Book Review: Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar, by Eoin MacNeill (edited by Brian Hughes) (2016)

macneillmemoir-for-catalogue-70kbThis is a difficult work to get to grips with, given how wildly uneven it is in tone. “I do not propose to write anything like a record of the proceedings, but only to put on record certain facts and certain aspects of the facts within my personal knowledge,” is how the author put it, although Eoin MacNeill could surely have been more discerning on which facts to choose for posterity.

Take, for instance, MacNeill’s tale that was offered as part of a storytelling contest among his colleagues in the Irish Volunteers. While travelling by train from Dublin to Belfast, MacNeill related, he took out his pipe and tobacco pouch, only to be reprimanded by a young man seated nearby who told him that this was a non-smoking compartment. A short while later, one of the two men who had been sitting on either side of the objector leaned over to tell MacNeill to smoke away as they were in the process of bringing their companion to an institution (presumably a mental one).

This was the winning entry, and earned MacNeill the prize of a new pipe, appropriately enough. MacNeill inserts this tale in between describing the efforts to obtain guns for the Irish Volunteers – culminating in the Howth Gun-Running in July 1914 – and it is hard to know why MacNeill bothered with such a pointless interlude.

A better editor was desperately needed here, one who could tell MacNeill which anecdotes to keep and which ones should be dumped. Ita Mallon tried to be that editor.

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Eoin MacNeill

MacNeill began work in 1932, dictating them initially to a journalist, Leila Carroll, over an 11-year period. The project tapered off until 1939, when MacNeill resumed work with the help of Mallon, who was also a journalist.

Mallon did her best to prod MacNeill into livening up the material, such as advising him to include some information on the Boundary Commission (of which MacNeill was part), and suggesting a chapter entitled ‘Famous Men I Have Met’. The latter would surely have been of considerable interest, coming from a man who could count the likes of Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse and Kevin O’Higgins among his acquaintances.

Not that MacNeill was amendable to such advice and, when he died in 1945, his family and friends agreed to remove the annotations Mallon had made to the text. The unvarnished original is what readers have here, which at least ensures the book’s authenticity, albeit with flaws that even historian Brian Hughes is honest about in his introduction:

Many of its themes and topics are underdeveloped, it is sometimes scattered in its chronology, there is no real sense of a chapter structure, and it is often repetitive, with MacNeill repeating several anecdotes on more than one occasion.

And yet, “in spite of its somewhat fragmentary nature,” Hughes argues, “the memoir that follows is a valuable historical document.”

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Eoin MacNeill

There is some truth to that. MacNeill’s account of the increasingly frayed relationships between the Irish Volunteers and the politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party are of considerable interest – providing as it does an insider’s account – as are his slow realisation of the extent to which the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were blindsiding him in order to facilitate the Easter Rising.

‘Slow’ is the operative word here. He did not even know the IRB Military Council had existed until Tom Clarke’s widow dropped it into a conversation a year after the Rising. History has generally remembered MacNeill as a well-meaning soul but one who was easily misled by the machinations of the IRB.

It’s a write-off that MacNeill struggled to counter in his own memoir. In places, he seems to unintentional agree with the verdict that he was out of his depth. During his review of the Limerick Volunteers in his role as Chief of Staff, he was surprised to learn that the commanding officer had been appointed to some sort of secret command, with instructions to ‘hold the line of the Shannon’ should certain, unstated things come to pass. Despite his consternation, MacNeill did nothing except tell the officer to carry on as usual.

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Irish Volunteers on parade

MacNeill was more decisive when James Connolly appeared likely to take unilateral action with his Irish Citizen Army in late 1915. Showing one of his few sparks of leadership, MacNeill warned Connolly against his plan to seize a number of large buildings in Dublin and wait for the masses to follow his lead. “You simply cannot see over the top of the houses,” MacNeill told him.

