Bruce Stewart, ‘Punch-Drunk at Oxbridge’, in Irish Studies Review, 7 (Summer 1994), pp.31-35.

[Bibliographical note: The present article is one of two printed in Irish Studies Review (Summer 1994), the other being by Austen Morgan - as attached.]

Terry Eagleton’s attack on Roy Foster (ISR, 6) was one of the liveliest bouts of intellectual kickboxing seen for a long time. The book that so incensed Oxford’s Warton Professor of English Literature was Foster’s Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish History and English History (1993), a collection of essays tending to suggest that being Irish in the modern world is not easily reducible to the bundle of social and cultural suppositions about language, religion, and class powerfully invoked in that connection by the national propagandists of the revolutionary period. At no point, be it said, does Eagleton contest any particular fact or point of interpretation involved in Foster’s latest challenge to a simplified conception of ‘Irishness’ that shaped the political constitution of the Irish state and to a great extent the social outlook of its citizens. Instead he resorts to characterising the author as an elitist whose fundamental purpose is to undermine the self-esteem of ordinary Irish people by denigrating the revolutionary vanguard that gave them a sense of national pride and purpose after the humiliations of regional status within the United Kingdom - or colonial status in the twentieth century British Empire, according to the hyperbolic New Left version. Not only Irish people north and south, the allegation goes, but oppressed groupings of all descriptions are threatened by the ‘leavening of scorn and well-bred distaste’ in Foster’s account of the historiographical falsifications by which modern Irishmen and women, functioning resourcefully enough in the wider culture of the British Isles, managed to transform themselves into pure Gaels for whom political separatism and cultural isolation would be the only adequate measures of their social and spiritual distinctiveness.

At the turn of the century the bête noir of the Irish nationalist was Anglicisation - a coinage introduced by Douglas Hyde, and his most auspicious contribution to Anglo-Irish affairs. By the time the Gaelic League had been officially swallowed up by the Irish Republican movement in 1915, the idea entailed in it had reached such a pitch of popular acceptance that large numbers of Irish-language enthusiasts believed their cultural and political salvation consisted in shrugging off every trace of the connection with Great Britain in their make-up. This was to overlook the fact that they were highly integrated in the practices and values of the contemporary English-speaking world. During most of the preceding century (and some time longer for a minority), anglicisation had meant social and economic progress for the majority of Irish Catholics, and latterly the adaption of English property laws out of all recognition from their originals to the needs of Irish tenant farmers had resulted in the largest legitimate transfer of land ownership in European history with the Wyndham Act of 1903, while successive commissions on Intermediate education and the foundation of the National University in 1908 created the landscape of modern Irish education to the satisfaction of all sects concerned. Against this background, the real material grievances were largely dispelled; at least, nothing has happened in the independent Irish state to equal the government-sponsored revolutions of that period. In sharp comparison with these practical matters, however, the growing impetus for complete separation - as distinct from Home Rule - was largely cultural and, more broadly speaking, temperamental. And if the ‘grand [31] narrative’ of Irish history as promulgated in the Irish nationalist tradition ever since O’Connell provided the script, the vehicle that disseminated the separatist idea so effectively throughout contemporary Irish society was the language-revival programme of the Gaelic League.

It is certain that fluency in Irish (as distinct from Irish-language monoglottism) brings a sense of enrichment to those who achieve it today, and for some it obviously confers a sense of ‘becoming what they are’, but it was nevertheless a political solecism at the turn of the century to suppose that the real social conditions of that period necessitated the creation of a sovereign state in all or any part of Ireland. And if the unavoidable price of independent stateship was to be an internal political border on the island - as everybody who thought about it realised it must be - such an option ought to have been considered very coolly before the plunge was taken. Since that time we have been living with the seething politics of Partition, not to mention the trials of backwardness and reaction in the social administration of the southern state in Ireland, continuing in some respects to the present moment. This has been no easily digestible outcome and from the earliest hours of independence the national self-esteem has wobbled constantly between euphoric and depressive versions of the Republican ideal, often settling for tolerant self-mockery. Nor is this (as someone has said) an essentially ignoble condition, and certainly not a dogmatic or a stupid one. Indeed, the cultivation of a more sceptical attitude towards our own political pieties is obviously the first step towards good relations with the neighbours who count most, and may also be the real measure of our maturity as a historical community, educated in the responsible demands of practical self-government and versed in civil codes remote from the ferocious social praxis of either Soviet or Bosnian-style revolutionaries.

