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Too Long A Sacrifice

Fergus O’Ferrall

Enigmas of Sacrifice: A Critique of Joseph M. Plunkett and the Dublin Insurrection of 1916, by WJ McCormack, Michigan State University Press, 390 pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-1611861914

Years of Turbulence The Irish Revolution and Its Aftermath, In Honour of Michael Laffan, (eds) Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan, University College Dublin Press, 300 pp, €40, ISBN 978-1910820070

The decade of commemoration, 1912-1922, has given rise to so many new publications that it is doubtful if many citizens have time to sort the wheat from the chaff among them. It is reasonable to suggest, however, that the two books here reviewed will survive as required reading for anyone wishing to explore the context of the Irish revolution which ended in Irish self-government in 1922. Literary historian WJ McCormack has written a highly original contextual study in order to understand better Irish nationalist thought through the life and work of Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916) executed as a signatory of the Proclamation. Michael Laffan, whose career at UCD stretched from 1976 to 2010, and who was distinguished by his historical work on the Irish revolution, has been appropriately honoured by a collection of essays treating of many new perspectives written by leading and emerging historians.

Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan, in introducing Years of Turbulence, note the late Peter Hart’s call in 2002 to “re-conceptualise” the Irish revolution “and to have all the myriad assumptions underlying its standard narratives interrogated”. McCormack’s widely referenced study of Joseph Mary Plunkett is centrally concerned to “deconstruct” the “hagiographical tradition of nationalist biography”. Before we reflect upon what this new scholarship has to offer by way of a new conceptualisation of the Irish revolution it is important to place McCormack’s literary historical work in the context of his characteristic approach since the 1980s. He writes at the end of “a long prologue” to Enigmas of Sacrifice:

Personally, I have been brought to realize that the bulk of my literary historical work since 1980 has concentrated not on any linear narrative nor on the towering monuments, but on the awkward corners and unexpected turns occurring in Irish cultural history. Perhaps, because one has to slow down to negotiate these hairpin bends and dangerous intersections, one sees more closely and thinks more deliberately into the terrain. Readers are not passive passengers, but may be required to consult the atlas and other travelling aids from time to time.

Readers indeed have to work hard (and perhaps to have read quite widely) when reading McCormack both because of the quality of his interrogative mind and the range of his references: his angles of approach are often unexpected and he is willing to entertain long digressive explorations in seeking to explore contexts. McCormack is an Irish bibliographer, biographer, literary historian, poet (under the name Hugh Maxton) and novelist as well as editor and critic. He has an extensive knowledge of European literature, with interests in French cultural nationalism, German fiction and Hungarian poetry as well as philosophy and of psychoanalysis. He is the author of more than fifteen monographs, one of which, Dublin 1916: The French Connection (Gill and Macmillan, 2012) relates to this latest work on Plunkett given his argument that French Catholic nationalism was more important in Irish nationalist ideology than the secular republicanism of the French Revolution.

Enigmas of Sacrifice is published in a series which focuses on the nexus of violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture. The series, published by Michigan State University Press, states that it furthers the agenda of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, an international association inspired by the work of René Girard of Stanford University, and which publishes the journal Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture.

Therefore in approaching this book, the first critical study of the poet and insurrectionist, readers should not expect an easy read or a straightforward study of the short life of Joseph Mary Plunkett. McCormack organises the book in a fashion to explore the wider context of how this “minor figure” “can be located in a European movement of politico-literary reaction, nurtured on Catholicism and a mystical sense of La patrie or, across the channel, of pre-Reformation merrie England”. The Ireland that McCormack investigates “was suffused or permeated with sacrifice and debates about sacrifice” and the “long prologue”, entitled, “Crisis and Criticism” excavates the Christian debates or polemics about the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and how this theological idiom in an adulterated form entered, via Pearse and others, into Irish nationalist discourse, corrupting the more secular and republican thought of Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis.

Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916), poet and insurrectionist, had the most moneyed background of the leaders of Easter 1916, with the wealth deriving from property speculation and building by both the Plunkett and Cranny families. His brief life was marked by illness in the form of glandular tuberculosis. He was most probably dying in early 1916, having had an operation and attending at the GPO quite ill. He had an eccentric and nervous personality, formed in a family dominated by his mother’s erratic, capricious and often violent character. He had a broken formal education and became something of an autodidact, being inquisitive across a very diverse range of subjects. For health and other reasons he was much travelled in Europe and lived in Algiers in 1911-12. He bought The Irish Review in June 1913 and used it to propagandise his version of nationalism, having joined the Irish Volunteers and later, in September 1914, the IRB. His amateur indulgence in military strategy and tactics led him – unlikely as it may appear – to become the chief military strategist in the planning of the insurrection. In March to June 1915 he was in Berlin and the USA seeking German and American support for the Rising – a surprisingly youthful envoy in the view of John Devoy, the key figure in Irish-American nationalism. Plunkett was executed after the Rising, famously marrying Grace Gifford on the night before his death – the youngest of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.

