Photo of Mae Burke, Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns, Cumann na mBan revolutionaries, taken shortly after they escaped from a British POW camp, in Carlow, Ireland 1921
Photo of Mae Burke, Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns, Cumann na mBan revolutionaries, taken shortly after they escaped from a British POW camp, Carlow, Ireland 1921 (Image cleaned in Photoshop, ASF)

I remember writing an essay many years ago where I stated that the Irish revolution was the making of Ireland’s language revival and the Irish counter-revolution was its breaking. Nothing in the last ten years has altered that opinion. The internecine victory of the reactionary forces of the old Catholic Nationalist bourgeoisie in 1923, with the establishment of the so-called Free State and its perpetual coalition of conservative politicians, business leaders, press owners and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, blocked the progressive forces that had been unleashed in the first two decades of the 20th century. It was to take another eighty years and the first decade of the 21st century before we saw the toppling of one leg of that unholy quadruped (unfortunately the right-wing political, business and media classes continue to limp along, albeit badly bruised by the death spasms of their Celtic Tiger offspring).

Everything that is, or was, wrong about the modern island nation of Ireland can be traced back to the fatal struggle between a pluralist Irish Republic and an authoritarian Irish Free State in the dark months of 1922/23. One side represented the freedoms spelled out in the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and all that came before it, Fenian and Gaelic traditions intertwined. The other side represented the diktats of Ultramontanism, of faith before citizenship, the values of the pacified Pale over the values of those who lived beyond the Pale while paying lip-service to the latter. It seems, judging by Brendan Ó Cathaoir’s article in the Irish Times, that I am not the only one who feels that way:

“The 1916 Proclamation is our charter of liberty. Yet there was a disconnection between its noble aspirations and the realities of life in the new State, as the latest sordid chapter to emerge from our past, regarding mother and baby homes, reminds us. Fratricidal strife severed the link.

Instead of using the Treaty as a stepping-stone to the republic, as Michael Collins argued, we descended into civil war.

We achieved statehood but failed to create a new society. It was not the state envisaged by those leaders – now dead – who had vowed to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. The carnival of reaction predicted by Connolly irrupted, with institutionalised discrimination in the North and unbridled clerical power in the South.

Pearse’s literary executor, Desmond Ryan, wrote: “Beneath the debris of the Civil War the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried. It was the hour of reaction, of the place-hunter, the intriguer, the hopeless, the mediocre, the superstitious… Never had the pride and self-respect of a nation been so deeply wounded.”

The vacuum created by the eclipse of civic republicanism was filled by an authoritarian church.

Limited resources were spent on restoring basic infrastructure; the institutional church was left in charge of schools, hospitals and a rudimentary welfare system.

Women were for the most part sidelined in the Free State.

Regarding the revival of Irish, the scholar patriot Edward MacLysaght said the Treaty split “resulted in our throwing away what may prove to have been the last chance” of saving Irish as a vernacular language. “The split blew that spirit to atoms as surely as the explosion at the Four Courts made dust of the archives in the Public Record Office.”

The tragedy of Ireland is a Free State that should never have been and a Republic that should have been.

29 comments on “The Irish Republic

  1. Ashling Larkin

    Wonderful article, Sionnach, and spot-on. Felt compelled to write note (An Lorcánach forwarded details!)

    I always had my suspicions about Jansenism: we know the French language (a compulsory subject in Catholic run secondary schools) is legacy of history, and we know how royalist the Church hierarchy were after 1798/before Free State (when Church became more emboldened)

    “..Mr. Tom Wall, Assistant Librarian at University College, Dublin, has written admirably on this silly accusation and on the whole history of the remarkable part played by Irish priests in Paris in the Jansenist controversy. The so-called Jansenism of late nineteenth century Ireland was nothing more than an element of ‘Victorian Ireland’ that came over with the compulsory English after the Famine”

    http://lxoa.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/jansenism-and-irish-catholicism/
    http://lxoa.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/priests-and-people-in-ireland/
    http://www.catholicireland.net/father-murphy-of-boolavogue/

    [Michael McCarthy (1864-1928)]
    https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22McCarthy%2C%20Michael%20John%20Fitzgerald%22

    Áth mór leis na ‘blogawards’!

    Ashers

    • an lorcánach

      ah, snap…! 😉

    • Thanks for the kind Comment, Ashling. The hierarchy of the RCC became the new aristocracy in the Free State, the parochial house replacing the Big House (not that many of the latter went anywhere for the first 50 years or so. How much land in Ireland is owned by people whose ancestors came into its possession through conquest? No land-distribution to the peasants here. The Free State army made sure of that in the 1920s).

      Ah, the Blog Awards is just a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously, but thanks 😉

  2. john cronin

    I can’t remember the name of the German historian who said that the whole point of history was to tell it “Wie es eigentlich war.” As it actually was. This is an example of writing an alternative history that the writer wishes had happened, rather than what did occur.
    Pro Treaty candidates received over 75% of the vote in the 26 Counties (albeit on a 62% turnout. The Irregulars were crushed relatively easily, one main reason being that they made themselves so unpopular by stealing, random undisciplined violence visited on the populace, and by doing their best to destroy the country’s infrastructure.
    The “Pluralism” of the Republicans is probably best gauged by their massacres of Protestant civilians and Catholic ex servicemen, the burning down of Protestant homes churches and orphanages, their murders of journalists who failed to give them a less than glowing write up etc etc.
    The idea that clerical authoritarianism would somehow magically have been avoided in the New Ireland had the Republicans won is equally absurd. Everyone was a good obedient Catholic in those days. The idea that, had Pearse and Connolly lived, the place would have become some sort of Gaelic utopia is equally risible. Connolly was a bloodthirsty Marxist, who had he ever actually been given a country to run, would have turned it into a mini Soviet Union, and massacred everyone who disagreed with him. Pearse was clearly more than somewhat mad.

    “Little lad of the tricks,
    Full well I know
    That you have been in mischief:
    Confess your fault truly.

    I forgive you, child
    Of the soft red mouth:
    I will not condemn anyone
    For a sin not understood.

    Raise your comely head
    Till I kiss your mouth:
    If either of us is the better of that
    I am the better of it.

    There is a fragrance in your kiss
    That I have not found yet
    In the kisses of women
    Or in the honey of their bodies.

    Lad of the grey eyes,
    That flush in thy cheek
    Would be white with dread of me
    Could you read my secrets.

    He who has my secrets
    Is not fit to touch you:
    Is not that a pitiful thing,
    Little lad of the tricks ?

    Not sure I’d want him teaching in any school my kids attended……

    • an lorcánach

      john – you really need to update your reading material!

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Terrible-Queer-Creatures-History-Homosexuality/dp/1905569238/

      “Lacey quotes Elaine Sissons as dealing ‘in a marvellously intelligent way’ with the subject of Pearse’s ‘sublimated homosexuality’ and the ‘homoerotic tendencies’ in his work, setting these matters in the context of the Edwardian culture of his time: ‘In general, people do not have a difficulty with the knowledge that Pearse was a homosexual man who sublimated his erotic desire for the male body into his work, his writings and his politics. The question that dare not speak its name is whether or not Pearse was a paedophile.'”

      http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/terrible-queer-creatures-a-history-of-homosexuality-in-ireland/

    • Ach, John, not this nonsense. Seriously? The original poem is A Mhic Bhig na gCleas of which the English version, “Little Lad of the Tricks”, is a free translation by Pearse.

      “A mhic bhig na gcleas,
      Is maith is feas dom,
      Go ndearnais míghníomh:
      Can go fíor do locht.

      Maithim duit, a linbh
      An bhéil deirg bhoig:
      Ní daorfar liom neach
      Ar pheaca nár thuig.

      Do cheann maiseach tóg
      Go bpógad do bhéal:
      Más fearrde aon dínn sin,
      Is fearrde mise é.

      Tá cumhracht I d’phóig
      Nachar fríth fós liom.
      I bpógaibh na mban
      Ná i mbalsam a gcorp.

      A mhic na rosc nglas,
      An lasair sin id’ ghnúis
      De m’uamhan bheadh bán
      Dá léifeá mo rúin.

      An té’ gá bhfuil mo rúin,
      Ní fiú é teagmháil leat:
      Nach trua an dáil sin,
      A mhic bhig na gcleas?”

      The pseudo-Freudian interpretations of the English poem began with the British apologist school of Irish historians and journalists in the 1970s/’80s, ideologues desperate to tear down the most iconic figure of the Irish Revolution and by extension the revolution itself. Originally the claims centred on Pearse’s alleged homosexuality (when “homosexuality” was considered immoral/perverse in popular culture) now it is alleged paedophilia.

      The poem A Mhic Bhig na gCleas is typical of a whole body of maudlin, child-centred poems and ballads in Victorian/Edwardian Ireland and Britain. It was part of the cultural zeitgeist, authors addressing their own inner thoughts on matters relating to love, nature, society, politics, etc. in the child-framework (the poem above all reflects Pearse’s interest and frequent emulation of William Blake, in this case “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” and poems like “The Little Boy Lost” or “The Little Boy Found”). The secrets referred to are of course Pearse’s own morose nature (his troubled family life – his father’s deceased first wife, half-siblings, alcoholic brother-in-law, etc. – as well as his unrequited love for the scholar Eibhlín Nic Niocaill who drowned while on holiday shortly before he wrote the poem) and his increasingly dangerous attraction towards Irish Republican politics. It was the death of Eibhlín which probably did more than anything else to turn Pearse onto the path he followed. Her loss haunted him:

      “O lovely head of the woman that I loved,
      In the middle of the night I remember thee;
      But reality returns with the sun’s whitening,
      Alas, that the slender worm gnaws thee to-night.
      Beloved voice, that wast low and beautiful,
      Is it true that I heard thee in my slumbers!
      Or is the knowledge true that tortures me?
      My grief, the tomb hath no sound or voice?”

      You need to get out of that 1970s’ time-warp! 😉

      • That poem sounds like it was written by a paedophile to me as well.

        • Because you are reading it as an early 21st century man not an early 20th century man or woman shaped by late 19th century artistic forms and conventions. The poem is typical of Victorian/Edwardian poetry. There are dozens like it. The focus of the poem is innocence which the Victorians personified by children and childhood scenarios.

          There is not a single shred of evidence anywhere in the entire body of writing published by Pearse or amongst any of his contemporaries’ recollections that even hints at paedophilia. The entire claim is built upon one poem in a 36 year life and career. For god’s sake the man couldn’t even carry out corporal punishment in an age where children were beaten as part of normal schooling and parenting. He forbid bullying, animal cruelty, etc. at his school. He created a “democracy” of students with their own councils and self-regulation. He was close friends with some of the most prominent feminist activists and revolutionaries of the age. He was a suffragette! Context people, context…

          • It’s too explicit to be an allegory.

            • “The entire claim is built upon one poem in a 36 [year] life and career” Actually, it’s probably based on one _translation_ of _one_ poem in a 36-year life and career. I wonder how many of those who claim he was a paedophile have read the original, and considered how different it comes across in Irish. Me, I’d personally need more proof than a translation of a poem to label anyone a paedophile, but that’s just me…

              • It is worth noting that the allegation about Pearse’s friends expressing concern over the publication of the English version of the poem in 1909 is entirely based upon the claim of Ruth Dudley Edwards in her biography of Pearse. No other historian or writer has been able to independently source her story. Yet what seems to have been little more than the dubious observation of one person is repeated as fact.

    • Sinéad Rohan

      That old chestnut! God forbid that Ireland’s other gay patriots still be written out as deviant predators. Revisionism’s ugly mask forever slips!

