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The Big World Spins

Ronan Fanning

Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1912-1923, by Maurice Walsh, Faber & Faber, 544 pp, £16,99, ISBN: 978-0571243006

“Sinn Féin”: “We Ourselves”, “Ourselves Alone” or however else it may be translated all testify to a cast of mind that chose to emphasise the uniqueness and particularity of the Irish revolutionary experience.

Maurice Walsh’s point of departure is very different: it seeks to show that Ireland was “part of a civilisation in turmoil. A national revolution which captured worldwide attention from India to Argentina … In the era of Bolshevism and jazz, developments in Europe and America had a profound effect on Ireland, influencing the attitudes and expectations of combatants and civilians.” In this task he succeeds admirably. This is partly because his story begins not with yet another wearisome iteration of the opera-stage rebellion of 1916 that never had the remotest chance of success but in 1918, with the turmoil that beset so many of the European polities in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

This second phase of the revolution eschewed nineteenth century romantic theatrics. “I do not think the Rising week was an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrases, nor of actions worked out in a similar fashion,” Michael Collins had witheringly written when interned in Frongoch in October 1916. There was no nostalgia about the pragmatic realism of his revolution in 1919-21, which marked the end of Ireland’s long nineteenth century and heralded a new dawn for liberation movements all over the world. It instead took the form of a guerrilla war, the first of many such wars waged successfully against the British and other empires throughout the twentieth century.

Another essential element of this postwar context is that the Irish were but one of the many peoples trying to capitalise on the espousal of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, of the doctrine of self-determination. Although the Anglo-American alliance – Britain’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States had begun with the belated American entry into the war in 1917 – denied Sinn Féin access to the Versailles peace conference of 1919, its sweeping victory in the 1918 general election gave it a democratic mandate that resonated around the world. No one understood this better than Eamon de Valera, who spent the most critical eighteen months in the war of independence criss-crossing the United States garnering support.

Maurice Walsh succeeds in graphically reminding us of just how americanised Ireland had by then become. Hollywood was the greatest agent of change and he shows us how “the cinema business surmounted all the difficulties created by political upheaval. Five picture-houses were destroyed during the shelling of the General Post Office in 1916. But four new cinemas were opened in the city centre between 1920 and 1922. Almost all the films they exhibited were American.” La Scala, which opened for business next to the ruins of the GPO on August 20th, 1920 at the height of the guerrilla war, was the most spectacular. “Designed to emulate the advanced modern cinema complexes that had become highly popular across the Atlantic … it was a pleasure palace. It housed tearooms, bars, smoking rooms and a ground-floor restaurant – all finished in the luxurious style – and a ballroom, mock-Greek pillars, palm trees and the latest in American technology, a spring floor that returned energy to tired dancing feet.” It seated three thousand two hundred and had thirty-two boxes.

On St Patrick’s Day 1923, towards the end of the civil war, La Scala was the venue for a boxing match that won international headlines: the light heavyweight championship of the world between Battling Siki, who had become the first African champion at any sport when he had sensationally defeated the French idol Georges Carpentier in Paris in September 1922, and who successfully defended his title against an ageing Irish-American, Francis McTigue. The British government had banned Siki from defending his championship in London against the English champion on the grounds that “[i]n contests between men of colour and white men, the temperaments of the contestants are not comparable”, and such a fight in London would be against the national interest because it might “arouse passions which it is inadvisable to stimulate”. The Irish government’s decision to make no such objection was hailed in the French press as signalling that “Ireland was really announcing itself as a free state”. It took place against the backdrop of IRA demands that all sporting events and other amusements be suspended as a mark of respect during what they decreed as a time of national mourning after the government had executed seven Republican prisoners within forty-eight hours. But their efforts to disrupt the fight – they exploded a mine in an effort to cut the electricity supply to La Scala, which brought fragments of ceiling plaster down on the audience – were in vain and Irish government ministers, as well as Georges Carpentier, took their seats in the front row.

Jazz was another powerful agent of americanisation and the Tallaght Jazz Band performed in Dublin’s fashionable Café Cairo in Grafton Street. Jazz had come to Dublin in the autumn of 1919 when a veteran of the Great War successfully applied for a music and dancing licence for his premises in Dawson Street, across the road from the Mansion House, where the Dáil had held its inaugural meeting in January. The judge, who was unimpressed by the arguments of the Vigilance Association that the body language of jazz musicians was suggestive of immorality, concluded that such objections were “motivated by humbug and Phariseeism”.

Dance halls in all their manifestations were generally regarded with suspicion by the self-appointed guardians of morality and Maurice Walsh explains why “motor cars ran dance halls a close second as occasions of sin, especially when they were put to other uses than forming raucous convoys at Sinn Féin election rallies or flying-column joyrides. Bishops feared that cars allowed young people to escape parental control.” He also explains how in an age newly enthralled by speed, when racing drivers were popular heroes and automobiles had suddenly become objects of desire, the Sinn Féin “convoys marked the party out as modern and exotic, with a flair for organisation, youth and vigour”.

This book, in short, makes nonsense of any supposition that Dublin was a joyless city paralysed by violence during the War of Independence and the Civil War. It also prompts the question of why the Irish Free State was so devoid of the embryonic cosmopolitanism that characterised the revolutionary years. The short answer is that the Catholic Church was initially in disarray as it came to terms with the revolution. William Walshe, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, was terminally ill with a disfiguring skin disease that meant he was seldom seen in public and the attitude of Cardinal Logue, the archbishop of Armagh, was much more antagonistic than Walshe to the rise of Sinn Féin. But the puritan forces swiftly regrouped once the independent state had been established.

The mentality of the rulers of the new state, moreover, was profoundly Catholic and conservative, none more so than WT Cosgrave, the head of government from 1922 until 1932, whose piety was such that he obtained permission from Edward Byrne, a personal friend who succeeded Walshe as archbishop of Dublin, to establish a chapel in his home where Mass could be celebrated for himself and his family. In January 1921 he had proposed that the first Dáil’s authority be complemented by a so-called theological senate that would test the Catholic orthodoxy of whatever measures that body might enact. Although the idea came to nothing it presaged Cosgrave’s insistence in 1923 that divorce would henceforth be denied to all those domiciled in the Irish Free State.

One of the few achievements of the Republicans in the Civil War was to ensure the impoverishment of the new state by their scorched earth policy, involving the destruction of roads, railways and much other property. Poverty-stricken and deprived by partition of the potential pluralist influence of the Protestant majority in northeast Ulster, the Cosgrave government embraced triumphalist Catholicism as the hallmark of the infant state’s identity. The importunities of pressure groups such as the Dominican-inspired Irish Vigilance Association henceforth fell on fertile ground. The Censorship of Films Act of 1923 was followed by the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 and de Valera’s 1937 Constitution set the seal on the condemnation of independent Ireland to decades of claustrophobic isolation.

Maurice Walshe’s fine book prompts the sobering reflection that the aspiration to a cosmopolitanism that had so briefly flourished during the Irish revolution only became irresistible with the emergence of the pro-European movement after 1958.


Ronan Fanning is professor of modern history at University College Dublin. His latest book, Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power, was shortlisted for Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the 2015 Irish Book Awards.



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