The Cause of Ireland, from the United Irishmen to Partition Liz Curtis (Beyond the Pale Publications, £12.95) (3:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1995), Reviews, The Act of Union, The United Irishmen, Volume 3

(3:1) Reviewed by Tony Canavan
In the wake of the revisionist/anti-revisionist debate in Irish history, one approaches any book with a title like The Cause of Ireland with a certain trepidation, especially when the author’s previous works include Ireland: the Propaganda War. What one is afraid of is a romanticised unreconstructed nationalist narrative of the history of Ireland. This feeling is not allayed by the opening paragraphs, the language of which is emotive and emotional. However, the reader may rest easy for what we are presented with is a lucid balanced account of events in Ireland from the eighteenth century to partition.
Curtis writes openly and unashamedly from a left-wing perspective sympathetic to republicanism. This in itself is a welcome breath of fresh air when so many books about Ireland claim to be impartial or objective while all the time pushing a particular political line. Having said that, Curtis does not present us with a two dimensional account, but gives a balanced analysis of Ireland and the main factors influencing its history. The case of unionists, both British and Ulster, is well examined and some time given to exploring their motivations, fears, hopes and expectations.
However, the strength of The Cause of Ireland is that it puts the history of Ireland in context—internally, in so far as she deals with social and economic changes and their impact; internationally, in relation to the British empire, the USA and the rest of the world. This is particularly enlightening as it shows that events in Ireland were by no means exceptional and that the nationalists of Ireland did not act in an atavistic vacuum, the impression one gets from books which do not have this broad perspective. Irish people were influenced by, and had influence upon, movements in America, Egypt and India. Socialist thinkers across Europe, from Karl Marx to Lenin, all looked on the cause of Ireland as the cause of the Left. Curtis also illustrates the interconnection between British radicalism and socialism with Ireland. It was recognised that Britain could never be a just society until it had done right by Ireland and that the cause of Ireland was also the cause of Labour in Britain, at least until Ramsay MacDonald.
Above all Curtis should be praised for the attention given to women in her book. The role of women in all aspects of Irish society and politics has long been ignored or considered worthy of no more than a footnote. Curtis does much to correct the balance by illustrating the role of women in the republican movement, land agitation and even unionism. However she does not portray them merely as the adjunct to male-dominated political movements but shows that they had a cause and agenda of their own, expressed in Cumann na mBan and the suffragist movement (A criticism here is her use of the term ‘suffragette’, one invented by the British tabloid press to characterise the militant suffragists).
Throughout, Curtis makes good use of original sources and quotations. The notes are useful and the bibliography more so. The linguistic style results in a good read; the prose is committed  and even emotional but never to the point of sensationalising or trivialising the subjects she deals with. In this also The Cause of Ireland bears favourable comparison to some recent Irish history books. This is a book which will be of use to anyone whether student of history or interested reader.

Tony Canavan


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