The Long Gestation: Irish Nationalist Life, 1891–1918, Patrick Maume. (Gill and Macmillan, £19.99) ISBN 0717127443 The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916–1923, Michael Laffan. (Cambridge University Press, £40) ISBN 0521650739

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

It has become commonplace for historians of Ireland to describe the events of 1912–1923 as a ‘revolution’, typically without attempting to define that term. These three complementary studies of Ireland between 1891 and 1936 all follow suit: Maume concludes with ‘Reflections on a Revolution’; the largest part of Laffan’s study is entitled ‘The Irish Revolution, 1916–1923’; and Regan’s striking use of the term ‘Counter-Revolution’ promises a sustained analysis of what was being overturned. It is therefore disappointing that one is left with no clear model of revolution after reading more than a thousand pages of densely documented and often fascinating facts and suppositions about Irish nationalism.
Maume, though promising to underpin his ‘narrative with a strong analytical framework’, is stronger in supplying nuance, colour and diversity than in defining long-term changes in the character and culture of nationalism. His ‘revolution’ is the triumph of Sinn Féin over ‘constitutional’ nationalism: which, as he rightly observes, entailed little fundamental change in the techniques of mass mobilisation, in the composition of the nationalist élite, or even in the prevailing attitude towards violence as against constitutional agitation. Maume emphasises the radical and potentially rebellious elements within ‘constitutionalism’, and the ease with which the middle-class but unconventional controversialists of the United Irish League’s Young Ireland Branch (the ‘Yibs’) found niches in revolutionary and post-revolutionary nationalism. He maintains that the movement towards drastic action was evident during the first two years of the Great War, and that the Easter Rising was ‘a pre-emptive strike, bringing to a head tensions already gathering’. This thesis, at odds with the ‘revisionist’ interpretation, is weakened by his admission that the record of pre-Rising by-elections ‘gives qualified support to Bew’s view that the Irish Party faced discontent in Dublin but retained traditional rural support before the Rising’. Nevertheless, Maume shows that, at least among the Dublin-centred nationalist intelligentsia, there was indeed a long-standing discourse between separatist and constitutionalist ideas, which formed the basis for the subsequent revolutionary debates. The ‘long gestation’ of Maume’s ‘revolution’ might therefore be thought to have brought forth a mouse. In fact, as he reflects in the epilogue, the measure of independence secured in 1922 would probably not have been achieved through bloodless pursuit of Redmondite principles in the absence of the Easter Rising. Sectarian divisions, Unionist antipathy, British indifference and nationalist Anglophobia might have combined to prevent peaceful application of any form of home rule.
Laffan, like Maume, is primarily concerned with the ‘political revolution’ whereby Sinn Féin developed from a radical fringe group into a widely representative populist alliance. He concludes that Sinn Féin ‘was the principal means whereby Ireland’s constitutional tradition was transmitted through years of turbulence, and it played an important role in ensuring that governments in independent Ireland would be responsible to the people. Sinn Féin was the democratic face of the Irish revolution’. Though scarcely novel in its interpretation, this book provides a massive and judicious corrective to the excessive preoccupation of previous scholarship with the military and administrative convulsions of the period. Like most titles, ‘The Resurrection of Ireland’ fails to convey the flavour of the book, which is laconic rather than enthusiastic; nevertheless, the implied tribute to Arthur Griffith reflects Laffan’s unmistakable admiration for Sinn Féin’s most notable thinker. Like Laffan’s elegant and understated prose, Griffith is out of fashion: while Collins’s monument at Glasnevin gleams with flowers endlessly refreshed, Griffith’s nearby grave with its inscription celebrating The Resurrection of Hungary is untended and vandalised. Perhaps Laffan’s book will help to redress this imbalance.
Regan’s ‘counter-revolution’ is less dramatic than the term suggests, since he is at pains to mimimise the preceding revolution. Regan largely ignores the cultural revolution following the Rising, dismisses the ‘social revolution’, and affirms that ‘there was a political revolution in Ireland between 1912 and 1922, but only just’. His revolution is largely defined by the use of violence and the temporary predominance of its practitioners in the nationalist élite. The ‘counter-revolution’ is therefore the process whereby the military leadership was either tamed or removed from political power after the Treaty. The most relentless and doctrinaire counter-revolutionary was Kevin O’Higgins, here portrayed as the chief architect of Cumann na Gaedheal’s shift towards neo-imperialism and alliance with the residue of constitutional nationalism and ex-unionism. Apart from its unnecessarily lurid terminology, this interpretation of the first decade of government is conventional enough, though the ideological preoccupations and disputes of the ‘treatyites’ are documented with unprecendented detail and intimacy.
More interesting is Regan’s argument that, pace Garvin and Praeger, no fundamental difference in outlook separated those supporting and opposing the settlement of 1922. Both parties embraced a medley of democratic and authoritarian attitudes, often co-existing in the same person. De Valera, no less than O’Higgins, is portrayed as a counter-revolutionary who consolidated the triumph of majoritarian democracy and ‘built on the treatyite settlement’ without in practice destroying it. The argument is quite well sustained, but fails to explain the enduring influence of former gunmen such as Aiken, Traynor, O’Duffy and MacEoin in both major parties, and downplays the persistence of low-level but uncomfortable violence, lawlessness and militarism despite the appearance of democracy. For Regan, as for contemporary republicans who maintain that ‘the guns are silent’ in Northern Ireland, ‘the IRA’s cessation of violence in 1923 meant precisely that’. For those who continued to be attacked, threatened and humiliated by paramilitary groups throughout the 1920s and far beyond, the cessation of systematic killing did not signify the end of ‘violence’ or the triumph of democratic values. Republican violence was contained, but never entirely eliminated from Irish life.
These three books, then, are unlikely to provide the foundation for a new and more thrilling model of the Irish revolution. Instead, they confirm Karr’s adage, beloved of academic historians, that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Little attempt is made to relate political change to social or economic factors, and all three authors seem largely indifferent to the charm of systematic statistics. Nevertheless, each makes a substantial contribution to scholarship on the varieties of Irish nationalism, deploying contrasting sources and styles. Maume makes little use of archival material and private correspondence, preferring to evoke the atmosphere of political debate through colourful and sometimes scurrilous extracts from newspapers and polemical writings. Primarily on the basis of journalistic insinuation, we learn that Lorcan Sherlock was ‘secretly part-owner of a music-hall’ while in public a supporter of Vigilance Associations; that Bishop Clancy’s principled opposition to the de Freyne agitation was ‘allegedly influenced by the de Freynes’ Catholicism and the Maynooth trustees’ mortgage on the estate’; that T.P. O’Connor’s ‘Irish accent is said to have fluctuated in inverse proportion to his proximity to Ireland’; and that John O’Donnell, MP for South Mayo, was ‘persistently rumoured to have unsuccessfully sought admission to the RIC before embarking on his political career’.
Maume’s ‘Who’s Who’ is typical of his quirky and unsystematic scholarship: full of colour and choice oddities, it contains few dates of birth or death, many incomplete names, no sources, and occasional errors. Thomas M. Kettle’s father was Andrew, not Thomas; the ‘Dublin journalist’ Lindsay Crawford was in fact Robert Lindsay Crawford, born in Lisburn. The Unionist Conventions in Dublin and Belfast were convened in 1892, not 1893; Joseph Devlin was National President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin) from 1905, not ‘Grand Master’ from 1904; Lord Rossmore was replaced as Grand Master of Monaghan’s Orangemen because he had become a conciliator, not primarily because of an upsurge of Orange populism. Despite such slips, and some rather opaque prose, Maume’s book is full of interest and unfamiliar detail. It brings new life to the debates of pre-war nationalism, which in other hands have often seemed sterile and ultimately fatuous.
