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The Commemoration Trap

John Swift

‘Peace After The Final Battle’: The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924, by John Dorney, New Island, 392 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-1848402720

Some things in Dublin do not change. In his chapter on the Easter Rising, John Dorney reports that the cost of the material damage caused by the five days of fighting in central Dublin was over £2.5 million. A bland footnote, however, reveals that this figure refers to the amount of compensation paid out and that the chief fire officer of the city at the time thought the actual damage was no more than £1 million.

It is not easy to explore the right questions about the 1916 Easter rebellion, the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921 and the Civil War 1922-1923. Every approach to such a controversial period is influenced, but not determined, by a multitude of known and relatively unknown factors, private as well as public. These include at a minimum personal temperament, family history and traditions, training and interests, and present-day political affiliations, as well indeed as an interest in history and the historical record for its own sake; views can also be influenced by a taste for or against politics and public life and a liking for national events and commemorations or an instinct that one is better off without them.

As Dorney explains in his Introduction, ceremonies of commemoration can be a trap, obfuscating rather than illuminating what actually happened (as best we can discover it). So can the desire to advance early twenty-first century issues and arguments almost entirely in terms of classical early twentieth century debates and controversies, for example by choosing to believe that armed struggle is still justified because the Republic was betrayed and its revolutionary promises unfulfilled; or by insisting that because armed actions are unjustified now, better and more effective alternatives could have been found then. In any event, it is clear that public ceremonies of commemoration are normally guided by politically perceived priorities rather than by a desire to raise popular standards of historical understanding.

“Revolution” has again become the fashionable word to describe what happened in Ireland in the period leading up to 1923-24; as noun or adjective, it is included in the formal or descriptive title of at least twenty studies of the period published since the early 1990s. The word was used to describe what might happen or was happening by contemporaries as different from each other as Patrick Pearse and Stephen Gwynn. Pearse’s “The Coming Revolution” dates from November 1913; Gwynn wrote in 1918 that the “Ireland of yesterday was Ireland before the Revolution”. He went on to say that those who lived more easily and quietly in the Ireland of yesterday might well be envied as they held with an unquestioning spirit to the state of things in which they were born. While Gwynn’s phrase echoes uneasily the views expressed by George Moore on the comfortable rentiers of the Kildare Street Club, it also brings to mind what Frank Aiken, a one-time revolutionary, called in later life an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But what exactly is a revolution? Since not all revolutions are automatically positive and because revolutions guarantee nothing concerning their efficacy in delivering on their stated goals, it is hard to see the term as particularly helpful.

John Dorney’s book is largely a work of synthesis rather than of original research. It seems to me comprehensive, but also succinct, accessible and well-organised. His approach is straightforward, his writing direct and factual, the analysis balanced and sensible. He does not allow an overdose of detail to get in the way of narrative drive. Yet while not overly complex, his account is not simplistic. He notes the ambiguities and paradoxes where they exist, he is not afraid to make judgements and some of his comments, for example on de Valera’s Munster speeches of Spring 1922, and on the Cosgrave government’s post-Civil War attitude to local government bodies, are sharp as well as pertinent. He is sensitive to the various schools of current and earlier historiography, and is not easily typecast. The book has a good index and the bibliography is valuably extensive.

The author’s background is interesting. He was born in 1980, has a master’s degree in sixteenth century Irish history and is self-described as an independent (that is non-academic?) historian. He is chief writer and editor of the Irish Story website (www. theirishstory.com), which is not afraid to be controversial, even iconoclastic on occasion. He has written a number of ebooks, but ‘Peace After the Final Battle’ is his first full-length print book. His scholastic output is impressive.

One way of evaluating the merits of Dorney’s book is to examine how well he anticipates or deals with some of the issues raised in recent controversies regarding the focus and nature of the 2016 commemorations. I have looked at a few questions raised by John Bruton’s article in the autumn 2014 issue of the quarterly review Studies. On a number of these points, Dorney’s thrust is to question or at least recontextualise Bruton’s conclusions.

The following is a summary account of their differing views on these issues. Bruton pays tribute to the skill and determination with which the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Redmond and Dillon, succeeded in persuading the Liberals to recommit to Home Rule, face down the House of Lords and to get Home Rule passed into law in September 1914. Dorney stresses that the IPP was much weaker than it appeared to be from about 1912 onward, due to the restricted nature of the franchise, the fact that many electoral constituencies were seldom contested and that the leadership was settled and comfortable, “almost part of the establishment of British-ruled Ireland”. Bruton believes that the IPP’s exercise of parliamentary leverage to achieve radical reform “has greater relevance to today’s generation of democrats than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly”. The thrust of Dorney’s account, in line with that of other recent scholarship, is to suggest that an emphasis on “blood sacrifice” is simplistic. A number of the rebel leaders believed in “propaganda of the deed”, that is, in defining and “redeeming” Irish nationality in armed struggle; by 1916 they thought a rebellion all the more necessary in view of their intense disillusionment at the continued widespread support for Redmond and the British war effort in spite of the postponement of Home Rule and the Bachelors Walk deaths. As cool a head as Desmond Fitzgerald thought that without some dramatic demonstration, Irish nationality would flicker out. He, MacDermott and others also believed, accurately, that armed struggle and a bloody British repression would push a majority of their countrymen in their direction.

Bruton says that the “implementation of the Home Rule act was irreversible politically and would have come into effect if the violence and abstentionism of the 1919-1921 period had not made this impossible”. This is an assertion, or rather, two assertions, impossible to prove or disprove; quoting Bonar Law or Lloyd George on irreversibility is hardly convincing. Dorney suggests that popular support for the IPP was hostage to a whole series of factors over which the party had no control, in particular, unionist militancy, British reactions to that militancy, and the course and conduct of the world war. He writes that by late 1918, the context had altered significantly in the direction of undermining British rule in Ireland, not only because of British repression after the Rising, but also due to Redmond’s stance on the war, the continued postponement of Home Rule and the effort to enforce conscription in Ireland.

John Bruton notes that Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge urging Irishmen to join the Allied cause took place just two days after Home Rule had become law. His main point is that if the IPP had opposed the war, as they had opposed the Boer War, it would have handed arguments to those who had been against Home Rule all along. Dorney’s contrary view is that Redmond was the only Irish constitutionalist leader to recommend that Irishmen join the British army; that his recommendation was also imprudent insofar as it gave another significant hostage to fortune depending on how long the war lasted and what the Irish casualties were; and, by implication, that seeking to win over Ulster Volunteers or British Conservatives to support for Home Rule by this means was futile.

Bruton concedes that Home Rule would not have led to a United Ireland in the short or medium term. He quotes with approval Redmond’s declaration that no coercion would be applied to any single county in Ireland to come into the Irish Government (sic) against its will. He also accepts that many of the parties in the Home Rule parliament, possibly including the IPP, would have demanded a greater degree of independence for Ireland; he feels optimistically that this could have been conceded peacefully in return for the solidarity displayed during the war and the acceptance of the exclusion of some Ulster counties. Dorney goes into detail on the reasons why unionists were opposed to Home Rule. He dismisses two of the basic unionist arguments (viz that Home Rule would be “disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster” and “subversive of our civil and religious freedom” as unconvincing but accepts that the third (“destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire”) had more merit. He instances Parnell’s statement that “no man has the right to fix boundaries to the march of a nation” as justification for the real fear of Carson and Craig that Home Rule would open the floodgates and eventually lead to complete separation.

But on what is arguably John Bruton’s most important point, (the classical question of the choice between peaceful parliamentary struggle and armed conflict, and the human costs and efficacy of both), the respective views of Bruton and Dorney are, I believe, close. It seems probable that what weighs most heavily with John Bruton is his belief that Home Rule would have saved thousands of lives, and that the waste of those lost lives should be weighed, and weighed heavily, in the balance against any supposed advantages secured by the use of force. He feels that if 1916 did not make the Civil War inevitable, it probably made it more likely; that violence breeds violence and intransigence; and that “betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead” is one of the most emotionally powerful and destructive accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism.