As for the northern state, it is insufficient to heap odium upon the Unionists for abstracting their vaunted managerial and industrial skills because they would not trust themselves to the mercies of Catholic nationalism. The game of prejudice in Ireland has always been a two-hander. The shortest way to an accommodation now is for the southern state to disown any intention of compelling Northern unionists to join in a republic founded on the traditions that they so dislike and fear, and this is in fact the course that the current Irish government is tending to adopt - albeit against the stream of its own received dogmas. In this sense, as Foster has previously written, ‘We are all revisionists now’. There is at present a general coolness about the narrow conception of Irishness that characterised - and largely fuelled - the revolutionaries, and a suspicion that ‘the old violence’ (in a Burkean phrase) was not warranted by contemporary political facts nor justified by the real social outcome. This altered vision is, of course, triggered by the perception that the deeds of Dan Breen and others at the outset of the War of Independence bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, a state that they could be said to have blasted into existence. In the interim we have seen the emergence of a bourgeois culture in Ireland in most respects, other than scale, indistinguishable from that in Britain - an achievement that most Irish people feel justly proud of since it is the produce of hard graft and education and some astute footwork in relation to the European Union. Needless to say, Eagleton does not share that feeling: bourgeoisification is his bête noir as anglicisation was Douglas Hyde’s, and he has a special (if essentially inappropriate) interest in preventing just this sort of progress occurring in what he doubtless sees as a seed-bed of Trotskyite revolution.

On much the same emotive grounds as the old Gaelic Leaguers accused the staider members of the community (and James Joyce) of West Britonism, Eagleton aligns Foster with the colonial master against the slave, the kulak against the peasant, the capitalist against the proletariat, and Jack the Ripper against the working girls of London. At the same time he portrays him more sedately in the classic Marxist puppet-lackey fashion as an ‘academic ventriloquist’ propagating the views of the ‘governing class’; and before the diatribe has advanced much further, we find Foster keeping company with the CIA, the Gestapo, and sundry perpetrators of violence against ‘battered women and harassed Pakistanis’. James Anthony Froude could not have looked for a better drubbing. Miraculously, all of this prejudicial hogwash is made known to Eagleton by the fact that Foster writes sympathetically about literary people who are on the wrong side of the Manichean divide between the social classes that the Wharton Professor of Eng. Lit. perceives at the core of all our cultural relations. From Foster’s interest in ‘the Yeatses and Synges and Bowens’ of this world, it is transparent that he is headed for the trash heap of history - a sort of Marxian Gehenna where, as good Trotskyites know, every elitist is inevitably bound, excepting only the revolutionary vanguard of which Eagleton is obviously a part. But vanguardism has its responsibilities as well as its rights, and the Oxford demagogue does not shirk them. As self-appointed public prosecutor acting for the oppressed masses, he is determined to bring the running-dogs of neo-imperialism in Irish history departments to the justice of a show trial, and it is only right that such a ‘shrewd historical operator’ as Foster should be made the first example.

There is a point in the evolution of political antagonisms when supposed membership of one class or another is taken as sufficient reason for anathemisation and worse, and Eagleton writes about Foster as though he has reached that point. The pity is that his powers of identification on the Irish scene are largely modelled on the gross polarities of the ‘grand narrative’ of popular nationalism that divides the Irish into landlords and peasants with little in between. In this Punch-and-Judy scenario, the theory that Foster represents a governing class - past or present - is as flagrantly inaccurate in its misjudgement of both [32] Foster and his country as a pot-pourri of trendy epithets could make it: ‘[Foster’s] yuppie contempt for fusty old Irish nationalism would come rather better from a man who gave some sense that he had ever been spiritually at home anywhere but in Big Houses and corridors of power.’ This presents a vision of an Anglo-Irish grandee flogging the natives with alternate lashes of the szambok and filofax. The truth is that Eagleton is much more likely to attain the rank of peer of the realm than is Foster. Indeed, this may be the time to suggest it - for who better to represent the tired remnant of a venturesome period of British political thinking in the House of Lords than a descendent of a formerly exalted Anglo-Irish family from the Galway region. [1]

If Eagleton finds fault with Foster for writing in a fashion that strikes his ear as ‘debonair’ and ‘patrician’, the literary manner of his own riposte is for the most part remorselessly pedestrian, beginning with a syntactical snarl-up that could only be contrived by an Oxford intellectual aiming to renew his Marxian street-cred with the common man: ‘Irish revisionist historians,’ his assault begins, ‘who refuse the epithet as surely as no structuralist has ever admitted to being such, seek to subvert the narratives of hard-line nationalism by telling it like it was’. This artful show of grammatical incompetence is presumably proffered as a sign of solidarity with the Irish People, yet there remains more than a hint of unintended racism in the assumption that no one who writes gracefully can possibly lay claims to Irishness - thus turning Foster’s ‘splendid gift’ for telling phrases into a measure of his unfamiliarity with the real Ireland. Now, all of this is part and parcel of a familiar denial that urbanity and Ireland have anything in common: we are used to it from street politicians and worse types in Britain. Equally, there is an element of the ring-trick in the cute pretence that the Warton Professor cannot hear the difference between ‘as surely as ...’ and ‘I am sure that ...’ (not to labour the point in the world capital of TEFL).

But if Eagleton has much to say about Foster’s style, it is not so much matters of literary decorum as smouldering questions of intellectual orthodoxy that have driven him to kick the ball into his own net so maladroitly in suggesting that his antagonist is insufficiently political to be a literary critic. The chief instance of incorrectness that Eagleton chooses to pillory is Foster’s apparent conviction that ‘harmonious existence’ between the Gaelic and British traditions in Ireland is the best outcome to be hoped for, and that curbing the immoderate pretensions of either is the obvious way forward at the moment. Eagleton does not agree; or, at least, he does not believe Foster’s professions - for has not the historian always shown himself lacking in the proper degree of prostration before the achievements of Gaelic culture? ‘Foster prizes multiplicity, ambiguity, general inclusiveness, and can hardly bring himself to say a good word about anything affirmatively Gaelic’. It is tempting to infer from this that Eagleton has developed a studious admiration for Irish language, literature, and music, following his recent sojourn at the Merriman Summer School, for this is clearly a bread-and-butter letter, larded with unctuous sympathy for the universal underdog:

Throughout his work, Foster appears for the most part without the faintest clue as to what it feels like to be screwed, shafted and discarded; and the kind of scorn he finds it natural to pour on ‘extreme’ Irish nationalism is in part the language spoken by the White House and the Pentagon about the Third World.

Thus Watergate, Irangate, and war with South East Asia are added to Foster’s tally of crimes, a conjunction that makes him look like a B52 in the sights of Eagleton’s Kalashnikov. All of this is very ‘Sixties. We were all children of our time, though some are undoubtedly more childish than others. Yet which of Eagleton’s friends among the downtrodden helots of Co. Clare are likely to feel flattered by such a scatological outburst of sub-political Anglo-American patois?

Behind the particular vices of ‘pluralism’ and ‘evenhandedness’ evinced by Foster in relation to the Irish situation, a larger target looms for Eagleton, and that is the spectre of Liberalism that pervades the BBC and the Guardian - from both of which sources Foster apparently derives his ‘political lexicon’. Naturally enough, that vile contagion of the British media has its Irish counterpart, and it is no surprise to learn that

Foster’s work assumes its place in a long tradition of upper-class Irish liberalism, whose enlightened Arnoldianism was always disabled by the fact that the evenhanded view, in Ireland more than most places, was too often a palpable piece of self-apologia on the part of the marginalised ruling class.

Here the intended effect is perhaps to equate Foster with Baron Cairns as regards the laissez-faire principles that Joe Lee and others justly consider unsuited to the problems of nineteenth century Ireland (though, of course, he came round to the Three Fs). But Millsian politics and Ricardian economics are not precisely the same liberalism as that which was so sadly lacking in the X Abortion case, and many another constitutional tangle created by Irish Catholic nationalism in its quest for the embodiment of its own hypostatic ideals. What, then, is Eagleton really wishing on us in place of the climate of ethical tolerance and individual freedom that most Irish people want to participate in before the century closes? Is he speaking as an agent provocateur who wants to see the maximum discrepancy between state legislation and social reality as a necessary precondition for the kind of revolution that he relishes? And precisely what kind of news coming out of Ireland would delight him most? That peace and harmony has broken out between traditional antagonists, or that the whole shooting-match is up for grabs, putting political fantasists back in full employment? And does he imagine that any likely [33] outcome of a civil war in Ireland will correspond to his home-grown brand of revolutionary utopianism?

It remains to ask in what way Terry Eagleton thinks he is contributing to the welfare of people actually living in any part of Ireland by encouraging a more relentless irrendentism from his revolutionary headquarters in ‘Oxbridge’. He offers an obiter dicta: ‘[W]hen all the caveats have been duly entered, the narrative of the British in Ireland, along with their client classes, is by and large pretty discreditable,’ and this no doubt argues for a vanquishing of those classes or a voluntary withdrawal of the heinous Brit from the island, lock, stock, and pillarbox. Whether the term ‘British’ is a meaningful blanket in regard to events in Ireland (or even in Great Britain) since 1172 is a moot question; what is certain is that the sentiment of slavering self-commiseration bolstered here is worse than useless in the contemporary Irish situation.

Is it not obvious, in any case, that those with whom the Irish nationalist has to deal in Ireland are not ‘the British’ but the Northern Unionists? And does Eagleton not appreciate that the British Unionists in Northern Ireland have some points in their favour - at least so far as wishing to share in the social and political order of which he himself is a distinguished product? Or does he see in the overthrow of the British state in Ireland an enchanting prospect of the wholesale dismantling of the British state verily in Britain also? And what has that political jeremiad got to do with Ireland - unless he anticipates a revolutionary backdraught to the larger island? Of course, this would be in keeping with the class-antagonism that so pervasively colours his article in spite of its pretended concern for Irish particularity. Thus, in the demonisation of middle-class liberals (or ‘upper-class’ liberals, as he disingenuously calls ‘Foster and his ilk’), he turns his back on the only prospect of a reasonable future here, and does so at the minimum cost, since he will not have to live with the consequences of his incitement to extremism. In despising the gradual emergence of a more sophisticated historical outlook, he thrusts the fate of the island into the hands of its most irritable and unthinking elements. This kind of solicitude may be worth a bevy in Camden Town or at an Irish Studies symposium, but here and now in Ireland we hardly need his OXAID.

Just where Liberalism fits into Eagleton’s personal map is no mystery since his recent bout of confession in the Irish Reporter (First Quarter, 1994), where he recounted his Catholic schooldays in the North of England and their far-reaching ideological consequences:

The doctrinal systematic bent of Catholicism puts you awkwardly at odds with a certain dominant liberal sensibility, which is one reason why you can move directly to the political left. You can pass from the Tridentine creed to Trotskyism without having to take some fatiguing detour through liberalism.

This is an interesting boast, though not an entirely original comment on the temperamental propinquity of the two creeds. What is curious is the apparent absence of any hint of irony which - together with the insistently personal address of ‘you’ - amounts to a form of ideological button-holing. For in this writing Eagleton boldly plays the ethnic card: as the rubric puts it, ‘Terry Eagleton was brought up as a Catholic in England and for him the recognition of an Irish heritage came slowly’. Yet by the end, in his own touching words, he ‘had begun to undo this long amnesia, lift the repression and grope towards a different sense of who [he] was’.

