Joseph Coohill. Ireland: A Short History. Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2000. xiv + 242 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85168-238-6.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black (Department of History, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2002)
This is a history that very much addresses present concerns. In a nine chapter book, one chapter, 33 pages, is all that is devoted to the period down to 1800. This is helpful in that it ensures that more recent history is well covered, but it is also unhelpful. It is unhelpful, first, because of the inherent interest of earlier Irish history; secondly, because of the significance of recent work on many aspects of this history, for example the sixteenth century; and, thirdly, because, from a present-minded perspective, developments then helped both to frame modern Ireland and to influence its public myth, especially in a country in which memory plays a potent role. Thus, the nature of English conquest, the impact of the Reformation, and the consequences of the "Glorious Revolution" all play a major role in modern Irish consciousness, both north and south of the border.
A second concern stems from the insular character of much of the book. This is a history that makes scant attempt to compare and contrast with the history of other countries in Europe, nor to consider, in this context, such points as the nature of composite monarchies, the character of acculturation, the Reformation, the experience of economic change, emigration, nationalism, and modernization. This, more generally, is a problem with not only much writing on British history but also with the recovery of perspectives within a "four nations history" that tends to treat the Channel as if it was the Pacific.
What is impressive is Coohill's determined engagement with historiography, in interesting sections termed "Interpretations." He points out that there are divisions within the particular schools of thought, and that generational differences in opinion should not be exaggerated. As historiography constantly changes, there is, however, a danger that this book will rapidly date. That would be a pity as Coohill is more successful than most in being fair to both the Nationalist and the Unionist tradition. He emphasizes the depth of Unionist feeling and their severe opposition to a united Ireland, and thus presents Unionism as clearly separate from the purposes of British politics and government. The extent to which the "Troubles" led to a process of modernization in the Republic would repay further consideration.
Coohill emphasizes how conceptions of Irishness have changed a great deal over the centuries, and stresses how history has played a major role in framing debate within public culture. That raises interesting questions about the relationship between history, memory, and politics. The depoliticized concept of history that many English historians endorse appears to be more precarious in Ireland.
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Jeremy Black. Review of Coohill, Joseph, Ireland: A Short History.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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