The attached essay was originally written as an introduction to a special issue of Irish Historical Studies (May 2013) which I edited and contributed to. The published version is somewhat different in focus and shorter than this one and I thought it might be of interest in the context of how historians construct different chronological periods for research.
The Origins of Contemporary Ireland: New Perspectives on the Recent Past
The contributions to this special issue of Irish Historical Studies explore recent Irish history from a variety of perspectives. It is possible to publish this special issue now because a significant output of new research on the period has appeared. This was reinforced by the large number of proposals received for a conference organised in UCD in November 2010 on a similar theme and from which the articles presented here have been drawn. The on-going release of government archives and the availability of diverse other sources for research provides the means for the application of historical methodologies to Irish history into the 1980s if not beyond. One of the aims of this issue is to engage with the existing literature in the field and to review interpretations of the period offered by the social sciences and journalism. It does not claim to be comprehensive as research on many topics is still at an early stage. These articles provide new perspectives on specific topics and investigate themes and questions that emerge in the 1960s and 1970s in a changing Ireland. Surveying this period, Roy Foster concluded that, we live in ‘contemporary history’, adding that ‘For Ireland, it is the rate of change in the last thirty years of the Twentieth Century that is most bewildering’. There is an implicit view in the contributions that this is the period when contemporary Ireland appears as a focus for discussion and research.
The notion of contemporary history as a distinctive period for historical study remains controversial. Many historians would accept Arthur Marwick’s view that the term ‘contemporary’ is merely a convenient label for the study of the most recent past. According to this view, ‘the contemporary historian employs the same concepts and the same methodology as any other historian’. Despite this, Marwick concedes that there are specific problems associated with such research, ‘often one simply does not know “what happened next”, and one finds difficulty in supressing the influence of personal recollection’. A more radical and conceptually nuanced analysis has been provided by Geoffrey Barraclough who maintained that contemporary history needs to be treated in a distinctive fashion and involves a rupture with the methods employed when researching modern history. For Barraclough, contemporary history focuses on the recent past, but it is not merely the study of the most recent period of history as Marwick maintains. This rupture between the modern and the contemporary is central to Barraclough’s claim that historians of the contemporary era have to take account of the substantive and subtle differences between the two eras. He also challenges the working assumptions of most historians that each successive period is ‘the most recent phase of a continuous process’, emphasising instead the disruptive and unstable aspects of the contemporary period. In brief, Barraclough suggests that the contemporary era begins around the 1890s and is characterised by the decline of Europe, the redistribution of power to the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the emergence of new problems, conflicts and institutions. Peter Catterall revisited the question of distinctiveness and concluded cautiously that the methods, themes and sources employed in studying the recent past does set contemporary history apart from the modern period. More recently Spohr Readman reviewed the question extensively, concluding that while historians do not follow Barraclough’s specific periodization they do treat the period 1945-1990 as a distinctive period in their research.
Contemporary history can be written in a number of ways and not always by historians. Journalists often provide early assessments of the recent past, based on extensive interviews and the examination of available documentation. Social scientists contribute to an understanding of the contemporary era by their research on economic policy, elections and the social system. Historians also contribute to discussions of the contemporary era when they are engaged in longer term studies. For example, J. J. Lee’s influential study Ireland: 1912-1985 contains and extensive discussion of Ireland since 1960 which, unlike the earlier chapters, was not based on archival sources. Lee’s work (and that of Bew, Ferriter and Foster) draws attention to the danger of ‘presentism’ when dealing with recent or current issues. Lee was concerned to explain the relatively poor performance of the Irish economy since independence. The positive response to Lee’s analysis suggests widespread concern with the state of the economy at that time. Foster’s Luck and the Irish by contrast was in large part a celebration of the success of the Celtic tiger. These works and other historical studies sustain Foster’s view that ‘it should be possible for a historian to look at the latest period in Irish history from a historical standpoint, as opposed to that of a sociologist, or an economist, or a political scientist – though the insights of all these disciplines must be employed’.
