Bows & Arrows & Civil Wars

Recently, I was asked to write a review of Colum Kenny’s new assessment of Arthur Griffith, presumably because I wrote a biography of Griffith six or seven years ago. Being rundown with an unbreakable head cold (not actually a virus), I hope my hurriedly written and necessarily short review (which should appear in a month or two) was both fair and positive. With an eye to the so-called Decade of Centenaries, Kenny’s study was coloured more by an attempt to locate Griffith within Irish political culture and, unlike the reputedly heavy-going tome I produced, it is written in a lively, concise and almost conversational fashion, throwing out ideas like that “it is still difficult to resist taking sides on the [Anglo-Irish 1921] treaty even today and, once a side is taken, difficult to resist stacking up details in support of an argument. The use of history for political or cultural purposes did not start or end with the Irish civil war.” My own approach to Griffith was more strictly biographical and perhaps coloured by a comparable perspective to a quote within Kenny’s study from Oliver St. John Gogarty: that Griffith “had not the armour with which I, for one, was invested, be it irony or motley. His sincerity was a bow and his belief was an arrow which, if deflected, slew his faith”. In short, “my Griffith” was a more self-possessed and private character, not “one of the lads down in the pub”, and portrayed that aspect of his character as the basis of both his strengths as a political analyst and his weakness as a political actor, for if he “had not the armour” or sense of irony that necessarily protects the political activist he could not well survive the constant barrage of bows and arrows from every quarter and his sincerity of character would actually end up becoming a handicap rather than a strength in public life, necessarily enforcing either his early retirement or, dare I say “it” in these sickly times, his “self-isolation” if he would not do others the favour of “going away”.

Therein lies the theme for this month’s momentarily navel-gazing blog, for being something of an introspective character the metaphor of bows and arrows actually rather fascinates me. A believer in the merits of affectation, Gogarty evidently saw himself as a fellow-traveller of the worldly wise, conscious of what shields and weapons an actor does possess (regardless of what company they keep or how false they play others) and he portrayed the overly sincere as vulnerable individuals, too self-preoccupied in their sense of honesty to ever don a mask or to arm themselves with the many different defences or offences that the worldly-wise do in order to survive life relatively unscathed, build up a network of mutually-supporting allies and so achieve success. Why did he choose the metaphor of a bow and arrow to express that idea? Is it because of the old adage of “all is fair in love and war”? Maybe. I’m sure he was not thinking from the perspective of the history of military technology (a very eye-opening field in itself, if you ever put your mind to it, which I have probably not done enough). Most likely, he was thinking of some concept of chivalry, those “romantic facts of musketeers foundationed [sic] deep somehow” as Bob Dylan mused in “My Back Pages” (what a great lyric that was).

Recently, I saw some episodes of Robin of Sherwood for the first time since I was a child and so was seeing them with rather different eyes. If I found the concept of bows and arrows being fired everywhere rather exciting as a child, I found it almost scary as an adult, perhaps indicating that I’ve grown timid or physically weaker, but what of more metaphorical “bows and arrows”? Or to return to a theme of Kenny’s book, what if the centenary of 1922 turns into a game of “bows and arrows”, focused on defunct policemen and being debated by various common lawyers, posing as historians, with visions no broader or higher than the King’s Inn? Governments and national cultural, media and educational institutions have all been wedded to an Anglo-Irish idea of centenaries and will no doubt carry off the exercise with as much irony as Mr. Gogarty was capable of a century ago, although I do not think I could engage with that politicised campaign without switching my historical brain off completely. So, in my “self-isolation”, I shall hope that whatever historical studies I produce shall serve a greater end by following a different and possibly more enlightening path. I have a chapter or two within my latest book A history of Ireland in international relations that deals with the period covered by the Decade of Centenaries and the perspective voiced therein, without going into too much detail, is where I have been mentally “at”, as an interpretative historian. It may be that the best approach for Irish historians to take towards “bows and arrows and civil wars” is not to revel in either party-political controversies or “war, wine and women” (the trio of supposed soldiery pursuits in yesteryear), but instead to focus on the basic question of “what international pursuits and/or defence policies did the Irish state’s founding fathers actually desire?” The likes of Gogarty were too wedded to affectation and social networking to look much beyond their own personal vanities or careers whenever faced with that question and so, in turn, generally did not come up with any answers. Am I right to say: “historians should be capable of so much more?” Within that uncertainty may come a debilitating indifference, perhaps. And so…to conclude on a bizarre and quite meaningless tangent, here is a quote from a biography of a rock musician I read yesterday who once wrote a song called “I am a small republic”: “he is a brilliant person when he wants to be, but whenever his interest drifted it was a major problem.” Let us all reflect, therefore, on what it is that should sustain our interest.