The circumstances of the Irish revolutionand subsequent civil war between 1916-23 continue to be debated by historians and by citizens in the contemporary Republic of Ireland. Biography, though increasingly frowned upon in certain academic settings as clumsy and inherently triumphalist, remains potentially the most potent method for excavating the Irish past. Three recent titles assess the work of major personalities who helped create the modern Irish state. Mick: The Real Michael Collins deals with Michael Collins (1890-1922), IRA supremo, financial Wunderkind and the Free State’s first martyr. Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero deals with Eoin O’Duffy (1892-1944), the infant state’s domineering chief of police in the 1920s, prophet of cultural purity in the 1930s and ultimately Ireland’s most peculiar specimen of fascist ideology in the 1940s. A third, a selection of historical essays by a former Irish Prime Minister, Garret FitzGerald (b.1926), illustrates the way the legacies of the Irish revolution continue to haunt contemporary life. Taken together, these three works can assist those interested in taking the pulse of historical consciousness in an increasingly wealthy, urban and globalised Ireland.
Hart’s Mick: The Real Michael Collins vividly fills many of the gaps in our understanding of ‘The Man Who Won the War.’ Hart offers a fascinating portrait of Collins’ life in pre-war London, the circumstances surrounding his decision to go to Dublin rather than Chicago in 1916, his extraordinary self-confidence as a committee-man from 1917 onwards and his emergence as the most aggressive (if not the most eloquent) proponent of ‘a shooting war’ from early 1919. The overall effect of Hart’s labours will, no doubt, delight the experts as much as the wider reading public. (Admirers of Hart’s earlier work will, however, be struck by his decision to use a more demotic, slangy prose at times).
The quietly menacing figure who emerges from Hart’s detailed chapters demolishes the romantic images of Collins constructed by Tim Pat Coogan and Neil Jordan. Where Coogan’s biography offered us a lost leader, distinguished by his political naiveté and national devotion, Hart has chronicled the relentless ascent of a profoundly ambitious man who ensured that he remained on the right side of the many splits he helped to engineer. In the recent film, Jordan’s Collins was an altogether more conflicted, even existential figure, one who showered his lover with roses while his ‘boys’ showered the denizens of Bewley’s café with all together more lethal offerings. Hart’s description of Collins’ careful assembly of his Squad suggests, however, that he was not a man prone to regrets, especially not for ‘putting a gun in young Vinny Burn’s hand’ as Liam Neeson opines at one point in the film. Hart’s book should also redirect attention to Brendan Gleeson’s evocative screen portrayal of Collins in Jonathan Lewis’ film The Treaty.
Like Hart’s portrayal, Gleeson played Collins as a brooding, monosyllabic fixer, someone whose prodigious work ethic ruled out all distractions save husky, male bonding sessions in Vaughan’s hotel or the occasional recourse to strong liquor. To follow Hart’s Collins through his myriad roles as Volunteer, Minister for Finance and Irish Republican Brotherhood president is to appreciate the acuity of Frank O’Connor’s depiction of the intellectual rigidity of the revolutionary generation. (O’Connor, like Pearse’s Murder Machine, blamed an educational system that was based almost totally on rote learning).
One is struck in each of Hart’s chapters by Collins’ extraordinary lack of imagination or intellectual curiosity. Hart includes one of the Free State civil servant Kevin O’Shiel’s marvellous anecdotes, which involves Collins responding to one of AE’s (George Russell) ponderous monologues about the nature of the ‘cosmos’ with a rather ungracious ‘But what is your point, Mr Russell?’ Even those nursing quarrels with AE’s mystical ruminations are justified in feeling that Collins’ obtuseness here constituted a poor reward for the old man’s lifelong support for the literary revival. The impulsive, primarily quantitative intelligence of the character at the heart of this book suffers from comparison with his contemporaries.
