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Awkward Voices

Pauline Hall

Remembering the Revolution: Dissent, Culture and Nationalism in the Irish Free State, by Frances Flanagan, Oxford University Press, 272 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0198739159

In Remembering the Revolution, Frances Flanagan summarises how within the first two decades of Irish Independence, four intellectuals ‑ Eimar O’Duffy, PS O’Hegarty, George Russell and Desmond Ryan ‑ “came to dismantle the myth of the revolution”. Her study charts the surprising and fascinating depth of dissent expressed by men who had all been deeply committed to separatist ideals and had contributed to the cultural Renaissance that preceded the Easter Rising. She explains her approach: “it is only by grasping the thick context for such lives that their critical purchase on the revolution can be understood: each influential in their own terms, but also exemplars for the variety of ambivalent ways of viewing a period that reverberated with strident demands for absolute allegiance.”

She renders this “thick context” though a surefooted, comprehensive and detailed survey of her subjects’ experiences before, during and after the Easter Rising. Notwithstanding their differences, they all rejected the pietism of Catholic readings of that event, as well as the glorification of military action. She maps the interaction of key influences on their thought: their readings in Irish and European authors, the positions (official or otherwise), they came to occupy in the Free State and- with particularly successful touches of empathy ‑ their individual temperaments.

The publication of this book comes at a significant moment, when just one hundred years after the Easter Rising, discussion about its causes and consequences continues to bubble up through an ever-increasing stream of publications. It is particularly useful to be reminded by Flanagan that “there was never a period of stable consensus about the Rising”, and to appreciate how more recent arguments about to what extent this event is viewed as inevitable and positive were already being rehearsed almost immediately after 1916. In a more spacious context, these four commentators might have been seen as a loyal opposition: loyal because, on the one hand, they remained convinced of the fundamental validity of a break with the British empire ‑ an essential break if Ireland was to progress on the economic, cultural and spiritual fronts. Yet they were an opposition because they found that post Rising Ireland fell seriously short in advancing on any of these fronts. As the context was not spacious ‑ the Free State had little use for a loyal opposition where the narrative of the revolution was concerned ‑ they all, to varying extents, advanced their critiques obliquely.

In explaining their individual trajectories, the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance is useful. Here is an explanation of how people strive to bring into line a perceived contradiction between their belief and the current reality. The more heavily invested one is in a belief, the greater the lengths to which one will go to reduce dissonance when confronted with evidence which fails to confirm it. It can explain how these writers retained the integrity of the ideals they had cherished: for O’Duffy, the military virtue of the Volunteers; for O’Hegarty, Arthur Griffith and the egalitarian culture of the clubs in London before 1914; for Russell, Standish O’Grady and the Celtic Twilight literary revival, and for Ryan, St Enda’s and UCD. These milieus could be salvaged, as “a microcosm of Ireland replete with optimism and potential” where the true spirit of the revolution resided, only by a rejection of the inconvenient evidence in the insular and timorous culture of the Free State; further, hope for the revolution could be salvaged only by looking forward to a new start with a subsequent generation.

It is interesting that these milieus, touchstones for authenticity held close by O’Duffy, O’Hegarty and Ryan, derived from actual ‑ and youthful ‑ engagement in pre-revolutionary events, whereas Russell’s derived more from reading. In Flanagan’s chapter on Russell, the context seems less “thick” than elsewhere and, for this reader, the portrait less rewardingly intimate. Flanagan does not see the writers as taking pacifist stances, it being more the case that “their ultimate conclusion was that the War of Independence had not been worth it”. It became impossible to subscribe to the publicly endorsed interpretation of the Rising and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, opposition ‑ however loyal and arguably of potential value to nation-building ‑ did not chime with the mood of the new Free State. To raise questions at a juncture when the achievement of Independence was so recent, and the State so fragile, was to court rejection. Flanagan cites the particularly harsh reception of O’Duffy’s critique of the Rising in his semi-fictionalised The Wasted Island (TWI, 1919, reissued 1929).

Flanagan writes: “In key respects they were conformists within the revolutionary generation: all (apart from Russell), members of the IRB, the Gaelic League (apart from O’Duffy), and prolific contributors to separatist periodicals. After the revolution, each occupied positions as civil servants, writers or cultural journalists. Yet they were also marginal, notably in terms of their religion. If Catholicism was, as often claimed, the genetic code of the nationalist movement in Ireland, each of them was animated by secular civic ideals. Flanagan explains: “O’Hegarty was an avowed agnostic, O’Duffy and Ryan had only intermittent Catholic faith, and Russell was a theosophically inclined mystic with a Presbyterian family background.”

They also shared an “historical sensibility that enabled them to locate the revolution outside the familiar narrative of a centuries old antagonism between Ireland and England. European and even global frames of reference shaped their interpretation, nourished as they were by decades of omnivorous reading and years spent living away from Ireland.” They sought to interpret the parochial and the international, an important endeavour at a period of cultural as well as economic protectionism.

A sense of the revolution as a European affair, integrally tied to the Great War, had a resonance for all of them. Flanagan identifies a post-Great War climate of ironical perspectives and a culture of memory which radically extended memorialisation to ordinary soldiers and civilians. Thus O’Duffy was particularly critical of nationalism that was premised on parochialism and sentimentalism, epitomised by writers like Annie MP Smithson, as opposed to Joyce, who incidentally, was admired by all of the writers profiled here. In an enthusiastic review of Ulysses, O’Duffy argued that the true patriot in Ireland was “not the gunman or the political theorist but rather the common man”. Like Ernest Hemingway, as cited by Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory, Flanagan suggests that they perceived something obscene in the grand values of “glory, honour, courage” set beside the “concrete names of villages”.

Flanagan writes that the central thrust of O’Duffy’s The Wasted Island was that after 1916 Irish history had taken a wrong turning. Despite the recent decisive Sinn Féin victory at the polls, the Rising, he asserted, had been a mistake: not only as a betrayal of those who expected that their fight could succeed but also as an interruption of the process of cultural revival. She identifies only one sentence in the book which acknowledges that it was the British reaction that determined the popular response. The final words of Bernard’s mother about her “broken wasted boys” is “an emphatic reversal of Pearse’s script for maternal mourning in his 1915 poem “The Mother”.

She describes O’Duffy’s trajectory into the advanced nationalist movement, as a young writer for the Irish theatre, student journalist at UCD, and early advocate for the Volunteers, as “a complex picture, of a secular nationalism consistently shaped by European and British philosophy and literature”. His critique of the 1916 rising in The Wasted Island is for her more than an apologia for Bulmer Hobson: it also reflected a Eurocentric outlook on Irish nationalism, connected with broader theories about the frailty of human civilisation and the moral bankruptcy of capitalist economics. “Always aware of multiple audiences, he became a scorching critic of the Catholic moralising in the Free State, and revised his interpretation of the Rising for a non-Irish audience as a missed opportunity for the rehabilitation of the vitalist, Gaelic civilization from the mechanistic and decadent influence of capitalism.” She locates him in a wider movement of non-socialist critics of capitalism that “included Bulmer Hobson and George Russell, but also had affinities with ideas brokered by Chesterton, Pound, Storm Jameson, T.S Eliot, Herbert Read, Hilaire Belloc, and Aldous Huxley”.

Joseph Mary Plunkett (a bête noire of O’Duffy’s), had attended Stonyhurst some years before him, and both of them enrolled in UCD, where O’Duffy studied dentistry and Plunkett briefly attended the medical school. Many of the fictional exchanges in TWI were closely patterned on real conversations with Plunkett. Somewhat surprisingly, given his contempt for Plunkett’s persona and his poetry, which he regarded as vaporous, O’Duffy went to live at Larkfield in Kimmage, an estate owned by the Plunkett family, after breaking with his family. In preparation for the Rising: “the [Larkfield] residents would drill, eat, talk write and make ammunition”.

