correct, like the 6 million figure),if I said in Germany 5,999,9,99 died in the holocaust I can go to jail, this is indeed totalitarianism, dictatorship and political obsession, Rosseau I believe once said, I disagree with what you have to say, but I will fight for your right to say it.
    This also includes, revisionism in Ireland 1798, the great famine (I dont believe the English were inherently responsible for the famine yet Irish Profiteering was)and the recent troubles even the latter has been discussed ad nauseum on this site, imagine jailing or persecuting someone for an intellectual opinion?

  • Dev

    I think in any country there is a danger that in teaching history you only focus on the aspects that cast your country in positive light – the idea of Empire in Britain is a good example (bringing civilisation to the natives) as is the way in which the famine is often taught in Ireland (it was all them Brits’ fault). In school I was always taught to be wary of bias in historical sources & interpretations and I think as long as you hammer home that idea to kids they are mostly smart enough to realise no reading of a historical event or period is ever going to be the complete and unadulterated ‘Truth’.

    On the campaign to ban official state sponsorship of positive thinking about the past, a confident, modern nation should not fear recognition that, in the past, that country may have done things that it’s citizens are not now proud of. It is harmful to stifle interpretations by only focusing on the ‘good’ side. For example, in Britain this year there has been celebrations of teh 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Yes we should celebrate the brave stance that people like Wilberforce took, but there should also be a lot more attention focusing on the fact that there was a slave trade in Britain in the first place. Similarly, unquestioning celebrations of 1916 or 1798 just seem outdated these days, what’s wrong with allowing opposing interpretations to be given some attention? Surely we are big enough to admit that our coountries did wrong in the past, it’s not like it is some sort of slur on the current state of the nation.

  • Katinka

    There is a very good example of state sponsored PC with regard to the ’98 Rebellion. In the exhibition in Collins Barracks, Dublin (not a patch on the exhibition in the Ulster Museum by the way),in the ’98 Commemoration Centre in Enniscorthy, the theme was that the rebellion was very much following the tradition of the American and French Revolutions; that the rebellion in Wexford established a ‘Wexford Republic’ with a council of Catholics and Protestants. Sectarianism was almost ignored as was the United Irishmens’ dictum of not discussing those things on which the members disagreed. The rebellion was put down by English troops and the chance of a glorious future for Ireland was lost.

    This line was followed by geographers and historians who wrote and lectured about the subject in 1998 with the honorable exception of Tom Dunne. What was being peddled was an interpretation favoured by the state (then heavily involved in the Northern Ireland ‘peace’ process). It was not history, most of it was a gross distortion of the facts if not downright dishonest. But one of the ‘usual suspects’ said that the subject bhad not entered the realm of history as it was still in the realm of politics.

    Oh, and by the way, the rebellion was not put down by ‘English’ soldiers – there were very few in the country in May and June 1798. It was supressed by Irish soldiers of the Irish Militia. (See Nelson, ‘The Irish Militia, 1793-1802’, (Four Courts, Dublin, 2007))

  • Katinka,

    I don’t think most of the reinterpretation of 1798 away from a simple sectarian peasant jacquerie to the product of a process of popular politicisation was dishonest, or even inaccurate. One person in particular influential with the commemorations may have gone over the top, but I’d have thought the weight of historical scholarship is closer to him than to the interpretation offered by people like Tom Dunne. This is not to say that the commemorations were not disgracefully politicised.

  • Katinka


    The ’98 is an very good example of how history can be re-interpreted by succeeding generations to feed their religious or political agendas, or both! In 1898 Father Kavanagh managed to turn the rebellion into an uprising for ‘faith and fatherland’, and in 2008 this interpretation had been replaced by the political one I describe. However, I have never believed that the rebellion was a sectarian peasant jacquerie as some have claimed, nor did I ever think it was a re-run of 1641 as Musgrave contended. Nevertheless, sectarianism was an important element in the rebellion as were a lot others.

    The conspirators were probably the second most inept in Irish history, and the rebellion affected a minority of Irish counties, a fact conveniently ignored.

    Perhaps I have not been clear enough about ‘dishonesty’ but the interpretation of the ‘Wexford parliament’ and the suggestion that the massacre at Scullabogue was in retaliation for the burning of patients in a hospital in Mary Street, New Ross, are examples. Tom Dunne and others have demolished this contention.

