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Sunday 12 November 2017


How true patriots kept free speech alive in Ireland

Revisionists are patriots who care about truth and have learned to stand tall and proud

Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin

Since the recent symposium in Trinity in honour of Conor Cruise O'Brien, I've been thinking about his role as what nowadays is called a "public intellectual". He was - as Frank Callanan described him in this newspaper after his death in 2008 - "this most brilliant" of the sons of modern Ireland, to which he had "rendered signal service".

Conor lived for Ireland and tried to dissuade people from killing and dying for a stupid vision of it. Perhaps his greatest contribution in a life of pugnacious intellectual debate at home and abroad was to help liberate generations from the rigid Irish nationalist corset. 

I've been classed as a revisionist since before I understood what the word meant. In pre-Google days, seeing myself so described by a critic of my 1977 honest biography of Patrick Pearse, I asked my historian father what this meant. He explained that it was someone who challenged received opinion and was a term of abuse used by people with closed minds and not to worry about it. Professor of modern Irish history in University College Dublin, Robert Dudley Edwards was the product of a union between an open-minded gentle English socialist and Methodist-turned-ethicist (that's how his father described himself in the 1911 census) and a ferociously dogmatic Co Clare suffragist-turned-republican (who would later embrace fascism). 

He went through the nationalist mill himself for most of his adult life. As professor of modern Irish history in University College Dublin, he challenged the received view that Irish history was a simple tale of 800 years of oppression of the Gael leading to the glorious triumph in 1916 of what Pearse described in verse as "the Risen People".

Dudley, as he was generally known, had this novel idea that the history (and, indeed, the island) of Ireland belonged to all its people, whatever their heritage or religion. His only god was Clio, the Greek muse of history, and the motto by which he lived, which he had acquired from one of his intellectual heroes, George Bernard Shaw, was "They say! What say they? Let them say".

In the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Professor Aidan Clarke described my father's doctorate on the 17th-century Penal Laws designed by the Scottish King James to force Catholics and Protestant dissenters into the Anglican church, as "cleaving closely to the evidence and eschewing both confessional and nationalist glosses" and thus being "a landmark in Irish historiography in its application of exemplary standards of scholarship to the treatment of a deeply contentious subject". He would spend his life as an academic nurturing generations of history students to seek for truth and think the unthinkable. 

A decade after that conversation, I gave a paper called Confessions of an Irish Revisionist to an English academic conference, describing what it was like to be pilloried for writing a biography of a national hero which showed him as a flawed human being. In England then, you could say what you liked without being subjected to vulgar abuse, so they were astounded by the discovery that history was used as a weapon in Irish public life.

It was a few years later, partly inspired by Conor, that I fell into journalism and deliberately engaged in contentious debate about issues I cared about passionately. I became a Sunday Independent columnist, for once the peace process became a new article of nationalist faith, critical debate elsewhere was virtually closed down. The refuge for those challenging nationalist tribalism was this newspaper, where Aengus Fanning, the editor from 1984 until his untimely death in 2012, welcomed such heretics as Conor, Eoghan Harris, Professor John A Murphy, Eilis O'Hanlon and me. In hailing Aengus's courage, we shouldn't forget that he was given unstinting support by the paper's then proprietor, Tony O'Reilly, who once told me that he had fended off dozens of demands that I be fired for upsetting the Provos.

When in 2003 Gerry Adams attacked the paper, I wrote about how Aengus's little platoon (as Conor's hero, the ferociously independent-minded Edmund Burke, would have called us) was presented as "anti-national, anti-Irish, anti-peace and nasty with it. Well, Gerry, you won't admit it, but the reason you hate Sunday Independent writers is because we are anti-terrorist, we persist in telling the inconvenient truth about the dreadful things the fascists of the IRA did in our name in that ghastly, squalid, sectarian war you defend, we do not fall for Sinn Fein lies and bulls**t, we won't believe you when you tell us black is white even if you say the future of the peace process depends on it, we enjoy making fun of your pretensions and we don't cave in to bullies". 

Conor had changed the whole debate from the early 1970s and we owe him a mighty debt, as we owe Aengus for being consistently open to publishing unpopular criticism of where extreme nationalism was leading us. As I said in that same article. "We stand for a true patriotism that fascists hate. And one of the reasons we bang on endlessly about the threat to our State is that we know how important a fearless press is in keeping a country free and its politicians honest."

I have happy memories of John A Murphy singing a ballad in which he, Conor and I feature. The Gentle Black and Tan, a priceless satire about revisionist history produced by the writer and broadcaster, Breandan O hEithir, acknowledges Conor's pre-eminence by not even feeling it necessary to name him. 

"So take heed you blinkered Nationalists," it ends, "Fair warning take from me./If you want to live in safety/And keep this land at sea./Take heed of our three heroes/Murphy, Edwards and Yer Man,/Who will sing the fame and clear the name/Of the gentle Black and Tan."

Conor, who hated being bored, once told an audience that his greatest fear was being kidnapped by the IRA and being subjected to their conversation. Unlike the contemporary republican movement, revisionists can laugh at themselves. A favourite comment was that from PJ Mara - that we claimed the victims of the Great Famine had all died of anorexia nervosa. 

Many of us survive, and we can still say what we like in the Sunday Independent. 

Thank you, Conor. Thank you, Aengus.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards