Nationalism and Independence Selected Irish Papers, Nicholas Mansergh and Diana Mansergh (ed.). (Cork University Press, £45 hb, £14.95 pb) ISBN 1 85918 105 8, 1 85918 10 6 6

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 1998), Reviews, Volume 6

Nicholas Mansergh was one of the last great historians of empire. He thus wrote with more elegance than Gibbon but with the dry wit of one who has witnessed folly amid the collapse of kings and princes. In a wonderful diary entry of 29 June 1937, the twenty-seven year old Mansergh cynically records a luncheon at which an English lady chose to exhibit an insolent contempt for all things Irish. ‘One would not mind this sort of thing,’ the historian records, ‘if the people who said it could possibly be regarded as industrious, competent or of more than average intelligence; but with rare exceptions the products of the “gentry” here seem to be the most incompetent, the most critical and in many instances the most idle people I have met. I am one of them myself’.
But of course, Mansergh’s career was one of unremitting labour, his critical faculties forever circling his prey. be it de Valera’s obsession with the Crown—or, rather, the British obsession with its symbolism—the life of Eoin MacNeill, the importance of local history or India’s ability to absorb Commonwealth membership into an independent republic. He has none of the modern historian’s need for ‘colour’ and physical,. tactile description. This is analysis of the most careful, laborious, accurate kind. And, as such, it has its drawbacks.                                                   Here, for example, is a typical passage on India’s independence movement:

In the thirties, when the die-hards in opposition to the Government of India Bill, itself essentially a temporising device behind its impressive federal facade, apparently saw little inconsistency in championing the cause of the minorities, the illiterate masses and the outcasts, while at the same time seeking to muster a ‘solid phalanx of Rolls Royce rajahs’ as a barrier, first to the advance and then to the entrenchment of a Congress raj, attitudes uninhibitedly taken up by, but by no means confined exclusively to, the extreme right, seemed to indicate, and not only to Gandhi, that an interpretation might be placed on British responsibilities, which would afford reason for them to stay forever.

Hands up those who had to re-read this sentence more than twice. Indeed, hands up those who reached for their Bushmills upon reaching the last words. Should Diana Mansergh, to whom we owe this wonderful collection, have used her editor’s discretion upon her late husband’s essays and speeches? I think not; for it is Mansergh’s style to make the reader (or listener) work hard, to avoid the use of easy grammar, to treat the double negative as a form of elegance. And how pleasant it is to read a political analysis of such Victorian strength without encountering the garbage semantics of ‘key players’, ‘game plans’ and ‘core issues’ with which our modern-day commentators surround themselves.
Mansergh’s breadth of vision—his ability to roam across continents for political parallels and lessons—is astonishing. He quotes Churchill telling Mackenzie King that the Indian question was between different ‘sects or nations’ in India, ‘a hundred millions, declare they will insist upon Pakistan, i.e. a sort of Ulster in the North’. And it is not difficult to understand the allusion to de Valera when Mansergh quotes Sir Penderel Moon on the Indian Congress party who ‘passionately desired to preserve the unity of India…[yet]…they consistently acted so as to make its partition certain’. And who but Mansergh could have compared John Redmond, carried away in ‘the gale of the world’, with the Serb military leader Dragoljub-Draza Mihailovitch, whose Royalist battle in wartime Yugoslavia led him to make alliance with the Germans—and thus sealed his fate in Tito’s post-war republic.
‘In respect of commemoration revolutionaries are the great traditionalists’, Mansergh notes; and his constant re-analysis of Ireland’s post-1920 path from Crown and Commonwealth—and of de Valera’s notion of external relations—is a valuable antidote to the false history provided by the sloppy and the politically motivated; Professor Joe Lee is still fighting the battle to remind readers that partition was enshrined in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act—not the Treaty—while until recently the events of 1798 were equally submerged in a deep (and largely Catholic) distortion bath. In conversation with de Valera in 1952, Mansergh notes what is for the Taoiseach the ‘supreme importance of words—of the right word in politics’. It is a passion which Mansergh shared—and which must have increased his affection for de Valera.
‘Everything in Ireland including the stature and features of Englishmen goes to extravagance’, an Irish economist tells Mansergh, who goes on to quote Friedrich Engels:

‘The Anglo-Irish landowners’, wrote Engels, were ‘mostly tall, handsome men with enormous moustaches under colossal Roman noses’, who gave themselves ‘the sham military airs of retired colonels’ and were ‘laden with debts’. They should all, he said, be shot. His description might almost pass today though the allusion to sham military airs is out of place in reference to a small community from whom almost all the successful British generals of the last war were drawn.

If Mansergh occasionally gets it wrong (he predicted Ireland’s future role in the UN would produce embarrassment rather than pride), his essays and addresses on partition and nationalism retain their relevance—and perhaps contain greater meaning than they did when they were written in the sixties and seventies. Repeatedly, he defines the irreconcilable demands of unionists and nationalists. Arthur Balfour had argued that there was no half-way house between union and separation (‘in that important respect, at least, he was at one with Sinn Féin’, Mansergh remarks) while ‘the greater their (Sinn Féin’s) insistence upon the Catholic-Gaelic foundation of Irish nationhood, the more acute the Northerners’ feelings that they were, and indeed were deemed to be, alien to it’.

The unionist claim, however, was not the same as Pakistan’s at the time of Indian partition. The unionists ‘were in Ireland but not unreservedly of it; of Britain, again with qualification, but not in it’. Gerry Adams might, for his part, ponder Mansergh’s observation that ‘men who make revolutions are rarely in a predicament; men who find themselves in revolutionary situations very often are’. Which is why, I suppose, it is so difficult to end war and start peace.

Robert Fisk


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