Sunday 18 November 2018

Books: Chronicle of the bloody birth of a Republic

A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23, Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile books, €38.99

Diarmaid Ferriter: History stopped with the occupation of the Four Courts
Diarmaid Ferriter: History stopped with the occupation of the Four Courts
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

It is no surprise that UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter has written this impressive account of the momentous events which led to the formation of the State. He has been to the forefront of scholarship of this particular period of our history and, through frequent media appearances, has brought vigour, detail and honesty to the often vexatious debate around events of this time.

His book is as much about the historiography of these crucial years and how they were commemorated and researched as much as about the events themselves.

Indeed, he skilfully interweaves interpretations of events themselves, adding new research, such as in the role and impact of women, labour issues and local politics. In over 400 pages, he packs a lot in, moving from the Home Rule crisis through to the rise of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein and on to 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Ferriter also deals with the formidable rise of Ulster Unionism and depicts how quickly it abandoned the wider Irish Unionist cause.

We are reminded of many such truths and even paradoxes: such as how 1916 almost ensured partition and the Southern preoccupation with the treaty and the subsequent Civil War may actually have prevented a wider and much more destructive Civil war, on the whole island, between Orange and Green. Meantime, of course, Labour got shafted, even though it got an amazing 21pc of the vote in 1921.

Ferriter is generally fair, often painstakingly so, but this sometimes leads to what can be overly inclusive distortions such as, for example, that with the Civil War period, there has been too great a tendency to write this story from the 'winner's perspective (the supposed 'democrats' in opposition to the anti-democrat 'diehards'). This is a strange sentence, and is it really true? After all, many would feel that with Fianna Fail subsequently so long in power, they shaped the narrative and elevated a strong Republican version which often demonised those who secured and built the fledgling State.

Look at the treatment of Kevin O Higgins, for example, although Ferrier quotes him judiciously. Also, while many of us would regard the anti-Treaty violence as utterly anti-democratic, Ferrier broadens the charge and shows us disconnected all of the Dail and cabinet, in fact, were from the overall war-weary populace which was mostly only too happy to settle for the best deal they felt could be achieved.

Ferriter has an impressive and fluid grasp of detail and the book zips along. However, there is a paradox in the latter part when he warns against those who would offer too prescriptive a shaping of historical narrative (such as in 'peace process' speeches by the Government) but he is keen to shape the narrative himself.

Ultimately, he shows an affection and for the bravery and vision of the Irish rebellion but doesn't deny that it often failed to deliver.

Ours was, of course, a most bourgeois revolution, but it created stability and peace. However, one longed for a more full blooded revisiting of great revisionist debate of the 1980s. On which subject, it is not the ruthless methods of the 1916-1923 rebels that many object to, so much as the fact that (1916, in particular) created a cult of violence and sacrifice that completely emboldened the messianic and profoundly undemocratic modern IRA.

By the end of this book, one is cheered when President Erskine Childers in 1974, on visiting the Sean Treacy Museum in Tipperary, complained ( privately) that it contained 'nothing but guns.' Let us not just remember those who died for Ireland, said Childers, whose father was executed in 1922, but also 'those who worked for and died for Ireland'.

In the next year or so, there will be much of this and this engrossing and highly stimulating book offers a perfect companion to the debate.

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