The Ordeal of the Irish Republic
The peace of the world… is possible only as a result of some…
reconciliation of the nationalist and internationalist ideals of the
—Robert Lynd, 1917
This fight of ours has been essentially a spiritual fight; it has been a
fight of right against wrong, a fight of a small people struggling for a
spiritual ideal against a mighty rapacious and material Empire.
—Mary MacSwiney, December 1921
ON DECEMBER 6, 1921, AFTER MONTHS of arduous negotiations in London, five delegates representing the Irish Republican government signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted Ireland dominion status but stopped far short of recognizing the “isolated Republic” that the members of Dáil Éireann and the Irish Republican Army had sworn a solemn oath to uphold. Almost immediately, the treaty divided the republican movement, and by the time it was ratified by a narrow margin in early January 1922, Ireland was drifting toward civil war.1
The acrimonious treaty debate, the descent into fratricidal warfare that pitted former comrades against each other, the gratuitous violence that took the lives of leading republicans such as Michael Collins, Harry Boland, Erskine Childers, and Liam Mellows—all of this left an indelible imprint on the Irish psyche and affected politics in Ireland for much of the twentieth century. It is fair to say that from the moment the treaty was signed, the republican movement was engulfed by an internal crisis of direction and morale from which it never fully recovered.
In part, the crisis reinforced Irish nationalists’ long-standing tendency to look inward and to see Ireland as the “most cruelly and sorely oppressed of all the world’s nations.”2 The publication of The Story of the Irish Race in 1921 served only to accentuate this notion of the Irish as unique—in their suffering, their identity, and their destiny. The book’s principal author was Seumas MacManus, a folklorist from Donegal and lecturer at the University of Notre Dame who had long been an active cultural and political nationalist. In compiling his 713-page text (which went through numerous editions over the years and is still in print), MacManus was assisted by a number of Irish scholars, including Aodh de Blacam, an outspoken republican, Gaelic enthusiast, and convert to Catholicism who had become a leading publicist for Sinn Féin. De Blacam