Book Review: Markievicz: Prison Letters & Rebel Writings, by Constance Markievicz (edited by Lindie Naughton) (2018)

Markievicz_cover“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.

The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.

Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.

“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.

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Countess Markievicz, posing in uniform with a pistol

But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:

I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.

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Seán MacBride

But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:

The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.

Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.

To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”

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Markievicz speaking at a rally

On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”

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Eva Gore-Boothe, Markievicz’s sister

Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.

“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:

But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.

The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”

Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (13/04/2019)

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Book Review: Judging Redmond and Carson, by Alvin Jackson (2018)

redmond_and_carson_small_low_resDo personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.

An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.

“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.

“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”

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John Redmond

Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.

Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.

But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:

Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.

Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”

Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.

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Edward Carson

Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.

This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:

Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.

For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.

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H.H. Asquith

Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and became an implacable opponent to the Prime Minister, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.

If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.

Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.

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David Lloyd George

German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.

Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.

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Political cartoon of Redmond and Carson

On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”

Publisher’s Website: Royal Irish Academy

Book Review: Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement, by Robert White (2017)

out-of-the-ashThe extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” W.B. Yeats wrote of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.

But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.

As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.

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Ruaíri Ó Brádaigh, addressing a rally in Dublin, 1976

To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.

“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”

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Brendan Hughes

For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.

Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:

We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.

Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.

As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.

To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”

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Gerry Adams addresses the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 1986

Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.

The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:

…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.

What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:

They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.

1a5aaa35092eb4a19b60433c700e2a42It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the work consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.

For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.

But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath the surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.

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Armed IRA members patrol the streets

But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals mostly hailed from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and their pre-split meetings together saw them developing opinions at odds with those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”

Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.

Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Book Review: Monteith: The Making of a Rebel, by Catherine C. Smyth (2017)

Monteith_bookRoger Casement was a sick man. Amidst all the uncertainties facing the tiny band of Irish revolutionaries on board the cramped German U-boat, that much was all too clear. Fearful that his companion might collapse under the twin strains of ill health and worry, Robert Monteith suggested that he catch some sleep. Casement tried to but, after half an hour, he was back to fretting.

At the mouth of the Shannon, they had looked out from the conning tower, straining their eyes in the gloom for signs of the Aud, the ship due to deliver the much-needed weapons for the planned uprising. Despite an earlier sighting of the Aud – or what they thought it was – they found nothing. After cruising for an hour and a half, the captain announced they could wait no longer, and directed his submarine towards Tralee Bay.

Before disembarking on the Kerry coast, Monteith took out their firearms and asked his companion: “Do you understand the loading of these Mauser pistols?”

“No, I have never loaded one,” Casement replied. “I have never killed anything in my life.”

“Well, Sir Roger, you may have to start very soon,” Monteith said. “It is quite possible that we may either kill or be killed.”

Monteith tried to teach Casement the basics of handling their pistols, but the other man decided that such skills were not for him and handed the weapons back with a shake of his head.

At least Casement had retained some sense of the occasion. As Monteith bemoaned the incongruity of trying to liberate their country under such woebegotten circumstances, Casement hushed him.

“It will be a much greater adventure going ashore in this cockle shell,” he said, in reference to the small boat they were lowering themselves into.

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Robert Monteith (second from the left) besides Roger Casement, on board the U-Boat for Ireland

For Monteith, it was but the latest adventure in what had already been an eventful life. Born in 1878 in Co. Wicklow, he had enrolled in the British Army and was posted to India, during which he was shot in the mouth, dislocated his hip when a horse threw him, and learned to speak a local dialect. Later he volunteered to serve in South Africa, where the ‘scorched earth’ policy he helped inflict during the Boer War gave him a different perspective on the cause he was serving:

In the smoke and red flames of the first Boar [sic] farmhouse I saw burned, there appeared to me the grisly head and naked ribs of the imperialist monster. I realised why the women and children knelt in the shower of sparks to curse us.

Still, in a way, Monteith thought the Indians and the Boers had it easy compared to the people of his own homeland:

I have been in the villages of Bengal and the Punjab in India, and in the kraals of the so-called savages of Africa, with whom it is a crime to beat a child; I have eaten with the Zulu, Basuto, Swazi and the Matabele, and can say without fear of contradiction that the conditions under which these ‘benighted heathens’ live are far above those of the Christian workers of Dublin.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that after all this, not to mention a bout of malaria, a photograph of a uniformed Monteith (below), as he neared his Army discharge after eight years of service, shows a thin, serious-looking man, still only twenty-five.rha-1903

Back in Ireland, where he owned a small Dublin-based printing press, Monteith’s feelings of discontent crystallised into open outrage upon seeing the beating to death of a man by police (and his own battering when he intervened) during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, as well as the clubbing of his stepdaughter.

