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  • Talking HistoryRemembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory by Guy BeinerReview by: Stuart McLeanThe Irish Review (1986-), No. 39, Contemporary Art (Winter, 2008), pp. 192-195Published by: Cork University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 02:30

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  • of national characterisations. The specific characterisations are much less important

    than the mind set that produced them.

    Rousseau and Herder emerge here as providers of the key texts in respect of the

    emergence of the new form of identification between nation and state that consti?

    tutes nationalism, but the roles of Sieyes and Gr?goire as ideologues are also seen to

    be crucial. The treatment of the new-style German nationalists who come into

    their own in response to the Napoleonic subjugation, such as Fichte, Arndt, Kleist,

    Koerner and the brothers Grimm, is fascinating and insightful. Of later figures, Renan receives especially useful treatment.

    All of this is excellent. Decidedly less satisfactory are the references to (and occa?

    sional attempts to link up with) social and political history -

    except in the case of

    the Netherlands. For instance, any historian given the opportunity to read a draft

    would have recommended a tightening of the terminology used with reference to

    class. Hroch's schema for the development of nationalism has considerable value

    with respect to Eastern Europe, but the attempt to apply it to the Irish case simply does not work. Indeed, there is a sense in which the book seems inconclusive, as if

    the question of how to relate its core matter to other issues had not been resolved. If

    the working out of political ideas is to be observed and studied, then there has to be

    much attention to the complexities of historical causation. Whether it has to do

    with Sir John Davies and the plantation of Ulster, or Rousseau and the French

    Revolution, the link between text and deed is always complex and dependent on

    'material' circumstances.

    Whatever about its peripherals, this book has to be welcomed and saluted

    because of what its core content adds to the on-going debate on the 'nations and

    nationalism' question.


    Talking History Guy Beiner, Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory.

    Madison,WI and London: University ofWisconsin Press, 2007. ISBN: 0-299-21820-1.


    The series of uprisings in Ireland during the summer of 1798 has been the subject of copious and sometimes acrimonious historiographical debate, much of it cent?

    ring on the bicentennial commemorations of 1998. Among the most fiercely

    disputed questions has been the degree to which the events of 1798 were shaped by the secular, republican ideology of the Society of United Irishmen,

    on the one hand,

    or locally based sectarian conflicts, on the other. Guy Beiner's outstanding study

    offers a range of new perspectives on these now familiar controversies, not by taking

    sides, but by shifting the focus of attention to an episode that has received compar?

    atively little attention from professional historians. The sequence of events in

    question goes something like this: on 22 August, a French expeditionary force,

    192 McLEAN, 'Talking History', Irish Review 39 (2008)

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  • commanded by General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, landed in Killala Bay,

    County Mayo, where they were joined by several hundred local recruits. Together

    they defeated a much larger government force at Castlebar and proclaimed


    'Republic of Connaught', modelled on similar French satellite republics established

    in Continental Europe, with a young local radical, John Moore, as its president.

    When reinforcements from France failed to arrive, Humbert's forces, leaving behind

    a small garrison in Killala, advanced toward the Midlands in the hope of joining United Irish forces rumoured to be active there. They were finally defeated at the

    village of Ballinamuck in north County Longford on 8 September. The French and

    rebel forces remaining at Killala were defeated on 23 September. At both

    Ballinamuck and Killala the French surrendered and were treated as prisoners of

    war, while their Irish supporters were slaughtered en masse.

    The 'Year of the French' has been relatively neglected in academic histories of

    1798, particularly recent ones, many of which have focused on events in County

    Wexford. It has, however, been abundantly documented in other sources, notably

    folklore, ballads and popular histories. It is on these latter sources that Beiner

    chooses to focus. As such, he is concerned less with reconstructing the events of the

    French invasion than with their afterlife in popular memory. Such vernacular

    sources, he suggests, often challenge the judgements of professional historians,

    affirming that an event relegated to

    a peripheral status in 'national' histories contin?

    ues to be viewed as a defining historical moment in its own locality. Beiner refuses,

    however, to draw a rigid distinction between 'official' and 'popular' culture, emphas?

    ising rather the dynamic interaction between the two spheres from the turn of the

    nineteenth century to the present, as stories and motifs pass back and forth between

    oral and written registers. (He cites, for example, the case of a schoolboy from

    Galway who submitted to the Irish Folklore Commission's schools' scheme a pike drill in Irish learned from his own teacher but originating in an oral tradition docu?

    mented independently by Douglas Hyde and others.) In the same way, he argues that the republican ideals of the United Irishmen, promulgated not only through

    print but also through the medium of popular songs and ballads, did not simply

    impose themselves on the rural population from above, but were actively appropri?

    ated and transformed by pre-existing oral traditions, including a

    powerful strain of

    Catholic Jacobite millenarianism.

