Review: The Transformation of Ireland by Diarmaid Ferriter

Roy Foster acclaims Diarmaid Ferriter's gripping account of the making of the Celtic Tiger, The Transformation of Ireland

The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 by Diarmaid Ferriter

Packing houses in the recent Dublin Theatre festival was a satirical musical by one of Ireland's comic geniuses, Arthur Riordan. Improbable Frequency deals with neutrality, spies, postmodernism, republicanism and much else. It opens with a large-scale production number wherein the staff of the British embassy in Dublin, led by John Betjeman, sing a song called "Please, Don't Patronise the Irish". Nowadays, few would dare: Irish achievement is on the front line everywhere, from economics to sport to music, as the country enters the 21st century on a wave of prosperity and apparent self-confidence. The achievement of Diarmaid Ferriter's massive new history is to show just how hard-won this success has been.

Over nearly 900 pages, Ferriter charts Irish experience from the end of Victoria's reign to the turn of the millennium. By 1914, Victorian and Edwardian Ireland was collapsing into civil disorder and threatened revolution over the issue of home rule. The first world war - ironically - provided a respite for beleaguered politicians, but the Easter rising of 1916 and the subsequent Anglo-Irish war led to a new 26-county dominion (which declared itself a republic in 1948), and the new state of Northern Ireland. While they went their different ways, the new states were in some senses mirror-images of each other for much of the 20th century, with religion and politics running closely together, against a background of powerfully conservative societies. In both polities, fractures started to appear in the 1960s, and the past 30 years have seen convulsive changes - especially in society south of the border, where sexual puritanism, narrow nationalism and economic protectionism have been jettisoned with unholy speed.

Faced with this crowded canvas, Ferriter's approach is not to attempt a political narrative of the 20th century. He has chosen instead to situate political events against a huge fabric of social, cultural and economic history, illustrated by vivid quotations (which also supply subheadings for the short sections into which each long chapter is divided). It is a radical approach to organisation, running the risk of a certain amount of confusing bricolage as well as some unpredictable slippages of chronology - but in general, it works grippingly. Ferriter has read omnivorously in the new social history: subjects such as insanity, sex, the history of childhood, travellers, medical care, leisure (especially sport) receive full treatment; above all, so does the history of women. Dail debates and Irish Times editorials supply one stream of evidence used here; but so do the archives of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, the records of rural library organisation and the memories preserved in the recently opened Bureau of Military History.

If there is one recurring theme, it is class - often thought not to be applicable to Irish history, an approach which suited various interests. Thus Charles Haughey in 1987: "Socialism, an alien gospel of class warfare, envy and strife, is also inherently unIrish and therefore unworthy of a serious place in the language of Irish political debate." But you did not have to be a socialist to intuit the complex structures of class discrimination of Irish life; you just had to grow up in a provincial Irish town in the mid-20th century. Ferriter has trawled deeply in the memoirs written by such people, and some of his most penetrating sections concern the experience of the excluded and rejected - migrants, orphans, and unmarried mothers. The experiences of children in the appalling "industrial schools" and life in the "county homes" (effectively 19th-century workhouses under another name) or the notorious "Magdalen laundries" (where unmarried mothers were exploited by nuns) make unbearable reading. But they also illustrate how much of the ancien régime was carried on after independence, and how powerfully the institution of the Catholic church assumed the reins of social policy, with the aid of cowed or acquiescent government ministers.

However, one of Ferriter's achievements is to deal with the experience of Northern Ireland after 1920 as part of the larger Irish story, and much of that social history is no more uplifting. While he is biting about much of the hypocrisy, petty authoritarianism and complacency of mid-20th-century Ireland, north and south, as well as the culture of secrecy that infected much of both societies, his approach is judicious and empathetic. He is writing at a time when it is possible to isolate moments when attitudes began to change - as when a Dublin civil servant in November 1968 attached a note to a file on north-south policy for the taoiseach: "It is much too naive to believe that Britain simply imposed partition on Ireland." Ferriter also tells us that records released last year show Jack Lynch telling a British ambassador in 1972 that voters in the south "could not care less" about reunification. It was true, but it had not previously been possible for a Fianna Fáil taoiseach to admit it.

Ferriter's antennae are sharply attuned to such shifts. He also has a fine ear for the ridiculous, as when Archbishop McQuaid minuted that "the drawings of women modelling underwear used in Irish press advertisements actually revealed a mons veneris if one employed a magnifying glass", or when the rightwing Catholic pressure group Maria Duce campaigned against a visit to Dublin by that well-known communist Gregory Peck. Significantly, Flann O'Brien (who also stars in Improbable Frequency) crops up repeatedly in the guise of a mordant commentator on the vagaries of Irish life - as do journalists such as Nell McCafferty and novelists such as Colm Tóibín.

But Ferriter is equally adept at the larger themes and implications of the country's 20th-century history and the real achievements of independence. He emphasises, for instance, the trend towards centralisation in Irish government and the way that sweeping changes can be introduced de novo and, apparently, accepted: the declaration of a republic, the introduction of free schooling and several other initiatives might be borne in mind when analysing the readiness with which Ireland became European over the past 30 years. Many of the elements of Irish life may seem baroquely conservative; but these co-exist with a propensity to radicalism which receives its full due in this survey and should not be forgotten.

The astonishing economic boom from 1990, and the policies that lay behind it, may be part of this story too; but so is the accompanying tale of murky corruption in high places, and a Lucifer-like fall from the admirably austere standards prevailing in public life during the first half-century of independence. If Ferriter has heroes, Haughey is emphatically not one of them; he is also scathing about the crooked land developers and county councillors who underpinned the finances of people like him. (Nor does he spare those new millionaires, the barristers who have fed off the endless parade of investigative tribunals.) De Valera, on the other hand, emerges modestly rehabilitated. One of the great strengths of this book is to place very recent history against the experience of the whole century; thus, for instance, the loss of the Catholic church's authority seems less like a house of cards that fell all at once in the wake of recent scandals, and more like a gathering erosion from the 1960s.

This will be an influential book, and is a remarkable achievement. So much is here that it would be absurd to cavil about exclusions; and considering the challenge Ferriter has set himself, the odd chronological infelicity can be easily accommodated. But Ireland's entry into the EU is analysed curiously late in the story, and runs the risk of appearing as a coda to the discussion of prosperity and social change in the final section, instead of an essential condition for these phenomena. Much discussion of the Irish question under the union during the 19th century revolved around the question of Irish poverty: prosperity and change, it was argued by nationalists, could only come with independence. Ferriter's rich and provocative study shows that this was far from the case: when these desiderata did arrive, it was only after Ireland once again joined a larger and more powerful union. And many of the failures of independence, as Ferriter argues in his characteristically well-judged conclusion, were inseparable from much that made up Ireland's fiercely held, and in many ways admirable, distinctiveness.

· Roy Foster's WB Yeats: A Life is published by Oxford.

Roy Foster

The GuardianTramp

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