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The Shaping of Modern Ireland

A Centenary Assessment
Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall (Eds)
Irish Academic Press
The Shaping of Modern Ireland


From the Preface by Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall

1 The Book

The editors of this book met in February 2014 at the Cambridge University Irish History Seminar, as convenor and guest speaker. In conversation at that time, we discovered a shared interest in Irish history, one as a historian and the other as a diplomat with thirty-five years of experience representing Ireland around the world and often drawing on Irish history as an essential resource for understanding and explaining Ireland. Our mutual interests, we discovered, were more specific than this, however. Each of us had a special focus on the thirty years that preceded the attainment of independence in 1922. That shared enthusiasm has led to continued collaboration and to the publication of this collection of essays on prominent figures from the Ireland of a century ago.

Our chance encounter is one aspect of the background to this book. The other pillar on which this volume rests is a book entitled The Shaping of Modern Ireland, written more than half a century ago, whose fifteen chapters surveyed the period between 1891 and 1916 through the lives of a set of individuals seen to have helped shape modern Ireland during the years between the death of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Easter Rising. The original chapters were written by leading writers and academics from the Ireland of the 1950s, some of whom would have known the subjects of their essays. The book's editor, Conor Cruise O'Brien, described the collection as 'an interrogation by a cross-section of contemporary Ireland of a significant cross-section of its own past'.

Indeed, all bar two of that book's contributors were significant enough to merit entries of their own in the Dictionary of Irish Biography when it appeared in 2009.

The Shaping of Modern Ireland was published in 1960, six years before the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, and reissued a decade later. As such, it may be seen as an early example of what became an extended reassessment of the causes and consequences of the 'terrible beauty' of 1916. The present volume represents an effort to look afresh at some of the key figures from that formative era in modern Irish history. As editors, we have asked a number of academics and public figures to re-examine the decades leading up to Irish independence through the prism of those figures who featured in The Shaping of Modern Ireland.

While, for the most part, adhering to the structure of the 1960 volume, we have made some adjustments and additions to reflect changed perceptions of the period under examination. For example, the original book featured just one woman as a contributor and all of the subjects of the essays were male. Curiously, even Constance Markievicz was not included in the very male bastion of 'shapers' of modern Ireland, despite the significant role she played in the Easter Rising and its aftermath, in particular as the first woman ever to be elected to the Westminster Parliament.

We have sought to redress these inadequacies by increasing the number of chapters and broadening the coverage to include some prominent women from the decades prior to the attainment of Irish independence - Eva Gore-Booth, Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Kathleen Lynn and Maud Gonne-MacBride. We have included Dorothy Macardle, the only woman contributor to the 1960 volume, in one of our chapters, reflecting her importance as a historian of this formative era for Ireland. We have also added a chapter on major figures from the world of business, the Jacobs and Guinnesses, the economic influences on the shaping of modern Ireland having been underplayed in the 1960 collection.

The absence of Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins from the earlier analysis of the shaping of modern Ireland seemed to us to leave a gap that needed to be filled. In 1960, de Valera was just one year into his fourteen-year spell as President of Ireland and many of those deeply involved in the acrimonious split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the bitter Civil War that ensued - a political divide personified by Collins and de Valera - were still active in public life. Now, at a remove of close to a century, it is possible to 'cast a cold eye', or at least a colder one, on the controversies that surrounded the birth of the independent Irish State, though, as Ronan Fanning has recently argued, de Valera remains one of the most divisive figures in the history of modern Ireland.1 Much the same, indeed, could be said for Collins.2 Of course, the inclusion of Collins and de Valera involves extending the timeframe of our book to encompass the turbulent years that followed the Easter Rising but, in any case, many of the original contributors dealt with events stretching into the post-independence decades insofar as these related to the lives of the personalities they were assessing.

Some of the individuals included in the earlier collection have been regrouped. The three titans of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, John Dillon (who, curiously, was excluded from the 1960 book) and Tim Healy, have been brought into a single chapter in which the Irish Parliamentary Party's partial triumph (in 1914) and dramatic eclipse (in 1918) can be examined. Much scholarly work has been done on these in recent years, not least Dermot Meleady s monumental biography, and the two important monographs by James McConnell and Conor Mulvagh.3 All of these works show how close to success -a peaceful, but revolutionary success - Redmond and his party were. Meleady goes as far as sketching out the way that an all-Ireland Home Rule might have emerged without violence had England 'kept faith' (as it did, eventually, though by then, in 1920, Home Rule was too little too late). George Russell (JE), D.R Moran, two talented editors, and Tom Kettle, a well-known nationalist intellectual who died on the Somme in 1916, have been grouped together for the purposes of comparison. All three were clearly nationalists, but with very different views on their country's future direction.

A striking feature of the 1960 volume is the way in which the various contributors, almost as much as their subjects, seem to come out of a radically different Ireland from the one we know today. The radio programmes on which the original essays were based were broadcast in the mid-1950s, at a time when the performance of the Irish economy was a source of serious disquiet to many contemporaries. This resulted in the publication of Economic Development, in 1958, an analysis of independent Ireland's failings that ushered in a fundamental shift in the direction of national policy. Yet, nowhere in those essays is there any meaningful echo of those economic discontents and their putative remedies.