Politics and the rise of historical revisionism

by Philip Ferguson

The following is thesis chapter two


The origins of revisionism have been traced to several different dates.  Brendan Bradshaw, a historian of medieval Ireland, who has recently entered the fray against revisionism and in defence of a particular kind of nationalist-moral history, sees it originating with the professionalisation of Irish history in the 1930s by figures such as R. Dudley Edwards and T.W. Moody.  In Bradshaw’s view they took their credo from a misunderstanding of Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History.[1]  He criticises the revisionists for attempting to remove, by stealth, the catastrophic aspect in Irish history, and for undermining people’s faith in their nation and its achievements.  Stephen Ellis, one of the people criticised by Bradshaw, has responded by pointing out the dangers inherent in Bradshaw’s view that historical research and writing should serve the purpose of national upliftment.[2]  Although this is a valid point, and a valid criticism of a whole trend of nationalist historiography, it can also be interpreted as rather disingenuous since the revisionists themselves are thoroughly committed to what is essentially a political project, the destruction of Irish nationalism and the neutralising of any critical attitude to British rule in Ireland. Presenting their history as scientific can be seen as an attempt to back up their particular interpretation with an authority higher than mere mortals.

Yet history is not a science like physics or biology.  Historical “facts”, have to be interpreted and, as the revisionist Elliot notes, reinterpreted.  While there are scientific methods for uncovering information, there are certainly no agreed, objective scientific rules governing interpreting and reinterpreting.  Historical work inevitably involves a certain amount of creative reconstruction and such reconstruction cannot be removed from the influences of the present.  Moreover although statistics are vital to historical work, they will invariably mean different things to different people and can be interpreted in different ways.  And one historian’s interpretation can be another historian’s romantic fairytale.  This is particularly the case where there is substantial social conflict in the present and this existing conflict is pressing the past into service.  In the case of revision, Irish resistance to British rule becomes unintelligible except as the irrational actions of a backward people who simply could not understand their benevolent colonisers.

Bradshaw’s dating of revisionism’s origins and founders is accepted by Brady[3], whereas Brian Murphy sees “Modern revisionism of the kind associated with Roy Foster” as first manifesting itself in F.S.L. Lyons’ Ford lectures at Oxford in 1978, subsequently published as Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939.  This work, which took a far different tone to Lyons’ earlier Ireland Since the Famine was, in turn, influenced by Patrick O’Farrell’s Ireland’s English Question: Anglo-Irish relations 1534-1970.[4]

While Bradshaw and Brady are right to notice the changes pioneered by Dudley Edwards and Moody, the revisionism which has emerged over the past two decades has its own character and roots.  It represents a far more coherent and conscious challenge to both the romanticised, conservative and Catholic-centred official form of nationalist historiography and the secular republican and Marxist historiography.  It is also conditioned by a particular set of circumstances.

Anti-revisionist critics such as Anthony Coughlan, Seamus Deane[5] and Desmond Fennell have noted that this new revisionism coincides with the outbreak of armed conflict in the north of Ireland.  In their view revisionism is the ideological stance taken by that section of people who grew comfortable, prosperous and powerful in southern society, particularly after it opened up to foreign capital in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  This social layer completely ignored the institutionalised discrimination against the nationalist population in the north.[6]  And, as long as the northern nationalist  population made no fuss about its conditions, they were prepared to endure the largely empty and hypocritical nationalist ideology and rhetoric of successive southern governments.  Things changed when the struggle for civil rights in the north was met with violence by the northern state and state-backed loyalist ultra-rightists, and a sizeable section of the northern nationalist population resorted to arms themselves.[7]  In a short space of time Ireland became transformed into a war-zone and the conflict in the north threatened to upset stability throughout the island.  Nationalist ideas, harmless enough in peace time, suddenly became extremely dangerous and threatening.  As Newsinger has noted:

“The history of Irish republicanism is charged with political significance, not so much for what it has to say about past struggles and conflicts, but because of its relevance to the war that the Provisional IRA has been waging in Northern Ireland since the early 1970s.  Inevitably, any assessment of past republican struggles has implications for our understanding of the contemporary conflict; correspondingly the contemporary conflict has inevitably influenced historians’ views of the republican past.  This is all the more so because republicans claim to be the heirs to a nationalist tradition that stretches back to the 1790s, and beyond.”[8]

It also became rather difficult for the authorities in the south to differentiate the actions of those whom they regarded as the state’s founders from the activities of the present-day IRA.  Fine Gael, for instance, traces its roots back to the pro-Treaty party and holds annual commemorations at Beal na mBlath, where Michael Collins was killed.  Upholding Michael Collins as a role model for Irish youth has no ramifications in peace-time.  But with a war raging in the country it becomes problematic, to say the least, to hold up as an example of outstanding character someone mainly noted for organising the killing of members of the British “security forces”.  In another case, present-day republicans pointed out with some amusement, “in September 1984 the Labour Party leader and Free State deputy-premier, Dick Spring, was tongue-tied in attempting to explain the difference between the IRA gun-runner Roger Casement (in whose honour he was unveiling a statue at Ballyheigue, County Kerry) and those IRA gun-runners on the ‘Marita Anne’ who had been arrested by his government’s forces off the Kerry coast 24 hours previously.  Spring had no answer. . .”[9]

The establishment in the south reacted to armed conflict in the north not only through resorting to repressive legislation and rigid censorship, but also through turning against the very nationalism it had used both to justify its own existence and impose a conservative binding glue upon southern society throughout its existence.

