Monday 22 January 2018

Forces of violence shape and scar MacNeill's life

The Free State minister pressed on with the Civil War even after the murder of his son, writes John-Paul McCarthy

THE outstanding figure in Michael McDowell's poignant Civil War documentary was Eoin MacNeill, grandfather of McDowell, father of McDowell's uncle Brian who was killed by Free State troops in Sligo.

MacNeill has so much to teach us today.

He ranks alongside James Joyce in having tasted something of the darker side of Pearse's personality. (Joyce took a few Irish lessons from Pearse and formed a visceral dislike of him).

MacNeill's ill-starred service as a boundary commissioner also reminds us that whatever else is going to happen to us, the British will not, and cannot, deliver the unionists into our tender hands. (MacNeill resigned from politics when the Northern Ireland Border was confirmed in 1925).

MacNeill also tells us something about the ambiguous record of academics as Irish ministers.

MacNeill was a pioneering scholar of Celtic Ireland, specialising in bringing order and method to the study of the life of St Patrick and early Irish law.

His academic articles still form the staple of undergraduate reading lists today, and his contribution to Edmund Hogan's vast collection of medieval texts, Onomasticon Goedelicum, still remains an inspiration to those tilling that fertile soil today.

In many ways, MacNeill was a kind of Irish version of those other minister-scholars of that era, people like AJ Balfour in Britain, the philosopher turned prime minister from 1902 to 1905, or Pavel Milyukov in Russia, the academic foreign minister in Kerensky's last doomed cabinet.

Not even Garret FitzGerald or Conor Cruise O'Brien later would merit these kinds of comparisons. But for all that, MacNeill's ministerial prowess was eaten by the locusts. He proved an inert education minister up to 1925, and was largely stymied by the Catholic Church.

MacNeill did manage to make Irish mandatory in primary and secondary schools, thereby creating a whole series of pedagogical problems that are still on the desk of his contemporary successor in that department.

An executive diktat on the Irish language proved a frail and feeble weapon when directed against the mighty examples of O'Connell and Carleton before him, two native Irish speakers who switched to English before the Famine and drove a mighty stake through the heart of the language.

If MacNeill's ministerial career reads today like a cautionary tale, then his complex attitude towards and experience of violence resonates even more deeply for us.

Ireland has never produced anything like the intellectual histories of violence Lenin wrote for Russia and Georges Sorel for France.

(WJ McCormack's stunning recent book on the connection between 1916 and radical French conservatism comes close though, Dublin 1916: The French Connection).

In any such history, Eoin MacNeill would loom large if only because violence bore him up and took him down, so to speak.

He was just as much a hard-charger as his deceptive comrade Pearse when it came to extorting Home Rule from Asquith's Liberal Party by mass mobilisation. And that same confidence in the clarity provided by force probably never left him.

This confidence was essentially Victorian, and was tartly summarised by James Anthony Froude in his great books on Thomas Carlyle when he said: "Freedom must be won on the battlefield or it is as perishable as the breath that boasts of it."

This will do nicely as a guide to the Free State cabinet's ruthless prosecution of the Civil War. Their coldness here, Eoin MacNeill included, still astonishes after all these years.

MacNeill the minister wanted to press on even after his son was murdered by government troops after surrendering in Sligo.

O Faolain would later speak for people like poor Brian MacNeill in his story, The Patriot, where his leading anti-Treaty man would explain how "as a human being he almost ceased to be, enveloped by the countryside as if he were a twig, a stone, an ear of corn".

The agony MacNeill must have felt was the same agony that put those deep lines in Lemass's face – his brother was brutally murdered by Free State detectives. But personal trauma like this can compel as much as cripple.

Kevin O'Higgins managed to mine his own terrible wound for a kind of dark energy, the energy he threw into his executive duties. (His father was murdered by an anti-Treaty gang in 1923).

MacNeill may have reacted in a similar way.

It is said that he matched Blythe stride for stride in the cabinet discussion about summary executions after the anti-Treaty forces started shooting TDs.

MacNeill's sister begged for the life of Erskine Childers, but he waved her away with the same coldness WT Cosgrave showed Archbishop Byrne and O'Higgins showed Harry Boland's family.

As Victorians, this cabinet must have known Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, that haunting reworking of the Old Testament's lex talionis, the eye-for-an-eye doctrine.

Like the 16th president of the United States, MacNeill and his colleagues made it known that their war would continue "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword".

And so it was written on our State's birth certificate.

Sunday Independent

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