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Books: Paradoxes and orthodoxies of State's history


Peace After the Final Battle

Peace After the Final Battle

King George V visits Ireland in 1911

King George V visits Ireland in 1911


Peace After the Final Battle

THERE will be many books on the Irish independence movement in the run-up to the 1916 centenary, and beyond, but it would be hard to do better than this as a succinct and clear assessment of the events and forces of those years.

It is a compelling and compact read, but by the end of it, the reader will, like the Irish people, feel exhausted by the bitter and anarchic descent into Civil War, about which the author does nothing to whitewash.

Dorney is always apt to remind us of paradoxes of the period and challenge orthodoxies. And in the first pages alone we are reminded that the Labour Party was founded in 1912 in anticipation of the first Home Rule bill and 'normal politics' and not out of the Citizen Army of 1916, as many think. Nor was it out of the 1913 Lockout, about which the prevailing Irish Parliamentary Party quite simply had nothing to say.

Indeed, the lack of a radical social or economic aspect was a notable feature of the Irish independence struggle. We were the most conservative revolutionaries in Europe, said Kevin O'Higgins, and this conservatism was understandably reinforced by the desperate need of the Free State to survive civil war and see off further disruption. However, it is extraordinary that in the Free State's first election (the famous Treaty vote of 1922), the Labour party gained just 3000 fewer votes than de Valera's anti-Treaty side and topped the poll in supposedly rebel Cork.

However, Dorney doesn't needlessly challenge orthodoxies and in essence abides by the received narrative. Indeed, in reassessing the various factors, he makes one respect afresh the original Republican tradition, with its idealism and vision and understandable impatience with a British Government that had dithered for way too long over even limited self-rule for Ireland.

His central question is how did a country content to achieve the latter and receive the King in the pageantry of a 1911 visit, go to one convulsed with separatist militancy and a broad-based guerrilla campaign that would settle for a Republic only?

The answer is that in raising and then dashing hopes, the British had fed the fire of long dormant aspirations. The onset of world war got everyone's juices flowing and once the Ulster Unionists organised and then armed themselves in 1912, the gloves were off for a similar nationalist defiance. But not for a conflict between the two mercifully.

Dorney is very fair in his assessment. He credits the British with not employing the scorched-earth policy they could have when faced with Republican assault, but then describes the unusual brutality of the 1916 executions.

The conscription issue was also hugely damaging and united all shades of opinion against it. Many did enlist, of course, and there was a much more fluid interchange of men between the different armies than one might expect. In the end, however, the cruelties of the Civil War undid much of the Irish idealism, and it is to the credit of the young State's creators, and to the eventual demobilisation of the anti-Treaty forces, that it managed to prevail.

As Winston Churchill said when the Four Courts was retaken by the Free State, but with its archive destroyed, 'better a State without an archive, than an archive without a State.' This is an absorbing and very thoughtful read.

Sunday Indo Living