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
It is also salutary to be reminded of the ominous implications of tracts like Aodh de Blacam’s What Sinn Féin Stands For (1921), announcing that parliamentary democracy was “played out” and “centralised and ironhanded authority” the obvious revolutionary future (European parallels, again). But “the Movement” was far more than the sum of its few theoreticians, and Townshend’s account gives full consideration to the attempt at protosocialist theory, the revival of agrarian radicalism, and the decisive contribution of women (which appalled some of their patriarchalist colleagues, as well as their opponents). These were not the least of the elements in the visionary “republic” that were trumped by the increasing Catholicisation of the movement, culminating in the powerful influence wielded by the church during the traumatic break-up after the Treaty.
Throughout, the book charts the implicit tensions as well as the symbiosis between the cultures of Sinn Féin (several of whose leaders clung to the “passive resistance” policy till a very late stage) and the revived Volunteering movement , which became the IRA. The rich sources of the Bureau of Military History enable Townshend to profile the structure of the army in far more detail than before. He pinpoints the importance of an elective officer corps and analyses how far it can be seen as a citizen militia – as well as the variable nature of its organisation from place to place, and the complex relationship with the IRB. The structures of the “invisible state” manipulated through Dáil Éireann are brilliantly conjured up – and the fact that it was held together by a belief in the importance of oaths and abstractions, as well as the organising genius of Collins (“a finance minister with the unusual advantage of also running a death squad”).
The book is divided into four long sections; 100 pages deal with the events of 1920, highlighting the tenacity, imaginative panache and occasional spectacular success of the “self-created, self-justifying militia” that was the IRA. This is patterned against the vital activity of the desk men at GHQ – many of whom, such as WT Cosgrave, would wield far more influence in the new state than the “gunmen”. Townshend also gives more credence to the power of the Dáil courts than sceptics such as David Fitzpatrick and Peter Hart, not least in “preventing the eruption of general gang warfare or vendetta”.
The British responses to the republican challenge, notably the drafting of the Black and Tans, and Lloyd George’s often feckless analysis, receive particularly caustic treatment. (How different would things have been if full dominion status had been offered at the start of this period instead of at the end?) While Townshend’s military binoculars rake authoritatively across the country as a whole, there is a chilling section dealing with intimidation and reprisal in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, as a “representative example”. This is the kind of analytical detail that vindicates the great length of the book, and prevents it becoming a catalogue of “raids and rallies”.
Much more could be said of Townshend’s exemplary and forensic treatments of iconic and terrible events such as Bloody Sunday, the Kilmichael ambush, as well as the running themes of military-political tensions, the propaganda war, and the uncertain status of Dáil elections; there is also a carefully considered discussion of intracommunity antagonisms and intimidations in Co Cork that, with any luck, might be taken as the last word on that controversial subject. His account of the Treaty negotiations and the response to them is lapidary but electric. In the end it comes back to forms of words. The fact that “the Republic” had never really been defined left it, so to speak, up for grabs. Fifty years ago Erhard Rumpf posited that attitudes towards the Treaty were principally dictated by “temperament” (a more analytical concept than it may sound); Townshend takes this further, returning to the difference between those for whom Ireland was “an abstraction” and those who saw it as “a population” (and a population that was overwhelmingly pro-Treaty at that). But he also shows the importance of calculations based on expectations that never came to pass (such as Partition not lasting, or Collins managing to get a neorepublican constitution past the British in 1922).