Austen Morgan, ‘Derrida, Derry and Terry’, in Irish Studies Review, 7 (Summer 1994), pp.36-37.

[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 purported review of Roy Foster’s Paddy and Mr Punch is the most bilious - and ignorant - piece I have read in twenty-five years on the British left; an example of the know nothingism infecting some radical parts of post cold war intellectual culture. The supposed object of criticism is soi disant Irish historical revisionism, which Eagleton introduces sinisterly through a fantasy about CIA gold. But his real target is postmodernism generally, an intellectual malady whose meaning must be sought, less in its destruction of language and obfuscation of thought, and more in the social insecurity of privileged oppression in late twentieth-century society.

Eagleton refuses to acknowledge the post-nationalist Irish left, exemplified by Mary Robinson and Dick Spring, but also by Democratic Left, and many other voices, north and south, including the resilient Fortnight in Belfast championing the Opsahl report. Eagleton prefers a noisy and nasty contemporary republicanism, the voice of a minority of a minority of a minority, whose cleaned-up representative, Gerry Adams, likes to have analogies drawn with Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat (when the IRA’s nearest neighbours are, if not the defeated European terrorist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, then the ‘one bullet one settler’ Pan African Congress or the Hamas rejectionists of the refugee camps).

The learned professor’s boiling brain has confused Irish revisionism and Western postmodernism. Most of his fundamental criticisms, though he does not appear to know it, would be better addressed to the editors of Field Day.

Roy Foster’s background as a southern Irish protestant does, of course, influence his work (whose doesn’t?). But it is arrogant in the extreme to dismiss his voice as simply a ‘yuppie’ cultural manifestation. Whatever the relationship between social position and ideology, to say nothing of personality, Foster, without seeking the position, is the exponent - often unconsciously - of decent values deriving from the Ireland of the 1960s. Eagleton, in contrast, used to be a Marxist eminence, this man from nowhere making rewarding demands on his cohorts of students and readers. I still recall the shock of him coming out in 1989 as ‘one of Irish working class provenance ... teaching in the very belly of the beast at Oxford’ (Foreword to Saint Oscar). Nice work if you can get it! It wasn’t clear whether he was apologising for all that cultural criticism, when he wrote of ‘mak[ing] a break from theoretical to so-called “creative” writing’, or simply complaining about his Siberian saltmine on the Isis.

Foster is genuinely Irish, being more caught up in the neighbouring island than many professionals who leave through choice or necessity. His one non-Irish book, on Randolph Churchill, has been described by Kevin McNamara - surprisingly generously - as ‘one of the most unsparing dismemberments of a ruthlessly ambitious and unprincipled Conservative’ (Address to the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, 9 March 1994). He learned his history from Theo Moody at Trinity in the 1960s, when the Republic was pregnant with progressive possibilities. These have been interrupted, not undermined, by the northern troubles, even if the activist British left betrays its ignorance by seeing Sinn Féin as the only welcome force in Ireland.

British student revolutionaries - including the then Catholic Eagleton - had a different experience from 1968. Intellectual, or academic, Marxism spawned the radical philosophical regression of the 1970s and 1980s, with Thatcher at home and Reagan abroad, as the postwar baby boomers were followed into universities and polytechnics by a succeeding generation. Political romanticism, about Cuba and the Third World, and perhaps China if not the Soviet Union, became identity whingeing and the pursuit of victim status. It’s not a wholesome story, however attached some groups in British cultural life remain to that moment of formation.

Foster does not know, or claim to know, much about Marxism, or postmodernism. And he misunderstands the Marxism Today of the 1980s. But he has made his reputation as a scholar, by teaching at Birkbeck College, publishing several well-received books, including Modern Ireland (1988), and organising historians of Ireland (not Irish historians!) in Britain. He deserves - critical - respect, not angry denunciation.

There is no project in Foster’s work, as Eagleton seems to have detected, save the application of a Western academic discipline in another national context, driven by normal ambition for self and family. The first Irish revisionist, justifying the cultural epithet, was Joe Lee, though he lost some of the Modernisation of Irish Society (1973) perspective when he moved to Cork. Revisionism is, of course, a term of abuse, which the withering cleric from Cambridge, Brendan Bradshaw, has used, since 1989, to re-evangelise Ireland, once again from England.

The term revisionism has been turned, by the intellectually halt, lame and blind, into a dismissive critique of Irish historical scholarship, which dates properly from the 1930s. This school has helped unite and enlighten a divided and often reactionary country, the work of T. W. Moody, Robert Dudley Edwards, J. C. Beckett, and second-generation historians such as Ronan Fanning and David Harkness, being open to the scholarly, and even fundamental, criticism of all Western history since the 1960s. It is not guilty of the charge of being a British-inspired cultural counter-revolution, run by fifth-columnist academic mercenaries with their mouths stuffed with gold - as Eagleton and his associates seem to believe. The classic text of Irish revisionism is Moody and F. X. Martin’s Course of Irish History (1967), based upon a series of RTÉ programmes during the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. It became a school textbook in the Republic, and is still in print. It represents the consensual progressive, liberal but not socialist, view of the Irish past by professional historians. This remains the orthodoxy after a further two decades, even if the likes of Desmond Fennell, Eamon de Valera’s [36] representative on earth, and smatterings of Irish-American, and British socialist and radical opinion invent a monster on to which to project their own hopelessness.

It was the Irish left, excited by political openings in both parts of Ireland in the 1960s, which raised, most decisively, the banner of post-nationalism, and, of course, post-unionism. This project remains even more valid today. My own contribution was a political biography of James Connolly, which set out to overturn - revise? - the green popular frontism of Desmond Greaves, which had done so much to legitimise the ‘anti-imperialist’ left of republican fellow-travellers and apologists. More importantly, in Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working-Class, 1905-23 (1991), I attempted to give the Belfast working class of the early twentieth-century its historical due. This book was dedicated to ‘The “rotten Prods” of Belfast’ - a little-known Irish tribe - who were ‘victims of unionist violence and nationalist myopia’.

Foster has not taken much interest in the flowering of Irish labour history in the 1970s and 1980s, symbolised by Saothar, the journal of the Irish Labour History Society, and he remains a southerner looking at Northern Ireland, but he is enough of an intellectual democrat to accept the validity of this work.

Not so Eagleton, who came late to Ireland, when he discovered that what ‘was “Irish” in myself ... had been suppressed by my formal English education’. He had no difficulty lining-up with one of the two sectarian traditions in Ireland, endorsing a catholic and anti-British physical-force nationalism in the name of popular resistance - as if there had not been, and still is, popular unionist resistance, and the labour movement was not the most promising anti-sectarian force in twentieth-century history. He dismisses Ulster protestants as ‘the British ... client classes’, showing he has swallowed the Sinn Féin version of history - where Gerry Adams cuts a poor figure compared even with Eamon de Valera - hook, line and sinker. Irish cultural nationalism has long had difficulty dealing with its so-called minority, but southern protestants were not all ‘Big Houses and corridors of power’, where Eagleton locates Foster. There was, and remains, a sizeable protestant petit bourgeoisie, and Sean O’Casey, surely, does something to identify the southern protestant working-class. With partition, Ulster protestants were removed from that national minority, becoming a provincial majority within the United Kingdom.

Eagleton criticises Foster, who has been working for some time on the Yeats biography, for raiding literature in a ‘reductive’ manner, ‘paying only passing attention to the politics and poetics of form’. This intellectual territoriality is noticeable on the part of cultural critics, and their poor cousins in media studies, whose very defensiveness, and self-absorption, suggests a degree of parasitic insecurity. But it does not stop the same people, with more enthusiasm than sense, casting their own inadequate nets over very wide expanses of sea. True to form, Eagleton stamps all over Irish history in bower-boy manner, apparently unashamed of his unfamiliarity with its literature and problems. Born again as the writer of a play about Oscar Wilde, and the recycler of part of his Saints and Scholars novel in his play about Connolly for Field Day (the Wittgenstein part being recycled on television), Eagleton gives every impression of unwillingness to read, let alone research, Irish history.

He picked this prejudice up from Field Day in the 1980s, when Seamus Deane, a man willing to cite Paris on the banks of the Foyle, dismissed all politically incorrect Irish history as revisionist. Field Day was a project, but a dishonest one. It may, or may not, have been a liberal initiative in Northern Ireland to create a fifth province of cultural reconciliation (pending, of course, the re-integration of the national territory), with a few tame protestants on board. But it showed itself, in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, to be a nationalist attempt to strengthen Irish nationality, and narrow the distance between constitutional and revolutionary nationalism, north and south, which became Sinn Fein’s strategy in the late 1980s.

The inwardness of this project was paradoxically confirmed by the recruitment of the gurus of international literary theory. There was Edward Said telling us of ‘the indisputably great national poet who during a period of anti-imperialist resistance articulates the experiences, the aspirations, and the restorative vision of a people suffering under the dominion of an offshore power’ (Culture and Imperialism, pp.265-6). He was writing about Yeats. There followed Eagleton. And meanwhile, through the international network of cultural criticism, the spirit of Derrida found a home in Derry.

It is perplexing, indeed impossible to believe, that, when Terry Eagleton decided to wage war on postmodernism Irish style, he should pick his Oxford colleague, and not the enterprise which launched the three-volume Anthology of Irish Writing (1991). That exercise, while pluralist in part, could not resist reacting to the perceived anti-national historical revisionists. The sting was provided by Luke Gibbons, who, in his edited sections on ‘versions of national identity’ and ‘revisionism and cultural criticism’, showed the full force of the postmodernist method. Through selection, editing, introduction and footnoting, all that was not acceptable was duffed up and turned over.

Eagleton invoked a - fundamentalist - feminist idea of a sex war, implying victory and defeat, in order to criticise Foster’s pluralist response to contemporary Ulster. This was to apply inappropriately a (probably) inappropriate analogy, since nothing will be gained by encouraging a catholic victory over protestants in the name of necessary historical retribution.

While his highly personalised and intemperate attack on Roy Foster may register in radical quarters, others will only wonder at the antics of Terry Eagleton in his professorial chair.

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