A NATION AND NOT A RABBLE: The Irish Revolution 1913–1923

Published in Featured-Book-Review, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

bigbookThough subtitled ‘the Irish Revolution 1913–1923’, this work is as much concerned with how the revolution came to be remembered and contested in memory as it is with telling the events of the revolutionary period itself. Indeed, the examination of the period’s legacy comes before the period itself. Anyone looking for the latest forensic analysis of the revolution and its different actors might consider, at least, reading it in conjunction with other works. The phrase ‘a nation and not a rabble’ came from a plea by George Gavan Duffy to both sides in the debate over the Anglo-Irish Treaty as to how they should conduct themselves at a time when Ireland’s international reputation and national dignity were hanging in the balance. This concern with the preservation of ‘order’ and the fear of ‘disorder’ is one of the structural themes of this book, and indeed of Ferriter’s previous writing in Lovers of liberty? Local government in twentieth-century Ireland, The transformation of Ireland: 1900–2000 and Occasions of sin: sex and society in modern Ireland.

Ferriter’s emphasis on the role of ‘values’ such as ‘dignity’ as opposed to a well-defined political ideology dovetails with the current consensus on the character of Irish nationalism as argued in other recent and important works on the revolutionary period, including R.F. Foster’s Vivid faces (a book that can profitably be read parallel to this one) and Charles Townshend’s The Republic. It ought to be recognised, however, that nationalism in general, and certainly Irish nationalism, which occupied the space held by the ‘big three’ ‘-isms’ of wider Europe—conservatism, liberalism and socialism—during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cannot be studied simply as a political ideology. At the intellectual level, it also comprises a ‘moral psychology’ or conception of virtues. This appears in the preoccupation with ‘dignity’ among so many participants in the revolution. This preoccupation may have, as Ferriter writes, ‘reflected class divisions and the threat of class conflict’, but it also acted as a social bridge between middle- and upper-class nationalists and better-off members of the rural ‘lower’ classes—the ‘publicans and shopkeepers’, as Francis Stuart described them—in a society where ‘respectability’ was of paramount importance. ‘Dignity’ was also highly subversive, permitting the upheaval of the established order, in the sense that it could be equated with a rejection of the ‘corrupt’ values of the ‘pre-revolutionary’ generation and the forging of new ones held by a select few—an important theme in the writings of revolutionary memoirs such as Tom Barry’s and Ernie O’Malley’s. The ‘radicalisation’ of conventional virtue is a point well explained by the German-Jewish-American historian of modern Europe George L. Mosse, who is unfortunately missing from the bibliographies of modern Irish history. The milieu of 1919–22 was one in which revolutionary militants adopted for themselves the mantle of an ascetic martial and social élite, and where many of those who had been passive observers of the events were all too keen to get more actively involved in some way once the fighting had died down. The contempt of many in this élite for democracy placed Ireland within a wider European mainstream in which the ‘transformative’ rhetoric of post-1918 militant nationalist movements often masked their underlying social conservatism and the ‘conventionality’ of their members. Involvement in the revolution subsequently became a marker of respectability, as the story of the IRA military pensions board makes clear, given the difficulties involved in actually getting a pension even if one were genuinely deserving. Here Ferriter brings to light the prosaic realities of a state built by a group of very conservative revolutionaries. Where Ferriter points out that an investigation within the Dublin IRA about the rape of a civilian was deferred in order to ‘obtain expert advice on the moral side of the question … pending consultation with a clerical authority’, the reader is uncomfortably reminded of the complicity of both Church and State in crimes of sexual abuse in church-run institutions for women and children during the years of independence.

A fear of too much knowledge about the revolutionary period was present in the official arena from early on, as the embargo placed on the statements submitted to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) during the 1940s and 1950s by veterans of the War of Independence demonstrates. The complaints about the waste of money involved, that the project could have been just as well or better conducted by a university, that state officials were intruding on the work of professional historians, and the implication that history was being appropriated as state property will sound quite familiar to academics’ ears today. The fear that release of material from the BMH could lead to ‘local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country’ may seem wildly ex-aggerated but reflected the ingrained fear of the ‘rabble’ held by those who had once seen themselves as fighters for the people. On the other hand, the publication of various memoirs and general histories, the most popular of which were by Dan Breen, Tom Barry, Ernie O’Malley and Dorothy Macardle (all of whom, significantly, had been anti-Treaty during the Civil War and therefore part of ‘the rabble’), kept popular memory and knowledge of the revolutionary period as a proud national struggle in good health.

