Interview with Hilary Larkin, author of “A History of Ireland 1800-1922: Theatres of Disorder?”

The following is an interview with Hilary Larkin, author of A History of Ireland 1800-1922: Theatres of Disorder.

In this new book, Ireland’s status as a theatre of disorder from 1800 to 1922 is investigated and re-assessed.

Q: In your book, you are accounting for an undoubtedly very troubled and violent part of Irish History. However, your title implies that you might not agree with Thomas Bartlett in calling Ireland a ‘theatre of disorder’. Do you?

Hilary Larkin: To an extent, one must, of course, agree with Bartlett’s judgement.  After all, Ireland is more characterized by conflict than not in this period. The book begins with a rebellion and ends with a fierce civil war. The point is proven. And yet, this shouldn’t blind us to ways in which Ireland attained stability, achieved progress, and indeed participated in the comparatively benign revolutions of the nineteenth century (of transport, public health, and education for instance). The question mark beside ‘theatre of disorder’ does remain therefore, to make us seriously question the received narrative of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish history as being uniquely one of chaos and disruption.

Q: Your account ends in 1922 with the foundation of the Irish Free State. It is a time that tells of great change but also of troubles yet to come. Why did you decide to end the book in this conflicted time as opposed to looking ahead to the end of the Troubles?

HL: My narrative focused on the history of the Union between Britain and Ireland and that, in its full sense, was broken by the decisions made and actions taken in 1921-22. It was thus a natural break. Post-1922, a very different chapter of Anglo-Irish relations opens up; it is no less important, no less consequential but it is a radically different dispensation.

Q: Why do you think it is that Irish History has been so ‘strangely quiet about its achievements’, as you call it?

HL: Perhaps I should have said ‘comparatively’ quiet about its achievements. In contrast to the much-emphasized narratives of violence and disorder, some of the very real advances of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Ireland have seemed somehow less compelling, less ‘marketable’ (for want of a better word) as stories.

Take for example the achievement in 1829 of full civic rights for Irish (and indeed British) Catholics. Now this is one of the great – albeit unrecognised –  Enlightenment causes. Neither Voltaire nor any other philosopher was likely to endorse a civic cause so sociologically unfashionable yet in such glaring need of redress. That the Irish people themselves won change by means of massive popular and peaceful pressure is a genuinely great civic triumph of the nineteenth century, and an inspiration to other peoples seeking emancipation, notably British Jews. We need to set such an achievement in its proper international and populist context. Or again consider some of the reforming constitutional ideas which Irish politicians insistently put before the British Empire, from home rule to external association. In imperial and colonial history, these ideas were to be very important and the debates surrounding them such as to shed light on complex constitutional issues.

Anglo-Irish political dialogue is highly revealing when we want to study the early stages of decolonization. Indeed, some of the issues raised back in the nineteenth century are still alive today in the UK. The Scottish Independence referendum is fixed for 18 September 2014, and if passed, it will be interesting to see how far independence goes and whether or not the monarchy will be retained.

In sum, as regards the development of civic life and constitutional ideas in the nineteenth century, Ireland’s role has been indeed a crucial one, and some historiographical strands haven’t always brought this to the fore.  

Find out more about the book and the author on our website: