Mope 'N' Dope

Mike Burke with a review of the latest book from Liam Kennedy. Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.


It was very difficult for me to finish reading Liam Kennedy’s new book. I found its mocking tone as tiresome as its deficient analysis.

Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a Visiting Professor in Economic and Social History at Ulster University. His book is composed of nine substantive chapters, three of which have been previously published.

Key to understanding one of the book’s central conclusions is the coy question posed in the subtitle, “Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?” The same question also frames the book’s first substantive chapter. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s work knows that, a decade ago, he answered this question with a resounding no, the Irish are not the most oppressed people ever in the entire history of the whole world.[1] In Chapter One, he reiterates his earlier conclusion: across a whole range of social, economic and political indicators, “the Irish record is no worse than the modal European experience and is, in a variety of respects, more fortunate” (p. 39). But there is much more to Kennedy’s analysis than simply this conclusion.

The book’s subtitle and first chapter also set the tone for much of the analysis. As Kennedy points out “Most Oppressed People Ever” forms the acronym MOPE (1). He defines MOPE as “a syndrome of attitudes” or a “paradigm of beliefs, ideas and sentiments” that views Irish history as an undiluted “saga of oppression, misery and victimhood” (36, 40). This syndrome or paradigm forms “the most influential frame through which Irish history is viewed” (40).

The MOPE “self-image of exceptional suffering and victimhood” is an affliction that particularly affects Irish Catholic and nationalist communities, though Kennedy notes parenthetically that unionism and loyalism are not entirely immune (14). For some Catholics and nationalists, the source of all this suffering is readily identifiable as English oppression and the British presence (11). It’s obvious where Kennedy is going with this analysis: to assert that the Irish have grossly overestimated the extent of their disadvantage is both to suggest that nationalist expressions of grievance need not to be taken too seriously and to relieve Britain of responsibility for Irish injury.

It’s unfortunate that Kennedy chose the acronym MOPE as the touchstone of his analysis: it’s a term that easily conjures up the ugly stereotypical image of feckless and importunate Irish Catholics and nationalists moping around doing little else but whingeing about their sorrowful plight.

Brendan Bradshaw, in an influential contribution to the debate about the writing of Irish history, criticized much new history for minimizing or ignoring the “catastrophic dimension” of Irish experience.[2] Kennedy’s analysis is an archetype of this mode of inquiry.

The comparative perspective that Kennedy brings to MOPE—his turbid version of the Irish question—can be usefully represented as Diminishing Oppressed People’s Experiences, or DOPE for short. A fully descriptive acronym for the nature of Kennedy’s work, then, might be MOPE ‘N’ DOPE.

In comparing Ireland to Europe or the Great Famine to the Holocaust, Kennedy is not just locating Ireland in comparative context. He is certainly not employing a comparative research design to elucidate the causes of oppression. Rather, he is using these comparisons to disparage the Irish experience and what he sees as the sulking Irish nationalist articulation of oppression.

For Kennedy, the “especially sorrow-laden” Irish past became a standard form of expression among politicians, journalists and commentators because the insular, ignorant, and parochial nationalist Irish could not properly compare their plight to that of other relevant cultures in order to understand just how fortunate they really are. Instead, they relied on “claustrophobic comparisons” to English and Irish Protestant experience, which fed their feelings of disadvantage and grievance. And Kennedy suggests that “cultural envy” of England compounded these Irish anxieties (39).

At the very end of the chapter on the MOPE syndrome, Kennedy notes that it would be insensitive “to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines” (41). This sentiment is starkly out of step with the substance of his analysis, whose principal effect is to downplay Irish suffering and to scold the Irish for exaggerating disadvantage. Kennedy’s belated acknowledgement of Irish grievance is an example of what might be termed an “antithetical aside,” defined as a comment—usually very brief—in which authors claim not to be doing what they are doing. Such asides should be given the consideration they deserve.

MOPE ‘N’ DOPE will appeal to those readers who are wont to blame the victim by ascribing determinative social force to Ireland’s so-called “victims” or “grievance” culture.” It will doubtless strike a resonant chord among those who view the ideology of Irish nationalism and the actions of Irish nationalists as the primary causes of Ireland’s woes. It will be favourably received by those who emphasize the importance of hatred, anger, enmity and vengeance in understanding Irish political life. It will be embraced by those who play down the misery and suffering of the Great Famine. And it will please those who minimize or otherwise sanitize Britain’s role in Irish conflict and the reproduction of social division.

However comforting some readers might find Kennedy’s conclusions, his book is seriously undermined by its deeply defective analysis.

