Ravings About Revisionists

Connal Parr responds to Mike Burke's critique of his review of Henry Patterson's book, Ireland’s Violent Frontier. Connal Parr was awarded his PhD from Queen's University Belfast and is now Irish Government Senior Scholar at Hertford College, Oxford.

You always hope what you write will be engaged with, but it is a special thing when what you do is pored over in the manner of Mike Burke’s exegesis on my 800-word review of Henry Patterson’s book Ireland’s Violent Frontier (2013). I have never seen anything like it, am more than a little flattered, and would direct him to some of my other articles and book reviews, in the hope that he could write an extended piece about them too.

However, leaving aside some slight over-reading (e.g. in the section about Ruairí Brugha), Burke’s first principal error is to state that I ‘share the same set of research assumptions and beliefs’ as Henry Patterson. This sweeping, false characterization is something I am happy to correct. I’m afraid I’m my own man and would not concur with a number of Henry Patterson’s positions. There are many things which differentiate my own work from Patterson, both in its methodology (e.g. use of interviews vs. public records), subject(s), and analysis. Of course what this is about is trying to bracket myself with Patterson and other historians as simply ‘Revisionist’ and/or ‘Unionist’. Alas I could not be construed as the latter, as a cursory glance at my other work would indicate.

The crux of Burke’s argument is that Patterson – and by extension myself – ‘ignore partition’. This represents a truism because Patterson’s book is not about partition; it is about violence along the border and Anglo-Irish relations during the Troubles (c. 1968–1998). There are books and articles about Partition which are readily available. If academics suffer from following the same ‘paradigm’ – to follow Burke’s unfortunate, rather convoluted phraseology – then they are just as guilty of responding to those works which exist by complaining that it is not the book they would have written.

One thing Burke is right to assert both Patterson and myself are guilty of is an ‘easy acceptance of the northern state’. Indeed I do accept it. The ‘northern state’, also known as Northern Ireland, is a fact. In this sense the ‘paradigm’ I most follow may be called the Reality paradigm. It is born of real experience and understanding of Belfast as well as the basic existence of the border. Burke may not appreciate the existence of the state of Northern Ireland, but it is a fundamental reality – we are not dealing with an abstract, mythical universe where the border can be wished away (with the border, of course, comes a million Ulster Protestants. Their beliefs and aspirations cannot be wished away either).

This is the nub of Burke’s flawed analysis, and it is not – as he tries to couch it – a new ‘diversity’, nor does it represent a ‘different sets of assumptions and beliefs’. It is one of the oldest in existence: anti-partition. It is a school of thought which has been well-propagated over the years. Its tone is akin to something which would have ended up in An Phoblacht in the 1970s, while in its revulsion of revisionism (this is really, again, so very old), there are echoes of the old British and Irish Communist Organization (B&ICO). The difference is Brendan Clifford is a sharper mind – and it may be safe to say a better writer – than Burke. Clifford at one time genuinely shook the Left’s thinking on Ireland; unlike Burke he has thought through Belfast and politics in Ireland, and does it all with all with a bit more dash.

Burke seems to be most riled by my use of the term ‘Dispassionate’; he reacts passionately against this term. I used this about the book because it was the tone of the case he makes throughout. It would have been easy for Patterson to build his book around the plentiful testimony of the anguish and pain of relatives of those Protestants killed in Border areas. He did not do this and instead made the case coldly, dispassionately, academically indeed, for ‘ethnic cleansing’.

One of the marvellous things about Burke’s extended critique of Patterson, myself and the ‘Revisionist school’, is the attempt to which he attempts to present himself as non-partisan in the whole debate. Thus: ‘A less partisan purpose and more balanced approach to the evidence would in all likelihood yield a different conclusion.’ This is where things really begin to unravel for him. The ‘jumble of partisan purpose, research deficiency, and predetermined conclusion’ he accuses Patterson of could just as easily be applied to Burke himself. Instead of coming clean as to his own stance on the matter he attacks Patterson for his ‘his partisan analytical purpose and his politically-inspired method’. As an academic of Burke’s experience should really know by now, the whole point of history is that there are many stories and interpretations, none resting in any kind of objective truth. He tries to cover this by saying he is exemplifying ‘diversity’. In fact he is exemplifying ‘anti-partitionism’.

It takes him a while to get to it, but in an invective-free piece – which he is to be applauded for – Burke’s real objection boils down to ‘revisionist scholarship’. Then there’s this beauty:

During the 50-year existence of the old Stormont regime, nationalists and republicans experienced institutional discrimination from a sectarian polity that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens. The legacy of that regime lingers on today. One part of the legacy is that the Stormont regime spawned an associated Stormont scholarship that relegates nationalist and republicans to the status of second-class research sources, whose views can be ignored or otherwise marginalized in emerging narratives of the nature of politics in the north. The “hierarchy of citizenship” of the Stormont regime and the “hierarchy of victims” of contemporary debates about the past have as an academic corollary the “hierarchy of research subjects”.

This is ludicrous, whacky stuff (someone, incidentally, should tell Burke that Sinn Féin are not just in Stormont these days but in government!) The work of Patterson – and I have to say myself – sits about as far apart from ‘the Stormont regime’ as it is possible to imagine (he should check out some of my references to the major party of government, the DUP).

Burke seems to be suggesting that because an academic’s work focusses on Unionism and Ulster Protestants – who’s to say, incidentally, the Protestant working class strain of the latter is doing well from Stormont? – that we are placing Republicans down the ‘hierarchy’. Personally I have written about nationalists and Labour men and women (remember them?) at least as much as Unionists. But to follow his slightly silly construction, is he also unaware that there are in fact many more books about nationalists and republicans being pumped out than there are on Loyalists and Unionists. And because our work may focus on it, does this make us proponents of the view of our subject? Of course not.

When Burke says ‘The real value of multiple paradigms is that authors are challenged to reassess some of their central assumptions and taken-for-granted views about the nature of research’, he forgets – critically – that his own central assumption and ‘taken-for-granted view’ is fundamentally nationalist. In some ways his response to Patterson outs the real polemic at play by Burke: that the Border is to blame for all the woes of Irish life and society. He then returns to his real grudge:

It’s unfortunate that, from the very beginning of the revisionist debate in Ireland, revisionist scholars displayed a rigid intolerance towards alternative viewpoints and defined nationalist-republican interpretations as beyond the academic pale. Revisionists employed a binary logic that set revisionist history against nationalist-republican myth, fact against faith, complexity against simplicity, and reason against emotion, to name but a few of the favoured oppositional categories.

In fact ‘Revisionism’, by now a pejorative term – though again, what history is not a revision of any other? – emerged to offer alternatives to ‘nationalist-republican interpretations’ of most key Irish historical events. The reason why Revisionists faced – and occasionally continue to face obsessive scorn from the likes of Burke – is they were challenging the ‘rigid intolerance towards alternative viewpoints’ of many traditional nationalist orthodoxies. Charles Townshend identifies this towards the end of his book on the Easter Rising:

Myths are politically vital to the process of nation-building, but there has to come a time when, to complete the process of national emancipation, their elisions and fabrications are recognised, and less flattering aspects of the story can be confronted. In place of a linear, teleological story of national liberation, there needs to be awareness of the complexity out of which an alternative story could have emerged.[1]

I note incidentally the thesis of Burke’s argument is derived from an ‘Occasional Paper’ he gave all the way back in 1996 (!), wonderfully entitled ‘Misunderstanding Conflict, Squandering Peace: The Failure of Revisionist Scholarship on Ireland’ (I dearly wish I had seen this). At the very least Burke has displayed some kind of consistency, though I can enlighten him that just as Sinn Féin Republicans are now in government, ‘Revisionist’ historians tended to be staunch supporters of the Peace Process (some were even advisers in it!). Of course such supposed pro-‘Peace’ rhetoric was immensely fashionable then; less so now as the realities of ‘post-conflict’ NI bear down on its population. If Burke shifts his focus away from ravings about revisionists, he may be able to address some of the real problems afflicting contemporary Ireland, north and south.

Finally, Burke may well be right when he says we are ‘immersed in different paradigms’. It is worth ending with an insight from the late Seamus Heaney, which I think speaks to this particular exchange. Heaney remarked on occasion of the traditionalist composer Sean O Riada, a man he got on with. However,I have to say his posturing irked me. Swirling the snifter of brandy and brandishing the cigar. Setting himself up as commissar, interrogating rather than conversing. I remember walking into the Club Bar that week and being asked rather grandly – in front of (Thomas) Kinsella and (John) Montague – “And where do you stand on the North?” I should have said that, unlike the company I was in, I’d stood on it for thirty years.[2]

[1] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 353.

[2] Quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p. 225.


  1. Fine rebuttal Conal.

    Burke, like others around here, is lost in the hypnotic trance that is all-Ireland Irish republicanism; a hypnotic deluded anti-partitionist trance that denies the reality of another nation of one million plus unionists on the island plus the legitimacy of the state that is home to them.

  2. Henry JoY, we all know converts make the best disciples but you don't have to demonstrate that truism so blatantly.

    The legitimacy of the state? Oh you mean the one, the border of which was arbitrarily drawn to prevent any democratic change. One that was drawn so, to easily accommodate any possible change in demographics?

    You mean the one which has little say in its own affairs?

    The one whose people can't vote a party in or out of the national UK government that rules it?

    The one that suffered entrenched sectarianism and a one party state for much of its existence?

    The one that kindly afforded democracy in the form of the Wild Birds Act?

    The one that denies economies of scale, demands a doubling of services to the detriment of all people in all parts of these Isles who have to pay for them?

    The one in which its very citizens were killed by the state and few if any people were brought to book?

    That legitimate state?

    I am not a cheerleader for the Southern government. They have had their own mismanaged, unscrupulous past. Partly due to the lack of balance two separated, polarised states suffer.

    Is it any wonder people are against partition?

  3. Simon,

    Intractable situations by their nature tend to produce imperfect solutions. And imperfect solutions force reluctant compromise.

    The War of Independence produced such compromises. The Dáil ratified the treaty. Which in turn led to civil war. Subsequent to that conflict the majority of anti-treaty TD's (followed by a vast majority of their supporters) left the revolutionary movement and followed Dev into the parliament of the new southern state.

    Partition, the product of the Anglo-Irish treaty, was ratified by the Dáil on behalf of the Irish people.

    Partition was further endorsed as a compromise solution by some 97% of the southern electorate and some 70% of northern voters in the GFA referendums.

    Imperfect as that might be for those with unification aspirations Simon, it is the hard reality. A hard reality which has legitimacy. A legitimacy as recognised in, and protected by, international law.

  4. But Henry you concede its imperfect, republicans under the age of 35 couldnt participate in
    that referendum, why should they be beholden to it? A country under occupation voted for the occupation, its not unheard of
    ,or irreversible (as Iraq is realising now). Its clear the Provisionals had run out of ideas,
    but the technological gap between state and citizen has markedly reduced since 1994, there are many more avenues open
    to republicans now (if only they would drop the deadend/Leftist crap which primarily appeals to those who actually depend on the said state).

  5. Unionists have always explained the partition of Ireland within the legality of the British State. The British State always attempts to confine its activities, public or clandestine, within an internationally recognised paradigm of law that irrespective of how immoral or unethical Her activities are She can excuse these as perfectly legal and thus acceptable.
    Hence Unionists explain away NI within that paradigm and their argument has substance because the ‘law’ supports it. NI is a legally, nationally and internationally, recognised State. Revisionism adopts the same controls and thus explains Irish history within that paradigm. All perfectly understandable from a Unionist perception.
    Where it all falls down on is that those who are at the receiving end of Her activities can see the wood for the trees and dismiss outright Her claims, irrespective how much international support She receives. The paradigm of law that perfidious Albion operates within is not recognised and thus resulting in non-recognition of Her State. All perfectly understandable from an Irish perception.
    The British, supported by the law, can assert legal umbrage at such claims, dismiss all activity towards the over-throw of the State as terrorism, exaggerating those activities to the point of ludicrously claiming they have manifested themselves in deliberate Republican policies of ethnic cleansing and staking their right to being the only victims of violence whilst simultaneously denying their sectarian, racist, bigoted past.

    Makes for interesting reading doesn’t it?

  6. Henry Joy

    The faithful hate an apostate, especially a pompous one, but from where I am sitting I'm enjoying the show. You are essentially correct in your central idea. Rightly or wrongly the 1 million prods in the north east got their way. How do you change that? Well republicanism has failed utterly and become the problem rather than the solution. The days of revolution are over in our modern, neo-liberal, media controlled western world. PSF realised this and joined the establishment, the rump have formed a myriad of micro groups that will never win the trust of the Irish people. Some people just can't face reality.

  7. The reality of our situation whether we like it or not is that we live in a post-nationalist Europe, a post-nationalist Europe and a global economic system. The potential to overcome such forces is at best infinitesimally small.

    That some of the parochial minds will continue to bang their heads against an immoveable force regrettably is just the way it is.

    What a relief it is to have overcome and survived my protracted head-banging obsession!

  8. If one thing is certain about the global economic system, its that it bears no flags. If a United Ireland was open for business, Britain would be pressurised into accepting the new borders by those rapacious multinationals. The Irish should exploit these new realities and get them to do the heavy lifting, not renunciate them and avow their destruction. Its not being pursued because the Leftards infect every anti-GFA group with their traditional mix of bullshitese and scapegoating.

  9. Henry Joy,"Partition, the product of the Anglo-Irish treaty, was ratified by the Dáil on behalf of the Irish people."

    Yes, a large factor in that was the promise of a boundary commission which swayed a few minds. The boundary commission's recommendations paradoxically and thankfully weren't acted upon.

    By the way I forgot to add torture of citizens and an unelected head of state and unelected second house. Democratic my arse.

  10. I should have explained that the boundary commission did take place but was ignored. Thankfully the change in border didn't happen. Catholics would have been an even smaller minority in the North and Protestants a smaller minority in the South.

    However although I am not arguing for repartition I can't see why it shouldn't happen if the logic applied to our original border is followed.

    People who rubbish Republican aspirations by quoting the GFA should remember that document enshrines the right of Republicans to aspire and work towards reunification.

    Republican aspirations are put on a parr with those of unionists.

    I heard this post-nationalist Europe tripe from John Hume who I respect greatly. The SDLP quickly backpedalled from that position. If Europe is post-nationalist why is there a border at all?

  11. with respect peter, the micro group i belong to, which is mostly myself, would never want to win the trust of the irish people. the colonized irish are the most reactionary spineless race of alcos and wasters on the planet. theres about 300 sound people in ireland, thats all. colonialism with all its diabolical evils has made this once mighty culture a bucket of shite. well done to the genocidal empire builders and destroyers of mother earth. you guys won here anyway.

  12. grouch, 300 is a good number,it retained the honour of the Spartans.
    I can hear it now This is Ireland!

  13. were they sound?

  14. Grouch
    "...the genocidal empire builders and destroyers of mother earth" There is no need to call the catholic church this, superstitious kiddy fiddling wankers would be better.

  15. i am sparatcusish.

  16. Grouch ,they were sound. The lesson I take from it is to rid the island of our (politically) malformed brethren before taking on the Empire, these are the ones who seek it's treasures in return for their allegiance.

