Book Review

The Irish by Sean O’Faolain

self-hating, self-erasing history of Ireland

The Irish are not stereotyped as a people overwhelmed with self-contempt.

As a nation, Ireland has been – and remains so in its north – oppressed and occupied by an exploitative, cruel and destructive foreign power for almost a millennium, and this is something the world [generally[ understands and accepts.

In this 1947 Pelican book titled The Irish, the validity of colonial history’s negative impact on Irish history is brushed aside, ignored and regularly joked about.

Sean O’Faolain (as his name implies) was Irish, but this book – grovellingly written for a right-wing English audience – contains the most overt anti-Irish sentiments I’ve ever encountered before, except in novels by Irish people when they write dialogue from imaginary, bile-filled anti-Irish characters.

O’Faolain mocks his nation’s history, bootlicks the “advances” and “developments” Ireland was “lucky” to receive from various invaders, and denigrates the people of his nation as naive, uneducated, stupid, talentless and vapid.

Ireland, in O’Faolain’s opinion, only has “culture” or history of any note because of invasions. The Irish, the Celts, didn’t produce a “nation” as O’Faolain chooses to define one: there were no cities, there was no cross-generational stratified hierarchy, no centralised power, until Ireland was colonised.

For example: there is a chapter in this book that focuses on the Norman occupation and their imposition of rigid feudal structures on Irish people, and that chapter is called ‘The Norman Gift’.

This is a book about Irish history that reads like it’s written by someone who hates Ireland. Maybe one can be generous and suggest that O’Faolain was merely writing a book he had been commissioned to write, and in the tail end of the 1940s any realistic self-appraisal of dreadful British foreign policy was unlikely to happen against the real world backdrop of its empire crumbling as the costs of war had to be paid once the fighting had stopped.

The Irish isn’t a book that offers anything to praise about the people of Ireland: the writer cites invading forces as the drivers of all changes in his nation’s history he sees as “positive”, and he deliberately avoids “politics”, which means that he ignores the massacres undertaken by Cromwell, the aggressive repression of Gaelic (on this topic his opinion can be summed up as: “it’s a language for fucking peasants that deserves to die out”) and LITERALLY DOESN’T MENTION THE POTATO FAMINE.

There is no mention of the Irish diaspora, barely any mention of Irish emigration, and when this is alluded to it is couched within a snobbish dismissal of the lives of “ordinary people”.

On many levels, this book is offensive. It lists great Irish writers and fails to mention George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, instead naming only Yeats and a load of forgotten dead losers O’Faolain thinks are shit anyway.

To be “apolitical” is to support the status quo, and when writing about the history of an oppressed people, denying the validity and the importance of chronicling that oppression is a dickhead’s move.

The title, of course, is dismissive and othering, and even though O’Faolain was Irish and – according to the blurb – fought with the IRA when a younger man, his writing in this volume is not indicative of respect for his nation’s autonomy. There is the tone of presuming “peasants” “need” to be told what to do, it’s all happy poverty and blissful edenic ignorance, only ever ruined when the Irish wouldn’t accept their secondary (or tertiary) role in the world.

The Irish is blissfully short, but it’s riddled with enough offensive asides (and entire chapters) that it paints a pisspoor portrait of Ireland, but a very fucking clear one of the toadying, snobbish, luddite that was Sean O’Faolain.

I may be the last person ever to read this shit fucking text. And, you know, I’m glad of that. This doesn’t deserve to be read, and Sean O’Faolain doesn’t deserve to be remembered.

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