Nationalisms and anti-nationalisms in Irish historiography

by Philip Ferguson

The following is thesis chapter one.  Written 1995, so a bit dated in that lots of books and journal articles have appeared since, including some very good stuff.  But this is still useful because what it looks at is still in existence.  

In Ireland the past is not a foreign country.  Its influence is everywhere, since the overriding issue of the past – the national question – was never resolved.  The “solution” of partition was forced upon Ireland under the threat of “immediate and terrible war” by the British government on the one hand[1] and the duplicity of elite sections of Irish society (the nationalist and north-east unionist bourgeoisies) on the other.

The nationalist population of six counties of Ireland was handed over to an artificial statelet in which they were discriminated against in jobs, housing and voting rights.  The labour movement was divided both between the two statelets and along sectarian lines within the north.  Lacking much of an industrial base, the south remained a predominantly rural society, over which a particularly conservative Catholicism found it relatively easy to hold sway in allegiance with the state.  In such a society the possibilities for working class advance were highly limited.  For women, it meant confinement in the domestic sphere was backed up by the full power of the Church’s sacred laws and the state’s temporal ones.

Successive “settlements” of the “Irish question” – whether through wholesale inclusion in the United Kingdom by the 1801 Act of Union or through the partial separation embodied in the neo-colonial arrangements of 1921 – have never recognised the right of the Irish people as a whole to national self-determination.  For this reason, they have inevitably been challenged.  Since such arrangements have been maintained by force, those most serious about challenging them have often ended up resorting to force as well.  Both the attempts to legitimise and challenge such arrangements have meant that, as Hoppen notes, “Since at least the seventeenth century almost every group with an axe to grind has thought it imperative to control the past in order to provide support for contemporary arguments and ideologies.”[2]

Ironically, Hoppen’s own work can be seen as part of this process as it belongs to the currently dominant school in Irish historiography, “revisionism”.  This school is based around  a critical, in fact hostile, re-evaluation of traditional (nationalist) accounts of Irish history.  Prominent revisionist Marianne Elliot sees it as “a term normally applied to scholars using scientific standards of research to re-interpret the myths and long-held truths of the past, now used more frequently as a term of abuse to describe those who attack romantic nationalist historiography.”[3] Flag-bearer R.F. Foster, the author of the revisionist classic standard history of modern Ireland, is a little more frank about the problems the new historians have with the old histories, expressing concern about “the legitimization, and even sanctification, of violence in Irish history.” [4]  The shift from nationalist to revisionist historiography is seen by him as “The transition from piety to iconoclasm”.[5]  However Peter Gibbon, himself a writer hostile to Irish nationalism, holds that revisionism “(relies) upon the same methodological devices with which the straightforwardly ideological contributions engage in their special pleading”.[6]  He also sees procedural problems in the way revisionists draw conclusions from documentary sources.[7]

While the revisionists have noted a whole tradition of myth-making in Irish nationalist historiography, used firstly to provide justification for the struggle for some form of independence from Britain and then to provide both a legitimising past and social cohesion for the southern Irish state, and they are rightly scathing about this,[8] they themselves have undertaken, with a scarcely concealed eagerness, a rewriting of Irish history which delegitimises all resistance to British rule, particularly the most militant variety (republicanism).

The revisionist critique can be divided into a number of themes.  Irish nationalism is seen as backward-looking, conservative, romantic or reactionary; regionalist; Anglophobic to the point of being “racist”; irrational; having a preference for physical force methods, glorifying violence and involving a messianic aspect, bound up with the concept of “blood sacrifice”; and attracting eccentrics and social misfits.  These themes serve to undermine the legitimacy of Irish anti-colonial nationalism and republicanism.

Tom Garvin’s “Great Hatred, Little Room: social background and political sentiment among revolutionary activists in Ireland, 1890- 1922” combines a number of these themes.[9]  He attempts to draw a parallel between subsequent European fascism and the Irish nationalist thought of this period.  According to Garvin, “frustration due to mismatch between education and available employment, a declining artisanate and the persistence of aristocratic resistance to democratisation and equality of opportunity in a context of urbanisation and the persistence of rural political loyalties and traditions often are used to help us understand political radicalisms in many parts of pre-1914 Europe; Ireland, where these factors were certainly significant, was not unique.”[10]  Irish separatist leaders are viewed as similar to “other radical movements of the period, whether nationalist, leftist, palaeo-fascist or some other indeterminate ideological mixture.”[11]  In fact, given that even the title of his essay suggests demographic and psychological factors as the causes of Irish nationalism, it is not surprising that it is with the right-wing nationalisms of Europe, and with fascism itself, that Garvin most closely associates Irish nationalism.

To make this amalgam Garvin has to play down the fundamental differences between Irish nationalism and right-wing ideologies in Europe, the different material conditions in Ireland, the divisions within Irish nationalism between bourgeois and revolutionary elements, the fact that everyone in Ireland who attempted to provide socialist leadership for the working class saw that British rule had to be removed, and also the political writings of leaders of the struggle for national freedom such as Pearse and Connolly.  Most essentially, Garvin has to leave entirely unmentioned the idea that Irish nationalism might be a response to British occupation, and therefore has more in common with the nationalisms that developed in Latin America, Asia and Africa as peoples in those continents sought to win political freedom and modernise and develop their countries.

He attempts to portray Irish nationalism as characteristically backward-looking, romantic and Catholic.   For instance, painting Maud Gonne as anti-Semitic, a virtual fascist and a “believ(er) in witchcraft”, he claims that in her eyes “England’s unforgivable sin was to be urban and modern and to have increasingly less place for a traditional aristocracy and gentry”.[12]  This is, to say the least, a rather extraordinary view of Gonne, given that she spent much of her life fighting precisely the “traditional aristocracy and gentry” (and inherited wealth in general) in Ireland.  She was radicalised by the land war and became actively involved on the side of the peasantry whose struggle to get possession of the soil was an indispensable part of modernising Ireland.  In Dublin she organised among the poor, specifically in opposition to the patronising charity work of the aristocratic elite.  She was also a founding member of a Marxist revolutionary group in the mid-1920s, the Workers Party of Ireland, although she does not appear to have played a very active part in organised Marxist work.

In criticising C. Desmond Greaves’ analysis of the class forces at play during the war for independence[13], Garvin claims, “In effect, the separatists laid siege to Dublin Castle, and in 1922 the Castle fell.”[14]  In other words the separatists’ aim was simply to take over the British administration rather than to change anything fundamental.  Those fighting for national freedom are seen simply as an elite or would-be elite who had been excluded from power and whose ambition was merely to grasp hold of the existing state apparatus.  This avoids an examination of the politics of the 1916 revolutionaries, who were social radicals as well as national separatists; indeed they saw the two things very much as interwoven.

When the republicans triumphed electorally in 1918 they established a separate parliament in Dublin. The parliament declared independence and established its own government, its own ministries, its own courts, passed its own laws and had its own army.  This constituted a form of dual power and was clearly seen as such by the British who declared Dail Eireann an illegal assembly and spent the next several years attempting to destroy by force of arms the expanding republican state apparatus.  But the British government, well-versed in dealing with rebellious natives – including by co-option – did not see the republicans as a relatively homogeneous, aspiring bourgeoisie simply wishing to take over the existing state apparatus.  During the 1918-21 struggle it was clear that the independence struggle contained both pro-capitalist elements and sizeable sections of the working class, the latter holding two general strikes and a range of other industrial struggles against British rule as well as battles over wages and conditions.

