Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Sun Feb 17, 2013 9:56 am

Further discussion of Terror in Ireland in RTE’s “Off the Shelf”, with Andy O’Mahony, Martin Mansergh and Ronan Fanning:

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/radioplayer/rt ... 02-2013%3A
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Tue Mar 19, 2013 7:49 pm

Eunan O'Halpin presents an interesting series on TV3, "In the Name of the Republic":
http://www.tv3.ie/3player/show/471/0/0/ ... herepublic

This presents disturbing accounts of "beastly things" done by "moral degenerates", in the words of Sinn Fein's Patrick Sarsfield O'Hegarty, during the WoI and the Civil War. Next Monday's episode deals with Cork, and the grisly doings at the "Sing Sing" crypt.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby thepremier on Wed Mar 20, 2013 1:02 am

michaelcarragher wrote:Dr David Fitzpatrick’s riposte to Dr John Regan’s charges of last year appears in the current issue of History.
...

He goes on to repudiate Dr Regan’s accusation of “a collaborative effort” by “several historians to write a particular narrative of the past, which was ideologically motivated”, and vigorously to reject

the implication … that I and other hitherto independent scholars were induced to conform to some party line in order to strengthen a collective campaign against republicanism (p. 142).

Dr Fitzpatrick bluntly dismisses such implication as conspiracy theory.


In reference to one of the research projects in TCD's Centre for War Studies, there certainly is a collective agenda regarding the portrayal of the War of Independence:

By focussing on both geographical ‘zones’ and also cultures of paramilitary violence, the project aims to achieve the following objectives:

1. overcome a nation-centric approach to paramilitary violence by investigating the trans-national ramifications of the Great War in the short-term aftermath of the conflict (1918-1924)
2. place the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in an international context of paramilitary violence


I.e. a rather ideological agenda, I would argue, one that seeks to depoliticise and decontextualise events.

I assumed that TCD would be involved in that documentary when I heard about it, and I also find it interesting that the War of Independence and the Civil War are deliberately conflated and presented as a single orgy of violence.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Wed Mar 20, 2013 8:38 pm

Hello Premier.

Your concern that “there certainly is a collective agenda regarding the portrayal of the War of Independence” at TCD seems misplaced.

By focussing on both geographical ‘zones’ and also cultures of paramilitary violence, the project aims to achieve the following objectives:

1. overcome a nation-centric approach to paramilitary violence by investigating the trans-national ramifications of the Great War in the short-term aftermath of the conflict (1918-1924)
2. place the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in an international context of paramilitary violence

If this is the aim of TCD’s Centre for War Studies then it is a perfectly laudable one. The centre’s “ideological agenda” would seem to be nothing but the professionalism one expects from a university, and rather than seeking to “decontextualise events”, as you say it is, the centre is rather placing those events “in an international context” where they belong.

Our revolution came about in the context of the Great War: the Easter Rising was contingent upon this, and the coarsening and affective-blunting years of violence was a factor in the WoI and Civil War, as was the demobilising of thousands of men with combat experience and no trade but that of war.

It’s important to distinguish between history and heritage. The latter draws from history but is not constrained by its discipline. Indeed, because the purpose of heritage is to create a sense of pride and belonging, it must camouflage or even airbrush out the less wholesome elements of the past. The British are rightly proud of their “Blitz spirit”; but very few of them know about the organised criminality that flourished under cover of the blackout and that is as much a matter of historical record as the heroism and tragedy.

Here in Ireland we have similar elision. The mass-murder of thousands of Protestants in 1641 has been airbrushed from the Nationalist heritage; likewise the more recent massacre at Altnaveigh and others since; but these events are salient in Unionist heritage. Studying history can help both traditions place dreadful events in a broader context and that way bring the traditions closer to reconciliation.

In contrast to this constructive approach fostered by the study of history, problems of the past are exacerbated when one conflates heritage with history, and the problems grow monstrous when one insists that airbrushed heritage is the reality and that factual history must not be allowed to stand in the way of a good national story. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, says the newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; so the man who did the deed is buried in a pauper’s grave to be forgotten, while the imposter goes on to great things.

Many Irish would prefer if TCD would “print the legend”, but historians are not newspapermen (though one or two newspapermen present themselves as historians); they cannot afford to be populist because they’re professional. Professor O’Halpin and his colleagues are pursuing the truth of the past, and if the truth is that your grandfather killed a policeman on his way from Mass, your professionalism demands that you place this uncomfortable fact on record.

Our “nation-centric approach” to the past—the “overcoming” of which you seem to deplore—was what led to the catastrophic miscalculations of a century ago. Had the leaders of 1916, and indeed the leaders of the IPP, studied history they would have known that the Protestants of the North would not bow meekly to imposition of Home Rule from Dublin, far less be intimidated by Hiberno-German violence into an Irish republic.

These Protestants were descendants of the Covenanters; of the border reivers whose loyalty down the centuries was to themselves and to whichever lord or king best served their interests; whose ancestors rowed across the North Channel to Sunday services in the penal days and rowed home after Kirk; whose relatives wrested American independence from Britain; whose husbands, brothers, fathers and sons soon would fight with fists, feet and teeth as far as the fourth line of German defences on the first day of the Somme, three and even four lines farther than most other assaulting units reached (north of the river, anyway).