    I agree that the commemorations were disgracefully politicised – I was very disappointed with the exhibition in Dublin, I thought it poor and an opportunity missed. The exhibition in the Ulster Museum was comprehensive, interesting, and even handed. In fact it was outstanding.

  • The Ulster Museum one was excellent. The Wexford Senate thing was demolished by Dunne, though wasn’t there an article in History Ireland years ago arguing that it was in reliation for the execution of prisoners after a battle, and comparing it to the Septemember Massacres in Paris – popular violence against politically suspect people? I might be not be remembering right though, but that was not what Dunne was taking aim at I don’t think.

    I wonder if the judgment on incompetence is entirely fair, given the size of the organisation built, and the success in attracting French support.

  • Katinka

    I think that Dunne was taking aim at the anadoyne commemoration of Scullabogue – a commemorative stone in (Old) Ross churchyard. He thought it said more about the commemorative committee than those who perished especially as their names and where they lived are known.

    I have seen the stone, tucked away in a neglected corner of an overgrown churchyard and I have to say that I agree with him. The truth is that we will never know why this atrocity took place but my feeling is that it had more to do with the insurgents being defeated in New Ross than any particular part of that defeat. – the fog of war and all that.

    However, the theory – presented as fact – that it was in retaliation for the burning to death of wounded rebels in a ‘slated house’ being used as a hospital in Mary Street is a travesty of the truth. This street was the front line, and there is contemporary evidence that the house was full of rebels who were fighting. It was not a hospital, in fact there was a real hospital in Priory Street.

    It can be argued that all of this is an example of state PC. I know that the ’98 is one of the most evocative of Irish rebellions because it is regarded as the birthplace of Irish republicanism. That is not a reason though for the lack of even-handedness so displayed.

  • Haven’t seen the stone in real life, so thanks for the info. I have to say that I find the whole apologising thing embarassing. Be it the Dublin government apologising for Scullabogue, or Blair apologising for the Famine. Total state PC behaviour all round, and an abuse of history.

  • Greenflag

    katinka ,

    ‘I know that the ‘98 is one of the most evocative of Irish rebellions because it is regarded as the birthplace of Irish republicanism.’

    In retrospect the 1798 rebellion was sparked by Government intervention the preceding year when militia were sent into areas under General Lake to provoke the UI movement into rebellion before they were prepared . These ‘provocations’ e.g the Dunlavin Green massacre in Wicklow among others convinced the Wexford men that they were next and it was better to die fighting than waiting around for the militia to do the job .

    The fact that the rebellion degenerated into sectarian slaughter in part was inevitable given the ‘provocations ‘ of Government .

    We also have to look at 1798 from a broader perspective and how Ireland was viewed as a ‘resource’ for both food and soldiery by the Empire . Also the very real fear that the British had (particularly the ruling aristocracy) of a French invasion . Had the French invaded under Napoleon’s lead they would have defeated the British by sheer weight of numbers and military training ( as regards their land armies anyway )

    . We forget also that as well as United Irishmen there were also societies of United Englishmen and United Scotsmen, (not sure about Wales) at the time , who would have been if not deleriously happy about a French Republican invasion then not too upset about the removal of the British aristocacy , so that radical changes could be made in British society . These changes were to come about eventually over the period 1812 through 1880 and beyond .

    Have to agree with Garibaldy in general re the ‘apologising police ‘

    It’s too far back in history anyway and society in those days operated on very much a minority top down no questions asked or proferred basis . Ordinary people of every nationality in these islands did what they were told and did not step out of line or it was a case of Van Diemen’s or the gallows .

  • Katinka

    Greenflag, you are proving my point, and the last query in Brian’s post. That the state promotes a version of history that suits itself. Who taught you that the government provoked the rebellion? I know that it is something promolgated by certain nationalist writers. However, I have trawled through the relevant contemporary papers in the National Archives of GB, Ireland and Scotland and I can find absolutely no evidence for this hypothesis.

    Furthermore, the Dunlavin incident was not carried out by the militia ( I think it was the Welsh Fencible Cavalry). General Lake was not the commander-in-chief in 1797 (it was Lord Carhampton who handed over to Gen. Abercromby) Lake commanded in Ulster only.