Monteith decided to enlist in the Irish Citizen Army but was persuaded by Tom Clarke, an acquaintance of his, to instead channel his military know-how into the nascent Irish Volunteers. Sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by Clarke, Monteith was sufficiently trusted to be offered the chance to assist Casement in Germany, where he was attempting to form an ‘Irish Brigade’ from the inmates of POW camps there.

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Roger Casement

Monteith agreed and met Casement in Munich, October 1915. Casement made an instant impression on Monteith, who was to wax lyrically about his new colleague: “I have known no eyes more beautiful than Casement’s…Blazing when he spoke of man’s inhumanity to man; soft and wistful when pleading the cause so dear to his heart; mournful when telling the story of Ireland’s century old martyrdom.”

Casement’s story was almost as much Monteith’s as well, so entwined were their lives at this point. Not for nothing was Monteith’s memoir – quoted liberally by Smyth in her book – entitled Casement’s Last Adventure.

The reality of the situation, however, proved to be…challenging. Even then, Casement was visibly ill and nervous. As for the Irish POWs, they were not always a receptive audience. A not-untypical entry in Monteith’s diary read:

3 November 1915: Commenced recruiting campaign at 9 a.m. and continue till noon. Started at 2 p.m. and worked till 5 p.m. These hours were chosen so as not to interfere with meal hours of men. Men seem indifferent. A lot of them are absolutely impossible.

Much to Montheith’s bewilderment, the prisoners seemed too content with their situation for anything as bothersome as reenlistment. “All of them are loud in their statement that when the war is over they will be prepared to fight for Ireland. God help us!” Monteith wrote, and more in a similar vein.Irish_Brigade_members

At least a proposal by the IRB Military Council to have a boat loaded with armaments sent to Ireland gave Casement a new lease of life. As Monteith remembered: “He was so happy at the news I brought, that he immediately slipped out of bed, and started to work on plans or suggestions, to help the German General Staff and Admiralty, on the work in hand.”

As it turned out, neither the German Command nor the IRB had much further use or interest in him. When Casement, realising this harsh truth, insisted on going on board the same ship, Monteith tried vainly to talk him out of it. Their German point-men, in contrast, made no such effort. At least Casement and Monteith still had each other, the latter loyally refusing to allow the other to risk himself alone.

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Robert Monteith

Smyth’s book reads like a novel, fast-paced and by turns exciting and depressing. Poor Casement! Monteith at least managed to avoid capture in Kerry. He left Casement, too sickly to carry on, in an ancient ring-fort that would provide some shelter. By the time Monteith reached Tralee and alerted the local Irish Volunteers, Casement had already been found and arrested by a police patrol.

Hiding out in Tralee, Monteith could still hope that the Aud would finally arrive with its catchment, but even that was not to be. With orders, countermanding orders and general confusion marking the Rising-that-was-not-to-be in Kerry, Monteith wisely turned down the offer to command the Irish Volunteers gathering in Tralee.

Instead, he went on the run, managing to stay one step ahead of his police pursuers, and eventually made it to the safety of New York. He was by then suffering from nervous exhaustion, something which the readers will relate to by the time they come to the end of this gripping book.

While awaiting the hangman’s noose, an imprisoned Casement wrote to his sister to say: “The only person alive, if he is alive, who knows the whole of my coming and why I came, with what aim and hope, is Monteith. I hope he is still alive and you may see him and he will tell you everything.”

Monteith told a lot more people via his memoirs, and it is fitting that the same tragi-comic story should continue to be told here. What a tale! And what an adventure, as Casement observed, albeit not a very happy one.

Originally published on The Irish Story (12/09/2017)

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

Book Review: Big Jim Larkin: Hero or Wrecker? By Emmet O’Connor (2015)

James_LarkinOne of the most enduring mysteries of Irish Labour history, which Emmet O’Connor valiantly attempts to answer here, is why ‘Big’ Jim Larkin was so respected, even beloved, despite being an absolutely terrible human being. “Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own,” wrote Harry Pollitt, a leading British Communist, before conceding, “and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.”

Pollitt saw first-hand Larkin’s capacities for leadership during his visit to Ireland in April 1924. In Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, roadmen dissatisfied with both their employment and their nominal union, the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), appealed to Larkin to attend their fundraising hurling tournament.

Larkin did not need to be asked twice, given how he had been feuding with the ITGWU ever since his return from the United States to find his former fiefdom not nearly as subservient as he had left it. Having failed to force the resignation of his main rivals and been expelled himself instead, Larkin formed his own counter-union, the Irish Worker League (IWL), and prepared for war.