Notwithstanding this point, the most valuable resource that the historian brings to the discussion of the contemporary era is the sophisticated interrogation of archives and the historical methodology based on this.  Contemporary history came into general usage when historians began to study the origins of the First World War in the decade immediately after 1919, studies made possible by the release of considerable documents by the former belligerents. This also occurred after the Second World War and following the end of the Cold War. One outcome of this process was that major historical studies were published on a past that was still well within living memory. This interaction between history and memory is a challenge and opportunity for historians and is perhaps the most significant departure from traditional history writing. The issues addressed by Barraclough have not been resolved since the publication of his pioneering study, but they do continue to provoke debate and reflection. The writing of contemporary history has become more sophisticated, even if individual historians do not adopt Barraclough’s periodization. What has emerged is a rich and diverse field broadly focussed on the twentieth century, and more recently on the post 1945 period. Despite this, there is little agreement about what constitutes contemporary history in the specialist journals. Inter-war Europe remains strongly represented, while the 1945-70 period is now a major focus for research and publication. The period since 1971 is less well served although it is a strong feature of Contemporary British History.
In the Irish case, neither 1890 nor 1945 provide a persuasive point of departure for contemporary history. While it is difficult to fit individual cases into the macro-historical framework outlined by Barraclough, it is possible to adopt his suggestion that ‘contemporary history should be considered as a distinct period of time, with characteristics of its own which mark it off from the preceding period’. For example, it is arguable that the period from 1959, when Eamon de Valera retires as Taoiseach, to the general election of 2011 when Fianna Fáil ceased to be the dominant party in the political system can be treated as a distinctive period for the purposes of historical research. A change in leadership itself does not constitute a new era, nor does it necessarily announce the beginning of a new distinctive phase in history. However, the succession of Seán Lemass was in many ways a ‘turning point’ and a decisive moment in the emergence of contemporary Ireland. Care should be taken not to associate an entire period with a single individual and attention needs to be paid to the complex nature of continuity as well as change in the process being assessed. Enda Delaney has applied the term ‘late modernity’ to this period when, as he puts it, Ireland ‘became self-consciously “modern”’. He also warns against a one dimensional or determinist framework for analysing the period, suggesting that continuity overlaps and coexists with change. Notwithstanding this caution, it is possible to argue that the ‘Lemass era’ is a distinctive one and its break with the previous period influenced the direction of Ireland for the next fifty years.  His leadership is associated with economic change, a dramatic shift in Irish diplomatic priorities and institutional innovation in government and public life. These changes were reinforced by educational reform, the introduction of a national television service and the appearance of new ideas and attitudes.
By the middle of the 1960s, change was already discernible. The German novelist Heinrich Böll was dismayed by the pace and nature of change when he revisited Ireland in the 1960s. He noted the absence of references to nuns in newspapers and was appalled by discussion about contraception. Böll recognised that many in Ireland would not share his concerns and that there were those who believed that pace of change was far too slow. Lemass was aware that his policies would have a significant impact on Ireland. Desmond Fisher recalled that:
He predicted great changes in Ireland before the end of the century-contraception and divorce being legalised and materialism becoming widespread because of growing prosperity. Back in 1962 these predictions seemed, at least to me, to be a bit daring.
Yet Lemass in turn was succeeded by Jack Lynch, a more cautious politician who was much less inclined to promote change. Nevertheless, it is possible to underestimate how much changed in the decades after 1959. Not a single aspect of Irish society was untouched by these changes and though some lead to conflict and confrontation others were quickly assimilated by the society. The debates on contraception and divorce reflect the former, while the attraction of foreign investment and membership of the European Economic Community remained broadly consensual. There is room for debate on the extent and meaning of change but there is a strong case to be made that by 2011 Ireland is a qualitatively different place to that of 1959. The key point for this discussion is that this process is dynamic non-determinist.
