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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Foster-ing insights into Ireland

The label of "revisionist history" is typically applied as a rhetorical tool in the political world, and somewhat more seriously within the field of history itself where the appellation serves as a modern scarlet letter. As political rhetoric, it's applied to efforts made by politicians and their hired spin doctors to promote a favorable (as in self-serving) view of morally questionable past events. Among historians, the label is appropriately regarded as a negative assessment when applied to those who challenge the existing "interpretation" of historical facts in order to prove that the obvious is incorrect, e.g. the purpose and use gas chamber facilities at Auschwitz.

But there are some historians who suffer such labeling because their work challenges cultural and national mythologies by relying on evidence more than narrative. Irish historian Roy Foster has been accused of being a "revisionist" in his extensive body of work covering most of modern Irish history, and particularly his biographical works on Parnell and William Butler Yeats. Last year he presented a series of lectures at Queen's focusing on contemporary cultural, political, economic, religious and other social trends in Ireland, both north and south of the border. I was only able to attend two of the lectures, and it was clear that this historian whose work focuses mainly on the turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has considerable insight into the current of major changes taking place in Ireland. Aptly titled "Metamorphesis," the lectures seemed still a "work in progress" as evidenced by his decision to modify lecture titles and the arrangement of presentation at the last minute. But I heard enough to convince me to jump at the first opportunity to read the final product immediately upon their publication.

My appreciation and appetite for Foster's work was increased after reading his piece in yesterday's Guardian book review section an exhibition of paintings at London's National Portrait Gallery featuring works of Irish artists during the Victorian period in London. Called Conquering England, the exhibit provides an opportunity for Foster to highlight the pervasive influence of the Irish community not only in the arts and literature, but also in the politics and social life of the day. I am not a great fan of biography, but after hearing Foster and reading this and several other short pieces he's written, I'm about to invest some time in either the Parnell or Yeats books.
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