In review: Padraig Yeates’ A City In Wartime: Dublin 1914-18

Padraig Yeates, A City in Wartime, Dublin 1914-18, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 2011; €23.99; reviewed by D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

This is certainly impressive. It is both readable and the product of immense research. For those who want to know how Dubliners lived during the First World War, it is probably indispensable.

The qualifying word is “probably”. This reviewer would be readier to accept unquestioningly the detailed information on social conditions were it not that he knows that the book’s political narrative is distorted by glaring omissions.

It acknowledges that Connolly was a revolutionary, but not that he was attempting to execute the Socialist International’s anti-war resolutions. (It quotes O’Casey’s history, which is insular and fuelled by resentment against Connolly, who supplanted him as secretary of the Citizen Army and heir to the command.)  More specifically, Yeates’ detailed description of the City of Dublin Steampacket Company strike does not mention that Havelock Wilson sabotaged it on the eve of the Rising, nor Connolly’s reaction, a significant clue for his original strategic plan. Count Plunkett’s Mansion House Committee is described, but not William O’Brien’s colleagues forcing him to quit it, nor O’Brien’s subsequent refusal of the offer of an Anti-Conscriptionist candidacy in the Cavan East by-election, nor Sinn Fein’s offer not to oppose Labour in four Dublin candidacies in the 1918 general election, if it pledged to stay in the projected Dail.

These omissions follow from two basic ones. Yeates does not ask whether Labour was handicapped politically by combining its political and industrial/trades organisations. Nor does he spell out that Connolly’s death left a revolutionary vacuum in Labour’s leadership; he presents Thomas Johnson as O’Brien’s rival, but O’Brien conformed to Johnson’s strategy despite occasional initiatives as Connolly’s heir. What appears amounts to a special plea that Ireland’s national and labour struggles were incompatible, making reformism Labour’s only way forward. Perhaps this is true but it needs more evidence. Here it compromises apparently valuable social information.

Behind this weakness lies a story. Yeates began his political career as a supporter of both the Popular Frontist Connolly Association and of the International Socialism group, now the SWP. While the economistic politics of the latter acted to neutralise the stageism of the former, they enabled Yeates to fit the more completely into Official Sinn Fein after the 1970 split. This had encouraged the Stickies to set in stone their opposition to the revolutionary war strategy of the Provisionals, if only to reaffirm their commitment to the peaceful reunification of Ireland through the reform of the six county territory under Britain.

In turn, this “strategy” was generalised into the principle that any progressive change could be achieved with the same qualitative ease by reformist or revolutionary means, that is either within or on the corpse of the existing state machine. Naturally, this makes revolution unnecessary; the defeats of the oppressed being never failures of inadequately revolutionary leaderships, but inevitable results of objective circumstance. This fatalism is reflected all too accurately in A City in Wartime. In this, it exposes itself not just as bad politics but, on its chosen ground, as flawed history.

The above review is taken from the Socialist Democracy site

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Posted on January 23, 2012, in Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on In review: Padraig Yeates’ A City In Wartime: Dublin 1914-18.

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