Revolutionary Government in Ireland: Dáil Éireann 1919-1922 Arthur Mitchell (Gill and Macmillan)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 3

Dáil Éireann has long awaited its historian. Brian Farrel’s small but seminal work, The Founding of Dáil Éireann (1971), remains a proven and valuable guide. Arthur’s Mitchell’s book provides a comprehensive tour of anything that falls under the ambit of the Dáil for the years 1919-1921. It is a massive and scholarly work. The bibliography bears testimony to many years of dedicated scholarship. The establishment of the Dáil and the building up of a ‘counter-state’, a term he takes from Charles Townsend’s indispensable military history of the period, are described in the first two chapters. The third chapter concentrates on 1920, ‘the year of the revolution’; and the final two chapters deal with de Valera’s return from America, the truce and the civil war.
On the setting up the ‘counter-state’ under the direction of the Dáil, Mitchell provides a wealth of information. He chronicles the creation of the various committees on land acquisition and co-operatives which serve as salutary reminders that, contrary to the general impression, there were some attempts to implement the ideals of the Democratic Programme. Denis Carroll’s recent book on father Michael O’ Flanagan, They Have Fooled you Again (1993), adds further substance to the view painted by Mitchell that social change, especially in regard to the distribution of land, and the creation of modern industry, was very much a concern of some members of the Dáil administration. Much new material is presented in Mitchell’s coverage of the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is especially true of the Paris Peace conference and the Paris mission.
Failures as well as successes are recorded: Sean MacEntee’s observation in 1921 that ‘most of the fisheries schemes had been disastrous to the Dáil’ is recorded, as is the more controversial remark of Michael Collins, that ‘the failures all arose from dishonesty on the part of the fishermen’.
Mitchell focuses on the impact of the frequently neglected local elections in Ireland of January and June 1920. He records the victory of Sinn Féin but makes a balanced appraisal of the control thus won in the interests of Dáil Éireann. While showing the advances made in such diverse matters as land arbitration, foreign affairs, and the demoralisation of the RIC, he makes clear the ultimate weakness of the Dáil apparatus when faced by the sanctions that official British rule might apply. Local councils, for example, were dependent on British assistance to make their rule effective, and Kevin O’Higgins noted that although many councillors had taken an oath of allegiance to the Dáil, in practice they ‘were not carrying out the instructions of the Dáil and were in full communication with the British Local Government Department’.
For the same reason Michael Collins found it impossible to introduce a Dáil system of income tax. A certain ambivalence, therefore, existed in the minds of many individuals as to how they treated the Dáil’s claim to be the government of Ireland. Even the Dáil itself, as Mitchell perceptively points out, manifested the same ambivalence. He concludes that ‘while the IRA attacked and destroyed many tax offices, the Dáil government never ordered or even advised that patriotic Irishmen should stop payment of taxes and land annuities to its British rival’.
Other aspects of the Dail’s administration are treated with the same detail and with the same use of original material. This also pertains to the final chapters of the book which conclude with the outbreak of civil war. For example a section on the relationship between the Dáil and the North of Ireland shows that, contrary to common assumption, it was not altogether neglected by the republican government. The recent valuable works by Eamonn Phoenix, Northern Nationalism (1994), and Mary Harris, The Catholic Church and  the Foundation of the Northern State (1993), supplement and develop Mitchell’s contribution in this area.
As one would expect from the author of Labour in Irish History 1890-1930, social issues are dealt with in an exemplary manner—contemporary theories on socialism are outlined, and the practical effects of strikes are clearly recorded. One might suggest that mention of Fr Peter Coffey’s articles on ‘James Connolly’s campaign against Capitalism’ in the Catholic Bulletin of 1920 would afford fitting notice of another distinguished but isolated Catholic voice seeking some accord with socialism. It may also be helpful to note that the Limerick Soviet, treated of by Mitchell, has received fuller coverage in The Forgotten Revolution (1990) by Liam Cahill.
The only criticism that merits serious attention relates to the footnotes. The author has not been well served by the publishers, Gill and Macmillan. Many items of information, often covering several pages, are listed under one footnote, thus making it extremely difficult to match the particular item of information with the specific reference. Qualifications and caveats concerning the contents of the book itself are minimal. I detected one small error: it was Mayor Donal O’Callaghan of Cork, not Mayor Michael O’Callaghan of Limerick, who was smuggled into America in 1920.(p.199).
Mitchell’s view of Count Plunkett requires some modification. He depicts him as a moderate who ‘was dragged into revolutionary politics by his son’s execution’. The signs are that the Count had moved to a more revolutionary approach some time before the 1916 Rising, having visited Europe on an IRB mission for his son, Joseph Mary, and having sought, and according to Plunkett himself, secured papal blessing for the success of the Irish Volunteers in the coming Rising. The appendix on the leadership of the revolution, listing some seventy-four individuals who contributed to the Dáil, is a commendable effort to identify and to categorise those who contributed to the republican government. However, the omission of some names, such as Dr. Patrick McCartan, Mary MacSwiney, and Mgr John Hagan, indicate that it be taken as a valuable starting point rather than as a definitive selection. These qualifications, in the light of the scope of the book, may rightly be considered as minor, and some of them, indeed, as matters of personal debate. They are not intended either to detract from the eminent contribution that this book makes to an understanding of the period, or to diminish it’s claim to be the most authoritative work on Dáil Éireann to date.

Brian Murphy


Copyright © 2019 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568