The Republic: the fight for Irish independence

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Charles Townshend
(Alan Lane, £25)
ISBN 9780713999839


Charles Townshend helped to establish modern Irish Revolution scholarship nearly 40 years ago. His 1975 monograph, The British campaign in Ireland, 1919–1921, was among the first significant academic treatments of the Irish War of Independence. In the ensuing decades Townshend has explored various aspects of Irish political violence, primarily focusing on Irish republicans. He has also become an important voice in counter-terrorism studies and the history of Britain’s first ill-fated intervention in Iraq. Among his Irish work, Townshend’s 2006 monograph, Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion, can be ranked among the top two or three books published on the Easter Rising. Within Ireland’s history wars, Townshend is generally perceived as a fair commentator by Irish revisionists, anti-revisionists and post-revisionists. This suggests that he must be doing something right.

Though Townshend helped to generate academic interest in the Irish Revolution, the historiography of those events is still developing. A telling sign of its limitations is the status of Dorothy Macardle’s seminal The Irish Republic as the most comprehensive treatment of the 1918–23 period. Though published in 1937 and unashamedly biased towards republicanism (especially her icon, Eamon de Valera) and against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Macardle managed to address a myriad of events and themes while establishing a relatively reliable record along the way. Michael Hopkinson’s two useful monographs, The Irish War of Independence (2002) and Green against green: the Irish Civil War (1988), taken together cover much of this ground, though they focus primarily on the military conflict. So a gap has remained in the literature.

Pulling off an omnibus work requires extensive knowledge of sources, sound scholarly judgement and exceptional writing skills. Charles Townshend is one of the very few historians working in this period possessing all the necessary attributes. When word spread that he was working on a ‘big book’ on the Irish Revolution, anticipation rose among period specialists. He has not disappointed. Writing clearly and succinctly, Townshend creates a relatively seamless narrative that encompasses various social, cultural and economic strands of the conflict. It is largely a military history, but events are also viewed through a political lens that encompasses broader national and international trends. The attitudes and tactics of the British and republican élites are presented, but so are the realities on the ground for ordinary police constables, soldiers, IRA fighters, republican sympathisers and ordinary citizens. It is a ‘big book’ in the best sense, as Townshend allows himself the time and space to immerse the readers in complex episodes and developments.

Though weighing in at a hefty 455 pages, the narrative flows easily as Townshend takes readers on a fascinating ride. He sweeps through the main avenues of the Irish Revolutionary narrative: Dublin Castle’s loss of legitimacy; nationalist opposition to conscription; the appeal of armed resistance to republicans in militarised Europe; the British government’s failure to deliver self-government in 1918 and 1919; the emergence of an underground state; the decentralised and inconsistent nature of guerrilla warfare; the drift of British policy; Dublin Castle’s catastrophic embrace of reprisals; contested efforts by the Crown forces and republicans to control the public; the military stalemate; the Treaty split; and the outcome of the Civil War. Along the way Townshend detours into fascinating side-streets and even occasional culs-de-sac. Readers can enjoy brief and intelligent discourse on endemic land seizures in 1918; stymied British commanders seeking ‘a miracle weapon’ to win the guerrilla war; internal debates within the IRA élite about military titles and their Irish-language definitions; and the effective mutiny of Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and the IRA general headquarters staff against Eamon de Valera in late 1921. The strength of Townshend’s scholarship lies in its steady pace, cogent analysis and straightforward presentation. Like an intrepid newspaper correspondent during the Easter Rising, Townshend carefully reports the facts from interesting angles while ducking the sniper’s occasional bullet. He makes this kind of history-writing look easy, which it most certainly is not.

There is much new material here. Noteworthy in the military sphere are thoughtful discussions concerning the IRA’s decentralisation, the war in Dublin, competing concepts of ‘volunteerism’ and professionalism within the IRA, and republican coercion of wary members of the population. On this front he has made particularly good use of Richard Mulcahy’s extensive papers at University College Dublin. This may help to explain why the narrative escapes the long historical shadows of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. Instead, Townshend allows light to shine also on influential yet relatively neglected figures like Richard Mulcahy, Austin Stack, Frank Aiken and Liam Lynch. Thankfully he is not obsessed with the high politics of a mass movement, often preferring social and political explanations to Whiggish ones.

