If it’s often difficult to arrive at the truth, pure and simple, about transformative events in Irish history that’s probably because the truth, as Oscar Wilde once noted, is rarely pure and never simple.
Professor Liam Kennedy knows all about it. Emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University in Belfast, he was born and raised in Co. Tipperary and has lived and worked in the U.K. and Northern Ireland for 30 years where he exists, in his own words, “as an outsider.”
To authors like Tim Pat Coogan, Kennedy is simply a revisionist historian suffering from a poignant need to re-contextualize the subjugation of Ireland to make it less emotive and troubling, a sort of historical Stockholm syndrome that Coogan calls “colonial cringe.”
In Kennedy’s new book "Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?," he certainly asks provocative questions about Irish history, including if the economic plight of its people at the start of the 20th century was actually worse than comparable European nations of the period?
That’s the kind of question that enrages many Nationalists (and Unionists, who have their own pieties too). Kennedy knows this, but his sometimes counter-intuitive approach stems from his belief in interrogating accepted wisdom and dislodging chauvinism.
But the title of his latest book also suggests a frame of mind that occasionally enjoys jumping on the fissures and fractures of Irish history.
“Most oppressed people ever” is more commonly known by the acronym MOPE, after all. And many Irish people contend MOPE is an insultingly reductive term that stigmatizes them for their own historic oppression, while removing their agency to lament it and then lampooning their anger or sorrow after the fact. Stop moping, as it were, because it’s clearly bad for you.
It’s uncommon to see a distinguished academic use such a loaded locution. What, some might understandably ask, will his next title be? Ireland, It Wasn’t Really As Bad As All That? Or perhaps Ireland, LOL? How about Ireland, YOLO?
Kennedy leaves himself open to such criticism, but he’s clearly fine with that. In unpacking other people’s pieties he has obviously given quite a bit of thought to his own.
Originally from Borrisoleigh, he was educated at the exclusive Cistercian College boarding school in Roscrea (former students include former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, former Irish Times editor Conor Brady and former Labour Party leader Dick Spring).
“Concentration camp Roscrea, as we called it,” he tells the Irish Voice.
What led him to a career as an economic historian? “At University College Cork I became active in the Labour Party and edited some of the school magazines and probably wrote editorials I would now find embarrassing, if I had kept any copies. It was a fairly ultra-left perspective on Irish politics and international politics.”
Kennedy did a science and economics degree to begin with, and then he formally studied history, including Irish history, at the University of York. What influences his new book is his social democratic perspective on Irish politics and international politics, he says.
“I’ve been living in Northern Ireland since the late 1970s, and clearly living in Belfast you are preoccupied with what is going on all around you.”
The experience of living in Northern Ireland “as an outsider” called him to rethink a lot of what he had originally considered as core aspects of the Irish experience.
“It was very much an evolutionary pathway. There was no moment when I thought,'Hey the 1916 Rising wasn’t such a great idea, or the Ulster Covenant for that matter.'”
Being a balm or an occasional pox on both houses gets Kennedy invites to the top tier when he’s not being howled at. One illustrative (and then awkward) occasion was his invite to celebrate the centenary of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 in Belfast in 2012.
“I got more and more uneasy as the evening went on. I thought I must go and read the bloody Covenant and I was really unhappy with it when I did. I objected to the phrase to ‘use all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy’ to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland,” he recalled.
“That was in the covenant and it was ludicrous. Irish Nationalists from the 1830s onwards had been talking about some form of devolved government, but particularly from the time of Charles Stewart Parnell onwards in the 1880s. I was offended when I read that, to suggest that the move toward Home Rule was a recent conspiracy was nonsense. It had a huge history behind it.”
It’s the elephant in the room in both the Ulster Covenant and the Irish Proclamation, the things that are not said, which troubles him. “What the Unionists should have recognized was that whatever arguments they had for opposing Home Rule they should have at least acknowledged that three quarters of the people of Ireland were in favor of a Dublin parliament. There was no conspiracy except in their imaginations. The more sinister phrase is ‘to use all means which may be found necessary.’ And the ignoring of nationalist demands is unforgivable.”
Other views Kennedy holds make him a doubtful guest at some gatherings.
“Carson was a disaster for unionism,” he says plainly. “Objectively he led them in the wrong direction and got a much worse outcome for them than was foreseeable in 1912.”
That’s the sort of observation that excoriates Unionists, who look at Carson as the founding father. But Kennedy has strong criticisms for the Irish Proclamation too.
“The biggest problem I have with it is that it wasn’t a people’s rising, it had no democratic mandate. The sense of entitlement is appalling. The document says, ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’
“In a way we were all conscripted into the nation without so much as a by our leave.
There’s an irony there too because by 1918 the threat by Prime Minister Lloyd George of extending conscription to Ireland was rightly resisted by all shades of nationalist opinion.
“In the 1910’s politics in Ireland underwent a giant lurch to the right. First the Ulster Unionists and their covenanting bands, and then the ‘men of 1916’ ensured that henceforth appeals to the ‘gun, the drum and the flag’ would dominate political discourse. And so they have to this day, at the cost of concerns for inequality, social class and individual liberties.”
“We should look back on the Great War with anger, a slaughter in which Patrick Pearse gloried. We should look back on Easter 1916 with anger. The leaders of that ‘glorious’ enterprise, with their passion for martyrdom, bear comparison with another group of conspirators almost a century later. This time on the other side of the Atlantic. On 11th of September, 2001, in another moment of ecstasy, a group of Islamism militants crashed their bodies and their machines into the Twin Towers in New York,” Kennedy says.
Comparing the architects of the Easter Rising to al-Qaeda is the kind of link that leaves Kennedy’s critics slack-jawed. But in defense he points to what he calls Pearse’s proto-fascist writings.
“I guess I react more strongly than most against what I regard as bad history and this is probably related to living in Northern Ireland during some very bad years of the Troubles and seeing the past exploited to make life even cheaper than it otherwise might have been. So, yes, there is a moral, perhaps humanitarian current running through all this, as well as on the values front social democratic concerns.”