Harry Boland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Letters, Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 12


—In his examiner’s report on my Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (HI 12.2, Summer 2004), Manus O’Riordan awards me ‘9 out of 10 as to balanced presentation of a voluminous amount of evidence’, but a miserable fail in applying my ‘declared aim of impartiality’ to the ‘accompanying commentary’. Though I declared no such aims in the book itself, balance and lack of partiality are indeed essential to any serious biography. The penalty point for imbalance is justified by my ‘remiss’ decision ‘to relegate to a mere footnote’ (p. 418, n. 115) evidence which by O’Riordan’s airy conjecture, not shared by Éamon de Valera or myself, suggests a conspiracy to murder Harry Boland. My 91 pages of ‘mere’ notes make such information available without rendering an already packed narrative unreadable. Instead of discussing the book’s major themes, your reviewer devotes most of his double-spread to a scathing deconstruction of my supposedly partisan use of words. Apart from impugning my fair-mindedness as a scholar, this approach raises significant issues concerning the appropriate tone to be adopted by biographers (and reviewers) who do not share sentiments expressed by their subjects.
The reviewer who sets out to expose political prejudice is always at risk of betraying a contrary prejudice in the course of glossing the offending phrases. O’Riordan’s technique is to take phrases out of context, omitting page references and often eliding two separate observations, and to damn these utterances with ejaculations such as ‘gratuitous sneer’, ‘disapproving tones’, ‘dismisses’, ‘disdains’, or ‘snidely’. I am relieved to discover that in most cases these imputations cannot be sustained by the statements in situ. To call Kate Boland a ‘self-styled “bean an tighe”’ (p. 30) is to report her revised self-classification in a census schedule without any ‘snide’ insinuation; to describe Kevin Boland’s memoir as ‘informative if quirky’ (p. 335, n. 12) is to convey its idiosyncratic style without any allusion to ‘political bias’. My remark that the family’s ‘authentic grief was a powerful engine of propaganda’ (p. 7) is not ‘disapproving’, but intended to illustrate ‘the uncertain boundary between private grief and public commemoration’. My anachronistic use (in an aside, p.  35) of the term ‘Axis powers’ is not a deliberate ‘conflation’ of the issues at stake in two world wars, but a slip. Immediately before noting ‘the extermination of the Dublin detective force by Collins’s notorious “Squad”’ (a group ‘notorious’ for its ruthlessness even among republicans), I refer even-handedly to ‘increasingly systematic campaigns of terror by both parties’ (p. 170). The term ‘murder’ is not reserved for killings by republicans, but applied (sparingly) to premeditated and unlawful homicides by all factions. Indeed, my discussion of the alleged conspiracy ‘to murder Harry’ (p. 322) is quoted by O’Riordan two paragraphs on. In these and most other cases (for which the curious reader should turn to pp. 12, 34, 43, 72, 106, 152 and 316), O’Riordan has failed in his primary duty to present a ‘balanced and impartial’ report.
Even so, as a biographer, I sympathise somewhat with the predicament of a reviewer who cavils at the tone adopted by his subject while acknowledging the substance of his achievement. Like any writer hoping to do justice to an influential but complex individual, driven by beliefs and allegiances far removed from one’s own, I tried to balance appreciation with scepticism, and to assess Harry Boland’s motives and actions from multiple perspectives. Having first learnt to decode his words and strategies by studying Harry through his own testimony, and that of his intimates, I tried equally to give voice to his political opponents, disillusioned colleagues, former girlfriends, and other observers who suspected ulterior motives. My commentary therefore resembles a debate, in which rhetorical devices such as irony, disconcerting comparisons, and even provocative phraseology are intrinsic to the analysis. Every biographer, unless an apologist or a debunker, is bound to favour counterpoint over harmony.
However, in Harry Boland, I faced the further challenge of trying to disentangle the record of an agile rhetorician who was also an inveterate conspirator and deceiver. As Harry himself mused during his first homeward voyage in May 1920: ‘Wonder if all the lies I am compelled to tell will count against me in the final tot’ (p. 167). My purpose was not so much to expose deceit as to understand its necessity from the subject’s perspective and its consequences for others. At the heart of my book, unremarked by O’Riordan, was an attempt to identify and document the workings of secretive fraternalism, that most elusive yet ubiquitous agency in Irish history. In undertaking my provisional ‘tot’ of what was indeed an ‘outstanding life’, I could not afford the academic luxury of anodyne ‘impartiality’ (as distinct from ‘multipartiality’). Instead, I sought balance through acting on occasion as a devil’s advocate, and fairness through speculative disputation rather than pronouncement. If I have indeed encouraged readers to ‘come to very different conclusions on the subject-matter than the author’s own evaluation’, my method stands vindicated.


—Yours etc.,
Trinity College, Dublin


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