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Freedom and the fatal path

Fatal Path

Ronan Fanning

Faber & Faber


Faber & Faber might consider stamping the following excerpt from James Anthony Froude's infamous history of Ireland on the back of Ronan Fanning's absorbing book, Fatal Path.

"Freedom must be won on the battle field," Froude intoned, "or it is perishable as the breath that boasts of it."

Professor Fanning's fascinating book can be read as an attempt to see if this maxim holds historical water when applied to the convulsions that culminated in the partition of Ireland and the break-up of the United Kingdom between 1910 and 1922. Building on his own doctoral research on Arthur James Balfour from the 1960s, Prof Fanning tests Froude's idea that violence possessed some unique pedagogic dimension.

Nothing concentrated the British mind, it seems, quite like the IRA's Bloody Sunday operation and the Kilmichael ambush. Remember that this last exchange of fire saw three cadets get shot at point-blank range, while several others were shot post-mortem, and one volunteer had his head opened by an axe.

This sort of thing then, so the argument runs, had the effect of transmuting the base devolution schemes favoured by Gladstone and Asquith into the pure gold of the Treaty's dominion status clauses.

Violence in this idiom put the grey cells of the British constitutional lawyers through their paces.

But bloodshed shuts as many doors as it opens.

And Fanning shows that the killings in Ireland had a general warping effect on the top brass, an effect that expressed itself in a sort of macho indifference.

Fanning notes the callous way British prime minister David Lloyd George responded to the news that future taoiseach Sean Lemass and his chums had just sent some 14 of his majesty's finest to their eternal reward.

The political architect of the mass murder that was Third Ypres and the Battle of Arras could scarcely stifle a yawn. "They got what they deserved," he remarked.

The prime minister's ever present cabinet secretary Maurice Hankey went one better then, when told of the IRA's assassination of the unionist MP Henry Wilson. Hankey wrote: "I fear Henry Wilson brought this on himself by his very bitter attitude towards the Irish policy of the Govt."

Something of this general coarsening of the sensibilities survived the winding-up of the fractured British administration of General Tudor and Andy Cope.

The new Free State cabinet learned how not to approach a rebellion from their close study of the British operation.

There would be no Curragh mutiny and no unionist veto to restrain their prosecution of their civil war.

They knew their Froude even better.

Fanning is sensitive to the way normal life has a habit of trundling along, even amidst the curfews, the shooting of Irish teenagers caught-while-trying-to-escape and the dirty war against Catholic policemen.

During an Allied orgy at the Hotel Majestic in Paris in 1919, Marshal Foch of France asked, "why do the British have such sad faces and cheerful bottoms?"

If the deadening pressures of violence proved unavailing when it came to the British sex drive, then they were equally powerless when they met old-school Victorian sentimentality.

Fanning explains that the arch anti-Parnellite Tim Healy got the nod as Free State governor-general in part because the secretary of state for the colonies was the Duke of Devonshire.

Healy put flowers on Frederick Cavendish's grave every year, and Cavendish was the duke's uncle, who had been murdered with surgical knives by a dissident Fenian gang in the Phoenix Park in 1882.

(This was the horror show that gripped Joyce's imagination 40 years later. In Ulysses he has a character remark: "That was why they thought the park murders of the Invincibles was done by foreigners on account of them using knives.")

Anyone who has ever had that dream about going into the big exam without any preparation will wince a few times when digesting Fanning's account of Arthur Griffith's "monumental mistake" in allowing Lloyd George to detach him from his comrades on the Irish delegation.

Few will disagree with Fanning's argument that the "primitive and one-dimensional politics of Dail Eireann" made for poor schooling. Whatever intellectual capital the plenipotentiaries were able to muster by October 1921 was swiftly squandered by de Valera's eccentric decision to stay in Dublin and behave like Milton's coward who dooms himself by "refusing to accept as great a share/Of hazard as of honour, due alike/To him who reigns..."

At the end of the analysis, some readers might recall something Collins said.

For all the book's emphasis on the vulgarity of the Tory mind and its cynical fixation on death, Collins' flash of self-awareness in 1922 is worth pondering.

As Paul Bew wrote a few years back, Collins told the County Cork Eagle a few weeks before his death that Irish violence was not the dispositive factor in siring the Free State.

He explained that "In July last year there were many parts of Ireland where the British forces could operate without the slightest interference.

"There were some parts where they could operate with difficulty. There were no parts where they could not operate even by a small concentration of numbers." So why did they concede Canadian status?

Probably because of a belated recognition at the top that they were still the people who nurtured Edmund Burke, the Irishman who warned them that in the end you cannot indict a whole people.

Irish Independent