Dev—convict or prisoner of war?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 11

Sir—David Fitzpatrick’s article in the Summer 2002 issue (HI 10.2), ‘De Valera’s Performance as a Convict 1916–17’, is valuable as an examination of some important documents relating to the development of twentieth-century Irish history, but is nevertheless open to criticism on several points.
The title, which accepts the English designation of the Irish prisoners as convicts, is especially controversial. Viewed impartially, the Irish claim that they were prisoners of war should be the accepted one. By the 1907 revision of the Geneva Convention, the Irish Volunteers should have been treated as belligerents, and the captured soldiers as prisoners of war. Notwithstanding the fact that Britain, not being a signatory to the 1907 Convention, was not bound to its terms, the Geneva Conventions are accepted as international law for the conduct of warfare, and should be seen as such by historians.
The reports by officials of the prisons in which de Valera was incarcerated in the period 1916–17 are not subjected to much analysis in Fitzpatrick’s article; such analysis is reserved for the biography of de Valera by Longford and O’Neill, which is based on interviews with the subject and on his papers. Fitzpatrick’s approach is, one suspects, based on the assumption that the prison officials were more impartial in their reports. This is a perception that could be undermined if reference had been made to other prisoners’ accounts. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the differing accounts of de Valera’s order to the prisoners, when Eoin MacNeill was brought to the prison, to stand to attention. Longford and O’Neill have it that the prisoners obeyed, and that de Valera, having been sent to his cell but not further punished, was thenceforth accepted as their leader.
Governor Reade’s account to a prison commissioner completely contradicts this, stating that the prisoners ignored the order, and that de Valera gave an abject apology. ‘From this viewpoint’, writes Fitzpatrick, ‘de Valera’s gesture of solidarity with Mac Neill seemed less a triumph than a fiasco, generating self-abasement rather than dominance’. One might wonder how, after such a display, fellow prisoners such as Thomas Ashe, Austin Stack and Harry Boland ever accepted de Valera’s leadership, given the militant mood existing in the prison at the time. However, Fitzpatrick elsewhere cites Reade’s description of de Valera as a ‘firebrand’, whom the others looked up to as a leader. Another account of the incident was given by Robert Brennan (Allegiance, p. 103):

We were all conscious that the prisoners had mixed feelings about [MacNeill], as he had prevented the Rising from being what might have been. To our amazement, de Valera stepped out from our ranks and faced us. His voice rang out: ‘lrish Volunteers! Attention! eyes left!’ The command—a salute to MacNeill—was obeyed with military precision. ‘Eyes front!’ Again the command was obeyed and de Valera stepped back into the ranks, leaving us all a bit dazed by his amazing chivalry and courage. This was rank mutiny, one of the offences involving corporal punishment. De Valera was marched off to separate cells. We did not know what was going to happen to him. As it turned out, nothing did, except that he was returned to us in the afternoon. The governor had wisely decided that harsh measures would not mend matters.

Brennan wrote in an article, included in Ireland standing firm (Cork, 2001), that de Valera, in his early leadership style, deliberately refrained from action, to the chagrin of some more impatient colleagues, until the repercussions of actions within the prison would be maximised by the favourable state of public opinion without. Whether or not this analysis is correct, for anyone interested in the topic it is worthwhile reading Brennan’s intelligent account of his experiences as a prisoner in England from 1916–17. Some of the documents cited by Fitzpatrick are written by de Valera himself, and criticism of these is perfectly valid. However, Fitzpatrick often makes the mistake of criticising de Valera’s personality (for instance, his doing something ‘grovellingly [sic], or perhaps sardonically’) rather than his leadership style: a mistake not uncommon, but in a time when nationalist figures of Ireland’s past are targeted using the underhand method of pseudo-psychoanalytic critique, it is one which all historians should endeavour to avoid. One would not wish to undermine the value of Professor Fitzpatrick’s work on these files, but perhaps it would benefit from the use of more of the available evidence.

—Yours etc.,
Dublin 7

Author’s reply

The ethics of writing history, though less interesting than de Valera’s career as a ‘convict’ or would-be ‘prisoner of war’, deserve some debate. Why ‘should’ historians condemn the British government for not observing a convention to which it was not a signatory? Why must ‘all historians . . . endeavour to avoid’ the supposed ‘mistake of criticising de Valera’s personality’? Why ought contributors of short articles to History Ireland present a multitude of evidence, thus challenging the editor to enforce his draconian word-limit? Historians may properly be chastised for partiality, imbalance and error, but not for selectivity when designed to highlight conflicting accounts from different perspectives. My article gave equal prominence to a single heroic narrative of de Valera’s incarceration and a single set of fresh, circumstantial reports from prison officers, who were less dismissive and more inquisitive about their remarkable inmate than might have been expected. Longford and O’Neill drew heavily on Robert Brennan’s lively but melodramatic account, published a third of a century after the event, by one of de Valera’s most faithful supporters and skilful apologists. I might more pertinently have referred to de Valera’s own admission in 1928 to Brennan’s fellow-propagandist Frank Gallagher, cited in Tim Pat Coogan’s De Valera: Long Fellow, long shadow (London, 1993), p. 80, that the prisoners did not in fact come to attention, as ordered, upon MacNeill’s arrival in Dartmoor. The sources for de Valera’s career are legion, contradictory and in almost every case ‘partial’ in one direction or another. The historian’s obligation is to present that diversity of evidence without caricature, without undue reverence, and without bowing to restrictive injunctions such as those proposed by Mr Guerin.
Trinity College, Dublin


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