'A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923', by Diarmaid Ferriter - Review

By Foster, Roy | The Spectator, April 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

'A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923', by Diarmaid Ferriter - Review


Foster, Roy, The Spectator


The centenary of the Easter Rising is already being commemorated. Ahead of the flood of books that will follow, Roy Foster chooses two impressive, if sombre ones to be going on with

A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923 Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile, pp.517, £30, ISBN: 9781781250419

Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918-1923 Maurice Walsh

Faber, pp.544, £16.99, ISBN: 9780571243006

As Lytton Strachey remarked of the Victorian era, writing the history of the Irish revolution is inhibited by the fact that we know too much about it. As the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, an avalanche of books, articles and television programmes is bearing inexorably down; even the re-enactments have begun, with Dublin's city centre taken over last Easter Monday by jolly crowds in period dress, celebrating 'the Road to the Rising'. No one got shot, no buildings were blown up, and no shops were looted, but it was the thought that counted, and everyone had a good time. As Arthur Koestler wrote long ago in a classic article on 'The Political Libido', commemoration is all about self-identification, and every US citizen has to feel as personally proud of the War of Independence as if he or she had fought in it.

Though today's Irish citizens are equally proprietorial about their revolution, its history presents a less clear-cut picture. Popular support for the 1916 rebels was extremely limited at the time, especially among the populace whose sons and brothers were fighting the revolutionaries' 'gallant allies' in France: the planning of the Rising was heavily contingent upon German aid, though this was strategically downplayed afterwards. So was the fate of the constitutional-nationalist Home Rule party, just as much 'the enemy' to the revolutionary generation as the Brits, despite the fact that the Home Rulers had got a Home Rule bill passed in 1912-14, and were desperately trying to negotiate around Ulster's intransigent resistance.

After 1916 the rapid execution of the rebel leaders, and a number of boneheaded decisions by the British government and their military advisers, handed the advantage to the nationalists. Sinn Féin swept the polls at the 1918 election, paving the way for guerrilla warfare and a divisive treaty in 1922, setting up an Irish Free State within the Commonwealth, which later became a Republic. It also copper-fastened the partitioned province of Northern Ireland, which ironically got its own Home Rule and exploited it enthusiastically. Elsewhere the savage civil war that followed the Treaty not only split the revolutionary brotherhood and in certain areas threatened to release inter-communal violence on religious lines; it imposed a traumatic silence on national memory, and remained a subject sedulously avoided in school history curricula for decades. One wonders if its centenary will be much explored in 2023.

Meanwhile, however, we have the Rising and the War of Independence to be getting on with. Bookshops are full of popular pictorial histories and uplifting hagiographies of dead heroes, while the Irish government has appointed a high-level committee to advise on proper forms of commemoration. Quite properly, the public emphasis is to be on inclusiveness and tolerance, with the losers as well as the winner given due consideration; even the poor old Home Rulers may be picked up from the dustheap of history and given a friendly shake. But how professional historians approach the well-worn subject raises some interesting conundrums.

These are approached imaginatively, but from different directions, by Diarmaid Ferriter and Maurice Walsh. Ferriter, the youthful and formidably productive holder of a prestigious chair at University College Dublin, bases his work on intensive archival trawls, notably in recently released records such as the applications for military service pensions; he is interested above all in the sources, what is preserved and what is forgotten, and the oblique shafts of light which they cast on a disputed history. …

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