The Irish War of Independence

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Michael Hopkinson

(Gill & Macmillan, €30)
ISBN 071713010X
The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923
Joost Augusteijn (ed.)
(Palgrave, €25)
ISBN 0333982266

Given its pivotal role in the shaping of modern Irish society and its long grip on the popular imagination, it is astonishing that until recently there was no single monograph about the War of Independence. Michael Hopkinson’s new book is thus to be wholeheartedly welcomed. Hopkinson, whose Green against Green, is the authoritative account of the Civil War, has based his new book on extensive research in Irish, British, American and Australian archives. He also has made much use of the ever-increasing and innovative output of scholars of the revolutionary period.
While those of us in academia may sometimes be loath to admit it, popular attitudes to the War of Independence have been little affected by the scholarship of the last twenty years. Indeed, as Hopkinson notes, Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins has had a greater impact on popular imagination than any history book has had, or is likely to have. It has also been the case, however, that much of the newer work has been published in journals, which are not accessible to a general audience. Since the 1970s there has been a veritable blossoming of new ways of looking at Ireland’s revolution, particularly in the field of local studies, with David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish life one of the earliest examples. Hopkinson has done a great service in making much of this new thinking accessible to a wider audience. Indeed, his introduction provides a useful guide to the debates and controversies that have accompanied this work.
The book is structured around an ‘analytical narrative’ in which separate sections detail British government and administration, security force tactics, Dáil government, IRA intelligence, the war itself, the impact of the conflict in America and the search for a political solution. The largest section deals with the fighting as it escalated through 1920, with details of the conflict, as in Green against Green, divided by locality. This is very important for an understanding of the war. Rather than suggest an IRA leadership masterplan or centralised direction, Hopkinson recognises the importance of regional factors and local contingency. Hence Cork, as the single most violent county during the 1919–21 period, occupies a complete chapter, while inactive Kildare, Carlow, Wicklow, Offaly and Laois merit four paragraphs. This approach will disappoint some: but Hopkinson is surely right to prioritise the key areas of Munster and Dublin and hence to show how limited, in many ways, the geographical spread of the conflict was. Indeed, his descriptions of the IRA’s campaign and the British response convey a genuine feeling of an intense and often savage but also partial and localised struggle. Hopkinson also devotes a chapter to the effect of the war on the north-east, noting how some republicans, and later some historians, ignored the impact of the conflict there.
Hopkinson raises, but does not quite answer, the question of whether the limited independence gained in 1921 would have been possible without the IRA’s campaign. He suggests that a settlement was actually possible in late 1920 but was scuppered by the British, for a variety of reasons. (Annoyingly this chapter is entitled the ‘Peace Process’, an unnecessary concession to contemporary politics.) In contrast to many recent studies, Hopkinson stresses the sectarian and often semi-racist attitudes that underpinned much British élite thinking on Ireland.
Unfortunately Hopkinson’s concluding chapter is rather weak. More could have been said on the motivation of IRA volunteers. The section on casualties is vague and contestable. It is a major problem that we still do not know how many people were killed during the revolutionary period, although of course that is not the author’s fault. That civilians made up the small proportion of casualties that Hopkinson suggests can be questioned, especially given the numbers killed in Belfast. The book is primarily a political and military history and virtually ignores social agitation. Hopkinson barely mentions the labour movement, although the general strikes against conscription and in support of republican hunger strikers as well as the long-running munitions strike helped to undermine British authority. Nevertheless it is a fine, valuable study.
The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923 is a collection of essays on the broader themes of the period. Edited by Joost Augusteijn, himself the author of a pioneering study of the IRA at local level, From public defiance to guerrilla warfare, it contains fourteen essays, by both established academics and newer scholars. Some articles reprise the author’s previous work. These include Michael Hopkinson (on negotiation), Arthur Mitchell (on revolutionary government), Brian P. Murphy (on republicanism) and Augusteijn himself on motivation.
A number of the newer contributors discuss themes which form the basis for recently published studies. Ben Novick, the author of Conceiving revolution: Irish nationalist propaganda during the First World War, discusses the varieties of methods used by advanced nationalists to demonise both British rule and the Home Rule party. Marie Coleman argues that Longford’s status as the principal centre of IRA activity in the midlands from 1919 to 1921 was due to the Sinn Féin mobilisation there in the by-election of 1917. That theme, and the activity of the IRA itself in the county, which was surrounded by largely inactive areas, is dealt with more extensively in her new County Longford and the Irish Revolution. Anne Dolan’s discussion of commemoration in the Free State provides a valuable foretaste of her forthcoming Commemorating the Irish Civil War. She shows how both pro- and anti-Treatyite politicians found it difficult to grapple with commemoration of the dead in the post-revolutionary period. Cumann na nGaedheal members were often just as hostile to remembrance of Irishmen who died in British uniforms as their republican critics, while they were also often apathetic about commemorating their own Civil War dead. Peter Martin looks at the impact of the War of Independence on the Protestant gentry. Keiko Inoue discusses the publicity efforts of Dáil Éireann abroad, particularly the Irish Bulletin, edited by Desmond FitzGerald and Erskine Childers.
