BOOK REVIEW: The truth and mistruths of our violent history

The Shadow Of A Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory by John Gibney. Published by University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback, priced £25.50.

The year 1641 has always cast a long and dark shadow across our history. Even now, almost four centuries later, the events of that year remain disputed and very much a raw nerve to the psyche of the communities on this island.
In October of that year rebellion erupted in Ireland. Dispossessed Irish Catholics rose up against British Protestant settlers who they held to be responsible for their plight. It was very much the final cast of the die for the Catholics.

This uprising, the first significant sectarian rebellion in Irish history, gave rise to a decade of war that would culminate in the brutal re-conquest of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell. It also set in motion one of the most enduring and acrimonious debates in Irish history.

THE SHADOW OF A YEAR - webMany questions remain about the 1641 rebellion. Was the 1641 rebellion a justified response to dispossession and repression? Or was it an unprovoked attempt at sectarian genocide? And these questions will probably always remain hotly debated.

Historian John Gibney as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora Series has bravely examined three centuries of this debate in his new book The Shadow Of A Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory.

The struggle to establish and interpret the facts of the past was also a struggle over the present: if Protestants had been slaughtered by vicious Catholics, this provided an ideal justification for maintaining Protestant privilege.

If, on the other hand, Protestant propaganda had inflated a few deaths into a vast and brutal “massacre”, this justification was groundless.

Gibney shows how politicians, historians, and polemicists have represented (and misrepresented) 1641 over the centuries, making a sectarian understanding of Irish history the dominant paradigm in the consciousness of the Irish Protestant and Catholic communities alike.

There is balance in Gibney’s examination of how the story of the 1641 rebellion has been interpreted and re-interpreted. Chapter one, ‘The Sad Story of Our Miseries’, explores Protestant interpretations, whilst the second chapter, ‘The Naked Truth of This Tragical History’, presents the Catholic interpretation. His third chapter explores ‘historical facts’ and ‘stupendous falsehoods’ and how an Irish insurrection challenges a scholarly narrative that allows both sides of the argument to coalesce.

The Shadow Of A Year is a worthy exploration of myths and untruths of the 1641 rebellion. While the book is somewhat heavy going, giving the subject matter it is hard to see how Gibney could ever have simplified the book, this is possible the best account to date of the insurrection.

Gibney earned his doctorate in history at Trinity College Dublin and is author of Ireland and the Popish Plot (Palgrave/Macmillan). A guide for the popular Historical Walking Tours of Dublin offered by Historical Insights Ireland, he is a frequent contributor to History Ireland magazine and scholarly journals. He has been a research fellow at the University Of Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland Galway.


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