The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend

Marianne Elliott on the bloody foundation of a modern state

October 3, 2013

The Republic of Ireland’s decade of centenary commemorations for the events at the core of Charles Townshend’s book has already commenced. So far, the feared revival of the antagonisms that underpinned those events a century ago has not materialised – but the most potentially divisive anniversaries are yet to come, and reading this monumental book, one can appreciate why. Indeed, Townshend wonders whether it is possible to write a proper history of Ireland’s civil war, so reticent have been those involved in it and so bitter the divisions. The Republic charts the period of the Anglo-Irish and civil wars in Ireland, the rise of Sinn Féin, the decline of moderate nationalism and the emergence of the Irish Free State. With the moderate nationalist gains represented by the granting of Home Rule postponed because of the First World War and the disastrous British policy of imposing conscription on Ireland, public opinion swung in favour of Sinn Féin in time for the 1918 election. It took 73 of the 105 seats reserved for Ireland in the British Parliament, annihilating the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (commonly called the Home Rule Party) in the process. Those gains provided the platform for the declaration of the Republic and the establishment of the first Daíl.

Townshend says ‘the voters made a clear choice’, but ‘whether they really knew what they were voting for is another issue’

A question mark has always hung over the validity of Sinn Féin’s electoral victory in 1918. Townshend thinks it was real enough: “the voters made a clear choice”. But, he adds, “whether they really knew what they were voting for is another issue”, their votes being an emotional response to unpopular British policies rather than any well-thought-out republicanism. Neither the public nor Sinn Féin itself had any clear idea of what they actually meant by the Irish Republic, beyond “a kind of pious opinion”, which mixed anti-Englishness with Catholicism. This theme of what exactly Sinn Féin meant by a republic threads through Townshend’s book. As he notes, De Valera and others were unable to answer Lloyd George when asked what the Irish word for “republic” was. Poblacht was a neologism, derived from Latin; Saorstát was also a new word, a compound meaning “free state”. In fact, De Valera and the other Sinn Féin leaders were separatists rather than supporters of republican forms of government.

After the electoral victory, they showed some skill in operating a “counter-state”, recognising that the fragile public support of 1918 could be retained only if it could be proved that the underground state actually worked. This is the reason why the new Ireland effectively retained British institutions, with the counter-state simply replicating what was already in place. Even the new Civil Service was the same as the old (with 98 per cent of its staff transferring from British departments), helping to perpetuate a conservative elite in the new state. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this “counter-state” was the functioning of the legal system. Sinn Féin had also won major successes in the local government elections and was able to set up local courts in many parts of the country (effectively stopping those who had started to take advantage of the breakdown in law and policing, including a flood of attempts to claim lands once occupied by ancestors). Here then was a strange new situation in which the “rebels” were actually suppressing illegal poteen-making and enforcing licensing laws. Even opponents started to be won over by the alternative justice system.

But wasn’t Ireland’s war of independence and subsequent civil war a story of bloodshed and internecine conflict? Certainly that was the oral history in many families. This is because the war of independence was very largely an assault on the Royal Irish Constabulary. The RIC was different from the British police in that it was armed, centrally controlled and scattered in stations all over the country. But it was also predominantly Catholic and even nationalist, a traditional source of employment for younger sons of farming families. Its officers were easy targets, suffered high casualties and were totally demoralised by a successful boycott campaign. Indeed, Dublin Castle was warned of the danger of wholesale resignation. Enter the Black and Tans, the name acquired by the auxiliary police – most of them British ex-soldiers – sent by the UK as reinforcements. Townshend largely confirms their reputation for lawlessness and brutality, which was an all-round disaster for Britain in the propaganda war. Indeed, the UK emerges badly from this book, its policies a mix of “bafflement”, petty coercion (in the early days when public opinion might have been swayed), a refusal to listen to even its own representatives on the ground and a failure to support moderate nationalists. The result was that the extremists – in the North and South alike – would go on to triumph.