The British government did come to appreciate well that the Irish independence movement contained respectable middle-class gentlemen, and even “gunmen”, with whom it could do business.  But, unlike so many of the revisionists, the British government also understood both that the liberation movement included many who had no respect at all for the social, economic and political system which Britain had introduced into Ireland and that struggles for national independence which involved armed struggle and general strikes contained within them the possibilities of social revolution.  Moreover, the threat of revolution in Ireland was far more worrying than in Egypt or some other colonial possession because of the unique connections between Britain and Ireland.  A revolution in Ireland posed a threat to the British state in Britain itself, especially at a time of widespread class conflict there, and with the Russian revolution providing workers with ideas beyond their station.[15]

Republicanism, irrationalism and incoherence

Foster, on the other hand, questions whether the republicans had even the opportunist coherence conferred on them by Garvin’s comments about their laying siege to British power.  He casts doubt that any rationality was involved in their cause, asking, “Who, in fact, had the revolution been against: a British state already committed to Home Rule for twenty-six counties (which until a very late stage most nationalists would accept as a good beginning) or an Irish Parliamentary Party whose forms, practices and, eventually, ethos the new mass movement increasingly came to take over rather than replace?”[16]  Republicanism has a further disturbing quality for Foster who argues that in it, “Many marginalised and rootless people found a raison d’etre; and many would cling to it by electing to fight against the Treaty.”[17]  This, perhaps, sheds more light on present-day middle-class fear of the “underclass” than it does on the ranks of the Irish Republican Army and associated organisations during the independence war.

The theme of irrationality and incoherence is also reflected in Robert Kee’s highly-acclaimed three-volume work on the struggle for an Irish nation state.  He tells us for instance, “it was Larkin who first effectively brought the old incoherent national emotions into Irish twentieth century labour relations.”[18]  For Boyce, Irish nationalism “was always more of a bundle of sentiments than a logical array of facts.”[19]

Irish nationalism is today increasingly portrayed as inherently Catholic and sectarian, a stance which leads to the conclusion that loyalism is a logical reaction on the part of Protestants, including Protestant workers.  This also removes the responsibility for partition from the British, and places it on the shoulders of Irish nationalism.  Conor Cruise O’Brien even goes to the extent of arguing that the sectarian discrimination against Catholics in the north is a response to fear of Catholic domination.  Criticising the constitution of the southern state for its reference in several articles to Ireland as comprising the whole of the island, he asked in 1971, “Is it altogether surprising, then, in view of that, that the majority there (ie, in the north – PF) feel justified, in imposing their will on the Catholic minority?”[20]  This is particularly absurd, given that Catholics had been second-class citizens in that part of Ireland long before the 1937 Free State Constitution, and long before the Easter Rising and war for independence.

For Foster, among others, even the attempt to keep the Irish language alive has a sectarian and “Anglophobic” character, while “The Irish nationalism that had developed by this date (the early 1900s – PF) was Anglophobic and anti-Protestant. . .”[21]  Here he is actually reflecting a theme typical of the Irish Times during the struggle for independence.  This newspaper propagandised, for instance, that Sinn Fein had “an insane hatred of England,”[22]  and that republicans were marked by “political lunacy” and “black passions and private lusts.”[23]  For A.C. Hepburn, Irish nationalism is “political Catholicism”, while unionism is “political Protestantism”.[24]  For Gretchen MacMillan the idea of the Irish nation is “a product of the nineteenth century”, particularly the land war, the home rule struggle and the rise of cultural nationalism.  This latter aspect, in the 1890s, “established the foundations of a distinct national identity.  It was the fusion of Irishness and Catholicism which came to be perceived as the true Irish character.”[25]

Yet it is precisely the “came to be perceived” aspect which MacMillan, in common with the revisionists, leaves uninvestigated.  This eventual perception is treated as a natural progression, rather than the result of contradiction and conflict in which secular republicanism and socialism lost out to a counter-revolution.  The successful counter-revolutionaries were able to appropriate both the symbols and rhetoric of republicanism and nationalism and give them a thoroughly reactionary content.  This reactionary content was necessary to provide stability for the southern state, to give it legitimacy, especially when so many of its inhabitants actually opposed its establishment.  In fact this conflation of nationalism and Catholicism is shared by the southern state and its revisionist critics.  In this sense, the southern state and the revisionists are like mirror images, accepting the same essential picture of things, whereas a republican/socialist approach sees the southern state and its ideology as a grave-digger of national liberation in Ireland or, at least, the spade with which Britain was able to bury that cause for half a century.

A rather major problem faces the revisionists here, in that all the founders and main figures of separatist nationalism in Ireland, up to the pre-Easter Rising period, were themselves Protestants.  Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism, along with all the other 27 founding figures of the United Irish organisation, was Protestant.  Indeed, 26 of the 28 were Presbyterians, the same denomination as today’s most committed loyalists.[26]  Throughout the 1800s all the great figures of republicanism were Protestant – John Mitchel, Fintan Lalor, and their colleagues of the 1840s and the attempted rebellion in 1848, James Stephens and the other founders of Fenianism and leaders of the 1867 rebellion, and Michael Davitt, the architect of the land struggle.  Even the founder of cultural nationalism, Thomas Davis, was a Protestant.  As Boyce, no sympathiser of Irish nationalism, has noted, “the ideology of the Easter Rising was in large part an Anglo-Irish creation.”[27]  He points out that Pearse’s view of nationality was derived from Davis, national separation from Tone, Gaelic Ireland from Hyde, and the idea enshrined in the Easter proclamation of “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland” derived from Lalor.

It was only in the 1900s that Catholics became the majority of republican leaders.  Given that they were the big majority of the population, there is hardly anything peculiar about this.  Just as the completely downtrodden condition of Catholics prevented them assuming this position earlier on, their new role, as Boyce explains, stemmed from the “fruits of 100 years of concessions”.  Catholics “were now educated enough, able enough, and, above all, possessed of sufficient self-confidence and self-esteem to produce their own leaders, constitutional and revolutionary.”[28]  Foster tersely writes, “middle-class Catholic Ireland had found an extremist leadership that was not Anglo-Irish.”[29]  In fact, Protestants and the Anglo-Irish continued to be welcome at all levels of the movement, a stark contrast to the closed, sectarian practices of loyalism.  As leading republican Constance Markievicz, in an article about the movement of that period, wrote, nobody much cared about the background of members.  Anyone prepared to struggle for Irish freedom was welcome.[30]

Those republicans who were Catholic also had little time for Catholic Church meddling in public affairs and social life.  Griffith, who was on the conservative end of republicanism, criticised the Catholic hierarchy as being, “next to the British government”, the people “most responsible for the depopulation of the country”.  He attacked priests for having “made life dull and unendurable for the people”.  The priests’ attitudes on segregation of the sexes, he said, “brought a Calvinistic gloom and horror to Ireland.”  Meanwhile the people were “being bled right and left to build all kinds of Church edifices and endow all kinds of Church institutions. . .”[31]

To overcome the problem of describing as Catholic an ideology and movement constructed by Protestants, the revisionists conflate under the title of Irish nationalism diverse and deeply antagonistic ideologies and movements.  Republicanism, conservative Catholicism and moderate home rule politics are thrown together and attributed the features borne primarily by  reactionary Hibernianism.  One critic of revisionism, Brian Murphy, has also accused writers such as Patrick O’Farrell, Oliver MacDonagh and Foster of “erroneous uses of source material” in order to portray the Gaelic League – founded by the Protestant (and Unionist) Douglas Hyde, and involving many Protestants at all levels of its organisation – as sectarian to the point of racism.[32]  In fact, as T.A. Jackson noted many years ago, the League strongly resisted attempts by both theologians and politicians to impose their will upon it.  R.M. Henry, giving the example of a priest objecting, for moral reasons, to the League’s mixed study classes, notes the League, in response, “asserted its right to control its own activities, and established once for all (sic) so far as it was concerned, that the sphere of the clergy’s activities is not co-extensive with human life.”[33]

Given their insistence on dealing with “the evidence” to debunk myths, there is a curious lack of examination of primary republican source material by the revisionists when dealing with the supposedly xenophobic and sectarian impulses of Irish nationalism.  For instance, no use is made by Foster or other major revisionists of the two most important republican newspapers of the time in relation to these specific questions – Irish Worker, the voice of the militant and pro-republican working class movement, and Irish Freedom, the paper of the republican militants who allied with Connolly to carry out the Easter Rising.  Irish Freedom clearly saw British imperialism as the problem in Ireland and continuously stressed its view that Irish Unionists were part of the Irish nation.  Far from being anti-Protestant, the paper was partly run by Protestants such as Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough and was clearly in favour of religious freedom and respect for the personal faiths of every person in Ireland.

In a typical example of the paper’s attitude, it editorialised early on in the Home Rule crisis, “The eighteenth century attempt (by Britain – P.F.) to keep two nations in Ireland had failed, and at its close she was found not with two nations but with one, or at least with two converging portions of an Irish nation – the older Gaelic portion and the younger Cromwellian-Williamite portion.  Before the convergence actually happened (Britain) tore them asunder again.”  This was done, the editorial said, through the suppression of the United Irish movement, the granting of concessions to Presbyterians in order to split them from their radical alliance with the Catholics, and through scaring Protestants in general into believing that their interests lay with England.  Nevertheless, the paper argued in relation to the Ulster Unionists, “In the century which has passed they have become Irish, as Irish as the Irish of the South, and as distinct from the English as from the Germans.”  It pointed to the need “to appeal to Ulster’s reason and to answer the objections which she raises to the Nationalist position.  That attempt must be made and those objections must be answered, as they very easily can be.  Not in speech-making and dialectics, but in deeds. . .”  The editorial showed a clear respect for the beliefs of Unionists, while absolutely vilifying Redmond and the bourgeois nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party.[34]

The other main way the revisionists deal with the leading role played by Protestants in the development of Irish nationalism, especially in its radical republican form, is to imply – or even state outright – that such Protestants were eccentrics of one sort or another and to engage in amateur psychological analysis. This technique is particularly used in relation to women, so we will turn now to an examination of women and the national struggle.

Women, republicanism and revisionism

The psychological analysis mentioned above is used most noticeably in the cases of Alice Stopford Green, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz.  Foster, in dealing with Alice Stopford Green, a Protestant historian prominent in the early 1900s, author of several major works, and a supporter of Irish independence makes the extraordinary statement:  “A Freudian, or a seeker after symbols, might note that from the age of seventeen she spent seven years in semi-blindness, and during the ordeal relied upon an already well-stocked mind and a remarkable memory; for her view of Irish history represented a similarly restricted vision, and an ability to feed omnivorously on preconceptions.”  Stopford Green, he says, “may be seen as a representative of those Ascendancy Irish whose insecurity drove them to extremes of identification. . .”[35]  For Garvin, Maud Gonne was “one of those curious English or half-English people who feel impelled to adopt Ireland.”[36]

Kee engages in the same form of analysis, describing the 1916 revolutionaries as “an overlap of poets, eccentrics, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, politically-minded Gaelic Leaguers and frustrated parliamentarians. . .”[37]  This writer descends to the level of telling us, “Many lone wolves with a romantic or dogmatic or otherwise obsessional love of Ireland. . . gravitated towards Sinn Fein.  And as with every movement that attracts rebels there were those who put into their love of Ireland obscure psychological motivations of their own.  Among the more extreme of such figures were some drawn from what would normally have been thought of as the Protestant Ascendancy.  Maud Gonne was one of these.  Another woman from the same upper class background was Constance Gore-Booth. . .”[38]  After noting that Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth) had shown abilities on the hunting field in her youth, he tells us “her intellect was not great and her artistic talent was no better than second rate, but it was this spirit of the hunting-field, and a lonely wildness that endured beyond all the physical ravages of time, which she was to carry into Irish nationalist politics.”[39]

If, for someone born into the upper class to take up the banner of struggle against that class was eccentric, then in the case of women it was doubly so.  We are left with the impression that Markievicz could not be an artist, was reaching middle-age and losing her beauty (and probably going through menopause) and therefore, out of frustration, became a revolutionary.[40]  (We might note that her closest political comrade, Connolly, has also been blessed with a psychological analysis, courtesy of Samuel Levenson.[41]) A rather more historical, and convincing, explanation of the involvement of a significant layer of Protestant women in nationalist and republican activity than that given by Foster, Garvin and Kee is provided by Carol Coulter:

When one considers the alternatives available to them – constricted lives within the framework of the dreary round of the social caste into which they had been born, wilful ignorance of the lives of the majority of the people around them, an extremely restricted outlet for any cultural aspirations they might have – it is hardly surprising that the adventurous and intelligent among them seized the opportunity to throw off the restrictions imposed upon them by birth and sex and sought to forge a new society in which they could play a full part.[42]

The issue of women and republicanism is particularly interesting since the “iconoclastic” revisionists have in twenty-five years had little to say on the subject.[43]  The Revolution in Ireland 1879-1923, for instance, a work which contains essays on all the main aspects of life in Ireland during this period, ignores the position of women and their role in the events of these years.  Such an absence cannot be justified on the basis that no historian is capable in this field, nor that there is a paucity of information.  It also could not be argued that women were not engaged in any significant activities during that period: during the years covered by this book women emerged from the constraints of a Victorian-imposed conservative society in Ireland to play an important part in social struggles.  During the Land War, the Ladies Land League was founded and developed beyond being simply an adjunct of the Land League.  The LLL carried on militant activity after the suppression of the Land League and the imprisonment of male activists.  LLL leaders, such as Anna and Fanny Parnell had a far more radical political perspective than the parliamentarian wing of the land movement epitomised by their brother Charles Stuart Parnell.  Anna Parnell was also the author of a telling critique of the politics of the moderates.[44]

Women played an important part in producing nationalist literature and newspapers.  In the 1890s, for instance, Alice Milligan, a Belfast-based Protestant and republican produced the Shan Van Vocht newspaper which played a major role in publicising and developing militant republican politics.[45]  Among its contributors was revolutionary labour leader James Connolly.  The suffrage movement involved thousands of women, but was also riven by the national question: should women simply fight for the vote in British elections or should they fight to gain the vote in an independent Irish parliament?  Those women who took the second view played an important role not only in the fight for women’s equality through groups such as Inghinidhe na hEireann, but in the labour movement and nationalist struggle.  Women workers became organised in unions such as the Irish Women’s Workers Union which was attached to Larkin and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union.  A number of these women, such as Helena Moloney, were also involved in the Irish Citizen Army and took part in the Easter Rising and war of independence.  Several prominent ICA and left-wing women were successful Sinn Fein candidates in the local body elections of 1920.  In 1921, in the British-organised elections in the north and south, six women were elected as Sinn Fein TDs/MPs.[46]  Cumann na mBan, the women’s wing of the IRA, involved thousands of women, drawing them out of the cloistered, limited and oppressive existence of the home.  As Markievicz noted, their involvement in the hazards of a war for national liberation raised the confidence and aspirations of women.[47]  Not surprisingly, all the women TDs voted against the Treaty, as did the bulk of Cumann na mBan.[48]

Following the Treaty settlement of 1921, and the subsequent defeat of revolutionary republicanism, women were pushed back into the domestic sphere.  In fact the position of women in the home was subsequently enshrined in the Constitution.  Formal limits were also placed upon women’s right to work.

Such a silence could, of course, be said to be evidence of “gender blindness”, but it is also worth considering further explanations.  “The woman question”, after all, presents a particular problem for the revisionists since their presentation of Irish nationalism as conservative, Catholic and anti-modern is rather belied by the fact that virtually all of the most militant women in Ireland were republicans – throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They saw the emancipation of women as impossible under colonial rule and as inseparably linked to national liberation.  In 1909, in one of her first political speeches, Markievicz urged her female audience: “Fix your mind on the ideal of Ireland free, with her women enjoying the full rights of citizenship in their own nation. . . ”  Warning against those Irish suffragists who wanted the vote only to send members to Westminster, she asked “every nationalist woman to pause before she joined a Suffrage Society or Franchise League that did not include in their programme the Freedom of their Nation.  ‘A Free Ireland with no Sex Disabilities in her Constitution’ should be the motto of all Nationalist women.  And a grand motto it is.”[49]

At the same time some important works on women in this period have emerged, primarily the product of modern feminism and its attempt to write women back into history.[50]  This project, however, is not unproblematic.  Apart from the danger of an ahistorical approach, inherent in some feminist writing, feminist historians can fall into the same trap as other historians dealing with a single sector of society.  The danger of forgetting about the interconnections between economics and politics and between the interests of different oppressed layers of society that can easily slip into accounts of the history of groups of workers is just as liable to appear in accounts dealing with women.  As Ward notes, “feminism cannot be viewed in isolation from other political considerations. . . historians of Irish feminist movements must give consideration to the importance of the ‘national question’ and display a more critical attitude towards the role played by Britain in Irish affairs.”[51]

Ward is able to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls since the women she has mainly dealt with in her principal work,[52] the most determined women’s rights fighters of the time, themselves saw the importance of these interconnections and therefore were involved in struggles to change society as a whole.  Because of this Ward is able to offer an explanation of the defeat suffered by women’s rights with the establishment of the new Free State that goes beyond simply blaming the sexism of individual male revolutionaries or the alleged machismo of republicanism.[53]  Although she notes that the women were still deprived of an equal say in the decision-making of the revolutionary movement of the time, the defeat of women’s rights was bound up with the broader, societal defeat of the revolutionary struggle as a whole.  The struggle for complete national independence, the struggle for workers’ liberation and the struggle for women’s emancipation  all went down with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, partition, and the establishment of two reactionary statelets on the island.

Ward recognises the way in which revisionism has impacted upon the historiography of Irish women.  She sees in general the growth of “an intellectual climate where even the expression of a desire to understand what was happening in the North of Ireland was liable to result in accusations of undue sympathy with terrorism.  The academic community in Ireland failed in its task of engaging with the issue, so discussion seldom moved on to more fruitful levels.  State repression and undisguised censorship was allowed to operate without challenge, while the refusal to accept that what was happening should be of concern to researchers and writers imposed serious distortions upon the ivory towers of Irish academia.”  An “intellectual border” was erected so the north could be ignored.  “For historians, this practice was legitimized by a revisionist discourse within the discipline which minimized the impact of Britain’s colonial role within Ireland.  The direct political consequence of this was an implicit assumption that if the British presence in Ireland was less malignant than formerly considered, the struggle of the nationalist minority in the North could be dismissed as an atavistic impulse, to be ignored if not condemned by a progressive new generation.”[54]

As a result of this, “For many Irish feminist historians, the post-nationalist age has arrived and women’s struggle for emancipation can now be documented without undue stress being placed upon the age-old story of the British imperial presence in Ireland.”[55]  This approach, which Ward rightly questions, misses the interconnectedness of the “national question” and the “woman question”.  She suggests an alternative perspective:  “If we argue that the movement for national self-determination that existed in Ireland at the turn of the century was as important for women as for men, then the question for feminists becomes one of exploring the extent to which feminist concerns conflicted or were accommodated by nationalists.  Instead of dismissing nationalism for its lack of relevance to feminism, one interrogates past nationalist movements for its (sic) programmes and examines the extent to which women were able to make an impact.”[56]  Moreover, as Coulter argues, “politically active women of the early twentieth century came out of a pre-existing tradition of women’s involvement in nationalist struggle, that this offered them scope for a wider range of activities in public life than that experienced by their sisters in imperialistic countries, and that all this was then closed off to them by the newly-formed patriarchal state, modelled essentially on its colonial predecessor.”[57]  Coulter also notes “in the writings of women involved in the nationalist movement an assumption of equality with men” even though it was understood this assumption was not widely shared.[58]

In contrast to Ward and Coulter, Cliona Murphy sees nationalism as “limited and confined to the interests of certain male groups. . . the very antithesis of feminism.”[59]  Interestingly, Murphy, in her The Women’s Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century,[60] treats “Irish society” as the twenty-six counties, even though this state did not exist at the time.  As Ward notes, “Partition is read back into an unpartitioned society and we lose any sense of the reality of the suffrage movement in the North” as well as the fact that “the most militant of all suffrage activities took place in counties Antrim and Down, not in Dublin”.[61]  Murphy’s ahistorical and partitionist approach leaves her unable to discuss this.

In general, as Coulter notes of feminist historiography:

a lot of the discussion concerns the extent to which ‘national’ demands and concerns were allowed to override those of women, or the manner in which women sought to maintain their independence from the nationalist movement.

However such an approach risks subordinating actual historical processes to the preoccupations of today, where the debate about separate organisation is a central one in the feminist movement.  It is also based on acceptance of the modern propaganda of the Irish state, which projects the present domination of a conservative patriarchal, Catholic, pro-capitalist outlook back onto the nationalist movement, implying a hegemony for this element that was not there.[62]

In fact the emancipatory movements overlapped to a large extent, in effect being what Coulter describes as “part of a generalised eruption of resistance to the status quo.”[63]

Imperialism, republicanism and violence

A key part of the revisionists’ portrayal of republicanism as an aberration, even a psychopathology, is their claim that republicans glorified violence and that this alleged glorifying is “deranged” and “extreme”.  Foster even argues, “The Anglo-Irish war from 1919 to 1921 was the result of the politics of exaltation” of the violence of 1916, while IRA tactics were a “grisly process” amounting, “essentially, to shooting down policemen, on and off duty, arguing that the Royal Ulster Constabulary – however Catholic and Irish in personnel – were objectively the representatives of alien oppression.”[64]  In this way the conflict is not only irrational in the sense of being violent to the point of “grisly” but also in the sense that it is internecine – Irish against Irish.  (Of course, the fact that the IRA shot Catholic, Irish policemen rather weighs against the claim that republicans were Catholic sectarians.)  The republican attempt during the war for independence to set up alternative civil structures, Foster continues, “was only made effective, as in the Land War, by the sanction of violence in the background.”[65]  Even in articles which are relatively balanced we find expressions such as “revolutionary zealots”[66] being used to describe republicans who, apparently unlike the British state, were engaged in a “campaign of violence”.[67]  The sheer repetition of such terms, applied in this totally one-sided way, can only serve to create the impression in the mind of readers that Irish republicanism is some kind of pathological condition.

MacMillan reflects this dominant revisionist theme when she claims that the IRB wished to sever the connection with Britain, “preferably through the use of violence”.[68]  Further on in this chapter she informs us that “A particular characteristic of militant nationalism was the glorification of violence” and, in the following paragraph she refers to “This glorification of violence” and quotes Pearse’s revisionist biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, who suggests it showed “a deranged view of the world.”[69]

No-one but a psychopath “prefers” violence, yet this “preference” for violence is constantly attributed to militant nationalists in the revisionist literature.  There is a clear political message here: republicanism is a reflection of psychological disorder at least if not an outright pathological condition.  MacMillan quotes a passage from Pearse which included the comment that “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.  There are many things more horrible than bloodshed and slavery is one of them.”

Far from suggesting a deranged view of the world, this is a statement which could have been made by any number of people fighting wars for national independence or against slavery.  Abraham Lincoln clearly believed that bloodshed to get rid of slavery was less horrible than slavery itself.  According to the great American democrat Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[70]  Leaders of national independence movements in Latin America, Africa and Asia have used phrases similar to this quite frequently.  Even decades later, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the ANC and its military wing in South Africa, to name just two, have talked in a similar way about violence.  The Algerian movement for independence from France and the figure who most clearly articulated its cause, Frantz Fanon, dealt in far more detail with the question of violence and why its use by oppressed people was not only justified but part of the process of shaking off the mental fetters of colonialism.[71]  At best, the incapacity of MacMillan and the revisionists to understand this suggests they seem to lack any historical or imaginative ability to put themselves in the position of anyone not in the same class/social position as themselves.  But given their constant hammering on this theme, the way in which they refuse to put it in the contexts of British oppression and anti-colonialism generally, and also ignore the attitude to violence on the part of the anti-republican forces of the time, we must suspect that there is a political motivation in all this.

Here it is worth noting the attitude taken towards violence by those sections of Irish society which are never described as “deranged”, “extremists” or people who “glorify violence”.  The Irish Parliamentary Party, for instance, supported Britain in the First World War and called on Irish men to do their patriotic duty and fight and die in their thousands in a “grisly process” on the battlefields of Europe. Mr Serjeant Sullivan, a prominent IPP supporter, in a 1918 speech typical of those made at recruiting meetings, said, “The war might be won without Ireland, but that would be the most dreadful thing that could happen to Ireland” and that “he would rather there were 100,000 conscripts with the colours at the end of the war than that Ireland should be out of it.”[72]  Shortly afterwards, addressing Strabane Urban Council, Sullivan described Irish volunteers for the British Army as “those who went at the call of this country and had sanctified the cause with their blood.”[73]  Another respectable member of society, Mrs St Clair Stobart, speaking at a meeting organised by the Red Cross described the continental conflagration as “a woman’s war” and asked her audience whether they realised “this was a war to save civilisation and that if (they) were not going to do their utmost, they were not worthy of a place in civilisation?”[74]  The Dublin Diocesan Synod, meanwhile, was told by the city’s Protestant archbishop that until the war was ended, “happily and victoriously, by God’s blessing, let us not betray our dead by talking instead of acting” and that thousands more Irish men should join up.[75]

Throughout the war, the most respectable and moderate of unionist newspapers, the Irish Times, ran a daily “Roll of Honour” for the thousands of Irish casualties of war.  For the Irish Times, the role of the British on the Aisne was “A Record of Heroic Sacrifice”,[76] while it editorialised typically that “The German people should be told, on the authority of the whole Entente, that for every town which their armies lay waste in France the Allied Armies will destroy a town in the Rhine Provinces.  The Assyrian heart can be softened only by Assyrian methods.”[77]  (It might be noted both that this violent diatribe occurred in the last stages of the war, when Germany was clearly near collapse, and that such a grisly display of violence directed against civilians is never evident in republicanism.)  The paper saw the Dublin Fusiliers (like other Irish men in the British Army) as “heroes who have gloriously upheld the best traditions of our Irish soldiers”, while “A thoughtful onlooker could not help thinking of what might have been had Ireland, as a whole, followed their noble lead.”[78]  The paper also believed that “Most of the greatness (in Ireland – PF) has been contributed by our Irish soldiers.”[79]

This mouthpiece of respectable Ireland was not just keen on mass slaughter on the battlefield and the killing of civilians.  It also appreciated efficient weaponry.  For instance, a report from the London Times’ special correspondent on the “Afghan frontier”, reprinted in the Irish Times,  described the ability of new howitzers:  “The splendid utility of this gun in modern warfare was once again demonstrated and new fuses made the shell burst forward, instead of upward, and caused havoc among the surprised enemy” who retreated “leaving many dead and wounded behind him.  Our aeroplanes now went into action, bombing and machine-gunning. . .”[80]  Like the Irish, the Afghans were opposing a foreign power (Britain) which was operating in their territory and opposing English rule made anyone in the colonial world irrational.[81]

Nor was the paper to overlook the spiritual dimension to violence.  Commenting on the decision to build a war memorial at Trinity College, one of the great bastions of the Protestant Ascendancy class, the paper argued that the memorial should not be associated with anything too material:  “This is no occasion for the erection of a new laboratory or the foundation of scholarships.  The memorial, a possession forever, must utter inspiration and consecration.  It must bring into the daily atmosphere of Trinity College such a breath of the sublime that even the most careless student will pause within its shadow to say, ‘Let us now praise famous men.’”[82]

Given that this paper represented the more moderate wing of their opposition, it is hardly surprising that republicans felt they had little alternative but to use violence themselves.  In any case in an armed world, it was inconceivable that those with the monopoly on weapons and their use (the imperialist powers) would simply hand freedom to people who desired it.  Every movement for national independence in Ireland sooner or later had to face the reality of British armed power.  They could bow down before that power as Daniel O’Connell had when, under pressure of the British threat of violence, he called off his monster rally at Clontarf and thereby effectively destroyed his own constitutional movement for repeal of the Act of Union, or they could resort to violence themselves.  Taking the latter course is hardly surprising or unusual in colonial situations, let alone evidence of individual inadequacies or psychopathic tendencies.

Republicanism: rural and backward?

Another major focus of the revisionist view of nationalism is rural Ireland.  This is seen as the epitome of backwardness and conservatism.  These features, moreover, are seen as almost intrinsic, rather than as a product of centuries of colonial rule which denied education to Catholics, imposed feudal patterns of land ownership, long after feudalism had been overthrown in Britain itself, and, under the threat of a coming together of insurgent Protestants and Catholics,[83]  rehabilitated the Catholic Church and ensured its power as a means of maintaining  social control and respect for the property rights of the ruling elites.

J.J. Lee, one of the few major intellectual figures whose work contains both revisionist and traditionalist features, has criticised the new orthodoxy, complaining about “the shallowness of much liberal thought, fashionable in the media, and reeking with condescension towards the ‘peasantry’, defined to include virtually everyone who dared query their assumptions.”[84]  For Fennell, “The liberals give out about ‘Irish society’ because they see it as a burden and a threat.  Opposed to its inherited Catholicism and nationalism, they have written off the Irish nation, but value the state called Ireland because its power – like the national media and themselves – is highly concentrated in Dublin, and its nameplate gives them seats at international conferences.  They value it particularly because, under their influence and at their urging, it is embarked on a course of provincial bending to London, the unionists and the EC that is cleansing it of Irishness, making it theirs, and rendering it docile to their agenda.”[85]

In fact, despite their mutual antipathy Fennell and the revisionists – or liberals, as he often labels them – share some common key assumptions.  Both see Catholicism as virtually an inherent part of Irishness.  Not surprisingly, like the revisionists and the unionists themselves, Fennell, although regarding himself as an Irish nationalist and even a republican, views the “Ulster Protestants” as British.  Yet this is both historically false and at variance with republican principles.  For a start, there is no such thing as an historic Irish nation, existing for thousands of years.  Before the emergence of modern, capitalist society nation-states in the way we know them today did not  exist.  In pre-capitalist societies, people identified as members of a family, a locality, a region or some other non-national entity.  The world of a peasant tied to a local lord was very limited indeed.  Just as feudalism could not develop a national economy, there was simply no way that people in such a localist existence could develop a “national consciousness”.

