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.

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