Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, by R. F. Foster

Niamh Gallagher on an exploration of the pre-revolutionary world and how the dreams of young radicals turned to nightmares

November 6, 2014

“My parents are not quite like myself,” declared the Irish republican and feminist Muriel MacSwiney, speaking at a US-led commission investigating reported atrocities during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21. Muriel’s husband Terence, the Lord Mayor of Cork, died on hunger strike in 1920 protesting against British rule. The MacSwineys were among the young radicals who became Ireland’s revolutionaries, many of whom took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent struggle for independence. For a century they have assumed the rank of martyrs, incorporated into the foundation myth of the Irish Republic. Yet they were, as Roy Foster argues, a “revolutionary generation” that was made, not born, and they saw themselves as different from the social and political order around them.

Foster is the author of masterpieces including Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988) and a two-volume biography of W. B. Yeats (1997, 2003). While Vivid Faces is not quite of the same calibre, it is nonetheless a significant accomplishment that makes a serious case for the concept of “generations” in exploring the origins of the Rising. Its title is taken from Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, written in the rebellion’s aftermath, which recalled the radicals’ “Vivid Faces” in the “slightly Bohemian circles of Dublin” before many took up arms against the British Army. On the surface, they had little to unite them. They came from different religious and political backgrounds in northern and southern Ireland; some had been born or had lived in England; but most were middle-class intellectuals who congregated in Dublin, and they were all firmly anti-Establishment.

Foster argues that we must explore their radical world if we are to understand how the Rising became possible. The first half of Vivid Faces, and the most fascinating part of the book, is devoted to the “pre-revolutionary” period, 1890 to 1916. Through personal diaries, letters and journals he allows us to see how these young people lived. What follows is a portrait of an Ireland that bears little resemblance to the country that emerged after 1922. The radicals’ extremism was multi-faceted and their anti-Establishment views were wide-ranging, expressed in theatre, journalism, sexual experimentation, anti-clericalism and even eating preferences (Edwardian Dublin had two vegetarian restaurants). This was a “spectacularly free” Ireland, but, in the eyes of these young people, one singularly lacking in political freedom.

Home Rule, which would grant a small measure of self-government to Ireland within the Empire and which seemed to be on the verge of fruition, was, for the radicals, a betrayal of Ireland’s right to complete independence. They thus armed themselves and started a revolution. As Yeats said, “all changed, changed utterly” - but Foster argues that it “may not have been the revolution that they intended, or wanted”. The book’s second half traces how many dreams turned to nightmares as the Ireland that emerged was less liberal than the one it replaced.

Recent advocates of Scottish independence had their own reasons for challenging the 307-year-old Union, but Britain as we know it seems safe for another while. Foster illuminates the anti-Establishment world that propelled young Irish people to challenge the UK of an earlier period. For those interested in exploring that world and how a “revolutionary generation” felt about the Ireland that emerged following independence, Foster’s book, in unmatchable prose, is a must-read.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923

By R. F. Foster
Allen Lane, 496pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846144639 and 9780141969565 (e-book)
Published 2 October 2014

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