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The GAA & Revolution in Ireland 1913–1923

Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh
The Collins Press


The historiography of the Irish revolutionary era has been transformed in recent decades. As with the developing historiography of any major historical event or episode, new sources, fresh growth areas of historical enquiry and changing perspectives have been the decisive factors in the transformation. In the case of Ireland, it might also be worth noting the remarkable increase since the 1970s in the number of professional historians conducting research and writing on modern Irish history. To have a sense of the magnitude of the change, one has only to compare what was available in 1966 (on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising), in terms of a reading list of serious historical publications, with the daunting bibliography of important work that challenges contemporary students and general readers seeking to stay up to date with recent scholarship. And to scholarly publications one must add the improved access to primary sources facilitated by advancing technology and the growth (in output and public interest) in television documentary history.1

Much of the earlier historiography of the turbulent decade 1913—23 had, inevitably, been sharply partisan: oscillating between the valorising and the denunciatory, depending on the 'side' taken by the author. In the case of the nationalist accounts of the struggle for independence, memoirs by several of those who had participated in the events of the decade had their value (first-hand testimony of witnesses), but were frequently self-serving and lacked the documentary support that would have enabled their reliability to be checked. Contradictions, contested accounts and recriminations were predictable outcomes of the publication of some of these accounts of heroic service and famous actions; accounts that focused on the rebels of 1916, the flying columns and daring ambushes of the War of Independence, and the oppression and brutality inflicted on a supportive nationalist population by Crown forces.2 There were exceptions, works that succeeded in striking a more reflective note, but they were few.3

Profiles of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising (notably the virtual canonisation of Patrick Pearse) and writings on others who had 'died for Ireland', in combat, by execution or on hunger strike were overwhelm­ingly admiring, as indeed were the popular ballads that celebrated the lives and deeds of those who had 'fought for Irish freedom'. Little was written on the Civil War - certainly it did not feature in the 'official' history taught in schools.4 However, popular memory was unforgiving in the parts of the country where the division was most poisonous, and the political rivalry between the two main parties in the Irish state was firmly anchored in the split on the Treaty of 1921 and on the Civil War that followed. But for several decades after 1922 there was broad consensus across the political establishment in the Irish state that the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence of 1919—21 constituted a heroic episode in Irish history and was a worthy 'foundation act' for a sovereign national state. The leaders of all the main political parties in the state competed in laying claim to the mantle of the 1916 martyrs: Labour had Connolly, and Cumann na nGaedheal, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail had strong personal as well as ideological pedigree on which to proclaim themselves the heirs of the revolutionary generation. There was no great rush, however, to claim the legacy of John Redmond. More remarkably, the massive Irish involvement in the First World War was gradually elided from official public acknowledgment in the independent Irish state, a process later described as an act of national amnesia5. It was commemorated by the British Legion, but was increasingly seen as outside — if not incompatible with — the dominant Irish historical narrative of unbroken resistance to British rule, culminating in the final heroic phase of 1916—23.6 The contrast with the historiography of recent decades could not be greater.

The nature and extent of the changes that occurred in Ireland in the decade after 1913 have been a preoccupation of scholars for the past twenty or so years. Specifically, there is debate as to whether we are at all justified in speaking of an Irish 'revolution'. Some historians question the appropriateness of the adjective 'revolutionary' to characterise what actu­ally changed in Ireland (and by what means) during the decade. Others contend that only the years after 1916 have valid claims to being described as a revolutionary interlude.7 On the latter point, it is difficult to see how the 1916 Rising and the political-military conflict that followed it — with the War of Independence, Partition, the Civil War and the establishment of the Irish Free State — can be convincingly divorced from the crisis of constitutionalism and the rise of militias and militancy that accompanied the introduction of the third Home Rule bill (1912), the early mobilis­ation of the Ulster and later Irish Volunteers, and the establishment of the Irish Citizen Army as part of the intense class conflict in Dublin in 1913.

Nevertheless, one can understand the case made by those who point to the elements of continuity (as distinct from revolutionary 'rupture') between the Ireland awaiting limited Home Rule in 1912 and the Irish national state of the mid-1920s, with its bicameral parliamentary system on the British model (albeit with new nomenclature); its largely undis­turbed judicial system (after the innovative Sinn Fein courts had been dropped); its generally cautious economic, financial and fiscal policies; and the continued dominance by established elites of most of the com­mercial, financial, professional and business heights of Irish society. The abolition of the hated Poor Law system, the introduction of an ambitious Gaelicisation programme in the education system and in branches of state administration, and the decision (after early uncertainty) to establish an unarmed police force, were probably the most radical actions taken by the new government of the Free State to mark the decisive change in charac­ter from the old British to the new native Irish state. Indeed, the case has been plausibly made that the thrust of the policies of the first governments of the Irish Free State merits the label 'counter-revolutionary'.8