Moral Lepers

John Banville

  • Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by R.F. Foster
    Allen Lane, 433 pp, £10.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 241 95424 9

The Irish Rising of 1916 would almost certainly have failed, like the many previous rebellions in Irish history, had not the British authorities, already knee-deep in the quagmire of the Great War, made the grave miscalculation of executing 16 of the rebel leaders, thus granting them the martyrdom that many of them had sought. Indeed, even the victims of that ‘blood sacrifice’, as it came to be considered, might have been consigned harmlessly to what the historian and journalist Tim Pat Coogan used to call the ‘pantechnicon’ of Irish heroes, but for the fact that in the period immediately following the Rising, most of Europe entered a critical period of revolutionary change. There was the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, and in 1918 Woodrow Wilson, though hardly a firebrand, issued the principles of a new world order of which national self-determination would be a key component. The following January, an assembly of Irish MPs, elected to Westminster on the abstentionist ticket, met in Dublin to found the second Irish Republic; the first had been proclaimed by the leaders of the Rising in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, and had lasted, at least in the minds of its signatories, for five days before the rebellion was crushed.

Yet as Roy Foster implies, the founding of a republic was not as clear-cut a goal for the precursors of the men of 1916, or even for the men, and women, of the War of Independence that broke out in 1919, as later nationalist piety would insist. It is startling to read, in Charles Townshend’s fine study, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) leader, John O’Leary who, in Yeats’s poem, shared his grave with the corpse of ‘romantic Ireland’, observing that the Brotherhood’s ‘propagandist work was … entirely separatist with practically no reference to Republicanism’. Similarly, and just as surprisingly, Townshend quotes Michael Collins, who had fought in 1916 and three years later became president of the IRB Supreme Council, insisting that ‘the cause was not the Irish Republic’ but ‘liberation from English occupation’.[*] Certainly it ‘did not change the relationship between one class of Irishmen and another’, according to the historian of Sinn Féin Michael Laffan, quoted by Diarmaid Ferriter in his recent book A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23.[†] ‘Its impact was nationalist and political,’ Laffan insisted, ‘not social and economic.’ Furthermore, as Ferriter himself observes, at least some of the rebels were as self-interested as they were patriotic, and used the revolution ‘as a useful cloak for the settling of scores that had little to do with ideas of nationalism or “the nation”’. In fact, Foster, in his introduction to Vivid Faces, questions whether the Rising and the War of Independence together constituted a revolution at all, ‘in the generally accepted meaning of the word’.

Faced with such a question, those of us who enjoyed, or more likely suffered, a traditional Irish Catholic education, will recall that our history teachers never spoke of the 1916 ‘revolution’ but exclusively of ‘the Rising’, as of a holy event, something akin to the Resurrection; no doubt the word ‘revolution’ smacked too much of Bolshevist anarchy and godlessness. The insurrectionists of 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence tended strongly towards political, social and religious conservatism. As Kevin O’Higgins, a minister in the first Irish government, observed, ‘we were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries who ever put through a successful revolution.’ Towards the end of his short life – he was assassinated by the IRA in 1927 – O’Higgins had toyed with the idea of instituting a dual monarchy as a way of ending partition. Astonishingly, the notion had first been floated by Patrick Pearse himself: he had suggested inviting Prince Joachim, younger son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to be King of Ireland. It is fascinating to think that German might now be one of Ireland’s official languages, along with English and Irish. How complicated are the affairs of even the smallest nations.

Roy Foster is one of the finest contemporary Irish historians. He is regarded, with venom by his detractors, as a leading ‘revisionist’, and his Modern Ireland 1600-1972, published in 1988, provoked much muttering and some loud yells in the nationalist ranks. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where a major influence was the legendary Anglo-Irish historian F.S.L. Lyons, whose work he adverts to frequently, and whose name is invoked in the opening lines of Vivid Faces. Foster took over the project of writing W.B. Yeats’s authorised biography, on which Lyons had been working for ten years but left unwritten at the time of his premature death in 1983. Foster’s two-volume W.B. Yeats: A Life, at once magisterial and subtle, was warmly received in general but caused annoyance to some left-leaning critics, who considered Foster’s treatment of Yeats’s unappetising and sometimes poisonous politics over-indulgent, and, again, provoked nationalist wrath for … well, as so often, it was not quite clear what it was they were wrathful about, unless it was the fact that Foster is a Protestant Irishman who lives and works in England.

In his new book Foster acknowledges that the period between the 1916 Rising and the end of the Civil War in 1923 ‘has been closely excavated’, but points out that what might be called the pre-revolutionary period, the quarter-century between the death in 1891 of Charles Stewart Parnell, the doomed founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and 1916, deserves a deeper investigation, ‘at the personal level of individual lives’, than has yet been carried out. He is rightly wary of first-hand accounts written after the dust of revolution had more or less settled: ‘the traumatic split and civil war that followed the Treaty [with Britain] in 1921 entailed upon survivors the necessity of gathering material to prove their side was the right one, and their actions consistent with the principles of the revolution.’ Therefore his aim, he writes, is not to consider just those who were to become leading revolutionaries: ‘Rather, I am attempting to characterise the worlds of students, actors, writers, teachers, civil servants; often from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, and often spending part of their lives working in Britain.’ Using newly available material in the Bureau of Military History, and the archives of University College, Dublin, he has trawled through diaries, letters, journals and unpublished autobiographies to come up with an elegant, sharply revealing and, one might say, revolutionary account of a hitherto largely overlooked aspect of the social history of Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Particularly bright and clear is the light he shines on the role of women before and during the years of insurrection, a role largely written out of the official histories; for this service alone the book is invaluable.

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[*] Penguin, 560 pp., £9.99, May 2014, 978 0 141 03004 3.

[†] Profile, 528 pp., £30, March, 978 1 7812 5041 3.