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Echoes of the Rebellion

The Year 1798 in Twentieth-Century Irish Fiction and Drama


Radvan Markus

The 1798 Rebellion, a watershed event in Irish history, has been a source of both inspiration and controversy over the last two centuries and continues to provoke debate up to the present day. The ongoing discussion about the meaning of the Rebellion has not been limited to history books, but has also found vivid expression in Irish fiction and theatre.
The product of extensive research, this study provides a comprehensive survey of historical novels and plays published on the topic throughout the twentieth century, comparing them with relevant historiography. It draws attention to a number of outstanding but often neglected literary works, bringing together materials written in both English and Irish. Employing important theoretical concepts such as Derrida’s ‘spectre’ and Hayden White’s tropological view of history, the book probes the relationship between historiography and fiction to shed light on their interplay in the Irish context, including the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. This investigation illuminates a number of broader questions, including the most pressing of all: in what way should we deal with the ‘spectres’ of the past and their complex legacies?
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CHAPTER TWO: Squaring the Circle: The 1798 Rebellion in Historiography


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Squaring the Circle: The 1798 Rebellion in Historiography

Given the impossibility to arrive at a definite meaning of historical events, discussed theoretically above, it is hardly surprising that the events of the 1798 Rebellion, being momentous and ambiguous at the same time, almost immediately provoked an ongoing debate in historiography and politics which has continued well into the present day. The vividness of the debates and their lack of final resolution were poignantly expressed by Kevin Whelan (one of the prominent historians to be discussed in this chapter), who stated that ‘the rising never passed into history, because it never passed out of politics.’1 Another historian, Roy Foster, commented on the debate in a much more sarcastic way: ‘What Hubert Butler wrote of Irish history sometimes seems true of Irish historiography as well. It is all like “a journey on a scenic railway in a funfair: we pass through towering cardboard mountains and over raging torrents and come to rest in the same well trodden field from which we got on board.”’2

The principal aim of this chapter is to analyse the historiographical debates surrounding the Rebellion from the theoretical perspective outlined in the previous chapter. The main emphasis will be placed on historiographical treatments of the event that were influential during the twentieth century, especially after 1916, the area of the main focus of the literary part of this monograph. Thereby, ground will be prepared for the...

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