Picking a fight over the rights and wrongs of our history
John Regan’s essays are marred by questionable sources, repetition, pretension and invective
Questioned: Michael Collins in 1922. Photograph: Walshe/Getty
Myth and the Irish State
Irish Academic Press
John Regan’s first book, The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-36 , from 1999, was an insightful, thoroughly researched analysis of the dilemmas and dynamics of governance during the early years of the Irish Free State. In the 15 years since then Regan has been particularly preoccupied with challenging fellow historians on their approach to the history of the revolutionary period 1916-23, especially the year 1922.
This book brings together articles and reviews he has published in this area, all but one of which have been previously published in history journals. To describe them as provocative would be an understatement. Regan presents himself as a crusader uncovering the politically driven research agendas of historians and political scientists. He accuses them of a deliberately selective use of evidence in writing about the history of the revolutionary period as a response to the impact of the Northern Ireland Troubles from the late 1960s. Too many scholars of this period, he maintains, have not written freely about the past “much as they find it” but “constructed, sometimes knowingly, at other times unwittingly, a new foundation myth for the Irish state”.
At the core of the myth is the idea that the battle for political and military supremacy in 1922, at the time of the Civil War, was between republican dictators and pro-Treaty democrats. Three themes in this regard are focused on repeatedly, to the point of tedium: the June 1922 general election, which Regan argues did not deliver as clear a mandate for the pro-Treaty side as has been maintained; Michael Collins briefly presiding over what “closely resembled a military dictatorship” in April 1922; and the threat of British force or war that same year, which he insists has been either downplayed or ignored by many historians. In the midst of all this, it seems, is an ego hurting; Regan’s conclusion in relation to military dictatorship in 1922, he complains, “has been met with marked indifference” from professional and amateur historians.
It is a book that, to the author’s credit, raises serious questions about the impact of the Troubles on history writing and the challenges of sources and proof. But his approach is problematic in numerous ways. Regan’s admission that it was not “even remotely a planned book” is not only a curiously arrogant start but also explains the extreme repetition. Because each of the journal articles as it was sequentially published had to state his case afresh, the reader is faced with the same arguments, incidents and details in most of the chapters.
The tendentious tone and assertions sometimes allow Regan the conspiracy theorist to win out over Regan the historian. He is, it seems, determined to prove that he is the smartest boy in the history class and adopts a stance that is too often imperious and condescending. His prose style is frequently turgid and pretentious; there is too much preoccupation with “teleology”, “unhistoricity”, “digestible binary orders” and “paradigms”. Ironically, in seeking to liberate history from the academic myth-makers for the benefit of the public, his writing is often patronising and snobbish, as he crafts inaccessible jargon. Another problem is that in accusing others of elision, evasion and ignoring vital sources, he elevates alternative sources to a status they may not merit.
His argument that “where patterns of omission occur and are repeated, explanations not relying wholly on chance must be sought” is undoubtedly true. He convincingly demonstrates that Collins’s devotion to constitutionalism in 1922 has been exaggerated. Collins was commander in chief of the national army at the same time as he was president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and Regan declares it cannot be claimed with certainty that “the Treatyite regime was independent of the IRB executive”. It is, however, “impossible to say” how much power the IRB had.
Regan sees a deliberate conspiracy in the refusal of other historians to refer to a memoir deposited in the UCD archives in 1974 that suggests Collins planned for the IRB to remain active. In August 1922, by vetoing demands to have parliament meet, Collins also transferred executive powers to the military command. The lack of legal relationship between the Treatyite government and the army during the Civil War was another anomaly.