Among the many controversies confronted by the author is that of De Valera’s motives in not attending treaty negotiations in London. The popular belief is that he sought to distance himself from anything unpopular and instead left Michael Collins to take the blame. Townshend expresses his doubts over this line of argument, although he too is baffled by De Valera’s absence and suggests that it may have been because of his worry about leaving the more extreme elements of the Irish Cabinet behind. Whatever the reason, De Valera does not emerge well from this account. And while Collins is not the swashbuckling hero of Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic, he is not far off it: he also emerges in Townshend’s text as one of the Republic’s most effective administrators, confirming the generally held belief that his assassination in the civil war left Ireland without its most talented leader.

The Republic ends on a sober note, charting the casualties and noting that the violence that permeated society served to demoralise the public and bequeath a legacy of intermittent extremism to the future. Townshend treads carefully in assessing the issue of sectarianism in some Republican killings, keeping in mind the vilification of historian Peter Hart for suggesting as much. He appears to agree with Hart, and notes the disproportionate number of Protestants killed by the Irish Republican Army in these years.

This is, all in all, a balanced book. It is also a great read and rests on a towering volume of original research. While it will not be the only history of the foundation of modern Ireland to emerge from the centenary, it has certainly set a very high standard for others to measure up to.

The author

“I ride a bike every day, although not as far as I’d like. I rode a lot when I lived in Washington, DC and passed the crucial mental barrier of actually liking going up hills,” says Charles Townshend, emeritus professor of international history at Keele University. “But I’ve never got close to the determination of my sons, Leo and Max, who have both ridden to the top of Mont Ventoux [part of the Tour de France route].

“Usually I ride a mountain rather than road bike. One of the nicest things about Keele is its big lake-dotted estate with agreeable trails. Like many, I am a leisure rider who would like to be less leisurely. Am I any good at it? That’s fighting talk: I suppose the number of crashes I’ve had might indicate that I’m not, although I put them down to recklessness rather than lack of skill. Indoors, I listen to a lot of music - currently I’m working though my old vinyl collection, mainly put together in my twenties, and considering how my tastes have changed.”

Townshend was born in Nottingham. “Now and then I do wonder whether being from the Midlands produces a weaker sense of regional identity than coming from either side of the classic Northern/Southern divide. My parents moved south (to outer London/Essex) before I could speak, and I have always thought of myself as a ‘southerner’ (I went to school near Leytonstone, and to the University of Oxford; my folks eventually moved to the Sussex coast). But the fact that since 1973 - more than half my life - I have lived and worked in the Midlands, less than an hour’s drive from my birthplace, seems to undermine the sense of mobility that as a Londoner I’d tend to see as natural. The only time I’ve spent away came via two year-long fellowships in the US, in North Carolina and Washington, DC, which did good things for my perspective - just about enough. We also have a (distinctly unstately) cottage in Normandy, which I suppose helps to create a vaguely cosmopolitan lifestyle previously available only to the rich.”

“My sons, although raised and schooled in Staffordshire, never seemed to entertain the slightest doubt that they would work in London as soon as they left university. I’m still not sure why. (Nor why one of them became a Spurs supporter before he’d ever been to London.) To me, Staffordshire is very middling, with less character than Cheshire or Shropshire, but it’s green and pleasant enough. The most vexing thing about it is unquestionably Birmingham squatting like a barricade on the road to London - with London itself, when approached from our direction, forming a second barricade on the road to France.

Townshend adds, “My wife and I assume that we will not stay here after we retire and are free to leave, as it were, and I’m looking forward to seeing if we go through with it, and if so, whether I develop a different view when I’m living in (say) London or Brighton. In an ideal world? I’d live on the California coast - Santa Barbara, or Carmel next door to Clint Eastwood perhaps.”

Of his early years, he recalls: “Academically, I was always a bit ‘studious’, ie, a bit of a know-all, but I have no sense of where that came from. There was no academic tradition in the family - I was the first family member to go to university. My parents were hugely supportive and somehow got me into a minor public school on a scholarship. There it turned out that history was the only thing I had the knack for - I fenced with Eng Lit for a long time but eventually got seriously annoyed by having to consider the views of critics all the time. (Leavis probably killed it.)