How then should the period be evaluated? This remains an open question and the contributions included here adopt a variety of methods to answer specific questions. However, writing history when the individuals who experienced it are still alive poses specific problems as well as opportunities. The dilemma for the contemporary historian was starkly highlighted when veteran Fianna Fáil TD Dan Breen complained at a party meeting that a history book was ‘misleading and untrue’ because of its treatment of the War of Independence among other matters. In response, the Minister for Education revealed that discussions had taken place with the authors and that a section on the civil war had been removed. By the 1970s many of these issues remained controversial, but careful studies of Ireland since independence could and were written. While archival sources remained limited for much of the period, studies such as Lyons’s Ireland since the Famine and Murphy’s Ireland in the Twentieth Century provided careful and balanced assessments of contemporary issues and controversies. Subsequent studies expanded the range of analysis and incorporated archival sources as they appeared. By the 1990s the material was available to write comprehensive histories of Ireland since 1945 and subsequently to transform the study of contemporary Ireland. Government archives were not the only source available and they were complemented by private papers of politicians and organisations as well as memoirs, diaries and oral histories. While recognising the important contribution that research based on these archives has made Thomas Hachey has noted the ‘overwhelming dominance of political history’ in recent Irish historiography. He suggests that this has created an ‘imbalance’ in the discipline and notes the absence of ‘new history’ with its emphasis on culture rather than politics and the lack of engagement by historians with the insights of postmodernism and poststructuralism. Privileging official sources is a constant concern for all history writing and not just contemporary history. It is important however to draw a distinction between the need to take account of the ‘new’ history and the nihilistic philosophical positions taken by advocates of postmodernism and poststructuralism in respect of history. Thus, Carlo Ginsberg, a major influence on the ‘new’ historiography strongly rejects any association between his work and that of postmodernism or poststructuralism. The new historiography has encouraged the adoption of a multi-dimensional approach to historical themes. Of particular importance is the focus on non-elite history and the establishment of critical distance between the historian and the state or elite view of the world. There is an awareness that it is necessary for historians to offer a more inclusive narrative that explores the experiences and behaviour of the majority who are often unseen by history. Hachey’s criticism is a valid one in this respect, though the situation is not as pessimistic as he suggests. Historians do need to be especially alert to privileging elite or political history, but some caution is necessary. Official sources can also hold important clues to the attitudes and behaviour of everyday life or the concerns of the ordinary person. Court records have been used by Diarmaid Ferriter to uncover a hidden aspect of Irish sexuality. The significant body of correspondence received by the Taoiseach and other government departments during the contraception controversy in the 1970s can be mined for popular attitudes towards this issue. An oral history of the elite Women’s Liberation Movement can be contrasted with the views of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the largest women’s organisation in Ireland.
Contemporary historians need to be as methodologically sophisticated in using these sources as medieval or early modern historians are in their respective fields. They also need to grapple with the challenge of newer media such as television and film. These data require careful and critical engagement in the same way that traditional documents are treated. It is not enough to use them to illustrate, as is often the case with photographs, they need to be integrated into the fabric of the historical endeavour itself. Television broadcasts everything from interviews with politicians to life style shows and it can be through this visual encounter that the general public forms its first impression of an event. Another major resource available to the contemporary historian is oral history, which records elite and popular memories, often long after the event. There have been major advances in terms of technique, scope and methodology in this important field of research. Historians often use one to one interviews when writing the recent past, especially on biographical studies, and this is a tried and tested technique for journalists. Moreover, oral history alongside television and radio provides access to mass opinion in a way unknown in the past. It is now possible to collect memories from non-elite groups and from those whose voices have not been heard in the past. This creates the real possibility of a history of everyday life that gives meaning to mass experiences. However, there are methodological problems associated with these data, notably with the reliability of memory itself. Notwithstanding this, oral history provides an important resource for writing contemporary history and one that can provide significant insights if used with care and empathy. One might add memoirs, autobiography and diaries such as those published by Noël Browne, Garret FitzGerald or Gemma Hussey. The difficulty associated with such material is that they are often the only direct account we have and they can be partial and subjective. Diaries may be contemporary but memoirs rarely are, even when based on contemporary notes or diaries. Furthermore, once these sources are published, researchers go to these individuals for interviews which in turn reinforce the significance of their interpretation. There is also the issue of absence. Garret FitzGerald was accessible to researchers after he retired as Taoiseach, whereas Charles J. Haughey rarely agreed to be interviewed. While it is possible to use these sources positively, the impact of absence and the partial nature of the source require careful attention by historians.
