Over venison and pheasant on St Stephen’s Green, historian DIARMAID FERRITER talks Rising and repression with ANNE HARRIS …
It is said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Sometimes, however, it does the whole cycle first time around. Professor Diarmaid Ferriter and I are sitting at a window table in Thornton’s Restaurant at The Fitzwilliam Hotel, overlooking St Stephen’s Green, one of the main theatres of the Easter Rising. To our right is the College of Surgeons’ rooftop from where Constance Markiewicz shot a policeman “with disturbing satisfaction”, and facing us, The Shelbourne, nemesis of the Rebels trapped in the Green. “John MacBride said to the insurrectionists afterwards ‘If you’re doing this again, don’t lock yourselves into four walls’. Their military strategy wasn’t very sophisticated.” Ferriter is being mordant, but he is quite clear about the reason for the Rising. “People weren’t free. Only 700,000 men in Ireland had the vote.”
The 1916 centenary has finally dawned, accompanied with surreal timing by a proposal to downgrade history in the Junior Cert cycle. But first the Fitzwilliam Hotel prompts a homely thought in Ferriter. “I know the honeymoon suite. We got a present of our wedding night here, but I was sick all day – a virus – and when we arrived I collapsed. A doctor came and gave me an injection in the backside. That was my wedding night in The Fitzwilliam.”
I can see he is clocking Thornton’s for possible restitution – a date night perhaps, for himself and Sheila, his wife. “We go out one night a week together. I can’t understand people who stop doing that.” The menu, a planxty of game and fish and seaweeds, Ferriter describes as pure poetry.
When we meet, the dust is settling on an academic skirmish over his review of Tim Pat Coogan’s book on de Valera; the sort of controversy which brings out the stilettos in academe but leaves the public cold. This time, the paradoxical personalities of the protagonists – the elder, permanent enfant terrible Coogan versus the shockingly young Ferriter, already attaining “éminence grisedom” – have captured public imagination. Eminence in historians is largely judged by published work. At age 42, the UCD professor’s list of achievements, including twelve books, is prodigious.
Does it all begin with the desire to talk to dead people, as Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt observed? Ferriter spends long hours buried in the archives yet does not have a subterranean pallor. On top of that, he is sexy in an Yves Montand, world-weary way. Clearly something keeps his oxygen levels normal. His natural earthiness helps. And his three daughters, who are the light of his life, play a part, as does his solid, liberal Dundrum upbringing. “My Dad was a real politics and history man.”
But there is something very conscious about his chosen pace. A man who until recently wrote everything in longhand and still bakes brown bread, values his stability. As does the “historian’s historian” who doesn’t “actually hang out with many historians”. His view is outward on the world, not inward on his peers – a rarity among academics. “In history we debate whether history is a science or an art.” Like many a great practitioner, Ferriter has decided it’s a craft: “It’s all down to how you approach your craft. And I love the archives. Because you have to complicate the narrative, not simplify it. We mediate the layers, of course.”
Every Friday, he disappears down the archives coal mine and every couple of years he emerges with gold. Like Occasions of Sin, his towering study of sexual dysfunction since the foundation of the State.“Trawling through all those sex cases, abuse and assaults over the decades, was hard. All the horrible things that were done to people. I’ve no doubt there was joy, but it’s not documented. It’s very difficult to find any pleasure in sex in Ireland.” There is one surprising source of satisfaction. “We have an image of Ireland being a place of repression but looking at the reports, you realise that the civil service of the time were conscious of the separation of Church and State. There was an integrity there.”
His latest book, A Nation Not A Rabble is a cautionary tale for those inclined to romanticise the Rising. Among many other things, it records the heartbreaking pleas by the widows of the insurrectionists for paltry pensions and their harsh treatment at the hands of our founding fathers. So where would Diarmaid Ferriter’s allegiances lie, had he lived a hundred years ago? “I would have favoured the IRB, because it contains the word republic and I am very sympathetic to the ideals of the republic. Gerry Adams claims Sinn Fein is heir to 1916 but Arthur Griffith, Sinn Fein’s founder, wasn’t even a republican.”
Pádraig Pearse is the one dead person Ferriter would dearly like to have talked to “though I would not have liked him”. He is active on the Commemoration Committee but he is currently talking to dead islanders for his next book on islands and already the archives are exposing the chasm between myth and the record. “The Blasket islanders were celebrated as the essence of our ancient civilisation. The records show they were treated as second class citizens.”
For good or ill, history shows us who we really are. The truism that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, is true. To not even teach it is tragic. Former Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, who suggested making history optional, may believe Junior Cert students can’t comprehend our complicated narrative. Diarmaid Ferriter and his ilk are the ones to reach that generation. “We’re campaigning on it,” he says fiercely.
I have a feeling this will be a good year for history.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our February issue, out Thursday February 4.
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