As a pendant to his antipathy towards Plunkett stood O’Duffy’s sympathy for Bulmer Hobson, who like himself, had supported McNeill’s countermanding of the Rising. Flanagan believes that O’Duffy began to write TWI in “the context where neither Bulmer Hobson nor his sympathisers in the IRB, spoke publicly against the Rising” and aimed to vindicate Hobson’s stance. The publisher, Martin Lester, had published O’Duffy’s light verse from his UCD days in 1918, as well as a scathing satirical play Briciu’s Feast (1919), lambasting ‑ once again ‑ Plunkett. In 1919, TWI joined a catalogue of post-Rising publications that argued for an inclusive, non-Catholic basis for Irish nationalism, including works by John Mitchel, Woodrow Wilson and Charles Kickham.

The Wasted Island was very unpopular in Ireland. O’Duffy was derided for criticising his peers under the veil of semi-fiction. Flanagan quotes a somewhat petulant defence offered by O’Duffy of his use of Plunkett as “his odious muse”.

When an artist paints a hero he does not feel he is praising his model, and when he paints a villain, he does not feel he is attacking him. I put [Joseph Plunkett] into The Wasted Island, not in order to attack him but because I thought him worth drawing. I daresay his friends and relatives were hurt ‑ but I couldn’t help that. I never hesitated to expose my own most intimate and shameful feelings to the world, so why should I consider others? This selfishness must be conceded to artists or their work must suffer.

And later: “Fifty years hence nobody will say that personal grudge is the keynote of the work.”

Flanagan focuses on TWI mainly as a book of ideas, which situated Irish nationalism in the context of the long history of Western civilisation and the Rising in particular alongside the Great War, which was evoked as a catastrophic slaughterhouse, in which the “flower of youth” had “died gloriously for a lie”. She shows how O’Duffy applied pseudo-scientific theories – those of, for instance, the Hungarian writer Max Nordau, who perceived symptoms of a general degenerative process in early twentieth century Western civilisation ‑ to the Easter Rising, including to the sickly Plunkett’s espousal of redemptive violence. In contrast, O’ Duffy looked to the spirit of the Volunteers and the material progress they exemplified as the vital force to arrest decline.

Among the few comments published about O’Duffy after his death, PS O’Hegarty’s obituary stressed his unspent talent as a poet, novelist and dramatist. His substantial contribution to the organisation of the Volunteers was overlooked. Flanagan identifies some of O’Duffy’s personal traits  ‑ an “alienating level of self-belief in the rightness of his opinions, an unrealistically high expectation of other people’s rationality and incapacity to forgive what he perceived to be the failings of others”. He had a level of humourlessness and bitterness in himself, a reflection of his disappointment in the Ireland he saw when he looked at the Free State. She concludes: “from the outset, his nationalism was constructed on a pivot between Europe and Ireland, a view point that enabled him to notice and record the human and material costs of revolution that for the majority of nationalists, went unremarked”.

Unlike his friend O’Duffy, who remained a controversial figure, and who after 1924 had to eke out a precarious living in England, Patrick Sarsfield O’Hegarty rose to high office in the civil service in the same period and occupied a position of considerable cultural influence. Flanagan characterises his contributions to Irish nationalism as complex and contradictory. She cites his multiple contexts, from his working class Christian Brothers upbringing in Cork to his activist life in separatist circles in London while working in the post office and his later role as a cultural critic in the Free State.

Flanagan quotes his unusual, even eccentric, interpretation of the second act of O’Casey’s’ The Plough and the Stars. O’Hegarty saw the scene when Pearse’s speech wafts through the pub, not as a desacralisation but as a demonstration of the redemptive powers of nationalism over materialism. In O’Hegarty’s view, Pearse’s words cut

Like ... a gleam of beauty across the squalidity, the maudlinness, the spinelessness, which was Ireland of the time.

O’Hegarty was convinced that Irish nationalism, properly conceived, was a civil religion that dissolved differences between Irish people, and believed in the necessity of securing Northern Irish consent for separation. The outbreak of civil war hostilities saw a radical change in his attitude to militarism. He no longer saw it as a force that would unite Ireland and galvanise the national spirit. In The Separatist (1922), he asked for a cessation of “worship at the shrine of the Colt”. His targets were accounts of revolution that perpetuated the divisions of the civil war or celebrated the martial elements. In The Victory of Sinn Fein, (1924), he offered two antithetical verdicts about the revolution: on the one hand, it had been story of the heroic triumph of a “small nation fighting a defensive war”, and on the other hand, a “physical and moral slaughterhouse”. He believed that the persistence of revolutionary violence after the Rising had accelerated, rather than arrested, the forces of national decline and sympathised with non-combatants who ‑ like himself in the Irish Bookshop on Dawson street ‑ had to stand behind desks or counters, with ambushes taking place outside. He portrayed Republican women as Furies, and the revolution as a Frankenstein.

Yeats’s death in 1939 provided an occasion for O’Hegarty to reassert his view that the revolution had been the product of cultural revival rather than militarism. He had admired Yeats not only for his poetry, but ‑ reflecting his own liberal and inclusivist approach to literature ‑ for his directorship of the Abbey, and his opposition to censorship. Yeats had contacted O’Hegarty in 1932 for his assistance in acquiring a home telephone to relieve him of “the devil of a nuisance of walking fifteen minutes to use the telephone in the pub”. O’Hegarty ( who had been appointed secretary to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in 1922), obliged, and the device was installed in ten days. Regarded as an outstanding administrator, O’Hegarty always took pride in the role of civil servants. As he had observed in The Victory of Sinn Fein and stressed in his correspondence with Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain, the revolution was an elite, not a democratic affair, the work of a small number of separatists, of whom Yeats was one.

Following his retirement in 1944, O’Hegarty devoted renewed energy to collecting facts about the revolution and carefully chronologising events. In 1952, his pursuit of facts culminated in the publication of A History of Ireland under the Union, 1801 to 1922, which was to become the set text in Irish schools for fifteen years. In his retirement, he evoked his life in London separatist circles, which embodied all his hopes for a free Ireland, with its Victorian and Edwardian certainties inculcating hard work, unity, anti-materialism (close to the puritanical in his preference for “very little sing-song”) and anti-sectarianism. Famously, he compressed his day’s work at the post office into three hours, so as to keep up a hectic schedule of meetings, and writing and reading obligations. When he died, O’Hegarty was remembered as a notable bibliophile and book collector. Flanagan comments that “His collection encompassed the classics of British, European and American literature, including volumes in French and Latin, through to English popular fiction, detective novels, and penny dreadfuls.”

Flanagan observes that “[George] Russell was reluctant to take the subjectivity of the 1916 revolutionaries seriously, he took little interest in the impact of events on ordinary people, but showed ‘a compulsion to annunciate a priori rules of history and a reflective irritation at the rebels’ interruption of his own work of nation-building’.”

Again, his context is crucial: AE stood at the centre of the Dublin literary establishment. His Sunday evening salons in Rathgar were legendary, remembered ‑ and parodied ‑ in numerous books, including Ulysses, where he was called the “yogi-bogey box”. His newspaper The Irish Statesman spanned the bridge, in Hubert Butler’s words, between the old traditional world of Yeats and Lady Gregory and the young experimentalists and firebrands of the Republic. Flanagan comments that more than the other writers, he wrote with an acute sense of his role as public opinion maker, “somewhat pathetically convinced that his published opinions would have a direct impact on the course of Irish politics”. Russell’s biographer Nicholas Allen chronicles his outlook in terms of discrete phases: a socialist before the revolution, a convinced nationalist revolutionary during the revolution, and authoritarian afterwards. Flanagan sees also “many continuities informed by his adamantly anti-parochial outlook”.

As a young man, Russell was “deeply moved by Helen Blavatsky’s notion that the world was on a cyclical trajectory that destined it to pass from a phase of materialism to a period of spiritual growth around the turn of the century. In the late 1890s, he combined this ideal with a reading of Standish O’Grady’s epic history of the heroic period in Ireland”, and believed a divine messenger would herald a new age for the nation. He paid attention to events as signifiers of potential epiphany and revelation. In a single reference to Russell’s work for the cooperative movement, Flanagan writes that it belonged in Russell’s “model of a restructured Irish society involving the harmonization of class, the extinguishment of sectarian animosity, and a diminished political role for the Catholic Church”.

Russell’s first published response to the Rising was the poem “Salutation”, composed soon after the event. Flanagan comments: “It was an ambivalent response, but like Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’, apt to being misread as straightforward Republicanism in 1916. Neither sought to endorse the leader’s own rationales for their acts, but rather contemplated the nature of the sacrificial step they had taken. Russell’s sense of the Rising was mechanistic, the result of the action of impersonal forces on the leaders, which cast them in the role of Avatars.” In private, especially writing to Unionist correspondents, he gave a different view: “I do not approve of the rising at all. I hate physical force employed in almost any cause. They were all mad and most of them, on both sides bad shots and half demented, and the whole thing was dreadful.”

Like O’Hegarty, Russell believed that meaningful change would come about through the actions of a small number of high committed nationalists. The revised version of Salutation, (1917) illustrates his appeal for inclusivity: Flanagan writes, : “By comparing 1916 with the Great War he emphatically de-Catholicized the rebels’ sacrifice and also diffused Imperial narratives which configured the Rising as a stab in the back for Irish soldiers fighting in France.” Like O’Duffy, Russell drew on “scientific” thinking (Flanagan’s punctuation): in his case, the belief that the hybrid nature of Irish nationalism (for example, Pearse’s English/Irish background) would bring new vitality.

In The Interpreters, (1924) Russell defends the idea of the revolutionary as someone spurred to sacrifice by a cosmic spirit. Flanagan explains that he saw Irish culture as true, like classical Greece, for instance, whereas English culture was “debased with no comic myths of their own”. He also expressed concern at the threat to the rights of non-conformists and the brutalising effects of idealism, as shown in the civil war. Of the Fianna Fáil administration, he wrote to Yeats in 1932 that ”the Anglo Irish were the best Irish but I can see very little future for them as the present belongs to the half-crazy Gaeldom that is growing dominant around us”.

Flanagan quotes Desmond Ryan’s summons to Irish writers: “It’s about time they started to blow off steam by setting down everything honestly and truthfully, even shocking themselves and all Ireland and all the world in the process.” Ryan, she points out, was something new: perhaps the first writer to have made a professional career out of chronicling the Irish revolution: he was the first to use the phrase “the triumph of failure”. She tracks how over the course of his career, his interpretations fluctuated radically. He began as a disciple (the word is not too strong) and hagiographer of Pearse and spent most of the 1920s adding to the pile of revolutionary mythology before beginning to dismantle it in the 1930s. According to Flanagan: “The circumstances that led him to chronicle the dark aspects of revolution were complex, and included boyhood in England, an influential anti-clerical and socialist father, and absorption of psychoanalytic ideas about the cathartic effects of reflecting on the past.”

For the year between school and UCD, Ryan worked at St Enda’s as Pearse’s secretary and confidant, and served in the GPO. In his diary, writing about the Rising, a sense of unease about the martyrological aspects occurs, alongside expressions of reverence for Pearse and a report ‑ subsequently amended several times ‑ of Pearse’s use of the phrase “when we are wiped out”. Flanagan quotes Clair Wills on how this phrase functions as a simultaneous description of the likely outcome of the Rising and a justification of it. In his book about St Enda’s, published in 1917 under the ironic title of The Story of a Success, Ryan pointed to Pearse’s achievements as an educator and journalist in an effort to humanise him. In The Man Called Pearse (1919), still sycophantic in tone, he is portrayed as a conciliator, a builder. Repelled by the internecine conflict of the civil war, and despising the provincialism of zealots like Daniel Corkery, Ryan nevertheless continued to repeat his hagiographic treatment of Pearse and Connolly, in racy character sketches that aimed, according to Flanagan, to reach across the Treaty divide.