Computing, the internet and electronic data collections provide additional resources for contemporary historians. Documents can be digitised and downloaded off-site and reports, research papers and statistical material can be more easily accessed through the internet. Large data sets can be more easily interrogated and content analysis is facilitated by powerful computing tools. Opinion polls provide a glimpse of mass opinion at a single point in time and can also be re-analysed by historians to ask new questions. Opinion polling has been a regular feature of Irish life since the 1970s and the data sets are available from a number of data archives. A particularly important data set for the study of contemporary Ireland is the European Values Study which has collected data since 1981. It is possible by using these data to trace the evolution of popular attitudes to a wide range of topics in Ireland and compare them with other European states. The compelling case for using these data is that it provides access to non-elite views on a variety of topics and permits the historian to ask additional question about these views. This is reinforced if, as is increasingly the case, these surveys are accompanied by focus groups to collect the views of individuals.
While historians can now draw on a rich store of data collected by the social sciences and can apply historical methodologies to their interpretation, tensions remain. Peter Burke has drawn attention to the possibility of a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ between historians and social scientists. Burke believes in the possibility of a creative dialogue between the disciplines and this has considerable appeal. Notwithstanding this prospect, historians and social scientists are engaged in a rather different endeavour and employ distinctive methodologies. At the heart of historical methodology is documentation, whether a letter, a report or a video recording and narrative remains at the heart of the exercise. An important case in point is the debate on the origins and evolution of European integration since 1945. Alan Milward challenged existing explanations for post war integration in Europe and in a series of sophisticated studies he and his colleagues drew on the archives of the states involved in the integration process to demonstrate the inadequacy of the social science paradigm. Milward questioned these views by testing them against what specific actors (government, business and trade unions) were actually saying to one another and tracing the policy development within newly opened archives. Milward placed the state at the heart of the post war integration process and challenged explanations which implied that interdependence and integration were the motors for change. The work of Milward and his colleagues suggested that scholars had seriously misread the integration process and that its origins and success was not based on an inevitable drive for integration but as a consequence of domestic and self-interested considerations on the part of individual states. Thus the commitment to integration was always conditional on maintaining the sovereignty and integrity of the state, even paradoxically when the state was sharing some of its sovereignty. In this case, Burke’s comment on the dialogue of the deaf has some strength and Milward’s work has not been assimilated into the mainstream of integrationist studies, even though no alternative explanation has been provided. The richness of Milward’s contribution is that he has worked assiduously in the archives of a number of states in Europe, but also provided an alternative theoretical approach to the question that is plausible.
The writing of contemporary history is in an early phase in Ireland. The articles published in this issue seek to extend and deepen the understanding of major themes that have their origin in the period since 1959. The aim is to contribute to an historical understanding of the recent past and to establish where possible what is distinctive about the period. In broad terms the articles adopt Milward’s strategy of engaging with the existing literature and testing it against the archival record in its broadest sense. In doing so, the intention is to provide a more robust and persuasive narrative for a period that is now the object of historical research.
 ‘Theses on Irish history completed in Irish universities, 2009’ Irish Historical Studies XXXVII: 146 (2010), pp. 293-5 illustrates some recent work in the field.
 ‘Ireland since 1966: New Perspectives’ UCD, 11 November 2010. The conference was organised with the support of the UCD School of History and Archives and the Department of Politics, University of Glasgow.
 The editor would have wished to include articles on the Irish media and Irish membership of the EEC, but space restricted the number of articles that could be included and some potential authors were unable to contribute due to other commitments.
