Profile Books (2012), 823 pages
Chapters Bookstore, €16.99
Irish History & Politics
Ambiguous Republic, Ireland in the 1970s is a comprehensive survey of the political, cultural, and social life of 1970s Ireland. The 1970s really was a seminal decade in Ireland’s history. The relative stagnation that followed independence was overcome through an ability to look beyond the traditional outlooks that had dominated the previous decades. Diverse opinions had always existed in Ireland but, for the first time since independence, these voices weren’t censored or marginalised, in fact some were allowed to flourish. The 1970s marked Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community, the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland (and the Arms Crisis), the death of Éamon de Valera, a reduction in economic protectionism, the beginnings of the of the gradual decline in the power of the Catholic Church (despite the visit of Pope John Paul II), and the creation of an authentic Irish pop culture.
There has been recent controversy about Ambiguous Republic and its representation of Labour TD and Government Minister David Thornley. Ferriter is critical of Thornley’s approach to Northern Republicans and claims Thornley never visited Northern Ireland (p.216). David Thornley died in 1978 but his brother, Edward, wrote a letter to History Ireland magazine (an article also appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper) refuting this claim and requesting that a corrections slip be placed in all copies of Ambiguous Ireland. While I understand Edward Thornley’s wish to defend his brother’s name I suspect that the request to insert a correction slip into the book is somewhat vexatious. Ferriter has admitted his error and says he relied on an incorrect secondary source. Whilst Ferriter has made an mistake his error doesn’t wholly alter the impression he wants to convey about Thornley. As an avid reader of history books I don’t expect every single fact in a large book to be correct (although an accumulation of errors or errors used to support the thesis of a book would be more serious). Indeed two authors could use the exact same set of facts and reach completely different conclusions. I suspect if Ferriter had shown David Thornley in a better light then the factual error might have been overlooked. A similar case involved Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky where those opposed to Service’s conclusions about Trotsky picked at, arguably minor, factual errors in order to undermine a point of view they disagreed with.
Perhaps Ambiguous Republic is overly long (the actual text is almost 700 pages) as Ferriter covered 100 years of Irish history in The Transformation of Ireland with a similar number of pages. For my money The Transformation of Ireland is marginally more enjoyable but Ambiguous Republic is unbeatable for an in-depth look at the 1970s. Controversies surrounding the Garda Síochana, questions about how the Irish State should commemorate republican uprisings, the urban/rural divide, and the role of the Catholic Church are all issues which have a resonance today.