  17. i was actually talking about ur royal mob there, they have their fair share of kiddy fiddlers too. god save the queers.

  18. Ah, my mistake. I thought you were talking about the real evil empire. The one that allowed starving people drink wine out of gold goblets.

  19. Simon

    Article 12 of the treaty did indeed make provision for a boundary commission (an idea originally proposed by Craig!). I agree that its inclusion secured the signing of the Treaty whilst sustaining the Nationalist aspiration to remove partition.

    However it was another manifestation of creative ambiguity in negotiation which constituted a legal fudge riddled with temporal and spatial defects. Yet Collins and Griffith accepted it. And yet the Dáil ratified it.

    Its also important to to acknowledge that the Free State imposed customs barriers in April 1923, before the proposed boundary commission was actually activated, which effectively recognised the six county state and its boundaries as those envisaged in The Government of Ireland Act 1920.

    "The imposition of tariffs seemed a counter-productive policy, out of kilter with the Free State’s aspiration to abolish partition. That it preceded the Boundary
    Commission deliberations was remarkable, and an anomalous example of a phase of boundary administration actually pre-dating final boundary delimitation."

    KJ Rankin

  20. Peter

    Indeed its a wise guru who learns not to try'n waken people out of their slumbered trances (some more work to do on that)!

    I can see too that I often come across as pompous ... bit like a little squat Orangeman baiting with his big Lambeg drum lol.

    I'd like to think that sometime my comments will be read and seen as a voice of reason too.

    We can't get away from the fact that we've had a painful past. We can't deny that. We can't delude ourselves that every party to the conflict hasn't inflicted terrible hurts and injustices on each other and on ourselves collectively.

    Its deceitful for any reasonable person not to acknowledge that in outworking such a difficult past any solution will require compromise. There's no solution that will be perceived as perfect by all.

    Acceptance of partition is a big ask of most Northern CRN's. Its one I have come to accept though, now that its couched in possibility of re-unification (possible though not probable in my opinion) and that many of the discrimination issues are being addressed.

    To get through this phase I think people need to develop the vision of 'cathedral builders'. We need to cultivate a vision for ourselves that exceeds our own lifetime. We need to be focused on our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, we really ought bequest them a society that's as decent and noble as possible. It will take time. We must be patient with ourselves and then in turn with the 'other'.

    At the level of the individual we ought all be anti-partitionists; against the partition of our communities and particularly against the partitioning of children in the schools. Moving towards a more integrated education system would ensure greater understanding of difference. That may move the re-unification issue on or it may not. Regardless there's nothing to loose and lots to gain from such efforts.

    (nuff for now. Off to practice on me Lambeg).

  21. Henry JoY, "Acceptance of partition is a big ask of most Northern CRN's."

    Trust you to ask for more than even the GFA asks. You seem to think people who aspire to a United Ireland are irrational or in a trance. That they should accept partition. Why should they?

    The GFA secured the right to aspire to a United Ireland. You won't even allow this. Trying to paint those who feel as you once felt as in a trance.

    I can see the logic of both positions anti and pro partition. But I see more merit in a United Ireland. Much more. To the extent where we can be masters of our own affairs. Not necessarily like the southern government at the moment. I aspire to more than that, where we can start anew and build a country with best practice from other countries and our own.

    You referred to international law, a subject which is a mire at the best of times. Freedom of conscience is a firm tenet of international human rights law and if people think partition is wrong it is fair that they should want to work for change.

  22. so were ur royal mob copying them when they closed the ports and shipped out food under armed guard here. the real evil empire is the crown of england but unionists just wont admit that they are parasites on the back of a long standing paedophilic bloodline.

  23. Grouch
    There is no wont of admission from me. £10 billion a year, chop ching. You decided to hitch your cart to the Evil Roman empire instead, how'd that work out?

