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Intellectual Trends and Developments in Irish Historiography

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Just as the events of the past affect the days of the present, so too do the proceedings of former affairs affect how history is written. As a result, ‘the historical profession involves, by definition, continual reflection on the past, based on the honest and systematic investigation of the widest possible array of sources’. Using Ireland as a case study, this essay will explore the various trends in the historiography on this island. It will range from the nationalist writing of history in the early 1900s, the founding of Irish Historical Studies in the 1930s, the pursuit of social and economic historiography in the 1950s and 1960s, historical revisionism in the 1970s, post-revisionism in the 1980s and 1990s, and how Irish history is written today. However, historiography and its changes throughout time extends to more than just Ireland, which is why it is important to understand the context of historiography.

If historiography is fundamentally the ‘history of history’, then it could be said that historiography began after the first ever historical documents were ever written. The writing of history originally had the ethos of myth or legend building, and how the successes of a group’s ancestors were used to bolster a people’s self-worth, as the events of the past were the ‘direct consequences of God’s purpose’. This would frame of historiography would persist in Europe from the early medieval period up to the Enlightenment era, when individuals stared to view themselves as having more destiny over their own lives. The idea of people being the main arbiters of change in this world would help to reinforce nation building across the globe throughout the nineteenth century. It was also in the nineteenth century where the writing of history was being viewed as an academic pursuit, and the examination of manuscripts and original documents was becoming more commonplace. However, just because historiography became more scholarly, it did not mean there was no overriding narrative behind it; as the best example of a dominate philosophy influencing historical studies would be the effect Marxism had on historiography.

Political motivations in historiography was not a new thing before Marxism, as some historians in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth for example had a Whig world view that greatly shaped their writings. What Marxism did do though was take the periods of the past such Feudalism through to the start of capitalism and narrate them in such a way that history of the world was in a pre-determined course that would eventually lead to the advent of Socialism – the ideal civilization for mankind. This is why from the late nineteenth century, and especially from the 1950s, there was a large interest in the social and economic history of the world; because it was viewed by a lot of scholars that the main drivers of revolution in the future would be from the proletariat for public and financial interests, rather than the elites dictating change. However, with the fall of Communistic regimes in the late twentieth century, Marxism influence in historiography had started to and continued to wane throughout the years. Therefore, the question of ‘What drives historiography in the here and now?’ should be asked.

The study and writing of history has never been easier thanks to the digitisation of archival sources and original documents. However, the availability of said resources now means that the analysis of history is just as important as the knowing the rudimentary facts of the past. On top of the use of first-hand evidence, the writing of history now incorporates how the is past is remembered, mainly by using oral history. This has had profound effects on the type of history that has been produced, specifically from local communities, as first-hand accounts that were not previously written down are now taken into consideration into the study history, which has had a profound effect into historiography. The examination of historiography and how history was and now written has wider implications on Ireland, for it is self-evident that the historiography on the island has changed drastically since the start of the twentieth century.

In the year 1900, Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland but did this did not stop the writing of Irish history from a nationalistic perspective. Even in the nineteenth century, books such as The Story of Ireland (1885) by Alexander Martin Sullivan patriotically pledges itself to the country of Ireland, but what separates this from pieces by George O’Brien and Alice Effie Murray in the twentieth century are the scopes and topics of Irish history discussed.

In the History of the Commercial and Financial Relations between England and Ireland from the Restoration (1903) by Murray, The Economic History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1918) and The Economic History of Ireland in the Seventeenth Century (1919) both by O’Brien, the authors chose to focus on the Irish economy in particular time frames, rather than describing overviews of the history of the entire island. The Irish history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are therefore given more descriptive accounts in Murray’s and O’Brien’s work than they are in Sullivan’s work. However, by looking at it through the lenses of finance, the Irish – particularly the Catholic Irish – are spoken of in a very sympathetic light, as their unfortunate plights were the result of English policies that limited prosperity for Ireland. This is particularly interesting, as traditionally, it would been thought that sectarianism was the prevailing issue for Ireland. Nonetheless, the historical narratives of Ireland presented in the twentieth century recognised that Britain had a poor relationship with Ireland, and if observed from the viewpoint of Irish Republicanism, would therefore warrant the end of the political union between Great Britain and Ireland. With the advent of the birth of the Irish Free State, Nationalism would dominate the presentation of history in Ireland.