Double Standards and Analytical Nonsense

Kennedy has two sets of methodological standards: he demands of others a more rigorous calibre of historical inquiry than he himself employs. First, he demands that representative evidence be used. In one of his two chapters on the Great Famine, for instance, he criticizes the development of the Famine curriculum in New Jersey, noting that “’coffin ships’ and Gross Isle feature but the larger context that these were not representative of emigrant experience during the exodus to the New World is glossed over” (107). Second, he demands a balanced presentation of evidence. If the New Jersey curriculum is going to deliver “a strong critique of British colonialism,” then it should also mention “Britain’s leading role in outlawing slave trading” (108). Let’s see how Kennedy handles these questions of representative, contextually-sensitive and balanced evidence.

Sometimes Kennedy is careful in presenting representative evidence or making readers aware of the limitations of his information.[3] Many times he is not. He explores, for instance, the hypothesis that personal experience or popular memory of the trauma of the Great Famine might have sensitized the Irish to the sufferings of other groups (100). He finds this hypothesis invalid. One piece of evidence he cites is the Irish-American involvement in the Draft Riots in New York during the American Civil War. These disturbances were in effect race riots in which “thousands of Irish and other ethnic whites turned on Black neighbourhoods” (101).

For Kennedy, this case shows that the Irish most definitely did not exhibit sympathy for the plight of African-Americans and therefore invalidates the hypothesis. He notes that the New York riots occurred not long after the Great Famine and that many of the Irish-American rioters were recent immigrants with direct experience of the depredation of the Famine. For emphasis, he concludes: “These were the children of the Famine” (101).

To be sure, the deplorable racist dimension of these riots should be universally condemned. But what do the riots tell us about the children of the Famine? It seems unreasonable for Kennedy to overturn the hypothesis based on this single piece of evidence, especially when he has not established if Irish-American involvement in the riots is representative of the behaviour and sympathies of the children of the Famine.

Kennedy, in fact, uses verbal trickery to invalidate the proposition about Irish sympathy for the sufferings of others. In the course of his analysis, he subtly but decisively changes the nature of the hypothesis by describing it as “a necessary relationship between historically-defined communal suffering and broadened human sympathies” (101, my emphasis). Consider the analytical burden that the addition of the word “necessary” imposes: every single child of the Famine must at every opportunity express broadened sympathy; otherwise, the hypothesis is disconfirmed.[4] That is, Kennedy has just exempted himself from the requirement of collecting representative evidence. In the new way he has expressed the hypothesis, a single contrary case is enough for invalidation.

Kennedy uses a second historical episode to examine the proposed relationship between Irish suffering and sympathy for others. He notes that there was some hostile Irish reaction to reports and photographs of Nazi death camps that began to emerge in newspapers in the spring of 1945. And he concludes that such reaction is incompatible with the proposition (101-02). But what does this kind of reception, as indefensible at it is, really say about the proposition? Kennedy admits the equivocal status of the evidence he produces: “There is interesting work to be done on the reception of the Holocaust into Irish society” (239n96). But the lack of robust evidence does not deter him from reaching a negative verdict on the proposition. It would be methodologically preferable for Kennedy to wait for the evidentiary work to proceed before leaping to conclusions based on scattered evidence whose representativeness he cannot ascertain. Whatever one may think of the proposition linking the Famine to expansive sympathy, Kennedy’s test of its veracity is analytical nonsense.

If providing representative evidence for his conclusions does not unduly concern Kennedy, neither does providing balanced evidence. Generally speaking, there is little balance in the book. Kennedy still seems to be exhibiting the symptoms of what Breandán Mac Suibhne calls his “acute chlorophobia—an abnormal aversion to all things green”.[5] Kennedy offers much evidence, however contrived and convoluted some of it may be, to support his very critical reading of Irish nationalism and republicanism. At the same time, he blithely ignores evidence that would temper, complicate or undermine his critical assertions.

By comparison, Kennedy treats Britain and northern unionists very gently. Here his protocol for the presentation of evidence is exactly the opposite of that followed for nationalists and republicans. Kennedy offers much evidence for a benign view of Britain and northern unionism, and tends to minimize evidence that would support critical conclusions. This is not to say that Kennedy fails to criticize Britain or northern unionists. But his critical comments tend to be very cryptic and are not sufficiently embedded into his interpretive frame or overall conclusions.

Kennedy’s discussion of the violence of the 1916 Rising is one specific example of his egregious lack of balance. He places “much of the moral responsibility for the civilian deaths” onto the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which directed the insurrection, because of its decision to centre the fighting in densely-populated Dublin (155, quoting McGarry).[6] He also suggests that the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic seemed to view “the volunteers in the rising” as “dispensable in the greater scheme of things” (163).