      • Personally I don’t believe that Pearse was gay but it is certainly revealing that some seem to equate being gay with being a paedophile. Masks slipping indeed. A short piece defending the Irish Republic and criticising the Irish Free State elicits the response “But Pearse was a gay/paedo!”. Some defence of 90 years of Free Staterism!

  3. the Irish counter-revolution was its breaking
    —————-
    Are you saying that the Anti-Treaty forces were the good guys?

    • There were good and bad guys on all sides but I believe the Republican side was in the right on the basic issue. The Free State was a political abomination. History has proved that to be true. Interestingly more and more people are coming to believe that (or at least that is my impression). The attacks on 1916 in the media are more to do with laying the groundwork for 2022 and the commemoration of the foundation of the Free State in 1922. Republicans will not be celebrating that and neither will a significant minority in this country.

  4. john cronin

    The Free State was accepted by 75% of the population, as they realised pragmatically that it was the best thing on offer at the time, and that the anti-treaty forces were doing their best to wreck the country at the time. Again, you refuse to engage re the massive economic damage done by the Irregulars, their ill discipline, robberies, and murders of large numbers of civilians during the period 1923-24.

  5. Thank you, that’s an interesting viewpoint. My question would be given that the ‘Republican’ outlook obviously survived the civil war, how did the ‘Free State’ faction manage to rule the root up until the present day? Not just in terms of politics, but also in outlook, language and culture? Or have I misunderstood you?

    • Wasn’t Fianna Fail part of the “Republican” faction?

      The party who suffered a humiliating defeat at the last elections.

      • Originally yes, Fianna Fáil was a 1926 split in (Anti-Treaty) Sinn Féin. By 1932, nine years after the end of the civil war (eight years really since the last prisoners were not released until 1924 and clashes were still occurring in that year), one part of the defeated Republican side was in government.

        The Civil War in Ireland was begun, prosecuted and barbarised by the Free State government and its forces.

        • Didn’t the anti-treaty forces attack first?

          • No the Pro-Treaty/Free State forces attacked first, backed by British artillery and arms (and British military personnel). See here and here.

            The Free State began the Civil War. It was a counter-revolution by any other name.

            • john cronin

              The Free State Army let Rory O’Connor and the anti-Treaty faction occupy the Four Courts for nearly four months before acting against them. It was either that or have the British Army do it, as per the threat from Churchill. They used this opportunity to stock up on arms.

              De Valera, being the shifty unprincipled careerist that he was, knew perfectly well that Griffin and Collins were going to have to come back from London with some sort of pragmatic compromise, but pretended that he did not know this, and by not going on the journey and remaining in Ireland and not taking part directly in the negotiations, cynically positioned himself as a principled opponent of what he knew was inevitable. The Civil War was primarily his fault. He was driven by egocentricity more than anything else. (Where he also got the time to defraud money from the American loans I don’t know.

              • Stiofán O'Griobtha

                Personally I think De Valera sent Collins to the Treaty negotiations because he knew that most of the IRA, having sworn themselves to a Republic would never accept anything less than a Republic (if you get arrested by the Auxiliaries and tortured or your friend is abducted and shot by a murder gang from Dublin Castle or your family is burnt out of their home it gets difficult to accept anything less). Collins would have been the most obvious man they would listen to if and when a Republic became infeasible. They’re not going to listen to a man like Griffith or Desmond Fitzgerald or de Valera himself for that matter.
                You should also remember that Collins as head of the IRB was the one who ordered the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in 1922 causing the British Government to react by basically saying “either the Free State sorts out the Republicans or the British Government will”. So Collins isn’t entirely free of blame. The Anti-Treaty IRA were more interested in a campaign against sectarian Northern Ireland. Hence the movement of men from the Southern Divisions in Munster to the border.
                Even if de Valera did accept the Treaty it’s fairly obvious that men like Tom Barry, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Peadar O’Donnell, Liam Mellowes, Joe Mckelvey etc. were not going to listen to him and accept it. When the Dump Arms order was given by the Executive Council of the IRA in 1923 de Valera had absolutely no part in it. The Irish Civil War is far more dense and multi-layered than you seem to think and would have it made out to be. This isn’t Primary or Secondary School.