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James Larkin with other members of the ITGWU in happier times

Larkin arrived in Roscrea to see a mass of streamers welcoming him. Over five hundred IWL members had paid to travel with their hero, resulting in what Pollitt was told was one of the largest meetings ever seen in Roscrea. With good reason was Pollitt convinced that the IWL had a “tremendous chance” if Big Jim managed to take it seriously.

In that regard, Pollitt was missing the point. Larkin had already lost a court case he brought against the ITGWU two months earlier, accusing his former colleagues of illegally using union funds for political purposes. The fact that he was citing the anti-union legislation of the 1913 Trade Union Act did not seem to have embarrassed him.

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James Larkin

Acting as his own legal counsel, Larkin proved to be, according to O’Connor, “more than usually disorganised, vituperative, petty and unfair to witnesses.” Not that Larkin had much chance of winning in the first place, which begs the question as to why he bothered at all. The likeliest explanation that O’Connor offers is that he just could not help himself.

In his personal life, Larkin was no more amiable. Estranged from his wife, he was living with his siblings, Delia and Peter, both of whom were also involved in trade unionism. Peter was used as a go-between as the other two were not on speaking terms. When he was away, others would have to step in. “It was a dreadful position for grown-up people to create,” as one unfortunate guest recalled with a shudder, “particularly when to make any political headway friendship and comradely tolerance were an absolute necessity.”

Necessary or not, such virtues were to be in short supply. With his brother’s support, Peter had formed the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI), attracting defections from two-thirds of the ITGWU’s Dublin membership. That set the tone for relations between the two unions which, from June 1924, were locked in a fierce battle for control, with disputes breaking out in places as varied as fish markets, docklands and cinemas as the WUI protested at the employment of ITGWU members.

The Irish Worker, of which Larkin was editor, was unabashed in its naked ambition:

The Transport Union Card is nothing but a pass to a scab. There is only going to be one labourers’ union in Ireland and that will be the Workers’ Union, which has earned its place by right of conquest.

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Seán McLoughlin

But it was within the WUI that the nadir of this intolerance and venom was reached. From August 1924, the union was in dispute with the Great Southern and Western Railways Works in Inchicore. Leading the strike was Seán McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’ of the Easter Rising, now secretary for the WUI branch involved. By September, the Railways Works had offered to take back all strikers save for the hundred or so whose places had already been filled by strike-breakers.

McLoughlin wanted to hold out for a better deal, one with no victimisations, but Larkin took the offer and blamed it all on McLoughlin. The branch secretary won a showdown with Larkin a month later at a meeting held in the Inchicore Picture House, where the WUI executive and about two hundred members were present. The mood in the room turned against the union leadership and Larkin stormed out but McLoughlin knew that his days in the union were numbered and left soon afterwards, upon which Larkin accused him of absconding with branch funds.

All of which makes for fascinating, if grisly, reading, and O’Connor fully exploits the range of sources open to him, from contemporary newspaper reports, private correspondence, Soviet archives and police files from both sides of the Atlantic (Larkin was frequently a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, wherever he was).

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Mugshot of James Larkin upon his arrest in New York in 1919 for “criminal anarchism”

From these, O’Connor deftly weaves a story that would not be amiss for a medieval monarch or a particularly despotic cult leader. Sometimes the seemingly endless succession of bitter feuds and spiteful machinations can grow exhausting to wade through, though mitigated by titbits of bone-dry humour from O’Connor, such as when Larkin implored an audience to “’hold up the hands of Stalin’; perhaps the only analogy ever drawn between Stalin and the Biblical Joshua.”

After 300+ pages of such malice and mayhem, it is surprising that the book ends on a positive note for its subject: “What Larkin did achieve can never be taken from him. He remains the greatest of Irish Labour leaders.”

Was he? Those on the receiving end of his perniciousness might have disagreed but Larkin captured the public imagination in a way that no other Irish Labour leader has since. Anyone who gets a statue to themselves in Dublin’s O’Connell Street must be something special, after all.

Certainly, Jack Carney never lost his faith in the man he served loyally for many years. By the time he was sixteen, Carney had found himself working eighty-four hours a week for a pittance, with nothing better awaiting him:

My dreams were smashed, and I had not a single hope in life…until one Sunday I heard ‘Jim’ Larkin speaking…always to me he will be the big-hearted champion of his class – incorruptible and unpurchaseable. Crucified he will be, nailed to a Cross of a misunderstanding people…but ‘Jim’ has left his mark on his people…they are better men and women because of his coming.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether Larkin was a hero or wrecker – the question posed to us in the book’s subtitle – he was most definitely a force of nature, which are rarely gentle to those caught in their wake.

