by Ian Bell

Drouthy Neebors: Irish and Scottish Links

November 2, 2009 | by Ian Bell

IN 1999 the late Donald Dewar, First Minister of Scotland, paid a visit to Dublin. Scottish journalists who were with him remember that he was taken aback to be greeted by the Irish government with all the honour due to a head of state. Some even say that Donald was distinctly, even visibly, uneasy in the face of such hospitality. He did not think of himself, or of Scotland, in such a grand fashion. What if London heard about it? Worse, what if people in stateless Scotland heard about it?

My own guess is that the Irish understood, in the friendliest way, exactly what they were up to. They had been thinking about the affairs of these islands in ways that Dewar and his party, unlike some Scottish scholars, did not care to contemplate. Just the year before Ireland had opened a consulate general in Edinburgh, and given charge of it to Daniel Mulhall, a rising diplomat of flair and ambition. As Mulhall later wrote, he arrived in Scotland “against the background of the Good Friday Agreement and the advent of Scottish devolution, and saw it as my mission to encourage and promote Irish-Scottish links as a ‘dimension of wider British-Irish relations’.”

Scotland’s nationhood remained intact.

Some of the machinery of government had been returned to it. Meanwhile, as Mulhall quickly saw, Irish-Scottish studies had become an academic growth industry, a development endorsed by his president, Mary McAleese, when she inaugurated the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies in Aberdeen on St Andrew’s Day, 1999.

Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan record, in passing, that the event was marked by an unusual co-operative venture between the Scotsman and Irish Times in the form of two special supplements. They are not wrong. For what it was worth, I wrote some of the copy, or rather transcribed an interview given by McAleese to a Times colleague and myself in the presidential residence. As subtle diplomacy went, it was a masterclass.

McAleese hoped for a new understanding of old relationships. In her belief, these islands involved a web of relationships. It was no longer enough, she thought, to think in terms of Dublin-London, London-Edin-burgh, Belfast-London. With her own roots in the north of Ireland, and with the circumspection demanded by protocol, she was unpicking the old imperial story. Impelled by the optimism of Good Friday, official Ireland had thought through the possibilities. The welcome for Dewar; Mulhall’s appointment; the president’s musings on actual and potential relationships: this amounted to Irish government policy.

As such, it was evidence of a political class quicker on its feet than some on this island. It was also a reflection of a scholarly upheaval in both Scotland and Ireland dating back to the 1970s, when historians began to assert that “British” history of the traditional sort, viewing the experiences of distinct nations through the wrong end of an English telescope, was inadequate, at best. For Scots, developments since have begun to cure the myopia that comes from defining culture, politics and history solely in terms of relationships with England. In Ireland, as McIlvanney and Ryan point out, there has been a preoccupation with colonialism (matched by historical revisionism). There has also been a deepening appreciation of affinities and differences between the two countries.

So much is undoubtedly true, and this collection of essays testifies to the fact. Scotland and Ireland have their dealings with England to discuss. They both have experiences of religious discord, if not identical experiences. They have linguistic diversities more or less in common. They each have a complicated relationship with Ulster. They have each, from time to time, pondered issues of cultural confidence. Both puzzle over the word “Celtic” and what it might mean. One is a nation unwilling, thus far, to reclaim statehood; the other is a historically-existing nation shared between two states.

Immigration, emigration, and contestable memory have marked Scotland and Ireland alike. The Scots take their name from ancient Irish settlers. Ulster and Ulster-Scots assign part of their identity to Protestant Scots who once reversed the tide. Diaspora has helped to define each of these nations in the wider world. Above all, at least when compared with the mutually-supporting myths of “Eng-land” and “Britain” – entities possessed, as some English politicians still say, of “a thousand years of history” – their biographies are still read as fragmented, discontinuous.

Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society bears down hard on some of these “truths”. Regarded dispassionately, Scotland’s history is as normal as any, given that evidence of any nationstate possessing a “normal” homogenous history is hard to find. (The editors nominate France, though I can’t think why). Modern Ireland, meanwhile, does not much resemble a recovering colony, or a state ensnared in folk memory. But if history is tricky, perceptions of history are trickier still. In an essay on contemporary Irish remembrance published in Eberhard Bort’s Commemorating Ireland (2004), Mary Daly remarked: “For many young Irish men and women, I suspect that Irish history is a very marginal concern”.

The professor of modern Irish history at University College, Dublin, may only have been expressing a doleful opinion. She may also, I hope, have been expressing another truth: what history means is altered by the way it is addressed, and the extent to which it is addressed. Hence a paradox: the upsurge in Irish-Scottish studies is already effecting such an alteration. Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society reflects changing perspectives, a process of reassessment, a kind of liberation. But that carries risks of its own.

