Monday 26 September 2016

Essays of a nation conceived in sin

History: The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment, Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall, Irish Academic Press, hbk, 248 pages, €22.95

Frank MacGabhann

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment
The Voyage of the Dolphin

This book is a Quadragesimo Anno (actually 56 years) effort in respect of a scholarly and provocative book of essays edited by Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien in 1960, who contributed the lead essay along with luminaries of the day, including Nicholas Mansergh, Dorothy Macardle and RB McDowell. The essays treated roughly the period of the 40 years prior to 1922. Macardle was the lone female contributor, on Pearse and Connolly, and not one of the contributors wrote about a woman.

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On both counts this book makes amende honorable and Macardle herself becomes the subject of an excellent essay by Elisabeth Kehoe. The most serious omission in the present book is the absence of any consideration (or, incredibly, even mention) of Alice Stopford Green, historian, anti-colonial activist, Howth gun-runner and first female member of the Senate.

Inevitably, the Easter Rising in 1916 looms large in both books. A clue to understanding Cruise O'Brien's attitude to the Rising lies in the last major speech given by him as outgoing Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1977 inaugurating the European Broadcasting Union. The last 13 or so pages were written by a civil servant concerning technical aspects of broadcasting. The first two pages were clearly written by Cruise O'Brien. He welcomed the delegates by telling them that transatlantic broadcasting began in Dublin in April 1916 when news of the "illegal rebellion" then taking place was telegraphed to ships at sea who relayed the news of the rebellion to America. And as a member of a sovereign government, he went on, he could only condemn such illegality. Broadcasting, Cruise O'Brien concluded, was "conceived in sin". The Irish Republic, as well. Paul Bew points out that the political prospects of O'Brien's family were destroyed by the Rising. It is probably fair to say that they were buried in the rubble of the GPO and the Metropole Hotel.

There are essays on the Gore-Booth sisters, Constance (Markievicz) and Eva, Maud Gonne, Kathleen Lynn and Macardle herself. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and her husband, Frank, are given a superb chapter on their own by Margaret Ward. The tragedy is that all of these women (except Eva Gore-Booth, who spent most of her adult life in England, having taken the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War), became marginalised during the 1920s. After de Valera's accession to power in 1932, they became even more disillusioned with the new State as de Valera caved in more and more to the Catholic Church. This, they felt, was a betrayal of the ideals of 1916, including its promise of equality. In fact, these new essays could have been put in a separate section of the book entitled, Women Who Could Have Shaped Modern Ireland. Kathleen Lynn emerges as the great lost hero of modern Ireland.

While Sonja Tiernan points out that Markievicz was effectively the first female cabinet member in European history, she fails to discuss her achievements as Minister for Labour. Martin Mansergh, in his essay on Michael Collins and de Valera, is, I think, far more incisive on Collins. He attempts to explain away the huge blunder made by de Valera of his approval of the US/Cuba relation as a model for future UK/Ireland relations. Presumably Mansergh is aware, though he does not cite it, that US law (the Platt Amendment) gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba. Mansergh believes that de Valera's sojourn in America was a success, however, when de Valera arrived in New York in June 1919, the Irish in America were united as never before. When he left in December 1920, the Irish movement there was in tatters. And de Valera's clumsy tactics had succeeded in ensuring that self-determination for Ireland was not mentioned in either party's platform in the US election of 1920.

Professor Joe Lee's talents are, I believe, wasted on his otherwise informative essay on Guinness and Jacob's.

Edward Carson, we learn from Eugenio Biagini, one of the co-editors, died an unhappy man knowing that his fellow southern and border unionists in Ireland had been sold out by London, but forgetting that Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Craig had done the same.

Lawyer Frank Callanan is, as always, flawless on the facts surveying the Irish Parliamentary Party from the Land War to 1918. However, he might have added that John Redmond was one of only two major Irish politicians who ever trusted the British - the other was Brian Faulkner. There are many other persons treated, including Devoy, Dillon, Yeats, Hyde, Kettle, Cusack and Æ.

The Irish Republic was, according to Cruise O'Brien, conceived in sin. But the baby, born in the 1920s after a very difficult labour, has had over 90 years of continuous democratic government, a rarity, if not a Rerum Novarum, in Europe. And we did it, not by ourselves alone, but by ourselves. And we did it without an empire. How many other European countries can say the same? This book would be a welcome addition to any Irish bookshelf.

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