It would be difficult, if not impossible to imagine this character pondering the example of America’s constitutional structure like de Valera did with his Cuban security guarantee in 1920 and later with the 1937 Constitution. Collins’ fellow negotiators were reluctant even to give him the credit for the famous paper that predicted the emergence of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. Could we picture him hunting through New Mexico for Indian artistic treasures in the 1940s, matching IRA bibliophile Ernie O’Malley stride for stride, the voracious culture vulture described in Richard English’s IRA Intellectual? Might Collins’ epistolary output have matched Desmond FitzGerald’s angst-ridden letters to French intellectuals like Jacques Maritain had he been spared that banal death in the Mouth of Flowers? Hart’s book suggests not. Indeed, one is left with the distinct impression that, had Collins’ brief premiership not been so abruptly terminated by assassination in 1922, the infant state might have been an even more insular polity than the one that actually emerged.
Collins would most probably have insisted on the dominance of a centralized finance ministry with even more stringency than either subsequent prime ministers like W T Cosgrave or Eamon de Valera did. Hart’s Collins had a visceral commitment to the pre-political rituals of the IRB dating from his London years. In all likelihood this organisation would have been even more troublesome to the new state had his death not resulted in its almost instantaneous collapse. Arguably, his death also removed the government’s least imaginative thinker on Northern Ireland.
Failing to heed the lessons of the Home Rule riots of 1886 and 1912-14, Collins showed little understanding of the fact that violent actions (real or imagined) against northern loyalist interests invariably resulted in the persecution of isolated Belfast Catholic communities. Reviewing Hart’s classic analysis of the West Cork IRA, The IRA and its Enemies, Tom Garvin writes that Hart’s book made the 1919-21 armed campaign seem very similar to the Provisional IRA’s sectarian ‘war’ in Northern Ireland. One gets a similar sense of uneasy déjà vu in this book.
Hart itemizes the chilling ways those who design a violent campaign can never hope to control it once it begins. He chronicles the sectarian, squalid nature of certain murders between 1919-21; the murder of Frank Brook in 1920, the accidental murder of an innocent vet on Bloody Sunday or the shooting dead of Constable Laurence Dalton after he had annoyed J. J. Walshe during a raid. The callousness of this latter killing even shocked Collins’ Dublin Castle confidante, David Neligan, who argued, ‘personal antagonism brought about this man’s death.’ Hart also notes the vicious campaign against Protestant families undertaken by local IRA units at this time, often carried out without any recourse to their political masters, who routinely refused to take any responsibility for these deaths even after the circumstances became known. Hart ends by invoking the ghost of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party in the 1880s, as the nearest political analogy for Collins’ vertiginous rise and fall. Ultimately, it remains difficult to sustain the comparison between Hart’s myopic, young-man-in-a-hurry and the aloof master of Avondale who declined Gladstone’s version of an Irish constitution with astonishing froideur in the late 1880s.
The detail of Hart’s biography suggests an altogether more unnerving parallel with the career of Lenin. Lenin’s theory of the ‘vanguard’ seems eerily applicable to Collins; the isolated, evangelical advocate of violence as the sine qua non of political revolution. He remained unfazed by the fact that his views on assassination and inducing general mayhem as a deliberate tactic lacked the support of most of his cabinet colleagues and Dáil Éireann deputies at the time he began to implement them. His career proves the profundity of former PIRA commander Seán O’Callaghan’s contemporary insistence that small, unrepresentative groups can, if sufficiently organised and ruthless, utterly dominate political events.
Professor Hart’s vivid book concerns itself formally with a man who started life as a farmer’s son in 1890 only to be buried as the youngest prime minister in western Europe in 1922. Yet, this book is important not just in the way it brings a new maturity to our understanding of one individual. It ultimately constitutes a frightening vindication of Baldwin’s warning about the price a country almost always has to pay in the aftermath of government by a ‘dynamic force.’ The ironies inherent in Collins’ legacy are subtly traced through the career of his self-professed successor, Eoin O’Duffy, in Fearghal McGarry’s elegantly executed biography; Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero.
Irony becomes the trope of choice in a biography like this, which deals with the career of an individual who brought contradiction to positively operatic levels. The measure of any man is to be found in the manner by which he navigates contradiction. O’Duffy seems scarcely to have tried. Through McGarry’s cool prose, we are invited to savour the ravings of an alcoholic proponent of perpetual sobriety amongst the populace. We follow O’Duffy, the devout Marian Catholic, in his regular attendance at the predatory homosexual Mícheál Mac Liammóir’s notorious soirées in Dawson Street. His democratic rhetoric in the 1920s takes on a whole new meaning as we watch this pro-Treaty volunteer rationalise the constitutional settlement as breathing space for the IRA so that it could import more guns.
