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Early Irish history: the state of the art

Early Irish history: the state of the art

By Elva Johnston

Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 33 No.131 (2003)

Image from the Book of Durrow

Introduction: At the beginning of the twentieth century early Irish scholars faced stiff institutional and academic opposition, for politics and art intermingled, sometimes explosively. Still, battles were won, reputations made and university positions filled and created. The generation of great pioneers, such as Whitley Stokes and Kuno Meyer, was followed by one of influential university professors like Eoin Mac Neill and Osborn Bergin. Specialists in the field, including linguists, literary critics, archaeologists and historians, expanded early Irish horizons; the Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish materials was completed; research and controversy throve in equal measure. It might seem then, at the beginning of a new millennium, that the field should be in full flower. The variety of books that this review will cover appears to support this interpretation. Yet, professors and print do not a discipline make and the state of play is muddied by academic imbalances within and without, by the wolf in the field and the wolf at the door.

A brief explanatory note is necessary. Although my main focus will be on history the other subjects within the area of early Irish must also be considered, especially as they share common concerns and defining controversies. Indeed, this has been the case relatively recently. Since the 1980s early Irish studies has been going through a transitional period marked by intellectual upheaval and scholarly debate. A large part of this has revolved around two mutually antagonistic interpretative models dubbed nativist, especially by its detractors, and revisionist, especially by its adherents.

Very broadly, the former holds to a strong distinction between pagan traditions and what is seen as a mere christian overlay. The latter stresses Ireland’s indebtedness to christian culture, sometimes at the expense of local experiences. The most positive aspect of this debate is that it has generated substantial research that has proved crucial to our understanding of the period. Its worst feature has been a tendency towards greater and greater obscurantism in search of minutiae, and this in a field that has always celebrated the micro-experience.

Within the last decade, a new phase, popularly known as post-revisionism, has begun to predominate. In a classic example of the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, scholars have quietly settled down to work, taking with them the insights created by the great debate. At the same time, most have avoided completely buying in to either of its competing ideologies. The shift is as much generational as intellectual and as old foes gradually weary of the conflict this seems an apposite moment to analyse underlying trends.

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