The effect of all this is to make it seem that even a hint of Irishness in England necessarily triggers an experience of alienation and repression. It does not. It is certain that many Irish people have in the past been marked by degrees of educational disadvantage that would make migration - internal or otherwise - difficult in any society, and for them the opportunities were cruelly limited. For others competently trained by the Christian Brothers to provide clerical labour in the offices and industries of England (against stiff competition), being Irish meant knowing the ropes, as well as enjoying a bracing sense of difference. This was not an essentially disadvantaged or unnegotiable position, and it cannot be said to have altered much in the interim - except in so far as the ‘hegemony’ of the English upper-class has given way to numerous self-validating social identities in many parts of Britain - a development in which the Irish fully share as the commanding position occupied by poor exiles of Erin such as Eamon Andrews and Terry Wogan, Olivia O’Leary and Anthony Clare regularly bears witness on the airwaves. There is no denying that many Irish people resent the necessity of living in England at the turn of the century - as in our own generation (witness the Smithwicks advert) - and it was perhaps irresistibly tempting for P. S. O’Hegarty and Michael Collins working in the Post Office in London in their day to conceive of a homeland where the mildest taint of social inferiority would be washed out in the baptismal waters of revived Irishism, if not the blood of Irish revolution. But nothing changed that much, even in Ireland, where the forms of underprivilege and marginalisation have if anything ramified since independence. Except that the Butcher’s Boys and Charlos are now entirely of our own creation, just as the political situation in which two states gaze at each other from their respective sectarian goldfish bowls is ultimately the creation of a class of Irish person who rejoiced in the name of separatists.

In the light of all of this the great disquiet that must occasionally visit the minds of every thinking Irish nationalist is whether the southern state was cut out of the United Kingdom just as we were about the reap the benefit of the long-standing connection. Eagleton, for his part, might reflect on the alterations to the constitutional monarchy in England if an Irish party had remained on the Westminster scene. But all of this is water under the bridge - especially since some form [34] of devolution would certainly have occurred soon after 1918 without resort to arms, thus making it possible to cherish the children of the nation more equally than the budget of the actually-existing Irish state has ever done. The failure to care in real terms may be read as a tragedy or comedy (irony is the term most commonly evoked). The reality seems to be that the isolationist philosophy of Irish Ireland was driven by the class ambitions of an emerging petty-bourgeois which is sometimes dubbed ‘the elite’ and sometimes ‘the revolutionary cadre’ by historians of the Irish state such as Joseph Lee (another Oxbridgean, as it happens). According to his tragi-comic narrative, this elite got itself liquidated much in the manner of Deutscher’s ‘headless revolution’ while guiding the risen people through the gap of danger - a gap entirely of its own creation. In consequence, we are told in Ireland 1912-1985 (1989), the government of the emerging nation came to be conducted by a set of intellectually-challenged delegates (less than 13% of TDs were graduates in 1967) and to this cause may be assigned the failure of the country to achieve the fair prospect for autonomous development held out to it in the Sinn Fein pipe-dream.

Now, this somewhat less than ‘grand’ narrative amounts to a significant shift in the autodiegetic of Irish nationalism, and the pervasively sardonic voice of Professor Lee is one of the most promising signs that the monolithic outlook of traditional Irish republicanism is moving towards a more questioning attitude of the batty assumption that national sovereignty necessarily meant social and economic progress for modern Ireland: ‘The historian of independent Ireland’, he writes, ‘must focus on the relationship between the potential and the performance of sovereignty, however much that relationship may be moulded by external influence.’ And he goes on (quoting a well-known commentator): ‘An absence of systematic self-appraisal, as distinct from complaint, of which there is ample if incoherent supply, remains characteristic of the Irish intellectual conditions.’ This is precisely the deficit that Lee has begun to supply in relation to the post-Independence period - having already practised his jocular brand of historiography on the philosophy of the Land League and the IRB in earlier writing - and it may equally be said that Foster has shone the light of self-appraisal on the longer-range narratives that underpinned the separatist ardour of the revolutionary period in The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (1973; rep. 2008).