              • Personally I think De Valera sent Collins to the Treaty negotiations because he knew that most of the IRA, having sworn themselves to a Republic would never accept anything less than a Republic (if you get arrested by the Auxiliaries and tortured or your friend is abducted and shot by a murder gang from Dublin Castle or your family is burnt out of their home it gets difficult to accept anything less). Collins would have been the most obvious man they would listen to if and when a Republic became infeasible. They’re not going to listen to a man like Griffith or Desmond Fitzgerald or de Valera himself for that matter.
                You should also remember that Collins as head of the IRB was the one who ordered the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in 1922 causing the British Government to react by basically saying “either the Free State sorts out the Republicans or the British Government will”. So Collins isn’t entirely free of blame. The Anti-Treaty IRA were more interested in a campaign against sectarian Northern Ireland. Hence the movement of men from the Southern Divisions in Munster to the border.
                Even if de Valera did accept the Treaty it’s fairly obvious that men like Tom Barry, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Peadar O’Donnell, Liam Mellowes, Joe Mckelvey etc. were not going to listen to him and accept it. When the Dump Arms order was given by the Executive Council of the IRA in 1923 de Valera had absolutely no part in it. The Irish Civil War is far more dense and multi-layered than you seem to think and would have it made out to be. This isn’t Primary or Secondary School.

    • john cronin

      It didn’t. Fianna Fail were in power for most of the time.

    • When the revolutionary-era Sinn Féin split into Pro- and Anti-Treaty factions the latter retained most of the progressive and liberal activists. The Pro-Treaty faction was largely made up of people conservative on socio-economic matters and it soon allied/incorporated like-minded elements in the existing Nationalist (non-Republican) establishment such as the old Irish Parliamentary Party, business and press leaders, southern Unionist parties, etc. In a sense Anti-Treaty SF was on the broad Centre-Left, Pro-Treaty SF on the Centre-Right.

      With the defeat of the Republican (Anti-Treaty SF) side by the Nationalist (Pro-Treaty SF) side in the 1922-23 civil war the former grouping suffered its own internal split in 1926 with the formation of Fianna Fáil. That party took many of the more conservative folk in Anti-Treaty SF into their new movement, plus plenty of Leftish radicals. In order to overcome the opposition of their enemies Fianna Fail essentially adopted the politics of its political opponents (the antecedents of modern Fine Gael, the one-time Pro-Treaty SF) becoming like them but with a Republican veneer. For many years Fianna Fáil was the party of Ireland’s urban and rural poor, not Labour or other Left-groupings.

      By 1932 Fianna Fáil was in power in Dublin but it only managed that by selling a large chunk of its radical soul, allying itself to the Roman Catholic Church, etc. In effect Fianna Fáil became its enemy in order to defeat its enemy. It is a remarkable thing that just 9 years after their defeat a sizeable chunk of those who lost the 1922-23 civil war were back in power and remained the default party of government until the 2000s. It is worth remembering that under the Pro-Treaty side the Free State was an authoritarian, police state from 1922 to 1932 with draconian “anti-subversive” laws, censorship, etc. Political exiling, voluntary or otherwise, was the norm thousands of Republicans fled the country.

      This of course is broad brush-strokes stuff. John Dorney has a very fair article on it here.

      I’d also recommend this book, “Sins of The Father” by Conor McCabe.

  6. Political Tourist

    Fianna Fail looks like it beat New Labour by 70 years.
    The Free State was a complete and utter disaster.
    Hard to believe the bulk of Northern Nationalism supported the Free State during the civil war.
    What a mistake that was.

    • True, they fell for the promises of Collins and Mulcahy on one hand and Devlin on the other. With Collins gone the “Nationalists” of the IPP stripe took over. Though one cannot be sure I cannot imagine Collins would have tolerated partition for too long, at least without some form of definitive all-Ireland structures.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: