Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution, David Fitzpatrick. (Cork University Press, £14.95) ISBN 1859181740 The Two Irelands, 1912-1939, David Fitzpatrick. (Oxford University Press, £8.95) ISBN 019289240

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

It is a pleasure to note that David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life is once more available, this time in paperback, twenty-two years after its original publication. That the book did not reach a wider circulation was due to a warehouse fire. But flames could not extinguish this fine work which has well stood the test of time. Fitzpatrick set out to examine the course of the national revolution not in a province, as the sub-title suggests, but in County Clare, yet he is entirely successful in putting developments in that county within the context of national events.
I very much enjoyed re-reading what is in fact, a rather short book–235 pages of text. This is lean, clear writing, packed with insight, wit and analysis. It is most readable, yet backed by an array of statistics concerning newspaper coverage of organisations, meetings, recruitment and individuals. In addition, it has a chronology, massive references notes (forty pages), several maps and the most extraordinary annotated bibliography I have ever seen—with cross references within it as well as with the index.
Fitzpatrick’s approach is fair, balanced and neutral, with a touch of irreverence, indeed a model of objectivity. He has no axes to grind or sermons to preach. When the book was first published in 1977 there could have been the hope, if not the expectation, that it would stimulate studies of similar quality of the period of national upheaval in other counties, but that has not proven to be the case. My only criticism is that he seems to emphasise that the politically active people in Clare were only manoeuvring for personal advantage and enhanced status, with little or no concern for political principles and idealism. He concludes the book with the comment that after the civil war Ireland settled down to the ‘familiar muddle of Irish life—with all its evils, injustices, absurdities, palliatives and delights’. This seems to me to be unnecessarily dismissive. Do not all countries muddle along, at least most of the time? I also think there were, and are, other positive aspects of Irish life than he allows.
Since 1977 Fitzpatrick has produced a wide range of historical work, most notably a huge collection of correspondence between Irish emigrants in Australia and the people back home. Last year he published the best short study I have ever read of the political evolution of Ireland from 1912 to 1939. With nary a wasted word, he compares the development of the two political entities on the island. His insights are wonderfully stimulating. Among these is a comparison between the two educational systems. In the North Orangemen fended off Protestant clerical control of education, while in the Free State both major political parties allowed the Catholic Church to retain effective control. The persistence of Unionists in gerrymandering electoral districts in ‘Ulster’ certainly was sowing dragons teeth. I particularly liked the short chapter titles: ‘Whose Revolution?’, ‘Why?’, ‘How?’, etc. It also contains a useful chronology. Here is the book for the intelligent layman who wants to know about the background to the events in Northern Ireland since 1968.
Peter Hart, who studied under Fitzpatrick at Trinity College, has written a study of the most noted unit in one of the world’s most famous revolutionary organisations—the Cork branch of the Irish Republican Army—during the revolutionary period from 1916 to 1923. Since every student of Irish history has heard about the activities of these youngsters from County Cork, it is well to have a fresh look at what they were doing.
His opening chapter, ‘The Killing of Sergeant O’Donoghue’, is a fine piece of historical writing in which he shows the conflict between those supporters of constitutional nationalism and the raw radical republicanism inspired by the 1916 Rising. He rightly draws our attention to the fact that Munster, and Cork in particular, was the most violent area in the country during this period. He estimates that over seven hundred people in Cork were killed during the struggle for national independence. He also makes the point that most of the people killed by the Cork IRA did not die in skirmishes or ambushes in which both sides had arms, but as a result of shootings of unarmed persons.
Hart has amassed a wealth of data and has assembled it into a plethora of revealing statistics. For example, his examination of the social composition of committed Volunteers shows that many of them came from households without fathers present. Even at this late date he found many very old people who had lived through the events. A lot of his analysis is based on the recollections of a dozen aged IRA men. Memory is fallible even in the short term and to accurately recall events of the extreme past is very difficult.
What was particularly stimulating was the connection he makes between celebratory youth groups, like the Wren Boys, the Straw Boys, etc. and the IRA, which he sees as ‘a natural extension of this youth subculture and its body of unspoken assumptions and bonds’. There are also wonderfully acerbic but insightful comments of Edith Somerville about the course of events. I would like to see in print her unpublished article ‘Ourselves Alone’, written about 1920. As well, I had not realised that there had been so much violence during elections in the immediate pre-war period in Cork.