This scourge of republican paramilitaries in the 1920s spends the early 1940s soliciting their support at the height of war when a Nazi invasion seemed probable. During his years as an opposition party leader in the 1930s, he tries to appeal both to large ranchers and their rivals amongst the smaller farmers in the midst of the self-imposed agonies of deValera’s economic war with the British export market. By the end of McGarry’s analysis, this self-professed organisational supremo, whether as head of the Irish police force or leader of various fascist fronts throughout the 1930s, can be seen to have comported himself almost always in the spirit of Churchill’s most famous barn yard image - the bull who carried around his own china shop. The only thing that can be said for certain at this point is that Mick Collins’ mortification would have been acute had he lived to see the fruits of his anointment of O’Duffy as ‘the coming man.’ Above all other things, Collins liked a winner.
O’Duffy’s early IRA career is explored against the background of Monaghan’s bleak sectarian geography, where he bore direct responsibility for the killing not just of British soldiers, but for the squalid murder of ‘informers,’ elderly Protestants, overly zealous Redmondites, simple minded farm hands and recalcitrant poitín hustlers between 1919-21. His Garda commissionership is assessed in the context of the first government’s organisational prowess and political bravery, especially in not arming the new recruits. He emerges as an Iago to Kevin O’Higgins’ ever more manic Othello until 1927, though McGarry hints that the Minister for Justice had just about enough of O’Duffy before his own assassination that year. O’Duffy’s career as leader of Fine Gael and subsequently the Blueshirts is thoughtfully explored against the tumultuous class conflicts of the 1930s as exacerbated by the Treaty split.
McGarry offers a sensitive analysis of O’Duffy’s mercurial fascist ideas. He traces them back to the disappointments and resentments inherent in the new state as well as to O’Duffy’s personal inadequacies and frustrations. All of these factors calcified around an altogether more sinister admiration for a variety of European strong men by the 1930s. O’Duffy’s trajectory from noisy defender of the infant state’s institutions as Garda Commissioner to the blimpish harlequin of the Spanish Civil War vividly dramatises that gloomy, illiberal, anti-democratic aspect of modern Irish political culture so vividly explored by Tom Garvin.
McGarry offers several arresting portraits of key players. Eamon de Valera emerges from these pages as a glacial presence at the heart of the infant state: as a prime minister distinguished by a pitiless sang-froid. This is evident in his decision to cashier O’Duffy in 1933, in his no-nonsense approach to farmers who refused to pay land annuities (his Government sent bailiffs to impound their assets), or in his legislative refusal to allow Spanish ships to take Irish recruits to Spain during the civil war there.
In a bizarre scene, the poet Patrick Kavanagh turns up at one of O’Duffy’s wartime conclaves. These usually attracted an eclectic mix; as McGarry described it, ‘Some were anti-Semites and fascists, others were cranks motivated by vanity or grievance, while some-lured by the singing, dancing and free drinks on offer at the Red Bank- were only there for the beer.’ Kavanagh’s bitter critique of the chauvinism inherent in the Catholic nationalist political synthesis had reached its poetic zenith in the 1930s. The pointed question he posed in 1944 in his poem ‘In Memory of Brother Michael’ still resonates:
|Culture is always something that was
Something pedants can measure
Skull of bard, thigh of chief
Depth of dried up river
Shall we be thus forever?
Shall we be thus forever?
It’s a safe bet to say that he was in attendance at this meeting for refreshment purposes only.
Ernest Blythe’s pungent journalism throughout the 1930s betrayed an ever more emphatic disillusionment with parliamentary democracy and all that it entailed. His irritation with the cumbersome nature of the system was arguably first apparent in 1923. In response to a demand at cabinet that three soldiers be arrested for outraging the innocence of the daughters of a Kenmare doctor, Blythe professed himself ‘not particularly revolted at what seemed to be merely a case of a couple of tarts getting a few lashes that did them no harm.’ Blythe’s airy dismissal of due process here was paralleled elsewhere, especially in the increasingly apocalyptic analysis of Desmond FitzGerald, who peppered his correspondence with dire predictions of Bolshevism and anarchy in a Fianna Fáil governed country. McGarry reminds readers that FitzGerald’s impassioned anti-communism extended to wearing the fascist blue shirt while sitting in parliament.
