Out To Lunch: Sean Connolly & Éamon Phoenix

William Crawley’s talks series continues, this time taking a bite out of Irish history

History buffs will have relished the latest instalment of the Out To Lunch with William Crawley talks series at Queen’s University (Gloria Hunniford was scheduled for the following week, but couldn't make it out of Gatwick). On the menu this time around is Irish and Northern Irish history, with Crawley introducing political historian and head of lifelong learning at Stranmillis University College, Dr Éamon Phoenix as ‘almost the personification of public history'.

Also invited is Sean Connolly (pictured above), Professor of Irish History at Queen’s University, to chew the fat on this most complex of discussions. Themes that Crawley is keen to wade into include Home Rule, the Union with Britain and Partition, and if he had hoped for an enthusiastic and succinct dissection of Irish politics over the past century, he couldn’t have dreamt for a better pair of dinner guests.

With this year being the 75th anniversary of the death of Edward Carson and the 70th anniversary of the death of James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Craig’s declaration of ‘a Protestant State for a Protestant People’ is put into context (or contexts, such are the complexities of the topic) by the experts.

The consideration to officially note Craig’s death courted a heated debate last month in the Assembly. Opening the hour of discussion, Crawley asks whether it’s fair to say, as some Nationalist and Republican politicians have claimed in the recent debates, that Craig was the man who introduced the gun into Irish politics.

‘Certainly an arguable point, that militant violent Nationalism had a very, very minor support base until 1914,’ replies Phoenix. ‘It was a leading IRB man in the shadows, Bulmer Hobson, who said that Carson and Craig had opened a revolutionary door which militant Republicans were going to keep ajar, inviting in German arms and capitalizing on England’s difficulty in the Great War.’

To illustrate the problems with raising moral judgments about Craig, Connolly quotes the great American sociologist David Riesman. ‘The sincere man is the one who believes in his own propaganda.’ This results in much noisy mirth from the tables.

The discussion moves to missed opportunities and states within states. Comparing Northern Ireland’s problems in the 1920s with those of today, Connolly highlights the difficulty in seeking out scapegoats. ‘The closer you look, the harder it gets, I think, to point fingers of judgment, and the more you see these are people trying to navigate their way through difficult political waters in an era that’s now a long way from ours...

‘You had some really unsavory figures swanning about in 1920s and early 30s,' Connolly continues. 'People like DI Nixon, somebody who actually managed to get himself dismissed from the RUC for militant sectarianism, which was an achievement in the [political] climate of the 1920s.’ The real threat to Craig and his mainstream Unionists, says Connolly, was the militant wing of Unionism.

Phoenix recounts the remarks of John Robb, a Queen’s Graduate who, as a young casualty surgeon in 1969 found himself literally digging bullets out of the first victims of violence that would ultimately claim over 3,500 lives. Robb took the bullets home in jam jars still coated in gore and placed them on the mantlepiece, before asking his wife, in terms of the long, troubled history of these islands, ‘where did these bullets come from?’

Coming back to today’s Northern Ireland, Phoenix is hopeful for the future. ‘I think we are seeing things we never thought we would see, in the past ten years and the last three and a half in particular since the convergence of Stormont. I think we have a convergence of sorts at the top, which is creating relationships at the bottom in a society that is very polarized. That’s the challenge.’

Phoenix brings the discussion to a close by quoting the historian FSL Lyons. ‘To understand the past fully is to cease to live in it.' Food for thought. Listen to the full Out To Lunch recording in the podcast above.