It is often said that all history writing is political. This book, the first major study of Irish antiquarian and historical writing during the turbulent second half of the eighteenth century, demonstrates the truth of this maxim. It charts the ways in which contemporary politics, notably the Catholic question, legislative independence and the gathering agrarian and political crises from the late 1780s, shaped articulations of the remote and recent past. Historical and antiquarian disputes mirrored political debate, so that Catholic and liberal Protestant interpretations of the past were pitted against conservative Protestant reiterations of earlier colonialist analyses.
This study sets Irish writing in a broad European focus, examining the influence of key cultural developments, such as orientalism, primitivism and the vogue for Ossian. The intention is to show the complex ways in which Irish cultural politics in this period was open to, and interacted with, British imperial and wider European Enlightenment trends. Throughout the book, Scotland forms a particular point of comparison, since antiquaries there drew on the same Gaelic heritage in much of their work.