These formidable people constituted 20 percent of the island’s population and they would have eaten the innocent likes of Pat and Willie Pearse without salt, bones, boots and all. To imagine that such a sizeable, truculent minority could be intimidated into becoming loyal citizens of an alien polity against their will seems extraordinary, but the people who tried to do exactly this had never studied history but rather had filled their heads with romantic notions concocted by the likes of Roger Casement and Seumas Mac Manus. So they deluded themselves about the inevitability of an impossibility: coercion of the Unionists.

For if you believe, for instance, that the Irish never did harm to any other people, while accepting that our patron saint was brought to our shores in a slave ship, or that “Emmet's failure in Dublin was a more permanent, more far-reaching success than Wellington's triumph at Waterloo” (Mac Manus), then you’re capable of believing anything. And doing anything.

The tragic outcome of such delusion was thousands of deaths and years of misery and bitterness and national impoverishment, permanent partition of the country with sectarian statelets on both sides of the border, and the end of the Nationalist dream of an independent united Ireland. This is the testimony of history.

Heritage, however, would have it that failure was triumph, and that we only need to kill a few more Brits and traitors, whom we’ll know when they’re denounced to us, in order to unite the island in a glorious Republic of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter run by saints and scholars. Not a psychopath in sight.

Professor O’Halpin is the grandson of two IRA men and great-nephew of Kevin Barry. Do you honestly believe, Premier, that he has a sinister agenda in exploring the past in which his relatives played a significant part? Do you think he’s making this series (“In the Name of the Republic”) up? Do you think it gives him pleasure to say that his grandfather shot a policeman on his way from Mass? Do you think he’s lying when he quotes a member of Sinn Fein describing many of the men who were in the same organisation as his grandfathers as “moral degenerates”?

On your last point:
the War of Independence and the Civil War are deliberately conflated and presented as a single orgy of violence

—not so, Premier. Rather, Patrick Sarsfield O’Hegarty is quoted as distinguishing three separate “generations” of Volunteers/IRA, each surpassing the previous in wickedness and depravity.

Let me make plain that I personally do not believe that all of the Volunteers/IRA were “degenerates”—I hope that my great-uncle was one of the good guys—but history reveals that there were evil men among them.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby thepremier on Tue May 28, 2013 8:56 pm

michaelcarragher wrote:Hello Premier.

Your concern that “there certainly is a collective agenda regarding the portrayal of the War of Independence” at TCD seems misplaced.

By focussing on both geographical ‘zones’ and also cultures of paramilitary violence, the project aims to achieve the following objectives:

1. overcome a nation-centric approach to paramilitary violence by investigating the trans-national ramifications of the Great War in the short-term aftermath of the conflict (1918-1924)
2. place the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in an international context of paramilitary violence

If this is the aim of TCD’s Centre for War Studies then it is a perfectly laudable one. The centre’s “ideological agenda” would seem to be nothing but the professionalism one expects from a university, and rather than seeking to “decontextualise events”, as you say it is, the centre is rather placing those events “in an international context” where they belong.


You focused on the "international context". I see the aim to define what is a war against empire as purely an instance of "paramilitary violence". Were Trinity's collective stance towards the War of Independence anything other than Hugh Pollard with an academic gloss, I would probably agree with you, but that particular college (I don't tar everyone there with the same brush, obviously) tends to treat the War of Independence from a counter-insurgency perspective, that is to remove the political context and examine the population's tendency towards violence from various sociological perspectives, and thus seem terribly scientfic. Let me say that I would agree with the objective - the horrors of World War I powerfully affected the nature of the War of Independence in many unpleasant ways, that's not in question - if I believed that the objectivity you impute to Trinity would be present, but I very much doubt from what I have seen that British paramilitary violence will form a part of the agenda.

Our revolution came about in the context of the Great War: the Easter Rising was contingent upon this, and the coarsening and affective-blunting years of violence was a factor in the WoI and Civil War, as was the demobilising of thousands of men with combat experience and no trade but that of war.


Yes.

Many Irish would prefer if TCD would “print the legend”, but historians are not newspapermen (though one or two newspapermen present themselves as historians); they cannot afford to be populist because they’re professional. Professor O’Halpin and his colleagues are pursuing the truth of the past, and if the truth is that your grandfather killed a policeman on his way from Mass, your professionalism demands that you place this uncomfortable fact on record.


I don't think I have advocated "printing the legend", nor populism over professionalism. I don't doubt that TCD serves important aspects of Unionist and Protestant history, and areas that may otherwise have been glossed over. No doubt the state's bailing out of Trinity when it was in dire financial trouble some decades ago (rather than have it unite with UCD which was another option) reflected the need for the history and viewpoint of the minority to be represented.

These Protestants were descendants of the Covenanters; of the border reivers whose loyalty down the centuries was to themselves and to whichever lord or king best served their interests; whose ancestors rowed across the North Channel to Sunday services in the penal days and rowed home after Kirk; whose relatives wrested American independence from Britain; whose husbands, brothers, fathers and sons soon would fight with fists, feet and teeth as far as the fourth line of German defences on the first day of the Somme, three and even four lines farther than most other assaulting units reached (north of the river, anyway).These formidable people constituted 20 percent of the island’s population and they would have eaten the innocent likes of Pat and Willie Pearse without salt, bones, boots and all.

