Atlasof the Irish revolution

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Cork University Press
ISBN 9781782051176

Reviewed by Matthew Stout

We each, in our own way, commemorated the centenary of the Easter Rising last year. Because of family connections, Easter Monday morning found this reviewer outside the town of Ashbourne at the recreation of the raid on the RIC barracks by the Fingal Brigade;that was the one victory during the Rising 100 years ago,and the model for the guerrilla war that ensued. What I thought about most that morning was how it became possible for farmers and shopkeepers to assemble in that field outside Ashbourne. How did they become soldiers? What drove them to kill and, in turn, risk being killed?The first quarter of this magnificent tome from Cork University Press explains the process. But that is just one aspect of this volume, which is just short of 1,000 pages, features full-colour illustrations throughout and contains the work of over 100 contributors.

Sections1 and 2, ‘Before the revolution’ and ‘Crisis’,take the reader from the rupture of the Famine (in two wonderful essays by W.J. Smyth) to rural and urban poverty (Catriona Crowe), and onto the intellectual stirrings of the Gaelic revival (Margaret Kelleher). Chapters on theHome Rule movement (Frank Callanan), gunrunningand the emergence of the labour movement(Emmet O’Connor and others) follow.

What emerges from this section is the crucial position of the language movement in forging the revolution. For me, the most outstanding illustration in this introductory section is not a map—and this is an atlas full of an astounding array of cartographic material—but the photograph taken outside Galway Town Hall on the occasion of the first Gaelic League Oireachtas held outside Dublin. Dara Folen provides a guide to those present, ‘a who’s who of the revolutionary generation’ (p.105). This gathering provided a superb recruiting ground for the IRB—half the signatories of the Proclamation were present. The photograph is profound testimony to how the ordinary become the revolutionary: a revolution that did not ‘devour its children’, as Folen suggests, but rather elevated them to the higher calling of nation-building.Eoin MacNeillsits in front with Douglas Hyde; looking away from the photographer three rows back is Pearse, obsessed even then with the weakness of his right profile. DeValera sports a jaunty bow-tie, albeit one that is seriously askew. Constance Markievicz, in a pretty hat, stands in the back row way to the right. Risteárd Mulcahy is in the photo, for a time at least looking in the same direction as Pearse. He was second-in-command at the Battle of Ashbourne. The Irish language was the gateway to radicalisation,formative and lethal.Through these introductory chapters we come to understand the character of the past that forged the nationalism of each participant in the Rising.

The key issue in a review of this Atlas must be the degree to which the cartographic component contributes to our understanding of historical events. Taking, as an example,McMahon’s chapter on the Gaelic League, we see maps that demonstrateits rapid and wide expansion throughout Ireland and into the heart of working-class Dublin. This is indicative of the advantages inherent in this cartographic approach. Cumulatively, the extent of engagement with the revolution throughout the entire island is reinforced by the excellent and original maps. It also accounts for the continued resonance that the revolution has with the mass of Irish people.

Section 3 brings us to the Easter Rising (Fearghall McGarry), featuring detailed plans of the military action as it unfolded. The 3D depiction of the Moore Street evacuation and surrender (p.255) is particularly useful; it explains why the development of this area of Dublin has become the focus of such controversy.I was also pleased to read a balanced assessment of the Proclamation by John A. Murphy. Despite confusion over the intention behind the expression ‘cherishing all the children of the Nation equally’, he concludes that ‘The Proclamation [will] continue to live through its contemporary interpretations’.

One outstanding component of this book (there are so many)are the uncredited, stand-alone, double-page sections focusing on individuals and literary achievements. My favourite is the section on the poem ‘Easter 1916’ by Yeats (pp 92–3, albeit somewhat curiously positioned in the book before the actual Rising). Bravely set in white type against a black background, the photo of the young poet emerges sombrely from the dark page. Written only months after the Rising, this poem encapsulates the complexities of that seminal event in a manner that no historian (or cartographer) has ever managed to better. The layout and design of these sections are works of art in their own right. Who is responsible for these? Maria O’Donovan of Cork University Press did the typesetting; elsewhere Nick Hogan is described as ‘graphics editor’. Whoever is responsible, these comprise a wonderful addition to this volume.

Section 4 charts the political revolution that followed the military rising. In clear prose, Pauric Travers explains how the threat of conscription combined with the mass arrests of its members (the German Plot arrests) led to Sinn Féin’striumph in the general election of 1918. Two complementary maps illustrate this chapter: a map of arrests and a map of constituencies contested by imprisoned candidates.Again, like the Gaelic League, this is an all-Ireland phenomenon and shows how executions andimprisonment (analysed in three superbchapters by William Murphy) constituted England’s gift to the nascent republic.