There is no attempt by Kennedy to balance or contextualize his comments about the responsibility for civilian deaths with well-known evidence about the many atrocities committed by British troops. He does not bother to mention that the Rising’s leaders had no intent to harm Dublin’s civilian population.[7] Nor does he mention that Patrick Pearse issued the surrender order specifically to prevent further civilian deaths and save the lives of Volunteers, as shown not only by the order itself and the record of Pearse’s meeting with General Maxwell to discuss the terms of surrender, but also by Seán Mac Diarmada’s and James Connolly’s statements on the ending of the insurrection.[8] Nothing—certainly not historical evidence—seems to get in the way of Kennedy’s narrative about the republican leadership’s carelessness with the lives of civilians and indifference towards the plight of Volunteers.

The frequent lack of representative and balanced evidence is symptomatic of more general flaws in Kennedy’s presentation and interpretation of historical information. To continue with the example of the 1916 Rising, Kennedy criticizes the IRB for violating its own constitution, which required majority support from the Irish people for any move to go to war with England (156). A few pages later, Kennedy discerns in the words of the Proclamation “the making of assassination and civil war” (161). He foresees this dire outcome partly because “The IRB had provision for the execution of members deemed guilty of treason” (253-54n67).

Kennedy’s explanatory logic lacks credence. When taking into account the numerous factors that combined to produce the violent aftermath of 1916, the IRB provision about dealing with traitors fades into insignificance. But even if we take Kennedy’s argument on its own terms, it makes no analytical sense. On the one hand, he criticizes the IRB for knowingly violating its constitution; on the other, he criticizes the IRB because, according to him, it must and will blindly follow its provision about traitors. Kennedy’s “logic” requires the IRB to have a strange and contradictory relationship to its own edicts, in which unthinking compliance proceeds necessarily and seamlessly from wilful contravention.

Kennedy damns the IRB if it does and damns it if it doesn’t. Apparently, the whole exercise is about condemning the IRB. In other words, where Kennedy has a political point to make or an ideological insult to hurl, he is quite prepared to twist historical evidence and defy analytical logic to realize his objectives.

Kennedy’s politics and ideology constantly and loudly intrude into his analysis, much to the detriment of his presentation and interpretation of evidence. Consider his comparison of the 1912 Ulster Covenant to the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, running across three chapters of the book. Here are some of the terms Kennedy employs in his discussion of Pearse and the Proclamation: “masochistic,” “sadistic,” “phallic thrust,” “overblown masculinity,” “proto-fascist,” “fascist,” “racialism” and “jingoistic.” This deluge of disparagement comes in just two pages (165-66). In contrast, Kennedy’s examination of the Ulster Covenant, while not without critical comment, is bereft of this kind of hyperbole and the overtly hostile perspective it represents.[9]

Kennedy also contends that the Proclamation is “one of the foundational documents for the partition of Ireland” (156). While it’s accurate to say that the Proclamation and Rising had an impact on unionist sentiment, Kennedy’s makes his extravagant foundational claim more for ideological than historical reasons. Historically, the movement towards partition had become overwhelmingly powerful well before the reading of the Proclamation on the steps of the GPO and the fighting on the streets of Dublin.

In his recent book on this period, Ronan Fanning documents the significant staging posts on the road to partition, including the 1913 Cabinet discussions about excluding Protestant counties from any Home Rule provision, the parliamentary debate on the 1914 Home Rule Bill that established the principle of partition, the Curragh mutiny and UVF gun-running at Larne in 1914 that gave unionists an extra-parliamentary veto over Britain’s Irish policy, the Buckingham Palace conference later that year where the main parties in Britain and Ireland accepted the impending reality of partition, and the passing of the Home Rule and Suspensory Acts in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the First World War, which committed the British government to partition.[10] To reiterate, all these developments occurred prior to the so-called foundational moment of the Proclamation.

Kennedy’s ideological purpose is further revealed by his reluctance to ascribe a similar foundational or mythic status to the place of the Ulster Covenant in the genesis of partition (171-72, 180-81). In his eyes, then, the Proclamation is more crucial than the Covenant to the eventual partition of Ireland. Here, we see the analytical problems occasioned by Kennedy’s ideological objective begin to reinforce each other. One disadvantage of making a ludicrous historical claim—that the Proclamation is a founding document of partition—is that it restricts the space for reasonable historical analysis of related developments. Kennedy cannot attribute foundational status to the Covenant without weakening the polemical and derogatory value of his assertion about the Proclamation and partition.[11] Kennedy’s interest in polemics trumps his concern for history.

Nationalist Utopia, or Unionist Dystopia

Kennedy misunderstands the mobilizing strategies of Ulster unionism, which confounds his analysis of the Ulster Covenant. This problem becomes evident in his chapter on the historical development of nationalism and unionism.

In a discussion related to the MOPE syndrome, Kennedy notes how the nationalist discourse of wrongs—“attuned to the politics of grievance”—is tied to a utopian vision of a prosperous and populous Ireland. Nationalism’s “imagined destinies” of a new, independent Irish-Ireland are peopled by noble peasants and contented rural industrial workers whose idyllic life stands in stark contrast to the filth and depravity that accompanies modernization (67).

Kennedy asserts that, as a political-ideological strategy of mobilization, “the make-believe world” that nationalists hope to inhabit proves superior to the real world in which unionists actually live: “Ulster unionists were at a disadvantage in having to argue for an imperfect current reality as against the weakly-specified but alluring possibilities of liberation premised and promised in the nationalist vision” (67).

I think Kennedy is patently wrong. Future visions and imagined destinies were at least as important to unionism as they were to nationalism. The difference is that nationalism offered the assurance of utopia whereas unionism feared the certainty of dystopia.

In this competition of divergent futures, Ulster unionism was not at a disadvantage. Its message that everything unionists hold dear—their political identity, religion, civic rights, social status, economic prosperity or potential for material advancement—will be ripped from them in any future Home Rule Ireland proved to be a powerful strategy for galvanizing support.[12] Kennedy recognizes the effectiveness of Unionism’s appeal. To him, the Ulster Covenant is “one of the most remarkable and comprehensive ethnic mobilisations of its age” (142). He even seems to recognize, in a limited way, the role that fear and heated rhetoric played in Ulster unionist opposition to Home Rule (137-141, 182-83). But he fails to relate this recognition to his assertion of Ulster unionist disadvantage.

Kennedy’s muddled reasoning means that he does not fully appreciate the words of the Ulster Covenant that warn of the disaster, subversion, destruction and peril that will attend Home Rule (134). This problem, in turn, leads him to exaggerate the rational basis of the Covenant’s appeal compared to what he sees as the ultimate irrationality of the Proclamation (174-76).

Ulster unionist apprehension of a bleak future is ever-present and is both a cause and consequence of the continuous power wielded by fearmongering unionist politicians. Such politicians regularly invoke the dystopia that will assuredly arrive in various political scenarios: if Home Rule is passed, if the border is altered, if draconian emergency measures are not maintained, if the hunger strikers’ demands are met, if the Anglo-Irish Agreement is implemented, if the Framework Documents are not altered, if Sinn Féin is allowed into government before IRA guns are decommissioned, or if a united Ireland should ever be realized.

In this sense, MOPE could apply equally to unionists as to nationalists, if one wishes to stay within this frame of analysis (which I would not recommend). In any number of dystopian futures, unionists would become the most oppressed people ever. But Kennedy seems disinclined to take this step, for ideological and polemical reasons I think. If frequency of insult is a measure of interest in insulting, Kennedy’s book demonstrates that he is much more interested in insulting nationalists and republicans than he is in insulting unionists and loyalists.

The Question of Democracy

Kennedy’s tendency to elide historical evidence that interferes with his assertions also harms his discussion of how the Covenant/Ulster Day and Proclamation/Rising relate to democracy. His overall conclusion is that the nationalist mobilization was anti-democratic in its essence but the unionist campaign was democratic with “more than a hint” of militaristic threat (174).

Kennedy’s analysis of Easter Week is a variation on F.X Martin’s theme that the Rising was “a revolt of ’a minority of a minority of the minority’.”[13] Kennedy repeats the point that there was little popular support for the Rising at the time of the Rising. But he skirts the question of how little popular support there was for the Union. And he neglects to examine how the whole edifice of British rule in Ireland rested on undemocratic and sectarian bases. I’ll discuss these last two points in more detail in the next section.

Kennedy’s exploration of the “democratic” dimension of the 1912 Covenant relies on highly questionable definitions of minorities and majorities. He notes that: “The Covenant represented the political views of almost half a million Ulster unionists and, by inference, the vast majority of the unionist population of the North” (172). He also points out that, during this period, Protestants made up 56 percent of nine-county Ulster but fully two-thirds of the North’s six counties (169).

In this discussion, Kennedy is retrospectively conferring on the North a constitutional status it did not have at the time of the Covenant. Of what democratic relevance are Kennedy’s calculations for the North?[14] In effect, he is travelling back in time to partition Ireland in 1912, almost a decade too soon.[15] The North was, in 1912, still part of an un-partitioned Ireland. In this Ireland, the relevant denominator for defining majorities and minorities or for measuring the extent of democratic support is 32 counties, not six.

Assessing the Covenant in its all-Ireland context betrays its anti-democratic character. Since the Covenant’s main venue of mobilization was the nine counties of Ulster, we can justifiably use Ulster in the numerator of our calculations without prejudging the fact or form of partition.[16] Ulster Protestants made up approximately 20 percent of the Irish population at the time of the Covenant. Considering the very strong (but imperfect) relationship between Protestantism and Unionism, the numbers alone demonstrate that Ulster unionist opposition to Home Rule did not command anywhere near majority support in Ireland.[17]

Numbers are not the sole indicator of the anti-democratic nature of the Covenant’s mobilization. In 1912, Ulster unionism was claiming the right to veto Home Rule for all of Ireland. This opposition was two-fold: unionists in Ulster were organizing against Home Rule as a policy of the British government, of course, but they were also organizing against the advance of Irish democracy. Democracy in Ireland became especially threatening to the Union because of two developments: extension of the electoral franchise and curtailment of the power of the House of Lords.

Expansion of voting rights in 1884-85 greatly increased the number of people in Ireland eligible to participate in elections. The forward march of nationalist voting power ensured that the electoral map outside Ulster was almost universally green. A large bloc of nationalist MPs advocating for some form of Home Rule was to be a fixture of parliamentary life. As the pressure for Home Rule increased with the Nationalist Party holding the balance of power at Westminster, the Parliament Act of 1911 weakened the House of Lords by granting it only a suspensory veto over legislation passed in the House of Commons. This alteration meant that unionists could no longer count on their allies in the Lords to frustrate the will of the Commons by continually turning back Home Rule bills. When Ulster unionists saw the parliamentary dimension of their agitation weaken, they increasingly turned to extra-parliamentary and coercive measures.[18]

“Fear of Ulster Unionist violence”—the threatening words of the Covenant; the formation, training and arming of the UVF; the establishment of a provisional government in Belfast—“paralysed British policy from 1912 to 1914” and structured the further breakdown of democracy in Ireland.[19] Any fair assessment of this period needs to take into account, much more than Kennedy’s analysis does, the Ulster unionist attempt to subvert Irish democracy and the Irish nationalist attempt to establish it.[20]

Forgetting Britain

Kennedy’s analysis, or lack of analysis, of Britain’s role in Ireland is one of the weakest parts of the book. This deficiency is evident across a number of chapters dealing with such diverse topics as the Great Famine, the War of Independence and democracy in Ireland.

Kennedy notes that there was “a hierarchy of culpability” for the Great Famine (112). In this discussion, however, he only half-specifies what this notion means, addressing culpability but not hierarchy. That is, he lists many socio-political actors deserving blame for certain ways they behaved in the Famine years; but he is entirely remiss in embedding them in some kind of hierarchy. Those actors “in the dock” include: British decision-makers in cabinet and parliament, the Irish landlord class, the rural and urban Catholic middle class, the Repeal Party, Young Irelanders, the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

There is absolutely no sense of proportionality in this discussion to confront the significant question of how culpable were each of these various social forces. It would be highly misleading to assess gradations of responsibility based on the length of Kennedy’s analysis, for his discussion of the responsibility of the Churches is two or three times longer than is his discussion of British responsibility.

By multiplying the number of responsible agents and neglecting proportionality, Kennedy is in effect masking or minimizing the culpability of the British state. To be sure, it is important to assess the extent to which the Great Famine reflected class divisions in nineteenth-century Ireland, but not at the cost of almost forgetting the role of British public policy. It is fair to say, of Kennedy’s analysis of the impact of the British state on the Famine, that rarely has a sovereign power been held less responsible for the disastrous social consequences of its policies.[21]

In his last chapter entitled “Was There an Irish War of Independence?” Kennedy explores various ways in which the conflict-ridden years of 1913-1923 have been conceptualized. Here, he employs a similar technique to that used in his analysis of the Great Famine to marginalize British culpability. The British state is, for Kennedy, simply one of a myriad of protagonists involved in conflict, and its relative explanatory weight is not examined.[22] Incredibly, in his assessment of the designation “Anglo-Irish War,” Kennedy decides to “skip over” the “Anglo” side in a mere sentence fragment (200). His partiality to describing the entire decade of 1913-23 as a “civil war within Ireland” is crucially dependent on writing out any systematic consideration of the impact of the British state (204).[23]

Sidelining the role of Britain is also a problem that plagues Kennedy’s exploration of the Covenant, Proclamation and democracy. There are at least three ways in which Kennedy seems to have forgotten about Britain: he says next to nothing about the nature of British rule in Ireland in the period prior to the Covenant and Proclamation; he fails to analyze how crucial was British support to Ulster unionist sedition; and he neglects to examine how Britain helped to destroy the constitutional nationalist option in the years leading up to 1916.[24]

First, it’s very odd that Kennedy assesses the democratic credentials of 1912 and 1916 without ever assessing the state of democracy on the ground in the period preceding these mobilizations. This historical context is particularly essential for understanding 1916. Tom Garvin suggests that, because of the perverse constitutional relationship between Britain and Ireland, “pre-independence Ireland had no democratic politics.” Britain routinely ignored the democratically-expressed wishes of Irish voters, with the result that “Ireland was run by unelected officials in Dublin Castle and Whitehall, many of whom had a hearty contempt for the elected leaders of the Irish people, unionist and nationalist alike.”[25] Joseph Lee argues that any consideration of Anglo-Irish relations in these years must take into account the “fundamental fact” of the disparity in coercive power, as represented by “the normal presence of about 30,000 British troops in Ireland,” and what this military presence means for definitions of democracy.[26]

British rule in these years was not only manifestly undemocratic and coercive but remained structurally sectarian in a way that went well beyond the anti-Catholic prejudices of most key British decision-makers:

.. . they [Catholics] were denied careers in their own country because of religious discrimination. You could barely get beyond the rank of sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary if you were a Catholic, and similar blockages existed in the judiciary, the civil service, the banks, the railways, the army and the customs service. Catholics were, by and large, other ranks only . . .[27]

Kennedy ignores this kind of historical evidence that disrupts his one-sided narrative about moping nationalists and the anti-democratic ethos of 1916.

Second, Kennedy neglects to examine that elements of the British state supported or acquiesced in the extra-parliamentary threat of coercion that Ulster unionist mobilization represented. The Conservative opposition in parliament openly encouraged and then endorsed unionist rebellion. Elements of the British army threatened mutiny if the government moved against Ulster unionism, forcing London to change its Irish policy. The government itself capitulated to threats and granted Ulster unionists the power to determine essential parts of Home Rule legislation.[28]

Third, Kennedy is silent on how Britain helped to propel the nationalist resort to force of arms. He views 1916 and subsequent conflicts primarily through the prism of a militant republican leadership that he believes is too enthralled with the use of violence as an end in itself (199, 211-12) The historical context he misses, of course, is how thoroughly discredited constitutional nationalism had become, in part because of British indifference and hostility.

If Nationalist Party leader John Redmond was too easily deceived, Prime Minister Asquith was too quick to deceive. From Britain’s perspective, the crisis-laden years of 1912-14 were not about finding a Home-Rule settlement for Ireland, the Nationalist Party’s raison d’être, but about securing separate treatment for Ulster. With the suspension of Home Rule in 1914, the Nationalist Party had absolutely nothing concrete to show for some forty years of parliamentary advocacy. The Nationalist Party was effectively “bankrupted by the British government,” and the 1916 Rising “was a natural result.”[29]

The Historian as Endangered Species

In the introductory chapter, Kennedy says he suspects that each of the essays collected in his book “carries the imprint of the economic and demographic historian, even if sometimes subliminally” (1). Readers would be well-advised to take this suspicion as a warning. My characterization of the historian’s imprint is somewhat different from that of Kennedy: the polemical ideologue almost completely overwhelms the historian. Throughout the book, sightings of the historian are far too fleeting and infrequent.

Kennedy need not agree with what appear to be stubborn, anomalous facts that upset his assertions, and he need not accept plausible alternative explanations that emerge from that historical evidence. But he should address that evidence and those explanations, rather than casually ignore or minimize them.[30]

Overall, Kennedy’s historical method is so uneven and flawed, his presentation of evidence so selective and unbalanced, and his conclusions so fragile and misleading, that his book cannot be taken seriously as an analysis of modern Irish history.

Liam Kennedy, 2016. Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? Published by Merrion. ISBN: 978-1785370281


[1] As Kennedy notes, for the book he made only some minor changes to his original piece published in 1996 (p. vii). The original essay is Chapter 8 of his Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1996), 182-223.

[2] Brendan Bradshaw, "Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland," Irish Historical Studies 26 (November 1989): 340.