“My father had a friend at Cambridge and I imagined I’d go there, but in the end I got a scholarship at Oxford (Oriel College), and had a pretty good time, which did not involve doing much work,” he confesses. “The studious bit came to an end about age 19. I think I only sat through one entire lecture course - Isaiah Berlin’s, inevitably. I never considered going on to research, nor did any of my tutors suggest it. I got viva’d for a First but (typically unprepared) didn’t get it and went to work as a sub-editor at Oslo University Press. Correcting the English of Norwegian academics was what gave me the idea that I could just as well produce the stuff myself. After a long alcoholic conversation with someone from the Stockholm International Peace Research centre at a party, I came up with an absurdly ambitious plan for a cost-benefit study of war (that’s war as a whole, not just a selection!), which was sensibly cut down to size by my supervisor when I took it back to Oxford.”

“My eventual research direction was determined above all by the British government’s decision to reduce the 50-year closure of public records to 30 - all of a sudden, a wide tranche of post-First World War material was released. I went to assess the records on British post-war military action in the Middle East, and in Ireland. At that stage my knowledge of Irish history was strictly limited to ‘Gladstone and the Irish Question’, but at that time the records were in much better shape than the Middle Eastern material. I read Dorothy Macardle’s The Irish Republic and was hooked.” He adds that his new book, The Republic, “is a semi-direct tribute to that brilliant polemic”.

Townshend observes that his work on Ireland “was all about the ‘grey area’ between war and peace - guerrilla insurgency and terrorism - and I got interested not only in the military-technical and political sides of ‘small wars’ but also their legal dimensions; it was studying the use of martial law and emergency powers that led me (via my book Britain’s Civil Wars) to Palestine. A trip to Jerusalem had an almost literally stunning effect on me, which seems hardly diminished 25 years on. Ever since I have been perennially on the brink of writing a book about the British mandate, but held up by recurrent returns to Irish problems and the general lack of interest amongst publishers in anything about Palestine before 1948. I hope this will eventually change.”

The subjects he has focused on as a historian - Ireland, terrorism, Israel/Palestine - are all contentious ones. In Townshend’s view, “All history is potentially contentious, but the level of contention depends on the degree of public engagement in the issues at stake. In both Ireland and Palestine/Israel it is far more intense than anything the English (or maybe even the Scots) would be capable of.

“In the case of Palestine/Israel it is quite literally a life-and-death issue for both peoples and any serious criticism strikes at their right to survive as peoples, so it’s virtually impossible to avoid charges of either Orientalism or anti-Semitism even in, say, relating what appear to be the ‘facts’ of events like the 1929 disorders. Evaluations that would be considered normal, indeed obligatory, in assessing most problems will routinely be trashed - often viciously - as evidence of prejudice. (If not indeed active support for either, or both, terrorism or repression.) The clash between traditional and ‘new’ Israeli historians is far more than a historikerstreit. Alan Dershowitz’s vicious partisanship may be shocking in an academic lawyer, but he is far from unique in his view of academic freedom.

“In such a situation,” he continues, “history is part of an ongoing political project, as it was in Ireland until quite recently. There, public tolerance of historical ‘revision’ has markedly increased in my lifetime, but the fact that republicans and loyalists are still prepared to kill people reminds you that the root issues are not just ‘history’. (Of course they don’t kill historians as such. In fact I was once given a message from the chief of staff of the Provisionals praising my first book.) I think my writing is generally seen as balanced, and my Englishness is not often referred to, though I have once or twice been described as ‘anti-Irish’.”

Asked whether long books are markedly more work to produce than short ones - Townshend has written both varieties, and The Republic is impressively weighty - he replies: “I think most historians would agree that there is no virtue in scale itself. Much depends on systemic tolerances: doctoral theses are strictly limited to 100,000 words and rightly so, but publishers often seem happy with much bigger works, not necessarily for the same reasons as the scholars who turn them out (I once heard an editor talk of ‘shelf presence’). Extended length often seems unavoidable because of the scale of the material - I give this as the reason my books have been getting steadily longer - but it can also indicate a failure to control the material. In my experience, historians value conciseness very highly, and most would agree that it’s a lot harder to write concisely than at length.”

Karen Shook

The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923

By Charles Townshend
Allen Lane, 560pp, £25.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780713999839 and 9780241003497 (e-book)
Published 26 September 2013

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