Tom Barry, author of Gurilla Days in Ireland (1949), and Dan Breen, author of My Fight for Irish Freedom (1924), were both veterans of the Irish War of Independence and wrote accounts of their experiences in their respective works. Breen’s work was first published in 1924 and Barry’s in 1949 they both recall their involvement in Ireland in the 1920’s. These narratives are not overviewing the timespans in question – with Barry even admitting so in the section of the Author’s Note (2013). What they are instead are personal memoirs of their time served at war, and it is because of these first-person memories that the writing can feel more vivid and personal than in other historical pieces. It can therefore be argued that a lot of the Irish historiography between 1920-1950 was prioritising to win the hearts and minds of the Irish populace when the Irish state was still emerging. Although, apart from overt populism and Nationalism, were there any other trends in Irish historiography during this era?

Before the Irish Historical Studies was published in 1938, historians such as Eoin MacNeill and Edmund Curtis worked ‘largely in isolation, not only made important specialist contributions themselves, but also attempted boldly to construct general on inadequate foundations’. The most notable academics within the IHS, Theodore William Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, ‘stressed that their desire was to create a “scientific” historiography’. As a result, the writing of Irish history was able to become more standardized, and historians were able to transmit and absorb new information from their fellow peers into one periodical.

Contemporary critics of the Irish Historical Studies accused the organisation of wanting to rewrite the history of Ireland completely, but the institution insisted they were only modernising it (Jackson, 2014). Although, to combat unfounded common perceptions, some Irish history scholars from a previous generation had their works disregarded. Some of the hostility towards the IHS was partly due to the fact that they were claimed to be un-nationalistic, whereas in fact, society just wanted to establish connections with academia across Britain and mainland Europe. Considering that Irish Historical Studies attempted to outreach to schools and their teachers, they were perceived as elitist and did not want to buck from their rooted consensuses (Jackson, 2014). Nonetheless, the Irish Historical Studies would continue to dominate as the mainstream in Irish historiography from the 1930s to the 1980s. However, just as different themes of historiography are not written in isolation from one another, the pursuits of the Irish Historical Studies were not the only mode of history writing that was occurring in Ireland, as it can be said that there was some interest in the social and economic past too.

The 1950s saw some headway in the pursuit of the social and economic history of Ireland, with some focus put onto the Great Irish Famine. One of the most significant publications relating to the residential history of Ireland at the time was the Population of Ireland: 1750-1845 (1950) by Ken Connell, and would be one of the premiere works cited in relation to the historical population of Ireland for two decades. The 1960s and 1970s saw many breakthroughs in the world of social and economic history in Ireland with the establishment of the Irish Economic History Group in 1968 (which changed its name to the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland in 1970) and the periodical Irish Economic and Social History in 1974. In the process of writing the social history of Ireland, role women had in the shaping of history gained more attraction, as served roles in politics, journalism, and literature. Furthermore, the histories of urban Ireland became more recognised too. With this in mind, were there any prominent writers in the sphere of social/economic history that stood out?

Louis Michael Cullen would dominate in the social-economic historical scene in the later-half of the twentieth century with various works. These works included Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800 (1968) and the Economic History of Ireland since 1660 (1972); and the latter was so good that it ‘had the distinction of being the first general textbook dealing with Irish economic history in over fifty years’. Clarkson states because Cullen’s ‘major themes are that the Irish economic history should be explained in terms of factor endowments and market opportunities rather than by English policy towards Ireland… his work is thus a refreshing contrast to interpretations found in the old but enduring books by Lecky, Murray, and O’Brien’.

Although, it is also interesting to note that even with nearly a half a century difference in timespan, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are still a preoccupation with earlier writers such as O’Brien and Murray in the early twentieth century, and Cullen in the later twentieth century. With all of this considered, the social/economic history would not be the predominate theme in Irish historiography, as the Troubles that was occurring in Northern Ireland did a lot to shape how the history of the island was written and viewed.

Revisionism was in part was a reaction by ‘some liberal academics to distance themselves from the insurgents in Northern Ireland’, but in general, revisionism in historiography in Ireland tried to readdress nationalistic motifs that were present in the literature of Irish history. Revisionist theory stated that the antagonisms between Britain and Ireland up to Ireland’s independence was not so straightforward as previously thought, and one prominent revisionist historian was Father Francis Shaw.

