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
Towards the end he quotes Ernie O’Malley, that most vivid of witnesses: “Fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice.” But Townshend characteristically adds that the very process dismissed by O’Malley “might be taken as a definition of political action”. In the early summer of 1923, after a civil war more traumatic than anything that had preceded it, the hostilities came to an end without negotiations. “The Republic simply melted back into the realm of the imagination.” But in Ireland the imagination remained, as many observers noted during these extraordinary years, a domain exercising its own reality. The achievement of this magisterial and essential book is to recognise this aspect of “temperament”, and anchor it in the world of actuality.
The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend, is published by Allen Lane, 536pp, £25
Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. His book The Vivid Faces: making a revolution in Ireland 1890-1923 will be published by Penguin next year.