Critics of the revisionists have also noted that the poor achievements of the southern state in terms of economic development and modernisation, and the continuing power of the Catholic Church, have alienated a liberal middle-class which increasingly looks towards Europe and regards Ireland, in particular rural Ireland, as a backwater of religiosity, conservatism and small-minded parochialism.  Given that the southern state, especially under Fianna Fail governments, has presented itself as the outcome of centuries of struggle by an historic Irish nation for self-realisation and independence, this alienated middle class has come to reject the nationalist ethos and see in it the most important cause of Irish underdevelopment and lack of modernity.  Looking towards Europe and Britain today, the revisionists – critics have said – project into the past the idea that Britain was a force for progress in Ireland and nationalism was a peasant reaction against modernisation.

That this analysis of revisionism contains a great deal of truth is evident from a simple comparison of the way Irish historiography before and after the outbreak of war in the north dealt with revolutionary nationalism.  In 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising was celebrated with enormous pomp and ceremony by the southern state, yet once the conflict in the north broke out such official celebrations were halted.  From a viewpoint hostile to republicanism, Colm Toibin, a novelist and short story writer of the generation which grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, recalls:

“In 1966 the state celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rising with enormous gusto, with marches in which schools took part and rousing speeches and an emotional television series called Insurrection, broadcast nightly.  But once the North broke and the IRA campaign recommenced, the state’s attitude changed.  ‘In an act of astonishing political opportunism, O’Loughlin wrote, ‘1916 was revised.  By 1976, and the 60th celebrations, a different tune was being played.  For people of my generation, who were and are, in an important sense, neither Republican nor non-Republican, this was a lesson they would never forget.  To see history so swiftly rewritten was to realise that what was called history was in fact a facade behind which politicians manoeuvred for power.’. . .

“In 1991, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Rising, there were calls to retransmit Insurrection, but the television station refused on the basis that it was too inflammatory.  There were a few half-hearted public ceremonies, presided over by the Taoiseach but hardly anyone attended.”[10]

Among those who had happily commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of an insurrection against Britain during wartime – surely the ultimate in subversion – was the Irish Times.  In 1916 it was a thoroughly neo-British paper, bitterly opposed to the Rising, to the extent of even running a claim that Constance Markievicz had a room full of human skulls for bizarre worship practices in her house.[11]  In 1966, the paper ran a special sixteen-page supplement on the Rising, which subsequently became the basis for 1916 The Easter Rising, edited by Owen Dudley Edwards and Fergus Pyle.  Here, the Gaelic revivalists appear not as Anglophobic racists, but “an exceptionally gifted group” and, indeed, all the revolutionaries are quite splendid people.  Even D.P. Moran’s reactionary, Catholic Leader is a harmless and happy little weekly contributing “to the spread of cultural nationalism.”[12]

In the introduction Dudley Edwards and Pyle treat readers to a glowing account of Connolly, whose “presence. . . among the insurgent leaders was a formidable indictment of a major failure of the Home Rule movement and the British government alike.”[13]  Connolly’s drive for insurrection is treated sympathetically and the progressive views of the other 1916 leaders, and Connolly’s influence on them, is noted.  In particular Connolly is said to have influenced Pearse, “whose later writings show evidence of advanced social thinking”.[14]  The editors even state, “It is to be hoped that a revival of interest in the 1916 rising will bring with it a renewed study of Connolly’s writings, whose remorseless analysis of the evils of his own day has all too much relevance to the present.”[15]  In the book’s epilogue, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s only criticism of the rising is that, from a tactical point of view, it would have been better if the insurrection had been in 1918, when Britain tried to introduce conscription.  In such a situation, an insurrection would have had more chance of success.[16]  He then, interestingly, goes on to show that the goals of Pearse and Connolly were never met,  that the “republic” (ie the southern state) which claimed their mantle did so fraudulently, and indicated the effect that this had on his own generation:

“My generation grew into chilling knowledge that we had failed, that our history had turned into rubbish, our past to ‘a trouble of fools’.[17]  With this feeling it is not surprising that the constant public praise for the ideals of Pearse and Connolly should have produced in us bafflement rather than enthusiasm.  We were bred to be patriotic, only to find that there was nothing to be patriotic about; we were republicans of a republic that wasn’t there.  Small wonder that Pearse’s vision of an Ireland ‘not free merely, but Gaelic as well’[18] did not convince us.  In Pearse’s sense, Ireland was not free; why should it be Gaelic, which was a much more unlikely condition.

