MYTH AND THE IRISH STATE

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October), Reviews, Volume 22

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This significant and provocative book raises many questions about history-writing in Ireland. It is based on previously published articles by John Regan concerning the Treaty, Michael Collins and Southern nationalism, sectarianism during the Irish revolution and the intellectual influence of Conor Cruise O’Brien. Regan’s contention is that since 1968 Irish historians have laboured under the burden of what he terms ‘an ethno-religious civil war’. As a result of this, he claims, many historians produced work designed to legitimise the southern Irish state against the threat of insurgency, some of them deliberately ignoring or misusing historical evidence that might have bolstered contrary views. Thus they practiced ‘elision’ (‘the simple expedient of ignoring the evidence’) in order to produce ‘statist’ histories. Underlying this argument is a sense that producing the ‘right’ version of history brought rewards for some. If Irish historians disagree with Regan’s thesis (and it would appear that most of them do), then they should respond seriously to his arguments rather than dismissing the book by ad hominem attacks on its author or ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. Regan’s worries about patronage and power within academia are shared by many in the profession, and he is surely right to suggest that ‘society is better served by historians who are free to write about the past, much as they find it’.

There can be little argument about Regan’s assertions regarding the centrality of the Northern war. In 2004 Professor Tom Dunne explained how that conflict ‘was to overshadow all our lives, and to influence profoundly the kind of history my generation would write’. For Dunne this meant that historians like him were brought into ‘confrontation with mythologies designed to legitimise violence as a political weapon in a bid to overthrow the state’. Others have echoed these assertions, which suggests that Regan is correct about the importance of the modern ‘Troubles’. The expressions of shock that have greeted some of his claims are a little surprising, then, though they perhaps suggest that his critics have assumed that Regan is writing from an ‘anti-revisionist’ perspective. A close reading of this text makes such categorisation difficult, however. He is often generous to those he critiques, describing Tom Garvin’s 1922: the birth of Irish democracy as ‘fascinating and brilliantly argued’ and noting that Garvin’s evaluation of the political culture of the IRA ‘offers a refreshing and enlightening antidote to the Breen/Barry memoir genre’. On the thorny issue of sectarianism Regan describes as a ‘fundamental blind spot’ the failure of republican interpretations of revolutionary violence to grasp the ‘inescapable logic that in Ireland . . . religion and political identity are intertwined’.

Regan is most convincing when he returns to the argument presented in his classic study The Irish counter-revolution, 1921–36 (1999). He illustrated then that there could be no discussion of the Treaty split that did not take into account the ‘omnipresent threat of renewed British violence’. How could the 26-county electorate have decided freely on whether to accept the Treaty when the world’s most powerful empire held a threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ over their heads? Regan illustrates how many historians have downplayed or simply ignored this threat altogether, while painting the pro-Treaty side as democrats confronting a potential dictatorship. He contends that historians have ignored a key period during 1922 when Michael Collins essentially held power as a military ruler. Regan argues that Collins has been consistently presented as a moderate, democratic peacemaker in order to differentiate him from the supposedly dictatorial anti-Treatyites. Yet in reality, Regan suggests, Collins had in fact used his position within the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the IRA to assume dictatorial power himself by 1922. He notes that Collins took over control of both the National Army and government at the outbreak of the Civil War, all without ever consulting his cabinet colleagues. Neither did Collins consult the third Dáil, elected in June 1922, about going to war against the anti-Treatyites. Instead of grappling with these issues, many historians allowed the Civil War to be explained as simply a struggle fought in defence of law, order and constitutional democracy against anarchy. Regan makes a strong case in identifying ‘southern Irish nationalism’ as both a concept and a factor in how historians have written about the Treaty and beyond.

In other areas, however, such as those concerning the impact of historians on public consciousness, Regan’s arguments are less convin-cing. In describing how some writing on Collins has become a form of ‘secular hagiography’, Regan suggests that the late Peter Hart contributed to this in his biography of the ‘Big Fella’. But it was the actual Collins ‘hagiographers’ who objected most strongly to Hart’s critical depiction of their hero. It is surely significant that the key promoters of the modern Collins myth, Neil Jordan and Tim Pat Coogan, are self-proclaimed ‘anti-revisionists’. It is not usually Collins’s state-building that is celebrated as part of this myth but his ability, in the words of Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins in 2005, to ‘hit [the British] hard, hit them often, hit them where it hurts, hit them everywhere’. For their part, republicans have also been able to embrace the myth, An Phoblacht informing its readers in 1999 that the idea that the man ‘whose operators stiffed the cream of British Intelligence . . . ended up fighting to impose Westminster’s will on the Irish people’ was simply ‘garbage’. So the cult of Collins owes more to popular history than to academics.

Regan has also been publicly associated with the debate around Hart’s 1998 book, The IRA and its enemies. He is right to question why no senior Irish historian queried Hart’s use of sources even after serious questions had been raised about them. Regan sees Hart’s work as part of a more general attempt to delegitimise revolutionary violence in order to weaken the modern IRA, but I am not convinced that the contemporary republican movement could have been damaged by Hart’s claims about Cork during the 1920s, or that it fits neatly into a discussion about ‘statist’ Southern history. As Regan notes, much of the initial controversy over The IRA and its enemies concerned those who through, ‘perhaps, a misplaced belief the IRA upheld codes of chivalry’ were eager to defend the reputation of the ‘old’ IRA. But had Hart’s book been published during the 1980s I suspect that clever republicans would have used it to show that even the ‘Good Old IRA’ had been capable of some very bloody activities, while pointing out that these occurred in the context of a war that the majority of southerners now accepted as necessary. It has been my experience that republicans are far more flexible in their use of the best of ‘revisionist’ history than those who see themselves as the gatekeepers of historical tradition.

Regan’s discussion of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘liberalism’ asks whether an ‘O’Brien ethic’ that saw the primary need to defend the state against ‘terrorism’ influenced the writing of Irish historians. There is no doubt that O’Brien was a significant figure, not least because he wielded governmental power. But there is also a danger that in concentrating on O’Brien we forget how censorship and repressive powers were utilised by all administrations in that era. Regan implies that the ‘doom laden’ warnings of civil strife during the 1970s were simply an excuse for O’Brien to unleash a ‘green scare’. But such fears were being expressed regularly throughout the early 1970s from across the political spectrum. Cardinal William Conway spoke of the South as a ‘boiling volcano’ of potential violence, journalist Mary Holland noted that the belief that ‘it’s all going to start down here’ was general amongst southerners and so on. Regan suggests that state spending on security did not reflect any real threat. But both the Gardaí and the Defence Forces were substantially re-equipped and reinforced after 1970. Indeed, by 1974 a writer in Garda Review could cheekily suggest that maybe ‘we should thank God for the IRA’. Senior Irish army officers would argue the same year that the modernisation of the military after 1969 had made intervention across the border in the event of a ‘Doomsday’ situation a real possibility. The sense of crisis was real, not contrived.
Nor is it the case that historians dutifully followed ‘the Cruiser’s’ lead. John A. Murphy consistently disputed the idea that defending the Easter Rising either legitimised the modern IRA or inspired violence in the North, arguing that ‘if 1916 was never commemorated in the South, it seems to me that the unfulfilled nationalist aspiration of the northern minority would still latch on to 1916’. Murphy also warned that what he described as O’Brien’s ‘revisionism’ involved not just ‘distortion’ and ‘compromise with intellectual honesty’ but was leading to ‘something like a neo-unionist position’. Tom Garvin criticised O’Brien for ‘sentimentalising’ the historic relationship between Britain and Ireland, arguing that the 1916 Rising was the ‘natural result’ of British misrule. Indeed, he suggested, the Rising helped Ireland to avoid a bloody sectarian war, as it defined the struggle as ‘between England and Ireland, rather than between Catholics and Protestants’. This was because, Garvin claimed, Irish nationalism had ‘usually practised an essential anti-sectarianism, unlike Irish unionism, which historically has always had deep difficulties with Irish Catholicism’. Such views suggest a diversity of opinion among historians that Regan tends to ignore.

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The battles over interpreting Irish history were fought out in the pages of the Sunday Press and the Sunday World, in workplaces and GAA clubs, as well as in academia. Many Southern nationalists, raised on legends of the ‘old IRA’, were simply appalled by the reality of an armed struggle that seemed to break every rule to which they sincerely believed that the ‘Boys of the Old Brigade’ had adhered. As the historian Liam de Paor, a critic of revisionism, argued in 1973, it was what he called the ‘bloody folly’ of the IRA’s bombing campaign that had opened the door to a ‘sustained attack’ on Irish republicanism. Assessing the impact of this means applying as close an eye to popular history and its practitioners as to ‘the academy’ and being aware that elision can occur there as well.

Brian Hanley is co-author (with Scott Miller) of The lost revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party.

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