Throughout the pre-capitalist period successive waves of raiders and invaders arrived in Ireland.  Each of these waves mixed with the existing inhabitants.  The processes of invasion, intermarriage and reproduction, and social, economic and political development together created an Irish nation.  Far from being one of the oldest nations in Europe – a concept which only has any meaning in the sense that some countries in Europe developed more slowly than others in the modern period – the Irish nation is a very recent creation.  It has been formed out of the common experiences and inter-relation of all the people on the island, which are distinct from the experiences both of the early Gaelic inhabitants and of those Danes, Normans, Anglo-Saxons and so on who did not invade Ireland. This is why we speak of an Irish nation and not a Gaelic nation.  In fact the conceptualisation of an Irish nation dates back less than two hundred years to the United Irish movement whose leader Wolfe Tone declared that he aimed to break the connection with Britain and get the inhabitants of the island to think of themselves as Irish rather than as Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.  The defeat of the United Irish movement – in other words the defeat of Ireland’s attempt at a progressive, modernising bourgeois revolution – delayed this process so the task of completing the formation of the Irish nation was left to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[86]

The ideology of republicanism, in its successive stages, therefore reflected the actual level of development of Irish society itself while also desiring to shake off the fetters of national oppression so that Irish society could progress.  Republican “modernising intellectuals”[87] attempted to carry this process forward in the context of Irish society in the early 1900s.  A useful insight can be gained into the development of republican intellectual thinking of the time from looking at Lowy’s analysis of anti-capitalist intellectuals in Europe, especially Germany.[88]  Lowy notes that as well as a romantic, conservative intellectual opposition to capitalism there was “a quite different section of the petty bourgeoisie – the Jacobin, enlightened, revolutionary-democratic, anti-feudal” elements.  This current, existing mainly in Germany, “was profoundly disappointed by the ‘political cowardice’ of the German liberal bourgeoisie, by its incapacity to wage a consistent revolutionary-democratic struggle against the feudal monarchy.”[89]  With certain qualifications, due to the different levels of socio-economic development in Ireland and Germany, this helps explain the outlook of the republican intellectuals of the early 1900s.  Their roots lay in Jacobinism – Irish republicanism was born under the influence of the French revolution and its high-points in the 1790s, 1848 and the late 1860s, coincided with revolutionary upsurges in Europe – and they were “profoundly disappointed” by the inability or “cowardice” of the Irish national bourgeoisie in confronting the British Crown and the old order in Ireland.  Thus in the early 1900s, as in the 1800s and 1790s, the Irish republican intellectuals can be seen not only as a product of Irish society but also as an element of the European revolutionary tradition.

The concentration on republicanism as a reflection of rural backwardness and the peasant mentality dovetails with the attempt to deconstruct Irish nationalism and render it incoherent by examining individual localities and rooting the conflict in narrow parochial concerns.  This allows Foster to state that the “idea of a ‘national’ struggle can be exaggerated”,[90] while for Hoppen “many of the incidents commonly labelled IRA engagements were in reality no more than land seizures thinly disguised.”[91]  This theme is developed further by Bew, who claims that “incidents which appear to be agrarian in origin, were transformed into significant episodes of the national struggle. . .”[92]  The big picture – that of Irish nationalism representing the legitimate desire of the Irish people for control over their national affairs – is lost in a welter of localism, just as the overall look of a jigsaw puzzle is lost when the pieces are broken up and spread out.  In a recent sociological review of trends in historiography, Furedi comments that in such an approach “Local histories and small narratives call into question the making of history on a societal level.”[93]  In his view, “The recent revision of Irish nationalism by historians provides an example of the tendency towards the deconstruction of a coherent subject to its most caricatured form.  This anti-nationalist literature not only denies the national status of the movement but succeeds in reducing the struggle against Britain to a series of morbidly parochial concerns.  By casting doubt on the motives of the participants, the historian robs the Irish liberation struggle of even a hint of idealism or of political objective.”[94]  This view is confirmed in Foster’s 1994  address at Oxford where he states, “Irish historians, working in many areas, tried to break up the seamless construction of narrative incident which was presented as the Story of Ireland; and to analyse the moment, rather than simply the flow.”[95]

Removing any dint of idealism or national coherence to the Irish national struggle is a central aspect of an important revisionist article by David Fitzpatrick.[96]  In a comment reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, Fitzpatrick argues that “Nationalism is the attribute not of nations, but of nationalists.”[97]  Reducing it to an individual level he is able to comment, “The Irish publican who advocated first Home Rule, then the Republic, in order to secure his clerk’s stipend on the Old Age Pensions Committee, was as much a nationalist as Padraic Pearse, who had himself shot in order to secure his place in Irish history.  Both Pearse and the publican sought benefits for themselves but also participated in collective actions designed to benefit their country: Pearse in an insurrection intended to jolt Irish people into renewed awareness of their national peculiarities; the publican, we may suppose, in political meetings intended to prepare Ireland for the coming of a new order under which the excise on whisky would be lower and stipends on Old Age Pensions Committees higher.”[98]

While the revisionists like to portray their work as thoroughly modern, “scientific”, iconoclastic even, their depiction of Irish nationalism, and attempt to undermine its legitimacy, bears striking resemblance to the work of imperialist ideologues and apologists of the early 1900s.  In a review of what he calls “the moral rearmament of imperialism”, Furedi has drawn attention to the way in which “the dilemma posed by the assertion of anti-colonial aspirations was resolved in the West not by explicitly questioning the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, but by casting doubts on the claim as to what was called genuine nationalism.”[99]  Imperial propaganda portrayed anti-colonial nationalists as “unrepresentative agitators, criminal subversives, religious fanatics or malevolent individuals driven by anti-white hatred.”[100]  We might note that all of these depictions have been applied to Irish nationalists by today’s Irish revisionists, except the indictment of “anti-white hatred” has been amended to anti-English hatred.  A critic of the demonisation of anti-colonial nationalism, S.K. Ratcliffe, writing in The Sociological Review (Britain) in 1908, noted of British commentators, “we exaggerate the natural divisions of India: we exaggerate enormously the difference of race, of speech, and of creed; we misread, I am persuaded, the moral of Indian history before our own beneficent advent.”[101]  Again, this is an apt description of the revisionist approach which both over-emphasises Catholic-Protestant schism in Ireland and absolves British policy from any causal role in the degree of schism which does exist.

Another feature of the imperialist writing of the early 1900s, Furedi notes, was that “Western experts questioned the ability of the African or Asian to cope with the demands of modernity.  And since nationalism was an expression of modernity, whatever anti-colonial politics was about it had little to do with genuine nationalism.  Accordingly it was now proposed that Third World nationalism was not so much a symptom of modernity as a reaction to it. . . a revolt against modernity.” Furedi further notes the way in which Anglo-American sociological literature between the two world wars “helped in reinterpreting anti-colonial protest as a manifestation of backward-looking impulses.” [102]

“The Social Background of Asiatic Nationalism”, an article by N.J. Spykman published in 1926-1927 in the American Journal of Sociology, appears to bear a striking resemblance to Garvin’s article, and not only in its title.  Spykman claims:

The ultimate source of much Asiatic nationalism is the individual’s resistance to a change in habit patterns. . . they had not been fitted for the new type of social order introduced by the West.  An intellectual training had been provided which enabled them to understand Western ideas, but not the character formation which enabled them to function adequately in a dynamic competitive society.[103]

Furedi comments, “virtually every assertion of anti-colonial nationalism has been contested by the West. . .  Whenever the character of nationalism is made into an issue, it is a prologue to an assault on its authenticity.”[104] While the nationalism of the metropolitan powers is uncontested, in fact held up as “liberal” and “universalist”, anti-colonial nationalism is presented, at best, as “frustrated nationalism”, “tribal nationalism” and so forth.  During the interwar years, “The line between imperial propaganda and academic contributions to this subject is often unclear.”[105]  In the following chapter we will explore how this unclear distinction has been evident in Ireland and trace an alternative understanding of the evolution of Irish nationalism and republicanism.


See also: Politics and the rise of historical revisionism

[1]Lloyd George made this threat to obtain the signatures of the Irish plenipotentiaries on the 1921 Treaty.  See, for instance, D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, London, Croom Helm, 1982, p328.

[2] Theodore K. Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, London, New York, Longman, 1989, p1.

[3] Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: prophet of Irish independence, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989, p418.

[4] R.F. Foster, Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, pvii. Foster’s revisionist classic is Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London, Penguin, 1988.  Interestingly, there seems to be little concern among the revisionists about the legitimisation and sanctification of violence in British history.  We might be forgiven for assuming that, over the centuries, British ruling elites had come to acquire their position in Britain itself, their dominion over Ireland and, later, an international empire, by Gandhian means.

[5] R.F. Foster, “History and the Irish Question”, in Ciaran Brady (ed), Interpreting Irish History; the debate on historical revisionism, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1994, p144.

[6] Peter Gibbon, Origins of Ulster Unionism, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1975, p5.

