Tag Archives: Irish Revolution

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.

Paper Walls and Paper Wars: a historical case study

Is there a difference between “fake news” and propaganda? In the dictionary sense, the word “propaganda” may or may not have derogatory connotations, depending on its usage. Like rhetoric, as a tool of persuasion or argument, it is probably as old as humanity itself, certainly as an aspect of politics or even the writing of history.

A century ago Ireland experienced propaganda battles that were typified as an attempt to either build or dismantle “a paper wall” around the island. Those who sought political independence from Britain attempted to propagandise their cause internationally, while Britain, in resisting this campaign, was accused by the same party of maintaining “a paper wall” and propagating “fake news”, both nationally and internationally, to undermine the same goal.

If one was to ask: who was right and who was wrong, or who was really telling the truth, in these debates, would that not be entertaining a value judgment? Therefore, can one be truly objective in addressing such a question? Perhaps, at most, it is possible to ascertain a sound perspective. I will suggest here that the traditional obsession of historians with accurate chronologies can throw some light on this curious historical phenomenon.

Let us consider a case study: Ireland recently celebrated a centenary of the 1916 rising, but how many people abroad appreciated the Irish aspiration for independence a century ago? It is difficult to tell. On the European continent, perhaps the principal newspaper that might be expected to refer to Irish matters was La Gazette Franco-Brittanique (Paris). However, ever after Irish politicians refused to attend Westminster and provisionally set up Dáil Eireann in January 1919 (while citing the 1916 rebels as a source of inspiration), this journal admitted that it was requested by British authorities to write “not a word about Ireland” (quoted Nationality, 1 Mar. 1919). Therefore, for Irish politicians to propagandise their cause in Europe was a tremendous uphill challenge.

It took four months after the Dáil was established before a (pioneering) Franco-Irish Society could be created in Paris, but communiqués sent to the French government could not be published either in France or in Ireland (Nationality, 17 and 31 May 1919). British censorship notwithstanding, as was shown by George Gavan Duffy’s contributions to Nationality in June 1919, it also took some time for the Dáil’s envoys in Paris to truly familiarise themselves with the state of opinion in a war-weary France or, indeed, European continent. Nevertheless, it was eventually possible for the Irish in Paris to publish a regular series entitled “France and Ireland” that reported on French reactions to Irish political developments.

France and Ireland

Let us consider the questions: who was behind this development and was it noteworthy, accurate or “mere” propaganda? Dáil Eireann’s first Parisian officials were men who later distinguished themselves in Irish governmental circles: Michael MacWhite, Sean T. O’Kelly, George Gavan Duffy and Joseph Walshe. While the “France and Ireland” series did not carry by-lines, the initials ‘M.M.’ certainly suggests the involvement of MacWhite, an Irishman who had once served in the French Foreign Legion. The later articles in the series, which ran from January 1920 to February 1922, usually featured no initials, although one bearing the initials ‘S.P.B.’ probably referred to Walshe’s name in Gaelic.

While an Irish Bulletin was the principal medium used by Dáil officials to propagate Irish news on the continent, “France and Ireland” was published in Young Ireland, a Dublin weekly whose staff was imprisoned frequently by British officials. It sought to convince the Irish public that the Irish political mission abroad was notable or a success. As such, its contents can certainly be classified as propaganda. Nevertheless, it is certainly not without interest because, biased commentaries notwithstanding, through publishing translations of French newspaper reports on Ireland it gives an indication of both the levels of success of the Irish mission and the degree to which French opinion could become interested in Irish affairs. In this, it was not necessarily inclined to exaggerate. In fact, it may be said to highlight that although sympathy with the Irish cause could be mustered in the French press only a handful of French politicians were inclined to speak on the Irish case and this was usually done only at Irish events held in Paris, or events in Brittany, rather than in the French National Assembly. Most of all, to discerning readers, the series can throw light on two questions of motive: first, why the Irish desired to affect French opinion; and, second, what generally motivated some French commentators to take up Ireland’s case?

The great variety of French publications quoted in translation in the series—national, provincial and sectional—indicates that the Irish authors essentially deemed any publicity to be good publicity. From this point of view, it is perhaps of note that the greatest wave of French press interest in Ireland seemed to coincide with the first real successful efforts within Ireland to consolidate the Dáil’s authority. This took place during the summer of 1920. By contrast, the actual contents of the French writings point to the reality that these French authors were concerned less with Irish fortunes than the degree to which giving, or not giving, publicity to Irish grievances against Britain could be used as a bargaining chip in France’s own relations with Britain: in particular, attempting to persuade a very reluctant Britain to throw its weight behind the French desire to take control of the Rhineland. Indeed, this series indicates that the French intimated quite successfully to the British authorities that pro-Irish press reporting in France would be curtailed (as evidently it was for much of 1921) only if Britain treated French strategic interests with more sympathy. This was the essential French motive. Faced with this reality, the Irish could only “look on” while trying to persuade themselves that cynicism was not inherently at the root of the political game of diplomacy; a field of activity in which they were inherently newcomers.

