Atlas of the Irish Revolution

If various forms of popular entertainments can be believed, it seems that American teenagers, along with inverting the meaning of the word “sick”, have become particularly fond of using the adjective “awesome” in a truly superficial manner. To describe something as “awesome”, therefore, may imply something that is banal or of only momentary entertainment value. There is no other adjective that springs to mind this morning, however, to describe my thoughts and feelings upon examining a copy of a new publication, the Atlas of the Irish Revolution. Literally speaking, to be “in awe” of something means to behold something for which one can only feel a sense of reverential wonder. I would be surprised if any individual did not feel similarly upon picking up a copy of this publication, which is truly gargantuan both in terms of content and proportions.

Containing 364 original maps, as well as over 700 top quality and rare images, it visualises Irish history with a depth that even the most ambitious of web-host designers of digital history projects, such as have recently won national awards from the American Historical Association, could only dream of. On top of that, it contains no less than 150 chapters of text from appropriately 100 authors. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that it weighs approximately 5 kilograms. Its weight and scale is such that, not unless one has biceps the size of Hulk Hogan’s, it needs to lie “flatbed” on a table to peruse its contents.

This could be one potential drawback for the publication, for some people avoid “coffee table” size books. In addition, many potentially great reference books of this kind, such as the Penguin Atlases of World History, are designed to be pocket-book sized. One wonders, therefore, if this publication, to achieve its deserved level of attention, should also be made available online or if the contents of its 150 chapters, here subdivided into ten sections, could be made available as downloadable PDFs for a variety of educational or cultural purposes. It is really like 150 books in one. Although it is available to buy online, I fear that postage costs for a volume like this, to use a clichéd old historical joke, could cost more than a ransom for a deposed Hapsburg monarch.

As to its contents, in keeping with the Sean Keating “men of the south” image on the front cover, this publication could well be described as the most detailed and comprehensive history of the army of Irish republican volunteers of the day that has ever been assembled. Even if French scholars spent a decade detailing down to a community, or individual, level all available information of the parameters of the French Resistance movement, it is doubtful that it could result in such a comprehensive picture. There is an effective combination of local and national analyses in this book. Similarly, the recent, seemingly paramount, interest in personal stories of the revolution is reflected in the contents of this volume in such a way that it serves to illuminate rather than obscure national factors. The equal emphasis in later chapters upon historiographical debates is certainly in keeping with scholarly norms, although I personally think this is a theme that can be overdone. Call me a cynic if one wishes, but it often seems to me that there are a hundred-time-more individuals who enjoy arguing about Irish history than there are individuals who really have an open mind about understanding Irish history. A volume such as this, however, will certainly expose any reader to a myriad of perspectives, as much as unfamiliar subject matters, that may encourage a fuller spectrum of understanding.

There are some good chapters here on the international dimension of the Irish revolution, although these are not as comprehensive as they may become in the future because this is an area that is only beginning to be researched. For those interested in women’s history, there are several interesting pieces in this volume although I personally missed any reference to Katherine Hughes. She was a Canadian-born writer, whom Eamon DeValera relied upon, from 1920 onwards, to create Irish diaspora movements in Canada, Australia and America with a view to creating a non-governmental organisation to be affiliated with the nascent Irish government. Together with Thomas Hughes Kelly and Michael MacWhite, she was also the organiser of the Parisian World Conference of the Irish Race, upon which the Irish government spent several thousand pounds, that (amongst other things) was first responsible for introducing Irish artists such as Harry Clarke to a continental audience, while she was also planning a Dictionary of Irish Biography before she was tragically struck down by cancer in 1924. Such individual stories are fascinating, but they tend to slip from our notice because such individuals were neither born in nor lived in Ireland. Can they be included in Ireland’s “revolutionary story” or should one sceptically dismiss these activities on distant shores as a meaningless form of “paddy-whackery”? I am definitely of the former opinion, although the day when historians can conceive of an effective manner of encompassing such a broader story is perhaps not yet upon us.

A valuable chapter in this current volume, however, that certainly points in precisely this direction can be found in editor Donal O’Drisceoil’s study “moral force, humanitarianism and propaganda”. This details the type of vision and organisational methods that inspired the approach of individuals like DeValera to placing Ireland’s cause before the world at large. The Irish civil war, which is detailed well here, is often seen to have sent these aspirations to the wall, although perhaps the true issue was the complex challenge of organisation? Of late, a pet theory of mine is that if Michael Collins adopted unorthodox methods of organisation within Ireland that ultimately backfired, his “fenian-alter-ego” Harry Boland made virtually the same mistake among the Irish abroad (including in Paris and London) for essentially the same reason, which could be the ultimate justification for arguing that the old Irish Republican Brotherhood’s fondness for “wire-pulling” networks, confined to a small circle, was a liability rather than an asset to Irish nationalist organisations of the day. But that is another story.

Along with its pioneering use of sophisticated mapping techniques, the greatest merit of Atlas of the Irish Revolution is the sheer breadth of subjects and authors within this one single volume. For this very reason, I think it would be fair to say that there is no historian on earth that could not learn something new from the contents of this volume. This Atlas literally deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, although the extent and diversity of its contents are such that readers may have difficulty in processing it. Nevertheless, it is self evidently the ultimate reference guide for Ireland’s revolutionary era.

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