  24. Of course Simon people are free to aspire to whatever they wish to aspire to. As you rightly point out the GFA did secure recognition of unification aspirations.

    If I aspired to become a Henrietta I can effect a plan and a course of action that will lead to that outcome. I'll get hormone and surgical treatments and what ever else gender re-orientation requires.

    The re-unification goal is a different kettle of fish. You have to persuade a majority to vote for it. A number of recent polls have cast doubt about the appetite for Irish unity amongst its traditional constituency. And PUL resistance to such a move remains almost as strong as ever.

    Don't get me wrong there is indeed still a strong attachment by CRN's to an Irish identity but the polls suggest not even 50% of them would vote for unity. Unfortunately I don't see any coherent strategy to address further slippage as the peace beds down nor any viable attempts to influence our PUL neighbours. Rather instead we've a small number (thankfully ineffective) still committed to militarism, the 1916 Societies attempting to radicalise the youth and PSF participating in the British administration.

    The BBC Spotlight poll of two years back indicated that a mere 2% of PUL's would vote for re-unification. It suggested some 35% of CRN's in favour of unity with 38% against and 9% indicating they would abstain.

    Those of us who have lived longer in the South than in the North would have serious misgiving about any Southern governments commitment to unity as well.

    Is it any wonder I consider those that pursue such a futile path as deluded. I guess its a bit like childish beliefs in Santa or religious faith, once you get over it you can't go back to the old illusions.

  25. Henry Joy

    Well said. I remember hearing Seamus Mallon saying that he will not live to see a UI and he blames the republican movement for that. I hope one day that the conditions will exist for a UI but republicans need to get real, they are the main barrier to it.

  26. peter, what makes u think im a roman? u poor prods should come down here for a holiday just to see how 'catholic' this place is. im a christian gael peter shaped by the beautiful spirituality of the catholic faith and equally abhorred by its pathetic dysfunctionality. the christian gaels spread the gospel all over the known world. that probably includes the bogmen of scotland who later turned prod, came back to the country that initially evangelised them, massacred them and robbed their land. weird or what.

  27. Henry JoY, I have seen those surveys and the phrasing of them tends towards immediate unification. Most phrase the question along the lines of if a referendum was held tomorrow. Many more people aspire to a United Ireland than want one tomorrow. Even I'd not vote to have an immediate United Ireland. Much preparation is needed.

    As for Republicans having harmed the chances of a United Ireland, that is impossible to say. There could have been any number of possible alternate histories for the last forty years and more. We may have been further away, closer or there could have been greater conflict perhaps even one-sided.

    No-one knows as there wouldn't have been a historical vacuum. There would have been some history in place of ours. We can only work by using today as a starting point.

    No use comparing today with a chimera. Or an illusion of a perfectly peaceful society where unionists become more Republican as time goes on rather than vice versa.

    People can be persuaded either way Henry. That is why you have to argue your own case.

  28. Grouch
    What makes you think I'm a prod? If there is a god he sure doesn't give a monkey's about us. What sort of bastard would stand by and watch children suffer? You like to blame the Brits for the shit state of Ireland (fair enough) but you should also look a wee bit closer to home. Catholicicm has to be the evilest empire that ever existed. It is great to see them team up with the new earth whack jobs of the DUP to oppose gay rights. We will get to see picket lines manned by the Caleb Foundation side by side with the frocked kiddy fiddlers. I'll have to get myself a rainbow fleg and go and give the bastards some abuse. 2 for the price of 1.

  29. god doesnt stand by and watch children suffer. his followers do everything they can and more to protect the child from the moment of conception til theyre able to fend for themselves. to the unborn, its defender has no religion, its just its defender to be whatever it wants to be - prod taig slopehead, i dont care. u prods should take out ur problems with catholicism with the hierarchy in the vatican and not the lowerarchy in bombay street. bully boys and fags first most of the shankhill anyway, and then protestant after that.