Irish Canadian conflict and the struggle for Irish independence, 1912–1925

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Irish Canadian Conflict-1ROBERT McLAUGHLIN
University of Toronto Press
CAN$29.95

ISBN 9781442610972

Any book on the Irish that begins with the 1998 peace talks in the North and ends with a reminder about Orange gunrunning during the Troubles is bound to fall into cliché. Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian conflict and the struggle for Irish independence, 1912–1925 is no exception, providing readers with a showcase of the sweeping generalisations and moral judgements that continue to plague the historiography of the Irish Revolution.

McLaughlin’s subject-matter is certainly exciting. With the so-called ‘decade of cen-tenaries’ upon us, the meaning of the Rising and the Anglo-Irish War has become a hot-button topic. Rip-roaring narratives about rebellious heroes and villainous unionists fill popular bookstores. Editorials litter national and regional newspapers, arguing about who controls the historical memory of the period. The announcement that a member of the British royal family might attend the Easter Rising’s centenary commemorations ruffled more than a few nationalist feathers. Lively as the discourse is, the varied perspectives of the Irish diaspora are rarely taken into account. Surely this book’s international lens would add a degree of nuance to the discourse surrounding one of the most controversial and painful topics in Irish history?

The image of Irish Canada that McLaughlin provides, however, is far too simple. His entire narrative is structured around a naïve, black-and-white reading of Irish Canadian responses to the Anglo-Irish War. There are clear goodies and baddies in this monograph. Irish Canadian nationalists (read: Catholics) ‘were hard-working Canadians who simply expressed a desire for their ancestral homeland to be granted the same measure of independence under which Canada prospered’ (p. 196), while Irish Canadian unionists (read: Protestants) opposed Home Rule with ‘a fanaticism reminiscent of the Crusaders’ (p. 195). McLaughlin’s analysis of his Catholic/ nationalist vs Protestant/unionist frame quickly devolves into pantomime-esque cheering and booing. Framing Irish Canadian responses along strictly sectarian lines is not only inaccurate but also dishonest.

One of McLaughlin’s main purposes in Irish Canadian conflict is to challenge traditional interpretations of how Irish identities were slowly integrated into society and Canadianised. Mark McGowan’s The waning of the green and Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth’s The sash Canada wore are his prime targets. These works focus on the Irish Catholic population of Toronto and the Orange Order in Canada respectively. What unites both of them is an agreement that Irish ethnic identities were slowly but quite successfully assimilated and diluted once they reached Canadian society. McLaughlin seems uncomfortable with this conclusion, and chooses to ignore both the vast numbers of Irish Catholics who fought in the First World War and the ethnic diversity that characterised the Orange Order by the twentieth century. The dodging of significant examples that don’t fit his narrow Orange–Green Irish Canadian dichotomy is a telling example of a historian writing from his heart rather than his head.

With regard to the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War, McLaughlin’s book contributes little to the existing literature. Old chestnuts about the execution of the Rising leaders and the shelling of Dublin turning ‘Irish public opinion entirely against British rule in Ireland’ are stated as fact, and his claim that news from Ireland was censored by the British government between 1919 and 1921 goes entirely unexplained and unsubstantiated.

Glaring—and perhaps fatal—flaws aside, McLaughlin’s work is not without value. In his 2009 essay ‘Stepping back and looking around’, Donald Akenson challenges Irish historians to study Irish nationalism through an international, big-picture lens. How members of the Irish diaspora around the world viewed and responded to the period can reveal large-scale patterns that would sophisticate our understanding of the mul-tiple strands of Irish Canadian nationalism. It is unfortunate, then, that McLaughlin assumes that the Irish Canadian press was representative of a singular Irish Canadian opinion. McLaughlin’s heavy reliance on newspapers and internal correspondence provides the reader with an interesting window into certain Irish Canadian points of view. Were McLaughlin to recognise the internal class, personal and professional tensions that were rife within the ‘Green’ and ‘Orange’ traditions, his work would have packed a more convincing punch.

Irish Canadian responses to events in Ireland as a field have the potential to develop into a fascinating historical approach that will help to illustrate the multiple variants of Irish nationalism and unionism around the globe. An excavation of Irish Canadian nationalism and unionism is certainly necessary, and in recent years a number of impressive, well-researched works have contributed to the field. International support for and resistance to Irish nationalism is a promising topic that has the potential to produce thoughtful, complicated understandings of the Irish experience in Canada. It is unfortunate, then, that Irish Canadian conflict and the struggle for Irish independence is not one of them.

Reviewed by
Daniel B. Panneton

Daniel B. Panneton is undertaking a Master’s in museum studies at the University of Toronto

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