“Pearse died, not for an island, or part of an island, but for a nation: an entity with a distinct culture, based on its own language.  The nation for which he died never came to life.“[19]

He further notes that “Tone and Pearse lived and died to close” the division between Catholic and Protestant,[20] “that Connolly regarded the Easter Rising not just as an Irish rising against England but as a blow against capitalist imperialism”,[21] and that, in the case of Connolly’s writings and actions, “The sense of these is the sense of the revolutionary movements in the underdeveloped world today.”[22]

Yet, a few years later, O’Brien wrote States of Ireland, whose dustjacket rightly summed up its contents as “asking a great deal of the Irish; an acknowledgment that their history, their beliefs, their public thoughts about themselves, are significantly wrong.”  The book is also said to be “therapeutically essential”.[23]

The book’s appendix includes the text of a statement made by O’Brien in a public debate in Dublin in May 1972 at which, among other things, he declared that Irish republicanism by its very nature tended to develop towards fascism.  The book also contains one of the first sustained attacks on Connolly by an Irish intellectual.  Given that the writings and actions of the deceased Connolly were the same in 1972 as in 1968, as were the fundamental views of Irish republicanism, it seems reasonable to explain the change in O’Brien’s views as a reflection of contemporary events in Ireland itself.  Namely, war broke out.  Those who, like O’Brien, recognised that the southern state, although appropriating the names of Tone, Pearse and Connolly and the symbols and rhetoric of republicanism, really bore no resemblance at all to what these “founding fathers” had stood for, that it was all sham and betrayal, were faced with two alternatives:  they could either hold to their positions, oppose both British rule and what they had said was a fraud of a state in the south, or they could turn their backs on their entire understanding of Irish history and go along with both London and Dublin.

The liberal middle class social layer which O’Brien represented both intellectually and, to a certain extent, as a member of the Irish parliament, although deeply disillusioned with the southern state, were nevertheless a privileged section of society.  To have stuck to the critique of southern society made by O’Brien in the 1950s and 1960s and acted upon it, would have made them pariahs as the southern state was increasingly drawn into collaboration with Britain and moved to repress republicanism south of the border.  Suddenly, being actively republican in the south became dangerous; in fact it became the equivalent of being a communist or having communist friends during the McCarthy period in the United States.  Most of this social layer, unprepared to follow through on their original analysis of the British role in Ireland and the bankruptcy of the southern state, simply dumped everything they had said they believed in, including their view of Irish history.  And, with all the zeal of new converts, or perhaps the zeal of people flagellating themselves for past sins such as republicanism, began also to lash any views, including historical interpretations, which might be seen as justifying rebellion against established authority.  Indeed, O’Brien even became a member of the 1973-77 coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour, holding the position of minister of posts and telegraphs and being responsible for the notorious censorship of broadcasting (Section 31).  This legislation banned radio and television from interviewing representatives of Sinn Fein, a legal political party in the south.  (In fact, the way it was implemented meant that thousands of people were banned from radio and television for over 20 years, the ban not being modified until late 1994.[24]  The ban also had the spillover effect of removing from all broadcast media many academics and intellectuals who held nationalist and anti-colonial views.  The revisionists were direct beneficiaries of this censorship since it was virtually impossible for their critics to get a public hearing.)

O’Brien’s States of Ireland helped open the way for a plethora of historical rewriting.  Assisted by the McCarthyite atmosphere in the south, revisionism soon became dominant in Irish historiography. By the mid-1970s Ruth Dudley Edwards was producing a biography of Pearse, not as someone with “advanced social thinking” but as a person with “a deranged view of the world” and a paedophilic interest in children.  Acclaimed by revisionist critics for demythologising Pearse, the book was viewed by others as essentially a hatchet job.[25]

F.S.L. Lyons who, as we have seen, is cited as a seminal figure in the development of revisionism, has said that, as well as widening Irish horizons, membership of the EC is useful in providing “an increasing awareness that terrorism is an international phenomenon and that anti-terrorist techniques are developing as a result of international experience is not without relevance for Northern Ireland.  To have been, as it were, an experimental laboratory in this question is, God knows, no comfort for the dead and the maimed, but if in due course it leads to more effective measures against this unmitigated evil, then we may feel that to belong to the wider world may have its compensations as well as its stresses.”[26]

These comments are especially interesting since, so often, the revisionists deny that they have any particular political slant or agenda.  For Lyons, the “terrorists” are clearly not the British Army and other “security forces” in the north of Ireland, but those engaged in a war with the British state.  The “terrorism”, not the injustices and violence which gave rise to it (and which remain unalluded to by Lyons), are the “unmitigated evil”.  And, if the IRA today are “terrorists” and the British Army are “peacekeepers” and “security forces”, the next step is to project that conception into the past.

Yet dispensing with the older version of Irish history is not regarded as unproblematic by revisionists such as Lyons.  After all, a particular form of that interpretation (the Catholic, conservative one) has provided the ideological glue legitimising the southern state and holding it together.  If this glue is melted away, what will replace it?  Here again, we see the political side of revisionism.  After noting that “the old Catholic-Gaelic stereotype cannot hold out much longer” he remarks, in the very next sentence, that “some of the consequences of our belated entry into the twentieth century are not very attractive.”  He sees “devastated inner cities”, “vandalism”, “broken homes”, “drug and drink problems”, “callousness towards the old and the helpless”, “obsessive cult of sport as a substitute religion” and “sleasy seductions of the consumer society” as all part of “the filthy modern tide” washing over the new Ireland.[27]

Critics such as Coughlan, Deane and Fennell paint the revisionists as privileged members of society, setting about the destruction of Irish nationalism in a deliberate and calculated way.  Newsinger, whose earlier work tended towards revisionism but latterly has raised major criticisms of it, now notes, “It is an essentially conservative project that seems almost always to endorse the moderate against the popular, the establishment against the rebel, evolution against revolution.”[28]  But two further points need to be made.

Firstly, the anti-revisionists often tend to overlook the problems with the traditional nationalist historiography, as if any nationalist history should automatically have legitimacy.  They often fail to identify the tensions and contradictions within nationalism and the way in which nationalist history has been concocted to provide a sort of biblical story of the Irish race coming out of slavery, with Collins or de Valera cast as Moses, depending on which wing of the southern establishment was controlling the story-telling.  Newsinger notes, for instance, that while the Fenian movement of the 1860s was viewed “with considerable hostility by the Catholic middle class and constitutional nationalists, once it had been defeated its struggles were quickly subsumed into a general nationalist history. . .  Those aspects of Fenianism that challenged the Catholic middle class were forgotten and instead a sanitised memory of the movement was pressed into service, helping to carry this same Catholic middle class to power in an independent Ireland.” Dead revolutionaries were “used to sustain a constitutional enterprise they would have rejected when alive.”[29]

Secondly, while the revisionists appear to apply different standards (and even adjectives and adverbs) to British rule and Irish nationalism,[30] there is an important sense in which the revisionists are actually reflecting reality as they experience it.  For the professional class that the revisionists belong to, the link with Britain really is a positive one.  It provides them with an escape from the conservatism and parochialism of Ireland, careers with status and money greater than are on offer in Ireland and various other rewards.  These people are not likely to face discrimination or any other problems as Irish people in Britain, especially since, like much of their class in Ireland, they even have the same accents and mannerisms as the British elite. Their experience of Britain is therefore predominantly positive.  According to McCann, for instance, “the most ‘Europeanized’ elements” of the southern Irish establishment “have, naturally, acquired their own camp following of commentators, ideologists and revisers of history, whose function it is to fit the line of their sponsors into a plausible narrative of Irish history.”[31]

As we have seen from Newsinger, the nature of Irish nationalism and republicanism in the 1800s was contested and revised then as well as now.  Given that the radical movements of the early twentieth century had still to contend with the unresolved national question, and often saw themselves as inheritors of past revolutionary movements, it is necessary to turn finally to a sketch of the development of Irish nationalism, particularly its republican form.

Evolution of Irish nationalism: an alternative perspective

In contrast to both revisionist and traditional nationalist views of Irish nationalism, a Marxist interpretation sees nationalism as first appearing in Ireland as part of a progressive, bourgeois revolution against feudalism.  The very bourgeoisie which in England carried out a revolution against feudal aristocratic power, upheld that same power in Ireland.  Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism, represented the most radical wing of an Irish bourgeoisie whose economic and political development had been constrained, not by a modernising British power, but a reactionary British ancien regime in Ireland which prevented modernisation.[32] Inspired by the French Revolution and the writings of thinkers such as Tom Paine, the United Irish movement set out to achieve “the rights of man” in Ireland.  The mainstream of the weak Irish bourgeoisie, however preferred to negotiate – in a rather feeble way – with this ancien regime since it feared a confrontation in which it might lose what limited position it had, and that a confrontation would provide an opening for the propertiless mass to intervene in politics.  The closing off of legal channels for reform and general British intractability and repression meant that the Irish bourgeoisie could take the road of revolution or simply accommodate itself to playing a poor second fiddle in Irish life.  Much of the bourgeoisie chose the latter; however Tone and his group chose to continue with their struggle.  Driven underground by the British state, they set about organising a revolution with the understanding  that “the men of no property” were the only social force which had an interest in seeing the struggle through to the end.  In this way, Tone moved to a particularly radical, Jacobin form of bourgeois-democratic revolution, one with a strongly plebeian emphasis.