What about the Protestants who weren't loyalists, though? Did they have moral fibre? Would they have cannibalised the Pearses?

To imagine that such a sizeable, truculent minority could be intimidated into becoming loyal citizens of an alien polity against their will seems extraordinary, but the people who tried to do exactly this had never studied history but rather had filled their heads with romantic notions concocted by the likes of Roger Casement and Seumas Mac Manus. So they deluded themselves about the inevitability of an impossibility: coercion of the Unionists.

Roger Casement again! - you're going to have to make your peace with him eventually.

For if you believe, for instance, that the Irish never did harm to any other people, while accepting that our patron saint was brought to our shores in a slave ship, or that “Emmet's failure in Dublin was a more permanent, more far-reaching success than Wellington's triumph at Waterloo” (Mac Manus), then you’re capable of believing anything. And doing anything.


I don't, but thanks for the vote of confidence.

Professor O’Halpin is the grandson of two IRA men and great-nephew of Kevin Barry. Do you honestly believe, Premier, that he has a sinister agenda in exploring the past in which his relatives played a significant part? Do you think he’s making this series (“In the Name of the Republic”) up? Do you think it gives him pleasure to say that his grandfather shot a policeman on his way from Mass? Do you think he’s lying when he quotes a member of Sinn Fein describing many of the men who were in the same organisation as his grandfathers as “moral degenerates”?


Did I say that? I don't think so. However, I do think the claims presented by the filmmakers were entirely unsubstantiated and somewhat disingenuous. Not only that, but they were represented as the results of many years of his research, when a good deal of it (minus the pointless JCB) was contained in Gerard Murphy's book, which has already been heavily criticised in terms of accuracy. Another historian has denounced O'Halpin's claims on the programme as folklore. Professor O'Halpin's bent seems to be towards disproving what he sees as republican mythology. I'm not sure he sees the wood for the trees. Moreover, the issue of civilians shot by the IRA as spies is not some new uncharted territory. It has been dealt with before, and is still being researched from various perspectives.

On your last point:
the War of Independence and the Civil War are deliberately conflated and presented as a single orgy of violence

—not so, Premier. Rather, Patrick Sarsfield O’Hegarty is quoted as distinguishing three separate “generations” of Volunteers/IRA, each surpassing the previous in wickedness and depravity.


Ah O'Hegarty of the I.R.B., civil war propagandist. His views on the moral and mental incapacity of nationalist women are amusing as well. I think he called de Valera a "savage".
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Fri May 31, 2013 12:52 pm

Some interesting points there, Premier.

To clarify a few things first:

In saying “you’re capable of believing anything” I was using the pronoun in its generic rather than strictly personal form. I did not mean that you, Premier, believed MacManus’s stretched accounts.

Roger Casement again! - you're going to have to make your peace with him eventually.


I am not at war with Roger, Premier (any more than with yourself); rather, I admire the man enormously for his work for the Congolese and the Putamayo, and pity anyone whose life was lived in terror of having his active homosexuality exposed, with the loss of career, reputation and liberty that discovery would have entailed. No wonder he sometimes feared going mad.

Any quarrel I have with Roger is less with him than with those who today cite pronouncements that he himself likely would have renounced had he lived. These stem mostly from The Crime Against Europe. His claim here that German militarism “was born, not of wars of aggression, but of wars of defence and unification” is ingenuous: Prussia’s wars against Denmark, Austria and France were all cunningly engineered by Bismarck. And to say that this militarism “has kept peace and has not emerged beyond its own frontier until threatened with universal attack” is an outrageous lie, as Casement, an ardent anti-imperialist, must have known.

Why a decent and humane man should have had such a blind spot I can’t say; but according to Joseph Conrad, who met him in the Congo and liked him, Casement tended to be governed by emotion rather than intellect. If Conrad was correct, and we add to Casement’s emotionalism the passion of the recent convert to Irish independence, then we can see how he swallowed the German line that she had to break the ring of enemies who, out of envy and resentment, and led by Britain, had ganged up against her. Hostile encirclement rather had been Germany’s own doing, of course, not Britain’s, as Casement parroted.

As I say, any animus I have is less for Casement than those who, disingenuously or otherwise, cite him to support the hoary claim that Britain engineered the Great War. I’ve been taken to task by John Dorney, quite properly, for straying off topic into that conflict, so I’ll say no more than that his experiences in Germany seem to have utterly disillusioned Casement and revealed to him how he’d been deceived by his “gallant allies”.

To finish with Casement: I included him in my last posting along with Seumas MacManus less with The Crime Against Europe than “The Romance of Irish History” in mind. This essay opens:

The history of Ireland remains to be written, for the purpose of Irishmen remains yet to be achieved

—and the notion that the history of any country is contingent on the alleged purpose of that country’s inhabitants, that history is somehow determined in advance and moves to complete some sort of grand narrative, is exactly the sort of dangerous absurdity that led people to overlook the actual history of our country and all of its inhabitants.

