This is a masterly study from a scholar who, over a fifty-year career, has securely established his claim to be regarded as one of the greatest historians of modern Ireland. This present book exhibits Hoppen’s characteristic strengths: witty and pellucid prose, careful but firm judgement and, above all, a vigorous analytical intelligence, which is simultaneously suspicious of airy theorising but unafraid of Big Ideas and their application. In fact, the central Big Idea of this compelling book is that, on the back of lengthy and bitter experience, British governments moved from the coercive application of ‘peculiarly Hibernian measures’ in the twenty years after about 1808, through a period in mid-century characterised by an essentially integrationist approach to the challenges of Ireland. After the mid-1860s, policy-makers shifted finally towards a process of differentiation which culminated logically in Home Rule and the grant of dominion status in 1921. The application of distinctive and coercive policies in the first decades of union failed, in Hoppen’s assessment, because, on the whole, the complexities of Ireland were bound with an indefatigable official and metropolitan ignorance of the island. Generally a measured judge, Hoppen combines summary justice with compelling detail in developing this case. Thus he argues that ‘British politicians in general ... seem almost to have gloried in their lack of interest in and knowledge of Irish affairs’: in particular Henry Addington ‘throughout his career seem to have possessed the attention span of a gnat when it came to Ireland’ (p. 34); Robert Peel, on assuming the office of Chief Secretary in 1812, found that Dublin Castle had no working library (p. 51); while Irish viceroys were consistently selected on the grounds of their wealth (and their concomitant ability to sustain the trappings of office) rather than for any symptoms of talent (p. 45). Assimilation or integration was pursued heroically (though not always consistently or well) for nearly half a century, but ultimately failed because, as Hoppen argues, from the mid-1860s ‘the whole character of the debate about how to secure a prosperous future for Ireland was beginning to change direction in response to sudden economic shocks, to more militant forms of nationalism in Ireland itself, and to ideological shifts among those who had thought most closely about how economic development might best be encouraged’ (p. 174). Hoppen is similarly assured in dealing with wider intellectual contexts to the politicking at Westminster and within Dublin Castle. He charts, from the mid-1860s onwards, a set of shifts within the British political and intellectual elite which eventually delivered a more carefully calibrated set of policies for Ireland. German philological and legal research stimulated mid- and late nineteenth-century investigation into the ancient texts of Ireland such as the Brehon laws, which—filtering into the awareness of legislators and ministers—underpinned a growing sense of Ireland’s ineluctable distinctiveness and the concomitant need for distinctive policy-making (p. 188). He is strong on the intellectual evolution of individual ministers and policy-makers, such as the often-underestimated Stafford Northcote, who (as a true protégé of Gladstone) engaged ‘with contemporary thinking about the nature and growth of primitive and advanced societies’ and attended meetings of the Social Science Association (p. 185). Hoppen avers that Earl Spencer’s attendance in 1869 at a meeting of the Statistical Society in Dublin ‘hints at similar interests in an otherwise singularly unintellectual history’ (p. 185). More generally, Hoppen charts admiringly Gladstone’s intellectual perambulation across continental European constitutions in the latter’s search for paradigms for Irish land reform in 1870 and later, of course, for Irish self-government—Gladstone being the key example of an individual who shifted in his own career from assimilationist initiatives (such as the 1853 budget) towards that ultimate recognition of Irish distinctiveness, namely Home Rule. As it happened, Gladstone was singularly unfortunate in his choice of Continental exemplars—with different forms of self-government in Austria–Hungary, Sweden–Norway and the (less emphasised) Grand Duchy of Finland producing, not stable multi-national union states, but rather unhappy (and sometimes oppressed) Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Norwegians and (ultimately) Finns—and with the main beneficiaries of autonomy often lording it over smaller national minorities within their borders. Of course, none of these polities survived for long in the form celebrated by the Grand Old Man. Hoppen resists making the leap between the lengthy attempt to assimilate Ireland within the British state, and the ultimate failure of the effort to recognise Irish distinctiveness. There is an apparent paradox here, in so far as (as in Scotland) the effort to assimilate, together with its clear, if limited, success, may have delivered an Ireland where national distinctiveness was relegated, and where the tendency to protest was encouraged. As in Scotland, some of the successes of assimilation may have subverted an incomplete union settlement which permitted the space for national distinctiveness: as in Scotland, some of the successes of assimilation may well have fed into the growth of nationalist sentiment. In both Ireland and Scotland, therefore, the assimilationist imagining of union may have been directly self-destructive. The book is a joy to read. Despite Hoppen’s great distinction, and despite the heroic erudition of the volume (around 125 manuscript collections were consulted in its writing), the work is infused with modesty and generosity and calm judiciousness. Though the work is full of insight, whether in terms of overarching ideas or more localised reassessment, Hoppen defines his purposes and expectations with dignity and precision; and indeed those sections of the book which set out its ambitions and scope (p. 8) should be required reading for all who are tempted to succumb to the current cultures of boosterism. His precision and care are not marred by any false modesty, however—nor are they to be equated with any pale or lifeless prose. On the contrary, the entire book is characterised by a wry humour and wit. It is true that fans of the Hoppen œuvre will recognise the adaptation of one or two joking images from earlier work: thus, the ‘somnambulists’ of Fine Gael who first appeared in Hoppen’s Ireland since 1800 (1989; rev. ante, cvii , 1,055]) are given a Redmondite make-over in this volume (‘somnambulism about Ulster was by no means confined to Redmond), [p. 291]). But there is much else to delight, and, taken in the round, the book is an object lesson in the stylish and accessible presentation of necessarily complex research findings. The book, then, is a triumph in terms of both substance and style. There are some gentle allusions in the volume which hint at a professional summation or a finale. It is to be earnestly hoped that these indications are misleading—and that much else will emerge from the pen of this, one of the most gifted and eloquent historians of these islands. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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