Tone also saw that the oppression of Catholics was a crucial weapon by which Britain divided and ruled.  He championed Catholic emancipation – the ending of all the legal restrictions on Catholics embodied, particularly, in the Penal Laws – and sought to weld together a progressive, revolutionary nation in the place of the old divisions.  He had no interest in romanticising the old Gaelic society, or seeing the “Gael” as a spiritual being, or linking nationality and Catholicism.  In fact, he viewed the Catholic religion – as distinct from the helot mass who were Catholic – as a completely negative influence, helping keep its adherents in ignorance.  One of the great benefits of Catholic emancipation and Irish independence, in his eyes, would be that Catholics would cease paying attention to the “extinguished thunderbolts of the Vatican” and “idle anathemas of the Pope.”[33]

As Cronin notes, the United Irish movement “had no predecessors and no successors, and it did not seek its title deeds from history.  It was a product of its times: the Enlightenment, the American and French revolutions, the Industrial Revolution.”[34]  It was the defeat of this modernising republican revolutionary movement, and the vicious state repression which followed, which made possible the rise of a backward-looking, romanticising form of nationalism.  This form arose in conditions of desperation.  In the early 1800s the population rose rapidly – in the 1840s it was almost twice as large as it is today (9 million on the eve of the famine, compared with 5 million now), in an overwhelmingly rural country.  With rural production under the control of big landlords and focussed on export crops, the enormous  and impoverished Irish peasantry were forced to rely on the potato for survival.  The potato blight ensured massive devastation, with a million dying and another million fleeing the country.  In the context of the 1840s, this must have seemed like a truly hellish visitation to the peasantry.[35]  With the present full of horror and no future to which to look forward, it is little wonder that the past began to be treated as a much different and far more attractive country.

Crotty, for instance, has noted the traumatic effect of the famine, not only at the level of physical destruction, but also on a psychological level.  The famine and the evictions that followed the Encumbered Estates Act, which together removed several million people from the land in a particularly traumatic manner, led to Ireland having the largest proportion of its people in psychiatric institutions of any country in Europe.  In a report on the physical deterioration of the Irish people in the wake of the famine, given to a meeting of the General Council of the First International, Marx noted “not only a relative, but an absolute increase in the number of deaf-mutes, blind, insane, idiotic and decrepit inhabitants.”[36]

National magazines, with their poems and songs about the old Gaelic world, are understandable in this context.  In essence, the rise of romantic, backward-looking forms of nationalism is a result of British rule, British land ownership, and British crushing of the modernising movement within Ireland.

Cronin’s observations that Tone’s movement “did not seek its title deeds from history” and “had no predecessors and no successors” are very important for an evaluation of the republican/nationalist movement in the period covered by this thesis.  It is my contention that, in the aftermath of the defeat of Tone’s movement, Irish nationalism lost much of its revolutionary and forward-looking dynamism.  At different times, people attempted to re-establish a revolutionary and forward-looking republican ideology, for instance Lalor of the 1848 generation and a section of the Fenians.  British rule and “constitutional nationalism” – which was really no nationalism at all, in the sense that it sought a form of autonomy rather than complete independence – remained resilient, however.  The failure of insurrectionism and the disillusionment with parliamentary politics and politicians, heightened after the fall of Parnell, seemed to close off any political path forward.  It was in this situation that cultural nationalism, in the form of the “Irish revival”, came about.  An idealised past and great heroic figures provided a relief and contrast to the ignominy of the present and the corruption of political life.  Moreover, as Meszaros has noted, for intellectuals of the colonised world, “the task of developing an adequate historical consciousness acquires the character of cultural decolonization in that the inherited form of ‘national consciousness’ bears the marks of ‘internalized’ colonial domination.  The quest for self-identity is, therefore, inseparably also a radical revision of colonial-inspired historiography and the reorientation of historical consciousness towards asserting the interests of the dominated people.”[37] Moreover, “Inevitably, the search for an adequate historical consciousness becomes the assertion of national self-consciousness, and the arrogance of ‘great nation’ chauvinism is opposed by the new-found dignity of the oppressed who are determined to free themselves.”[38]

It was with the emergence of the working class, in particular the industrial working class in Dublin, that a new political path forward began to open up, and the assertion of Irish rights, which had only been able to take a cultural form from the 1880s until the first decade of the 1900s, began to take on a more explicitly political and economic character.  The bourgeoisie had proven incapable of challenging British rule and was held in contempt by the new generation of nationalists; the working class emerged as a new force with the power to challenge the iniquitous conditions prevailing in Ireland.  With revolutionaries such as Larkin and Connolly at its head, a new perspective opened up – a struggle for Irish freedom, led by the one class with no interest in the existing order at all, the working class.  As Connolly began to chart a course combining class and national liberation perspectives, whilst constantly polemicising against and pressurising the radical (but non-socialist) republicans, the most advanced of them were drawn to him.  Pearse, for instance, began to move out of the realm of imaginary Gaels and into the realm of the actually existing Irish people.  He discovered that there was “a material base to freedom” and attempted to enunciate it in his final pamphlet, The Sovereign People.