McGarry’s analysis suggests that readers should be grateful that FitzGerald’s legacy is to be found in his progeny, rather than his principles. Though his own political career fizzled out after 1932, his son Garret was the independent state’s eighth prime minister and its political man of letters sans pareil. Since his premiership ended in 1987 amidst diplomatic success and financial penury, Garret FitzGerald has declined the role of ‘lion in winter,’ preferring instead the life of peripatetic academic. His latest collection of essays, lectures and reviews, Further Reflections; Ireland in the World demonstrates the depth of his commitment to historical analysis and the manner in which the legacies explored in the previous two books still dominate Irish intellectual endeavour.
Indeed, echoing the sentiment of Banville’s forlorn hero in The Sea, it is easy to imagine FitzGerald declaring that ‘the past beats inside me like a second heart.’ In his articulation of a creatively imprecise theory of Irish federalism and his passionate, career-long assault on the pretensions of insular Irish nationalism, especially in its PIRA form, FitzGerald fils resembles an Irish version of the late Canadian federalist Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2001). His negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 showed, however, that he was more astute in his handling of Mrs Thatcher than M Trudeau.
If FitzGerald’s account of his father’s ministerial career in the 1920s is an altogether more euphonious one than that offered by McGarry, his other essays, however, contain more than enough by way of compensation. His economic analysis of the growth of Irish separatist tradition rescues an important subject from its various polemicists. This same cool approach to modern Irish history informs his subtle analysis of David Lloyd George’s evolving Irish policy since 1916, the death of the Irish language as seen through baronial records or de Valera’s mutually exclusive political aims since 1918. By far the most striking essay here is his analysis of Ireland contemporary security policy, viz., ‘neutrality.’ Here FitzGerald makes a passionate case for Irish membership of NATO and for an end to a policy of military abstention that glorifies the messy 1939-45 experience.
Reflecting on his experience as President of various EEC Councils of Ministers in the 1980s, FitzGerald argues, ‘I could never regard our decision to opt out of western European defence and to rely for our defence exclusively on a combination of other states in the formulation of whose policy we have no say as being in accordance with our dignity as a state, or with our moral responsibilities.’ His advocacy here is helped immeasurably by his demonstration of the mortifying similarities between contemporary Irish security policy and those of war-torn Tajikistan. For a spell, both countries were unique in being members of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation, but not members of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace. FitzGerald’s magisterial analysis of contemporary EU-US relations contains all the dialectical sensitivity that distinguished his 1990 report on the Israel-Palestine conflict for the Trilateral Commission.
FitzGerald is a unique Irish political figure on a variety of levels. He was the first Irish foreign minister to chair EEC summits in French and Spanish, both of which he spoke with aplomb. He had the misfortune to be the first Irish chief executive to receive his seals of office at a time when even the most seasoned commentators predicted imminent bankruptcy for the state by the end of fiscal year 1982. The singularity of his career is not to be found in these discrete facts, however, but rather in the manner in which he personified the state’s ultimate rejection of the political ethos that sustained Michael Collins, Eoin O’Duffy et al, most emphatically in Anglo-Irish relations.
FitzGerald, hailed as a ‘peace child’ by his republican godparents in 1926, offers an alternative way to engage with the legacy of history that stresses the self-defeating nature of the narrow Irish nationalist project. He seeks to remind us of a truth that neither Collins nor O’Duffy ever fully assimilated, a truth which the Irish mind has become expert at evading since independence. Though an island people, our fate is inextricably linked to the main. Our horizons do not suddenly contract at Dublin Bay and neither, ultimately, do our responsibilities.
John-Paul McCarthy is a DPhil student in history at Exeter College, where he is writing a thesis on W. E. Gladstone’s intellectual life. His biography of Irish cabinet secretary Maurice Moynihan is forthcoming from Cork University Press.