The “France and Ireland” series concluded in early February 1922 after the French premier formally received an Irish government delegation for the first time. Did this mean that the Irish mission was a success? French sources quoted illustrate that it was only a partial success. The French government stated frankly that it could receive an Irish government delegation only because the latter had reached an agreement with Britain; a clear admission that Ireland would not acquire seniority over Britain in French diplomatic relations. Such, perhaps, is the usual fate of small nations in international relations. To discerning readers, the tone at this time of Le Temps, which was a semi-governmental French organ, might be considered to be of particular note because of its ambiguity. It was rare for the Irish cause to attract positive publicity in major or national French journals such as Le Temps. Now that it did, its praise of the leader of the Irish government as a would-be autonomous figure of note was combined with observations in which doubt was cast subtly on the degree to which the Irish acceptance of an agreement with Britain could allow them to exercise diplomatic independence. This perspective might be said to have reflected the challenges that would soon befall the first diplomatic missions of the Irish Free State. Many historians would describe that as the first true chapter in Irish international relations, as only from this time forward did various foreign governments slowly but surely begin the protocol of formally meeting Irish government representatives. However, the fact that Michael MacWhite and Joseph Walshe acted as the two key figures in the Irish Free State’s department of external affairs for many years afterwards points to the reality that the root of the Irish diplomatic mission can be located earlier; in particular, in the initial propaganda campaigns that were launched during 1919.

Perhaps necessarily, propaganda served as the first step for Ireland in acquiring an international audience. Its bias was necessary in order to make a persuasive case. If seen in this light, the “France and Ireland” series may be considered as a sort of beginning, or prelude, to Irish diplomatic history that was not without significance through highlighting certain dynamics of previously untested political waters before any Irish government could truly enter them. This “France and Ireland” series has not hitherto been available through any digital library. Its contents are free from copyright, however, and an online archive of the series can be found at the Research Library link on this site.

“Public History” and Cinema

Flag-Waver

The Internet has become a forum for scholarship since the 2000s. Since that time, there has been a growing emphasis upon the idea of “public history”. This means historians are encouraged to engage with society as much as possible through non-academic means, principally the media. Scholars are expected to engage in “outreach” activities in much the same way as libraries, archives and museums are expected to increase their number of visitors by enhancing their visibility and profile in the business world. Everyone, as well as everything, is now expected to have a saleable public profile, even if it is just a ‘facebook selfie’. This would seem to be a good idea in that it seems to emphasise that all individuals should seek to contribute to and serve society as much as possible. But does it represent a more longstanding historical trend?

It has often been suggested that a reaction against “ivory tower” thinking has been a prevalent feature of European life ever since an emphasis on the idea of ‘globalisation’ developed in the wake of the Second World War. One might say that a visual representation of this trend was Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s A World History of Art (1981), which had an equal emphasis upon every corner of the globe and no distinctions made between supposedly primitive and more sophisticated means of expression. A literary representation might be Australian author John Carey’s The intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia 1880-1939 (1992). As the book’s blurb noted, Carey saw himself as ‘exposing the revulsion from common humanity’ that had been a feature of the thinking of most ‘canonized writers’ of the early twentieth-century, most of whom were European rather than Americans or, indeed, Australians, and despised popular means of expression such as journalism or cinema. A desire to emphasis the equality of different mediums for human expression has evidently led to a re-evaluation of the written word. For instance, if film as a medium has more popular appeal than a book one could argue that this does mean that film is of any less value as a medium for communication. If anything, it may have a more direct and powerful impact upon its audience. If this is also the purpose of the “outreach” activities of “public history”, however, then one might wonder whether or not some mediums for communication have indirectly become undervalued.

Shortly before I first embarked on nineteenth-century historical research during the late 1990s, it seemed like many historians overreacted to Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins (1996). Conferences and publications were suddenly launched that seemed to revolve around that film, rather than historical research being done. Twenty years later, it seems that many Irish historians are still fascinated with this film as well as Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) as if cinematic representations are a very important manner indeed. As a determined young researcher, I judged that it was better not to see these films at all, or else to forget them as soon as they were seen, as they were not works of historical research. But was this a fair assessment?

During the 1990s, various films seem to have made an impact upon historical thinking in their host countries as much as some films did within Ireland. For instance, The Lady and The Duke (1994), a French film by Eric Rohmer (perhaps the most notable Catholic cinematic artist of the last century, who initially studied to be a historian), apparently stimulated a big controversy in France after it was denounced in some quarters as ‘royalist propaganda’ that sought to undermine the ideals of the (two centuries old) French Revolution. Around the same time, the internationally released Russian film Burnt by the Sun (1994) was interpreted by many in Russia as having shown how the ideals of the Russian Revolution became misrepresented and undermined over time, as the old aristocratic and internationalist ‘white’ element gradually clawed its way back into the army, leading to purge of the ‘red’ republican element, as a result of Stalin’s regime. This film, with its patriotic overtones, was also well received in America and it is, I believe, still considered in Russia as an equally persuasive account of how the fates of chance can affect the Russian nation as Soviet films such as The Mother (1926) had been considered in their own day.

If there is no more persuasive media than cinema, what does this mean for the outreach activities of the historian? Can a lifetime of scholarship compete with a persuasive five-minute long cinematic dramatisation within a film? The answer to this question would seem to be ‘no’. Does this mean that “public historians” should aspire to be filmmakers rather than teachers? Should youtube videos be considered a new form of online colleges?

If the fate of scholarship is that it is to be largely ignored, this could be considered as nothing particularly new. During the nineteenth century, many considered that the communal singing of a political ballad was a more potent and persuasive means of communication than the publication of a book. This is hardly surprising, as book reading and writing is a solitary pursuit while communal singing is the opposite. As such, the growing emphasis on “public history” may not actually be particularly novel at all. Perhaps it is simply a question of “the more things seem to change, the more they actually stay the same”.