For the first time since 1798, there was a movement for Irish freedom – that is, for complete independence and social transformation – led by revolutionaries.[39]  While it was aware of its place in history and pointed to a series of past rebellions against British rule, it did not primarily look backwards for its “title deeds”, but forward to the transformation of Irish society.  The beheading of this movement after the defeat of the 1916 Rising helped create the possibility for the more conservative elements, including those who had stood aside in 1916 such as MacNeill and Griffith, to move into important leadership positions.  Connolly’s failure to build a revolutionary force which was strong enough in both its political ideology and its organisation to survive his death also meant that the working class could be sidelined or, at best, used as a stage army by the post-1916 nationalist and labour leaders.  Those closest to him who tried to keep alive his perspective through engagement in the national liberation struggle were often women – Markievicz, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Kathleen Lynn, Helena Moloney, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Winifred Carney and others.  They had no base in the organised labour movement – with the partial exception of Moloney who was a leader of the Irish Women Workers Union and, for a year, president of the Irish Trade Union Congress – and were therefore not in a position to influence the political course of the movement.  They were, instead swept along by it, much to the chagrin of Larkin.[40]  Another 1916 Connollyist, Winifred Carney, who was Connolly’s secretary and in the GPO during the Rising, returned to the Labour Party in Belfast.  Larkin himself  was stuck in the United States until the end of the civil war.

Mitchell[41] and Pimley[42] show that the labour movement was mobilised at several key times of crisis – the general strike against conscription in 1918 and later to block the flow of British war materiel – but that it was never intended to provide leadership to the national struggle and open the road to social revolution.  For both these writers, the labour movement’s decision not to stand in the 1918 elections effectively subordinated it to Sinn Fein.  However, the problem went deeper than this.  Even had Labour stood candidates in 1918, this would not necessarily have put the working class in the leadership of the nationalist cause.  It is unlikely, for instance, that such candidates would have stood on a programme any more radical than that of Sinn Fein.  Even if some planks about nationalisation had have been thrown in, it is unlikely that the leadership of the labour movement would have used them for other than radical-sounding phrases to get workers’ votes.  But it was not even in 1918 that the labour leadership abstained and placed itself on the political sidelines for the rest of the century – it was in 1916.

While Connolly went out to fight imperialism, most of the rest of the labour leadership stayed home.  It was unlikely that they would take up leadership of the national liberation movement in the aftermath of the Rising.  In fact, when the labour movement met in national congress shortly afterwards, it specifically refrained from even taking a position on the Rising.  Thus the labour movement effectively dealt itself out of trying to provide any leadership to the struggle for national freedom well before the 1918 elections.  The real problem was not that the labour movement subordinated itself to the republicans, but that the post-Rising leadership of the labour movement was every bit as non-revolutionary as de Valera, Griffith and Collins.

Mitchell and Pimley in exploring the relationship between labour and nationalism in both its moderate and militant forms note that the nationalist militants were sympathetic to the working class.  Indeed, throughout this period we can see that the more militant the nationalism, the more sympathetic it tended to be towards the interests of labour.  The moderate nationalists, such as Griffith, and the old home rulers of the Nationalist (Parliamentary) Party, took the side of the capitalists who, led by William Martin Murphy, attempted to smash the Transport Union and militant trade unionism in general in 1913.  Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke and other republicans took the side of the workers.  This rather contradicts the revisionist view of militant nationalism as conservative, backward-looking, anti-modern, especially since improvements in the condition of the working  class, and militant syndicalism, were certainly a sign of modernity in the Ireland of 1913.

The war for independence and civil war saw a rise in labour militancy[43] as both the economic conditions of time and the breakdown of the old order provided made it possible for workers to assert themselves.  Given that the ranks of the IRA were overwhelmingly from the working classes, it is not surprising that their militancy against foreign rule would also find a reflection in militancy against the economic order which that rule upheld.  Trade union membership rose massively, and disputes increased, often taking on a militant character.  Rural unrest grew, with struggles by agricultural workers (who made up half the membership of the ITGWU) and land occupations.  Although most commentators, particularly Marxist historians, note the way in which the IRA was on a number of occasions used against workers and the landless, the trade union leaders were just as anxious to dampen class conflict.

