Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781801510370

Reviewed by Daniel Ayiotis

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I’ll start this review with my only criticism, to get it out of the way: the title of this book undersells it. When this nearly 400-page tome arrived in the post, I anticipated a chronological trudge through biographies of the 36 commanders who found themselves in the top military post in Ireland between 1796 and independence. I could not have been more wrong. Rather, this book takes a thematic approach to the commanders’ tenures in Ireland, with chapters examining their diverse range of experiences during war, rebellion and revolution and their influences on society, culture, trade and religion. The result is a book that hits that sweet spot between being rigorously researched and being accessible, interesting and entertaining. In defence of the title, I’m assuming that it was a choice between something succinct and marketable and something more long-winded and baroque: perhaps something along the lines of ‘The military and social adventures and misadventures of the commanders of the British forces in Ireland and their wives’. As far as the commanders’ wives are concerned, Viscountess Wolseley is most prominent, whether meticulously planning and supervising the decoration of the commander’s residence at Kilmainham to her taste (which took a year and included transporting their extensive bric-à-brac collection from England) or awarding prizes to children for essays on the theme of temperance. I accept that these are slightly irreverent examples, but I provide them to illustrate that the lives described in this book are rich, complex, humorous at times and very human. Importantly, Tony Gaynor achieves this without compromising or apologising for the often-violent colonial legacy embodied by his subjects.   

For my own part, as the Director of the Military Archives, I have spent the ‘decade of centenaries’ steeped in the documentary heritage of Óglaigh na hÉireann. The decade has allowed us not so much to revise our understanding of the revolutionary years as to broaden, deepen and nuance our existing understanding of the events on this island 100 years ago. The distance of time has generally allowed for cooler heads and less ideological, more impersonal analysis. Occasional charges of revisionism towards some historians only highlight existing biases and sensitivities against new evidence that challenges pre-held or comfortable beliefs, often touchstones of binary personal or political identities. New evidence requires new analysis, and these last ten years have been characterised by an unprecedented democratisation of Irish archives in terms of public access, the quantity of sources available and the people represented therein.

The decade has, however, been somewhat more ambiguous in achieving the anticipated sense of rapprochement in the perceived legacy of hostility or silences surrounding the 1916–23 period. I say perceived, as I believe that such sentiments are misplaced. Eunan O’Halpin, for example, has made very strong arguments that Civil War reconciliation began much sooner after independence than it has become believed to have done in popular contemporary imagination, while the misconception that revolutionaries were reluctant to testify to their experiences has been tackled masterfully by Síobhra Aiken in Spiritual wounds. This perception has been perpetuated by attempts either to weaponise history (for example, the reductive posture of the oration at the 2022 Liam Lynch commemoration at Kilcrumper cemetery in Cork, describing a ‘right side’ and ‘wrong side’ of the Civil War) or to tackle it obliquely where deemed too politically sensitive (for example, the commemoration of Civil War dead through an invitation-only ceremony at the National Concert Hall, or the absence of a State-led commemoration for the National Army dead of 1922–3).

All the while, as we have striven to develop our understanding of the history and legacy of colonialism and the independence struggle, the two-dimensional pantomime villain of the commander of the British forces in Ireland has lurked on the periphery. As the embodiment of British martial power, he stands perpetually in the metaphorical diorama of Irish revolutionary history, ready to strangle nationalist or republican aspirations at birth with the might of the British Army. This is not necessarily an unfair attribution but, as Gaynor demonstrates, it is only part of the story. The commander was, for a long time, an important and popular society figure as well as a military one. Naturally, this waned in direct relationship to the national and cultural revival during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If there is need for rapprochement, then, it is in terms of understanding and coming to terms with Ireland’s relationship with Britain and, in particular, with our unionist brethren north and south. Whether it’s Prince Harry topping the Irish book charts, St Patrick’s Saltire appearing embedded in many of our island’s flags and in much of its symbolism and heraldry, or the massive Irish fandom for British soccer teams and television shows, Ireland and Britain are inextricably interlinked, for better or for worse. In this book Gaynor addresses the contribution of these men to Irish history, a contribution that has thus far been overlooked.

The commander of the British forces in Ireland, who resided at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, represented British military authority. His counterparts, the viceroy and chief secretary, represented political authority. As Gaynor explains, while the commanders occupied a very significant and powerful position within the British administration, they did not operate unilaterally but were subordinate to political authority. While the execution of their duties was guided by the professional and legislative strictures to which they were subject, their tenures were equally coloured by their respective personalities and competencies.

One illustration of this dynamic is the 1798 Rebellion. The primary role of the commander was to protect the British regime in Ireland from internal threat, something towards which some commanders took a more brutal approach than others. General Lake, whose leadership of the army precipitated the 1798 Rebellion, earned a reputation as ‘a butcher’ among nationalists for his aggressive approach to suppressing the threat posed by the United Irishmen and Catholic Defenders. The viceroy (Earl Camden) believed that Lake had ‘not such extensive military knowledge as to make him quite fit for so complicated and extensive a command’, so just two months into his tenure he was replaced by General Cornwallis. Cornwallis, who found himself dealing with the aftermath of the rebellion, was appalled by the army’s violence and took a more measured approach. This perceived leniency then saw him run afoul of angry loyalists, who complained to sympathetic political allies in London and who, Cornwallis believed, exaggerated the extent of the rebellion with the intention of stirring further violent reprisal against Catholics and nationalists to keep them in their place.

The same power play is evident throughout other instances of Irish rebellion and revolution. In 1803 General Fox was criticised and relieved of his command after being taken by surprise by Robert Emmet’s rebellion, for not having deployed troops on the streets despite martial law not coming into effect. General Friend found himself similarly scapegoated and replaced following the outbreak of the 1916 Easter Rising for what was first and foremost a failure of the chief secretary and his staff at Dublin Castle. This was later vindicated in the commission of inquiry into the Rising, which reported that, ‘as long as Ireland was under civil government’, the military ‘could only aid in the suppression of disorder when duly called on by the civil power’. Nonetheless, Friend was replaced by General Maxwell on 27 April. ‘Bloody’ Maxwell undoubtedly experienced the loneliness of command when he was left by the British government to deal with the Rising as he saw fit, and his policy of secret court martials and speedy executions served to turn public opinion in favour of the rebels, fomenting resentment and bitterness among the population and providing a tail wind to the movement towards physical resistance to British rule. Ultimately it was the final commander, General Nevil Macready, who reaped the whirlwind for this, having to travel everywhere with an armed convoy, living under constant domestic security and finally watching Ireland disappear over the horizon as he sailed away, considering himself as the last in a succession of ‘British’ commanders that he traced back to Strongbow in the twelfth century.

The period 1796–1922 was not characterised solely by war, sedition and rebellion for the commanders in Ireland. Their primary role was in aid to the civil power and there was much more to their life in the Irish command. Gaynor illustrates how the commander was something of a celebrity in Irish society: when a new appointee was announced, the press would speculate on how his tenure might be characterised, and once he was in office his movements and activities were closely reported in the papers. In fact, as Gaynor points out, the extent to which the commander fulfilled his social responsibilities was a significant yardstick in adjudicating the success of his period in command. Under General Michel, for example, the position of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in the social life of the city was considered second only to Dublin Castle. Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar and his wife gained rapid popularity during his tenure for their ‘dinners, dances and receptions’, and Lord Wolseley, though criticised for his ‘apparent indifference’ to his social duties by Vanity Fair and being regarded as more of a man of ‘literary pursuits’, was also considered a ‘charming conversationalist’, a ‘delightful host’ and something of an enthusiastic dancer.

I mentioned at the start of my review that I have spent most of the ‘decade of centenaries’ as the Director of the Military Archives, but I have spent the last twenty as an army officer. Through the lens of this latter role, one of the things I found most intriguing and amusing was the routine of garrison life for the commander, his officers, NCOs and men. Gaynor’s research, whether deliberately or incidentally, has captured aspects of military life and in-house detail that could be directly transposed onto the profession of arms as it stands today. Commanders found themselves advocating for the discipline and moral welfare of the troops, discouraging alcohol and the frequenting of brothels—the very same issues that the Irish Army found itself dealing with in the 1920s. A more contemporarily relatable example (which I reproduce here in a spirit of irreverence and light-heartedness!) is Wolseley’s observation of mess life in 1893 that, ‘when I joined, if a man talked of military matters at mess he was hooted’. On a more serious note, many of the commanders were keen advocates for the education of their officers and NCOs. In the 21st century, further, continuing and third-level education is a cornerstone of continuous professional development in the Irish Defence Forces and most other western forces, a recognition of its universal potential to improve all ranks. As this book demonstrates, however, over a century ago men like Wolseley already recognised that the ‘modern soldier’ needs to be a ‘thinking person’.

Whether you’re a ‘modern soldier’, historian or general reader, Gaynor offers something to interest you in this well-researched, accessible examination of a previously under-examined character from Irish history.

Commandant Daniel Ayiotis is the Director of the Irish Military Archives and the author of The Military Archives: a history (Eastwood Books, 2022).


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