Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

By Joe Culley

We have mentioned here before the new literary genre of ‘biography of a year’. Now the Royal Irish Academy has got in on the act with the splendid Ireland 1922: independence, partition, civil war. And the good news for the casual reader is that, despite the book’s subtitle, there’s far more to it than politics and bloodshed.

There are 50 brief essays from 50 contributors, ranging from the straightforward—Cumann na mBan opposing the Treaty—to the delightfully surprising, e.g. Elaine Sisson’s exploration of the influence of Black American music on Irish culture. Did you know that Louis Armstrong sang Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy now? You’ll find it on YouTube. Paul Rouse tells of the ultimately doomed attempt to stage the Tailteann Games, Fionnuala Walsh heralds the reopening of Clery’s, while John Gibney recalls how Laurence Ginnell and Mary MacSwiney tried to seize the Irish consulate in Manhattan.

As ever with RIA publications, it is beautifully designed and illustrated, and a reasonably priced hardback to sit on your coffee table.

In a similar vein, the RIA has also released Irish lives in America, a tidy, handsome little paperback edited by Liz Evers and Niav Gallagher. It consists of 50 brief entries from the Dictionary of Irish Biography of both the well known and the underappreciated. For example, Patrick Geoghegan writes on film director Rex Ingram, while Linde Lunney outlines the life of computer programmer Kay McNulty. I love these collections.

Of course, another thing that happened in 1922 was the ratification of the Treaty. Given that it is the founding document of the state, it is surprising to discover how little significant critical analysis it has received over the years. Now, at its centenary, a number of books, scholarly and otherwise, have approached the subject afresh.

The first thing to say about Birth of a state: the Anglo-Irish treaty, by Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh and Liam Weeks, is just how beautifully written it is. The prose is lucid, smart, often even clever. Even though it is written by academics from different disciplines—history and political science—it flows. The authors look at the negotiations themselves, offer a fascinating examination of the demographics of the Second Dáil that voted on it, demolish the debates (‘shadowboxing’ and ‘characterised by an incestuous bitterness and personal animus, and a lack of sophistication’) and place the Treaty in an international context.

The book concludes with the text of the Treaty itself and a brief commentary on each of the eighteen articles, which is where, the authors argue, any reappraisal of it should start. Birth of a state is exceptionally readable, like good journalism.

A second book on the Treaty, which in this case deliberately tells the tale in a sort of vivid journalese, is Gretchen Friemann’s The treaty: the gripping story of the negotiations that brought about Irish independence and led to the Civil War. Friemann is, indeed, a journalist, and she presents the drama of the negotiations as a sort of long, entertaining feature piece for a Sunday broadsheet—a day-by-day, minute-by-minute narrative of the comings and goings, who went where, who secretly met whom, who drank what and who could crack a joke. The language is sharp and colourful—the delegates ‘traipsed back to Downing Street to deliver their decision’. Another good read.

The third book to address the Treaty takes a more personal approach. Five years ago, the grandchildren of Diarmaid Fawsitt, who served as economic advisor to the Irish delegation, began to research his life and work. That project quickly escalated to become The men and women of the Anglo-Irish treaty delegations 1921, in which relatives of many of the players, both major and minor, provide personal pen-pictures of their ancestors and their work at the time. The focus is not on the politics but on the people, including the otherwise nameless support staff. Although a limited-edition publication and not for sale, the book will be readily available through libraries.

Before the Treaty, of course, there had been war. Oral historian Tomás Mac Conmara, who has contributed to our Hedge School podcasts, now relates the brutal tale of The Scariff martyrs: war, murder and memory in East Clare. In November 1920, arguably the height of the War of Independence, four local men were shot dead by Auxiliaries on the narrow stone bridge that links Ballina, Co. Tipperary, with Killaloe, Co. Clare. Three of the men were an experienced IRA service unit; the fourth was a young lad in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mac Conmara tells the tale with the assistance of a few recorded reminiscences of those alive at the time, along with more general reminiscences which reflect the place that the killings hold in the local imagination. The men had been taken by surprise at their safe house on the banks of Lough Derg in a raid by the Auxies. Whether their location had been divulged by an informer or they had been lax in their security is open to debate. What is clear is that they were brutally tortured before their execution on the bridge. Their bodies were dumped in a local yard and withheld from relatives.