Both Charles Townshend and Peter Hart deal, in different ways, with defining the Irish revolution itself. Townshend, whose The British campaign in Ireland was an early example of new thinking on the revolutionary period, provides a fine overview of the historiography of the revolution. However, his contention that the ‘central function’ of the revolution was to give ‘political embodiment’ to the Catholic devotional revolution of the nineteenth century is unsustainable. That Catholic sectarianism was an aspect of the revolution is unquestionable, but it was just one factor and not the dominant one.
Peter Hart’s stimulating essay offers a challenge to historians to build a ‘new revolutionary history’ from the grass roots up, using a multi-faceted approach, through newspapers, official documents, memoirs, interviews and church records, among other sources. This new history should also attempt to relate the Irish revolution to mass movements and guerrilla wars elsewhere, from Palestine to Nicaragua. As in his seminal work, The IRA and its enemies, Hart devotes much attention to both the ‘tit-for-tat’ nature and the ethnic and sectarian character of the violence of the revolution. However, he does concede that the officially non-sectarian rhetoric of republicanism did dampen down sectarian conflict in the south during the revolution. It could also be usefully asked, however, how much class resentment and tension informed violence which has since been characterised as sectarian.
In fact the lack of an essay dealing with social conflict is a major weakness of the collection. When class conflict is mentioned it is usually only to be dismissed as a factor in the revolution. The question is not whether a social revolution was possible during the 1916–23 period but the extent to which social and industrial unrest had a bearing on the general conflict. That the Irish Transport and General Workers Union grew from just 5,000 members to over 120,000 in this period is surely significant: that 60,000 of them were rural labourers doubly so. Aside from the four (!) general strikes called for political reasons during the revolution, there were numerous, often bitter, local disputes. That the National Army established a Special Infantry Corps to deal with agrarian unrest in 1922 would signal a degree of worry about social unrest which is too often neglected by historians.
Another problem is the collection’s failure to engage with the impact of the revolution on what became Northern Ireland. As Peter Hart rightly points out, the revolution meant very different things to Catholics in Belfast and to Protestants in west Cork. It could also be argued that it meant different things to the IRA in both these areas. We lack a consideration of loyalist paramilitaries, be they the UVF or Ulster Special Constabulary. Belfast’s Home Rulers, Hibernians, Unionists and labour activists, as well as its non-aligned Protestants and Catholics, need their revolutionary experiences examined too.
Some of the other contributions are also problematic. Margaret Ward’s chapter on gender is really a discussion of the leading republican women. While valuable in itself, and already dealt with to some extent in her Unmanageable revolutionaries, it tells us little about either rank-and-file republican women or women of other political persuasions and indeed of none. Ward’s suggestion that Countess Markievicz was spared execution so as not to undermine ‘a patriarchy that benefited all men, regardless of nationality’, rather than because of the acute embarrassment it would have caused the British government is fanciful.
Richard English looks at the role of socialist intellectuals in the revolution. In reality socialists had little influence on the republican movement during the revolution itself, but their interpretation of the events has become influential since then. As in his Radicals and the Republic, English comprehensively critiques the left republican interpretation of the 1916–23 period. He skilfully refutes the claims of Peadar O’Donnell, among others, that anti-capitalism was a central dynamic of the revolutionary period. He then traces the influence of the republican left beyond the 1920s and into the 1960s and the origins of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. While not blaming socialists for the outbreak of the troubles, he does consider that they played a part in ‘creating a context’ in which violence emerged. Is it churlish to suggest that discrimination and sectarianism played a much greater part in ‘creating this context’?
The final essay by Tom Garvin is a disappointment. Rather than a reflection on the Irish revolution it is largely a reiteration of Garvin’s dislike for Irish republicanism, and indeed revolutions in general. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint, but hardly a surprise for those familiar with his work. Ironically, his contention that the Irish revolutionary process which had its origins in the formation of the IRB in 1858 came to a close with the Omagh bombing in 1998 would be one that many doctrine republicans would concur with. While they would not agree that the process had ended, of course, they too would claim a line of continuity from the Fenians and beyond. Is it not the case that there are as many substantial differences between the cricket-playing Fenians of the 1860s, the hurlers and Irish-speakers of 1916 and the soccer-supporting teenagers who flooded into the Provos after 1970 as there are similarities? The discontinuities, and the social context in which they have arisen, are as important for a study of Irish republicanism as its continuities.
These criticisms aside, The Irish Revolution is an important collection which deserves to be widely read and which one hopes will be joined by more new scholarship on a period on which the last word, most assuredly, has not been written.

Brian Hanley


Copyright © 2017 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568