The execution of Connolly and the absence of Larkin had effectively beheaded the revolutionary element of the labour movement.  No revolutionary working class organisation had been built to carry their ideas forward.  Those who shared their views were therefore left rather at sea in the nationalist and labour movements, where the paddles had been firmly grasped by people who feared revolution more than they opposed the injustices of British rule or the tyranny of capital.  The 1916 executions also removed the most radical of the republican leaders.  After 1916, as we shall see, pan-nationalism – an outlook which united people on the basis of nationalism – became predominant.  Class was seen as a divisive issue by much of the post-1916 leadership and movement, particularly when workers and the rural poor took action on their own behalf; women were seen as auxiliaries and the gender equality supported by the pre-1916 leadership, and enshrined in the Easter Proclamation, was eroded.  It was these features, which belong to pan-nationalism rather than republicanism, which came to predominate and paved the way for the counter-revolution, orchestrated by Britain and the new Free State regime.  And it was these features which became predominant in the official ideology of the post-1921 southern state.

In the 1930s the Irish government of Eamon de Valera implemented policies of import controls, tariffs, state encouragement of industry, subsidies, and general encouragement of indigenous capitalist growth.  Conservative nationalist ideas – in reality not Irish nationalism, but 26-county nationalism – held society together around this project.  By the late 1950s, the economic model of the previous two-three decades had begun to unravel.  De Valera’s Fianna Fail party then began to encourage substantial foreign capital investment.  The old conservative nationalism began to be increasingly at odds with the changes taking place as Irish society opened up to foreign capital.  Then, in the late 1960s, armed conflict broke out in the north, and any sort of Irish nationalism increasingly tended to destabilise both states on the island.  These two processes – the integration of the southern state into the world economy and the war in the north – undermined all forms of Irish nationalism and ensured the rise of new ways of dealing with the present and understanding the past.  In particular, the reshaping of the southern state and the need to develop a new ideology in which imperialism was not seen as a problem – especially since foreign capital penetration and the war in the north showed that imperialism was alive and well in Ireland – led to the rise of historical revisionism.  This revisionism gained ground since it reflected the ethos of the capitalist class and the new liberal, middle class in the south, was fully backed by the British and Irish states, and most of its opponents were heavily censored.

The Irish case provides a particularly clear example of the connections between political/economic interests and the course of historiography.


[1] Brendan Bradshaw, “Nationalism and historical scholarship in modern Ireland”, Irish Historical Studies, Vol 26, no 104, November 1989.

[2] Steven Ellis, “Representations of the Past in Ireland: whose past and whose present?”, Irish Historical Studies, Vol 27, no 108, November 1991.

[3] Ciaran Brady, “‘Constructive and Instrumental’: the dilemma of Ireland’s ‘new historians’” in Brady (ed) 1994.

[4]  See Murphy, “Canon of Cultural History”.

[5] See, for instance, Coughlan’s “Ireland’s Marxist Historians” and Deane’s “Wherever Green is Read” in Brady (ed) 1994;Fennell as above; and Dorgan and ni Donnachadha (eds).

[6] See, for instance, Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland: the Orange State, London, Pluto, 1976.  Reports even by bodies set up by the British government, such as the Fair Employment Agency, show that Catholics still suffer institutionalised discrimination in the north.

[7] See Farrell, 1976; Eamonn McCann, War and an Irish Town, London, Pluto, third edition, 1993, (originally published by Penguin, 1974); Bernadette Devlin, The Price of my Soul, London, Deutsch/Pan, 1969.

[8] John Newsinger, Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain, London, Pluto Press, 1994, p83.

[9] “Introduction”, The Good Old IRA: Tan War Operations, Dublin, Sinn Fein Publicity Department, 1985, pp1-2.

[10] Colm Toibin, “Playboys of the GPO” (a review of Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: the literature of the modern nation, London, Cape, 1995), London Review of Books, April 18, 1996.  O’Loughlin is the poet Michael O’Loughlin who was born in 1958 and, like Toibin, remembers the enormity of the 1966 celebrations and the manner in which the southern government and state authorities performed a rapid u-turn when war broke out in the north.

[11] Weekly Irish Times, combined issue of April 29/May 6/May 13, 1916.

[12] Donal McCartney, “Gaelic Ideological Origins of 1916”, in Owen Dudley Edwards and Fergus Pyle (eds), 1916 The Easter Rising , Dublin, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968, p43.

[13]”Introduction”, in Edwards and Pyle (eds), op cit, p18.

[14] Ibid, p19.

[15] Ibid, p18.

[16] Conor Cruise O’Brien, “The Embers of Easter” in Edwards and Pyle (eds), 1968, pp225-240.

[17] Just before this paragraph, O’Brien quotes two lines from Yeats, “Fail, and that history turns into rubbish/All that great past to a trouble of fools”.

[18] This is only half of the famous quote from Pearse, the other half being  “Not Gaelic merely, but free”.

[19] O’Brien, “The Embers of Easter”, p231.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p238.

[22] Ibid, p240.

[23] Conor Cruise O’Brien, States of Ireland, New York, Pantheon, 1972.  The dustjacket comments are by John Vaizey of the British newspaper The Observor, which O’Brien edited for several years.

[24] O’Brien’s bitter personal crusade against the ideas he had once embraced not only led him to become a champion of political censorship and member of what was widely viewed as the most repressive government in Ireland in fifty years, but also to start attacking other liberation movements.  In the late 1980s he broke the academic boycott of apartheid South Africa and took a teaching position in a university there.   Despite his role in introducing political censorship in Ireland, he claimed the boycott of South Africa was an infringement of academic freedom.  In any event, his tenure was short-lived, as he was driven out by anti-apartheid students in his classes, some of whom he claimed were chanting pro-IRA slogans.  More recently, he offered himself as a candidate to the Unionists in the May 1996 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, telling the Dublin Sunday Independent, “I feel more at ease with myself now, as a United Kingdom Unionist, than I ever did as an Irish nationalist.” (Cited from Saoirse/NZ Irish Post, Vol 11, no 6, May/June 1996.)

[25] See, for instance, Brendan Bradshaw, “Revising Irish History” in O Ceallaigh (ed), pp27-41.

[26] F.S.L. Lyons, “The burden of our history” in Brady (ed) 1994, pp87-104.  The quotes are from pp90-91.  Quaintly, Lyons goes on to re-assume the detached, scientific stance two paragraphs later, declaring “Revisionism is proper revisionism if it is a response to new evidence which, after being duly tested, brings us nearer to a truth independent of the wishes and aspirations of those for whom truth consists solely of what happens to coincide with those wishes and aspirations.”

[27]Ibid, p100.  “The filthy modern tide” is a quote from Yeats used by Lyons.

[28] John Newsinger, Fenianism, p84.

[29] Ibid.

[30] See, for instance, ibid, p88-9.

[31] McCann, War and an Irish Town, p10.

[32] In 1963, Professors Moody and McDowell of Trinity College announced to the Irish Historical Society that they were undertaking a project of editing everything Tone had written – autobiography, letters, pamphlets and so on.  The project was warmly greeted in the Irish newspapers.  In Coughlan’s view, “Nearly thirty years after the announcement of the Moody-McDowell project, the non-appearance of Tone’s works – above all the magnificent Autobiography, which is in the Trinity College Library – has assumed the dimensions of an academic scandal.” (Anthony Coughlan, “Preface to the 1991 Edition” of Greaves, Wolfe Tone, pp1-2.) Coughlan sees the conflict in the north and Irish integration into the EC – making Tone’s struggle for Irish nationhood unfashionable – as the reason for the quiet shelving of the project.

[33] Tone, cited from Cronin, Irish Nationalism, pp44-45.

[34] Ibid, p46.

[35] For recent work on the famine see Christine Kineally, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1994, and John Killen, The Famine Decade: contemporary accounts 1841-1851, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1995.  Kineally notes (ppxviii-xix) the way revisionists have underplayed the suffering during the famine.  She also notes (pxxi and conclusion, especially p355-9) how it brought about economic and social changes for the landed elite, much of which did not reside in Ireland.

[36] Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, pp137, emphasis in original.  While the population decreased by 800,000 from 1851-1861 for instance, the “lunatic and idiotic” alone increased from 9,980 to 14,098.

[37] Istvan Meszaros, “Introduction”, in Renato Constantino, Neocolonial Identity and Counter-Consciousness: essays on cultural decolonization, edited with an introduction by Istvan Meszaros, White Plains, New York, M.E. Sharpe/London, Merlin Press, 1978, p4.

[38] Ibid, p6.

[39] While Irish republicanism in the 1800s had been a revolutionary movement, and produced a number of revolutionary social thinkers, most notably Fintan Lalor, important sections of the leadership had been equivocal on class questions.  During the 1848 rebellion, for instance, leaders of the Young Ireland movement had been averse to peasant rebels felling trees on the landlords’ estates to build barriers against Crown troops.  For a critical consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the republican movement in the 1800s, see James Connolly, Labour in Irish History, chaps 9-16, first published 1910, reprinted in Labour in Ireland, Dublin, 1916 and 1922.

[40] See James Larkin’s comments about Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Nora Connolly, in Emmet Larkin, James Larkin: Irish Labour Leader 1876-1947, London, New English Library, 1968, pp199-200.  The biographer is not related to his subject.

[41] Arthur Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics 1890-1930, Dublin, Irish University Press, 1974.

[42] Adrian Pimley, “The Working-class Movement and the Revolution, 1896-1923” in Boyce (ed), 1988, pp193-216.

[43] See this thesis, chapters 7, 8, 10, 11, 12.

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