Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Histories of the Irish: Wilson and O'Toole

My favourite moment in David Wilson's Canadian Spy Story: Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police comes early on, when Wilson is reviewing the historiography. He declares that practically all historians who have taken note of the Fenian campaigns against British North America/Canada  -- at the end of the American Civil War and during the shaping of Canadian Confederation -- have wrongly dismissed the Fenians as a comic-opera troupe, hopelessly infiltrated by government agents and unable to pose any serious threat to anyone.

Hmm, I thought: Didn't I wrote words to that effect in my 1867: How the Fathers Made A Deal? Is there an endnote exposing my follies along with a rogues gallery of misinformed historians. I flipped to the back where the endnotes are, to see who gets exposed as having been wrong, wrong, wrong.

Turns out the only historian David Wilson exposes in the notes is ... David Wilson. His endnote shows that he himself had dismissed the Fenians in something he wrote years ago. Pretty classy move, I thought: the mature authority calmly takes responsibility on himself instead of gleefully seizing an opportunity to expose the follies of all rival scholars.

A lot of the book has that air of calm and judicious authority, in fact. Wilson's topic is principally that 1860s moment, but he's just as authoritative when he touches on 1798 or 1848 or 1922 or any other of the stations of the Fenian cross. And he is as comfortable with Irish or American as with Canadian history.

It's an important part of Canadian Spy Story that the Fenians were not just Irish-American outsiders plotting invasions of British North America. There were quite a few homegrown Fenians in Canada East and Canada West. And they were not so open to surveillance as was believed: quite a few Fenian operations remained impervious to state intelligence in Britain, the US, and Canada. 

Nevertheless, a large part of Canadian Spy Story focusses on the police service/spy agency launched in Canada East and Canada West to confront the Fenians. It was launched to prevent Confederate American attempts to use Canada as a launching point for attacks on the northern states.  But with that threat dissolved, it pivoted quickly to the Fenians. The Canada East program reported directly to Attorney-General George-Etienne Cartier; the Canada West program to A-G John A. Macdonald.  Sadly, the destruction of Cartier's papers at his death means virtually no detailed records survive of the anti-Fenian program on the Quebec border. But the record of espionage and counter-espionage work by its Canada West counterpart survives in Macdonald's papers. Wilson recounts and scrutinizes that side of the fight in great detail -- and indeed gives Macdonald a good deal of credit for its successes. 

(Disclosure: David Wilson has been a friend of mine for many years, so....)

The other big Irish book this summer is Irish-Irish rather than Irish-Canadian: Fintan O'Toole's We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland. O'Toole is just about the liveliest opinion journalist in the English-speaking world these days. He has also written a shelf of books on Irish, British, and American politics as well as on Shakespeare and whatever catches his interest.

Of the new book, O'Toole says he thought he would write a memoir but decided his own life wasn't very interesting. So he has written a sort of a history of Ireland since 1958 (his birth year), but constantly taking his own situation as a kind of orientation point to Ireland's evolutions. 

It's a hell of a read once it gets going. Just as O'Toole was born, Ireland took the first steps to joining what would be the European Community, somehow believing, as he puts it, that "everything would change economically but everything would stay the same culturally." The rest of the book explores, with great wit and imagination, how everything young Fintan would experience demonstrates how mistaken that belief was. Essentially it charts, through a lot of a remarkably personal (and often very funny) examples, the evolution of Eire from a poor, backward, isolated clerico-nationalist tyranny to a relatively prosperous and tolerant modern society. 

Its one weakness, I think, is placing the Troubles in all that. Eire, even in its modernizing and secular aspects, basically tolerated the civil war in Northern Ireland. The southern Irish, broadly, would have been willing to see the Provos' terror campaign  -- driven by all the myths that underlay the worst aspects of the old Irish state -- succeed in forcing the northern Protestants into submission and forcible inclusion into the Irish (and still militantly Catholic) state. It was not southern Ireland that put an end to the Troubles.  And O'Toole, while deploring the IRA and all it did during the Troubles, never really interrogates Irish society's passive complicity. It seems like a hole in an otherwise remarkable book. 

Particularly when O'Toole's predecessor as the great analyst of Ireland, Conor Cruise O'Brien, had  already exposed the South's complicity in honouring the toxic nationalist myths that fuelled the IRA  --in 1972, in his great book States of Ireland.

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