[3] See, for example, Tables 1.1, 1.3 and 3.1. The discussion in Chapter 2 on “The Planter and the Gael” is a preliminary but very interesting use of evidence to examine movement across religious and ethnic boundaries. Even though the data are not representative, Kennedy and the co-authors of this chapter are sensitive to the limitations of their analysis.

[4] Kennedy’s use of “necessary relationship” is a little unclear. What he appears to mean is that experience or memory of the Famine is a sufficient condition for sympathetic behaviour towards the suffering of other oppressed groups. In another chapter, Kennedy revisits the proposition linking the legacy of the Famine to sympathy for the plight of others (120-22). Here he does offer some systematic, representative evidence. In these new tests of validity, though, he seems to have altered the status of the proposition from a deterministic to a probabilistic one, reversing the change he had made earlier. These new tests are not without their own problems. It’s not clear to me why Kennedy demands that every action of the Irish state across every sector, from trade policy to taxation regimes, be fully consistent with sympathetic behaviours. I don’t see the logic of his position that the Famine legacy means that sympathy must predominate in the sense of overriding all other state or popular considerations. If we were to apply this logic of predominance in our general tests of hypotheses, then the falsity of every single hypothesis would be guaranteed.

[5] Breandán Mac Suibhne, “A Jig in the Poorhouse.” Dublin Review of Books 32 (April 2013): 10, available online at

[6] Fearghal McGarry, The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 188.

[7] In a separate discussion later in the chapter, Kennedy does admit the atrocities linked to British troops but does not square this observation with his earlier conclusion about the moral responsibility of the Military Council for civilian deaths (163). As mentioned in the previous footnote, Kennedy quotes McGarry, The Rising, on moral responsibility. But he does not include McGarry’s comment, on the same page quoted by Kennedy, that “the reaction of the leaders to the plight of civilians when they finally witnessed it at first hand after their evacuation from the GPO suggests a shocking lack of foresight rather than a cynical intention to wreak havoc on Dublin’s civilian population” (188). McGarry, like Kennedy, does not explain how British atrocities relate to what he sees as the Military Council’s moral responsibility for civilian deaths. (186-188).

[8] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 245-246.

[9] In fact, Kennedy frequently couples his critical commentary on the Covenant with a critique of the Irish News’s reaction to the Covenant and Ulster Day (130, 140, 162, 256n25). 

[10] Ronan Fanning, Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), 90-91, 105, 111-19, 126-27, 135. Kennedy himself concedes that some undetermined form of partition “was firmly on the agenda by 1914” (214).

[11] It is curious that Kennedy does not reconcile his admission that the Covenant “pointed directly towards the partition of the island” and was “a vital moment in the emergence of Northern Ireland” with his granting of inferior status to the Covenant vis-à-vis the Proclamation (168, 171).

[12] Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, referred to the fears of Ulster unionists in clearly dystopian terms when, in 1911, he wrote: “Great ferment and perturbation of spirit exists—mainly fed among the poor folk by hatred of Roman Catholicism and amongst the better to do by the belief that under a Home Rule regime Ireland will become a miserable, one-horsed, priest ridden, corrupt oligarchy . . .” Birrell quoted in Ronan Fanning, “The Home Rule Crisis of 1912-1914 and the Failure of British Democracy in Ireland,” in From Political Violence to Negotiated Settlement, ed. Maurice Bric and John Coakley (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004), 42.

[13] That is, the Military Council was a minority of the IRB that was itself “only a minority within the Irish Volunteers, who in turn were a minority group even among Irish nationalists. . . . In a word, there was a conspiracy within the I.R.B. conspiracy.” F.X. Martin, “The 1916 Rising—a Coup d’État or a ‘Bloody Protest’?” Studia Hibernica 8 (1968): 132.

[14] The same could be said about his calculations for Ulster. To use Ulster or the North in the denominator—that is, to make statements about the percent of Protestants in Ulster or the North who signed the Covenant as a measure of democracy—presumes their separation from Ireland. For reasons I explain in the text, it is legitimate to use Ulster in the numerator. It should be noted that all the calculations include both the number of men signing the Covenant and women signing the Declaration.

[15] And, in another example of double standards, Kennedy is violating his own rule that “The arrow of time travels in one direction only” (185).

