''Great hatred, little room/Maimed us at the start," wrote W B Yeats in 1931. Historians have long been preoccupied by the contrast between Yeats's grand cultural vision and the petty and profound corruptions of post-independence Ireland. With IRA violence clouding judgements on matters such as the War of Independence and the validity of 1916, narratives of Ireland have often read like morality tales.
Diarmaid Ferriter's vast new history self-consciously inhabits the post-ceasefire world. This is Ireland from below, seen through lives that, throughout a turbulent century, still had dinner at lunchtime. Here you will find insanity and sex, pensions and property developers, tribunals and travellers, medicine and economic migrants, lots more sex, plenty of drugs, some sport, and a little rock'n'roll. Synthesising a huge range of monographs, journalism, literary and political memoirs and Dail debates, the book provides a kind of historical X-ray to reveal the social skeleton beneath the often dramatic political flesh.
Ferriter is not detained by questions of Irish identity, nor inhibited by terminology: Britain was a "coloniser" incapable of understanding Ireland's needs; 1916 "forced the increasing democratisation of Irish life which British governments had prevented". Instead, Ferriter places political events within the context of a complex mesh of social, cultural and economic history. With a keen eye for the killer quote, he shows what "ordinary people" felt living in a society dominated, but not wholly defined, by Catholicism. He draws conclusions not from public ideologues, but from the private confusions of individuals, such as the woman who left the church for two years when she discovered that priests and nuns used the lavatory.
In addition, Ferriter makes compelling use of recently released documents from the Bureau of Military History. These are statements from rank and file participants in the revolutionary events of 1913-1921: the men and women who wanted to kill, not die, for Ireland. Sincere and ruthless, they could not have existed, Ferriter claims, without a significant degree of public support.
One is forced to ask if the same could not be said of the violence in some of the book's most moving and important passages: the accounts of children in the "industrial schools" run by the Christian Brothers, and the experiences of young mothers in the "Magdalene laundries" run by nuns. Here, unmarried young women were imprisoned and exploited, some for having children out of wedlock, some because they had been raped.
Such terrible stories are made even more affecting when Ferriter directly implicates the state. In 1968, for example, a Fianna FaIl minister, Brian Lenihan, visited one of the most notorious industrial schools. Made aware of the weekly beatings, his response was: "Get me out of this fucking place." In 1999, 40,000 former inmates of the industrial schools were alive. Their experiences, and the degradations of the Magdalene laundries, are an indelible stain on the political and religious institutions that tolerated this systematic abuse.
Ferriter has a sneaking regard for moments when traces of "the nation", the people as a community, become visible. This will irritate some, but reassure others, especially lovers of the Gaelic Athletic Association (described as having the "athleticism of the ancient Greeks"). The book has an appealingly unsolemn pride in Irish distinctiveness. The treatment of Northern Ireland is analytical, not prescriptive. For the plain people of Southern Ireland, Ferriter says, unification has never been a priority. It is hard not to feel that Northern affairs are occasionally tagged on to the main body of the narrative. When a social statistic for the "Irish consumer" appears, for instance, it always refers to the Southern Irish consumer.
This is symptomatic of the book's two major ambitions. Ferriter rehabilitates words such as "freedom", "liberation", "justice", "difference" - which Joyce classed as "those big words that make us so unhappy". Like Sinn Fein, they have become part of the Dublin mainstream, remnants of a past that is neither disavowed nor revered. By showing that these words do not belong to the Provos, that they have a future as well as a past, Ferriter credits his Irish readership with a discriminating political maturity.
The book also aims to fill the general intellectual gap created by the demise of Catholicism and nationalism as explan- atory categories. Between 1994 and 2000, a thousand jobs were created every week in the Republic. Neither the nationalist Patrick Pearse nor the Pope could provide answers to the social issues raised by such precocious economic growth. But Ferriter realises that nationalism and Catholicism did, theoretically at least, try to address questions pertaining to human dignity. By attending to accounts of the marginalised and excluded, Ferriter's prodigious energy tries to show that a liberal, humanist or, whisper it, a socialist alternative can set itself similar goals. It is a task he carries off admirably. The Transformation of Ireland is a major achievement.
Ray Ryan is the author of Ireland and Scotland: literature and culture, state and nation 1966-2000 (Oxford English Monographs)