Among the essays in Gaelic Ireland (c. 600–c. 1700): lordships, saints and learning, the third collection of studies on the theme, retired teacher Chris Lawlor argues that as early as the twelfth century Irish society was ‘divided by a common religion’. Although the Hiberno-Norse blow-ins had converted to Christianity, they looked to Canterbury for direction, whereas the native Irish Church kept its own council. Both sides recognised a ‘savage other’. Indeed, Gerald of Wales insisted that Irish saints were ‘vindictive’. Other themes under study throw new light on tower-houses, medieval literary texts and aspects of kinship and culture.

To refer to a work as ‘a labour of love’ can at times seem to be damning with faint praise. This is not the case with the self-published Monuments to our past: understanding commemoration and the revolutionary period in Cork 1914–23. Clonakilty teacher and historian Kieran Doyle and colleague Alan O’Rourke spent three years collating this impressive catalogue/index/guidebook to 370 sites in the county where you can find some sort of monument to people and events related to the First World War, the War of Independence or the Civil War.

These monuments come in many forms, from a Celtic cross to an artwork, and from an obelisk to a transcript in a picture frame. Each is listed with its precise geolocation, easily searchable on Google maps, and there is a large index of photos at the back. But rather than just list and detail each monument, the authors also examine just what commemoration is and its many motivations, and they attempt to place each memorial in context. An example is a wall plaque at O’Shea’s pub in Eyeries, where on New Year’s Day 1916 Terence MacSwiney paraded the first company of Volunteers on Beara. Perhaps this book will inspire historical societies in other counties to engage in a similar exercise.

Eithne Massey, who has written a number of popular books that focus on Irish legend for both adults and children, has now tackled nature in The turning of the year: lore and legends of the Irish seasons. It ‘explores the Celtic division of the year, from Samhain to Imbolc, to Bealtaine, to Lunasa’, and examines ‘lost traditions such as keening and how other customs and rituals have been preserved in today’s celebrations and communal events’. Massey tells her stories well, but unfortunately the overall effect is diminished by the rather gloomy black-and-white photos, which have not been reproduced successfully.

Darragh Gannon and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Ireland 1922: independence, partition, civil war (Royal Irish Academy, €30 hb, 378pp, ISBN 9781911479796).

Liz Evers and Niav Gallagher (eds), Irish lives in America (Royal Irish Academy, €19.95 pb, 344pp, ISBN 9781911479802).

Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh and Liam Weeks (eds), Birth of a state: the Anglo-Irish treaty (Irish Academic Press, €19.95 pb, 272pp, ISBN 9781788551595).

Gretchen Friemann, The treaty: the gripping story of the negotiations that brought about Irish independence and led to the Civil War (Merrion Press, €16.95 pb, 300pp, ISBN 9781785374203).

Fiona Murray and Eda Sagarra (eds), The men and women of the Anglo-Irish treaty delegations 1921 (Laurelmount Press, 170pp, ISBN 9781399911139).

Tomás Mac Conmara, The Scariff martyrs: war, murder and memory in East Clare (Mercier Press, €19.99 pb, 260pp, ISBN 9781781177259).

Luke McInerney and Katherine Simms (eds), Gaelic Ireland (c. 600–c. 1700): lordships, saints and learning (Wordwell, €25 pb, 180pp, ISBN 9781913934668).

Kieran Doyle and Alan O’Rourke (eds), Monuments to our past: understanding commemoration and the revolutionary period in Cork 1914–23 (Kieran Doyle, 340pp, ISBN 9781399909273).

Eithne Massey, The turning of the year: lore and legends of the Irish seasons (O’Brien Press, €17.99 hb, 272pp, ISBN 9781788492119).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568