A vivid, revealing jail journal

The Republicans lost the Civil War, but they won the battle of words which followed it

The Republicans lost the Civil War, but they won the battle of words which followed it. Peadar O'Donnell, Ernie O'Malley and Todd Andrews are only a few among many opponents of the Treaty whose writings ensured that their side would dominate later images of the conflict. Now these retrospective memoirs are supplemented by a contemporary account: extracts from the diaries of Joseph Campbell, which have been edited by EilΘan N∅ Chuilleanβin.

Campbell was a poet who had been active in the revolutionary movement from its early years, having been present at the foundation of the Irish volunteers in 1913, and who was interned for 18 months during 1922-23. For most of this time he recorded the moods and circumstances of life in Mountjoy and the Curragh, and he did so with humour, rage, frustration, and an eye for detail. He conveyed vividly different aspects of the prisoners' lives - dirt and smells, lice and rats, songs and hunger strikes.

He often recorded their subjects of discussion, which ranged from election results through cock-fights to fantasies about clean beds and fine meals. On one occasion he remarked cryptically: "I talked of bees - Parthenogenesis etc, etc."

His comments on his contemporaries on both sides of the Treaty divide can sometimes be revealing, and his diaries display the bitterness which many republicans felt at what they saw as the Free State's betrayal of the abstract Republic. He admired the faith of "deep, simple Russian-like Western lads" who seemed to believe implicitly in the idea of Cathleen N∅ Houlihan. The entries printed here (less than one fifth of the total) would seem to indicate that, although born in Belfast, he shared the republicans' apparent lack of concern with the question of partition. Yet the selection may not be fully revealing, and the one serious reference to his native Ulster appears in a diary extract which is mentioned only in the introduction.


At times he regarded his Free State enemies as being even more loathsome than the British. The deaths of Griffith and Collins he saw as a "miraculous interposition of providence", and he felt no regret at the destruction of the archives in the Public Record Office, "documents validating spoliation & conquest". The Catholic Church and the Labour movement were condemned, and among Ireland's various enemies he even listed the Irish people themselves. By exalting "Ireland" at the expense of her inhabitants he was representative of many anti-treaty idealists who could not accept a compromise settlement.

But the diaries also reveal Campbell as a rounded figure, a warm-hearted man when (as was normally the case) he wrote about non-political matters.

A dominant theme of his prison writings is his deep love of literature. He saw himself as "a poet first, last and above all", and he read, discussed wrote about literary figures from Pepys and Gogol to d'Annunzio and Yeats - whom he described as "a regular moneygrub".

He wondered whether Pearse had modelled his oratory on Lincoln's style, and he felt that his prison life gave him a new understanding of works such as The Inferno, Lear and De Profundis.

Campbell was convinced of the diaries' historical importance, going to great lengths to conceal them from the searches of his jailers and to ensure that they were smuggled to safety. We can be grateful for these efforts. Almost 80 years after they were written, at least some of his prison writings can now be made available to the wider audience which he had often envisaged during his dreary months among the captives.

Michael Laffan lectures in History in University College, Dublin, and is the author of The Resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn FΘin Party, 1916-1923