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Rebel Cork

Thomas Fitzgerald

The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916-1918, Cork University Press, 344 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1909005822

In 1914 Cork city was known as “Loyal Cork”; within ten years the city and county would be rechristened “Rebel Cork”. This change in designation owed much to the fact that during the decade in question Cork saw more military action and experienced more bloodshed than any other county in Ireland. Some of the most traumatic events of the period, such as the burning of the city centre, the Kilmichael ambush and issues around possible sectarian murders, have long made Cork a topic of interest to historians.

John Borgonovo’s study focuses on the city’s experience of war and political turmoil between 1916 and 1918. It is the first in a proposed trilogy: the second and third volumes will deal with the 1919-21 and 1922-23 periods respectively. In this first book Borgonovo details the changes the city experienced in the final two years of the Great War. The greatest of these was the growth in popular support for a new wave of young nationalists and the eventual widespread rejection of Irish Parliamentary Party constitutionalism in favour of the more radical politics of Sinn Féin.

The views and recollections of town councillors, journalists, home rulers, advanced nationalists, businessmen, clergy, unionists and trade unionists are brought together to form a multi-layered image of local political life, a life characterised by turmoil and change. Borgonovo’s perspective is confined to Cork City but, partly because of this, his study casts an interesting light on some long established questions associated with the period. Prominent among these are: What was the link between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence? What were the results of the attempt to introduce conscription? Was it the 1916 Rising or the failures of the Irish party to achieve results in the 1916 convention that doomed constitutional nationalism? What were the significant differences between the IPP and Sinn Féin? In Borgonovo’s book these questions are considered again from the perspective of the country’s third largest city.

One of the book’s central propositions is that British mismanagement of Ireland during the war years drove people towards Sinn Féin. The banning of Sinn Féin, Cuman na mBan, the Irish Volunteers and even the Gaelic League along with the constant persecution of the GAA by the authorities (who left all other sporting bodies alone) suggests a government unable to cope with legitimate political and cultural expression. The Viceroy, Lord French’s, plea that if he got 50,000 recruits he would stop conscription taking place was tantamount to blackmail and along with the proposed measure itself was received with considerable hostility. Borgonovo concludes that Britain’s desire to win the war resulted in the alienation of Ireland and this, together with the presence of a young and talented alternative political movement, led to the dramatic result of the 1918 election.

Nationalist Ireland united in the spring of 1918 over the conscription crisis. Borgonovo’s research brings a new level of understanding to the resentment felt in Ireland about this measure. Lieut Gen Bryan Mahon, British O/C Irish Command, wrote that he doubted the RIC would enforce conscription, especially after the bishops rowed in against it. JJ Horgan would later write that the conscription crisis and heavy-handed actions on the part of the British made constitutional nationalism “untenable” and drove the vast majority of Irish people toward Sinn Féin.

For Borgonovo the 1916 Rising is crucial to the shift in Irish public opinion. He writes that the most common reaction of nationalists in Cork city “was to condemn the Rising … and blame the outbreak on Ulster unionists”. Irish Parliamentary Party members in Cork City laid the blame squarely on Carson for bringing guns into Ireland rather than on Pearse and Connolly. Leading Cork Redmondite and city coroner JJ Horgan wrote that the Rising was the result of Carson’s breaking the law “with impunity” and that this made Irish people sceptical of any British promises to deliver Home Rule. (Seventy-five years later Brian P Murphy advanced the same argument in Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal.)

It is telling that in the immediate aftermath of the rising the Irish Party supported the various aid organisations for republican prisoners and their dependants which had been set up. Borgonovo maintains that on issues such as this Redmondites wanted to “stay on both sides of the fence”. Michael Laffan in The Resurection of Ireland argues that at this time the Irish Party was obssesed with selfpreservation, a view that chimes with Borgonovo’s assertion. However, it may also have been the case that IPP members had a genuine emotional sympathy with the rebels of 1916 and indeed this may be the strongest explanation of nationalist solidarity.

War of Independence veteran Peter Browne would tell the Bureau of Military history that thanks to the 1916 Rising “A new Ireland was born” and that after the rising “for once nationalist Ireland seemed to be of one mind”. Borgonovo argues that the Easter Rising tapped into growing feelings of resentment the people of Cork had towards the British goverment, which only increased thanks to their ham-fisted behaviour following the rising. He writes that the “Easter rebellion provided a catalyst for antigovernment sentiment in Cork”, which together with the growing failures of the Irish Party, pushed voters towards Sinn Féin.

The convention of May 1916 was clearly one of the most important failures of constitutional nationalism. Following the rising, the British government set up an Irish convention that proposed a limited form of home rule, together with partition. Redmond and Dillon meekly agreed. Borgonovo captures the disgust and anger felt by all sections of the community in Cork in response to the convention. The late Peter Hart saw this as crucial; in his last contribution to the study of the revolution, he argued that the 1916 Rising did not influence voters’ decision in 1918 nearly as much as the failure of the Irish party to achieve results in the May 1916 convention. Hart also argued that these failures would have occurred regardless of whether the rising had taken place or not.

In Borgonovo’s view it was the failure of the Irish Party and British ineptitude, together with the Easter Rising, that swung public opinion. The rising certainly provided a banner for Sinn Féin to campaign under. In 1924 PS O’Hegarty wrote that it was the 1916 Rising not Sinn Féin which won voters. Borgonovo comments that “the Easter Rising planted a seed in many young minds that eventually blossomed into physical force republicanism”. He also notes that the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Cork used the Volunteers as an instrument to advance men who believed in physical force, because the brotherhood was unsure if Sinn Féin would support physical force.

Borgonovo emphasises that during this period Sinn Féin in Cork was predominantly working class and lower middle class in composition and that it was regarded as representing the working class. A harmonious and co-operative relationship developed between the labour movement and a burgeoning Sinn Féin . We learn that Cathal O’Shannon, one of the most interesting figures to emerge from the book, was both a labour and a republican organiser. Ultimately, it is not clear what particular significance Borgonovo attaches to his findings in this area. Whatever the importance of the question, he is certainly not alone in his interest in social class and the revolutionary period. It is a matter which has exercised many historians.

Diarmaid Ferriter and Richard English have identified what they regard as the middle class status of the men and women who made the Irish revolution across the country. English argued in Armed Struggle:The History of the IRA that the IRA held the view that they represented the whole people of Ireland when they in fact only represented the Catholic middle classes. Peter Hart, on the other hand, has argued along similar lines to Borgonovo, maintaining that in rural Cork larger farmers held strong anti-republican and anti-IRA views and that the IRA regarded itself as part of the rural poor. Hart also pointed out that IRA leader and future hunger striker Micheal FitzGerald of Fermoy was also a member of the local branch of the ITGWU. Marie Coleman, who has studied the War of Independence era in relatively unprosperous Longford ‑ one of the most militant republican counties ‑ concludes that “arguments which suggest the less prosperous were more likely to engage in revolutionary activity are given added weight by the evidence from this county”.

On the other side of the question Borgonovo himself acknowledges that Sinn Féin was not entirely pro-working class or revolutionary. He notes that by early 1918 the party, unwilling to alienate potential middle class supporters, began to denounce policies it had embraced in 1917 such as land agitation, and food seizures for distribution among the urban poor. Borgonovo argues that in Cork city in generational and in class terms the Irish Parliamentary Party was entirely distinct from its Sinn Féin rivals. He further argues the Irish Party represented the “moneyed” sections of nationalist Ireland and that in Cork city typical party members and supporters were merchants or professionals. Fergus Campbell makes a similar argument in his study on Galway.

The outcome of these multiple deliberations on social class is not entirely clear. In the end it seems Sinn Féin reflected the interests of the general nationalist population and of a property-owning economy. This was as it had to be if they were to take the country with them. Private property was the central reality of the Irish economy and Sinn Féin would have foundered if it hadn’t accepted this reality. It is hardly surprising that in February 1918 the Sinn Féin and Irish volunteer leaderships made it explcitly clear that their members were not to be involved in land agitation.

The movement for independence from Britian was supported by many sectional interests across the social spectrum. Some had conflicting economic interests and perhaps different exepectations of what independence would bring. Some Sinn Féin leaders had a naive belief that sectional interests could be suspended during the conflict or perhaps done away with altogether in an independent Ireland. Sean MacDermot was hostile to James Larkin, whose work he regarded as detracting from the primacy of the national question and in April 1921 de Valera said “the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests”. Arthur Griffith held similar views. However, sectional interests could not simply be wished away. In January 1918 the Belfast parliamentary leader Joe Devlin was critical of Sinn Féin’s constantly putting the national question first, claiming he was too committed to helping the poor of Ireland “to wait fifty years for its grievances to be solved”. The Sinn Féin victory was never going to constitute the end of sectional interest. Social conflcit would continue in the 1920s and beyond. It was something that, when in government, the leaders of the divided Sinn Féin would learn was an unavoidable aspect of political reality.

Interestingly, on a cultural level Irish Party members and Sinn Féin members were not so distinct. Both sides were equally affected by the values of late romanticism. Borgonovo shows that the Gaelic League and the GAA, up until 1916, were largely dominated by pro-Redmondites. The main hurling team in the city was called Redmonds. Borgonovo describes Cork city’s Gaelic League as having an “eclectic intellectual membership”. The Fenians PS O’Hegarty and Daniel Corkery were colleagues in the Gaelic League with Redmondites and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians such as JJ Horgan.

Nevertheless, Borgonovo does not see a significant overlap between the two parties. He writes that Sinn Féin “possessed little institutional knowledge of electioneering which makes its success even more remarkable”. He dismisses the argument David Fitzpatrick put forward in 1973 in Politics and Irish Life that there was “direct political continuation” between the Irish party and Sinn Féin, revealing that none of the members of Sinn Féin ’s 1918 Cork city executive and the party’s 1920 corpration candidate list had previous experience with the Irish Party. However, some other historians have recently come to endorse the view Fitzpatrick put forward in 1973. John O’Callaghan in his book Revolutionary Limerick. writes that “the influence of established local leaders ( formerly of the Irish Party) would help to explain how Sinn Féin became a movement as quickly as it did; rather than creating a totally new organisation Sinn Féin built on the bones of the old one”.

Borgonovo describes the Irish party as being pro-“imperial” but after reading The Dynamics of War and Revolution it is difficult to accept this characterisation. The author tells us that the war effort was never really embraced by Cork Redmondites and that “voluntary war work in Cork retained a pronounced unionist identity”. The Irish National Volunteers, the Redmondite-controlled rivals of the Irish Volunteers, who are sometimes portrayed as being subsumed into the British army, had in fact only a seventeen per cent recruitment level.

Galway and Cork city’s experience of revolution may well have been different from that Co Limerick and Co Clare. Perhaps we should recognise these differences from region to region rather than expecting that the experience was the same throughout the country. Borgonovo writes in his introduction that it is only “by the compilation of numerous micro-studies will we truly understand the Irish revolution”. Indeed, and perhaps it is only when such local histories are complete that we will be able to fully answer questions relating to the substantive difference between Sinn Féin and the IPP in the area of politics and social class. Borgonovo is certainly correct in his statement that it is only through the compilation of comparative studies that we will be able to answer some of the most interesting questions on revolutionary violence in Ireland.

However, in order to balance local studies perhaps the Irish revolution should also be put it in its international and European context. There were a number of nationalist and other militias operating in Europe after the war. They might be interesting from an Irish perspective. Borgonovo does note that certain events, such as the French army mutiny in 1917 and the Russian Revolution, were being watched with interest in Ireland. Late nineteenth century Europe was home to multiple national movements. It seems likely that some comparative work in this area might shed light on the Irish experience.

Revolutionary violence is another area that has attracted the attention of historians of the period. John Borgonovo has an interesting point to make on this subject. He writes that the 1918 election was not a mandate for the violence of the following years but was a rejection of the British government in Ireland. So what exactly did Sinn Féin stand for in 1918? Borgonovo contends that there was uncertainty in Cork city about this. He notes that the Sinn Féin candidate in the city, JJ Walsh, was not allowed by the party leadership to talk about republicanism, much to the frustration of the volunteers in the city. Instead candidates stressed the idea of independence and the upcoming peace conference. Historian Charles Townshend has recently written that “some candidates declared that a vote for Sinn Féin was a vote for the Republic, while others later claimed they had never used the word”.  Peter Hart introduced another dimension when he wrote that “nationalist unity and resistance implied coercion (of elements of the nationalist community)”. Some might dispute this by arguing that in 1918 Ireland saw popular mobilisation in favour of the Sinn Féin movement. Whether this feeling of goodwill persisted through the subsequent period of violence may be a question worth asking.

The Irish people, Borgonovo credibly suggests, did not vote for violence but for Sinn Féin ’s aggresive if vague notion of independence, a position that would create an inevitable “collision” with the forces of the crown. By the time Borgonovo’s book ends, the gentle Terence MacSwiney and Sean MacCurtain were already regarded as too weak and cautious by some Irish volunteers in the city. MacSwiney and MacCurtain were followed by more aggressive men. Certainly, the 1918 election saw enormous political mobilisation in favour of Sinn Féin, but how would the people of Cork feel about the brutal violence the city would soon experience? Does political mobilisation in favour of revolution last? I look forward to the next two volumes.

Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish research council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin

Author’s Correction: 25/11/2013
  I state above that Richard English “argued in Armed StruggleThe History of the IRA that the IRA held the view that they represented the whole people of Ireland when they in fact only represented the Catholic middle classes”
 This is incorrect and the mistake was caused by an error in note taking on my part.  Richard English’s view -which he makes clear on p. 27 of Armed Struggle-  is that the IRA of the 1919-21 years “represented a broad class spectrum” .



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