Review: Perspectives for a pathbreaker

Sat, Jan 16, 2016, 03:00


Book Title:
Years of Turbulence The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath


Eds. Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan

UCD Press

Guideline Price:

Michael Laffan’s contribution to the history of the revolutionary period was unique. His pathbreaking studies of the Sinn Féin party, an institution that had been oddly neglected until he took it on, remain essential reading. He also made a significant impression on a generation of University College Dublin students, many of whom assemble to honour him with this collection of essays.

The subjects of their contributions – skirting around, rather than engaging with, the Sinn Féin movement itself – range from pre-war suffragism and the GAA, via the Irish parliamentary party and the IRA to the careers of Bulmer Hobson and Seán Lemass. The editors admit that their collection does not offer a comprehensive treatment of the Irish revolution, or any particular aspect of it, but indicates the sort of themes and approaches currently engaging historians of the period. The “turbulence” in their title indicates how social conflict is coming to occupy as much attention as the old-style “war”.

A glance at these essays raises the question whether the “Irish revolution” was simply a period rather than a process. It is easy enough to identify an Irish nationalist or separatist movement, but identifying an Irish revolutionary movement is much harder. Patrick Pearse’s idea of revolution was potent but imprecise. Kevin O’Higgins’s phrase, “the most conservative revolutionaries of all time”, may have become too famous, but there is general agreement that the Fenian tradition was revolutionary only in the sense of aiming at a violent transfer of power, not a social transformation. Radical revolutionaries of the stamp of Larkin and Connolly were thin on the ground in 1916, and the Labour leaders who followed them were models of cautious rectitude. The Sinn Féin seizure of power was carried through with some circumspection and a surprising amount of the vocally denounced British state structure survived into the post-1922 polity.

Revolutionary programme

Irish-Irelandism was a revolutionary programme, but though cultural nationalism had political separatist implications, the connection was not direct or unambiguous. (Douglas Hyde, who kicked off the campaign of “de-Anglicisation” and founded the Gaelic League, was a unionist.)

The GAA was likewise potentially, but not directly, revolutionary in political terms. The essay by Paul Rouse and Ross O’Carroll on the 1915 hurling final provides a thoughtful analysis of the GAA’s political posture and the inconsistencies it generated, such as its unexpectedly unsupportive relationship with the Irish Volunteer movement. As we see here, the GAA’s hostility to rugby was absolute, yet it would be hard to say exactly what was at stake for national identity in its long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against it. Not much, most people might now think, when Ireland has become a major force in the sport.

Republicanism itself has never been easy to pin down. David Fitzpatrick long ago characterised the republic as an empty vessel into which each person poured their own dreams, and it has not proved easy to improve on this perception. Fenians embraced the republican concept above all for its negative quality – the antithesis of the British monarchy – and did not spend much time evaluating the functioning of possible models, such as France and the US.

This neglect came home to roost after the Treaty when people had to decide whether the essence of the republic had been preserved or betrayed. Una Newell’s chapter on Galway starts from Frank Fahy’s pointed question in the Dáil: “Have we been playing at republicanism?”

Hers is the only example here of the local studies that have added so much to our sense of how the revolution felt. It shows how hard it is to draw precise conceptual distinctions. Though she begins by insisting that the Treaty split should not be cast as “a battle between the pragmatists and the idealists”, she later suggests that in the “Pact election” the Galway electorate “voted for pragmatism over radicalism”.

Role of women

Historians are belatedly rediscovering the role of women in the independence movement, and Marie Colman’s chapter on violence against women confronts a sensitive issue that, even more than women themselves, has stayed in the shadows. She skilfully navigates the limited evidence, effectively demolishing the idea that the Black and Tans routinely went beyond crude mistreatment to more serious sexual assaults.

Mistreatment – notably the forcible cropping of hair – was certainly common, but, as she notes, cropping was not inflicted only by the police but also by the IRA on women held guilty of dalliance with policemen or soldiers. Colman’s conclusion is that, in Ireland, “rape was not employed by either side as a weapon of war”.

Newly available sources have, as the editors point out, made it possible to open up many new angles on the revolutionary experience. William Murphy’s use of the 1911 census to analyse women suffragists shows how his subjects can emerge as complex individuals, as he puts it, “even through a medium as apparently limited in its potential to express personality as a census return”.

The little-studied records of the British military courts of inquiry that replaced coroners’ inquests in Ireland in late 1920 enable Ann Dolan to construct a remarkable evocation of the IRA’s executions of “spies and informers”. Diarmaid Ferriter’s preliminary exploration of the Military Service Pensions archive, now in the process of being released, shows how this mass of files can be used not just to refine the detail of conflict, but also to enrich the social history of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s.

The final chapters, on Bulmer Hobson and Seán Lemass, allow biographical approaches to show they can still hold their own. Tom Garvin uses Seán Lemass as a prism to study the making of a “revolutionary elite”, a process still only approximately understood. After ending up in the GPO during Easter week, Lemass realised that “he had almost unknowingly become part of a movement that would change Ireland for ever”.

He was not alone in this, or in his easygoing ideological stance. If Fianna Fáil was, as he famously dubbed it, “slightly constitutional”, then he himself might be said to be “slightly Gaelic”. In this, he was probably representative of much of the revolutionary movement. His conviction that only through economic progress could Ireland be truly free put him closer to Arthur Griffith than the economically illiterate de Valera, yet he chose to side with the latter.

The UCD Press has produced an appropriately elegant-looking book (though someone should have noticed that the Irish Volunteers were not founded in January 1913), embellished with a well-chosen collection of highly atmospheric, mostly unfamiliar photographs. Bringing together established and new historians, it forms a worthy tribute.

Charles Townshend’s latest publication is a new edition of Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion