For those who have been living under a rock for the past year, 2016 is the centenary of what was possibly the most influential event in modern Irish history. For those who know that there was such a thing as a Rising but are fuzzy on the details, Paul O’Brien’s series of interlocking books, each one focusing on a different area of the fighting – the Four Courts, St Stephen’s Green and Ashbourne – are ideal for catching up on the basic facts.
This one centres, as the subtitle would suggest, on the events at the General Post Office (GPO) and little else. The wider issues such as the choice of strategy by the Rising leaders (their failure to secure sites like Dame Street allowed the British to isolate the GPO), the confusion over orders that meant that the majority of the country stayed quiet, and the subterfuge within the Irish Republican Brotherhood that made the Rising as much of a conspiracy within a conspiracy as anything (to use Professor FX Martin’s phrase) are touched upon, then dropped.
Likewise, the personalities and motivations of the Rising leaders, as contrasting as, say, Patrick Pearse’s and James Connolly’s, are unexplored. This is a narrative work first and foremost.
Given the limited length of the book (141 pages, index included), it was probably a mistake on O’Brien’s part to quote The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in full. It is well-known text and its inclusion here feels like filler in a work that is otherwise tightly focused.
The book begins with the minimal of preamble – a brief foreword on the state of Dublin at the time and the political build-up to the Rising – before cutting straight to the Monday morning of 24th April when the different participants assembled and the first of the Volunteers entered the GPO.
A salvo of shots to the air was enough to clear out the majority of dumbstruck civilians before the Volunteers set to work to turn a post office into an improvised fortress. A postal worker had time to telephone the superintendent on duty in the Central Telegraph Office in London with a message that ended with: The streets are not safe.
The truth of that warning would become apparent when the authorities moved their soldiers into place to quell the rebellion. After the initial British advance through the northern suburbs of the city was checked along the railway line of the North Wall Station, the GPO garrison knew that an all-out enemy assault was only a matter of time and hunkered down to wait. The hourglass was quickly running out, as O’Brien puts it with a flair for the dramatic (as indicated by the titles in the rest of the series – Crossfire, Field of Fire and Shootout – sounding like they belong to a Steven Seagal movie).
But first, there were other issues to take care of. Later on the first day, Pearse read out the Proclamation in front of the GPO to a mostly indifferent crowd. Many of those gathered were women with husbands serving abroad in the British Army, the ‘separation women’, who were the most vehement towards the Volunteers on duty outside the GPO. A group of priests who tried clearing people out of then-Sackville Street and harm’s way were only partially successful. Looting broke out, with the sweet and toy shops being the first to be targeted (presumably it would be ‘Foot Locker’ today).
Given the speed of the uprising, a cavalry unit of Lancers entered the scene on Sackville Street, still ignorant of the scale of the trouble and believing they were there to disperse a mere civil disturbance. A volley of shots disabused them of that notion. The immediate result of the Rising was not so much revolution as confusion.
Despite the unsightly scenes outside, morale within the GPO garrison remained high as night fell. The failure to first secure Trinity College, however, meant it became a firing post for enemy snipers. Looting continued in the streets even as the Rising leaders in the GPO learned that the plans for a nationwide rebellion had failed, leaving Dublin to resist alone. And resist it did, even as the gunboat HMS Helga sailed up the Liffey on the Wednesday to shell the city centre and British platoons continued to advance in the teeth of heavy fire.
By the Friday, the pressure was enough for the Volunteers to abandon the GPO and take doubtful refuge in buildings around Moore Street, the same site under danger from Celtic Tiger developers until purchased by the State in April 2015. That there were plans for a breakout attack on British barricades before the decision was taken to surrender shows that the esprit de corps among the Volunteers remained strong.
The Rising leaders were, of course, executed, by which point the reader is probably thoroughly exhausted from all the previous shootings and shelling. The photographs included show the damage inflicted on Dublin, which resembled Sarajevo or Beirut by the end, but the most striking one was taken during the fighting at night with the city in flames.
O’Brien takes full advantage of the wealth of first-hand accounts now available Witness Statements from the Bureau of Military History, allowing readers an intimate, close-up view of the action. One of the more memorable observations was from one Volunteer on the opening day of the Rising:
I remember seeing Joe Plunkett with plans in his hand outside Liberty Hall. He was beautifully dressed, having high tan leather boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.
[James] Connolly looked drab beside him in a bottle green thin serge uniform. The form of dress of the two men impressed me as representing two different ideas of freedom.
Two different ideas of freedom, indeed. What these freedoms precisely were and to the extent either were delivered, the reader will have to go to a more in-depth work. But here is a good start.
In February 1964, an unofficial committee of seven men met in the Metropole Hotel in Cork to write down together the details of a defining event in modern Irish history: the death of Michael Collins on 22nd August 1922. The perspective of the seven men in the Hotel forty-two years later was exceptional in that all but one of them had participated in that fatal ambush.
The odd man out, Florence O’Donoghue, had been elsewhere that day, but had been invited to the reunion to act as the scribe for what the group would collectively agree upon as the truth.
O’Donoghue had most likely been chosen for the role because not only had he been a comrade of theirs, but he had in the succeeding years established himself, much like his contemporary Ernie O’Malley, as a literary man and a historian of note. His role in the War of Independence had been as head of intelligence for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, though he had remained neutral in the Civil War.
As a man who knew the value of information and the use of the pen, O’Donoghue was the ideal choice to record on behalf of the group their version of events.
This article does not attempt to cast the death of Collins in a new light. Instead, it aims to look at a piece of historiography about it, and in particular how O’Donoghue on behalf of his group attempted to portray their own roles in the most favourable way. Or in a way that would be the least embarrassing. After all, Collins had been held in high esteem even by those who ended up opposing him. Tom Barry recalled the Anti-Treatyite prisoners in Kilmainham Jail dropping to their knees en masse to pray for Collins upon hearing of his death (Barry, pp. 168-9).
That Barry and the seven men in the Metropole had been in the Cork Brigade may have been a factor. Todd Andrews, while writing about his time as an Anti-Treatyite prisoner, thought that “the Cork IRA suffered from a sense of collective guilt from the death of Collins”, as opposed to the less reverential Kerry prisoners (Andrews, p. 292).
For some, Collins’ death hung about as the ghost at the feast. When there was talk after the Civil War of re-establishing the Irish Republican Brotherhood, one former Anti-Treatyite and prospective member had to deny the accusation that he had cheered upon hearing of Collins’ death, insisting instead he, like the prisoners in Kilmainham Jail, had knelt down in prayer (Valiulis, p. 126).
The Finished Product
The resulting record from the meeting in the Metropole is short and concise, coming to just four pages in Edward O’Mahony’s printing of it (O’Mahony, pp. 40-44; also available online here). After setting the scene of the seven men meeting at the Metropole, and the listing of their names and IRA army ranks at the time of Collins’ death, O’Donoghue explains that the motive for the record was not merely for the sake of posterity but in response to an upcoming book by the historian Eoin Neeson on the Civil War.
The seven men clearly had reasons to doubt that Neeson’s account would be to their liking; luckily for them, they had an ally, Sean Feehan, in the publishing house responsible who assured them that the book would not be published unless they “were satisfied that the part of it dealing with the death of Collins was in accordance with the facts” (p. 41).
As O’Donoghue gives us Feehan’s rank as that of captain, suggesting that they had been on the same side in the Civil War, it is probable that this was a case of one ex-solider helping another out. Neeson’s book was published two years later, in 1966, so evidently the finished product was to their satisfaction.
With the introduction done, we begin the narrative with the Anti-Treatyite officers in Cork learning of Collins’ presence in the area on the morning of 22nd August, followed by the decisions and actions that led up to it, and ending with them learning of Collins’ resulting death.
Excess details are absent, such as the fact that O’Donoghue was away from Bealnablath, where the other six men had met at the time to discuss the situation, as he had been previously detained by Free State solders, as part of which he met and conversed with Collins (Coogan, p. 404).
O’Donoghue possibly thought that including his own experiences would have distracted from the main narrative. Neither do we learn of the reaction of the Anti-Treatyite leaders to Collins’ death, perhaps because, again, it was considered irrelevant.
For all the reticence on some details, the account is keen to stress that the ambush was strictly business and nothing personal against Collins:
Statements which have been made to the effect that the Division and Cork No. 1 Brigade were aware of Collins’ intention to visit posts in Cork, and that a general order was issued to kill him and are without foundation and completely untrue. His presence in the South was known to the officers in the Division and of the 1st. And 3rd Brigades only on the morning of 22nd and no order had been issued by either of the commands. The ambush was decided on as part of the general policy of attacking Free State convoys. (O’Mahony, p. 42)
O’Donoghue does not tell us more about these ‘statements’ or who they were by; unsurprising, considering how he was attempting to squash the rumours. Nor does he tell us whether these rumoured orders to kill Collins were supposed to have been issued from senior IRA leaders, such as the Chief-of-Staff, Liam Lynch, or from the Anti-Treatyite officers on the ground at the time.
In the first full-length biography of Collins, Piaras Béaslaí was in no doubt that “the ambushers were aware of the identity of Collins, despite assertions to the contrary by members of the anti-Treaty Party,” the implication being that Collins had been a target (Béaslaí, p. 440).
Béaslaí’s book was published in 1926, and perhaps the seven men who would later meet in the Metropole had felt in no position to respond soon after being on the losing side. By 1964, when they learned of the historian Eoin Neeson’s upcoming book, they may have felt that enough time had passed for them to no longer take such talk lying down.
The issue of whether the ambushers had intended to kill Collins had been addressed before by Anti-Treatyite combatants: Tom Barry and Peadar O’Donnell. Neither had participated in the ambush – both being imprisoned at the time – and relied on information from those who had.
Barry’s stated reason for bringing up the subject of Collins’ death, jumping ahead of his narrative that otherwise ended at the Truce, was to “kill the canard that the I.R.A plotted and planned Collins’ death in 1922 and in fact assassinated him” – an indignity at the very idea shared in the 1964 and Deasy’s accounts.
According to Barry, the ambushers did not even know that Collins was in the convoy until hours after the event – a claim not even the 1964 and Deasy accounts make (Barry, p. 169).
O’Donnell described the ambush as “a chance happening” due to the main ambush party having already left, but does not comment on the issue of whether or not the ambushers knew who they were shooting at (O’Donnell, p. 17). This is possibly because O’Donnell did not consider the issue important enough. A major difference between the two earlier Anti-Treatyite accounts is that Barry idolised Collins, describing him as “an outstanding figure” and “a great son of West Cork” (Barry, pp. 168-8).
In contrast, O’Donnell took a more critical view, portraying Collins as conspiratorial and misguided, and consequently his account of Collins’ death is less emotive than Barry’s. Both Barry and O’Donnell agree in describing the ambushers as having lain in wait for several days prior, while the 1964 and Deasy’s accounts describes events as happening very quickly from when they first learnt of Collins’ convoy on the morning of the ambush.
Given the briefness of the time Collins was in the area for, it is unlikely that any Anti-Treatyite plans could have been formed against him as anything other than on-the-hoof. One might argue that the Anti-Treatyites could not have realistically expected to achieve much against the convoy, let alone pick off one man in particular. However, the account by O’Donoghue of the preparations and equipment used in preparing the ambush makes it clear that they were serious about inflicting as much damage on the convoy as they could:
A mine was laid and a mineral water lorry with one wheel removed was used as a road block. A farm butt was also placed as a road block on the bohereen running almost parallel to the road on the eastern side. (O’Mahony, p. 43)
Lynch later criticized Deasy for neglecting to use mines against an armoured convoy, unaware that the ambushers had tried to use just that (O’Malley, p. 193).
Regardless of whether there was any plan to kill Collins, the ambush planners could not have been naïve to the possibility of killing a senior enemy general, which Collins was. Targeting prominent enemies for assassination had been a feature of the IRA in the War of Independence, from the attempt on Lord French, and the planned ones on individuals as diverse as the Prince of Wales, Lloyd George, British cabinet ministers, Unionist MPs, and Sir Henry Wilson, whose assassination was carried out (Hart, pp. 198-9).
The orders issued by Liam Lynch in November 1922 to kill on sight certain persons in response to the shootings of imprisoned Anti-Treatyites – resulting in the fatal shooting of Sean Hales TD and the wounding of Pádraic Ó Máille TD – can be seen as a continuation of this assassination policy.
While the death of Collins ultimately brought the Anti-Treatyites no tangible benefits, the possibility that it would must surely have been considered, something O’Donoghue pointedly omits. Lynch certainly thought it would. In a memorandum to Ernie O’Malley, dated a few days after the ambush, Lynch lamented the necessity of Collins’ death but explained at length his belief that:
Collins’ death will probably alter [the enemy’s] outlook and affect his higher Military Command. Collins’ loss is one which they cannot fill. The enemy position from the point of military and political leadership is very bad – we are at present in a much better position if we continued to take advantage of it. (O’Malley, p. 135)
As the Civil War dragged on and the Anti-Treatyite position became increasingly untenable, Lynch’s attitude was that things would have taken a different course if only Collins had lived, but in the immediate aftermath his attitude had been a very different one (Ryan, p. 218).
An Accidental Ambush?
The description of the leading up to the ambush casts the participants in an oddly amateurish light. Having set up for the ambush, the party decided that it was unlikely that the convoy would return by the same route, and started to leave, only for the convoy to be heard approaching after all. A Cork No. 3 section which had been left to cover the withdrawal saw that:
The main party moving back towards Bealnablath cross-roads were in a ravine and in a very dangerous position. They could not have reached the cross-roads before the convoy overtook them. (O’Mahony, p. 43)
Having seen this, the men in the Cork No. 3 section opened fire on the convoy after hurriedly taking positions. In case we were in doubt over whether Collins was the target of the ambush, O’Donoghue assures that “conditions were such that it was not possible to get off an aimed shot” (O’Mahony, p. 44).
O’Donoghue lists some of the 20 to 25 members of the ambush party, men like Liam Deasy, Tom Kelleher and Jim Hurley, who were intimate with the techniques of ambush from their roles in the War of Independence. It was out of character for them to have been careless enough to allow the bulk of their force open to being overwhelmed by the same force they had planned to take by surprise.
The story does, however, offer the committee in the Metropole a chance to distance themselves from the consequence of the ambush, i.e. Collins’ death, without denying that they had taken part. While in the process of withdrawing from a fight, they had found themselves unexpectedly cornered, and the Cork No. 3 had had no choice but to open hostilities after all to save their comrades.
O’Donoghue’s account bears a certain resemblance in part to Tom Barry’s account of the Kilmichael ambush, where Barry claimed that he had chosen an ambush site that allowed for no line of retreat, something he made sure to inform his men about, in the Spartan spirit of with-your-shield-or-on-it (Barry, p. 42).
As military historian W. H. Kautt puts it: “it was recklessly irresponsible for a guerrilla leader to jeopardize his force in such a manner” (p. 103), which is at odds with Barry’s track record as a tactician.
But, as with O’Donoghue’s account of Bealnablath, such a mistake could allow for the Kilmichael ambush to have been justified on the grounds that to have retreated before the approaching British convoy without a secure line of retreat would have exposed his men to an unacceptable risk, and thus the ambush was as much self-defence as anything (Kautt, pp. 113-4).
Barry’s memoir had been published in 1949, and even if O’Donoghue had not read it by the time of the Metropole meeting, he would have had some familiarity with the material, having been an editor to an earlier draft (Morrison, p. 161).
It is possible that O’Donoghue, seeking to portray the Bealnablath ambush party as not fully responsible for their role in an action that resulted in the death of a revered leader, borrowed a narrative tactic from another’s work. This cannot be said for certain, as without access to the draft O’Donoghue saw we cannot tell how much it resembled the printed version or how much of it was retained. It would be strange, however, for O’Donoghue to not have read a published work that he had had some role in.
All sources – Béaslaí, Barry, O’Donnell and the collective 1964 account – agree that the ambush was the work of a minority from the main party, with the rest having already moved on. Lynch’s memorandum to Ernie O’Malley, based on the report Liam Deasy sent to him, numbers the shooters as nine, though other sources are less specific (O’Malley, p. 135). The argument that the rearguard was prompted by the need to protect their comrades, however, is unique to the 1964 account.
Deasy Gets His Word In
As O’Donoghue’s account was written by committee, it is impossible to know how much input any one of the seven had in it, but nine years later, in 1973, nine years later, one of them would publish his own version in Brother Against Brother.
As with the 1964 account, Liam Deasy was sensitive to how the ambush had since been portrayed, bemoaning how “a lot has been written about this ambush at Bealnablath by Irishmen who dramatised the action out of all proportion. Strangers also did not help in what they wrote, many of whom caused much pain” (Deasy, p. 80).
A particular rumour he wished to quash was of four Anti-Treatyite officers, including himself, staying at a pub the night before the ambush, presumably because it implied premeditation on the part of Deasy and the three others. Deasy is at pains to present himself as a curiously distant bystander to the whole affair, this despite his senior Anti-Treatyite position as O.C. of the First Southern Division.
Upon hearing of Collins’ presence in the area with his convoy, Deasy discussed the implication of this with Éamon de Valera. For those searching for any plot to assassinate Collins, this often means linking the ambush with de Valera’s presence in the area. Canon Cohalan of Bandon asked rhetorically in a sermon: “The day Michael Collins was killed where was de Valera?” – before asserting that de Valera was either directly involved in the ambush or knew those who were (Coogan, p. 427).
Four years after the ambush, Piaras Béaslaí sarcastically noted that “it is a remarkable coincidence that Mr. De Valera, on the same day, is known to have been on the road taken by Collins’ party, and not far from the scene of the fatal ambush. I am told by supporters of his that it was only an accident” (Béaslaí, pp. 433-4).
This suspicion has continued into recent times, where the 1996 film Michael Collins has Alan Rickman’s De Valera enticing Collins into an assassin’s trap under the pretext of peace talks. It is unclear as to whether any meeting between De Valera and Collins had actually been planned, though de Valera’s denial, and his point that Collins would not have bothered meeting the then-powerless De Valera anyway, is plausible (Coogan, p. 449).
This chimes in with Deasy’s description of De Valera’s earnest suggestions to end the war being shot down point-blank by Lynch (Deasy, p. 76). De Valera’s presence is corroborated in the 1964 account but with no elaboration (O’Mahony, p. 42). Neither Deasy nor the 1964 account take the time to defend De Valera against the accusations of complicity but then, they were not writing on his behalf.
During his discussion with De Valera, Deasy correctly guessed that Collins’ arrival would be seen by nearby Anti-Treatyite divisions as an intolerable provocation, prompting an ambush on the convoy. In this the narrative agrees with the 1964 one, which had the divisions set up the ambush even while their senior officers were meeting to discuss it, suggesting that the IRA divisions were fully capable of acting on their own initiative without waiting for orders. This has the benefit of distancing the Anti-Treatyite officers from the ambush, which is presented as a spontaneous action that was natural to the local conditions, and avoiding the question of who gave the definite order to arrange an ambush.
There is no mention of what Deasy’s opinion was on any of this, nor of any effort on his part to encourage or discourage a potential ambush on an important national figure. A feeling “that an ambush would be prepared” was apparently sufficient for a senior officer in the midst of a warzone to not do anything besides hold a meeting in the nearby town of Garranereagh (Deasy, pp. 77-8). This location is at odds with the 1964 account, in which Deasy had arrived at Bealnablath on the 22nd and remained there, the same place where four Anti-Treatyite officers would assemble later that day for a meeting.
The 1964 account does not say that Deasy had been one of these four, but the implication in the text is that he was, unless the O.C. First Southern Division as not thought to be worth inviting along. Deasy, however, would prefer to have his readers believe that he was in a different town – keeping his literal distance – having his own meeting, where he “attended to many urgent matters and weighed up the new situation in which we found ourselves” (Deasy, p. 78). Besides a report to Lynch on De Valera’s visit, we get nothing specific on what this weighing up involved – Collins’ presence must surely have been a topic of discussion, but we learn nothing more from Deasy.
With the weighing up presumably weighed, only then did Deasy travel to the ambush site near Bealnablath. He arrived in time to find the ambush party in the process of withdrawing due to the likelihood of Collins taking a different route. In the 1964 account, the order to withdraw “was made, probably by Deasy” (O’Mahony, p. 43); furthermore, Deasy was listed as one of the ambush party. In Deasy’s version, the withdrawal order was Tom Hales’, before Deasy had even arrived, and Deasy was a latecomer to the ambush party at best.
The point is explicitly made in the 1964 account that the ambush was triggered by the need of the rearguard party to cover the rest from being overtaken by the sudden arrival of the convoy. According to Deasy, most of the party were already in a pub for ten minutes when they heard the first shots from the ambush, and dashed back in time to let off a few shots of their own before the convoy retreated.
While the 1964 account seeks to distance the ambushers from their own ambush by means of self-defence, Deasy goes one further and places himself as barely on the scene at all. Deasy also contradicts the 1964 account’s insistence that the main party were exposed in a ravine and in danger of being cornered; according to him, they had already spent some minutes inside before the firing began.
Whether Deasy was purposely going against the 1964 account for his own evasive benefit, was remembering events differently than he had nine years earlier, or had wanted to include his version from the start but been overruled by the others in the Metropole, is impossible to say. There are many overlaps in narrative between the two accounts, but also are significant differences in Deasy’s sole version and these were part of the same desire to distance the subject from the same embarrassing event that had motivated the earlier account.
The death of Collins was regarded by many on the Anti-Treaty side as a tragedy, despite their opposition to him, and the embarrassment felt in the death of such a prominent national figure can be seen in the attempts by many to minimize their roles in the fatal ambush.
A document submitted by a group of members in the ambush party and transcribed by Florence O’Donoghue in 1964 is a prime example of this. As the reason for every source to have been written must be examined, the one here was to cast the role of a group of participants in a controversial event in the best light.
This was done in two ways: the first was to deny that they had intended to kill Collins specifically, and that the ambush had been intended as another run-of-the-mill action against an enemy; the second was to construe the ambush as the inevitable consequences of the ambushers suddenly finding themselves in danger of being ambushed in turn. This bears a certain resemblance to a similar ambush recorded by another, one whom O’Donoghue has already familiar with as an editor, raising questions as to whether he borrowed a convenient explanation for his own inconvenient ambush.
This pattern was repeated by one of the group, Liam Deasy, in his own version, published some years later, which distanced him from the ambush even at the expense of contradicting the account he had helped to write. This is not to say that O’Donoghue’s document is a ‘true’ or ‘false’ account, but that it was written with an agenda that must be taken into consideration when using it.
History, when you get down to it, is a study of the elite. Partly because they are important in a way that the rest of us are not, partly because the historical sources tend to focus on them, and partly because of the innate human fascination in those who seem to live in a higher plane of existence, whether due to fame, money or titles.
Social historians have heroically attempted to counter this bias by moving their studies away from the ‘great men’ towards recreating the lives of ordinary people. Judging, however, by the recent glut of popular history shows – The White Queen, The Borgias, The Tudors, among others – and their cast of blue-blooded characters, this interest is unlikely to wane or be replaced any time soon.
This collection of essays – nineteen in all – covers the FitzGeralds, the preeminent noble family in Ireland and the earls of Kildare. Maynooth and Carton House, as centres of the family power in different ways, also feature prominently, with chapters on the development and the early college of Maynooth and on the landscape, servants and material life of Carton.
The strengths and weaknesses of this book stem from the same root: the number of contributors and their varying specialisations means that reading the book cover-to-cover can either be enjoyed as a kaleidoscope of personalities, politics and home comforts or a disjointed mismatch.
Alternatively, readers could skip to the chapters that promise the most interest. This reviewer’s interests include the Middle Ages, biography and early 20th century history, and so the first chapters read were the ones on the Middle Ages, Lord Edward FitzGerald (he of the United Irishmen fame), and Lord Frederick FitzGerald and his role in Kildare politics until his death in 1924.
The three essays by Mary Ann Lyons, Carol O’Connor and Colm Lennon cover the family from its peak as chief magnates of Ireland in the 15th-16th centuries, securing the country on behalf of the English Crown, though that did not mean they were above staging ‘revolts’ whenever threatened with supplementation by some upstart appointee from England to ‘prove’ that only they could control the unruly island.
This trick was tried too often with Henry VIII who almost exterminated the family in response and cast them out in the political wilderness. It took the shrewd diplomacy and alliance-building by Mabel Browne, who married into the family, to restore the FitzGeralds to royal good fortune.
The FitzGerald legacy would then be the battleground of politically motivated historians who depicted the clan as either the natural rulers of Ireland or despicable traitors. The three essays that encompass all of this do an excellent job of narrating the family’s rise and fall and hard-won rise again, providing a coherent picture that overlap on certain points without clashing.
Liam Chamber’s ‘Family Politics and Revolutionary Convictions’, on Lord Edward FitzGerald, has more of the latter than the former, his family largely absent. The essay is straitjacketed by its short length of eight pages, and while that is not unusual compared to the other essays, it means that the end result falls short of its ambition.
Chambers draws attention to how the historiography on Edward had been shaped by early writers like Thomas Moore, Charles William FitzGerald and Gerald Campbell, who were able to make use of the family private papers. The historians who followed them lacked such access and so were limited to quoting the papers from the earlier works. Since the 1990s, the National Library of Ireland acquired thousands of manuscripts relating to Edward and his kin, allowing modern historians to finally see these materials for themselves. Other than that, Chambers has little to say, and the essay’s length limits him to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ as a writer.
Thomas Nelson’s look at Lord Frederick FitzGerald (1837-1924) is hampered by how very little is known about the man. He left few papers and none of a personal nature, so Newton resorts to other sources such as local newspapers and government papers to present a view of the FitzGerald estates in Kildare during Frederick’s ownership. After five years serving in the British army in India, Afghanistan and South Africa, Frederick came into his Kildare estates at an awkward time.
The Land War was under way, though Nelson argues against the usual depiction of the landlord-tenant relationship breaking down in light of the local enthusiasm received by Frederick upon his return from abroad and at the marriage of his sister. Frederick was able to negotiate with his tenants in a satisfactory manner so that Kildare avoided the worse virulence of the Land War.
This ability to maintain local support continued when he was elected to the country council in 1899 at a time when landlords were increasingly depicted as colonial oppressors.
Frederick remained on the council for the next twenty-one years, winning each election that came his way until 1920, when he stepped down from any further role in politics. As a sign of the times, his replacement was Daniel Buckley, a Maynooth shopkeeper who went by Domhnall Ua Buachalla and represented Sinn Féin.
While short on personal detail about Frederick FitzGerald – other than an excessive fondness for his female servants leading to a high staff turnover rate – Nelson handles what is usually a dry topic in a clear, detailed and engaging way.
To have the book for only a few select chapters may seem a waste, however, particularly at its less-than-commercially-friendly price (an eye-watering 45 euro on the publisher’s website at this time of writing). The ideal readership are probably students who can access their university libraries.
James Quinn’s Young Ireland and the Writing of Irish History is a fascinating look at a group of ideological intellectuals who sought to make the rest of 19th century Ireland as interested in the country’s history as they were. The purpose of this mission was not for the sake of history itself; indeed, the Young Irelanders, as these men became known, were as contemptuous of overly dry works of impartial scholarship as they were of textbooks aiming to make the Irish into proper Britons.
History, as far as they were concerned, was there to excite, to arouse passion and, ultimately, to inspire its audience into becoming better patriots. Orwell had yet to say: “He who controls the past controls the future,” but the Young Irelanders had already come to that conclusion.
With that purpose in mind, the Young Irelanders founded the Nation newspaper in 1842 to publish heroic tales of derring-do, the more battles the merrier, and with an emphasis on ‘great men’ such as Owen Roe O’Neill, Hugh O’Neill and Patrick Sarsfield. In this, they were drawing much of their inspiration from contemporary Romantic writers such as Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet and Augustin Thierry, as the Young Irelanders were the first to admit (though the anti-Irish snobbery in Carlyle was best ignored), and the Romantic movement in general, which celebrated the past as a source of inspiration, as opposed to the more forward-thinking and self-consciously progressive thinking behind the Enlightenment a generation before.
A strength of this book is Quinn’s skill at providing the intellectual context in which the Young Irelanders thought and wrote, both within Ireland (the Young Irelanders were happy to take advantage of works by more apolitical Irish antiquarians to buttress their own research) and on the Continent, where nationalists were similarly eager to uncover the true soul and essence of their countries through history and folk culture. However, Quinn is careful to avoid cluttering his narrative with excessive detail on side subjects, with the focus remaining on the Irish scene.
Besides the Nation, the other great literary project of the Young Irelanders was the Library of Ireland book series, beginning in 1845 with the publication of History of the Volunteers of 1782, and followed by other books on subjects such as the Nine Years War, the Plantation of Ulster and the Confederation of Kilkenny. Envisioned as a collection of interlocking chapters on Irish history, the Library of Ireland went on to exceed all sales expectations, with several of its titles appearing on R. Barry O’Brien’s ‘100 Best Irish books’ in 1866.
For all its success, the Young Irelanders’ mission of education was overtaken by events (“events, dear boy”), firstly by the straining of their alliance with Daniel O’Connell over issues such as that of political violence (O’Connell solidly against it, the Young Irelanders studiedly ambivalent), and then by the Famine, which rendered the high-minded talk of historical heroes meaningless when people were dying in the fields. It was a shift in priorities which the Nation had no choice but to recognise: “What man with a heart would sit to write Ballad History while his country perishes?”
Nonetheless, the Young Irelanders held a moderate line, repudiating proposals like a national rent strike. This angered the more radical members such as John Mitchel who proceeded to set up his own newspaper: United Irishman. As the title would suggest, Mitchel had no problem with the notion of armed insurrection, with the United Irishman helpfully giving tips on the best way to construct a barricade or drill with a pike.
The government’s severe response to this increased militancy (such as the sentence of fourteen years of transportation for Mitchel) prompted the ramshackle Rebellion of 1848 though, as Quinn argues, the hero-worship of past revolutionaries such as Robert Emmet (true to form, Mitchel chose Emmet’s brother-in-law as his defence counsel at his trial) made the decision to follow in their idols’ revolutionary footsteps an inevitable one.
Despite the end of the Young Irelanders post-Rebellion as a coherent group, many of their leading members continued on with their mission to present and propagate an acceptably pugnacious view of Irish history. Additionally, having propelled themselves into a role of their own onto the historical stage via the 1848 Rebellion, they were keen to defend it, depicting the uprising as essential, O’Connell as an untrustworthy opportunist, the Famine as a British plot, and each other as either uncontestably virtuous (if they were still friends) or as miserable rogues (if they were not).
It was at this post-mortem stage that the Young Irelanders achieved their greatest success, for in many ways the subsequent generations were to follow their lead in writing history. Mitchel’s Jail Journal was to provide the template for the prison memoirs of the likes of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Michael Davitt and Thomas Clarke. O’Connell’s reputation struggled to recover from the polemics against him (the centenary of his death in 1947 was to be a muted affair), and the idea of the Famine as a conspiracy as much as a natural disaster has been passed down through historical works as recent as Tim Pat Coogan’s 2012 book.
The turn of the 20th century was to find an Ireland which readily responded to Young Ireland’s telling of history as a call to arms: an officer in the Mayo IRA during the War of Independence remembered his father reciting Mitchel’s History of Ireland “off by heart.” The first history book Éamon de Valera ever read was Alexander Martin Sullivan’s Story of Ireland, while Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman owed inspiration for its title as much to Mitchel’s original newspaper as to the 1798 participants.
This is a short book at only 147 pages, not including the extensive bibliographic notes, but Quinn keeps his narrative a tight one, making every page and paragraph count. It is a story of ideas, not of events (the 1848 Rebellion is told in barely a paragraph) nor of people (though there is a list of biographies at the end to help the reader keep track of who’s who), and Quinn is well able to explain them, and the motivations of the men (as they were overwhelmingly so, no Countess Markieviczs here) who nurtured them, spread them as best they could and, in the case of those exiled or imprisoned, suffered for them.
Quinn is very much not a writer of the Young Ireland school, keeping as he does his tone admirably impartial as befits the Managing Director of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography. But towards the end, he lets slip a glimmer of admiration at the Young Irelanders’ achievements. It is hard for even a cynical reader to not feel likewise. For better or for worse, 20th century Ireland was as much a product of the Young Ireland movement as anything. This book should do much in making this team of intellectuals, pedagogues and would-be revolutionaries better known.
Fascists these days are a mealy-mouthed lot. Not racist but racialist. Not hating another race but loving your own.
So it is almost refreshing to encounter some who were upfront about what they were about. Formed in 1942 while their fellow fascists on the Continent were in the ascendant, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (“Architects of the Resurrection”) had a set of policies that were as grandiose as its name:
Irish democracy to be replaced by a one-party totalitarian state (said party being itself, of course).
The use of English to be criminalised in favour of Irish.
A united Ireland to be achieved by the raising of a massive conscript army that would swamp Northern Ireland into submission.
The encouragement of women to swell the Irish race with as many progeny as they could manage, the earlier the better (how else is that massive conscript army going to be formed?).
Too bad if none of this strikes the reader as appealing, as emigration would also be banned. One has to give Ailtirí credit at least for not resorting to the usual Irish solution to social problems.
Despite its avowedly fascist worldview, Ailtirí did not see itself as simply a potato-eating version of those found in Germany and Italy. Instead, it held a far grander ambition: by remaining aloof from the War until the belligerents had worn themselves out, Ireland would be in the prime position to re-spiritualise a materialistic Europe and assume the mantle of leadership over a Christian world order.
The study of a political party can read like a biography: it will have its beginning and often an end, a distinct character that stands it out from the rest, likes and dislikes, and sometimes a rise and a fall. Ailtirí had a promising start before spluttering into oblivion but then, political failures can be as interesting as the successes, especially if the reader is of a morbid disposition. Parties on the far-right spectrum, in particular, can have the appeal of a car-wreck: grisly but you slow down to gawp all the same.
Perhaps it is the type of personality they attract. Not that left-wing groups do not feature their own sort of deviant – Ken Livingstone’s 2012 memoir records the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the various Trotskyite factions he was part of with a little too much relish – but the fascistic ones do seem to draw more than their fair share of ambitions and egos inflated to levels that are almost Shakespearean. That is, if Shakespeare was a fruitcake.
The opening chapter explores the uneasy position democracy had within post-Treaty Ireland with its legacy of civil war and executions, Blueshirts battling against Republicans, and the widespread idea that an autocratic system like those used so successfully on the Continent might be preferable to godless Marxism. The reviewer is not completely convinced by the direction of this chapter – seen in another light, Irish democracy could appear to have been impressively robust – but it is, as with the rest of the book, an impressively researched piece.
Douglas next explores the pro-German sympathies prominent in Ireland on the eve of the Second World War that only grew with the strings of victories by the Nazi state that seemed about to consign democracy to the dustbin of history. The author then narrows his focus onto the political evolution of the party founder, Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, the closest the book has to a recurring character besides the party itself.
Born Gerald Cunningham in Belfast, 1910, he worked as a tax clerk in the Irish Department of Finance before resigning when refused leave to improve his Irish. Having immersed himself in a Gaeltacht and emerging as a committed Gaelic revivalist, the newly renamed Ó Cuinneagáin worked first as an editorial writer and then as a tax consultant before taking his first step into political thought.
After flirting with first an underground pro-German group and then with the Gaelic League – where he excelled as an organiser before his outspoken politics proved a mite strong for the League’s genteel elders – Ó Cuinneagáin felt confident enough to form his own party, one that he could have to himself and play the role of leader, or Ceannaire as the budding fuhrer was styled. All that was left was to make a lot of speeches, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable bestowment of supreme power.
Ailtirí was not to be another mere party but a vanguard for a Christian revival. Still, it had to abide by the nuts-and-bolts realities that every political group must go through, such as the management of its regional branches (many of whom would withhold knowledge of their full strength to avoid the extortionate 75% tithe on their membership fees by the Dublin HQ), the maintenance of self-imposed standards (the rule against holding party meetings in public houses being commonly ignored as the local pub in some rural areas was often the only place large enough), and time commitments on the part of activists (senior ones often travelling considerable distances to speak at branch events).
While Douglas’ book hardly invites admiration for its subject, it is still incredible that Ailtirí worked at all, let alone as well as it did. Enthusiasm among members for the party ideals remained high enough not to be deterred by their inept performance in the 1943 general election. It was the repeated failure in the 1944 one, however, that led party activists to wonder if they would be better off under a different ceannaire.
Ó Cuinneagáin was, as Douglas describes, the party’s best asset and worst liability. While an effective organiser, his inability to delegate responsibility – and power – meant that the future of Ailtirí was always going to be held hostage to the Ceannaire’s increasingly obvious flaws.
Ó Cuinneagáin appears to have been of that breed of ambitious politicians who either enter a small political scene or, upon failing to find one, create their own. Their competency level is at a reasonable but unexceptional level, allowing them the success that would otherwise have eluded them in a more mainstream party but leaving them vulnerable to themselves when it comes to competing on a national stage. Nick Griffin’s meltdown on BBC’s Question Time in 2009 is the most notable example of this political Peter Principle at work.
While Ó Cuinneagáin avoided anything quite so public, his inflexible and dogmatic approach to leadership led to the 1945 resignations of some of Ailtirí’s ablest members and what Brendan Behan described as the first item on the agenda of any Irish committee: the split. In disarray and with the recently formed Clann na Poblachta encroaching on its share of the protest vote, Ailtirí made the lightest of impacts on the 1948 general election.
Even then, Ó Cuinneagáin did not give up: on the morning of 14th May 1949, the inhabitants of Dublin and other large towns awoke to find Ailtirí posters exhorting them to “Arm Now to Take the North.” The heavy-handed response by the Gardaí in tearing down the posters provided Ailtirí with a propaganda boon, and the whole affair seems to have partly convinced the British Cabinet of an imminent invasion of Northern Ireland.
But the lack of follow-up by Ailtirí proved to many that the party was all talk and no action. Even an attempt later in the year to upstage the annual Armistice Day dance in Dublin with a riot failed to stem the haemorrhaging of members.
One of the stalwarts remaining was Liam Creagh who, when not a drinking companion to Brendan Behan, helped sell the Ailtirí newspaper and occasionally drink the proceeds away. The relationship between Creagh and Ó Cuinneagáin came to resemble, as Douglas describes with his keen eye for human folly, a “dysfunctional marriage”, though Creagh was not the most damaged individual in Ailtirí, that dubious distinction being held by Raymond Moulton Sean O’Brien, a self-proclaimed ‘Prince of Thormond’ and compulsive child molester. The best that can be said for many far-right groups is that all human life is there.
Ailtirí shrank away until its newsletter was the only part of it left, a party broadsheet without a party. The newspaper enjoyed surprisingly healthy sales throughout the 1950s and 1960s – Ó Cuinneagáin appears to have been far more skilled as a publisher than as a politician or thinker – but by the next decade, its publishing costs proved too much even for the indefatigable Ó Cuinneagáin, and it was wrapped up in 1975. The one-time Ceannaire died in 1990, still insisting that Ailtirí’s day might yet come.
While destined to go down in history as a footnote, and a peculiar one at that, Douglas is at pains to stress how Ailtirí’s ideology was not all that incompatible with popular opinion in Ireland at the time, with its pro-Axis sympathies even after the full extent of Nazi atrocities had been exposed, and the latent anti-Semitism in public life (it is unsurprising to learn that the Jew-baiting blowhard Oliver J. Flanagan was happy to field questions on behalf of Ailtirí in the Daíl).
However, unlike Martin Pugh’s study on fascism in Britain at the same time, Hurrah for the Blackshirts! (2005), in which half the chapters seemed to be dedicated to peripheral subjects, Douglas is able to provide the necessary cultural context while keeping the attention on the main subject. That Douglas is an entertaining writer who knows how to bring his subject to life makes for an absorbing as well as informative read.
