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Bright Spirits

John Borgonovo

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, by RF Foster, Allen Lane, 496 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1846144639

Roy Foster is one of the few Irish historians whose work is intellectually stimulating, provocative and accessible to a wide audience. His new book, currently retailing in airport bookshops, is no exception. Rich, engrossing and incisive, Vivid Faces will not disappoint readers, though they may not find all its conclusions convincing.

Foster sets out to construct what he calls “a group biography” of “the revolutionary generation”. As Vivid Faces unwraps the social and cultural DNA of leading activists, we follow their progression from the margins of Irish political life to the vanguard of a national movement for independence. Discursive chapters with headings like “Learning”, “Loving” and “Arming” give the book scale, as the narrative sweeps across the radicalisation of Ireland in the first years of twentieth century Ireland.

Through superb writing and extensive research, Foster has humanised the pre-revolutionary founding fathers and mothers of independent Ireland, introducing them before they stepped onto the centre stage of Irish history. We enter their small, interconnected communities of likeminded radicals in the decade prior to the Easter Rising. Energetic, imaginative, and unconventional, they laboured in the political wilderness for years, seemingly unable to bring about national, cultural, and social renewal. While recent historical scholarship of the revolution has also explored aspects of these republican and left-wing anti-establishment circles (for example, Ferghal McGarry’s The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916; Marnie Hay’s, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth Century Ireland and my own The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918), Foster has made them the overarching focus of his study. In doing so, he has breathed new life into the long-passed personalities primarily responsible for the Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence and Civil War.

Vivid Faces constructs a new historical framework of ‘the revolution’ by bringing together a number of radical figures, some of whom have already been the subject of biographies. The narrative gives voice to a number of vaguely known but intriguing revolutionaries, such as the radical Waterford Quaker Rosamond Jacob, the transplanted Liverpudlian Irish language teacher and thespian Piaras Béaslaí and the Gaelic League organiser, teacher, and aspiring Cork journalist Liam de Róiste. We meet numerous other multitalented individuals, who pour their energies into journalism, theatre, music and the Irish language movement. Their letters, diaries, and recollections illuminate intellectual journeys and mindsets that together helped shape the events of 1916 to 1923.

For this reader, the book’s standout chapter is “Playing”, which focuses on pre-war, politically inspired theatre. The discussions here range far beyond the stilted confines of the Abbey, which had become part of the artistic establishment prior to 1916. For many republicans, the stage was yet another front in their ongoing propaganda war, where art was usually subordinated to politics. Foster recounts a myriad of politically provocative productions, staged by fly-by-night theatrical groups whose lifespan was often measured in weeks. We learn about experimental theatre in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, as well as barn-storming Irish-language stage tours. Beyond conventional stage productions, we sample travelling magic lantern and tableaux shows, the latter recreating famous images from history (such as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc). Sharp and intelligent analysis adds a political subtext to Ireland’s literature, painting, and theatre innovations. Foster has always been one of the few Irish historians who can successfully blend art history and theory with his scholarship, and he does so here with considerable elegance.

Another important chapter, “Writing”, surveys the radical press of the period. Ireland’s strong radical newspaper tradition traced its roots to nineteenth century public reading rooms hosted by Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal campaign, Father Matthew’s temperance movement, the Fenians, the Land League, and the Home Rule party. By the turn of the century, high literacy rates stemming from mandatory primary schooling had created an insatiable appetite for newspapers, including subversive ones. Indeed, Tom Clarke’s famous Dublin shop was only one of a number of radical newsagents around the country where republicans met. Foster provides succinct summaries of a variety of short-lived radical publications, which were often reborn under a new masthead with essentially the same contributors. Reviewing the numerous failed newspapers and shoestring publishing ventures, one must admire the tenacity of advanced nationalist propagandists. Beyond familiar separatist scribes like Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Terence MacSwiney, and Arthur Griffith, readers may be surprised by the high number of amateur journalists within the republican elite, such as Liam Mellowes, Cathal Brugha, The O’Rahilly, Bulmer Hobson, and Seán MacDermott. Women writers also made a crucial contribution in this field, from the separatist pioneer Alice Milligan to the suffragist publisher Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, republican socialist Helena Moloney, and her collaborator Constance Markievicz, who was an accomplished political cartoonist.