McCormack provides a lengthy Chapter 1, “Naming the Parts of a Life”, that explores the “profoundly dysfunctional household” of the Plunkett family and the erratic and brief career of Joseph Mary Plunkett. The Plunketts and the Cranny families (the poet’s mother was a Cranny, as McCormack puts it, were “gliding upwards on warm currents of middle-class prosperity”. How “the military strategist of the 1916 Dublin insurrection”, Joseph Mary Plunkett, emerged from such an incompatible social background is indeed worthy of serious examination.

There is an important section in Chapter 1 on “France and the Irish Logic of Sacrifice”. French Catholic intellectual influences are very evident in Catholic middle class culture in early twentieth century Ireland and were openly embraced in Plunkett’s The Irish Review. McCormack sees this journal as being of such importance that he provides in Appendix 2 a full twenty-page listing of its contents. The “pronounced French influence in this premier journal of Irish cultural nationalism” is closely examined in Enigmas of Sacrifice. McCormack writes: “The particularly religiose form of nationalism that inspired the signatories [of the Proclamation] in 1916 inclined, almost vertiginously, to presume Ireland as being, in some essentialist and not merely descriptive way, Catholic.” This was an important breach with the Protestant tradition of Irish republicanism, with its role call of heroes ‑ Tone, Emmet, Davis, Mitchel and others ­ as well as with concepts of republicanism as understood in political philosophy.

One could argue that the basis was laid by Plunkett and others for the “Catholic theocracy” which practically obtained in the years after the Irish Free State was established. The Plunketts père et fils laid the emergent Irish polity at the feet of the pope (whom they deceived, as McCormack recounts) in April 1916. The roles played by Plunkett’s father and siblings subsequent to 1916 were, on balance, anti-democratic and reactionary as far as Irish political developments were concerned: opposition to the Treaty in 1922, opposition to parliamentary government in the Free State, endowing the IRA Army Council with sovereignty as the de jure government of Ireland in 1938, and the bombing campaign in Britain from 1939 and support for the pro-Nazi IRA. Toxic ideology with a marked Catholic nationalism of a very authoritarian stamp is in fact the end product of Plunkettite political ideology. It is important to have McCormack’s close scrutiny of the roots of such ideology in this study of Plunkett. In understanding 1916 and all that follows, right-wing French nationalism, especially in its religious doctrine of sacrifice, cannot now be ignored as it was in past more simplistic interpretations.

McCormack deals extensively with the “forgery” – his word ‑ of the famous “Castle Document”. He provides in Appendix 3, “The Forged Dublin Castle Document 1916”, a close textual analysis of the surviving copies. It is clear that Plunkett was instrumental in the genesis of this document, circulated as a seeming government order for sweeping arrests of nationalist leaders. In History Ireland, Vol 24, No 2, March/April 2016, (and a subsequent number,Vol 24, No 4, July/August, for letter of Des White on the evidence concerning  the document) there is an outline of the background to it and it is still subject to controversy as to the source of its content and the degree of deception its circulation involved. Eugene Smith, or Smyth, a telegrapher in Dublin Castle, may have supplied some authentic contingency plan which Plunkett altered to make it appear more extensive in scope and more urgent in implementation than was factual. Its circulation was intended to galvanise and motivate Irish Volunteers and nationalists generally for armed resistance.

McCormack’s book demands, but also repays, close attention because it deftly explores the mentalities of those who shaped events in early twentieth century Ireland. There are many times when one is given pause for thought: Plunkett, for example, read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1905) at least four times. Mrs Plunkett Dillon remarked that Plunkett “liked the fantastic side of the story but as time went on there was no longer any need for fantasy; the reality was fantastic enough”. Readers will be impressed not only by McCormack’s scholarship but by his patience and persistence in analysing the scrappy and diverse writings which survive in Plunkett’s papers and writings. His book is in some senses, as a result of this material, a number of “largely discrete investigations” which are “intended to illuminate a facet of the sacrifice enigma as it intermittently discloses itself through Joseph Mary Plunkett, antipolitical insurgent and religious poet”. Each “discrete investigation” prompts new perspectives which challenge traditional views and approaches to this period.

