Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England, by Mo Moulton

Niamh Gallagher relishes a stimulating and valuable study of a neglected period of history

June 26, 2014

For two countries that were constitutionally “united” for 120 years, it is surprising how few scholars have explored the traumatic end of the Anglo-Irish Union and its impact on interwar England. Mo Moulton has tackled this problem head on. Her multidisciplinary analysis of the persistence of “Irishness” in England following the bitter war of 1919-21 is a valuable study of the interconnectedness of both islands in a neglected period. Conveniently, it has been produced at a time when Anglo-Irish relations have never been so good.

Moulton brings to life the voices of ordinary men and women, convincingly demonstrating that the Anglo-Irish War was “an unacknowledged civil war” fought in England as well as Ireland. Irish republicans took up arms in the hope of severing the connection with England yet simultaneously revealed their very embeddedness in the Anglo-Irish relationship by relying upon diasporic populations in Liverpool, Manchester, London and elsewhere for logistical support and even sabotage. The government’s response to republican attacks, in the form of military repression and official reprisals in Ireland, provoked a harsh response from the British Left. The Left’s belief in Ireland’s claim to self-determination inspired an anti-war campaign, which Moulton notes “successfully pushed Lloyd George towards a negotiated Irish settlement”.

That campaign was a testing ground for working through some pressing issues of the day, including how to reconcile the various nationalisms unleashed by world war with the prevalent Wilsonian language of international cooperation. Moulton shows how anti-war campaigners used the Irish case as an “English solution to the larger problem of the collapse of multi-ethnic empires in the twentieth century”. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, heralded as a success by anti-war campaigners, was an English-inspired variation of the dream that empires could accommodate nationalism under the auspices of international organisations, such as the Commonwealth. However, as Moulton says, it was only ever that: a dream. The anti-war movement had alienated the very group in England that campaigners had sought to protect in Ireland, pushing the diasporic Irish Catholic minority into radical expatriate politics as their only means of contributing to “the cause of Irish freedom”. Irish politics continued to ripple beneath the surface in interwar English life. It split the diaspora during the civil war of 1922-23 in similar ways to the Irish in Ireland, horrifying English anti-war campaigners. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, “the Irish Free State sought to establish its role in the Commonwealth”, forcing the government to perpetually revise David Lloyd George’s “Irish solution”, as well as redefining the rights of the dominions.

However, Irishness did not persist in interwar England primarily through politics but in the realms of culture, literature and consumption. Tourism, nostalgia for the “Old Country”, national parades and “reading Ireland” all reveal Irish-English ties that endured long after the demise of the Anglo-Irish Union, ties that were bolstered by the arrival of a new wave of Irish emigrants to England in the 1930s. Irishness was maintained because it was an unacknowledged part of England’s history: “the Irish connection was sometimes repressed, but it was never truly forgotten”.

Thought-provoking, richly evidenced and superbly structured, Moulton’s book is a tour de force, and a compelling argument for studying Irish and British history together.

Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England

By Mo Moulton
Cambridge University Press, 385pp, £65.00
ISBN 9781107052680
Published 3 April 2014

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