Historian clears path through fog of war
Charles Townshend, equally at home with wars of words as with weapons, has written the indispensable account of the Irish revolution
Repuclicans man a barricade in Dublin. Photograph: Walter Doughty / Manchester Guardian
Anti-Treatyite Paddy Rigney on the roof of the Four Courts, Dublin, 1922. Photograph from ‘Revolution in Dublin: A Photographic History 1913-23’ by Liz Gillis (Mercier Press, €15.99)
The bodies of IRA leader Sean Treacy (left) and British intelligence officer Francis Christian lie on Talbot Street, Dublin, in 1920. Photograph from ‘Revolution in Dublin: A Photographic History 1913-23’ by Liz Gillis (Mercier Press, €15.99)
In 1975 Charles Townshend’s first book, a deceptively slender volume called The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-21, set a benchmark for studies of the Irish revolution (as the events of 1912-22 were not yet called). Quarried from archival sources and employing insights from the developing genre of “war studies”, it examined the Anglo-Irish war in a new manner: laconic, sceptical, realistic and unflinching. It took the “Old IRA” seriously, in a new way.
Since then Townshend has produced a stream of brilliant books on war in the Middle East and elsewhere, but Ireland has dominated, notably in his classic Political Violence in Ireland (1983) and his magisterial study of the Easter Rising eight years ago. His contribution to modern Irish historiography has been immense and unparalleled.
His new book returns to the subject that first made his name, at much greater length and covering a wider span, but the Townshend trademarks are there: a beautifully crafted style, uncompromising judgments (sometimes inserted stiletto-style after an overblown quotation), erudition lightly worn and an unforced clarity throughout. This is a historian to go tiger-shooting with (and you could also trust his choice of weaponry, since he writes about Thompson sub-machine guns, “Howth Mausers” and Mills bombs with an affectionate familiarity). But, as the title suggests, his new study is equally at home with abstractions, and wars about words. It should become the indispensable account of the five not-always-glorious years that preceded independence.
To assume that the creation of the Free State brought “independence” is, of course, debatable. The notion and definition of a “republic”, and the feasibility of attaining it, lie at the heart of this study: the title hints that it might be read as an interrogative response to Dorothy Macardle’s venerable and pietistic The Irish Republic (1937) .
Townshend begins by looking at the inspiration behind the idea of a republic, and its contradictions. He ends with the way it apparently faded from view in the early 1920s, when the concept had become a “rock” in the road, as well as a rock to found one’s irreconcilable faith upon. Throughout, the ideas and tactics propounded by radical but almost-forgotten theorists such as Bulmer Hobson are re-examined, along with the flexibility favoured by Arthur Griffith – posited against what Townshend terms the têtes exaltées, such as Ernie O’Malley and Rory O’Connor. He is interested in the people who were considered important at the time but later lost to history, such as Darrell Figgis or Fr Michael O’Flanagan. He also characteristically expands the perspective by placing Irish ambitions for independence from 1918 in a European context, during the era of dislocation precipitated by the end of a world war and the collapse of ancient empires. Towards the end there is a sober and sobering discussion of the way violence operated in Ireland as compared with central and eastern Europe in the same era, and why Sligo’s experience was not Smyrna’s.
But the main impact of the book lies in its control of grand narrative, and the authoritative but pacy handling of the rush of events. The range of sources embraces the view from the barracks as well as the hillside bivouacs, and also the surprisingly shambolic and irresolute workings of Dublin Castle. Lord French’s regime has never been so bitingly characterised, nor the “mild Orientalism” with which the official mind viewed Ireland. This is balanced by a thoughtful discussion of the psychology of Sinn Féin, following Michael Laffan’s classic analysis of the transformation of the movement in these years: Townshend describes it (after Weber) as a coalition held together by “elective affinity”, which could crumble under stress. Some contemporaries saw it as “millenarian”, an approach that would be tested when the time came for negotiation.