'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


November 10 2014

R.F. Foster and genealogy

Can genealogy constitute real history? When I started R.F. Foster's new book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, I thought the answer was going to be a rare, wonderful yes. The early chapters present the roots of the 1916 Rising as a conflict between generations and so Foster has to reconstruct networks of marriage and schools and business, the second cousins, the in-laws, the family rows - all the stuff of family history, in other words.

He does a superb job. His earlier works on Yeats and Parnell steeped him in the minutiae of the period's politics, culture and personalities, allowing him to range well beyond the usual plodding narrative that Irish history imposes: there can rarely have been such a perfect match of author and topic. With all his trademark suave authority, he sketches overlapping interconnections stretching through education, amateur drama, journalism, courtship and marriage, the Gaelic League, even Post Office employment, and teases out their slow flowering into a revolution that, he makes clear, was by no means inevitable.

All sorts of unexpected insights emerge. James Joyce, for example, that least Catholic, nationalist or military of Irish revolutionaries, fits neatly into this generation. The grandiloquent ejaculation ending Joyce's Portrait, as Stephen Dedalus goes to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" could have come from Terence McSwiney or Piarais Béaslaí or any one of half-a-dozen other diarists Foster uses. Stephen's (and Joyce's) "race" was unambiguously the Irish race.

The book is not perfect - its focus on the educated, urban middle class surely skews the picture of pre-1916 Ireland away from the deep, inarticulate dissatisfactions of Catholic rural Ireland. And the repeat appearances of the cast of memoirists can sometimes seem like the same material being stretched thin.

But it's as near perfect as such a book could be, and it answers the question I started with. No. Genealogy can be an important tool in writing history, especially such a detailed social and cultural history as this, but only one tool among many.

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