    Beiner provides a compendious, meticulously researched and powerfully lucid

    survey of his subject. He gives a

    comprehensive review of oral and folkloric sources

    relating to the Year of the French, including the Irish Folklore Commission's Main

    Manuscript and Schools' Collections and material collected in the 1930s by the

    Limerick-born physician-historian Richard Hayes for his book The Last Invasion of Ireland (published in its original version in 1937). Drawing on these and other

    sources, including his own fieldwork, Beiner gives a rich and detailed account of the

    varied stories concerning both French and Irish protagonists of the rising, their

    local supporters and their military and loyalist opponents. Other impressive chapters

    deal with conceptions of time in 'folk history' and with the rich repertoire of

    topographical traditions relating to the French landing and its aftermath. Also

    McLEAN, 'Talking History', Irish Review 39 (2008) 193

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  • included is an informative and thoroughly documented review of academic debates

    concerning the possible uses of oral sources by historians. Beiner argues for the

    'democratic' (although not necessarily egalitarian) character of oral traditions and

    vernacular history-telling, allowing as

    they do for multiple versions and multiple

    'heroes', as well as for the role of multiple, non-academically accredited voices in

    shaping contemporary renditions of the past. He rejects too the (surely increasingly

    implausible) 'modernisation' thesis, which states that developments such as industri?

    alisation, urbanisation and mass literacy necessarily lead to the demise of 'folk

    memory'. Instead, following the lead of the Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko, he con?

    siders the 'second life' of folklore as it circulates in transcribed or printed form to be

    an inseparable part of the 'folklore process' and speculates further that

    new commun?

    ications media such as video, e-mail and the Internet are likely to result in the

    proliferation of folklore rather than its extinction.

    If I have one major reservation concerning Remembering the Year of the French, it is

    that it raises, but fails fully to engage with, the question of how folklore and other

    non-academic recountings of the past might prompt professional historians to

    rethink the epistemic and political foundations of their own discipline. Although Beiner suggests that oral and vernacular sources pose a 'challenge' to academic

    historiography, his book is, ultimately, concerned with the ways in which such

    sources can be incorporated into academic histories, rather than with exploring

    alternative ways of engaging with and writing about the past. Part of the problem

    here is, perhaps, the concept of'social memory' itself, which seems always to imply

    the subordination of non-canonical expressions of historical consciousness to

    academically sanctioned principles of structural-functional intelligibility (in the

    guise, for example, of group solidarity or subaltern resistance). What tends therefore

    to remain unquestioned is the voice of the professional historian and his or her

    status as authoritative arbiter of the past. As such, Beiner's approach is apt to appear

    somewhat tentative compared to that of some other recent theorists ?


    Chakrabarty, for example ?

    who have suggested that 'subaltern' histories, like those

    discussed by Beiner, might evoke a vision of the world fundamentally at variance

    with the explanatory protocols of academic historiography. Another possibility

    might be to experiment with modes of presentation that deliberately blur the

    boundary between factual reportage and storytelling. This need not mean

    relinquishing the historian's project of reconstructing the past with the greatest

    possible accuracy, but it would entail recognition that the circulation of multiple

    accounts (written and oral forms), is not merely a source of evidence, but an

    irreducible part of the historical reality under scrutiny. The work of anthropologists

    like Kathleen Stewart (Appalachia) and Michael Taussig (Colombia/Venezuela) could serve as a possible model here,

    as could a variety of semi-fictional, semi

    documentary texts, such as John Berger's Pig Earth or WG. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. At the same time, the notion of multiple realities (as opposed

    to multiple

    perspectives on the same reality) has been explored at length by scholars working in

    the field of science and technology studies, notably Bruno Latour, John Law and

    Annemarie Mol. I, for one, would be interested to read an account of 1798 (and the

    194 McLEAN, 'Talking History', Irish Review 39 (2008)

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  • controversies surrounding it!) that sought both to incorporate some of these pers?

    pectives and to explore their writerly implications.

    These disagreements aside, Remembering the Year of the French is undoubtedly a

    landmark study in its field. It interweaves primary research and secondary sources

    with a nuanced and sophisticated overview of historiographical debates (both par? ticular to Ireland and more wide ranging) in

    a manner that combines conspicuous

    erudition, passionate eloquence and, just as

    strikingly, accessibility. It stands both as a

    major substantive contribution to study of 1798 and as an

    up-to-the-minute sum?

    mary of the current state of research, as well as a timely challenge to Irish studies to

    extend its theoretical and disciplinary horizons.


    Uninvited Historians

    Nadia Clare Smith, A 'Manly Study'? Irish Women Historians, 1868-1949. Hampshire:

    Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-230009-04-2. ?47.00

    Nadia Clare Smith, Dorothy Macardle: A Fife. Dublin: Woodfield Press, 2007. ISBN:

    978-1-905094-03-5. ?19.95

    Nadia Smith's A (Manly Study?' Irish Women Historians, 1868?1949 considers the

    writing of history by women both within and outside the academy, rendering


    more complex understanding of the emergence of the modern historical profession

    in Ireland. The period of the study saw political and educational opportunities

    expand, albeit slowly, for Irish women. Smith's work further situates these women

    historians in the context of the turbulent politics of the early-twentieth-century

    national struggle and the emergence of a

    politically fractured Free State in 1922.

    Smith highlights the present-centred nature of the histories produced, arguing that

    history was a form of politics by other


    Smith's study begins with a consideration of unionist and nationalist women his?

    torians writing in the period from 1868 to the birth of the Free State. Smith

    indicates how unionist historians, such as Mary Ferguson, Eleanor Hull and Emily

    Lawless,'expanded the boundaries of the acceptable within unionist historiography

    by presenting early Irish culture in a positive light'. Similarly with nationalist histor?

    ians; Alice Stopford Green's work, Smith argues, must be viewed in the context of

    her twentieth-century cultural and political nationalist beliefs. This present-centred

    focus is also highlighted when Smith moves to consider women historians in the

    Free State, grouping together those who worked in the NUI and Trinity College and concluding with an examination of non-professional historians such

    as Dorothy

    Macardle and Rosamond Jacob. The constitutional nationalist and suffrage activist,

    Mary Hay den, who taught in University College Dublin from 1909-38, referred, in

    Women in the Middle Ages (1913), to the learning of women in early Ireland in order

    to strengthen the claim to extended ed...


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