Ronan Fanning, 1941–2017

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Platform, Volume 25

A fine representative of a generation of historians who laboured to enable today’s Ireland to engage honestly and maturely with its past in its multiple dimensions

By Dan Mulhall

The editor of History Ireland asked me to contribute an appreciation of the historian Ronan Fanning, who died on 18 January, because he was aware of my recent engagement with him as part of the programme of public diplomacy at our embassy in London in connection with Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries. I had been familiar with Ronan Fanning’s work long before I got to know him personally. We were never close friends but I came to admire his work, and especially his 2013 book The fatal path, which I believe made an important contribution to our understanding of that crucial decade in Irish history with the Easter Rising as its centrepiece.

I was a young diplomat at our embassy in India when I acquired a copy of The Department of Finance, 1922–1958 (1978), which still has no equal as a scholarly history of an Irish government department. I can remember reading Ronan’s weighty book night after night in my New Delhi home and being impressed by the insights it offered into the formative years of Ireland’s civil service.

Fanning’s work highlighted the strong element of continuity between Ireland’s pre- and post-Treaty financial administration, epitomised by the fact that the first four secretaries of the department had served as British officials. Indeed, some 20,000 former British civil servants transferred to serve the Irish Free State in 1922. Continuity was also the order of the day when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. As Ronan put it, de Valera ‘wanted to bend the machinery of government to his own purpose, not to dismantle it’.

I read Independent Ireland when it came out in 1983 and was impressed with his measured analysis of the politics of the post-independence period. He made the important point that the Civil War, in which Britain became an ally of the Cumann na nGaedhael government against its anti-Treaty opponents, served to dilute Irish nationalism’s characteristic anti-British stance. As he put it, ‘the new state was marked, not by a commitment to cast off British influence, but by an extraordinary fidelity to British models’.

His chapter on the Irish Free State offers short accounts of the work of individual government departments, including External Affairs (an area where innovation was a must for a political entity with an ambition to develop a more complete form of statehood). He acknowledges the significance of the decision in 1922 to apply for membership of the League of Nations, to register the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the League as an international agreement and to appoint our first ambassador to the United States in 1924, concessions prised from a reluctant British government. These moves served to establish an international personality for the new state and this was strengthened by the Statute of Westminster, agreed at the 1931 Imperial Conference, in which Ireland was an active and effective participant.

Above: Éamon de Valera—Fanning was balanced in his assessment of him. (Military Archives)

In 1983 Fanning was balanced in his assessment of Éamon de Valera, crediting him with a successful quest to enhance Ireland’s sovereignty and to give the ultimate expression to it by preserving Ireland’s wartime neutrality. He also criticised him for his lack of ‘economic vision’, something that was clearly not part of de Valera’s ethos. His 2015 biography Eamon de Valera: a will to power acknowledges its subject’s achievement after 1932, when ‘he took a mere five years single-handedly to rewrite Ireland’s constitutional relationship with Britain’, while suggesting that ‘his conduct in 1921–22 cannot be excused’ but ‘can, perhaps, be explained’. When he came to deal with Ireland’s economic revival, Fanning sought to spread the credit beyond Lemass, highlighting the role of civil servants and other politicians. Inevitably, T.K. Whitaker, who died aged 100 just days before Ronan Fanning, looms large in his narrative.

I came across Ronan from time to time during my various assignments at home and abroad with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and often read his columns in the Sunday Independent, where he could convey his historical assessments to a wider audience in characteristically clear prose. His biography of Eliza Lynch, written jointly with Michael Lillis, highlighted a neglected part of the global Irish story, our nineteenth-century impact in Latin America. Over the years I have especially valued two great publishing ventures in which Ronan has been centrally involved—Documents on Irish foreign policy and the Dictionary of Irish biography. These are indispensable assets for anyone seeking an understanding of Ireland’s national story.

It was in the course of my present posting in London that I came to know and value Ronan as a historian and a highly effective commentator. When I arrived in London in 2013, I was keenly aware that we were entering an era of centenary commemorations—the Home Rule Act, the outbreak of the First World War and the Easter Rising. I decided not to shy away from the Anglo-Irish sensitivities involved and resolved to address them in a series of talks and panel discussions to which we invited a cross-section of our contacts, politicians, British officials, journalists, academics and members of the Irish community.

Ronan came in January 2014 to discuss the Home Rule Act, during which he drew on his most important contribution to the study of Irish history, The fatal path: British government and Irish revolution 1910–1922. I found his account of the failure to deliver Home Rule compelling, something he put down to insincerity on the part of the Liberals, Conservative opportunism and wishful thinking on the part of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

I did not agree with his contention that the violence of the 1916–21 period was essential in order to persuade the British system to take Irish demands seriously. Nevertheless, it was important to show that the Easter Rising did not come out of thin air but had a back story, part of which stemmed from the inability to make a reality of Home Rule even after it had received democratic approval at Westminster. He argued that this ‘corroded the faith of Ireland’s constitutional nationalists in parliamentary democracy’. This helps to explain why individuals like Pearse, MacDonagh and de Valera, who were once Home Rulers, ended up taking part in the Easter Rising.

Ronan Fanning returned to the embassy in October 2015 to kick off our 1916 centenary programme. On that occasion, he took part in a discussion with Maurice Walsh, author of Bitter freedom: Ireland in a revolutionary world. Ronan’s contribution centred on the role played by de Valera before, during and after the Easter Rising. That discussion is available for downloading on our embassy website, It’s worth a listen, as it showcases his skill as a communicator, able to summarise complex issues and to communicate them to non-specialist audiences.

There were those who worried about the Easter Rising centenary and the effect it might have. In the event, we succeeded in looking our history straight in the face without either swooning with passion or flinching with discomfort. It is what it is—the dramatic story of a country that freed itself from one of the victorious powers from the First World War. It is also the story of a powerful parliamentary party being unable to deliver Home Rule and then being swept away by a new generation of Irish nationalists who were both idealistic and hard-nosed. And it is the tale of a country that managed to put aside the upheavals of the years between 1916 and 1923 and settle down to become a carefully run, conservative state that achieved a peaceful change of government in 1932, when, in Ronan Fanning’s words, parliamentary democracy ‘had come of age in independent Ireland’. There are, of course, competing interpretations of the period, but that is the beauty of history in the round.

Ronan Fanning did not produce a stream of historical monographs during his time at University College Dublin, but he was one of Ireland’s best-known historians on account of his contributions in the public sphere. In his last years he became prolific, producing two significant, influential books. The success of our 1916 commemoration can be attributed to the efforts of a generation of historians, of which Ronan Fanning was a fine representative, who laboured to enable today’s Ireland to engage honestly and maturely with its past in its multiple dimensions.

Daniel Mulhall is currently Ireland’s ambassador in London. A keen student of Irish history, his most recent publication is The shaping of modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (2016), which he co-edited with Eugenio Biagini.


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