Townshend’s expertise on British counter-insurgency provides interesting insight into the Dublin Castle regime. While not under-reporting Republican violence or the implications of the intelligence war, Townshend redirects academic attention to state violence, especially by the ‘Black and Tans’. ‘But pervasive casual brutality may have played a bigger part in constructing the popular image of the “Tans”,’ he argues (p. 169). ‘Their body language was consciously aggressive, and they exercised to the full the freedom to intimidate an uncooperative public.’ Seldom has a historian more clearly shown the shambolic Irish executive during these years, wedded to bankrupt policies, devoid of fresh ideas and bewildered by a determined enemy. Refreshingly, Townshend also notes anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments within the highest echelons of the British government, as their ‘orientalism’ encouraged a policy of coercion to suppress the indigenous independence movement. While it may today seem easy to dismiss celebrated mediocrities like Lord French and Colonel Ormonde Winter as refugees from the Blackadder TV series, they did possess real power and authority in Ireland. Scrutiny of their brutal plans makes for disturbing reading.

Though generally interested in military matters, Townshend also devotes considerable space to the republican counter-state and its sophisticated civil disobedience campaign. Here he views matters from an organiser’s viewpoint, showing what was possible and what was not. He also emphasises the popular underside of the political upheaval, including ever-present agrarianism and ordinary criminality that often caused headaches for republican and Crown forces alike. Throughout, Townshend offers thoughtful and objective analysis of a range of diverse topics. My only misgiving in this regard is his failure to address labour radicalism, which periodically erupted and threatened to unsettle the republican ‘national front’ strategy.

The book relies on sophisticated engagement with the scholarship of 1918–23. Essentially Townshend has taken a snapshot of Irish Revolution historical writing at the present time. He addresses relevant works in the field and then teases out their questions and implications, often adding his own original research and interpretations. The book’s relationship with the historiography is both its main strength and its weakness. On the positive side, Townshend has read widely and closely. As a result, he deconstructs what scholars know about the period, considering arguments and counter-arguments, weighing the evidence and making verdicts. His appeal as a historian comes from the ease with which he distils complex issues and episodes, allowing the reader to follow dozens of diverse debates. Putting aside his own preconceptions, he is usually a just commentator.

Nevertheless, while the literature has grown by leaps and bounds during the past two decades, critical areas remain underdeveloped. Too often Townshend echoes the limitation of the historiography. For example, all-too-brief treatments are awarded to Cumann na mBan (one subchapter) and Dáil Éireann’s Democratic Programme (part of one paragraph). The Irish Civil War receives only 45 pages, against 200 devoted to the War of Independence. Truce killings of southern Ireland Protestants merit six pages, while the execution of republican prisoners in the Civil War generates two. This is less Townshend’s shortcoming than a reflection of the uneven state of Irish Revolution scholarship today. Such gaps should encourage emerging historians, who in coming years can be counted on to expand our understanding of this period.

This is not a perfect book. I would have preferred to read more about women, ex-soldiers and constitutionalists in transition. The class politics of the era are largely absent. The Irish diaspora also frequently go missing, despite fascinating republican histories in the United States, Australia and Britain. I noted a couple of factual errors, though these must be expected in a work of such scope and ambition. Not everyone will agree with all of Townshend’s verdicts in contested areas, myself included, but his deliberations are typically thoughtful and fair. As far as sources go, the book was written prior to the digitisation of the Bureau of Military History witness statements. That on-line search function has been a tremendous tool for historians and likely would have strengthened some of Townshend’s analysis. Probably of greater long-term implication, The Republic was written without access to the IRA’s Military Service Pension records (expected to be released in the coming year), which will likely alter our understanding of the Revolution.

None of this criticism, however, can undermine Townshend’s achievement in creating an authoritative account of the conflict of 1918–23. This book will remain relevant for the foreseeable future and will need to be constantly referenced by historians in this field. At the same time, The Republic is also accessible to determined general readers. There are few historians who could have pulled off such an ambitious undertaking so elegantly. The Republic is a testament to Townshend’s remarkable scholarly talents.

Throughout the ‘decade of commemorations’, important primary sources will become available and dozens of new books will be published. If all goes according to plan, by 2023 our knowledge of the Irish Revolution will have been transformed. Unfortunately for Charles Townshend, this means that some of his findings may need to be reconsidered. While Townshend has clearly earned a break from Irish history, I would humbly suggest that in ten years’ time he contemplate updating this impressive book. The burden of a second edition may seem unfair to Townshend after such a long and distinguished career, but lofty expectations are inevitable for someone who has raised the bar so high.  HI

John Borgonovo lectures in history at University College Cork.


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