County Longford and the Irish Revolution 1910–1923

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 11

Marie Coleman
(Irish Academic Press, E45)
ISBN 0716527030

The War of Independence, 1919–21, was anything but a ‘national’ revolt; the areas of activity were in Munster (principally Cork and Tipperary), Dublin and, most interestingly, the small midlands county of Longford. Marie Coleman’s meticulously researched and thoughtful study has filled an important historical lacuna in explaining the fascinating role of Longford. The parameters of the study mean that the demise of the Irish Party is analysed alongside the ascendant Sinn Féin. The excellent, clear, introduction feeds into a narrative that skilfully achieves the balance between an examination of Longford and commentary on the national context: the regional basis allows the reader to get a sense of what was the ordinary experience of revolution, far removed from de-humanised high politics.
Coleman describes how Longford was in the vanguard of nationalist reorientation, the Irish Party there being in confrontation with Sinn Féin as early as 1907. It was the catalyst of the South Longford by-election of 1917, however, when Sinn Féin was victorious, that initiated the county’s prominence. In 1917 Home Rule did not look to be a foregone conclusion; partition was now on the agenda and, most decisively, the threat of conscription hung over the electorate. All of these negative probabilities were associated with the Irish Party, to its detriment. As if to compound the predicament, the party’s organisational network, the United Irish League (UIL), was moribund in Longford. This was paralleled by the resurrection of the Volunteers, by Sinn Féin setting a precedent for assiduous electioneering and finally, critically, the last-minute intervention of the archbishop of Dublin: a real coup for Sinn Féin. These were the issues behind the realignment of nationalist sympathies in Longford. A vignette of Frank McGuinness, brother of the successful candidate Joe, is a clever device that profiles the transition of one person from Home Ruler to Sinn Féiner. This process was almost one of default, as disillusionment with the Irish Party set in. Nationally this second by-election was a litmus test of Sinn Féin’s prospects. There was the possibility that the first by-election in North Roscommon had been a freak result because Count Plunkett was the father of an executed 1916 rebel, and Roscommon had been particularly repressed in the aftermath of the Rising. Instead South Longford proved indicative, as another by-election was won in Clare before the conclusive result of the 1918 general election.
After the by-election Longford Sinn Féin reorganised and was very strong relative to its national position, with the rest of the country being spurred into support by the renewed threat of conscription in 1918. But as Coleman points out, Sinn Féin was not a generic term that included the military wing of republicanism. However, the problem for historians is that the government agencies did see the two movements as one and did not differentiate: it was as if the reconvened Volunteers came out of nowhere in Longford! At the height of the war, from late 1920 into early 1921, there were actually clashes in Longford between the IRA and those republicans running the alternative government of Dáil Éireann, with the former articulating some contempt for the latter. In actual fact the relative success of the War of Independence in Longford, as Coleman expertly conveys, had as much to do with Sinn Féin directing the functions of local government and the system of courts as had the celebrated Battle of Ballinalee or the Clonfin ambush.
Focusing specifically on the IRA campaign, what is most remarkable is the very localised character of the conflict in Longford: it was almost a parochial affair. From the outset Coleman describes a dichotomy of north and south, the larger farms and the better quality of land to the south coupled with a greater UIL presence, whilst republicanism proved to be more congenial to the north. This pattern was continued into the armed struggle, as it was not so much North Longford that participated as a Granard–Ballinalee axis in the north-east corner of the county bordering Cavan and Westmeath. This area was home to Seán MacEoin, synonymous with the revolution and Longford, but, as Coleman is at pains to explain, he was not indispensable to the war here. The analysis of why this particular enclave mobilised places emphasis on the tradition of Sinn Féin personalities in the area, including MacEoin, the trigger of the by-election result and the strong community, and more especially familial, commitment to the Volunteers. That these people, again particularly MacEoin, became, almost to a man, pro-Treaty explains why Longford was not to be a theatre of the Civil War. Indeed, the loyalty shown to Seán MacEoin is revealed in the fact that Cumann na nGaedheal support dropped off considerably in the Longford–Westmeath constituency when he failed to contest his seat in 1923, instead pursuing a career in the army. This also indicates that attachment to a personality and a local hero superseded adherence to a national ideology.
This book is a very valuable addition to the historiography pioneered by David Fitzpatrick’s study of Clare, although, unlike Fitzpatrick, Coleman exclusively assesses the nationalist experience of the county. Particularly laudable is the scrutinising of Peter Hart’s recent findings for Cork: Coleman has found no evidence of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Longford, and indeed demonstrates that the Volunteers in the county actively challenged sectarianism. The final chapter looks at the often neglected role of Cumann na mBan, describing how it performed a vital duty augmenting the military campaign, a necessary role that only women could fulfil because, being perceived as innocuous by the Crown forces, they could transport equipment, missives, etc. Succinctly, they were regarded as far from inferior. Featured in the appendices is a database detailing the personnel of the famous North Longford flying column, 406 Volunteers and 105 members of Cumann na mBan, an apt footnote to this very complete body of work, and also extremely useful to those of us with Longford connections.

Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh

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