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


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.

Grand narrative
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.

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”).

Imaginative panache
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).

Vivid witness
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.

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