An American once suggested “the world is made of two great schools: enlightened rogues and religious fools”. I wonder sometimes if the world is divided into those who live primarily for their social/material ambitions and those (like me) who live primarily for their enthusiasms, a.k.a. mental interests. In yesteryear, a popular religious dichotomy was between materialism and spirituality. The subtitle of a new Irish historical biography of a rebel figure, “indomitable spirit”, reminds me of that.

Due to a paucity of sources, historians have always faced a challenge in writing lives of Irish rebels. After the foundation of an Irish state, pioneers of academic Irish historical studies struggled likewise. T.W. Moody concluded, most unsatisfactorily, in 1967 that the Fenian movement “made its only vital conquests in the realm of the spirit”. Dissatisfaction with such language partly inspired my own efforts to research the IRB twenty years ago. That is a subject to which I intend to return but, in the meantime, lack of any academic employment has meant it has been up to others to digest the great wealth of source material that has since been released, that is after my involuntary retirement.

Some have excelled in this work. For instance, a few years ago, Conor McNamara produced a book on Liam Mellows that, it seemed to me, struck a near perfect balance between shrewd historical analysis and reproductions of original source material. The latest biography of Cathal Brugha also benefits considerably from the research skills of its authors. The biographical introduction is clinical in piecing together Brugha’s early life and family’s circumstances, producing a pretty comprehensive and convincing picture that chimed with my own, and also filled out some missing details for me. For instance, I had thought Brugha retired from the IRB in 1911, or even a few years earlier, because he had been put in the absurd position as an “organiser” of a movement which had literally nothing to organise. However, if there are one or two little errors in this book in terms of denoting the timing of appointment of executive personnel, details extracted here by Gerard Hanley & Ó Corráin from the Bureau of Military History surprised me by effectively showing that Brugha was responsible for swearing important figures into the IRB right up to 1916, when his endurance of many wounds in the Dublin rebellion (apparently caused primarily by a grenade) became the stuff of legend.

Daithí Ó Corráin’s work elsewhere to delineate accurately the history of the Irish Volunteer movement shines through here, helping to outline Brugha’s career, although the authors’ explanation of his hostility to the IRB after 1916 did not seem very credible to me, in part because the personnel Brugha worked with thereafter, including in Britain, were all shadowy IRB conspirators who exhibited the exact traits (such as irregular bookkeeping) that the authors deemed as particularly repugnant to Brugha. My own feeling from the evidence the authors produced was that Brugha did not become consumed by jealously, as people judged, but rather by frustration: crippled since 1916, he could not lead as he wanted to and, in time, he felt particularly grieved by that. He considered himself a better man than his compatriots, and he may well have been, but that could not alter the facts of his circumstances.

The label “indomitable spirit” came from a comrade in or about 1916 and it may or may not be appropriate. If inappropriate, it may be that it reflects how colleagues like J.J. O’Kelly who found themselves in a comparable position – perhaps more talented, but with certainly less authority – latched onto Brugha as an icon to denote an ascribed “spirit”, or aspiration, to a silent majority. In short, in a similar way to how O’Donovan Rossa was labelled as the incarceration of the spirit of the pre-First World War Irish revolutionary movement, Brugha was labelled likewise for that in 1916 and afterwards and the authors have done a good job in explaining that.

Personally, I was most impressed by the simple fact that a biography of Brugha was attempted. His life and character do not fit with the vogue of most historical analyses these days. The history of the Gaelic League, although deemed by the revolution’s leaders as the key, is a subject that has slipped below the radar of historians’ analysis for a similar reason. Denoting how the history of the rebellion did or did not shape the formation of an army is a task that the authors may accomplish elsewhere, but within the confines of this biography the picture remains less than complete, in part because its subject did not live to see the true institutionalisation of an Irish army and in part because narrations of Brugha’s circle inevitably focus on personality disputes. Impulsivity was the downfall of many IRB conspirators, combined with over-reliance on secret networks (in my honest opinion, Harry Boland was probably the greatest victim of that), and Brugha continued to exhibit these traits even after he left the organisation. Should I or another eventually produce a full history of the IRB, another loose end is the history of daft plots in Britain. In my opinion, to date historians have failed to come up with credible explanations of these, and I was left wondering from this book if difficult figures (including Brugha) were occasionally sent to Britain on wild goose chases disingenuously, to intentionally remove them from a scene when an important decision was to be made, or if IRB figures such as Michael Collins, who had experience of the organisation in Britain, were simply daft in their judgment and genuinely believed in such plots. That, however, remains a question for another day. In the meantime, the authors are to be commended for their efforts to get to grips with one particular “indomitable spirit”!