    Ireland as a source of food and soldiery is a secondary issue. The strategic importance of Ireland to GB was quite simply that it was the back door to invasion. Catholics could not be enlisted into the army before the American War, this war opened the possibilities and the Catholic Relief Act of 1792 opened the huge manpower pool officially. The Irish Militia was predominantly Catholic. However, the importance of Ireland as a supplier of victuals to the Royal Navy cannot be underestimated – and would be a good subject for further research.

    A very interesting subject, thank you for your comments.

  • Good man Nevin. Hard to beat the Hearts of Oak/Steel.

  • Greenflag

    katinka ,

    ‘I have trawled through the relevant contemporary papers in the National Archives of GB, Ireland and Scotland and I can find absolutely no evidence for this hypothesis.’

    Eh the absence of evidence may just mean that the evidence has been absented – see below with Abercromby’s resignation letter .

    Gen Abercromby resigned soon after his appointment because the government would not support him in his efforts to improve the army’s conduct . In a private letter to relatives he wrote of the ‘violence and oppression ‘ which had been employed in Ireland for more than 12 months i.e since 1797 adding that within that time ‘every crime ,every cruelty that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks has been transacted here ‘

    Before Abercromby resigned he explained to his subordinate Sir John Moore the attitude of the government which he said wanted the Commander -in -Chief and the army to take the responsibility of acting ‘with a violence which they did not choose to define and for which they would give no public authority ‘

    The above are quoted by Robert Kee in his book ‘The Green Flag’ and are quotations from Lecky’s ‘History of Ireland in the 18th century ‘vol IV pg 208 and vol VIII p 118

    In other words from the above – let loose the ‘dogs of war’ no questions asked and none anwered . Thus were the UI men provoked into open insurrection . This of course suited the Government as they could deal with the revolutionaries ‘before ‘ any French invasion and a probable link up with the UI and a breaking of the political link between Ireland and England -i.e Wolfe Tone’s political objective .

    I’d recommend a read of Kee’s book ( He’s English ex RAF – so no axe to grind ) . There’s plenty of referrals to source materials which leaves one in no doubt that the Govt did by subterfuge and harassment in Ulster and South Leinster provoke the UI men into premature revolt .

    ‘The strategic importance of Ireland to GB was quite simply that it was the back door to invasion’

    Not just in the 18th century but as far back as the 16th and Spanish Armada times .

    ‘However, the importance of Ireland as a supplier of victuals to the Royal Navy cannot be underestimated – and would be a good subject for further research.’

    IIRC many unsuspecting Irish were also press ganged into the RN long before they could enlist ‘officially’ .

  • Yvette Doll

    So the Turks published their food delivery chits? I think they injected kids with poison, suffocated babies, burnt them them alive, and raped like a Mongolian horde.

    The Turks are still capable of beheading, burying alive, burning, it is nasty Anatolian politics, losing is not much of Darwinian anchor.

    It was in part because of the Armenian genocide that Hitler thought he could chance his arm. Before Father Reid, Unionists were compared to ‘the Turks’.

  • Katinka

    Greenflag, I see we are on page 2 so I hope you get this! I have been away.

    You are quoting secondary authorities, and I would disagree with the interpretation that the government deliberately fomented the rebellion. Indeed, the governmet’s aim was to prevent rebellion by seizing arms and weapons. I would suggest that your interpretation does not appreciate the difference between the army and the state. This period marks the nadir of British infantry after the defeat in the American war, and the abortive expedition to the Netherlands in 1793. At this period the discipline of the army was very poor indeed.

    This is what Abercromby found when he arrived in Ireland towards the end of 1797, a place where he had served for nearly 20 years. he believed that the purpose of the army was to counter invasion and for this reason it had to be kept concentrated rather than dispersed in penny packets around the countryside for the protection of individuals and public and private buildings. He outlined what he thought of the discipline of the army on 13 February 1798, but the straw that finally ‘broke the camel’s back’ was the rape of a witness to a murder by two officers of the army. On 26 February he issued his famous order to the army which began:
    ‘The very disgraceful frequency of courts martial, and the many complaints of irregularities in the conduct of the troops in this Kingdom having so unfortunately proved the army to be in a state of licentiousness which must render it formidable to everyone but the enemy’

    The order caused a furore, the gentry regarded it as a slur on the army and were horrified at the idea of concentration. Abercromby felt that he had been accused with a political manoeuvre and resigned. Brig-Gen Moore thought that the government did want the army to act with more violence towards the people but were too timorous to say so and the army in any case had considerable internal disciplinary problems.

