Vivid faces: the revolutionary generation in Ireland 1890–1923

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

16R. F. FOSTER
Allen Lane
€29.99

ISBN 9781846144639

Reviewed by
Ronan Fanning

‘When did the Irish revolution begin?’ The question is Roy Foster’s point of departure, the pivot around which Vivid faces revolves. The core of the book is the ‘change of mentality, a change in hearts and minds’, that took place in the immediate aftermath of 1916, the change that saw Irish opinion ‘shift dramatically away from the old, constitutionalist Home Rule idea, and towards a more radical form of republican separatism, achieved if necessary by force of arms’. But much of its fascination flows from his exploration of what he calls the ‘pre-revolution’, the years between Parnell’s death in 1891 and the Easter Rising, and, in particular, from his search for ‘that moment of irreversible change, that elusive “tipping point”’ when the momentum for revolution becomes irreversible.

He shows conclusively that the enactment of the third Home Rule Bill in 1914 was both ‘a critical juncture for separatists’ and ‘a key moment of inter-generational conflict’. He also argues persuasively that ‘it is unlikely that armed rebellion would have come, at least in the form it did, without the spectacular commitment to military posturing, and the cult of guns’ initiated by the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912.

For the revolutionary generation, Home Rule came too late. The suspension of its implementation because of the outbreak of the Great War meant that it was merely ‘a technical victory’ that ‘seemed to radical imaginations in Ireland an inadequate structure, flimsily assembled and founded on sand . . . Above all, the credibility of the Home Rule solution was seriously undermined by the scale of resistance among Ulster Unionists, and by the British government’s pusillanimous response to that challenge.’

The breadth of Roy Foster’s painstaking research into such a diversity of sources—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, magazines, poetry, novels and short stories, plays and essays—has thrown up a treasure trove of nuggets. My own favourite is the account of Seán MacDermott’s instantaneous response to a newsboy shouting about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as he walked with a friend past the Black Church on a June afternoon in 1914: ‘Austria will move against these fellows. Russia will back these fellows up, Germany and Italy will back Austria, France will take on Germany. You’ll have a European war, England will join—and that will be our time to strike.’ It was a more perceptive and prescient reaction than that of most politicians and officials in London and the other capitals of Europe.

Another gem is the exploration of the proposition that ‘learning Irish had become a sort of opium of the people’—that the language movement, in the words of the socialist Frederick Ryan, ‘acted as a soothing rather than a stimulating influence’. There are also persuasive explanations of how the traditions of popular history were mediated through journalism and of how magazines with much smaller circulations than the nationalist daily newspapers of the time constructed ‘a radical alternative world-view’ and ‘gave a voice to a wide range of talented individuals operating in spheres outside the establishment’.

However diverse the range of written sources, they can, of course, only shed light on the motivations of the lettered and of the literate. The many voices of those who became the cannon fodder of the revolution and of the civil war must for the most part remain forever inaccessible.

Roy Foster also acknowledges the stark contrast between the aspirations of the intellectuals and would-be intellectuals of the revolutionary generation and ‘the sharply conservative aftermath of the revolution, when nascent ideas of certain kinds of liberation were aggressively subordinated to the national project of restabilization (and clericalization)’. This is also reflected in the remarkably fleeting appearance in his pages of the two men who headed the government of independent Ireland from 1922 until 1948: W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera. Cosgrave stands out like a sore thumb because, from the moment he was elected to Dublin Corporation as a Sinn Féin candidate in 1909, he was a politician by profession rather than by accident. Neither he nor Kevin O’Higgins, the other strong man in the governments of the twenties, were, in Roy Foster’s phrase, ‘representative figures from the pre-revolutionary era’. Neither, although his case is much more complex, was Eamon de Valera. A late convert to Gaelicisation and later still to radicalisation, his voluminous collection of papers going back to his school days is entirely innocent of any political reflections earlier than 1917. John A. Costello, who succeeded de Valera as head of government, is noteworthy only because he does not merit a solitary reference in this book.

This is in no sense intended as a criticism of Vivid faces. Rather is it a recognition that not the least of its achievements is to provide an Irish exemplar of Danton’s prediction as his own date with the guillotine loomed closer: that revolutions devour their own young.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin.

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