[7] Ibid, p7.

[8] See, for instance, Foster,  “History and the Irish Question”, in Brady (ed), pp122-145. Other essential collections covering the disputes are Revising the Rising, edited by Theo Dorgan and Mairin ni Donnachadha, Derry, Field Day, 1991; Ireland’s Histories: aspects of state, society and ideology, edited by Sean Hutton and Paul Stewart, London, Routledge, 1991; and Reconsiderations of Irish History and Culture, ed & introduction by Daltun O Ceallaigh, Dublin, Leirmheas, 1994.  Desmond Fennell is another trenchant critic, albeit from a position which itself conflates Irishness and Catholicism; see, for instance, Heresy; the battle of ideas in modern Ireland, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1993.

[9] Garvin’s essay appears in D. George Boyce (ed), The Revolution in Ireland, 1879-1923, Basingstoke and London, MacMillan Education, 1988, pp91-114. Bringing together essays on most aspects of these crucial years, this is one of the most important works on this period of history, albeit from a perspective generally hostile to Irish nationalism. Conor Cruise O’Brien,’ States of Ireland, New York, Pantheon, 1972, and Oliver MacDonagh, States of Mind, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1983 are seminal works in the emergence of the revisionist challenge to the tenets of traditional Irish nationalism.  See also C.H.E. Philpin, Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland 1910-1921, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987 and Tom Garvin, Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland 1858-1921, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.  Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure, London, Gollancz, 1977, is an essential example of revisionist biography of a leader of this period of Irish history.  For the opposite view see Louis Le Roux’s adulatory Patrick Pearse, Dublin, Phoenix Publishing, 1932.  Sean Cronin, Irish Nationalism: a history of its roots and ideology, Dublin, Academy Press, 1980 and Priscilla Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland: a study in the relationship of politics and ideology from the United Irishmen to James Connolly, Frankfurt, Bern and New York, Peter Lang, 1986 provide critical, non-revisionist accounts of Irish republicanism..

[10] Garvin, “Great Hatred, Little Room”, p95.

[11] Ibid, p94

[12] Ibid, p108.  Her alleged anti-Semitism was picked up from “the right-wing French circles in which she had moved in France as a young woman.” (p108)  Gonne came from a section of the Ascendancy class, of course, yet Garvin fails to mention that anti-Semitism has been de rigeur in upper-class circles in England ever since the Jews were expelled in the thirteenth century.  The supposedly inherent connection between Irish republicanism and fascism also became an orthodoxy in the Workers Party, a Eurocommunist-Stalinist party which evolved out of a split in the IRA and Sinn Fein in 1969-1970, and with whom a number of the revisionist writers – such as Bew and Patterson – are associated.  The connection is also made by Conor Cruise O’Brien in, for instance, the appendix to States of Ireland, pp 317-325, which is a statement he made in the course of a debate with Tomas MacGiolla.  At the time MacGiolla was the political leader of the group which subsequently became the Workers Party and abandoned nationalism.

[13] See, for instance, C. Desmond Greaves, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.

[14] Garvin, “Great Hatred, Little Room”, p113.

[15] On the development of left-wing British working class politics, and on its connections to the struggle in Ireland, see, for instance, Raymond Challinor, Origins of British Bolshevism, London, Croom Helm, 1977.

[16] Foster, Modern Ireland, p492.

[17] Ibid, p501.

[18] Robert Kee, The Green Flag,  London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, p494.

[19] Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, p342.

[20] Conor Cruise O’Brien, speech in the Dail (the parliament of the southern state), Dail Debates, vol 256, cols 236-9, 21 October, 1971.  Reprinted in A.C. Hepburn (ed), The Conflict of Nationality in Modern Ireland, London, Edward Arnold, 1980, pp205-6.

[21] See Foster, Modern Ireland, especially pp446-460.  The quote is from p459.

[22] Editorial, Irish Times, April 10, 1919.  This theme is a continuous one in the paper during these years.  Indeed anyone challenging British rule in any country was described in this manner.  Egyptians protesting British interference in their country were “nationalist extremists” (June 5, 1919)  while a series of political disturbances in Cairo began when “a crowd of 500 roughs entered Abdin Square.” (November 24)  Eleven “natives” were killed.

[23] Irish Times, January 5, 1919.  This was part of the paper’s response to the first meeting of the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann.

[24] Hepburn, Conflict of Nationality, p4.

[25] Gretchen MacMillan, State, Society and Authority in Ireland: the foundations of the modern Irish state, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1993, p124.

[26] Sean Cronin, Irish Nationalism: a history of its roots and ideology, Dublin, Academy Press, 1980, p47.

[27] Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, p311.

[28] Ibid, p312.

[29] Foster, Modern Ireland, p492.

[30] Constance Markievicz, “Mr Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Fein Organisation, Pt 2”, Eire, August 25, 1923.

[31] The Griffith quotations are from his early newspaper, the United Irishman, and appear in R.M. Henry, The Evolution of Sinn Fein, Dublin, Talbot Press & London, Fisher Unwin, 1920, p60.

[32] Brian Murphy, “The Canon of Cultural History: some questions concerning Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, in Brady (ed) 1994, pp222-233. Pages 223-230 deal specifically with what Murphy sees as O’Farrell and MacDonagh’s “erroneous uses of source material”(p223) and the way in which Foster has uncritically accepted their errors.

[33] T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, pp365-6, (First published London, Cobbett press, 1947); R.M. Henry, p48.

[34] Editorial, “Ulster”, Irish Freedom, March 1913.

[35] Foster, “History and the Irish Question”, p138.

[36] Garvin, “Great Hatred, Little Room”, p109.

[37] Kee, Green Flag, p456.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Sean O Faolain, Constance Markievicz, gives a similar view.

[41] Samuel Levenson, James Connolly, London, Martin Brian and O’Keeffe, 1973.

[42] Carol Coulter, The Hidden Tradition: feminism, women and nationalism in Ireland, Cork, Cork University Press, 1993, pp29-30.

[43] Foster, in a bibliographical essay at the end of Modern Ireland  is reluctantly forced to recommend a non-revisionist work: “The important topic of the Irish feminist movement in this period is nowhere treated adequately; see, in default of anything else, M. Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism.” (p658)

[44] The Tale of a Great Sham (ed Dana Hearne), Dublin, Arlen House, 1986.

[45] See Sheila Turner Johnston, Alice: A Life of Alice Milligan, Omagh, Colourpoint Press, 1994.

[46] TD, Teachta Dail, member of Dail Eireann, the republican parliament.  Sinn Fein won six seats in the north and 124 of 128 seats in the south and, as in 1918, continued to sit as Dail Eireann.  (The other four seats in the south were the Trinity College seats which were won by Unionists.)

[47] Markievicz’s speech on women’s franchise in Dail Eireann session, March 2, 1922.

[48] See this thesis, chapters 10 and 11.

[49] Constance Markievicz, A Call to the Women of Ireland, Dublin, 1909.

[50] See, for instance, Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing Times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement 1889-1922, Dublin, Attic Press, 1984, and Mary Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies: a history of the Irish Women Workers Union, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1988.Feminist biographies have also appeared of many of the major female republican activists of this period.  In addition to the recent biographies of Markievicz and Alice Milligan, see for instance, Charlotte Fallon, Soul of Fire: a biography of Mary MacSwiney, Cork, Mercier Press, 1986, Margaret Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, London, Pandora, 1989, Margaret Ward, Maud Gonne: A Life, London, Pandora, 1993.  While Charles Stuart Parnell has been well-served by biographies, Kitty O’Shea has now received her due: see, Mary Rose Callaghan, Kitty O’Shea: A Life of Katharine Parnell, London, Pandora, 1989.  For more general works see, Women in Irish Society: the historical dimension, eds Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha O Corrain, Dublin, Arlen House, 1978; Gender in Irish Society, eds Chris Curtin, Pauline Jackson, Barbara O’Connor, Galway, Officina Typographica Galway University Press, 1987; Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women’s History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, eds Maria Luddy and Cliona Murphy, Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1989; Irish Women’s Studies Reader, ed Ailbhe Smyth, Dublin, Attic Press, 1993; Roger Sawyer, “We are but Women”: women in Ireland’s history, London/New York, Routledge, 1993.