    The furthest the government went was the use of ‘free quarters’. A disturbed district would be proclaimed and the army sent there to live off the people at their expense. It was designed to recover arms, not to provoke revolt. It was iniquitous because it affected the innocent as well as the guilty. It could be effective though – for example, Moore’s men recovered 800 pikes and 3,400 stand of srms ion the Carberries, west Cork.

    The government were very worried about the state of the country, but rather than provoke the people to rebel, they were more concerned to recover arms and so prevent rebellion.

  • Katinka,

    I assume that post refers to outside Ulster, where things went a lot further than free quarters (never mind Carhampton’s behaviour in 1795, though clearly to suppress potential trouble rather than cause it)? There is a danger in focusing on security policy in 1797-8 that we forget how things looked to the population. The state had been growing increasingly coercive for a decade or so.

  • Greenflag

    katinka ,

    ‘The furthest the government went was the use of ‘free quarters’’

    In Dunlavin . Co Wicklow it was a case ‘no quarter ‘ for those ‘suspected’ of being sympathethic towards the UI men.

    In Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, Captain Saunders marched 36 prisoners, among them 28 yeomen suspected of having sympathies towards the United Irishmen,
    from the jail to the village green. They were executed on the spot. No trial .

    ‘The government were very worried about the state of the country, but rather than provoke the people to rebel, they were more concerned to recover arms and so prevent rebellion.’

    The Government was expecting a French invasion and they did not trust the ‘yeomen ‘ they had recruited not to go over to the French.

    It’s somewhat naive to believe that in those days of Empire when popular democracy had not been born that those in authority would not ‘provoke ‘ situations in order to achieve a political objective . Torture and coercion are not complicated or mysterious or just happen accidentally . Whenever a foreign occupier lacks the consent to ‘rule’ a country or territory you can be certain that as night follows day torture of those ‘resisting ‘ is predictable . Think of Marcos in the Philipines , the Shah in Iran , Saddam in Iraq , the French in Algiers , the Israelis in the ‘occupied ‘ territories, the US in Iraq and Afghanistan , the USSR in Czechoslovakia , Poland etc etc the list is long and doesn’t run out when it comes to the Irish Sea either . Governments and in particular non democratic ones will use every means they can to defeat any threat real or just ‘perceived’. We’ve even seen ‘democratic governments ‘ in recent times torturing prisoners etc etc .

    The widespread torture and abuse of prisoners is a indication that politicians are trying to impose a system whether political , economic or religion , that is rejected by large numbers of the people they are ruling or trying to rule either directly or via a puppet ‘regime ‘..

    In the Ireland of the 1790’s the vast majority of the people lived in abject poverty. Some were looking to recent events in America and France as an example to follow and one which would ‘free ‘ them from perceived oppression .

    There is no humane way to rule people against their will. That is why the first Stormont was abolished . That’s why the Irish eventually ‘won ‘ their War of Independence against the world power of the time .

    The ‘people’ anywhere do not rise up unless provoked to a point where they see no alternative . The Wexford Rebellion was a case in point . Likewise the Irish people did not rise up immediately after the Easter Rising. They waited until 1918 at which point they could see that Westminster was not going to allow Ireland to have Home Rule .

    In an age when Government was a thin veneer very much distant from the lives of the people it is not surprising that what the Government saw as an attempt to recover arms was seen by the people as something else .

    I believe some 40,000 people were killed both North and South in Ireland in 1797-1798 . Ten times more than the toll from the last 35 years in NI and greater than any loss of life on these islands exceeding even those lost following the Battle of Culloden and the Highland clearances in 1745 .

  • Greenflag


    ‘The state had been growing increasingly coercive for a decade or so.’

    The French revolution had spooked them and King George was not going to lose Ireland the way he lost America i.e with the assembled ‘natives ‘ catholic and protestant joining forces with the French .