Looking at the way the Irish government has integrated Irish history into its tourism programs, Foster (W.B. Yeats: The Apprentice Mage, 1997, etc.) sees a weapon of mass destruction.
The 12 connected essays here excoriate examples of “marketed history,” including an official theme park to commemorate the 19th-century potato famine. Foster (History/Oxford) doesn’t stop with Dublin’s bureaucrats. The packaging and mass acceptance of popular autobiographies like those by New Yorker Frank McCourt and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams as a kind of “national microcosm,” he cautions, “runs the danger of collapsing alternative history into anecdotal psychobabble.” In McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Foster finds anachronisms, stereotypical characters, and almost no sense of place. The city of Limerick, which at first vilified McCourt, eventually put Angela’s alley locale on its tourist map, prompting Foster to rail further against “stories gauged for an audience in search of reaffirmation rather than enlightenment.” As for Adams’s Before the Dawn, which fails to mention his IRA activities (publicly testified to by former associates), Foster likens it to “reading a biography of Field Marshall Montgomery that leaves out the British army.” Too often, stresses the author, Ireland’s rich tradition of oral history has been made to echo what various protagonists have wanted people to hear. Perhaps his most serious charge of revisionism is leveled at the bicentennial of Ireland’s bloody 1798 revolution, in which the burning alive of some hundred Protestant civilians locked into a Wexford barn by rebel forces was “repainted” in the official version, says Foster (a Protestant), to rationalize the worst atrocity committed by either side. “We can make history,” he concludes, “by rereading it, and by realizing and accepting the fractured, divergent realities, and the complications and nuances behind the various stories.” But not by recycling it into spectator sport.
Erudite and acerbic.