There are some very fine essays in the book. Even the least of them prods the reader towards an understanding of how complex the Scots-Irish relationship has been. None allows for simplicity or sentiment. Perhaps because of well-developed national habits of self-criticism, there is an undeniable rigour to the work on offer: questions are asked of past and present alike. Yet this attention to relevant detail somehow fails to explain why Scotland wound up with a first minister baffled to have a certain sort of Scottishness thrust upon him in Dublin, by the Irish, in 1999.

The criticism is, of course, unreasonable. The entire point of Scottish-Irish studies is that single, blanket explanations of national identity and national relationships are invariably wrong and certainly beside the point. The essays have certain themes in common, but the book is not synoptic. It contains, nevertheless, an argument about our “archipelagic” history and it roots itself in contemporary developments. That being so, I found myself asking one of those counter-intuitive questions: what happened to England?

The country is mentioned numerous times, of course. It looms, as it were, on every page. But having reversed the polarities of discourse, having insisted that the histories of the archipelago are more complicated than the British version tended to allow, having reestablished intellectual contact between Scotland and Ireland, Scottish-Irish studies seems intent, in this showing, on ignoring the large shadow in the corner of the room.

Aberdeen’s George Watson has produced a brilliant essay, to take one example, on ‘Aspects of Celticism’. Here is something that the Scots and Irish, for better or worse, hold in common. In its modern, industrialised version – tourism, for shorthand – it has a considerable economic value. But while Watson understands an ideological construct when he sees one, while he insists that “myths of all sorts play a huge part in cultural formation”, something is missing, something that touches on the relationships which have preoccupied President MacAleese and others.

The essay handles paradoxes brilliantly. It describes how James Macpherson’s Ossian poems were championed by the big names of the Scottish Enlightenment, North Britons to a man, as a “cultural entry-ticket guaranteeing equal status or parity of esteem in the drawing rooms of Union Britain”. It shows the “ambivalence” of Walter Scott juggling a supposed Celtic past and a British present, in the process helping to shape a new, post-45 identity for Scotland. It discovers the self-creation of the early W.B. Yeats in the context of Matthew Arnold’s Celtic fancies, even when the Irishman’s imagination was too robust to accept the Englishman’s “repressive tolerance”. It concludes, with reservations, by finding a value in Scottish and Irish Celticism as a way, however haphazard, of recovering the past.

You could argue with the last point, as many have, but that is not the question. What did England make of such things? Ossian, Scott and Yeats each influenced the literature of England massively: so much is a matter of record. But what did they mean, culturally, to English readers? How did they influence English views of Ireland and Scotland, views which, clearly, produced the complicated responses we are still attempting to unravel?

This is not an argument for saying that England should be returned to centre-stage in the history of these islands. It is to say that in giving overdue attention to the comparative study of Scottish-Irish relationships we can lose sight of another factor in the equation.

The editors allude to an astonishment among some reviewers when Linda Colley published Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707 – 1834 and somehow forgot to mention Ireland in her investigation of the intellectual construction of the British state. Yet in this engrossing collection of essays there is an equivalent problem. Perhaps in reaction to centuries of imperial assumptions, sight is lost of a significant “intimate stranger”. It is taken for granted that what England thought of Scotland or Ireland shaped the smaller nations. But what was England thinking, and how did its attitudes colour our reactions?

No essay addresses the question directly. This is not a weakness, obviously enough, of Scottish-Irish studies as such, but it is a part of the context in which the work is being done. If Anglocentric history was an absurdity, a Celtocentric – wrong word, who has a better one? – view has to be avoided.

After Dewar in Dublin, after all the cultural cringes, political uncertainties and debates over identity, the study of the relationships between Scotland and Ireland is in a strange place. More than anything, it needs an adequate history of England and English attitudes to neighbouring countries. The editors of Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society and their contributors might see this as nitpicking; I’m not so sure. For all that, they provide such an enthralling range of material, on everything from sport to poetry to religion – each essay is worth a book in its own right – as to leave us plenty to be going on with.

Historical and cultural studies are nothing if they are not a conversation. The dialogue implicit in the title of this book is one that we are only now beginning to master. The volume is published in Dublin. When the Scottish consulate general is opened in the Irish capital we can repay the debt.


IRELAND AND SCOTLAND: CULTURE AND SOCIETY, 1700 – 2000.
Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (eds) 288pp. £45. Four Courts Press.

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