A Sniper from an Ivory Tower

This article deals with what we might describe as the “literary criticism”made by Dr. McNamara of the ‘Catholic Predicament’ books, ‘Catastrophe, 1914-68’ and ‘Resurgence, 1969-2016’. The political criticism – what exists of it apart from long-range sniping – will be dealt in a subsequent piece.

McNamara begins his Irish News review with a rather misconceived point:

“Contrary to the claim of Dr Walsh, there is a long tradition of books from the Northern Catholic perspective. Indeed, contemporary academic literature contains few pro-unionist books. ( There are, admittedly, plenty of books critical of the Provisional IRA, which are not the same thing, which may explain the author’s confusion.)”

To back up his argument Dr. McNamara gives one example from about 40 years ago: Michael Farrell’s ‘The Orange State’. ‘The Orange State’ is, of course, an anti-Partitionist analysis with some Marxism grafted on. It suffers from a very basic problem – that ‘The Orange State’ was never actually a state. It should have been apparent to Farrell that NI was not a state when he wrote it in 1976. By that time Westminster had prorogued the NI sub-government of its pseudo state and the real State itself had gone on operating as if nothing had happened. Politically, the Provisional IRA was face to face with the State it was at war with having smashed its false front. Farrell and the Civil Righters had become irrelevant because they thought they were dealing with an Orange State. The Provos knew better.

The present writer knows only too well that there are few Unionist histories and Irish academia is a nationalist preserve. However, it is a revisionist nationalist preserve, strongly anti-republican, and on the whole hostile to the Northern Catholics. How many Northern Catholics were in senior lecturing positions in Queens University, Belfast, over the last 50 years? In my experience the History and Politics Departments in the North have been dominated by Englishmen and Southern Irish, with a few Ulster Protestants of the liberal persuasion and others from around the world thrown in. Is it likely that any understanding of the Northern Catholic predicament might emerge from such sources?

The short point I made somewhere was that the vast majority of books do not seek to understand the predicament of Northern Catholics. They are about organisations, ideologies, the “Troubles” etc. They do not attempt to understand the perversity of NI and the position it placed the minority community in. They may have been largely Anti-Partitionist up until recently and since 1970 revisionist, but that is not even half the story. “Orange Terror” by “Ultach” from the 1940s is an honourable exception.

“Moreover, he has decided to use only a tiny proportion of the vast body of literature on Northern Ireland in these extraordinarily long, wearying, badly written, poorly edited and frustrating books.”

In the two volumes McNamara has supposedly read there are over 200 books listed in the Select Biographies. I did not repeat the ones in volume 1 in volume 2 so the Bibliography in Resurgence is shorter than in Catastrophe.  Resurgence uses a large amount of primary material so there are less books included. There are all the major NI newspapers, many UK and ROI newspapers, a large number of pamphlets, magazines and other publications, as well as State files from Britain and Ireland. And, of course, there is much more – knowledge gained over the years that cannot be attributed in the light of what happened to the Boston project.

This is a Select Biography. It is not the sort of Bibliography used in academic works that aim to list as many books as possible (many unread except in a very limited way to steal references) to show off the academic’s “wide-reading”. How clearly this line of criticism exposes the academic for what he thinks important! Long bibliographies simply lengthen books by often more than 20 pages and increases the price proportionately. Since McNamara thinks my books already too long (with actual writing rather than lists of books) he cannot have it both ways. Does he really think that the reader would prefer 20 valuable pages of listing books instead of writing – and the reader having to pay for it?

I can inform Dr. McNamara that I have been reading everything I could get my hands on about NI for about 35 years. I have forgotten about more things than most academics have drawn a salary to read. My interest in NI was, however, not academic. It was as a political participant in the conflict and having a desire to contribute to an accommodation between the two communities that would transfer it to the political sphere that I searched out knowledge. So I made it my business to find out as much as possible about it. But in the years I spent doing a PhD I learnt that Irish academia was irrelevant to the conflict and inconsequential in any resolution of it. Those who did the fighting would have to provide the solution. And so it turned out.

McNamara’s verdict that these books are “badly written, poorly edited and frustrating books” is a subjective judgement and a sure sign that a reviewer is incapable of engaging with the substance of the arguments. I suspect that the style of writing – deeply unacademic and profoundly political – is what really grates on the constipated academic, stifled by “academic rigour”.

Athol Books have attracted the ire of Irish academics for decades. I know. I witnessed it myself within Irish academia. I was told to keep their publications out of the bibliography of my PhD if I had any sense. I was allowed to make the same points, watered-down but I should never attribute them. Most of all the name Brendan Clifford was beyond the Pale.