While he was able to talk Connolly down, MacNeill’s suspicion that plans were being hatched behind his back continued. Thomas MacDonagh assured him this was not the case until, on the Saturday before the Rising, MacDonagh admitted that he had to obey what he called the ‘council’ rather than his Chief of Staff.

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Joseph Plunkett

MacNeill was to blame Joseph Plunkett for much of these machinations, alleging that he “revelled in plotting and planning and nothing in the arrangements was too minute for him.” Plunkett would attempt to have MacNeill sign a certain proclamation, sometime on the Good Friday or Saturday. He declined until he had the chance to read it. Even if he had received a copy (he never did), he “would certainly have refused to sign a proclamation containing a delusive statement about an alliance with Germany and Austria,” a reference to the ‘gallant allies in Europe’ that Pearse was to enthuse over in his address outside the General Post Office.

When the Rising finally broke out, MacNeill – fearing British retribution – first tried asking for shelter in a “certain religious house,” only to be informed that he would not be welcome. The Augustinians at Orlagh, below Killakee Mountain, were more hospitable, and from there he had a view of the whole of Dublin, now a war zone.

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The Augustinian retreat centre, Orlagh, where Eoin MacNeill took refuge

For reasons attributed to the strain of feeling like a refugee, MacNeill took his leave of the Augustinians and went to his brother’s house at Rathfarnham, closer to the fighting, from where he could again watch history unfold: “From the roof of this house also, a large part of the city was visible and almost every sound, rifle fire, as well as artillery could be plainly heard.”

Aaaaaaand…that’s as good as it gets. But it was nice while it lasted.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Manuscripts Commission

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Eoin MacNeill: Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar, by Eoin MacNeill (edited by Brian Hughes) (2016)”

    1. Probably. That and he intended for any uprising to go ahead only with a reasonable chance of success, unlike Clarke, Pearse and co., who were primarily concerned with having a Rising for the sake of one.

      When the Aud failed to show with the promised weapons, MacNeill decided that the odds in their favour were too slim and issued the fateful countermanding order. I can’t really blame him, considering how badly the IRB had been undermining him and subverting the Irish Volunteer chain of command, trust was an impossibility at that point.

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  1. thanks for your considerate reply Daniel. Much appreciated! With regards to your thoughts on
    “That and he intended for any uprising to go ahead only with a reasonable chance of success,” I would suggest that given the strength of the british empire of the time/WWI conditions no insurrection/uprising had any reasonable chance of success in military terms.
    Nevertheless there was an upswelling of popular approval which in its way swept away mc neill’s objections.
    https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/thoughts-on-easter-week-the-way-we-were/

    Afterwards Mc Neill had his job in a University of the republic -no more, no less, – which was in its way just recompensation for his actions, considering before and after

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    1. Arguably, academic life suited him far better than the hassle of running a nationwide militia or the navigating all the factions and conspiracies within it (or writing memoirs, dare I say).

      Hard to say if the Rising ever had a chance and, of course, we’ll never know for sure. But Britain was distracted by the war in Europe, hence the “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” saying. Many of the troops sent over to ‘pacify’ Dublin were raw recruits, and the officers in command often squandered their men’s lives with pointless charges against barricades, something which even the equally-inexperienced Irish defenders could resist. So there was nothing invincible about the British military during Easter Week.

      Arguably, a countrywide Rising, one not just limited to Dublin and a handful of country places, might have been enough to overawe an already-stretched British military – which never had the numbers that other countries in the War like Germany or France enjoyed – and forced the political establishment to cut a deal and run. After all, Home Rule was already on the books, so why not fast track it?

      Of course, such a deal would almost certainly have fallen short of the Rising’s demands – complete independence, no Partition – as it did with the Treaty of 1921, and maybe leading to the Civil War That Came Early, but here we’re walking boldly into counterfactual history…

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      1. “Arguably, a countrywide Rising, one not just limited to Dublin and a handful of country places, might have been enough to overawe an already-stretched British military”

        might well have been true but McNeill (if we are to believe his own words) didn’t believe that and he certainly scotched any chance of it happening.

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