Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

New York University Press
ISBN 9781479808892

Reviewed by John Horne

No Caption Available

Ernie O’Malley concluded his classic memoir of the War of Independence, On another man’s wound, with the words: ‘so ended […] what we called the scrap; the people, later on, the trouble; and others, fond of labels, the Revolution’. The label is now general but many, unlike O’Malley, apply it to the whole decade from 1912 to 1923, even if some still use it for shorter periods.

This parallels those historians of the Great War who now re-think that conflict in terms of a ‘Greater War’ from 1911 to 1923. This encompasses the Balkan Wars, which triggered the Great War, the challenge of nationalism across the Continent and the extension of the war to the colonial empires and East Asia. It includes not just the attrition of an industrialised war of siege in Europe but also how this provoked the Russian Revolution. It highlights how the war led to national wars and new nation-states in eastern Europe and anti-colonial movements beyond, many invoking the ‘self-determination’ that Woodrow Wilson made his clarion call at the Paris peace conference. By the end of 1923 the new nation-states in Europe had stabilised, Britain and France had surmounted a ‘crisis of empire’, Germany had accepted the peace treaty (after French occupation of the Ruhr) and post-Ottoman Turkey was confirmed (after a war with Greece) as an independent republic. The war was over.

A decade-long ‘Irish Revolution’ fits this time-frame well, but that leaves the issue of its spatial dimensions. While O’Malley wrote his memoir in exile in the USA, Mexico and Peru, his revolution was grounded in the micro-geography of Dublin, Tipperary and North Cork. Recent research has deepened our knowledge of local and regional specifics, as have the commemorations of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’. Patrick Mannion and Fearghal McGarry’s ‘global history’, however, addresses the far less frequently asked question of how Ireland’s revolution relates to the geography as well as the time-frame of the ‘Greater War’. How does it fit into this bigger picture? How does that picture change our view of Ireland’s revolution?

The editors draw on some key themes of global history, a relatively recent approach which, surprisingly, has not been much applied to the two world wars. First are the processes that transcend local and national spaces and appear across the world in different settings, with similarities and differences. Second are individual journeys, information flows, networks and organisations that link diverse regions. Third is the integration of the globe, which means that episodes like wars, economic crises or pandemics produce ‘moments’ when diverse peoples and places occupy the same time-frame. The historian Erez Manela has identified a global ‘Wilsonian moment’ in 1919–20 when anti-colonial revolts demanded ‘self-determination’ for themselves.

Part One, ‘Revolutionary Worlds’, addresses global processes that influenced Ireland and related it to what happened elsewhere. Martyn Frampton points out that the backdrop to anti-imperial revolt was a cultural nationalism, which spanned 1890 to 1945. Not everything turned on the war. He compares Indian and Irish ideas of ‘home rule’ to make the point. Dónal Hassett uses French and Arabic sources to show how Ireland influenced Algerian anti-colonialism not as a ‘playbook’ but as a ‘mosaic’ of references (including the Rising as a case of how not to fight imperialism). This peaked with the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), but the Algerians seem not to have grasped the relevance of Irish guerrilla warfare.

Fearghal McGarry addresses the ‘Wilsonian moment’ by comparing the first Dáil’s ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ and Sinn Féin’s campaign at the peace conference with the March First Movement in Korea. Its protagonists rose against Japan (which had annexed Korea in 1910) and likewise demanded independence in 1919, to no avail. Despite little contact, these movements, born of the Great War, both insisted on sovereignty, although the Japanese reaction was far more brutal.

More tangible was the relationship between the Irish and Russian revolutions. If Ireland showed Lenin and Trotsky the value of nationalist (rather than class) insurgency against imperialism, the Russian Revolution down to 1921 influenced Ireland in complex ways, including issues of class. As Anna Lively shows, each country combined news and stereotypes of the other to project its own divisions and ideals, though Russia was far more significant to Ireland than the reverse. Sinn Féin appreciated Bolshevik anti-imperialism but was sceptical of its respect for small nations and troubled by its atheism. One would like more on how much the Irish left used Russia as a compass, but Anna Lively shows clearly that unionists and British Conservatives invented ‘Sinn Féin-Bolshevism’ as a counter-revolutionary myth.

Parts Two (‘Diaspora’) and Three (‘Imperial Perspectives’) explore interconnections of people and places via journeys, networks and organisations. North America looms large, given the scale of migration and the established place of the diaspora in the history of the revolution. Darragh Gannon, however, uses the Irish Race Conventions held across the world from 1916 (New York) to 1922 (Paris) to show how the language of ‘race’ was used to propose an Irish identity transcending the nations where the Irish had settled on behalf of the revolution. It failed; but the ‘moment’ of 1919–20 was pivotal, marking the peak of diaspora influence, as detailed by Patrick Mannion’s portrait of the tiny contingent in the Panama Canal Zone.

Michael Silvestri looks at the British intelligence network in North America and the role of various Irish-American and Anglo-Irish figures in monitoring Irish (and Indian) radicals from 1914 to the early 1920s. The British also drew on colonial police expertise from India in Ireland and reciprocally from Ireland in other parts of the empire. The revolutionary threat thus created a more ‘global’ view of the empire, underpinned by the circulation of intelligence expertise.

Heather Jones also demonstrates the centrality of empire. Drawing on European, Irish, British and imperial history, she argues in a pivotal chapter that, while the war destroyed monarchies across Europe, Britain modernised and democratised the Crown in an evolutionary way that accommodated the national goals of the settler Dominions. Allegiance to the king was core to this process (which applied less, if at all, to the non-white colonies). By contrast, ‘self-determination’ was at the heart of what the Republic meant for Sinn Féin. It drew on Irish traditions, the American Revolution, colonial nationalism in India and Egypt, and the nationalism sweeping Europe in 1919–20. The clash over the ‘oath’ was thus pivotal in ending the War of Independence and triggering the Civil War because it turned on a broader collision of sovereignties.

A fourth part, ‘Radical Lives, Global Networks’, pursues interconnections through individual biographies. Brendan MacSuibhne tells the life story of Donegal man Charlie McGuinness—sailor, gunrunner, guerrilla—as he traversed the revolution. Elizabeth McKillen explores how Irish America provided platforms to radical women activists, including Kathleen O’Brennan and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who spent extended periods in the USA. Two final contributions, by David Brundage on W.E.B. Du Bois and Miriam Nyhan Grey on Marcus Garvey, show how these giants of Black emancipation in the USA, and (in Garvey’s case) also in Britain and his native Jamaica, were strongly influenced by the Irish revolution as a national struggle, but they formulated very different notions of race to address anti-Black hostility in the USA and colonialism in Black Africa. Ireland symbolised similarity and difference, the latter not least (for Du Bois) owing to the anti-Black racism of many Irish-Americans.

Overall, the volume demonstrates that the revolution achieved high international visibility at the time of the Rising and the War of Independence. It remained a fluctuating reference (as indicated by Algeria), shaped just as much by subjective foreign needs as was the Irish reception of foreign influences during the revolution. The book suggests how important it is to write a ‘global history’ equal to the new regional and national histories of the revolution. It is a good start, but the issues not defined, and the areas not covered, suggest the scale of the task ahead as well as the rewards.

To take the most obvious: Mannion and McGarry never give their ‘revolution’ dates, but nine of the twelve contributions refer to 1916–22, with an inner focus on the War of Independence. There is no ‘global’ analysis of either Ireland’s Great War (of whose link to the ‘scrap’ O’Malley was acutely aware, the ‘other man’s wound’ of his title referring to ‘the blood and misery of the trenches’ in which his own brother fought) or the Civil War, yet both beg for comparison and connection to the ‘Greater War’. Ireland was not the only country whose soldiers fought for what was later seen as a foreign army (Poles, Czechs and Slovaks did so too). As in Ireland, those who rebelled (Czech and Polish ‘legionaries’) monopolised the subsequent national foundation myth. Comparing Ireland’s Civil War not just (as is often done) to that of Finland but also to those of Ukraine and Russia provides an ideal chance to distinguish differences and similarities—of issue (political, social), scale and violence. The differences were considerable but more attention to social and labour conflicts (and worldwide inflation until around 1920) would add a vital dimension. So would land reform and peasant ownership, still important in parts of Ireland and a burning matter in Russia and much of Eastern Europe.

The Home Rule Crisis, which marks the start of a decade-long revolution, raises the question of partition and minorities, which are virtually absent. Yet these were issues that beset colonial empires (the British tried to partition Bengal before the war) and drove much of the violence in the national wars and border conflicts that bedevilled Central and Eastern Europe from 1918 to 1923 and the violent birth of the Turkish Republic. As Tim Wilson showed in his book comparing Ulster and Silesia in 1918–22, what happened in the North is not only part of the story of the revolution (counter-revolution?) but also begs for comparison. Yet the emphasis on North America and the diaspora (six of twelve chapters) distorts this volume, with only one chapter on Europe (Russia). This makes it hard to evaluate the latter’s importance.

There is also much more to be said about how the Great War reshaped different versions of the British Empire, which profoundly affected both the outcome of the Irish revolution and how the rest of the world saw Ireland. Both the Free State and Northern Ireland drew on the Dominion concept (devolution to Stormont allowing the British to escape the scrutiny of the safeguards for minorities that they were busy instating in Europe) while Irish republicans became a beacon (more rarely a model) for radical colonial nationalists. This book leaves one reflecting that the full sweep of the revolutionary decade needs to be studied in relation to at least three contexts—Europe, the Irish diaspora and the British Empire, all of them profoundly affected by the global violence of the Great, and Greater, War. That in itself is an achievement.

John Horne is Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at Trinity College, Dublin.


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