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The Primacy of Politics

Conor McCarthy

The Political Thought of the Irish Revolution, Richard Bourke and Niamh Gallagher (eds), Cambridge University Press, 300 pp, £22.99, ISBN: 978-1108799133

Broadly speaking, Irish historiography has been characterised by certain kinds of conservatism – if not always ideological conservatism then certainly procedural, methodological, philosophical and institutional conservatism. Professionalised as a discipline in the 1930s, when revolution, war and the construction of new states or statelets were matters of immediate memory, history-writing had to find ways to legitimate itself in sometimes unstable and even dangerous conditions. As has been pointed out by scholars such as Ciaran Brady, this professionalisation was encoded not only in the adoption, most obviously in the first great in-house journal of modern Irish history, Irish Historical Studies, of rigidly orthodox scholarly procedures, but also in much more overt regulations, such as the HIS’s initial ban on articles on any political matter more recent than 1900. In other words, IHS and the historiography it both expressed and promoted legitimated itself academically but also implicitly politically by an apparent avoidance of contemporary history and politics. The stress was very much on “high politics” and the constitutional status of Ireland as it mutated from the arrival of the Normans to the modern period.

This approach left little room for methodological innovation, let alone “radicalism”. Theo Moody might crown his career with a massive and definitive life of Davitt, but this was not the product of his leftism or republicanism. When the Northern Troubles exploded in the late 1960s, this professional historiography was still young, and the reaction of many historians in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was fiercely to defend their discipline and its prerogatives, as they saw them. Figures such as Leland Lyons, Ronan Fanning and Roy Foster issued polemics which sought to discredit or fight off the perceived models of history which were held to give life to Northern extremisms, both nationalist and loyalist, but more particularly the former. The aforementioned prerogatives were the function of the historian as a kind of intellectual, as a public figure who shaped and gave narrative form to the historical experience of a public. Inevitably, alongside such supposed prerogatives went an inflation of the social and political role of the historian – did Lyons really think that the young people of the Northern nationalist community who flocked to the ranks of republicanism in the early 1970s were driven by “bad” nationalist history-writing? The Catholic poor of the Bogside and the Falls had much more immediate concerns than the latest maunderings of historians at UCD or Oxford.

Nevertheless, this policing of the historical discipline – the disciplining of the discipline, we could fairly say – worked to marginalise many additional or alternative approaches to history. Irish Marxist history never produced a Thompson or a Hobsbawm, Irish labour history and Irish feminist history remained until very recently minority and marginal interests. There has been little or no Irish historians’ response to the philosophical challenges of figures such as Hayden White (with his tropology of historical discourse) or Michel Foucault (with his unsettling archaeologies and genealogies of social and intellectual institutions). The vocabulary of “colonialism” and “imperialism” was for years held merely to be a marker of Sinn Féin or IRA sympathies (and so outside of respectable discussion). Bizarrely, that particular framework is now undergoing a wholesale but drastically belated appropriation both in history departments and by university management (a move from this quarter warranting the greatest suspicion on the part of serious scholars), as the brave new world of “decolonising the curriculum” or “decolonising the university” swims into view. This seems all the more strange when one considers that “postcolonial studies” have been a stock in trade of literature departments even in Ireland for forty years.

This disciplinary conservatism, so, has not been conducive to methodological innovation, let alone to theoretical speculation in Irish historiography. Accordingly, it may also help explain the paucity of practitioners of intellectual history in Ireland. Several of the most notable Irish intellectual historians have been formed outside history departments. The late Seamus Deane, who brought a strong sense of the historicity of ideas to his literary criticism, is the pre-eminent example, but one might also refer to WJ McCormack or David Berman or Norman Vance. Younger scholars such as Daniel Carey and David Dwan confirm this pattern. So does Richard Bourke, who began his career as a scholar of literary Romanticism and then left English studies to commit wholly to the history of ideas. The result has been a very striking and important series of publications, culminating in 2015 in Empire and Revolution, his overwhelming and magnificent study of the political life of Edmund Burke. Now Bourke, working with Niamh Gallagher, herself the author of a major study of Ireland and the Great War, turns his attention to the Irish revolutionary period – for our purposes, 1909 to 1922

The result is this rich anthology of the “political thought” of the revolution. Year by year, writings by figures both familiar – Pearse, Griffith, Carson, Markiewicz – and rather less so – Robert Lynd, Erskine Childers, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington – show the intellectual ferment of the time in Ireland. A substantial introduction by Bourke and a set of short biographical essays on the anthologised writers help to place these figures. A guide to further reading is also included.

