Bitter freedom: Ireland in a revolutionary world 1918–1923

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571243006

Reviewed by Padraig Yeates

Bitter Freedom

This is probably the best overview of the revolutionary era in the current crop of books prompted by the ‘decade of centenaries’. It is superbly crafted and a joy to read. It is particularly suited to an international audience wishing to know more about the Irish Revolution but provides many insights for those of us who think we are fairly familiar with the subject. If it omits 1916 and all that led up to it, this implicitly acknowledges the cultural disconnect between the years leading up to the Easter Rising and what followed. Ireland did indeed change utterly after the Rising, but not in the way that the signatories of the Proclamation hoped. It would have been a cold place for them, and nothing underlines this more than the scant attention given to the Proclamation in the proceedings of the First Dáil. Labour’s consolation prize of the Democratic Programme was grudgingly conceded, with Michael Collins the biggest begrudger of all. The men who wrote the original draft, Tom Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon, would at least have known Connolly and built on the foundation document of the Irish Republic.

It would have been a distraction for readers trying to understand post-1916 Ireland to have dwelt on the ideas of Connolly, and it is a tribute to the author’s skill that he does not allow distractions, while retaining a gracefully relaxed style throughout. There must have been a lot of paddling going on beneath the surface. One of the few events that Maurice Walsh has included retrospectively is the funeral of Thomas Ashe in 1917. The only man to have led a rebel force to victory in 1916, Ashe died of forcible feeding while on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison. He was one of the few individuals—Michael Collins is another—whose early death significantly influenced events. Ashe was quite different from Collins, being a proto-socialist and profoundly religious. His funeral marked the re-emergence of the Irish Volunteers on the streets of the capital, complete with a volley of shots over Ashe’s coffin that Collins deemed the only fitting tribute to a dead rebel. The brevity of Collins’s speech showed one of the abiding contradictions of the Irish revolutionaries: their outstanding ability to organise and orchestrate events while lacking any coherent ideology to sustain or direct that energy. Ireland and Irish nationality meant whatever each possessor of the holy grail of nationhood wanted it to mean. As the author notes, one of the carriages following the coffin was that of Dr William Walsh, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin. Walsh was a political and ideological strategist with the organisation and influence to give the movement some coherence, but he too would die in the course of the ‘revolution’. Too ill to attend the proceedings, he was determined to make his presence felt, at least in spirit. He would have been interested to hear a British staff officer explaining to a perplexed companion, amazed at the forbearance of the authorities, that ‘We always give the natives a free hand with their religious rites’. The author is at his best when drawing on the insights and experiences of outsiders describing Ireland during this turbulent period. If the British officer at Ashe’s funeral recognised the similarities between two very different ‘native’ cultures within the empire, he failed to realise how much the First World War had transformed the old world order in the eyes of those same ‘natives’. As Tomas Masaryk remarked, Europe had become ‘a laboratory atop a vast cemetery’ that would change the world—but not always in ways the Czech leader, this British officer or indeed Ashe’s mourners intended.

Irish people were as much affected by the international ideas and habits they encountered as their British or European contemporaries—from American chewing gum and cinema to the ideas of Freud, raised hemlines, jazz music and snorting cocaine. This is as much a cultural and literary history of the period as a political one. Walsh draws with great effect on contemporary writers, diarists, newspapers and magazine articles, selected for the acuteness of their observations rather than trawling the archives. If he uncovers relatively few new facts, he highlights important connections and synchronicities between events, attitudes and beliefs emerging from the ‘vast cemetery’ of war. If Jung, the man who invented the concept of synchronicity, does not receive a mention, his former mentor Freud does, although, as Walsh shows, Freud’s concepts were usually digested piecemeal through sensationalist reports in magazines such as Tit Bits rather than learned journals. The threat posed by such alien ideas would give old enemies something to unite against in the new Free State, whatever side they took on the Treaty.