 Roy Foster, Luck and the Irish (London, 2007), p. 3
 Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (London, 1970), p. 242; nor did the passage of time lead to a re-evaluation of these views, idem; The New Nature of History (London, 2001)
 Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1967; original ed., 1964), pp. 1-20
 Peter Catterall, ‘What (if anything) is distinctive about contemporary history?’ Journal of Contemporary History 32: 4 (1997), pp. 441-52; Brian Brivati, Julia Buxton and Anthony Seldon (Eds.) The Contemporary History Handbook (Manchester, 1996)
 Kristina Spohr Readman, ‘Contemporary History in Europe: From mastering national Pasts to the Future of Writing the World’ in Journal of Contemporary History 46: 3 (2011), pp. 506-30
 First class examples of this genre include Fintan O’Toole, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: The Politics of Irish Beef, (London, 1995); Stephen Collins, The Power Game: Fianna Fáil since Lemass (Dublin, 2000); Justin O’Brien, The Arms Trial (Dublin, 2000); Fintan O’Toole, Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic (London, 2010)
 Brian Nolan, Philip J. O’Connell and Christopher T. Whelan (eds.), Bust to Boom? The Irish Experience of Growth and Inequality (Dublin, 2000); Tony Fahey, Helen Russell and C. T. Whelan (Eds.) Best of times? The Social Impact of the Celtic Tiger (Dublin, 2007); Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh, Days of blue Loyalty: The politics of membership of the Fine Gael party (Dublin, 2002); Brian Girvin and Gary Murphy (eds.) Continuity, change and Crisis in Ireland: New Perspectives, Research and Interpretation special issue: Irish Political Studies 23: 4 (2008)
 R. G. Collingwood, ‘Can Historians be Impartial’ in R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History and other writing in philosophy of history (Oxford, 1999), pp. 209-18; J. J. Lee, Ireland: 1912-1985 (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 511-62; Foster, Luck and the Irish; Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000 (London: 2004); Paul Bew, Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 486-555
 Foster, Luck and the Irish, p. 1
 Jan Palmowski and Kristina Spohr Readman, ‘Speaking Truth to Power: Contemporary History in the Twenty-First Century’, in Journal of Contemporary History 46: 3 (2011), pp. 485-505
 Kristina Spohr Readman, ‘Contemporary History in Europe’, pp. 506-30
 History and Memory, first published in 1989, remains the main journal for the examination of this interaction.
 A survey of Irish Historical Studies for this article found that out of 134 articles published since 2000 not a single one directly focussed on the period since 1959, though three did continue discussion of their theme into the 1960s. This is not significantly different from other history journals; Spohr Readman, ‘Contemporary History in Europe’, pp. 510-11
 Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History, p. 12
 It is not my intention to defend this classification in detail and it is quite possible that alternatives can be provided.
 T. E. Hachey, ‘Introduction’ in T. E. Hachey (ed.) Turning Points in Twentieth-Century Irish History (Dublin: 2011), pp. 1-3
 Fergal Tobin, The Best of Decades: Ireland in the 1960s (Dublin: 1984); Brian Girvin and Gary Murphy, ‘Whose Ireland? The Lemass Era’ in Brian Girvin and Gary Murphy (Eds.) The Lemass Era: Politics and Society in the Ireland of Seán Lemass (Dublin: 2005), pp.1-11; for a recent critical reinterpretation of Lemass and his influence Bryce Evans, Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator (Cork: 2011), pp. 207-59
 Enda Delaney, ‘Modernity, the past and Politics in Post-War Ireland’, in Hachey, Turning Points in Twentieth Century Irish History, pp. 103-18; Brian Girvin, ‘Continuity, Change and Crisis in Ireland: An Introduction and Discussion’ in Irish Political Studies 23: 4 (2008), pp. 457-74
 Lemass International Forum, Royal Irish Academy 23 June 2009; the programme included academic papers and round tables that discussed Lemass’s influence and how this could be mobilised to meet the economic crisis that Ireland faced. The programme was extensively reported, Irish Times, 24 June 2009; Irish Independent, 24 June 2009
 Robert Savage, A Loss of Innocence? Television and Irish society 1960-72 (Manchester, 2010); Michael J. Geary, An Inconvenient Wait: Ireland’s Quest for Membership of the EEC 1957-73 (Dublin, 2009); Martin Wall, ‘Ireland and the European Economic community, 1973-1977: A Small State and European Integration’ (Ph.D., thesis, National University of Ireland, Cork, 2011)
 Heinrich Böll, Irish Journal (Evanston, Illinois: 1994), pp. 121-27
 John Horgan, Seán Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot (Dublin, 1997), p. 225
 Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party Minutes 11 June 1941 (U.C.D.A., P176/440)
 John A. Murphy, Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Dublin: 1975); F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine(London, rev. ed., 1973), pp. 559-694
 The papers of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Patrick Hillery and Garret FitzGerald, for instance, are held by UCDA.
