A broader picture of 1922

THIS book is to be warmly welcomed, and should be read by a wide audience north and south of the border

THIS book is to be warmly welcomed, and should be read by a wide audience north and south of the border. Combining the methodologies of the political scientist and the historian, Dr Garvin explores the crowded events of 1922/1923 in a comparative international context.

His work has the added virtue of making academic discussion accessible, and the personalities of the period - many neglected by scholars - stand out in stronger relief, as when he cites Ernest Blythe, allegedly quoting Kevin O'Higgins, remarking in late 1921: "That crooked Spanish bastard will get the better of that pastyfaced blasphemous fucker from Cork." There is no mistaking who is being referred to in that quote, even if the source is more than just a little tentative.

The author shows no sympathy for the "early" Eamon de Valera (or for the later one, either), whom he describes as the "ultimate Free Stater" after coming to power in 1932. He was even prepared to admit in private to his son, Vivian, that "when we got in and saw the files ... They [Cumann na nGaedheal] did a magnificent job, Viv. They did a magnificent job." Garvin concludes that de Valera kept his intellect private and his rhetoric public; Ireland had paid dearly for that particular spiritual partition, he concludes. But that could be misleading.

There has been a tendency in some historical writing and in political rhetoric to invest de Valera with far more authority and prestige than was the case in the wake of the Treaty split. He is wrongly depicted as being the chess master. This is to project backwards the great moral authority which de Valera, albeit a 1916 commander, gained after coming to office in 1932. Nominal president of the "republic", he was, as Garvin points out, a prisoner of the IRA after the outbreak of civil war. This was not his finest hour.


But de Valera was not responsible for the civil war, as the analysis here shows. Nevertheless, a number of unguarded remarks by the author might be interpreted as revealing a certain inconsistency in his position on this matter.

What this book does, to great effect, is bring out the ambiguity towards democracy which characterised the approaches of many members of that independence generation. Much work remains to be done in that area, as on the cleavages within the two sides. It is not sufficient, as Garvin points out - and the above colourful quotation shows - to speak about "two camps". Both Treatyites and anti Treatyites were riddled with division, dissension and personal rivalries.

What may have separated Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera in the latter part of 1921 was not an espousal by the former and a rejection by the latter of a democratic form of government. It was rather the ability of Collins to read the Anglo Irish situation correctly, to act decisively and to confront harsh military realities.

De Valera, meanwhile, dwelt in the realms of theory. His indecisiveness - perhaps even the paralysis of his decision making powers in the early months of 1922 - provided an opportunity for anti democratic "republicans" to resort to the use of arms in order to demonstrate that the majority had no right to do wrong. His actions left many democratic anti Treatyite politicians with no alternative but to join halfheartedly in the fight. De Valera was among the half hearted band of politicians who wished to end the war - particularly after the death of Harry Boland.

Garvin's book does not, as he says, attempt "to set the record straight". His work has the virtue of posing many interesting questions and showing how relatively retarded is research on the Irish civil war period. There is a need for detailed local studies. There is also a need to write a day by day study of the role of de Valera and other leaders for the period of the civil war. But spare us, as Garvin does, any, voyeuristic concentration on private lives.

While Garvin has produced an other fine piece of original scholarship, there is one in explicable omission - not a single mention of the Labour leader, Tom Johnson, in the index. Unlike many of his generation he was - unlike some other members of the Labour Party - never a member of the "public band" of "antiTreatyites". In a book about the foundation of Irish democracy, the thinking and the actions of that unequivocal democrat were due a major part, or, at the very least, an entry in the index. Labour must wait. That will be attended to, I hope, in the second edition, as will, I am sure, the practice of conflating footnotes and leaving some quotes in the text without their own citation.

That apart, this is the best book I have read on the civil war in Ireland.