This latter machinery hints at the anthology’s purpose, which must be both pedagogical and intellectual-disciplinary. The book appears in the prestigious Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series. It is very striking to see a collection of Irish political writers marshalled under this banner – the volume is notable for this reason alone. But there are other reasons to welcome such a collection. Much, if not most, of the scholarship on the “revolutionary period” concentrates either on military or high politics, or on the “Literary Revival”. One of the things which falls through the gap between these two areas of discourse is political writing and thinking as such. Literary scholars have since the 1980s sought to establish a strong sense of “cultural politics”. After such work – Deane, Kiberd, Lloyd, McCormack, Brown ‑ no one could deny the role of culture in the making and unmaking of forms of Irish identity or the status of a Yeats or an O’Casey as “organic intellectuals”. In an essay which anticipated the publication of the Field Day Anthology, Seamus Deane declared that “the cultural is the zone of the political” [“Canon Fodder”, in Jean Lundy and Aodan MacPoilin (eds) Styles of Belonging: The Cultural Identities of Ulster (Belfast: Lagan Press, 1992)]. Yet the fact is that in writers less sophisticated and assured, this motto has had a problematic effect – if all discourse or representation is “political”, in some very loose sense, then the term loses its specificity and worth, and meanwhile our capacity to recognise and analyse actual political ideas disappears. There are sections in the Field Day Anthology concerned with political writing and speeches, with intellectual history and critique, but there can be no doubt that the massive concentration is on “literary” work, for all its equalising rhetoric of “Irish writing”.

More recently, Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews’s Handbook of the Irish Revival extends the parameters wider again, but the focus is still very heavily on literature and culture. Gallagher and Bourke – the latter considerably influenced by the Cambridge School of intellectual history (JGA Pocock, Quentin Skinner, James Tully) ‑ are therefore to be understood as cutting resolutely against that tendency, asserting the importance and definition of the political qua political, and striving to place Irish political thinking and writing of the revolutionary era in this intellectual and conceptual space.

The result is rich and valuable. The editors have generally used full articles or substantial excerpts, and so each writer has plenty of space to elaborate on her or his interests and themes. Some pieces are book extracts, some are journal or newspaper articles, some are speeches. We have here too major manifestos – the text of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 is here in its entirety, as is the text of the Proclamation of the Republic of the Rising of 1916. We get speeches – speeches in parliament by Carson and Redmond, and set-piece orations, like Pearse’s great and inflammatory eulogy for O’Donovan Rossa. Gallagher and Bourke also make sure to display a wide variety of political positions or angles – Carson is collected alongside Connolly, John Redmond alongside Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.

The volume opens with Constance Markiewicz’s 1909 lecture on women’s nationalist sentiment, “Women, Ideals and the Nation”, which cuts forcefully against any suffragism which might be Westminster-focused, and which also impressively views the Irish question alongside those of India and Egypt, where nationalist movements were comparably active. This is immediately followed by Connolly’s introduction to Labour in Irish History (1910), his most important book and his most interesting and controversial theoretical statement. Here, he advances the idea that the historical progress of a nation is best seen in terms of the progress of the most subordinated class of that nation, but he also argues that what he calls “the social question” ‑ the question of class – has historically been mobilised by mainstream nationalist politicians and republican agitators as an exercise in what we’d now call, after Gramsci, “hegemony”, that is that the motive power of political movements of the past, such as United Irish republicanism or Young Ireland nationalism, has been the poor and the downtrodden, who have also systematically been betrayed by their middle class or bourgeois leaders when the opportunity so required.

In 1911, we come to an essay of Griffith’s, culled from Sinn Féin articles published in that year and then subsequently forming an appendix to The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland (1918). This remarkable piece shows an elaborated theory of “dual kingdom” status for Ireland. Griffith offers a long genealogy of his line of thinking, rooting it in a severe critique of what he calls “Pitt’s policy” ‑ William Pitt’s statesmanship in steering Britain and the empire through the period of the French Revolution and the rise of Bonaparte. For Griffith, a viable Irish kingdom, self-governing but under the constitutional suzerainty of the British crown, would stand by Britain in any coming war with Germany. But such a viable Irish kingdom has been destroyed by the Act of Union: Pitt’s policy in defence of the empire struck Ireland down and turned a viable kingdom and economy into an impoverished and enslaved enemy of England.