Playing the role of the young iconoclast, he wades into deep water in his effort to discredit one of the great men of Irish guerrilla warfare—Tom Barry. Hart has carefully dissected the famous Kilmichael ambush of November 1920 and has come to the conclusion that Barry for the next half century peddled an inaccurate, indeed untrue version of the event. Barry’s account was that he ordered the killing of all of the British soldiers caught in the ambush after some of them pretended to surrender, causing the deaths of three Volunteers. Hart makes the point that Barry intended to have a conclusive shoot-out if the situation arose and that, in his first report of the incident, Barry did not say anything about a ‘false surrender’. This account supposedly was acquired by British forces and relegated to the back files of intelligence material.
Seeking to support the legitimacy of the document, Hart argues that British intelligence did not counterfeit IRA material, but it certainly did. As well, if the British military had secured an authentic report from Barry that provided no justification for the killing of defenceless soldiers surely Dublin Castle propagandists would have made use of it. Based on these considerations, it is proper to raise questions about what happened at Kilmichael but not to conclude that Barry was guilty of ‘lies and evasions’.
Because he gives only scant and occasional notice of the political factors—the dominance of Sinn Féin, the emergence of Dáil Éireann government, etc., Hart does not provide an adequate historical context for the activities of the military side of the independence movement. In his preface he refers to ‘the rise and fall of the revolutionary movement within a single county’, but the book is almost entirely about the military side. Moreover, many would argue that the movement did not fall or fail, but reached fulfilment, either in the short or long term.
Hart also says that the disappearance of riots by 1921 ‘indicates the end of republicanism as a mass movement and the dampening of popular enthusiasm for “the cause”’. Yet he later makes the point that popular support for self-government remained firm to the end. He declares that ‘the British and Irish public had read with fascinated disapproval of Constance Markievicz’s supposed exploits in the Dublin rising’. Her exploits were real, not supposed, and the Countess was one of the most popular figures among the rebels of 1916. On the other hand, Hart is very good at assessing the role of women in the revolution, pointing out that their contribution went well beyond just membership in Cumann na mBan, concluding that the wide-ranging involvement of women in the movement added ‘tremendously to its social momentum’.
He then examines the unarmed victims of IRA violence. He believes, rightly I think, that most of this was a response to the ill-founded belief that ‘the boys’ were surrounded by webs of spies and informers, backed up by organised Protestant/unionist opposition. He declares that suspected priests and merchants were left untouched, with the executions centring on social outcasts—tramps, ‘gutties’ and Protestants. He makes a great deal out of the attacks on and murders of Cork Protestants in his chapter ‘Taking it Out on the Protestants’. These people, of course, were not just Protestants, but, almost uniformly, unionists and big landowners. The actions largely took place after passage of the Treaty, in the spring of 1922. He concentrates on the murders of ten such people over a three day period in April. He equates this sequence of killings as being of equal significance with the Kilmichael ambush because ‘the patterns of perception and victimisation they reveal are of a piece with the whole revolution’. Over and over, he describes the ten murders as a ‘massacre’, not just a string of connected killings or a series of murders. He had earlier used the word ‘massacre’ to describe similar events in his article ‘The Protestant Experience of Revolution in Southern Ireland, 1911-1926’, in R. English and G. Walker (eds.), Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture (London 1996). I get the clear impression that he is reaching for effect, seeking to arouse our sense of shock and horror. This kind of stuff can give revisionism a bad name!
A lot of the information, and most of the conclusions, concerning the role of the British Army and the ‘Black and Tans in the conflict can be found in Charles Townshend’s excellent work, The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921, published almost a quarter of a century ago. Peter Hart ends with the darkest of notes, in a chapter on spies and informers in which he declares, ‘Beneath the welter of pretexts and suspicions, beneath its official rhetoric of courts martial and convictions, the IRA were tapping a deep vein of communal prejudice and gossip: about grabbers, black Protestants and Masonic conspirators, dirty tinkers and corner-boys, fly-boys and fast women, the Jews at No. 4 and the disorderly house at No. 30’. There is no general conclusion, which would have provided a focus for the assertions scattered through the book. It does, however, contain an exceptionally good appendix on sources and definitions.
This book will provide grist for renewed discussion and controversy about the varied activities of ‘the boys from the County Cork’ and of the whole purpose and meaning of the ‘War of Independence’.

Arthur Mitchell


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