In regard to Years of Turbulence, there is concern for new themes and approaches which currently engage historians of the Irish Revolution; these are, however, tackled in the single disciplinary framework of the historian rather than the multi-disciplinary approach of McCormack. There is much to be said for wider disciplinary frameworks being considered by Irish historians. That said, there is in Years of Turbulence, twelve studies of the period which showcase new angles, revisit traditional assumptions or elaborate on some central issues in the historiography of the revolutionary period.

The collection opens with Eamon o’Flaherty’s “Michael Laffan: Portrait of a historian”. Laffan has made the revolutionary years particularly his own with major publications such as The Resurrection of Ireland:The Sinn Féin Party 1916-1923 (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Judging W.T. Cosgrave: The Foundation of the Irish State (Royal Irish Academy, 2014) and many other related publications listed in Clara Cullen’s select bibliography in this book. Laffan was often marked out as a revisionist in the polemical disputes in the 1980s and 1990s over how historians responded to the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 in their work, because of statements he made such as this in 1984: the “claim in the 1916 proclamation that six times during the past three hundred years the Irish people had asserted in arms their right to national freedom was nonsense, but it was sacred nonsense. It, and the mentality which it represented, helped give Irishmen a distorted view of history.”

In fact he is a highly professional historian true to his responsibilities to examine and re-examine evidence and he has the courage to write upon the basis of the evidence rather than to a pre-ordained agenda. Laffan’s work reveals the limits of the revolutionary potential of Sinn Féin after 1916 in a revolution which, as O’Flaherty notes, “few people wanted”. Laffan was at the forefront of the utilisation of newly available primary sources which is facilitating the “re-conceptualisation” of the period and many of his students in this collection now follow in his train.

In this regard we have examinations of suffragettes over the 1911 Census by William Murphy; the 1915 All-Ireland hurling championship by Paul Rouse and Ross O’Carroll; a study of Michael Keogh as “recruiting sergeant for Casement’s Irish Brigade” by Brian Maye; the internal divisions in the Irish Parliamentary Party after the Easter Rising by Conor Mulvagh; the scholarly and popular portrayal of Patrick Pearse from 1916 to 1927, by Shauna Gilligan; the role of GHQ in the War of Independence by Katie Lingard; violence against women in the same war by Marie Coleman; spies and informers by Anne Dolan;  the Treaty, the Pact Election and the Civil War in Co Galway by Úna Newell; military service pensions by Diarmaid Ferriter; the career of Bulmer Hobson by Marnie Hay, and the case of Sean Lemass in the making of Irish revolutionary elites by Tom Garvin.

It is inevitable in such a wide range of probing studies that people will turn to these essays at different times and for different purposes. Tom Garvin’s study of Lemass is particularly illuminating because of his subsequent career as a “key modernising leader” in the 1950s and 1960s. Lemass, we learn, had “political organisation and Parnellism in his blood”. He had a sceptical habit of mind and, according to Garvin, “showed a marked ability all his life to change his mind when circumstances clearly demanded a rethink; in this his habits of mind differed from the fanatical and semi-religious political mentality that dominated the minds of so many young IRA men and Sinn Féiners of his era and later”. One might well reflect that it would have been healthier for Irish political development had there been more like Lemass, with his empiricist and scientific outlook, and fewer like Joseph Mary Plunkett, with his mystical right-wing Catholic nationalism.

Marnie Hay’s essay “From Rogue Revolutionary To Rogue Civil Servant: the Resurrection of Bulmer Hobson” expands and revises some of the material in a chapter in her monograph, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland, published in 2009. Bulmer Hobson (1883-1969), the Northern Quaker and nationalist propagandist, found himself “disappeared” from the nationalist scene after his kidnap by the rebels on Good Friday 1916 because of his opposition to the insurrection. He had evaded arrest and had not the advantage of having been “out” in the insurrection. He managed “to stage a quiet resurrection” as a civil servant and economic propagandist in the Irish Free State as deputy director of stamping in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. He believed that a strong economy in the Free State would lead to the eventual reunification of Ireland. Hay reminds us of some of Hobson’s publications, such as his A Book of Dublin in 1929, which Fr Timothy Corcoran SJ, the editor of the Catholic Bulletin, described as “manuals for the Ascendancy mind” that “exuded in every page the drippings of deliquescent Protestantism”.