In Europe, and in Britain, people came to terms with the social and cultural legacies of the Great War long before Ireland. In fact, the Irish appear almost virginal in their pursuit of independence, and if that virginity was not preserved intact it was repeatedly reasserted after the temporary madness had passed. In the meantime it would take five years of intermittent conflict for the Irish to learn what most Europeans already knew—that war was a very cruel master suiting few temperaments. By 1924 men like P.S. O’Hegarty, IRB veteran and devotee of Michael Collins, would bewail the fact that ‘the spirit of the gunman invaded everything’. Even where resolutely modern secular ideologies such as socialism and communism made temporary inroads into popular consciousness they were largely superficial. When the American journalist Ruth Russell expressed surprise at pickets on checkpoint duty during the Limerick Soviet blessing themselves as the Angelus rang out, a local bishop replied, ‘Isn’t it well that communism is being Christianised?’ Labour leader Tom Johnson romanticised about the Russian revolution, while Sinn Féin ideologue Aodh de Blacam saw the Irish revolution as an opportunity for Ireland to be reborn as ‘the world’s working model of a Catholic state’.

One place where militancy found a welcome was in the countryside, where it was nurtured by long traditions. If there were modernistic aspects to the Easter Rising, such as female emancipation and attempts to broadcast news of events to the outside world, the outbreak of guerrilla war reverted to older forms of struggle. For Dan Breen and Seán Treacy, the men who started it, the War of Independence was an end in itself. They were following in the footsteps of legendary Fenian forebears. Breen believed that their deeds would ‘stir the country’ and ‘bring Ireland’s name before the world’. In Walsh’s phrase, ‘They patented the glamour of being on the run’. It was a patent that would be constantly renewed, generation on generation, by their imitators and would-be heirs.

Meanwhile, most Irish nationalists pinned their hopes, like small nationalities across Europe, on the United States, embodied in President Woodrow Wilson. People saw him as the arbiter of a new European order. Even such a pillar of the southern unionist establishment as the Irish Times accepted that ‘America not England will be the interpreter of the thoughts and visions of the world re-born’. On his escape from Lincoln Jail de Valera made his priority getting to America to seek recognition for the Irish Republic. De Valera had to be careful not to tarnish the Irish cause by association with its former ‘gallant allies’ in Europe or the red scare that was now sweeping the United States. Opposition to his tour was particularly vehement in the South, where the Ku Klux Klan mobilised members against him. De Valera was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and supported the cause of black emancipation, but in southern states he would stress that Ireland ‘was the only white nation on earth still in the bonds of political slavery’, a point that Seán T. O’Kelly, the Republic’s emissary in Paris, would also stress, for all the good it did.

Readers who want to know who shot whom will have to look elsewhere, but the military escalation of the struggle for independence is well covered and Walsh goes to some pains to give the perspectives of all the combatants, from IRA Volunteers to RIC constables, Auxiliaries and the British Army, or at least its officer class, to their counterparts at the IRA’s GHQ. The plight of the southern unionists, many of whom had strong links with the military, is well covered. The revolution affected virtually all classes of Protestants, especially in rural areas. Once RIC members began to be shot, ‘Dutiful respect for the authorities could now be perceived as treason’. In fact, Walsh describes the plight of the Ascendancy class more sympathetically than most, even to indulging old chestnuts about the eccentricities of this dying caste such as the story related by Moritz Bonn, a German academic researching land reform, who describes an evening at a stately home where he found ‘each gentleman holding an umbrella over his lady’ in the drawing room when it started to rain.

On the other hand, coverage of Ulster is scant and consists of little more than an outline of events in Belfast. Indeed, much of this chapter is devoted to the Belfast boycott which, by definition, took place in the South. Paradoxically, although Ulster Unionists claimed that they wanted to remain part of the wider international community that constituted the British Empire, they proved to be far more parochial than their nationalist neighbours, who were eagerly seeking international attention.

Bitter freedom remains firmly focused on what would become the Free State and, to a degree inevitable in a literary history, its most literate classes. There are a few irritating errors of the type we all commit. The most important is the author’s belief that there was ‘a secret amnesty’ for ‘criminal acts’ committed by the IRA until its ceasefire in 1923. There was nothing secret about it. The Free State Dáil passed an amnesty bill on 7 November 1924 that wiped the slate clean to that date, as much to cover themselves as their opponents. This is one book that can be judged by its cover. The subtitle accurately defines its subject as ‘Ireland in a revolutionary world’, where older, conservative values ultimately reasserted themselves against the whirlwind of change outside.

Padraig Yeates is the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill & Macmillan).


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