Where Bruton and Dorney disagree, I think that in general the arguments made and conclusions reached by Dorney are more persuasive. In addition, I do not believe that Bruton faces squarely the implications of the rejection of the IPP and its Home Rule policy by the extended Irish electorate in December 1918; and I think he is caught in a “hindsight trap” when he brings in the progressive loosening of ties within the empire in the 1920s and the type of independence now enjoyed by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But on the baleful effects of moving from an implicit threat of armed force to its actualisation in 1916, I believe he is right, both in respect of the following eight years and subsequently, through to our own day; he is also right to frame the cost of these effects in terms of the heartbreak and bitterness caused by the approximately four thousand “unnecessary” deaths up to 1924, and the many more since.

Dorney gives the following statistics for politically motivated deaths:

1916: Total deaths: 447-482; British soldiers: 116; police: 16; rebel combatants: 62; Irish civilians: 256.
1917-1921: Total deaths: 2141; British deaths: 776, of which 262 were British soldiers; Irish deaths: 1,365, of which 467 were IRA Volunteers; Irish civilians: 898.
1922-1923: No official figures for Civil War deaths. At different times, Richard Mulcahy gave 540 and 800 for National Army dead; the IRA death toll was probably between 400 and 500. Total death toll was under 2,000, probably closer to 1,500. The civilian death toll is estimated at +/- 200.

If I have assembled these figures correctly, the toll of political killings in Ireland in the revolutionary period was around four thousand. Deaths of Irish civilian non-combatants went down from about 55 per cent of the total in 1916, to 42 per cent in 1917-21, to 10-15 per cent in 1922-23.

Statistics are important but less so than the legacies of bitterness and hatred which stemmed from the revolutionary period and which soured political relations so fundamentally within our state, between Dublin and Belfast, and between Ireland and Britain, for so long. These divisions were not caused by the choice of the armed force option, but they were exacerbated, and made more difficult of resolution, by it. In the South, the most negative inheritance was that from the Civil War. I found Dorney’s long Chapter 9 on the subject extremely harrowing; its fairness to both sides, its factual nature and his unvarnished prose makes the impact of his account all the more powerful. One may note in his pages a marked regression in standards over time, so that terror and counter-terror, reprisal and counter-reprisals, assassinations and shootings of the unarmed, ill-treatment and execution of prisoners, sometimes barbarously, became almost normalised.

Ireland did not experience large-scale mass killings or widespread ethnic cleansing and, in the South, sectarian motives for atrocities were the exception rather than the rule; but the Irish record for small-scale viciousness, especially in the Civil War, could hardly have been worse. “We went down into the mire,” said Tom Barry, referring to the War of Independence. “In civil war there is no glory, no monuments to victory or the victors, only to the dead,” said Todd Andrews. It is no wonder that 1922-1923, as Dorney notes, has fallen into a kind of collective amnesia, or that it plays little part in the foundation myths of modern Ireland. But this too is part of our history, and needs to be remembered. 

All political parties cannibalise the past selectively for facts and arguments deemed useful to safeguarding and advancing their future fortunes. This is normal and to be expected. But what is produced in this way is not history. The writing of history is a discipline, the primary goal of which is to come as close as human nature and the quality of evidence allows to a full understanding of the truth of what happened in the past. It is also the case that most national remembrances, celebrations and commemorations in most countries have traditionally been closer to cannibalisation of the past than to the advancement of a fuller, more balanced understanding of it. This is changing in Ireland; the quality of that change should not be underestimated but neither should its continuance be taken for granted. Dorney’s study is a positive contribution to the discipline and to popular understanding.

1/1/2016

John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).

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