Judging W.T. Cosgrave is the third in the Judging X series and the first to be on a non-Fianna Fáil figure, the previous two being about Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. The book launch was notable in the presence of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny; likewise, the one for Judging Dev in 2007 was attended by Bertie Ahern: statements in themselves about how Civil War politics continues to define the contemporary sort in Ireland. It is hard, after all, to imagine either of the two party leaders ‘crossing the floor’ by attending the other book launch. Cosgrave, de Valera and Lemass may be long dead, but the ghosts of their wars continue to be felt today.
History has judged Cosgrave to be something of a ghost himself. After all, this book had to have Cosgrave’s full name in the title, as opposed to de Valera needing only Dev for his.
Perhaps it was due to being sandwiched between the overwhelming presences of Michael Collins and de Valera, or people equating his calm, judicious manner with a lack of charisma. A mocking cartoon from 1927 that features in Laffan’s book as a double-spread is of a sleepy-looking Cosgrave painting a portrait of himself in a ridiculously heroic pose.
Such mild appearances were deceiving. Upon the sudden deaths of Arthur Griffith and Collins in 1922, the newly-chosen Chairman of the Free State Cabinet found himself with the unenviable task of heading a government under siege. His enemies were initially contemptuous: de Valera dismissed him as a “ninny”, while Rory O’Connor courted hubris in believing that Cosgrave could be “easily scared to clear out.”
But they had badly underestimated Cosgrave’s spine which, when stiffened, could be a fearsome thing. The executions of Anti-Treatyite prisoners, including that of the cocksure O’Connor, shook the Civil War opposition enough for its previous policy of targeting Dáil deputies to be abandoned.
Cosgrave was bothered by the official use of the term ‘reprisal’ and its connotations with the Black-and-Tans, but otherwise he complained at how the state executions had been limited to a few counties, leading to the mistaken impression that the rest of Ireland was peaceful. Any failure to implement such strategic executions, in his opinion, was the equivalent of losing a battle. The Civil War was a life-or-death struggle for the newborn Free State, and Cosgrave was not going to allow the “dregs of society”, as he came to call the other side, to get in the way of running the country.
What is striking, while reading this book, is the extent that state policies reflected Cosgrave’s personal inclinations. With the Irish language, he was game, and his government took steps to make it compulsory. But his own fluency was never more than patchy and went no further than signing the minutes of Cumann na nGaedheal meetings in Irish. Even this token gesture was dropped after the party lost power in 1932 and he switched to signing them in English. He may have liked to talk about the Gaelicization of Ireland, but lacked the commitment to enforce anything substantial, much like the country in general.
In any case, Cosgrave was more interested in balancing the books. He told Cumann na nGaedheal members that their priorities were to ensure “an ordered society, hard work, constant endeavour”, among others, and these Spartan tastes were reflected in the fiscal conservatism of his government.
Similarly, the Free State’s policy of integration towards ex-Unionists was as much a reflection of Cosgrave’s moderate instincts as it was a need to build a working Ireland with as much support as it could get.
The choices of state symbolism are the most fun to read, probably as much as they were for the Cabinet to discuss: the artist designing the pig that was to feature on the half-penny coin was requested to reduce the fullness of its jowls. Why this should be important is not stated. One is minded of a trainspotters’ convention or the debates of Tolkien enthusiasts on whether the Balrog had wings.
Other choices on symbols are all too illuminating: the official seal of state would be a harp but not one, God forbid, with a female figure included. Catholic morality was the order of the day. Cosgrave saw to it that the new coinage would feature only ‘profane’ images, as opposed to religious ones, given the worldly ways money could be used. This was still too much for one priest who ruminated against the coins as “the thin edge of the wedge of Freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity.” Quite.
This priest was not to be the only clergyman vocal on how the state should be run. An eager-to-please, almost servile consideration to what the Church hierarchy thought was to be a regular feature of Cumann na nGaedheal. Particularly disturbing for this reviewer to learn was Cosgrave’s proposal in February 1921 of a ‘Theological Board’ as an additional house of the Dáil, whose role would be to debate whether any proposed legislation would be “contrary to Faith and Morals.”
By Faith, this, of course, meant the Catholic one. Mercifully, his fellow Cabinet members thought this was a step too far, but if Ireland had avoided the route to theocracy it would still become one in all but name under Cumann na nGaedheal and its successor governments.
Laffan reminds his readers that no government then could have defied the Church and survived, and indeed none did until very recently. Even so, whether it was proposing to Dublin Corporation as early as 1915 that it work with the Dublin Vigilance Committee on the subject of objectionable films or the Archbishop of Dublin being sent on request an advance copy of the 1922 draft constitution, Cosgrave was only too happy to oblige.
In fairness to the man, he did his best to resist the worst examples of fanaticism, such as the case of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, the Mayo librarian refused a position due to her Protestantism. Even if Cosgrave ultimately had to resort to the strategic retreat of transferring Dunbar-Harrison out of Mayo and into the Department of Defence, his attitude that “we Catholics ought not to fear Protestants”, however plaintive, was in favourable contrast to de Valera’s opportunistic support for the Mayo sectarianism. Dunbar-Harrison, for all that, only held her new post in the Department of Defence briefly, as she soon married and was thus obliged to resign, another sign of the times that makes us lucky to be in the present one.
As for the Blueshirts, Cosgrave’s interest in them was limited to their strategic, not ideological value, a “prospect of achieving unity against de Valera.” Certainly, it is hard to imagine a man who was content with a democratic transition of power at his expense having much sympathy with totalitarianism. Unlike some of his Fine Gael colleagues, he disdained wearing the Blueshirt uniform in the Dáil, and kept a cautious distance from Eoin O’Duffy even while obliged to publicly praise his party leader on occasion.
As opposition leader, the same calm, unpretentious traits that had served him well as a nation-builder came to be seen as liabilities in an increasingly stagnate and directionless party. Laffan makes no excuses for Cosgrave’s later failures as Fine Gael leader, leaving the reader to watch as the hero fades away into a not-so-golden sunset of political irrelevance.
His death in 1965 was met with indifference by the Fianna Fáil government who did not even bother to send a representative to the funeral. A notable exception was Seán Lemass, who praised in the Dáil the “privations and sacrifices which he endured so that national freedom might be ours.”
In many ways, as Laffan notes, the two men were kindred spirits to the point, it was claimed, of Lemass modelling his style of debate Cosgrave’s. Both were quick to praise the practical qualities in the other – practicality being amongst the highest of virtues for both – and both their respective governments sought to be meritocracies rather than the usual clientelism of parish-pump politics.
Yet Lemass has been highly regarded to this day while Cosgrave is remembered, when he is at all, with not much more than polite respect. Perhaps Cosgrave had been in the wrong party after all, and would have belonged more in Fianna Fáil where his talents could have been better realised? Or is that a ‘step across the room’ too far to contemplate?