Corcoran also “lambasted Hobson in gleeful purple prose” when, in 1932, Hobson edited Saorstát Eireann Official Handbook, a report on the achievements of the first ten years of the Free State. It was turning out that the Free State was a cold enough place for Protestants, even nationalist Protestants. Hobson drafted economic plans and sought in vain De Valera’s support for them. Indeed his ideas were too advanced as he anticipated Keynesian ideas in an Irish context inimical to any coherent political or economic development planning until the late 1950s. Hobson’s Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow, which he published in 1968, re-publishes some of his economic writings from the 1930s. Hay concludes that “always at the heart of his activism – and –criticism- was an intense love of Ireland and a life-long commitment to improving his country culturally and economically”.

McCormack in Enigmas of Sacrifice has an important discussion of Plunkett’s criticism of the Collected Poems of George Russell in The Irish Review in February 1914. The key poem here is Russell’s ‘On Behalf of Some Irishmen not Followers of Tradition”. Russell is opposed to the cult or worship of the dead favoured by the nationalism of Plunkett and Pearse; McCormack observes: “Russell’s mystical learning and his engagement in contemporary politics (not simply in October 1913, but more extensively through the Agricultural Co-Operative Movement) relies on a quite different understanding of how past and present engage.” Plunkett recognised that Russell’s politics was “dangerously antagonistic” to his emerging project, which employed the tropes of self-sacrifice, glorious bloodshed, “the dead generations”, which pursued armed insurrection blessed by the Catholic Church. We have suffered so much in Ireland from “the necromancer’s spell”, to use Russell’s phrase, that reconceiving what actually occurred in the “Irish Revolution” is not only an historian’s duty but a vital service to Irish citizens who seek to develop  a comprehensive, inclusive and democratic Republic. In Russell’s words from “On Behalf of Some Irishmen not Followers of Tradition”:

No blazoned banner we unfold ‑
One charge alone we give to youth,
Against the sceptred myth to hold
The golden heresy of truth.

These books here reviewed are an important contribution to a more truthful account of the complexities and commitments of those who were involved in the revolutionary years prior to 1922. As John O’Donovan wrote decades prior to them: “Beatha an staraí firinne” (the historian’s nourishment is truth).


Fergus O’Ferrall is author of a number of books, including Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-30 (Dublin, 1985), Citizenship and Public Service: Voluntary and Statutory Relationships in Irish Healthcare (Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 2000) and he has edited and contributed to a number of books, including Longford History and Society Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin, 2010), Towards a Flourishing Society (TASC, Dublin,2012). He has contributed to a number of journals including the Dublin Review of BooksStudies and a range of historical journals.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Fergus O’Ferrall’s 2015 essay on Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare (1710-1791), “Scholar and Gentleman”. Here is an extract:

Charles O’Conor was realistic about the Stuarts’ failure after the defeat of the Boyne and he saw that the only practical way forward for Catholics lay in achieving constitutional change through reasoned argument and professions of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchs. The long saga of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation began in 1756 when, together with Dr John Curry of Dublin and Thomas Wyse of Waterford, O’Conor founded the Catholic Association – the first organised attempt to obtain legal acknowledgement of Catholic civil and property rights. It took over seventy years for emancipation to be achieved, when Daniel O’Connell, helped by another Thomas Wyse, and indeed supported by Charles O’Conor’s grandson Owen O’Conor, gave birth to Irish democracy in the 1820s, a struggle I have described in Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-1830. O’Conor was a key progenitor of our constitutional democratic tradition, and of the liberal Catholic tradition, which O’Connell supremely represents. Like O’Connell, he was determined to situate Ireland within the European Enlightenment. As Gibbons and O’Conor note, Charles O’Conor wished to place the Irish past within the domain of philosophical history and the Irish present into “a tolerant and culturally diverse republic of letters”. He had, for example, the first English translation of Montesquieu’s 1751 De l’esprit des loix (The Spirit of Laws) at his disposal; he annotated his copy in Irish. In the 1750s he wrote a number of notable pamphlets, such as The Case of the Roman Catholics (1755), highlighting the grievous disabilities under which his co-religionists suffered.

John Wrynn shows O’Conor rescuing the Irish past from antiquarianism and seeking to place it rather in the domain of philosophical (or developmental) history as he saw that this was central to the inclusion of Ireland in “the moral histories of human progress hitherto confined to Judeo-Christian antiquity and the glories of classical Greece and Rome”. He thus combated a long line of colonial detractors from Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century to Spenser, Davies, Ware and Temple in the early modern period, and to near contemporaries such as Sir Richard Cox – these had sought to deprive the Irish past of any claims to civilisation in order to justify conquest and domination. He also took David Hume to task for his anti-Irish prejudices in his historical work in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1763.



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