O’Malley’s The men will talk to me series was the counterpoint to the hesitancy and secrecy surrounding the BMH Witness Statement project, yet it was not necessarily an exercise that served only to rehabilitate and glorify the Republican side either. On the other hand, while the BMH statements are now accessible to anyone with an internet connection, O’Malley’s writings are more bound up with historiographical concerns and, of course, the editing process of O’Malley and his successors. Even though some of the memoirists made an effort to inject an intellectual or ideological complexity into the revolution and its leading figures, it is of more value to study the specific rhetoric of ‘virtue’ in these ‘war memoirs’, the articulation of an ‘élite’ fighting community in this way, or how nationalism manifests as moral psychology. After all, as Ferriter reminds us in the introduction, there is little in the way of interesting political theory to be found in revolutionary republicanism anyway. How much of the Free State vs Republican debate relies on notions of ‘deceit’, ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘honour’ instead of political theory?

The personalisation of Irish history that continues with the tried and tested reliance on biography and the attractions of family history was also reflected in the obsessive arguments between supporters of de Valera and Collins of previous decades. Biographies of each became a means by which to debate different versions of the meaning of the revolution and revolutionary nationalism. If there was one constant, it was that debate and remembering of Ireland’s revolutionary past continued to centre on individuals more than on totemic events or ideologies. As Ferriter reminds us, Collins was ruthless enough to eagerly anticipate the ‘crucifixion’ of the general population by the British forces and its ‘radicalizing’ effect. Part I of the book demonstrates how so much of the argument about the ‘meaning’ of the revolution tended to repeat itself: though the beginning of ‘revisionism’ is generally dated to the mid-1960s and the writings of such figures as F.X. Martin and Fr Francis Shaw, the first ‘revisionist’ account of the revolution had in fact been P.S. O’Hegarty’s The victory of Sinn Féin (1924), which was not merely a pro-Free State polemic but also a furious denunciation of the breakdown of morality and social order caused by the violence of 1916–21. There is, perhaps, another parallel between the attempt to marginalise the republican movement in 1966 in favour of ‘a focus on a prosperous, modernised, and not just agricultural but now also industrialised republic’ and the government’s early attempts to whitewash all mention of the Easter Rising from the 2016 commemoration festivities.

Some of Part I reads a little too much like a general survey rather than a sustained examination of the different definitions of nationhood inherent in the contrasting views of ‘the rabble’. There is, however, much of interest even to the more advanced reader in the second part. The War of Independence appears, for example, as an early forerunner of the 24-hour media war with which we are all familiar today, its characteristics being ‘killing and espionage, heavy civilian casualties, the taking of significant risks, a fiercely fought propaganda battle’, the ‘building and sustaining of myths about key individuals’, and ‘debate about whether the war was to be long or short’.

Ferriter concludes in the final chapter with a persuasive complaint about the deficiencies in current attitudes towards curricula for teaching history in schools in Ireland and the UK. This leads to perhaps the most important question posed by his book, one of historical authority in general: to whom should we listen? This is a profound question, which, of course, extends to just about any nation in the world that was controlled by another, or gained independence through violence, or experienced a civil war—that is, practically all of them. The reality is that far more people have oriented their views on twentieth-century Irish history from reading the essays and polemics of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Tim Pat Coogan, Fintan

O’Toole and others than from the vast majority of academic historians. But none of these writers are professional historians, so the situation is unsatisfactory from our standpoint. The degree to which official remembrance of the revolutionary period has emphasised ‘reconciliation’ and ‘putting the past behind us’—as Ferriter has written about in the Irish Times and elsewhere—has and will continue to have a stifling effect on rigorous historical research, which does not have the primary purpose of making individuals, families or nations feel better about themselves. In the light of these ongoing attempts by political actors to influence and control the historical narrative of the revolutionary period, the remainder of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ (or ‘Commemorations’)—and most of all that of next year—poses a challenge to historians to consider this question and how they can influence public debate over history in Ireland. Our role will be further complicated as, with the continuing release of archival documents, ‘history’ becomes increasingly ‘accessible’ to all. We can at least take encouragement from the stubborn resistance of the Irish public in earlier decades to accept dictation or instruction as to how history ‘ought’ to be considered by officialdom (or media commentators) in the light of present circumstances, as shown in Part III of the book in the chapters on past commemorations of the Rising and the State reburial in 2000 of the ‘Forgotten Ten’ IRA members executed during the War of Independence. In its repeated linkage of the historical questions that it studies with contemporary events, Diarmaid Ferriter’s latest book provides an honest perspective and a valuable handbook from which to proceed, for both the historian and the general reader.

Shane Nagle was recently awarded a Ph.D on ‘Historical narratives and European nationalisms: Germany and Ireland in comparison’ from Royal Holloway, University of London.


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