[16] As Kennedy says: “The theatre of action or re-action was Ulster” (128). It is true, as Kennedy also says, that “Ulster” was in part “an imaginative construct” that was not necessarily tied to nine counties (133). But he does regularly use the nine-county incarnation of Ulster in his discussion of the Covenant and in his calculations. This manifestation of imagined Ulster was also regularly used by contemporaries at the time of the Covenant. It was, in a sense, the default position. Ulster was, then, partly an abstraction but it did also have a standard political-territorial existence. For that reason, the nine-county Ulster calculation remains relevant even though Ulster, unlike Ireland, never had a separate constitutional status. It should also be pointed out that some people not resident in Ulster signed the Covenant, but this number was not large proportionally. Compare Kennedy’s estimates of 471,414 and 447,197 (130-31, 247n26). The number of Catholic signatories was also probably very small (247n26).

[17] Kennedy does recognize that the Covenant ignores the very strong support for Home Rule across Ireland. But he nevertheless grants the Covenant democratic legitimacy as “an expression of the demotic will” by prejudging some form of partition, as I mention in the text. Compare pages 145 and 172; see also 169-70.

[18] On extension of the franchise, see Brian Walker, Dancing to History’s Tune: History, Myth and Politics in Ireland (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1996), 21. See also Brian Mercer Walker, “The Irish Electorate, 1868-1915,” Irish Historical Studies 18:71 (March 1973): 359-406. Margaret O’Callaghan discusses how the generalization of the first-past-the-post electoral system solidified nationalist electoral dominance outside Ulster, “Franchise Reform, ‘First Past the Post’ and the Strange Case of Unionist Ireland,” Parliamentary History 16:1 (February 1997): 86-87. On the Parliament Act, see Fanning, Fatal Path, 12-14, 20-21, and Chapter 2. Jackson seems to place less emphasis on the importance of the Parliament Act than does Fanning, but Jackson’s discussion is handicapped by its assessment of the Act “as the sole cause of the Ulster Unionists’ descent into militancy.” See Alvin Jackson, Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 115.

[19] Fanning, Fatal Path, 1.

[20] Kennedy is, of course, not unaware of the seditious and treasonable aspects of Ulster unionism’s mobilization. But he constantly softens their effect and does not adequately integrate them into his examination of democracy (170, 256n25, 174, 182-83). He does not at all see the Proclamation and Rising in democratic terms. For an alternative to Kennedy’s position, see Tom Garvin, “The Rising and Irish Democracy,” in Revising the Rising, ed. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan (Derry: Field Day, 1991), 21-28. In the last section, I discuss Garvin’s interpretation in more detail.

[21] Kennedy’s analysis of Britain is part of a narrative stressing the positive—that many key decision-makers were basically nice guys, even the most doctrinaire political economists, and that the role of providentialism has been overrated—and obscuring the negative—“There certainly could have been more effective intervention, but …” (118; see also 86-87, 103).

[22] The protagonists include not only British forces but nationalists, republicans, unionists, loyalists, Protestants, Catholics, small farmers, labourers, graziers, urban workers, the unskilled, and owners of capital (192-215). Kennedy does bring a selective, unbalanced proportionality to this discussion that especially indicts IRA militants: “nationalist Ireland was catapulted [“by the IRA offensive”] into a violent confrontation not of its own choosing” (203)

[23] Kennedy does note that this “civil war” was “powerfully influenced by external forces and circumstances,” but he never adequately examines those forces or circumstances, nor does he attempt systematically to specify the nature or extent of their influence (204). This is an illustration of what I mean when I say that Kennedy makes cryptic—short, unembellished, obscure, unintegrated — references to Britain. Kennedy’s primarily internal explanation of conflict in modern Ireland as a struggle between Ulster loyalism and Irish republicanism is also dependent on minimizing the impact of Britain (216).

[24] Once again, Kennedy has scattered references here and there, but assessing the role of Britain is completely outside his explanatory frame.

[25] Garvin, “The Rising and Irish Democracy,” 22.

[26] J.J. Lee, “’The Canon of Irish History—A Challenge’ Reconsidered,” in Desmond Fennell: His Life and Work, ed. Toner Quinn (Dublin: Veritas, 2001), 78, 74.

[27] Garvin, “The Rising and Democracy,” 24. On the prejudices of many British leaders, see Fanning, Fatal Path, 28, 35-38, 59, 120-21, 197, 210, 331 and 347.

[28] Fanning, Fatal Path, 2, 71, 109-19.

[29] Fanning, Fatal Path, 103-04, 124-25, 134-35. The quotations in the last sentence of the paragraph are from Garvin, “The Rising and Irish Democracy,” 25.

[30] Lee says that the rigorous use of evidence is what distinguishes scholarly history from ideology, J.J. Lee, “Irish History,” in The Heritage of Ireland, ed. Colin Rynne, Helen Guerin and Neil Buttimer (Cork: Collins Press, 2000), 119, 132-34.

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