[51] Margaret Ward, “Conflicting Interests: the British and Irish Suffrage Movements”, Feminist Review No. 50, Summer 1995, p127.

[52] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism, London, Pluto, 1983.  Ward has also compiled a collection of extracts from reminiscences, articles, pamphlets and speeches by, primarily, republican women – In Their Own Voice: women and Irish nationalism, Dublin, Attic, 1995.

[53] See Sarah Benton, “Women Disarmed: The Militarization of Politics in Ireland 1913-23”, Feminist Review No 50, Summer 1995, pp148-172.  Benton argues, “Once the Irish struggle had become both militarized and Catholicized, placing women firmly in the roles of auxiliaries, grievers, and those who kept the home fires burning while the men were on the run, women’s own embryonic notion of an egalitarian republic was quashed.” ( p170)  The problem here is that women were already in these roles before the war for independence.  Participation in revolutionary nationalist activities provided the opportunity to take part in public life and in changing society.  It was the defeat of that struggle as a whole which ensured the egalitarian republic – a vision shared by republican men as well as women – was never achieved.  In fact, Benton’s essay appears motivated by the preoccupations of an important strand of feminism today.  For instance, she spends several pages on the issue of rape although she admits that it was not an issue during the independence struggle and that there is no evidence of rape of women by British soldiers at the time.

[54] Ward, “Conflicting Interests”, p128.

[55] Ibid.  See also Coulter, Hidden Tradition.

[56] Ward, “Conflicting Interests”, p129.

[57] Coulter, “Hidden Tradition”, p3.  She also notes that far larger numbers of women were involved in national movements in the colonised world than in suffrage groups in the West (p5).

[58] Ibid, p11.

[59] Cliona Murphy, “Suffragists and Nationalism in Early Twentieth Century Ireland”, History of European Ideas, Vol 16, Nos 1-3 (Special Issue), 1993, p1009.

[60] London, Harvester, 1989.

[61] Ward, “Conflicting Interests”, p128.

[62] Coulter, Hidden Tradition”, pp19-20.

[63] Ibid, p20.

[64] Foster, Modern Ireland, p494.

[65] Ibid, p497.

[66]Tom Bowden, “The Irish Underground and the War of Independence 1919-21”, Journal of Contemporary History vol 8, no 2 (April 1973), pp3-23.

[67] Charles Townshend,  “The Irish Republican Army and the development of guerrilla warfare, 1916-1921”, English Historical Review vol XCIV, April 1979, pp318-345.

[68]MacMillan, State, Society and Authority, p126, my emphasis.

[69] Ibid, p139.  The quote MacMillan uses from Ruth Dudley Edwards comes from the latter’s biography of Pearse, op cit, p245.

[70] Cited in C. Desmond Greaves, “Connolly and Easter Week: a rejoinder to John Newsinger”, Science and Society, Summer 1984, p220.

[71] See Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Harmondsworth, Penguin 1967 edition, especially chapter one, “Concerning Violence”.

[72] Irish Times, October 7, 1918.

[73] Irish Times, October 8, 1918.

[74] Irish Times, October 15, 1918.

[75] Ibid.  The archbishop even claimed that the existing coal shortage could be solved if 50,000 Irish men joined up.  Showing little appreciation for how governments run wars, he thought that this would lead to 50,000 miners being released from the British Army.

[76] Irish Times, October 11, 1918.

[77] Irish Times, October 8, 1918.

[78] Irish Times, January 22, 1919.  “What might have been”, of course, is that even more people would have been killed.

[79] Irish Times, editorial, January 31, 1919.

[80] Irish Times, June 17, 1919.

[81] For instance, Egyptian independence activists were seen, typically, by the paper as “Nationalist extremists”. (Irish Times, June 5, 1919)

[82] Irish Times, editorial, November 5, 1919.  The editorial also commented wistfully:  “The four years during which Trinity College’s classrooms were empty and her playgrounds silent were the most glorious in her history.”  At that time, “Every fit young man in these islands was asked to make his body a shield against German aggression.”  By making their bodies shields the students had, in the paper’s view, “increased the honour of their Alma Mater and of Ireland.”

[83] Garvin’s article, above, is a useful example of the revisionist perspective on this issue.  Raymond Crotty’s Ireland in Crisis (Dingle, Brandon Books, 1986), which analyses Irish economic development from the perspective of the country being “undeveloped” by capitalist colonialism, and Marx and Engels’ Ireland and the Irish Question, New York, International Publishers, 1972, provide alternative perspectives.

[84] J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: politics and society, Cambridge (USA), Cambridge University Press, 1989, p655.  The revisionists usually present themselves as “liberals” and “progressives” as against “atavistic” and “conservative” nationalism.

[85] Fennell, Heresy, p220.

[86] See, for instance, C. Desmond Greaves, Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Irish Nation, Dublin, Fulcrum Press, 1991.  We might add that this is not an historical exception.  In modern South Africa the experiences of people of all ethnic groups was far more shared than the experience of Afrikaners and modern-day inhabitants of Amsterdam.  Although social, economic and political developments were creating a South African nation, the imposition of apartheid prevented the completion of this process.  The African National Congress and others holding a non-exclusionary concept of a  South African nation were both a product of these objective tendencies and the vehicle through which the obstacles to completing the process of nation formation could be removed.  See, for example, the ANC’s analysis of apartheid South Africa as “colonialism of a special type”.

[87] This term is used, rightly in my view, by Joseph Lee in The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1973.  Lee sees Pearse, for instance, as a moderniser, noting that the concentration of such Irish-Ireland advocates on “legitimising their aspirations by invoking alleged precedents from the celtic mists has misled some commentators into portraying them as simple reactionaries.  In fact, far from being prisoners of the past, the modernisers created the past in their image of the future.” (p141)  He describes the executed republican leaders of 1916 as “modernising intellectuals”, p168.

[88] Michael Lowy, Georg Lukacs – From Romanticism to Bolshevism, translated by Patrick Camiller, London, NLB, 1979, see chapter one “Towards a Sociology of the Anti-Capitalist Intelligentsia”.

[89] Ibid, p25.

[90] Foster, Modern Ireland, p500-501.

[91] Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800, p107.

[92] Paul Bew, “Sinn Fein, Agrarian Radicalism and the War of Independence, 1919-1921”, in Boyce (ed), 1988, pp217-235.  The quote is taken from p225.

[93] Frank Furedi, Mythical Past, Elusive Future: history and society in an anxious age, London, Pluto, 1992, p239.

[94] Ibid.

[95] R.F. Foster, The Story of Ireland: an inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 1 December, 1994, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995, p3.

[96] David Fitzpatrick, “The Geography of Irish Nationalism, 1910-1921”, Past and Present No 78, 1978, pp113-140.

[97] Ibid, p113.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Frank Furedi, The New Ideology of Imperialism: renewing the moral imperative, London, Pluto, 1994, p6 (emphasis in original).

[100] Ibid, p7.

[101] Cited ibid.

[102] Ibid, p7-8.  For a revisionist depiction of Irish nationalism in this manner see Tom Garvin, “Priests and Patriots: Irish separatists and fear of the modern”, Irish Historical Studies 25, 1986, pp67-81.

[103] American Journal of Sociology, volume 32, 1926-7, p406.  Cited in Furedi, 1994a, p8.

[104] Ibid, p9.

[105] Ibid, p11.  Furedi cites the case of the 1931 revolt against British rule in Burma as an example.

Posted on July 19, 2011, in Historiography and historical texts, Thesis chapters. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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