The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend, Allen Lane, 560 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0713999839
This is the third volume in what is, in effect, Charles Townshend’s fine trilogy on Ireland’s war of liberation. The first – The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-1921 – is in many ways the most remarkable. Based on his D Phil. dissertation submitted to Oxford University and published as long ago as 1975, it was years ahead of its time. Drawing on then recently released archival sources, it offered a seminal account of British political and military policies in the period 1919-21 which, four decades later, remains of enduring value. His second book – Easter 1916: the Irish Rebellion – came thirty years later and treats even-handedly of Irish as well as British perspectives; it is incomparably the best single-volume account of the events of 1916. We have now come full circle, for the research base of the present work is predominantly Irish. Like The British Campaign in Ireland it draws effectively on recently released archives, in this case in particular on assiduous research into the witness statements of the Bureau of Military History in the Irish Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks. These records have since been digitised and now offer a treasure trove of raw material on the Irish revolution freely available to anyone with access to the internet – to anyone, in other words, who reads this review. Another aspect of the present work which merits preliminary emphasis is its chronological span: it covers the civil war as well as the war of independence.
Indeed that Professor Townshend treats both wars in the round is arguably the greatest strength of his new book, which begins with a compelling analysis of the distinguishing characteristics of Irish republican aspirations. “Republicanism, for most of its adherents, was about achieving separation – sovereign independence – rather than implementing any concrete political programme. Michael Collins … was at one with previous republican thinking in publicly insisting that “the cause was not the Irish Republic” – “our real want was liberation from English occupation”. What Collins identified during the 1918 election campaign as “the supreme, absolute and final control of all this country”. In that sense the Republic was only a name, albeit an important name because, as Eamon de Valera insisted, only “as an Irish Republic [did] we have a chance of international recognition”.
Yet, as Charles Townshend points out, from an international perspective Irish republicanism had little in common with what passed for republicanism throughout much of Western Europe. Catholicism (or, more precisely, Roman Catholicism for in this case the qualification is important) was what set Irish republicanism apart. French republicanism, Italian republicanism, Spanish republicanism – all were nourished by arterial veins of anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism. In Ireland, in stark contrast, nationalists of every hue – ranging from Sinn Féiners to Redmondites – competed in currying favour from priests and bishops. For, as Professor Townshend also points out, “separatist republicanism was primarily constructed in moral rather than in ideological terms” and he cites such examples as Terence MacSwiney’s stunningly simple equation of atheism with anti-clericalism and Todd Andrews’s assertion that the “profound Catholic faith” of the Volunteers meant that their political beliefs were necessarily religious: otherwise “it would have been quite impossible for us to imagine ourselves breaking the first commandment”. We are also offered insights into how, in their 1918 election campaign, Sinn Féin reflected that pressure for unanimity and intolerance of dissent that was so characteristic of rural Ireland. Puritanical intolerance sometimes led to excesses not unlike the behaviour of the Taliban in our own times as in the case of Patrick O’Gorman, a farmer arrested and executed in March 1921 by the 2nd Battalion of the East Limerick Brigade of the IRA; he was charged, among other things, with “living up to the date of his arrest with a woman who was not his wife”. Others in the IRA equated emigration with immorality and it was also in March 1921 that the “Cork No. 1 Brigade pressed for authority to shoot emigrants and in May GHQ aimed to persuade the ‘younger clergy’ to launch an ‘anti-emigration crusade’”. For all who might have dreamt that an Irish republic would be a secular state this book reminds us of the painful reality: Home Rule (as a synonym for independence in whatever guise) was always going to mean Rome Rule.
Professor Townshend likewise lays bare the class divisions within republicanism. After a week with an IRA company in Roscommon in the autumn of 1919 Ernie O’Malley was criticised as being “too much of the ‘officer’ class and did not succeed in getting himself down level of the ordinary country Volunteers”. Although that adjectival “country” reflects the persistent rural/urban divide, class divisions within rural Ireland were also significant, as in the case of the officer commanding an IRA battalion in Cork who reported that “the Volunteer movement was ridiculed by farmers’ sons in this area”; it was “good enough for the labouring class but beneath them”.
Townshend also challenges what he describes as “the dominant nationalist story of the independence struggle”: that, by 1920, “the Irish were a people in arms, committed to the IRA”, arguing that “when active units moved outside their comfort zones they could be dismayed by the attitudes they encountered”. Sometimes those with the moral courage publicly to resist Sinn Féin paid the ultimate price, as in the case of two Redmondites who opposed the call for a national day of mourning when the remains of the hunger striker Terence MacSwiney, were returned to Ireland. One, William Kennedy, refused to close his chemist’s shop; another, TJ O’Dempsey, initiated a legal action for intimidation. Both were shot dead by the IRA.
But it is difficult to gauge the scale of opposition to Sinn Féin and the IRA in 1920-21 not least because, as Professor Townshend reminds us, few people sought to dispute the prevailing narrative of an Ireland united behind the IRA in later years: “dissidents had no interest in drawing attention to their former opposition. Protestants, especially, widely presumed to be passive if not active supporters of the Union, kept quiet – then and subsequently. … The habit of self-censorship persisted.” The sectarianism that vitiated the IRA’s guerrilla war, particularly in West Cork, has in recent years been the subject of bitter controversy which has generated more heat than light and Townshend’s terse but dispassionate conclusion is compelling: that “the sheer scale of the internal security campaign … A civil war within and between communities” … is beyond doubt.
But where Townshend’s scepticism about the still prevailing nationalist interpretation of the struggle for independence is convincing, his acquiescence in the prevailing narrative of those historians who deny the accomplishments of the revolution is disappointing. That denial is epitomised by Roy Foster’s question in his Modern Ireland as to “whether the bloody catalogue of assassination and war from 1919 to 1921 was necessary” to achieve the measure of independence conceded by the British in the Treaty, a question cited with approbation by Charles Townshend in his conclusion. And here I must declare an interest because I also cite Roy Foster’s question in the introduction to my own recently published book, Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922. I there argue “that it was indeed necessary: that there is no shred of evidence that Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated government would have moved beyond the 1914-style limitations of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 unless impelled to do so by the campaign of the IRA”. What is curious is Charles Townshend’s admission in The British Campaign in Ireland, which I then also quote, that “on the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously”.
How can one reconcile this earlier admission with his latter day endorsement of Roy Foster’s loaded question? Part of the explanation may lie in the pernicious impact of Northern Ireland’s long war upon historical writing: the apprehension that acknowledging the success of the revolution of 1919-21 would comfort the Provisional IRA and their followers. This is the path into the cul-de-sac of contemporary preoccupation identified by Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian of the Middle East, as characteristic of those “who would rewrite history not as it was or as they have been taught it was, but as they would prefer it to have been … Their aim is to amend, to restate, to replace, or even to recreate the past in a more satisfactory form” for their purposes in the present. But in the case of Professor Townshend one also has a sense that the very depth of his absorption in the minutiae of Irish sources and his consequent engagement with republican attitudes may have deflected him from a comparable engagement with those British perspectives which were the exclusive concern of his first book.
His treatment of General Nevil Macready, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ireland, is especially pertinent. Townshend focuses on the general’s “pervasive negativity – verging on fatalism – and repeated assertions that the only possible solution must be political and not military”. He “never gave the impression of bursting with energy and ideas for developing the counter-insurgency campaign … His preference for large-scale operations blinded him to the real challenges of guerrilla warfare.” Maybe so. But these emphases take too little heed of Macready’s – and, indeed, of Lloyd George’s –understanding of his role. For, as Professor Townshend himself also observes, “purely military considerations had never played a part in the British response to the Republic and indeed it would (as Clausewitz would have said) have been absurd if they had”. But his assertion that “it is hard to argue that there was actually a decision to negotiate” an end to the war is much more questionable. The political reality was that not only Macready but the elite team of civil servants under John Anderson seconded from London to run Dublin Castle from the spring of 1920 favoured conciliation rather than coercion. They privately believed – although they could not say so publicly – that the policy of proclaiming Sinn Féin an illegal organisation, given that they had achieved a democratic mandate in the 1918 general election, was a nonsense. Lloyd George himself, moreover, had spoken privately of the need to talk to Sinn Féin as early as October 1918.
Macready, regarded as “extraordinarily intelligent for a general”, was also personally friendly both with Lloyd George and with Frances Stevenson, the prime minister’s mistress and private secretary. These ties of friendship were so strong that it seems unlikely that Macready’s fatalistic negativity about the war was unwelcome to a Liberal prime minister feeling his way towards seeking a settlement that a predominantly Tory cabinet would support; so it seems not unlikely that Lloyd George, at least tacitly, encouraged his commanding officer to play the pessimist in a war for which neither of them had much appetite. What we can say with certainty is that Macready’s politically repellent description for the Cabinet in June 1921 of the measures under the extension of martial law necessary for military victory over the IRA – “will they begin to howl,” he asked ministers, “if they hear of our shooting one hundred men in one week?” – was the decisive factor paving the way for the truce of July 11th, less than a month after King George V had formally opened the parliament of Northern Ireland.
Ulster, the key factor shaping British policy in 1920-21, receives scant attention in Professor Townshend’s book, understandably perhaps, given that it received so little attention from Irish republicans. Although Sinn Féin’s triumph in the 1918 election and unilateralist strategy of abandoning the Westminster parliament and establishing the Dáil in Dublin enabled it to win a much larger measure of independence than the British had previously been prepared to concede, it was powerless to prevent partition. Indeed its retreat from Westminster ensured that the absence of an Irish nationalist presence licensed the Unionist majority to dictate the shape of the partitionist settlement embodied in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 in a way never envisaged before 1918. In its origins and implementation that Act was “Ulstercentric”: a measure designed to solve the Ulster problem, not the Irish problem. In that sense it was an exercise in hypocrisy: there is abundant evidence showing that Lloyd George and other ministers privately recognised that Sinn Féin would never accept it. Lloyd George’s dilemma was that, although his coalition government triumphed in the 1918 election, the Liberal Party collapsed and the Conservatives and Unionists had an overall majority which empowered them to replace Lloyd George with a Tory prime minister whenever they chose – the fate that finally befell him in the autumn of 1922. This was why Ulster had to come first in his scheme of things. Although Lloyd George had no principled objection to ending the Irish war by talking to Sinn Féin, the political reality was that he could only do so after he had first given the Ulster Unionists what they had armed for in 1912-14: escape from the control of a parliament in Dublin. Once the arrangements for an Ulster settlement were in place, moreover, his freedom of manoeuvre for talking to Sinn Féin was enhanced by the almost simultaneous retirement from active politics of the three most powerful Unionist opponents of conciliation: Edward Carson, Walter Long and Andrew Bonar Law.
Although Bonar Law subsequently returned from retirement to resume his leadership of the Conservative Party and replace Lloyd George as prime minister, Professor Townshend’s description of his omission from the British delegation in the Treaty as “potentially fatal” misses the point. For as Lloyd George well understood his temporary retirement was due “to one thing only – getting cold feet about Ireland”. But if Bonar Law had no appetite for talking to Sinn Féin, he accepted the necessity of Lloyd George’s doing so. If anyone could succeed in such negotiations, he wrote from the south of France, it was Lloyd George and “success would be almost as big as winning the [Great] War”. He then spelt out his bottom line: “personally … I would give the South anything, or almost anything, but I would not attempt to force anything on Ulster”.
Such caveats about Professor Townshend’s treatment of the British perspective should not detract from a recognition of the magnitude of his achievement: The Republic provides us with an unrivalled and uniquely penetrating account of the mentality of those who fought for Irish freedom.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin. His latest book, Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 was published in 2013