Triumph and tragedy

The Easter Proclamation of 1916.

The Easter Proclamation of 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923

When it was announced that next year the UK will begin four years of commemoration of the Great War a number of voices were raised to demand that this should be a celebration of the ultimate victory and a recognition of the necessity of the fight.

But what sort of victory is it that sees a state lose close to a third of its national territory? Because the separation of the bulk of Ireland from the United Kingdom was not only a dramatic phase in a long struggle between Irish nationalism and English imperialism, but also, in reality, an extension of the Great War.

That war had led to the postponement of the devolutionary scheme of Home Rule (and perhaps an earlier military conflict), split the Irish Volunteers (so strengthening the hand of the minority separatist faction), created the conditions where the rebels of Easter 1916 thought they had a hope of victory – our gallant allies in Europe – conditioned the stupidly brutal British response to that initially unpopular uprising and then – as this book begins – tipped Ireland decisively towards conflict by, as the Bolshevik revolution allowed the Germans to switch forces from East to West, provoking the conscription crisis.

From the moment of that crisis – another one needlessly prolonged by cretins in Dublin Castle – the issue was not if there would be violence, but when. The physical force men of the Volunteers were not particularly interested in politics: it was merely chance that the attack at Soloheadbeg was on the same day as the Dail first met. They wanted the “echo of the Thompson gun” more than anything else. So in this very real sense everything that followed, civil war and all, was a part of the conflict that began with Gavrilo Princip’s bullets in Sarajevo.

Townshend – whose previous book on “Easter 1916” is a classic of popular revisionist history – sets out here to show that what gave the extended rebellion real force was actually not the military conflict alone, but the establishment of the republic’s shadow state, the popular legitimacy of which demonstrated far more strongly than military force where the Irish people’s views truly lay. Indeed, as he makes clear, the people never were consulted on the war and if they had thought voting Sinn Fein in November 1918 meant war – as opposed to the republic – then the result then may not have been anything like as clear cut as the separattist triumph over the home rulers.

In his way – as he did in his previous work – Townshend once more shines a light on Bulmer Hobson – probably the most important Irish nationalist nobody has heard of – and credits him for the core idea of establishing the parallel Irish state.

The parallel state was weak in many ways and few of its ministers matched the energy and determination of Michael Collins who, as minister of finance, did more than anyone to make that state work (Collins’s military record is less clear – was he “the man who won the war”? Probably not in the way Neil Jordan suggests anyway). Townshend goes on to suggest that it was the active state builders of the republican era who were most likely to later support the Treaty – they really understood how a new nation could be built using the powers given by the Treaty. Could that be right? Maybe – DeValera spent most of that time out of the country, Brugha was a pompous fool, Stack not much use as a minister.

But the “Treatyites” also took a different view of the military situation. Mulcahy, for instance, who emerges as something of a hero of the war of independence in these pages, frankly believed the IRA/Volunteers had been beaten and so regarded the Treaty as the best that could be hoped for. In contrast Liam Lynch comes over as close to the “Comical Ali” of his day – even insisting during the Civil War that the republican cause was growing daily stronger as his fellow staff officers looked for a way of admitting defeat.

Northern affairs – as so often – do not get much of a look in here. Belfast is discussed several times, and Derry mentioned in passing. But we are given no sense of just what – if anything – went on in the Mournes and the Sperrins, classic guerrilla territory surely? At the very end Townshend appears to suggest that nationalist opinion should have been quicker to accept the inevitability of partition as it could have got more from the British in response to that concession – a depressing coda for any Northern nationalist feeling their community’s sense of abandonment. But perhaps that should be read in conjunction with his earlier work, where he shows how little concerned the separatists of Easter Week were about the views of the one-third of their fellow country men and women who looked to the Union with England as their guarantee of religious and cultural liberty. Then, as now, too many were simply willing to dismiss them as settlers or holders of false consciousness.

What is also missing is an explanation of how the war developed – throughout 1919, it would seem, nothing much happened, but by the middle of 1920 much of Munster was in open military revolt. Quite how we got from one to another is not adequately explained.

Other mysteries remain. Collins operated fairly openly in Dublin but, unlike DeV and Griffith (who were seen as negotiating partners), was plainly someone the British wanted arrested or worse. So how did he manage it? It is barely discussed, except to dismiss the claim that they did not have a photograph of him and so did not know what he looked like. It is true that the DMP’s G Division was destroyed (by Dick McKee rather than Collins it appears), but it is still hard to believe that the RIC and military were quite as incompetent as it appears.

Revisionism in Irish history is not simply the tool of those who seek to question republican myths – in the North in particular Sinn Fein are assiduously pumping the line that “The Troubles” of 1969 – 1998 (or 2005) were necessary to secure civil rights. Readers of this book might discern a rather different motivation – militarists who were always dismissive of demands for reform and political programmes whether for civil rights or anything else  – having one more go at re-establishing that which they saw as lost in 1922. Both times round the reformers, the politicians won and in the end the militarists were forced to turn to politics. But both times round a legacy of bitterness was left that lasted for decades.


A history of particle physics

Higgs: The invention and discovery of the ‘God Particle’

Unfortunately, I cannot rate this book as anything better than disappointing. There was a lot of interest in here but ultimately the book falls down because it is neither an explanation of the physics behind the “Higgs mechanism” nor a pure history of the development of the theory (which it, rather annoyingly, insists on calling its “invention”).

For example, we get a brief mention of group theory and a consistent naming of various symmetry groups throughout the book but even the more mathematically inclined reader (ie me) is left almost totally in the dark about what SU(3) is.

Similarly, the explanation of symmetry breaking is more confusing than illuminating.

That said, towards the end the book does get very interesting as it explains that the mechanism – as opposed to the particle detected at CERN – could lie at the heart of not just electro-weak unification, but of a grand unified theory that encompasses the strong force also.

But here’s another thing that confused me – it turns out that, after all, most visible matter really is energy – in the form of gluons. But where do these gluons (which are made to sound a bit like perpetual motion machines in the book) get their mass from? Is it from a Higgs mechanism? I am just not clear…

And finally, is there anything more annoying in popular discussion of physics that the term “God particle”? Frankly, that almost put me off buying this book in the first place.


Glasnost in action

Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia

This book – now nearly 25 years old – is in one sense a relic of a different era. A time when the idea that the Soviet Union would cease to exist would have been treated as fantastic and even that its basic “socialist” character would crumble as unlikely.

But it is also a reminder of other things – that hopes were high, of when Boris Yeltsin was a heroic reformer and not a corrupt drunk, when a whole country began to step into the light of historical truth for the first time in more than sixty years, when people were allowed to tell the truth about their suffering in the Great Patriotic War and not just salute “the victors” in that most desperate and yet so necessary fight.

A friend suggested to me that the reason I loved this book so much is not because it takes me back to a time when every new day brought an exciting revelation and when we could dream of the end of the threat of imminent nuclear confrontation, but because it just reminded me of being 23 again… maybe there is some truth in that, but I think there is more to it.

The days since “the end of history” was proclaimed with the collapse of the Soviet Union have hardly ushered in peace and plenty – perhaps there were other routes that could have been taken – not least the Gorbachev-sceptics in the west could have been dismissed as what they were – leftovers from the Cold War. One doesn’t have to regret the passing of the Soviet Union to regret the manner of its passing – the collapse into a void that means that of all the successor states only three – in the Baltics – have emerged as fully successful liberal democracies and only another three – Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – have even seriously tried to follow that path.