I wondered why? – and it attracted me even more to that mysterious place down at the edge of the Falls. What I came to understand was that this bunch of unspeakables had published information that Irish academics forging their careers were jealous of. The amateurs, acting through political necessity, had got there first. And they seemed to have a strange knack of getting things right. So what was done by the Ivory Towers was to take these arguments produced by Athol Street, neuter them, not attribute them, pretend others had produced them, and then incorporate them subtly in academic writing. By doing this papers, dissertations and publications of the academic careerists were added to. Ideas were plundered but used in the most superficial way. And in doing so, they distorted and negated the force of argument.

I was not prepared to engage in such a process and it led me into conflict, a conflict I could not win within academia, but which was won outside.

It seems to me that the antagonism McNamara has toward these books and Athol Books is that of the professional/mercenary toward the amateur/volunteer. Academic/commercial publishing has a vast array of resources available to it for the publication process. And it charges its limited readership dearly for the service, limiting its reach correspondingly. It is probably inconceivable to it that a small band of volunteers write and produce for nothing, in their own time, merely to influence the world in some way. How unacademic! So let’s find the spelling mistake that those damn upstarts missed and ridicule them! That will teach them and keep them in their place!

The biggest surprise I had was when I learned ‘Resurgence’ had been even reviewed by the Irish News. ‘Catastrophe’ had been ignored by the paper, despite the fact that it was about a subject very dear to the newspaper’s heart, historically. It was, however, reviewed very favourably by the Andersonstown News, which outlined the central arguments to its working class readership in a clear and informative way. But then West Belfast is an intensely political place and devours politics for the purpose of moving forward. It is most unacademic.

Perhaps it was because the editor of The Irish News was on holiday at the time that ‘Resurgence’ slipped through. It was most unusual that an Athol Books publication was reviewed and given any publicity at all. That is not the usual approach. And then it was given to a reviewer who was obviously not familiar with what was what and he became rather hysterical about the general thrust that held the 26 County State and Irish academia to account for what happened in the North.

More sensibly it should have been ignored, as usual.

Later in his review McNamara, the critic of repetition, repeats his charges in a fuller piece of vitriol:

“It would be easy, if space allowed, to list the numerous misspellings, poorly drafted sentences, repetitions of quotations, bizarre capitalisations, narrow reading, odd interpretations of events, and non-standard names given to organisations and treaties, which mar these volumes.”

This type of criticism will perhaps bring back memories to readers of teachers’ reports in their school days. “Must do better”, it seems, to get the imprimatur of academic excellence. So let us say Mea Cupla and move on, ruling out any future career in the universities (sigh of relief!).

As for spellings – a considerable portion of time was spent checking them and even Microsoft Word didn’t spot them! But since a list is not provided what can be said? “Steak knife” was deliberately “misspelt” since that was the original spelling. Editors began to change it to “Stakeknife” after they were mysteriously threatened with legal action by the State. I have kept the original. Reports from behind the barricades in 1969/70 have their original spellings retained. And I make a point of retaining original spelling even if now considered wrong by academia.

“Odd interpretations of events”? Or perhaps, different interpretations of events from the standard accounts. Does the reader want to read another academic regurgitation of all previous work, with some little tweaks, that characterises academic output? If the present writer had such an intention he would never have bothered. I would have done something more useful. I am unpaid, remember, and have better things to do with my time than regurgitate the flaccid output of Irish academics. I only write because I believe I have something different to say, that might be useful to the general understanding of historical and political problems.

“Odd interpretations of events” is actually praise, therefore.

What is this about “bizarre capitalisations… and non-standard names given to organisations and treaties, which mar these volumes”?

These are actually very deliberate and I am glad they have touched a tender spot.

Here are some of the “bizarre capitalisations” that I presume McNamara has in mind (failing to provide his list): ‘State’ – to distinguish a real State from a pseudo-state; ‘Constitution’ – to refer to a real existing Constitution; ‘War’ – to emphasise that it was a War; ‘Pogrom’ – to describe what it was and how it is remembered; ‘War of Independence’ and ‘Treaty War’ – to emphasise what they actually were what they say they are.

The academic needs to say why he finds these “bizarre” so we can see how his mind works. But readers will surely be able to hazard a guess.

And finally, there are the “non-standard names given to organisations and treaties” that have annoyed McNamara.

Could he mean the use of the term “Republican Army” to describe the IRA by any chance? I wonder why he finds that so distressing? Or the description of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as the “Hillsborough Treaty”? What is so wrong in that? He really needs to explain so we can get a sense of his problem.

Then perhaps we will know the real cause of his righteous indignation.

This article appears in the September 2016 edition of Irish Political Review

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