When An Post issued a commemorative stamp of Jack White, first commandant of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) on January 2014, eagle-eyed historians were quick to point out that whoever the man on the stamp was, it was not White. That White could not even be assured of getting at least a stamp to himself makes Leo Keohane’s biography an overdue one.
Perhaps White had too diverse a career – first in the British army, then the ICA, followed by the Irish Volunteers, and then back in British military service as an ambulance driver – for Irish history to conveniently sum up. Better, then, to pass him over entirely. There was something of a ‘Peter Pan’ quality to him, the boy who never quite grew up and settled down with one label like the rest of his contemporaries. It was a trait White himself was aware of, as the aptly chosen title of his memoir, Misfit, indicates. Whatever else may be said about the man, he was not devoid of self-awareness.
The subtitle of Keohane’s biography sets White firmly in the context of the ICA, which is what he has been remembered for even though his time in it was a brief one. The son of a celebrated field marshal, White made for an unlikely revolutionary but from his time in the British army and onwards, he was a man determined not to make his time in any sort of system an easy one.
As a case in point, White refused to execute a teenage prisoner during the Boer War, threatening instead to shoot his commanding officer. Such insubordination did not stop him from later receiving the Distinguished Service Order for bravery, just as the award and a promising military career did not stop him from resigning his commission and striking out on his own.
White had by then immersed himself in the writings of Tolstoy and for the next few years sought to immerse himself in Tolsyoyan principles. Although White never did articulate quite what these principles were, this search for some sort of higher truth would drive him for much of his life. He was someone who was “desperately seeking some personal form of fulfilment,” as Keohane puts it, “with an awareness of himself that insists he must have a role to play in the grand scheme of things.”
Such a role was found upon his return to Ireland in 1912. Ireland was by then thick with tension: between Ireland and the rest of the Empire, between Nationalists and Unionists, between workers and their employers. The last conflict came to a boil in the Lockout of 1913, and it was its brutal suppression by the Dublin Metropolitan Police, coupled with the plight of the Dublin poor, that drove White to the twin causes of social justice and the ICA.
It is unclear as to who initiated the idea of the ICA. Keohane cites a number of sources that attribute this to either White or James Connolly. Both were certainly involved in the ICA from its earliest stage, and Keohane skilfully draws character portraits of what attracted either man to such a body. For White, the ICA was a chance to apply his military experience to a worthy cause without compromising his pacifism, given the self-defence role he envisioned for the ICA.
Connolly, in contrast, was prepared to use the ICA more assertively, such as when he dispatched a squad with rifles and bayonets to a striking picket line. White, Keohane believes, “would have been aghast at the time if he had foreseen some of the uses that Connolly had in mind for the Citizen Army,” and it is certainly hard to imagine White leading the ICA into open rebellion against the state as it would do on the Easter Week of 1916.
But White’s leadership in the ICA did not last long. Frustrated by the increasingly low turnout of ICA members for events, White defected to the Irish Volunteers “with the suggestion of the tone of an ambitious young man, leaving a small and backward family firm for a large and exciting national company,” as Keohane observes.
White organised and commanded a brigade of 5,000 men in Co Derry. Despite many of them being former soldiers like him, he did not find their discipline to be much better than that of his former ICA charges. In addition, he found his authority increasingly undermined by the sectarian suspicions of those in the Derry Volunteers who doubted that a Protestant like White would ever lead them into a fight against Orangemen. As of before, White found that the reality of the organisation he was responsible for did not match the ideals he nurtured.
The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 gave White the chance, or so thought, to solve the problem of discipline for the Irish Volunteers. A circular letter he wrote to various leading figures proposed the formation of a sort of Irish auxiliary force for the British war effort: the Irish Volunteers would be paid and equipped by the British state but with their leadership remaining within themselves. White went as far as to write to Lord Kitchener with his idea, although to no avail. Intriguingly, another leading figure in the British military, General Ian Hamilton, was sufficiently taken with the notion to take it up to Prime Minister Asquith but likewise received short shrift there.
The idea had not been a million miles away from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist. White’s version, however, was unlikely to entice many in the British government who would have been providing the resources to an armed body that they would have had little control over. On the other end of the political spectrum, it would have had little attraction to Nationalists who wanted Ireland to have nothing to do with the war. While doomed to ignominious failure, the idea did show White’s willingness to attempt an inclusive solution to a problem rather than remain fixed to a party line.
In keeping with his nature as an eternal renegade, White left the Irish Volunteers shortly after the War began in order to do his part on the Continent. Marrying his pacifist principles with his personal courage, he took up ambulance duties at the battle front. His distance from Ireland meant he was to have no input in the Easter Rising. That did not stop him from attempting to rouse the miners of South Wales into a strike in a futile effort to save James Connolly from execution. The reaction of the miners to this wannabe firebrand in their midst was not recorded.
After all that, the rest of White’s life seems almost like an anticlimax. He assisted with the Sinn Féin election campaign in 1918 while finding the time to publish a pamphlet that attempted to explain the Sinn Féin phenomenon and the future of Ireland in socialist terms. That set the tone for the rest of his life: the man who had tried moulding the fate of Ireland through the ICA and then the Irish Volunteers was content for the most part to sit on the sidelines and provide only commentary.
Exceptions to this passivity included his arrest in Belfast in 1931 while on a ‘hunger march’ with a group dedicated to the unemployed. Seemingly singled out from the crowd by the Orange police, White received a beating and a month in prison. Three years later, he was attacked by IRA men while leading a branch of the left-leaning Republican Congress, to Bodenstown for the Wolfe Tone commemoration. Almost as if not to leave anyone out, he was assaulted again at Bodenstown two years later, in 1936, and badly bludgeoned, this time by Blueshirts.
White went to Spain shortly after its Civil War began in 1936, though his actions there are uncertain, and Keohane finds a second-hand account of him as a Spanish Republican training officer “doubtful”. His death in 1946 received scant attention outside his friends and family.
Keohane tells the tale of a complex man who lived in complicated times, and tells it well. It is first and foremost a biography. The great events in Irish history at that time pass on by like so many road signs, leaving readers with only Jack White as he made his way through life as their only companion. Many other people of prominence appear through the pages, from James Larkin and Roger Casement to Lord Kitchener and Edward VII, but this is Jack White’s story, not theirs, and they are dropped from the narrative as soon as they part ways with our hero.
How much readers will remain invested in this book will depend on whether they want to continue reading about Jack White. He was not one of the most important people for his era but he was one of the more interesting, one of the more cerebral, and perhaps one of the most frustrating for he never achieved a fraction of what he perhaps could have had. For all that, he deserves to be better known, and if anything will grant him this, it is this book. And who knows? Maybe Jack White will have the right stamp for himself, after all.