We then move to Erskine Childers, whose personal trajectory was one of the most dramatic of the revolutionary generation. Born into what he called “the most irreconcilable form of unionism”, he made the shift through criticism of British imperial policy in South Africa, then a “fanatical obsession” with Home Rule, to his eventual anti-Treaty stance. In “The Framework of Home Rule”, he argues passionately for the economic benefits of home rule or self-administration. For Childers, this is of a piece with the “self-help” and co-operativist ideas of Horace Plunkett. The pursuit of “national” politics at Westminster only diverts attention from real Irish issues. Childers argues for Ireland’s “colonial” status, but for him this is as much a constitutional matter as one of historical interpretation.

Childers’s piece is immediately followed by a forceful rejection of such arguments, by LS Amery, a writer of whom I confess complete ignorance hitherto, but who well justifies his place in this collection. Amery argues that Childers and others misunderstand Ireland’s place in Britain’s imperial and colonial system and also how these relate to the imperial parliament.

A rich excerpt from Thomas Kettle, on the “economics of nationalism”, argues against economic “cosmopolitanism” of the liberal or communist modes. Kettle advocates forms of protectionism and nationalisation of major services, while acknowledging the downsides of such policies. He mounts a strong critique of British classical liberal economics, noting that empire had allowed it to aspire to universalise itself. Kettle shows fascinating awareness not only of Marx but also of Hobson and Sombart.

The English Unionist AV Dicey argues that the 1912 Home Rule Act was much the worst attempt to legislate for such self-rule. He claims that the Union had brought benefits to Ireland, in the forms of Catholic Emancipation and land reform, and had secured the loyalty of Ulster. The failure to put the 1912 Act to public discussion via an election means that it’s a fundamentally undemocratic law, which will harm Britain generally. He concludes by advocating civil disobedience, perhaps even armed resistance to the 1912 Act.

Pearse and Connolly are well represented in the collection. Not only is the 1916 Proclamation included, but Pearse’s essay “The Coming Revolution”. More striking is the late pamphlet “The Sovereign People”, which shows a strong grasp of republican history and ideas – its stress on the work of James Fintan Lalor puts Pearse further to the left than might be conventionally allowed. Connolly gets great exposure – excerpts from Labour in Irish History, as already noted, and The Re-Conquest of Ireland accompany strenuous journalism. In “A Continental Revolution”, we see him treading carefully but not illogically between nationalism and socialism, between a “patriotism” of capital and the national good of the labouring masses.

The book is rounded out with polemical pieces by the historian Alice Stopford Green and with Ronald McNeill’s defence of the Union. Green declares that Ulster loyalism adheres to an “ourselves alone” doctrine far more faithfully than Sinn Féin. Meanwhile, the development of “democracy” on the island of Britain has been in no way matched by “democracy” in Ireland. But McNeill argues that the rule of Ireland under the Union has been the most liberal and enlightened the country has ever seen. McNeill seems at times to waver between tracing loyalism to ancient ties and divisions, on the one hand, or economic and political developments since the 1880s, on the other, and he has a strong tendency to essentialise Catholicism. Yet the sincerity of his position is not to be doubted.

The overall effect of the collection is greatly to whet the reader’s appetite for further reading of the work of almost every writer featured. In making texts, often long out of print and difficult of access, available to scholars, teachers and students in one handsome and distinguished volume, Gallagher and Bourke perform a signal service to Irish Studies. But they also agreeably deform and implicitly debunk the conventions of “Irish Studies”, so obsessed as those conventions are with “culture” and “identity”. Bourke and Gallagher’s book tells us that this body of specifically political writing can be and should be placed alongside the thinking of other revolutionary processes, or other histories of secession or decolonisation, or alongside the political ideas of the European war or of the great re-arrangement of states, nations and one-time empires which was the global context for the Irish struggles. Irish political ideas and writing deserve to be studied and evaluated in their own terms, not merely as part of the discursive mix underpinning a Yeats poem or a party campaign. Richard Bourke and Niamh Gallagher’s excellent anthology shows us where to start.


Conor McCarthy teaches English at Maynooth. His most recent book is Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel (London: Zed Books, 2020), edited with David Landy and Ronit Lentin.



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