One third of this book, sections 5–7, covers the War of Independence. Itis similar in its treatment to the effective approach taken by the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. The discussion of chronology and broader themes isfollowed by regional perspectives, going from provincial to county to local accounts. Conor MacNamara (for example) introduces the reader to the conflict in Connacht and follows this up with a detailed analysis of Galway. The section opens with a map (common to all regional studies) of the brigade/battalion structure of the IRA. Maps of RIC fatalities and IRA attacks show where and to what degree the guerrilla armies were active. At county level, another map shows the distribution of RIC barracks and how the war led to the abandonment of almost two-thirds of them. Photographs illustrate the human cost of the violence. Munster (John O’Callaghan), Leinster (Marie Coleman) and Ulster (Robert Lynch) are handled in a similar fashion.An outstanding feature throughout are detailed diagrams showing how individual ambushes were organised, from obscure encounters in Clare to Béal na Blá in Cork, where Collins lost his life in an engagement bearing all the hallmarks of the military tactics that he himself had developed.

One of the most sustained and innovative chapters in this part of the volume is David Fitzpatrick’s use of statistics to find an explanation for the rise of political participation and revolutionary violence. Some confusion arises in this section from the fact that the first of the nine maps is labelled 1.2, and this makes for some errors in the text and the table of statistical correlations. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile approach that throws up some intriguing connections. Longford emerges as a focus of Sinn Féin and IRA membership and IRA violence. This is associated with its having a high incidence of smallholdings, a tradition of agrarian violence and contacts, through high emigration, with the United States. One of Fitzpatrick’s novel conclusions is that an ‘Americanised political outlook’ contributed to the ‘evolution of Irish nationalism’ (p. 537).

Section 8 concerns the ‘Treaty and the Civil War’, introduced by historians Michael Kennedy and Bill Kissane (respectively). Despite an undeniable democratic mandate for the treaty, anti-treaty forces waged a campaign that sustainedan unrelenting war on the island into 1923. Contemporary maps showing the destruction of the railway network (mainly in the south-west) are just one more example of the way cartography is put to effective use in this volume to illustrate the revolution’s agonising course.

If these atlases from University College Cork have one common fault—John Crowley and Mike Murphy are the editors uniting the series: Atlas of Cork City(2005), The Iveragh Peninsula (2009) and Atlas of the Great Irish Famine(2012)—it is the lack of a ruthless editorial hand. As this volume is about revolution, then in my view it should have as it terminus the chapter on ‘Ending the Conflict’. Chapters following this on the broader experience of the revolution should be included, of course, but the sections on the Free State(J.J. Lee) and Northern Ireland (Brendan O’Leary), while worthwhile, are the subjects of another volume. A sterner editorial policy would have excluded the outstanding chapter on the Blueshirts by Brian Hanley.This would have been a great loss, but at the same time it would have given the book greater definition. In a similar vein, a brilliant map, the ‘Architecture of Containment’, which shows reform schools, Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes in the Free State, only begs the question as to what was the architecture of containment in the six counties. It is a map too far, a map for another atlas.

The final section of the book on ‘Memory and Culture’ is too important to have been treated in such a superficial manner. Where, for example, is a sustained treatment of the revisionist theatre of Seán O’Casey?Further,this unfocused section hides two essential chapters on sources by Eve Morrison and Marie Coleman. ‘Memory and Culture’ also includes five pages on the GAA and revolution (William Murphy), clearly out of place.

Despite these minor criticisms, it is hard to imagine how this book could be better and not also longer (there is no account of the Battle of Ashbourne, for example). Should it have been produced in a more manageable two volumes? Should the more incongruous items of art inspired by these events—a painting by Michael Farrell about the Famine (p. 10), a Belfast mural commemorating the Great War (p. 226)—have been confined to the final section on memory and culture? Could there have been a greater conformity in the regional sections?Perhaps. There are arguments for this book being both shorter and longer, but there is no argument that the Atlas of the Irish revolution represents a publishing milestone. It is a stunningly beautiful production, and editors John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy, John Borgonovo and all at Cork University Press are to be congratulated for this gift to the nation. It is essential that a copy be in every home in Ireland, because it is a book explaining how we came to be where we are. It is a book that shouldbe in every Irish home throughout the worldowing to its nuanced treatment of the complexity of these revolutionary years.

Matthew Stout lectures in the School of History and Geography, Dublin City University. He is co-editor of Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (Cork University Press, 2012).


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