Shaw, who was once a Professor at the University College Dublin, offered strong criticisms of how the 1916 Rising was remembered when the Golden Jubilee was commencing in a piece titled “The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge”. Although it was reported by many as inappropriate – even by Shaw himself – because it was unwarranted for a time that was supposed to be a cause of celebration, the article was not published in the Irish Historical Studies until 1972, even though Shaw himself had died in 1970. However, one revisionist author that had his work published and would be alive to see it in 1972 lifetime was Connor Cruise O’Brien.

States of Ireland (1972) by O’Brien suggested that ‘England itself was not the root cause of Ireland’s problems’ and that particular footnotes in Irish history such as the 1916 Rising had developed such a venerated status, that it not be popular to criticise it ). It must be kept in mind that during the 1970s, Northern Ireland was experiencing turbulent times as a result of the Troubles; which is why that O’Brien wrote in such a way as to not instigate anymore upheaval, particularly from those within the Unionist community. However, not all scholars would like the direction the revisionists were moving towards, and the post-revisionist movement arose as a response in the 1980s and 1990s.

Historians such as Desmond Fennell, Brendan Bradshaw, and Brian Murphy took up the mantel piece of post-revisionists and questioned the status quo of then mainstream focus of Irish historiography. While some academics were put off discussing controversial topics during the Troubles, the post-revision movement thought that the ‘violence in Northern Ireland… stimulated a renewed popular appetite for a more reverential historiography’ (Jackson, 2014). Perhaps the best concise argument for post-revisionism can be found in Kevin Whelan’s piece ‘Come All You Staunch Revisionists’ (1991).

It states that revisionism was inherently too sceptical, and its ‘minimalist interpretation of the past… resulted in the alienation of the Irish people’. Post-revisionism did not like the revisionists’ interpretation of colonialism in Ireland or the British Empire, as events such as the Irish Famine were often minimalised. Post revisionism queried the revisionism’s acceptance of an established Northern Ireland and a Republic of Ireland. The historian Roy Foster was criticized for his characterisation of the 1798 Rebellion for being nothing more than a local slaughter. Above all else, revisionism lacked recall for the history of the Irish language, the role of women, or local history. Nonetheless, just as the Troubles affected the writing of history in Ireland in a lot of negative ways, historiography and its scope would change drastically after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Irish Historiography in its current form in the twenty-first century can largely be attributed to the ending of the Troubles in 1998. The most apparent change to have come about as a result of the Belfast Agreement is the ‘equal liberation and confidence… scholars may now feel able to comment … upon a historiography which may hitherto have seemed in part alien or skewed’. This is possibly because the ending of the Troubles has meant that the statements or publications of historians will have less damaging repercussions in a peaceful society than it would in a violent one. This is in addition to original documents relating to the Northern Irish conflict are now being – ableit slowly – released into the public. Although, a ‘more self-confident and self-critical, and a better documented, historiography is not the only scholarly consequence of peace in the North’.

Those traditionally seen on the further ends of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland – the Republicans and the Loyalists – have been more cooperative in parting with knowledge for academic work. There were oral historical accounts that were recorded just after the Troubles have ended, but have since been the attention of the law, as the PSNI would be interested in those historical testimonies for unresolved crimes. Beyond the recent history of Northern Ireland, there has been an interest in Irish historiography in better understanding the historical connections of Britain and Ireland. There has also been effort made to connect the history of Ireland with Europe, as this is in part due to Ireland’s membership in the European Union. Understanding the Irish diaspora, particularly the connection in America, also fascinates Irish historians. Moreover, topics such as Gaelic Ireland, local history, and Ireland’s legacy under imperialism would have typically been issues cast aside in the past, but have now been brought to the forefront in Irish historiography.

In conclusion, this essay has answered the question ‘What is historiography and what intellectual trends and developments have characterised the changing nature and practice of Irish historical scholarship during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?’ It was accomplished by first expanding and analysing the term “historiography”, then discussing the written Irish history at the beginning of the twentieth century, the setting up of the Irish Historical Studies in the 1930s, the study of social and economic historiography in the 1950s and 1960s, historical revisionism in the 1970s, the pursuit of post-revisionism in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally looking at modern Irish historiography in the twenty-first century.

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