In sharp distinction from these intellectual benisons, Eagleton’s offering is that, in playing his nationalist jack, he attempts to fortify a continuing and perhaps even constant desire in many Irish people to feel and act as if no qualifications to the ‘risen people’ theory of all-Ireland nationhood were necessary, in spite of Unionists, in spite of close involvements with Britain, in spite of the EC and the UN and NATO. Yet, for all the melodrama of his own political vision and his raucous expression of Irish sympathies,] Eagleton does not really know the dangerous ingredients of Irish political antagonism - ‘the swarm of blood to the brain, the vomit surge of race hatred’ described by John Montague in his borderlands poetry - or, if he does, he glamorises it as the sort of political passion any idle British lad could envy. He does not realise - though as a Marxist perhaps he should - that the price of melodramatic ideas in politics is often real bloodshed, and not the cinematic kind that decorates the screen in golden oldies such as Dr Zhivago (with Tom Courtney as Terry Trotsky), but the kind you wade through when a bomb goes off in Claudy.

It is a crucial part of Eagleton’s quarrel with Foster that the Irish historian seems to occupy the void created by the death of ideology and the down-turn in the market for Isms generally since the break-up of the Soviet bloc some years ago. It might seem that in the absence of these large and programmatic modes of thinking, room could be made for practical good sense in the middle ground of ordinary human decency. But no: the Oxbridge Eagle is an implacable supporter of the Irish people in their age-old struggle against the English. This approach pointedly fails to address the best practical means of reaching a peaceful solution to the current political crisis in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps Eagleton feels his position on that question can be taken for granted. One remembers the obiter dicta on the Northern crisis in the New Left Review for 1972, when Peter Gibbon rounded off his twenty-page analysis of ‘The Dialectic of Religion and Class in Ulster’ with a few forthright predications.

1) The goal of the Marxist left within the Civil Rights movement ... is clearly to win the Protestant working class away from the Unionist bloc and the Catholic working class in Belfast away from the ineffectual reformism of the labour movement there.’

Twenty years after, nothing like this has happened.

2) The best condition for the inevitable and necessary re-activation of the national question would be the eventual creation of a qualitatively different Republicanism south of the Border.’

Well, we were getting along quite nicely until Eagleton put his oar in.

3) There is no “national bourgeoisie” in any part of Ireland today ready to fight English imperialism and its economic grip on the whole island seriously [sic]. Ireland’s inalienable right to self-determination can and will only be exercised by its working class and peasantry. Proletarian power is the precondition of national independence.’

Perhaps this is the ‘grand narrative’ that Eagleton really has in mind. If so it seems that for frustrated English revolutionaries Ireland’s difficulty is far too good an opportunity to overlook. Since this was one of the points that Foster was making, it is hardly surprising that he attracted such animosity from that quarter.


[ Bruce Stewart is assistant editor of the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature and lectures in Irish writing at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. ]

1. The allusion to an exalted Anglo-Irish family was explained in a draft-version of this article, where the present sentence continue:

....(as he has told us in an autobiographical writing for the Irish Reporter), ejected from their estate by the Encumbered Estates Act of 1855 and dumped in the industrialized north of England, where the blood of Eagletons quickly mixed with that of the Irish Catholic masses.

I do not remember whether I cut that sentence myself or whether it was eliminated by the editors as being too much ad hominem. However, the fact that several other passages in the extant draft on my computer are missing from the printed article and others altered in phrasing or in cadence suggests a late revision in the light of the welcome information that the piece was going to be printed.

It is worth adding that the article elicited a letter of apology to Professor Eagleton from the editor and copyright holder of the Oxford Companion (which came to publication in 1996) in which letter the said editor disociated himself from its contents (and told me so in reproving tones). It has only dawned on me in transcribing this article to RICORSO at the present moment that the inclusion of a reference to the Companion installed in the by-line by the editors of the Irish Studies Review renders this less craven than it appeared to me at the time. It subsequently emerged that Professor Eagleton had been a preferential candidate for a chair in Anglo-Irish literature at the University of Ulster which, for reasons completely unconnected with this article, was not proceeded with as planned. Any further telling of that tale would be the stuff of an academic novel giving some account of how university appointments were actually transacted during our time on that rural campus in Northern Ireland. [BS March 2011.]

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