Sunday 23 April 2017

1916, forgotten heroes and Churchill in Ireland

In a year of momentous anniversaries, Eamon Delaney looks back at the fascinating books that succeeded in bringing the past to life

Gambler's confidence: Winston Churchill, who was the subject of two excellent books this year
Gambler's confidence: Winston Churchill, who was the subject of two excellent books this year
Irish soldiers resting during 1916's Battle of the Somme
Charles Haughey, who was the subject of a book on his role in the Northern Ireland question
The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny by Ian Davidson
The late David Cesarani's The Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49
Professor Paul Bew's intriguing and succint Churchill and Ireland
Candace Millard's gripping Hero of the Empire - The Making of Winston Churchill
Tim Fanning's The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America
Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, edited by Richard S Grayson and Fearghal McGarry
Arthur Griffith by Owen McGee
Stephen Kelly's A Failed Political Entity - Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question 1945-1992
Forgotten Patriot - Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency by Brian Murphy
Carla King's study of Michael Davitt
The Real People of Joyce's Ulysses - A Biographical Guide by Vivien Igoe
Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front by Ronan McGreevy

It was a great year for history books in Ireland, and specifically for political and military history. Given that it was the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and of the Battle of the Somme during World War I, there was a continuing stream of books on these events, not all them of crucial interest, it must be said.

However, one fascinating book which looks at how the two events have been commemorated is Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, edited by Richard S Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (Cambridge University Press, €28).

This examined the reverential and at times obsessive focus of both traditions on the island on the two 1916 events - the Easter Rising for the Irish nationalist/Republican tradition and the Somme for the Ulster Unionists. In their failure, both military procedures solidified the sense of sacrifice for their respective causes, although not without excessive radical elements that the prevailing political cultures tried to contain.

The Somme was the great traumatic battle of what was already a hugely costly and increasingly pointless world war. Its effect was devastating on western Europe, Britain, Unionist Ireland but also southern nationalist Ireland, with huge numbers of Catholic Irish soldiers, many of them Home Rulers, also dying.

This was brought home forcefully in Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front by Ronan McGreevy (The History Press, €20), which could now be seen as the superlative and definitive account of Ireland in Word War I, combining research, original interviews, travel to the former battlefields and a vivid and often disturbing recreation of events. Official Irish amnesia about all this has been now thankfully addressed.

The two '1916s' are central to Professor Paul Bew's intriguing and succinct Churchill and Ireland (Oxford University Press, €23.80), which is a long overdue exclusive focus on the great statesman's deep relationship with Ireland, from the early Home Rule period right up to the 1950s.

Although a staunch imperialist, Winston Churchill was also a committed Home Ruler and tried his best to avoid Partition - and even more so a civil war more bloody than the one that briefly ensued after the Treaty. The onset of World War I postponed Home Rule, and serious ethnic conflict, and Bew describes the sobering effect of the trench slaughter on both Irish sides, with even Edward Carson baulking at the carnage wrought by Churchill's own ill-fated decision to land at Gallipoli.

Through Churchill's mediation, Carson and the Nationalists were almost at a settlement. But the 1916 Rising occurred and Irish Republicanism swept away limited Home Rule demands. (Not that the Republicans were able to gain a whole lot more, even after an armed struggle.)

In dealing with Ireland, and with the Nazis, Churchill was armed with incredible self belief, but also a gambler's confidence, and both of these were honed in a crucial formative year in South Africa fighting the Boers, when he saw intense action, was captured and escaped. This is vividly described by Candace Millard in the gripping Hero of the Empire - The Making of Winston Churchill (Allen Lane Penguin, €28).

The Boer War, which dented the British Empire, had a major effect on the Irish cause and its influence can be seen in two major biographies of Irish nationalist figures - Arthur Griffith by Owen McGee (Merrion Press, €27.99), and Carla's King's study of Michael Davitt (UCD Press, €50), which I reviewed on these pages on December 3.

Talk of this war and of the other tumultuous events in the late 19th century to Edwardian era hang heavily over The Real People of Joyce's Ulysses - A Biographical Guide by Vivien Igoe (UCD Press, €40), which is as fascinating for its historical detail as it is for its literary reference. Fenians, Prussians, Zionists and Parnellites - all are here.

There is a curious overlap, too, to Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency (Collins Press, €19.99), an excellent, original account by former speechwriter Brian Murphy about the Gaelic League founder who became our State's first president.

Murphy tells the sad story of Julius Pokorny, a Czech-German Jew and Gaelic scholar who worked in Dublin and who appears in Ulysses. Later, in Germany, Pokorny was under serious threat from the Nazis and both Hyde, and de Valera, tried to intercede to help him, the latter in a more energetic way than Hyde, it must be said.

Another absorbing read, for a later period, is Stephen Kelly's A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question 1945-1992 (Merrion Press, €21.99), which charts the frequently positive but too often malign influence of the former taoiseach on this most vexatious issue. It is a fair assessment, even though, surprisingly and disappointingly, the author was apparently denied access to Haughey's official papers.

It is refreshing then to read about the ambitious Irish who went overseas and made an impact on foreign cultures. Tim Fanning's Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America (Gill and MacMillan, €24.99) is an absorbing and original account of these adventurers, military strategists and entrepreneurs who from the period of the Wild Geese on did so much to enrich the emerging states of colonial and post-colonial South America.

When idealism descends into chaos

Away from Irish history, Ian Davidson of the Financial Times has written an excellent account of the violent events that, in many ways, heralded modern democracy with The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny (Profile Books, €30.99). He shows how an initial idealism can quickly descend into chaos and even tyranny - and be exported elsewhere. We can think of how, in more recent times, the Arab Spring became an Islamic Winter.

Meanwhile, the wholesale destruction of modern democracy, decency and humanity is remorselessly charted by the late David Cesarani in The Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, €42.00), a project of unimaginable cruelty which puts the so-called 'Irish question' in a dwindling perspective.

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