Revisionist Historians



By Peter O’Leary



When we were younger we were taught a much more Romantic form of History. Historians like Geoffrey Keating (c.1570-1650) were still much in vogue. They did not have available to them the wealth of Historical and Archaeological information which has since been discovered. They tended to give us a view of Ireland in which our heroes were larger than life and more glamorous; our villains totally without moral scruple or decency.

This was rather like the old cowboys and Indians on the films, where the villain was identified by his black hat, just as our hero was by his white one. And the villain always got his comeuppance in the final reel.

However real life was usually different to that. Most whites and blacks merged into a dull shade of grey. The Goodies have their little weaknesses; the Baddies sometimes have a few noble thoughts and sentiments.

Nowadays we can identify a new approach to the writing of History which is based on the huge amounts of new information being thrown up by Archaeologists or by close studies of the written sources. Inevitably this process involves the discarding of much of our old History which can be very distressing to us. Sometimes it seems that our new breed of Historians is actually gloating in our discomfiture, and making a point of knocking down our idols.

Someone has given us a name to this process. This new brand of Historians are known as "Revisionist". We may have difficulty in describing "Revisionism" but we know it instinctively when we see it.

Most of these Revisionist Historians are men (or of course women) of great academic distinction and erudition. One does not want to stop their research of new information, nor shackle in any way the conclusions they come to. But we do not like the trend, and we wish more attention should be given to the older opinions before these become the babies which are washed out with the bath water.

We get the impression that Historians today are saying to us: "We have new and better sources available to us today. Your past Histories were based on Mythology and Wishful Thinking. We have discarded all that and started again. We will make our conclusions based only on the new, and never allow knowledge of the older sources to colour our opinion."

If this is indeed so, then our modern Historians are in serious error in rejecting all that went before. The Mythologies were of course often very fanciful and full of references to Fairies, Gods, Demons and the like. Then so is the Bible. However we do not reject the Bible wholesale because we cannot differentiate between parable and basic underlying truth. We have to exercise judgement after considering the entire message. Why cannot our Revisionist Historians do the same. Why should they not examine the Mythologies minutely and try to pick out the underlying truths as support to their main theme.

St. Patrick is in imminent danger of being banished from our Isle like the serpents. Or many Historians find, perhaps correctly, that there were many Patricks. If true, we should try to identify this bunch of heroic workers, not reject Patrick entirely as a piece of Mythology.

We even find that our local Saints are in imminent danger. St. Finbarr has now been identified as working simultaneously in many parts of the world. Therefore there was no St. Finbarr! St. Fachtnan seems to be unrecognised by the Catholic Church despite his name appearing on many Churches, statues and stained glass windows. I often wonder how St. Fachtnan escaped the wrath of Vatican 2 which ended the careers of much more famous Saints such as St. George, patron of England and St. Christopher, patron of the traveller. Maybe the learned men in Rome had never heard of our local heroes, so they escaped this banishment.

Genealogy is another branch of History which suffers from the scourge of this type of thinking. If you can get back no further than to the birth of your great-grand father, say, Abraham O’Brien, born 1820, then he is proven genealogically because there is record in the Parish Registers of his birth and later his marriage. Abraham’s father, Benjamin, born 1785, appears on the birth register of his son, but there are no records of his own birth or marriage simply because there were no Parish Records at the time of those events. Benjamin’s father, Cornelius, born 1750, may be known to you from the Parliamentary Return of 1766, but does not appear in the Parish Records at all.

So in this imaginary scenario, you have an ancestor who is fully proven genealogically, his father is undeniable but not provable, and his father in turn would be totally unacceptable by the strict rules of genealogy. But you know perfectly well who he was, and will probably put him firmly on your Family Tree. To the Professional Genealogist he is a non-person.

Local lore also suffers in the same way. It is well known to people living in the neighbourhood that a certain piece of land was a Killeen, although there has been no interment there for 150 years. How can you prove this, and justify it’s inclusion in the official Inventory of such Sites.

Local, non-professional Historians try to find a compromise between hard facts and local lore. The local lore is checked as far as possible, and usually accepted until further research may prove it wrong. This is the exact opposite view to the Professional Historian who will not accept it until proven, which may well never happen.

So there you have it. My little pet hate. The Revisionist Historian. I am sure you will all write to the Editor to tell him how wrong I am, and we will publish all your letters in our next Journal