 Hachey, ‘Introduction’, p. 3; Peter Catterall, ‘What (if anything) is distinctive about contemporary history?’ Journal of Contemporary History 32: 4 (1997), pp. 441-52, appeals for a more flexible understanding of sources and a serious questioning of official ones, p. 447;
 Peter Burke, ‘Overture. The New History: Its Past and its Future’ in Peter Burke (Ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (2nd ed., Oxford, 2001), pp. 1-24; Geoffrey Roberts (ed.) The History and Narrative Reader (London, 2001) explores most aspects of this debate within the philosophy of history.
 Peter Burke, ‘History of Events and the Revival of narrative’ in Roberts, The History and Narrative Reader, pp. 305-19
 Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin (London, 2009); Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party (Dublin, 2009)Anne Stopper, Monday at Gaj’s: The Story of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (Dublin, 2006); ICA papers are available in the NLI.
 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Alters: Traditional religion in England c1400-c1580 (London, 2005); Wayne P. Te Brake, Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics 1500-1700 (London, 1998)
 Brivati, Buxton and Seldon, The Contemporary History Handbook, pp. 383-436
 There is very limited access for research purposes to RTE’s film archive; however its written archives are currently being transferred to UCDA.
 John Horgan for instance collected a considerable archive of interviews for his biography of Seán Lemass and has made it available to researchers.
 Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader (London, 1998)provides multiple insights into this complex area; see also Gwyn Prins ‘Oral History’ in Burke, New Perspectives on Historical Writing, pp. 120-56; Alison Winter, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (Chicago, 2012) for a sceptical view.
 Noël Browne, Against the Tide (Dublin, 1986); John Horgan, Noël Browne: Passionate Outsider (Dublin, 2000); Correspondence between Conor Cruise O’Brien, Brendan Corish and Browne adds a further corrective to the original memoir (U. C. D. A. Conor Cruise O’Brien Papers P82/209-15); Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life: An Autobiography (Dublin, 1991); Gemma Hussey, at the Cutting Edge: Cabinet Diaries, 1982-1987 (Dublin, 1990)
 Developments in the field of computing and history can be followed in the International Journal of the Humanities and Arts Computing (formerly History and Computing)
 Peter Burke, History and Social Theory (Cambridge, 2005 2nd ed.), pp. 1-20.
 This discussion can be traced in Roberts, The History and Narrative Reader, pp. 69-140
 Desmond Dinan, ‘The Historiography of European Integration’ in Desmond Dinan (Ed.) Origins and Evolution of the European Union (Oxford, 2006), pp. 297-324
 A. S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State (London, 1992); A. S. Milward, F. M. B. Lynch, Federico Romero, Ruggerio Ranieri and Vibeke Sørensen, The Frontiers of National Sovereignty: History and Theory 1945-1992 (London, 1993)
 Historians favourable to European integration as a political project find it difficult to accommodate Milward’s research as it undermines a normative belief in the inevitability of European integration; see Wolfram Kaiser and Antonio Varsori (Eds.), European Union History: Themes and Debates (Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2010); for a sympathetic assessment of Milward’s historiography see F. M. B. Lynch and Fernando Guirao, ‘The Implicit Theory of Historical Change in the Work of Alan S. Milward’ EUI Working Papers HEC 2012/01 (Florence, 2012)