Publisher’s Website: UCD Press

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Statue of James Larkin on O’Connell Street, Dublin

Book Review: Charlie One: The True Story of an Irishman in the British Army and His Role in Covert Counter-Terrorism Operations in Northern Ireland, by Seán Hartnett (2016)

charlie-one-web1Special ops memoirs can be a crapshoot in terms of which ones to take seriously. For every genuine case like Andy McNab on the shelves, there are fakers and fantasists like Philip Anthony Sessarego taking up space. That the UK Ministry of Defence asked the publishers Merrion Press to halt the distribution of this book over the sensitive material inside would suggest its author, Seán Hartnett, is the real deal.

Certainly there is enough here to argue that the term ‘Peace Process’, while not a misnomer, does not entirely cover the whole picture. With the danger of terrorism in Northern Ireland subdued but ever present, the British Government invested, and clearly continues to do so, a considerable amount of resources, both technological and human, such as the covert Joint Communications Unit Northern Ireland (JCU-NI), also known as ‘the Det.’

The unit’s emblem is Argus, the hundred-eyed monster of classical myth, and in case we ever doubt the appropriateness of that choice of symbol, Hartnett gives us a sample of his working day that would not be out of place in a Jason Bourne movie:

Sitting in front of a vast wall of TV monitors in the operations room, fed by signals from this powerful network, the operations officer (Opso) could track a vehicle or individual in real time from any point in the city to any other point, or manoeuvre his operators like chess pieces around the city, and indeed all the way down to the so-called ‘bandit country’ of South Armagh and Tyrone. As they dropped out on one camera they would be picked up by another, or by an operator, all the whole oblivious to the level of surveillance they were under.

After a stint in the regular British Army, Hartnett was retrained as an electronics expert and assigned to ‘North Det’, responsible for covering the Republican hotbed of Derry. Given responsibility for the myriad of hidden cameras keeping watch over suspects and designated areas, his was unusual work compared to what he had done before as a common squaddie.

But then, Hartnett was an unusual agent for Queen and Country in the first place, being a Cork native with republican connections of his own. An uncomfortable moment for him was seeing on the HQ walls framed photographs and newspaper clippings of the SAS ambush on a PIRA squad at Loughgall in 1987 in which a cousin of an aunt of his had been killed.

Hartnett later learned some of the inside details of Loughgall from an older colleague over the course of a few drinks. Ruminations on past events are interspaced with counter-terrorism work in the present day, suggesting that while much has changed over the years, many of the underlying causes have not.

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‘Dissident’ republican march on O’Connell Street, Dublin, 23rd April 2016

For all the technological sophistication JCU-NI had at its disposal, Hartnett makes it clear that Murphy’s Law of ‘what can go wrong will go wrong’ was never far away. That North Det did not officially exist on paper could be a problem as well as a necessity, such as when JCU-NI assisted in the PSNI arrest of four men on their way to attack a police patrol with a rocket launcher. The detainees were to be acquitted of the charges of Real IRA membership and conspiracy to murder partly due to the unexplained references in the course of the trial to military personnel that had not been included in the PSNI arrest notes.

JCU-NI could at least claim a win in that instance in the saving of lives. But, in August 2002, the team operatives were faced with the dilemma of whether to continue pursuing their latest ‘Charlie One’ (the codename for whoever was their current quarry, with ‘Charlie Two’ and onwards added as appropriate) or the second car that some of the other ‘dissident’ Republicans he had been travelling with had switched to and were driving in a different direction.

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David Caldwell

The officer-in-charge went with his gut feeling and made the call to continue focusing on their ‘Charlie One.’ After a seemingly uneventful day of yet more surveillance, the team learned that a civilian construction worker, David Caldwell, had been killed by a booby-trapped lunchbox. The explosives had originated from the second car that JCU-NI had opted not to follow.

“Until now, no one had any knowledge of North Det’s involvement in the incident,” Hartnett concludes sombrely. “David Caldwell’s daughter, Gillian McFaul, has been looking for answers ever since that day. I hope this provides some.”

However, the book offers more questions than answers. In keeping with the clandestine nature of espionage, where little can be said, only exposed (the efforts of the Ministry of Defence towards this book being a case in point), the work of North Det often appears more defined by its failures rather than successes.

Or maybe Hartnett is simply jaded. Upon discharge from the British Army, Hartnett was diagnosed with PTSD, and wrote this book as a form of therapy. It is an easy read, although, given the subject matter, not always easy to read. It is also, unfortunately, a very relevant read.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (06/12/2016)