For by presenting the Unionists in their impressive obduracy I was not making a case for their stance in 1912 and after; rather, I hold with a great many that the Easter rebellion was a logical consequence of the earlier “Carsonite rebellion”, as it was sometimes called even then. My point was that had nationalists a century ago understood real history, rather than been nurtured on simplicities and fairytales, they never could have imagined that the Unionists were bluffing; that the signing of the Covenant in blood was not theatre but pledge to the death; and that there could be no possibility of coercing such a large and truculent population into what they would have seen, quite literally, to be a pact with the devil: government from Dublin—and Rome.

Of course, even as we take issue with their stance, we have to concede that Unionist fears were perfectly justified, when we look at the neo-theocratic bags we made of the place from the Thirties through the Fifties, again in the Eighties, and again more recently. With the sound business acumen that Unionists could have offered, think how different things might have been for everyone. After 1916, though, permanent partition was almost inevitable, and the First Dáil rendered redundant the Council of Ireland, which was to have worked to integrate Northern and Southern Ireland, and removed the last hope of the Nationalist Dream ever being realised.

The tragedy—one of a great many in our sorrowful history, alas—is that the reasonable people, who could see the reality in all its complexity, were dismissed, virulently if not violently so. As the Good Friday Agreement implicitly acknowledged, many decades on, the All-For-Ireland League were the only ones who had things right a century ago. But back then the League’s appeal for “Conference, Conciliation and Consent” was spurned by both sides, the IPP and Catholic Church dismissing any need to negotiate—believing that the Unionists were bluffing, and would back down once Home Rule was implemented—the Unionists adamant that there was nothing to negotiate, and the IRB, in its madness, imagining that not merely the Unionists but the British Empire could be defeated by force of arms.

What about the Protestants who weren't loyalists, though? Did they have moral fibre? Would they have cannibalised the Pearses?


Yes and no—respectively. I was trying to illustrate how Unionists, as distinct from Protestants, constituted a separate community in our island; indeed, a separate constituency rather than community; one that drew its identity partly from religion, partly from political affiliation, but mostly from a cultural tradition, one of “contingent loyalty”. This helps us understand how Unionists could simultaneously proclaim loyalty to the Crown even as they defied HM Government to the point of treason (with the support of HM "lawful" opposition).

But as for Nationalist Protestants: why of course they had moral fibre! In spades! Enough to break with their traditions and their families on top of all other trials and hardships that went with taking the stance they did, out of the noblest of motives, in most cases, I can hardly doubt. I’ve already explained how I feel about Casement, but out of all those terrible years the man above all others, probably, for whom I have the deepest sympathy and admiration is Erskine Childers, who on top of everything else was reviled by the British and distrusted by the Irish. “Moral fibre”? I can only wish to aspire to a fraction of that man’s. You don’t have to agree with a man’s politics to admire his principles.

To move toward the substance of this thread:

I don't doubt that TCD serves important aspects of Unionist and Protestant history, and areas that may otherwise have been glossed over.


Again, we need to be careful not to conflate history with heritage, and the tales that any tradition tells, as I have already pointed out. I don’t share your view that

Trinity's collective stance towards the War of Independence [is that of] Hugh Pollard with an academic gloss

but I think I can see why TCD’s stance might appear so to others.

I have no involvement with the TCD history school, but I suspect that any focus it may have on “a counter-insurgency perspective” might stem from recognition that the “traditional” narrative has been vindicated from the very beginning and that deeper understanding now needs to focus on elements that have been overlooked (“glossed over” as you put it): the very essence of revisionism. No one doubts that the Black and Tans and the Auxilliaries behaved shamefully and outrageously in the course of their deployment; few doubted it at the time: I’ve come across letters and journal entries of Great War veterans and their spouses and siblings, most proud Englishmen and –women, expressing dismay or worse that a friend or neighbour had enlisted in those units. The “traditional narrative” is in place; further research is more likely, in the very nature of publishable research, to modify that narrative. And I feel that a lot of hostility toward revisionism is that its discoveries tend to reinforce fears that the price paid for our independence was too high, when set against what was on the cards without violence.

Another thing is, that as Viktor Frankl put it, there are two sorts of people everywhere: decent and indecent. Frankl found decent men among his concentration camp guards and indecent Jews who shared the horror that he had to endure. Similarly, there were decent men among the Black and Tans, as Tom Barry acknowledges (he does add that the Auxies were “bastards to a man”, but the point is made). Perhaps any agenda that may be behind the TCD history school is to counterbalance the contribution to our history made by decent men like Casement and Childers and the Pearses with what was done by the likes of Martin Corry? “[D]isproving ... republican mythology”, or any other, is no bad thing for an historian to get up to.

I concur with some of what you say about “In the Name of the Republic”, though. Part Two did lean too heavily on Gerard Murphy’s highly disputable claims, and Part One, in its conclusion, undermined its own thesis. The series was no sort of landmark broadcast, and if anything gives credence to Dr John Regan’s criticisms of the TCD school and its alleged pandering to “popular” history.

Perhaps this was its very point? Counterbalancing, in the popular mind, what “everybody knows”? This may be fair enough—but no further than the point where counterbalancing becomes propaganda.

I don’t quite share Dr Regan’s concern—that there is a danger of one politically-engineered consensus being substituted for another—but TCD does need to take care not to add any further credibility to his claim. The confusion of last summer was a disaster for the School, and while I think Professor O’Halpin went some way to make up for that, “In the Name of the Republic” still raises some questions.

As for your concluding observations on PS O’Hegarty: you have the advantage, Premier. I know no more about the man than what “In the Name of the Republic” revealed to me. Your claim that:

His views on the moral and mental incapacity of nationalist women are amusing as well. I think he called de Valera a "savage"

seems to encapsulate the ironic complexity of our revolutionary years. O’Hegarty’s views on women would seem to be congruous with those of the “savage” de Valera, and reflect how revolution always degenerates from idealistic point of departure to indulgence of sometimes-monstrous notions.

“Amusing”? I won’t hold you to the literality of your choice of word, Premier; but how hollowly would Connolly laugh, can you imagine, if he could have foreseen what his sacrifice would lead to?
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby thepremier on Thu Feb 20, 2014 2:44 pm

The current issue of History Ireland has an interesting quote from an article by David Fitzpatrick from Irish Historical Studies (November 2013):
If any campaign of “ethnic cleansing” was attempted, its demographic impact was fairly minor. The spectre of Protestant extermination has distracted debate about revolutionary Ireland for too long, and should be laid to rest. The inexorable decline in southern Protestantism was mainly self-inflicted.

I wonder if he's just being contrary because Eunan O'Halpin has taken up the 'ethnic cleansing' cause.
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Re: Historical Revisionism and the Irish War of Independence.

Postby michaelcarragher on Wed Jun 11, 2014 4:01 pm

Ronan Fanning: Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 (London: Faber and Faber, 2013)

Professor Fanning describes how the high hopes that followed the Irish Parliamentary Party’s becoming kingmakers in the 1910 elections were dashed by violence in the years that followed. This “Violence, or more specifically, the British government’s response to violence, determined the course of the fatal path” that left Ireland and Britain “at cross purposes” (pp. 1, xi), and led to tragedy rather than the peaceful separation that had been so optimistically expected. That path, however, is more complex and convoluted than the one marked on Professor Fanning’s map. His title metaphor is faulty and this weakens his thesis.

In his Introduction Professor Fanning claims that the release of archival material in 1967 may have coloured perception of the latest Troubles that were then about to erupt, and affected historical interpretation of the earlier Troubles: “Political imperatives prevailed, as they invariably do, over historical truth in the revisionist debate that then ensued” (p 3). As a professional historian he is not, of course, hostile to revisionism per se but his point of engagement is that

One of the more unfortunate by-products of the revisionist debate about twentieth-century Irish history is that it legitimises the self-delusions of the intellectual heirs to the constitutional nationalists who had been so resoundingly defeated by the republican revolutionaries

(p 4). Professor Fanning’s concern is to prove that “in high politics ... physical force can prevail over democracy” (p 5), that Republican violence was necessary to separate Ireland from Britain and that it was therefore justified. He fails to prove his case fully but in many regards he does a fine job.

Professor Fanning traces how the Irish Question had so damaged the Liberals that after Gladstone it was decided that cross-party consensus was the best approach. Liberal dependence on the IPP after 1910 meant Home Rule as quid pro quo, but there was never any enthusiasm for this and the notoriously tergiversate Prime Minister Asquith deferred engaging with the conundrum of reconciling Home Rule for Ireland with Unionist determination to resist “Rome Rule” by any means and methods, lawful or otherwise. It was the mere threat of physical force that prevailed “in high politics” and paralysed British democracy, when Unionist determination not to be ruled by Dublin combined with the threat of military mutiny to emasculate the Liberal-IPP coalition.

The Great War defused the danger of not just civil war in Ireland but revolution across the United Kingdom. More significantly, as far as Ireland was concerned, British cross-party co-operation in the wartime coalition sidelined the IPP, restored consensus on the Irish Question, and relegated this to a position of very secondary importance. The Government of Ireland Act, 1914, had however to be implemented after the war; the challenge was how to do this while optimising acceptance of its terms and peacefully transferring power to the Irish.

That this would end in tears was feared from the start. One of the conclusions Professor Fanning’s reader comes to is that Ireland was ill-served by her British friends. Tories may have looked on the Irish as racial degenerates, amiable clowns when not at British throats, but in looking out for their own constituency they benefited Ireland incidentally. “Killing Home Rule with kindness”, in tandem with Sir Horace Plunkett’s Co-op movement, had made Irish smallholders among the most prosperous in Europe in the early twentieth century. The Liberals who followed the Tory years, after they lost their majority, reluctantly agreed to implement a measure that simply could not have met the expectations of the Irish without provoking such reaction, in Ireland and Britain, that civil war, even revolution, might have followed.

Professor Fanning makes this clear; yet he seems conflicted in his analysis. He acknowledges “the nationalist delusion that the partition of Ireland was avoidable” (p 134), and that politics is perhaps less the art of the possible as the essential, given that many times he exposes the necessity of ceding special status to Ulster if disaster is to be avoided; yet he seems to regard the politicians who had to work out the details as the “tamer men” of MacDonagh’s dismissive description. Before 1914 there were fears that frustrating Nationalist expectations could be worse than coercing Ulster—as Asquith acknowledged, “An ungovernable Ireland is a more serious prospect than rioting in 4 counties” (p 81)—but while it’s hardly noble, given that politics is the art of the possible it’s hardly surprising that if one side had to be disappointed any government would seek to appease its larger constituency, which the Conservative-Unionist-Liberal Imperialist bloc unquestionably constituted.

This temptation toward appeasement was sharpened by the Easter Rising, which robbed Nationalists of such sympathy as they had. The eruption of enemy-sponsored violence in wartime, with that enemy in the ascendant, threatened Britain’s very survival, and reinforced support for the Unionists. Worse, the Proclamation’s acknowledgement of “gallant allies in Europe” cast Nationalists as the enemy.

Professor Fanning does not examine the implications, significance and subtleties of Hiberno-German violence, or the differences between it and the threat of Unionist violence. While it is indisputable that “the British government’s response to violence determined the course of the fatal path”, that path was bifurcated up to 1916. The National Volunteers followed from the UVF, but the other route to violence was a separate and much longer one taken by the IRB, who suborned the IVF rump to a course that was not that of the original Volunteers, established to defend Home Rule, not violently break away.

Professor Fanning’s Introduction implies that violent Republican resolution to the demand for independence was inevitable—and, by implication, justified—after armed Unionist defiance, but he fails to prove this because he doesn’t explore what, to stick with his metaphor, we may call “the IRB path”—the truly fatal one. He does demonstrate that the threat of Unionist violence reintroduced the gun into Irish affairs, but this is disputed by no one; it was IRB overt violence in 1916 that ensured the gun was fired; that instigated the Troubles and ensured that separation would not be peaceful. In 1916 the twin trails of the fatal path were conjoined and “rioting in 4 counties” as the lesser of two evils was no longer an option for the government to choose. The IRB saw to that, not the politicians.

A rejuvenated IRB had anticipated the UVF by a decade and its purpose was forceful overthrow of British rule. The Great War gave it opportunity and Unionist defiance appeared to give moral justification for its violence but such justification is spurious. Two wrongs never make a right and none of the three moral requirements for just war were in place in Ireland in 1916. Absent them and one still could justify IRB violence not on moral but pragmatic grounds had it achieved its purpose and had it done so more quickly and better than non-violent methods could have. It didn’t.

The treasonous response to the Third Home Rule Bill remains, of course, an ominous reflection on the substance of British parliamentary democracy and the establishment’s effective veto on this. But there is, related to this ugly development, another substantive difference between the UVF’s threat of violence and the IRB’s delivery of it that Professor Fanning seems to miss, for all that he cites an insightful analysis of the democratic situation:

Parliamentary democracy [ultimately] depends upon a minority accepting majority decisions, and this acceptance in turn depends upon the majority not taking decisions which the minority regards as genuinely intolerable.... Minorities accept majority decisions because they know that these decisions will not be insufferable and because they know that the majority of today will become the minority of tomorrow (pp 119-20).

In this light, the collective UK polity would seem justified in thinking that, in the peculiar electoral circumstances of the time, the Liberals were prostituting democratic responsibility to parliamentary advantage: if they felt they were in the right, why not bring this serious constitutional issue to the country, as they had in 1910? The answer is that they would have lost office had they done so and they and everyone else knew that, so the putative insurgents were not without a case, extra-parliamentary though they threatened to make it and whether one sympathises with them or not. Yet had Asquith gone to the country and lost, Nationalist frustration would also cause trouble, and present equally perplexing democratic challenges.

The Liberal party’s nonconformist conscience began to trouble it. Unionist fears of Rome Rule, as well as political and economic mismanagement that would ruin them, were widely shared across the United Kingdom, by Tories and Whigs alike, and those fears proved well founded. Given the sectarian divide in Ireland, British democrats rightly perceived that there could be no “swing of the electoral pendulum” to ensure democratic balance if Home Rule were extended to all of Ireland: enduring Nationalist hegemony must follow, with Unionists perpetually in the minority.

Since the seventeenth century British parliamentary policy, at home and abroad, had been founded on opposition to hegemony (except, notoriously, in Ireland—though Gladstone set out to remedy that). This opposition had extended to regicide in 1649 and revolution in 1688, and consistent support for the enemies of Continental absolutists. The extra-parliamentary activities of a century ago, across the UK, the willingness to entertain revolution, stem from the threat to bipartisan democracy which all-Ireland Home Rule arguably constituted.

The terrible truth is that there was no possible solution to the Irish Question. The problem was of such complexity that it could only ever be managed; all attempts to “solve” it by violence have always failed and made matters worse. Effective management is founded on good information but instead of checking this we Irish instead consulted our mythology. “Ireland was a nation,” Collins insisted in London. “Every Irishman felt it in himself” (p. 286). To bring such an attitude to a treaty table betrays frightening political naiveté. With such subordination of cold hard fact to warm self-righteous feeling, is it any wonder he and the rest of the delegation were so comprehensively outwitted? Borrowing from Professor Fanning’s Introduction, historical untruths now had prevailed over political imperatives.

In fairness to the delegates, by then the damage was done; but the remarks illustrate how, to borrow from William Faulkner, when people have lost everything, often the last thing they let go of is the thing that has destroyed them. “Raised on song and story”, seduced by the emotive strains of Thomas Davis, the Republicans set out to become “a nation once again”—and foundered on the crushing reef that the island never was, and after the seventeenth century never could be, a unitary nation. Long before Nine-Eleven exposed multiculturalism as the dangerous nonsense that commonsensical people always knew it to be, Ireland was long-suffering evidence that integration is the only possible peaceful way to accommodate outsiders in any country, and by 1910, far less 1921, such integration on a national scale was long impossible.

In the seventeenth century, lessons learned from earlier Angevin and English failures ensured that the Jacobite, Cromwellian and Williamite plantations were on such scale that they must massively displace the native Irish. Of at least equal importance, the new settlers were culturally differentiated by religion; this, for the first time, created an enduring barrier that twentieth-century political massaging of electoral numbers would fail to surmount.

Three centuries on, religious differentiation remained a critical factor. Yet violence was not inevitable. The two sides’ leaders were adamant but their language was “amicable” (p 127). Though there is no doubt the Unionists would have unsheathed it had they had to, rattling the sabre remains in the realm of politics, and Parnell also had deployed the threat of violence toward successful political ends. But unlike his and the Loyalists’ threats of violence, both of which had the backing of a great bulk of the people, IRB violence in 1916 didn’t even have the full support of the IRB.

The UVF was the private army of a powerful political faction. It was highly disciplined, well organised and answerable to political masters who were public figures and directed it toward transparent political ends. The IRB was a small secret society and its rebellion was led by a cabal of dissidents in breach of its own constitution. It deceived its foot soldiers and nominal leaders alike. Its operations were “little short of madness” according to one of its own (WT Cosgrave). It was directed by the dreams of poets and the delusions of dead bards rather than by the strategic considerations of flinty-eyed far-seeing men. The IRB looked for the grand gesture, the Unionists toward the long haul. The Unionists made feasible plans, laid out their demands, and stuck to their guns; the IRB embarked on a fantasy, took aim at the moon, and fired their single-shot rifles. Thus they set anarchy loose on the land.

Also, IRB violence divided Nationalist Ireland, as the threat of Loyalist violence had united Conservative and much of Liberal Britain.

Most fatally for Ireland, IRB violence was in alliance with the country’s declared enemy, and its success was predicated on German victory in the Great War. Even had this come about and Ireland been given independence by a grateful Reich, the Loyalists promptly would have broken away back to Britain. The outcome would have been what it always was going to be: partition; merely different in detail and bloodier than it need have been. Irish violence, and the savage British response to it, washed away the life work of the IPP in a sea of blood, as Dillon so well put it, but that was tragedy, not political failure, one of the uncountable tragedies of that awful war, and the tragedy was Ireland’s. Dr Fanning’s claim that “the revisionist debate ... legitimises the self-delusions of the intellectual heirs to the constitutional nationalists” cannot be sustained after those aspects of violence that he leaves out are factored back in. The effect of the Rising was to create, as Erskine Childers recognised, “the official view of Ireland as a stab-in-the-dark rebellious province” (p 200), which was no help at all at the negotiating table.

This is where every war has to end, and the Republican plenipotentiaries proved a sorry lot. They were “simple”, thought Lloyd George; “they have none of the skills of the old nationalists” (p 278). They “despised politics as the art of the possible” (p 286) and kept demanding the impossible until told off to cop on or go home and prepare for war—real war, “immediate and terrible”. The only “self-delusion” here is not what Professor Fanning sets out to expose.

After seeing what happens when you send gunmen to do a statesman’s job, Professor Fanning’s reader may be forgiven for speculating on how John Dillon and a team of veteran IPP politicians would have done against the Welsh Wizard. Apart from their professionalism and experience in negotiation, rancour and bitterness would have been absent had there been no Troubles and no perceived betrayal, and the IPP would have had its own private army then too: the 10th and 16th Divisions who had gone to war for Home Rule, hard men who’d worn out a lot of khaki rather than virgins in tailored green uniforms. Now former comrades-in-arms, the private armies might have been more reluctant to fight than they would have been in 1914, but both their political leaders could rattle the sabre now, if need be. Partition, in some form and on some terms, was always going to be part of the deal but thousands of deaths, economic ruination, social fracturing, generations of bitterness, a neo-theocracy and decades of impoverishment and mismanagement by political neophytes, ideologues and rogues need not have been. History records that the Unionist fears which prompted extra-parliamentary opposition to Home Rule were fully founded; but it might have recorded otherwise had actual politicians been running the South as they were the North, and had there not been such violent destruction and impoverishment of our country that health and education had to be delegated to the charity of the Catholic Church, with all the democratic deficit and abuse of power, and collusion with that abuse, which stemmed from disaster that could have been avoided.

Professor Fanning condemns partition even as he provides abundant evidence of its inevitability, if not indeed its desirability from the point of view of all but Irish Nationalists. (And even they would find partition easier than governing a million rebellious Protestants.) He claims abandonment of “even the pretence that [the Government of Ireland Bill] could provide for the eventual reunification of the Ireland it was now partitioning”, but this is a contentious interpretation of what he has just quoted Walter Long as actually saying (pp 237-38). Negotiated reunification was provided for in the Council of Ireland, a component of that Bill, and we Irish were again the authors of our own misfortunes in the Border Commission fiasco, which saw that Council handed over to the tender mercies of James Craig. Likewise, by Nationalists’ misguided abstention from the Northern parliament, we permitted the Unionists to abolish the PR system which Westminster had installed to mitigate hegemony in Northern Ireland, evidence that though it certainly buckled under the threat of Unionist violence, the British government tried to deal with the Irish Question as fairly as it could in the end.

Professor Fanning dismisses the Council of Ireland, “a means of enabling Ireland to work out her own salvation”, as “worthy of Pontius Pilate” (pp 207-08). By then any real possibility of unity had been destroyed but the Council was at least a British gesture that might have been substantive had the IRB not tried to impose its will on the Unionists by force of German arms and “proved” Nationalist ill faith. Even still, Unionists took the Council seriously enough to grab control of it as soon as Nationalists fumbled the ball and gave away yet another own goal.

So eager does he seem to be to discount politicians that Professor Fanning can overlook their existence: “Never again [after 18 April 1918] were the elected representatives of Nationalist Ireland to sit at Westminster” (p 175). In fact the IPP rump of the Khaki Election did good work there in drawing attention to British atrocities, thereby embarrassing the government and helping to end a war the party did not start.

Perhaps the most surprising omission from this book is the All-for-Ireland League. As the Good Friday Agreement has been called Sunningdale for Slow Learners, Sunningdale was something of an AFIL for Special Needs, yet the League doesn’t even rate a mention. In examining a period in which Unionist intransigence, Nationalist self-delusion, and governmental cowardice led to national tragedy, the strategy of “conference, conciliation and consent” ought to be at least acknowledged. This strategy was in opposition to the violent course that Professor Fanning argues was inevitable, so examination of the AFIL would undermine his thesis; perhaps his omission isn’t all that surprising.

None of this is to exonerate the British from the tragedy Ireland suffered. They were in charge so responsibility, though not all blame, is theirs. The South finished what “the North began” and the British allowed that to begin, but some jobs are better left undone and this was one of them. If you take on to do something you become responsible for its consequences and you can’t whine, “They made me do it!” after you’ve ruined everything. A political truce was agreed in 1914 so no one forced the gun into Irish hands in 1916. Tom Clarke had been eyeing his chance for years before the North began anything, unknowing or uncaring of the electoral reforms and demographic changes that had made peaceful separation possible by political negotiation. Besides, what the North began delivered what Unionists wanted while what the South finished left the country a wasteland and killed stone dead the Nationalist dream of a united independent Ireland. There is nothing “self-delusional” in thinking that politicians would have done a far better job.

A quick cost-benefit analysis of the outcome for the three interest groups in contention makes this clear. The Treaty provided the British a “causeway” through the “bog” of the Irish Question (p 313), and brought them safely through. With Ireland now a land of owner-occupiers, by 1921 the strictly-British establishment’s concern was security and in an age of dreadnoughts and air power the military bases it retained in the North, and the Treaty Ports, gave it all it needed; the Hitler War showed that it didn’t even need the ports. Internal security problems, which emphatically did not go away, were now for the Irish to deal with, and we did so more ruthlessly than the British had since 1798. The cost? Through all the years of Troubles, less than the butcher’s bill for a very quiet day on the Western Front. After the Exchequer was saved millions by not having to subsidise the Free State as it did the North, net benefit to the British establishment from the new Dominion proved even greater. Poor Paddy was still on the railway, on the roads and in the tunnels, still grateful for a job and any crumbs from John Bull’s table as he kept on building England for the living wage his own country couldn’t pay him. Still raised on the same old songs and a few new stories, entertaining them all down the pub with how the dream of a fool came true and made his poor country a nation once again. And they say good on you Paddy with your boat-fare in your hand.

The Unionists got all they demanded and soon more. They had accepted the need to abandon their Southern constituency early on and this was a cost well repaid by negotiating the maximum territory they could be sure of controlling in perpetuity. Nationalist sulking then allowed them to throw out PR, which gave them unrestrained power in their polity, and Nationalist incompetence handed them the Council of Ireland, copper-fastening partition—enormous bonuses. Any attempt to take over the Six Counties now could be construed as unwarranted interference, “a mere struggle for domination” by hypocritical Nationalists, if they demanded self-determination for themselves but would deny it to others (p 218). The cost of this knock-down package-deal? A few hundred Catholics, B-men and policemen shot, and Catholic homes burned.

The cost to Nationalists was their country devastated; thousands killed; decades of economic, social and demographic decline; terrible truths that had to be whispered; and rank hypocrisy palmed off as sweet-smelling virtue. The benefit? “It wasn’t worth it,” according to Free Stater Emmet Dalton; diehard Dan Breen “wouldn’t have fired a shot” could he have foreseen the outcome.

If politicians could have done worse than this it would interest me to know how.

Despite my criticisms this remains a very good book, densely packed with facts and a quite easy read for all that. Its research is impressive and Professor Fanning is perhaps less partisan that this review may suggest. He “explains rather than condemns” (p 5), and he explains rather well; I just don’t agree with all of his explanations and conclusions. He does not prove that “the bloody catalogue of assassinations and war ... was necessary” (p 4), but he does achieve a good deal. All followers of this thread could gain much from his book.
michaelcarragher
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