Vivid Faces consistently gives prominence to less obvious revolutionary women, like the sisters Ryan (Min, Agnes, Nan, and Mary Kate) and Plunkett (Geraldine, Grace, and Mimi). To Foster, these women formed essential constellations in the pre-1916 universe, and have been neglected in the historiography up to now. They were not muses to their male counterparts (though a high proportion did marry fellow separatists), but empowered and important operatives in their own right. Foster is only the latest to highlight influential and highly visible women in the independence movement, as a number of Irish women’s and feminist historians have been working in the field since the 1980s. Despite persistent prior neglect, it seems that republican women activists are finally receiving scholarly attention from mainstream historians in the field.

By examining the personal lives of key revolutionaries (male and female), Vivid Faces embraces the concept of “intimate citizenship”. Essentially this proffers that individuals’ sexual and family experiences helped shape their political identity, including support of (or opposition to) state and other power structures. In this way, the personal becomes the political, an argument scholars like Margaret Ward and Lucy MacDiarmuid have been making for the last three decades and which Foster has developed further. He devotes considerable attention to sexual intimacy by the revolutionary elite in his refreshing chapter “Loving”. We learn of secret liaisons, unrequited attractions, moonlight courting at Irish colleges, the sexual magnetism of certain prominent activists, and the identities of gay (or thought to be gay) members of the movement. Foster suggests that much political radicalism stemmed from sexual non-conformity. This does not, however, account for the preponderance of activists who lived quite conventional sex lives.

Foster’s ultimate conclusions rest on his analysis of the written record of an important subsection of “the revolutionary generation”. However, his subjects are not the revolutionary generation. In the biographical appendix, Foster profiles 108 leading activists mentioned frequently in the book. By my count, sixty-five (or sixty per cent) of those came from privileged backgrounds (upper or middle class; which I define as coming from gentry, professional or merchant backgrounds, usually employing servants), and eighty-one (seventy-four per cent) from the Dublin radical community. The book’s evidence base is therefore dominated by social elites and Dubliners, and underrepresents men and women outside the capital and activists from the working and lower middle classes.

Foster argues that metropolitan bohemians shaped the revolutionary ideal, “in student societies, over meals at the Vegetarian Restaurant, on long nights in Gaelic League summer-schools, and in the clusters of radical households at Ranelagh or on the South Circular Road”. While such comfortable radicals were a significant element of the revolutionary movement, readers should not assume they comprised “the revolutionary generation”. Demographically, the independence movement also mobilise a less “vivid” social stratum, the respectable working class and lower middle class Catholics found in urban centres across the country. Petty bourgeoisie, they were usually skilled or semi-skilled workers, shop assistants, clerks, and teachers. Few had servants, most did not attend university and many lacked a secondary education. Frequently they entered the independence movement through the Gaelic League, which offered adult education and self-improvement to those with limited opportunities for upward mobility. Foster’s synthesis is less concerned with this cohort of the revolution. In addition, the prevailing Dublin focus largely excludes provincial radical circles in Limerick, Wexford town, Galway, Killarney, Tralee, Ennis and Sligo, as well as emigrant metropolitan dissidents in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Tyneside, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The former were essential to creating a national mass movement after 1916. The latter were largely responsible for the Irish Revolution’s internationalism. To understand how events unfolded after the Easter Rising, one must look beyond Dublin and the more bohemian activists.

This selective sample of “the revolutionary generation” is a recurring problem with Vivid Faces, as can be seen for example in the post-revolutionary chapter “Memory”. The narrative here devotes its attention to veteran activists disillusioned with independent Ireland. Foster focuses on marginalised figures, pushed into the shadows of Irish public life, like Dr Pat MacCartan, who had accompanied De Valera to America and negotiated with the Bolkseviks in the new Soviet Union; or Muriel MacSwiney, the one-time first widow of the movement, who became vaguely Marxist and explicitly anti-clerical while waging war on her sister-in-law, Mary MacSwiney. As forgotten civil servants, the former IRB conspirators PS O’Hegarty and Bulmer Hobson continued to justify their sitting out of the Easter Rising and War of Independence. Such perspectives offer intriguing critiques of the new Irish state of the 1920s and 1930s, but these dissident voices were not representative of a much broader revolutionary community that for the most part remained committed to the republican project. Indeed the largest segment of the “revolutionary generation” supported Fíanna Fáil and its long-term campaign to secure sovereign independence. The biggest regret of these veterans was not political violence, or the new state’s conservative Catholicism, or reactionary censorship, but partition of the island.

As a generic account of the period of revolution in Ireland and of a “genderation”, Vivid Faces is clearly focused more on some revolutionaries than others, as s seen in the book’s index entries. Rosamond Jacob, upper class, sexually assertive and vocally feminist is mentioned on eighty-eight pages, while the upper class activist historian Dorothy Macardle gets four mentions. In Cork city, separatist organiser, playwright and wartime martyr Terence MacSwiney merits forty-two mentions; his shrewd and pragmatic colleague Tomas MacCurtain, also a martyr but a more important local leader, four. In Ulster, the flamboyant Celtic mystic FJ Biggar gets sixteen mentions; his fellow Ulster activist Cathal O’Shannon, a Fenian, Gaelic revivalist, and top ITGWU leader, two. Such choices cannot be necessarily explained by the availability of subjects’ memoirs or written material. For example, Diarmuid Lynch was the most senior member of the IRB to survive the Easter Rising, and was heavily active in republican circles in Dublin, Cork and the United States. He left behind extensive notes and other written material about his revolutionary colleagues. Yet he merits a single reference in the book. This creates an overall impression of a narrative more focused on the alternative, glamorous and privileged within the independence movement.

Similar selectivity allows Vivid Faces to largely look past Jim Larkin’s and James Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The union was a partner in radical Ireland before the First World War, and in the independence movement after 1916. Its socialist structures and activities mirrored those of the advanced nationalists, with specific trade union rifle clubs, newspapers, theatre groups, dances, and youth organisations. Vivid Faces downplays the 1913 lockout and Liberty Hall’s leading role in the Easter Rising (it was no accident that Liberty Hall was the British army’s first artillery target). There is also little indication of the social and economic improvements sought by these activists, or how such goals overlapped with and/or differed from those of other radical groups. While Vivid Faces is excellent at describing privileged dissidents, it is much less successful at accessing activists who were immersed in working class life and relationships.

A further question arising is that the politics of the personal, which Foster so ably presents, does not by itself explain how previously marginalised individuals created a mass movement that went toe-to-toe with the British empire. There is a general tendency in the book to depoliticise the world inhabited by the revolutionaries. Irish radicals read broadly and closely monitored international events. They did not create an ideological monolith, as rudimentary political thinking often existed alongside sophisticated critiques and divisions. Charged debates surrounded diverse aspects of contemporary British and Irish life. Suffragists considered the responsibilities of citizenship; trade unionists compared the advantages of collective and private property ownership; Irish Volunteers questioned the need for professional armies; Sinn Fein economic nationalists championed industrialisation and foreign trade; Fenians expressed sympathy for anti-colonial causes. Yet Vivid Faces seldom engages with the vital political issues of the day. As a result, radical Ireland is not adequately placed in the broader British worlds of imperialism, classism and racism, nor strongly connected to international movements like socialism, anarchism, pacifism, feminism, modernism, and nationalism. This is unfortunate because Ireland rode the same crosscurrents of radical thought and inspiration that ultimately overthrew much of the old order in Europe at the end of the First World War. Without this ideological background readers cannot appreciate how republicans managed to mobilise popular support after 1916 along abstract principles of democratic will and self-determination.

Invigorating and enjoyable, Vivid Faces makes a strong contribution to the historiography. Its key strength is the recreation of the lively and interconnected world of Dublin bohemians involved in the advanced nationalist movement. Their feelings and passions often leap from the pages, bringing immediacy to those exhilarating times. Foster’s particular choice of individuals to highlight uncovers a number of “hidden histories”, especially those pioneers who were ultimately sidelined and bypassed during and after the 1916-1923 period. By laying out their fascinating and non-conventional lives, Foster has challenged some of the received wisdom about this period. The cover of Vivid Faces shows Muriel MacSwiney walking through a crowd in 1922. Sharp-featured, young, and wearing a flapper-style bob haircut, she looks like a fashion model. The reclamation of controversial characters like MacSwiney improves our understanding of the Irish Revolution, but caution needs to be exercised about using them to draw wider conclusions about “the revolutionary generation”. The years 1916 to 1923 were also shaped by men and women without such glamour and presence. Some were mundane and possessed little social capital. Others lived conventional lives to which they gratefully returned after the Civil War. Their faces were less vivid than those Foster typically draws our attention to, but no less compelling. With few material resources and little hope of victory, they dedicated themselves to the seemingly unachievable goal of sovereign independence. Considered unimportant by contemporaries and government authorities, their ordinariness also masked an extraordinary campaign. It was these less vivid revolutionaries, alongside the vivid revolutionaries portrayed so eloquently in Foster’s text, who created a mass social movement that defeated the world’s reigning superpower.

Dr John Borgonovo lectures in the School of History at University College Cork.  His research monograph The Dynamics of War and Revolution, Cork City 1916-1918 was published by Cork University Press in June 2013.




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