Flanagan explains how the year 1932 marked an abrupt change in the way Ryan wrote about the revolution, “a retreat from hagiography in favour of an insistence on the ambiguities and complexities of revolutionary experience”. Though the election of De Valera played a role, Flanagan regards the immediate catalyst as a sense of dismay at how the Irish revolutionary legacy was being appropriated by European nationalists, especially the socialist and Breton nationalist Louis Napoleon Le Roux. Le Roux’s 1931 biography: L’Irlande Militante: La vie de Patrice Pearse, owed a clear debt to Ryan’s The Man Called Pearse, but contextualised Pearse’s life as an example to be followed across Europe. The book triggered in Ryan a desire to “tip out all the uncritical lumber” and in his translation into English, he removed Le Roux’s teleological historical introduction and toned down all mention of sacrificial gestures.

In The Invisible Army (1932), Ryan adopted an attitude similar to O’Hegarty: on the one hand applauding the revolution as the struggle of a small people, on the other depicting it as brutalising to civilians. This book resembled O’Duffy’s Wasted Island in content, but was modernist in form ‑ full of Joycean montages of sensory impressions. Flanagan claims that “the anti-militarism of this book was ground-breaking, and it was ‘more radical than O’Faolain’s Midsummer Madness’”. In Remembering Sion (1934), Ryan sought to prevent the new generation from being “poisoned with civil war feuds”, here taking an autobiographical approach and referring to people by their real names. He wanted to put the experience of the past into proportion. The Pearse of Remembering Sion is a reversal of earlier versions, offering what Flanagan calls a critical representation of Pearse, as narcissistic, unforgiving and condemnatory, yet simultaneously “accompanied by a thick crust of saccharine praise”, arguing that Pearse had “left in memory a figure gracious and human woven into the tradition of Ireland”. The 1940s and 50s were prolific decades for Ryan, and he published a huge volume of work on Irish nationalist history, and topics in socialism, literature and European history. All show what Flanagan calls his descriptive and ecumenical tone. In 1919, he published The Rising: The Complete Story of Easter Week. By the 1960s, he had become a media-savvy historian, writing scripts for both RTÉ and the BBC. Flanagan concludes: “In his concern to leave aside the civil war, and instead document the experiences of mental illness, mistakes, alienation, fluidity of revolutionary positions, divisions in the movement, and the thesis that perhaps the revolution had not been worth it, Ryan arguably anticipated aspects of modern historiography more comprehensively than any other.”

Flanagan’s subjects would not have been aware of the famous comment attributed to Zhou Enlai that it was too soon, in the 1970s, to judge what the impact of the French Revolution had been, but in any case they would hardly have agreed, given their penchant for interposing and revising their own narratives of judgement both early and often.

Flanagan concludes that her four subjects did not write from the detached perspective of scientific historians. This reviewer was struck especially by how personal their critique was: the word entanglement renders how they were both embedded in, and thwarted by, the recollection of their involvement. In their resolution of cognitive dissonance, they succeeded to varying degrees and their manoeuvres involved swerves, silences and inconsistencies. At our remove, it is easier to detect how they were shaped by utopian expectations, which for all of them meant tangible material improvements, as well as cultural renaissance-expectations that could hardly have been delivered. Yet it is impressive how these writers’ accounts of the revolution as brutalising, disappointing and divisive, are tempered by their fidelity in testifying and holding fast to what had animated them, a fidelity which goes beyond nostalgia. As for whether it is still too soon to judge the impact of the Irish revolution, who can say?


Pauline Hall’s most recent publication is The Cream of the Milk, a limited broadsheet edition of thirteen clerihews on famous and infamous Irishwomen.