Regan draws upon massive archival research, centred on the ever-expanding collections in the superb archives of UCD. His major contribution is to patch together a detailed chronicle of the inner workings of ‘treatyite’ politics, coloured by sometimes jaundiced asides on the character and motives of the main protagonists. The reiterated use of loaded terms such as ‘the treatyite regime’ does Regan a disservice, since his use of evidence is better balanced than his language. O’Higgins’s self-deprecating account of his early fecklessness is paraphrased thus: ‘He failed as a cleric, and was rusticated by two seminaries. He then drank his way through a law degree at University College Dublin, taking a lazy pass’. Regan states contemptuously that O’Higgins ‘invented a world of social and political circles for himself. For those of the right caste, class and education who eschewed revolutionary politics entry into the circle was possible’. Few readers of this book will be inspired to make the pilgrimage to the spot where O’Higgins was assassinated in 1927: ‘At the entry to “Sans Souci” on Booterstown Avenue the sign of the cross made in setting concrete by the tip of a spade, alone identifies the place’. Any such pilgrims would be disappointed, as a further load of concrete recently eliminated this simple marker. Regan is inclined to over-write: it is difficult to imagine Laffan exclaiming that ‘the new Sinn Féin party grew like Topsy’, or comparing O’Duffy’s forecast of red revolution with the prophecies of ‘Chicken Licken and Goosey Loosey’. For all his sense of mission in offering a fresh contribution to a ‘central theme’ in recent Irish history, Regan ends in anti-climax: ‘Though there was much drama in this account of the Irish counter-revolution…it is the non-events…and ultimately the monotony of Irish nationalist politics which remain most compelling’. This conclusion scarcely does justice to the detail and variety of Regan’s documentation, which, like Maume’s, will be relentlessly quarried by other scholars.
Regan is to some extent the captive of private correspondence, and therefore of those whose archives are preserved, being reluctant to integrate this admittedly riveting material with the more structured evidence of parliamentary debates and ministerial papers. Only about 5 per cent of his 1,263 footnotes cite such sources, and those citations are concentrated on Dáil debates concerning the Army Mutiny of 1924 and official documents for the period after 1932. Oddly, little use is made of the rich and relevant deposits in the Military Archives. By contrast, excessive use is made (also by Laffan) of the supposedly contemporary diaries of Liam de Róiste, which in many cases are carefully filleted and polished revisions replacing the destroyed originals: ‘Re-writing diaries has occupied me from 30.3.1943 to 14.x.1946’, as the author wrote on the cover of the first volume. Regan’s scholarship is immense but patchy, allowing him to repeat the common but erroneous assertions that Mulcahy was ‘not a senior’ member of the IRB in its decline, and that ‘the best available statistics’ indicate 4–5,000 fatalities during the Civil War. This figure, conjectured by Fanning, is not easily reconciled with official returns giving the number of dead national servicemen as about 800, with the republican list of about 400 victims in The Last Post, and with the registrar-general’s tabulation of about 1,150 homicides, executions and deaths from gunshot throughout 1922 and 1923.
Laffan’s is the most accomplished and polished of the works under review, even if an excusable hint of ennui occasionally betrays the fact that it is thirty years since his first study of Sinn Féin appeared. The novelty of this book is naturally restricted by the influence which Laffan’s early work has had on others; but it contains welcome elements of self-revision as well as extension of range. Laffan handles a wide variety of sources with skill and sound judgement and his bibliography seems fairly comprehensive, with the exception of the official records relating to Sinn Féin which have been released over the past few years by the London Public Record Office. The Resurrection of Ireland, tastefully illustrated and handsomely produced by Cambridge University Press, with real footnotes rather than the irritating endnotes required by Gill and Macmillan, is unlikely to be supplanted as the standard monograph on Sinn Féin. Its appearance, along with the related studies by Maume and Regan, may help lay to rest the troubled ghosts of Griffith, O’Higgins, and the accompanying host of Ireland’s revolutionary and counter-revolutionary dead.

David Fitzpatrick

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