The dynamics of war and revolution: Cork City, 1916–1918

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

John Borgonovo
(Cork University Press, €39)
ISBN 9781909005822

10After a slow start, local histories of the Irish revolution have multiplied over the past fifteen years, with monographs on Sligo, Longford, Limerick and Clare, as well as wider-ranging regional studies, chapters in the massive county volumes of interdisciplinary essays from Geography Publications, more or less ‘popular’ retellings and hagiographies in the Kerryman tradition, and innumerable articles and booklets by local historians. At least three new series of local studies covering part or all of the period 1916–23 threaten to inundate an already muddy field over the next few years. The local focus allows historians to place revolutionary events in a specific socio-economic context, to uncover political lineages and continuities, and to test revolutionary rhetoric against performance and reception within a particular community. Yet there is no consensus about what questions to ask, what sources to seek, or what statistical or other tests to apply when offering judgements. Even so, the intense debates provoked by earlier studies make it difficult for newcomers to avoid contentious issues such as the impact of sectarianism, the morality of republican violence, the extent of popular support and the degree to which revolutionary activists truly broke with the past.

No part of revolutionary Ireland has received more intense scrutiny than Cork, which experienced more lethal violence and more intense coercion than any other county. Cork provided the setting for Peter Hart’s controversial yet compelling The IRA and its enemies (1998). Hart showed equal insight into the psychology of the perpetrators and the victims of violence, and his empathy with ‘outsiders’ who became innocent victims led him to some alarming conclusions about the sectarianism (and mendacity) of widely admired perpetrators such as Tom Barry. Less rigorously, Gerard Murphy’s The year of disappearances (2010) provided further evidence of brutal sectarian murders and sinister abductions in the city. Such works have prompted a number of local historians and biographers to defend the integrity of the revolutionaries. In addition, apologists of contemporary republicanism have set out to discredit, sometimes by foul means as well as fair, the integrity of those denigrating the revolutionaries.

John Borgonovo, already the author of three books on Cork republicanism, does not directly re-enter this minefield in his new political history of the city between the 1916 rebellion (otherwise rising) and the 1918 election. Instead, he returns to the slightly less-trodden terrain of political republicanism in its least violent and most populist manifestation, before the toughs took over the show (or perhaps before they had toughened). The narrative is jaunty and endearingly old-fashioned. Borgonovo’s celebratory tone is evident in headings such as ‘Twilight of the Mollies’, ‘Reception of the Released Prisoners’, ‘Continued Clashes’, ‘Rising from the Ashes’ and ‘The Victory of Sinn Féin’. He has appropriately little to say about the non-rising in Cork, beyond pointing out that ‘the only blow struck in Cork during the entire week’ may have been a Volunteer punch aimed at the ‘ringleader’ of ‘a mob of angry pro-British civilians’ on Easter Monday (p. 43). He also explores the traumatic consequences of non-participation in stiffening the resolve of leaders ‘desperate to regain their credibility’, such as MacCurtain and MacSwiney (p. 84).
Borgonovo is at pains to compare his findings with previous studies, typically rejecting ‘revisionist’ interpretations on issues such as sectarianism, hostility to ex-servicemen, Home Rule wine in Sinn Féin bottles and popular commitment to republicanism. Thus republican propagandists in 1918 did not make an issue of the Protestantism of the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate Maurice Talbot-Crosbie (p. 219), and even displayed ‘a more nuanced attitude than is often appreciated’ towards ex-soldiers (p. 222). Only four out of 63 leading republican and labour activists in 1918–20 had previously held public office, indicating an almost clean sweep of the former nationalist élite (p. 80). Reverting to Brian Farrell’s dubious claim that the vote in 1918 reflected a generational gulf between ageing Home Rulers and young, previously disenfranchised Sinn Féiners (p. 228), he ignores the more plausible thesis that the new movement drew much of its electoral support from former Home Rulers and their families. Though not always convincing, Borgonovo’s findings for Cork introduce welcome fresh evidence that should keep these debates simmering for a while yet.

Among the most original and interesting chapters are those devoted to women, documenting the unusually enterprising activities of Cumann na mBan and the vindictiveness of many Catholic republicans towards women of loose morals (and the visiting American sailors with whom they so willingly consorted). The latter campaign, not openly endorsed by Sinn Féin’s Cork leaders, calls to mind today’s ‘concerned residents’ associations’ and ‘direct action against drugs’. Due attention is paid to the resilience of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the regeneration of trade unions towards the end of the war. Throughout the book, however, there are distracting errors, oddities and false notes. The Boys’ Brigade was not confined to members of the Church of Ireland (p. 18). The reader should have been spared epithets such as ‘sad-faced Tadgh Barry’, ‘gentle’ Terry MacSwiney, and Seán O’Hegarty of the supposedly ‘blazing eyes’ (p. 22). And so on.

A welcome aspect of this book is that, unlike most recent studies, it tries to set political changes firmly in the context of the Great War and its social and economic consequences for Cork. Borgonovo rejects the notion that cities such as Cork did well out of the war, concentrating on evidence of urban poverty rather than agricultural prosperity. Unfortunately, his presentation of statistics for prices, wages, exports and especially military enlistment is naive and haphazard. Even so, in a scholarly world increasingly indifferent to statistics, and indeed to socio-economic determinants of political behaviour, Borgonovo’s instincts are sound. He cannot match the analytical power and eloquence of Hart, the intellectual range of Townshend or the meticulousness of Laffan. Yet this relatively slim volume is a significant addition to the buckling shelf of Irish revolutionary studies. HI

David Fitzpatrick is Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin.

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