Review of Mary Kenny’s The Way We Were

Mary Kenny’s The Way We Were provides a unique insight into a particular perspective on Irish history. One which relies on the selection of historical fact to meet a very specific modern aim: absolving the Catholic Church and the Irish State of their responsibility for various events in Irish history, and pushing a right wing agenda.

Kenny’s argument is clear from the outset. She believes that on the whole the Catholic Church was a positive force in Irish history. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, such a thesis is not totally adequate for a serious historical study. Nor, of course, would it be acceptable for any of us to publish a book with the express aim of proving that the Catholic Church was an overall harmful force in 20th century Ireland. History requires provable arguments, and we do not, as Kenny implies, sit around conspiring to slander the Church.

As a historian it can be difficult to read The Way We Were without just a touch of annoyance. Kenny claims from the outset to be “chippy about academics who dwell in ivory towers with security of tenure who have never had to get down and dirty in the marketplace”(12). Outside of demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of the academic job market Kenny’s comments throughout show a disdain for our profession. Moreover, on a number of occasions Kenny breaks one of the cardinal rules of our profession: claiming that something has never been examined in history when it absolutely has. This is perhaps most glaring in her profile of Frank Duff who she at once claims has never been given serious historical attention while drawing almost exclusively upon The Dictionary of Irish Biography and Finola Kennedy’s book on Duff in her analysis. This makes it all the harder to take seriously Kenny’s claims that she is doing the work of a true historian.

These claims range from the banal — Ireland’s lack of participation in the Second World War might have slowed the progress of women’s rights — to the reprehensible — Ann Lovett was at least somewhat responsible for her own death because she participated in underage sex. But what they have in common is that they are all framed in such a way as to make points about the present, not the past. Kenny revels in drawing comparisons between historical events and the current climate. She compares the Irish revolution to Brexit and is especially fixated on “cancel culture”, arguing that “The censorships of yesteryear have been replaced by the intolerances and ‘cancelling’ of today.”(356) On the travel writer Honor Tracey — whose work, significantly, was deemed offensive in the past — Kenny wonders if “she might be subjected to more public censure were she publishing today…(Censorship doesn’t always go away – it just shifts ground!)” (106)

The narrative of The Way We Were flows not from its sources, but from modern, right-wing fixations, imposing the dog whistles of the modern far right on Ireland’s history. She states multiple times that the success of the early Irish State was due to its “Homogeneity”. This could seem innocuous enough until Kenny begins a treatise on white birth rates in the book’s second half. This, coupled with her discussion of George Soros’s purported involvement with the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment, vague but consistent references to paedophiles in her discussion of the marriage equality referendum, and her approving allusion to a series of right-wing figures throughout the book, makes The Way We Were at times read less like a Christmas bestseller, and more like a script for The Sean Hannity Show.

What is most insidious about all of this is that throughout Kenny attempts to retain an air of plausible deniability. Not unlike Joe Rogan, Kenny does not necessarily state that the views she is presenting are her own. Rather she claims to be merely putting forward ideas, airing both sides. She refuses to point blank say she is against abortion, or homosexuality, or multiculturalism in Ireland. She simply lays out a set of “facts” and frames them as inarguable historical truth.

Much of Kenny’s argument is predicated on the idea that historical events must be viewed in the context of their own time or, to phrase it more succinctly, that “that’s just the way it was”. This approach is not uncommon, but in all cases it misses the nuances of the past and assumes a homogeneous set of values and opinions amongst our objects of study. Outside of being too simplistic, in the hands of someone with an agenda like Kenny’s it can be outright dangerous. Because in her case, and in the case of many of those who share her ideology, it’s not just that she wants to brandish this as an excuse to absolve her forebears of responsibility for their actions. Rather, it is clear that to some extent Kenny thinks that they were right. This is evident, for instance, in a section in which Kenny lists a series of slurs, almost with glee, and then covers it up by asserting that it’s just to show the reader history. Or when she says that in her day “we didn’t regard a compliment about our seductive appearance in a mini-skirt as an outrage or a micro aggression”(379). The implication being that to critically examine views held by some individuals and groups in the past means that you simply don’t understand history. To understand history, in this formulation, is to passively accept the received wisdom of those who were powerful.

And this is where The Way We Were becomes useful to us as historians. The extent to which our work is political is, and should likely remain, up for debate. But the extent to which political actors wish to use our work for their own ends is not. It is clear from the slashing of departmental budgets and the manipulation of history curriculums abroad that our profession is increasingly embattled. But efforts to use history in order to promote a right-wing or far-right ideology are clearly closer to home than we think. This, coupled with the rise of the far-right in Ireland — most recently evidenced by a series of anti-immigration protests — lends a particular urgency to this issue. The Way We Were provides us an opportunity to get ahead of this threat, to ask where exactly we can, or should, situate ourselves in a battle over Irish history.

Morgan Wait is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Dublin working on drug use and Irish society in the late 20th century. She recently completed her PhD which looked at the history of women and television in Ireland during the 1960s. She has published work in Alphaville Journal on women’s programmes in Ireland. She has also published in outlets such as RTÉ Brainstorm and Critical Studies in Television Online. She holds a PhD and an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin and a BA from Salisbury University.