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The mint with a hole 

Diarmaid Ferriter, A Nation and not a Rabble, The Irish Revolution 1913-1923,London 2015, €30.00.

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

5 June 2015

Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book is good on two counts; it is well written and very well researched. The author has trawled very thoroughly the primary sources recently expanded with the freeing of the various archives in Ireland and Britain, over and above an enormous range of secondary material. This is a book that can be read with ease and should be read by anyone with an interest in Ireland’s history of a century ago. It is a mint of historical material.

Its problem is that the said material is presented unprocessed: it would seem, unedited. It contains some howlers that would be unacceptable in an intermediate exam, the most egregious being the renaming of Ned Dwyer, the Bishop of Limerick in 1916 as ‘Thomas O’Doherty’.Its chronology is often skewed. to make a point, quotations are often lumped together regardless of the fact that they came from different periods and in different circumstances.

These errors seem to be connected to the nature of the book. In the first part Ferriter demolishes a number of biased histories. The trouble is that his narrative of the Irish revolution contained in the second part does not present any coherent narrative itself. No doubt, he would claim that this shows a proper academic lack of bias, that it allows the reader to make up her/his own mind as to what happened at that time. In practice the reader will be merely bewildered and resentful at having to put together the (at times inaccurate) facts given, and might consider that it would be best to study the original sources to get an overall picture. This may be advisable anyway, but few people have the time to do this. Had Ferriter presented a viewpoint, it might have misled his readers, but, if so, it could have stimulated others to have challenged his findings and his readers’ conclusions. As it is, the mint has an hole where its conclusion should be.

This is not to say that Ferriter lacks a theme. It is given in the title, ‘A Nation, not a Rabble’.  However, he does not analyse his terms and the only conclusion that he presents is that the rabble varied according to the standpoint of its observers, that is to say that it was applied to their supporters when they stopped supporting them.

Similarly, the divisions of the book do not help. The first part is the often penetrating critique of a broad selection of works on the subject. The second is the mound of facts from which the reader is left to draw conclusions. The third part is a group of essays  on the aftermath of the struggle, linked only by the fact of that aftermath and merging into an account of the changing official approach to the memory of the revolution. 

This is the less forgiveable in that, in his penultimate chapter, Ferriter gives an accurate and brutal description of twenty-six county political life after his period:

‘After the laying of the state’s foundations, the practice of politics became about the spoils of the system rather than engagement with ideas about the nature of citizenship. It was about management rather than vision.It was also about, in a society so homogeneously Catholic, abrogating responsibility to the Catholic Church in too many crucial areas, including education and welfare, with a resultant narrow focus on what constituted immorality.’ (P.394).

The question remains: how did the revolution come to this? In the two hundred pages of the middle section of his book, Ferriter can produce only nuggets of the truth to point to the explanation. He does not try to synthesise his material, however inadequately.

This is particularly notable concerning two aspects of the overall picture. There is no passage on Northern Ireland comparable to that quoted above on the twenty-six counties. This follows from the several chapters he devotes to Ulster Unionism and its ‘fight for union’. He is perceptive on its psychology, yet he never relates it to the material relationships within the province. 
This is just the result of Ferriter’s overall omission. He does not analyse the class forces that competed for state power during his period. He does give partial consideration to Labour in three chapters, but does not enquire too closely as to what it was doing or failing to do. He admires Connolly (‘the socialist leader with a profound intellect’, P.150,  a view that would be agreed by Eamon de Valera - or Bertie Ahern). He does not look into his strategy or consider how it differed from that of the post-1916 Labour leaders, let alone how this affected the revolution and its results. This does not only affect his analysis of the twenty-six county state, it leaves him naked on the partition issue. He treats respectfully Ernest Blythe’s cockamamie ideas of north and south uniting as Gaelge. Whether or not he realises that this linguistic nationalism acted as a cover for Blythe to move from the fringes of the labour movement to becoming a covert supporter of the Fascist Ailtiri na Aiseirighe is something to ponder. What is certain is that Irish or English speaking nationalism offered nothing to the Belfast Protestant worker with a status identified as above the Catholic. 

Even his loose terms of reference might have given a clearer picture. On page 145, he quotes Lionel Smith-Gordon and Francis Cruise O’Brien’s pamphlet Starvation in Dublin (1917): ‘The man even at 150 pounds [2,250 euros today) - D.R.O’C.L.] a year who has a wife and five children...and who has to have a house in a respectable neighbourhood and to wear respectable clothes, clean linen and good boots is performing something of a miracle if he does all this.’ Similarly, he quotes A.C.Hepburn’s Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland on Joseph Devlin’s politics being ‘characterised by an essentially individualist drive for upward social mobility’.It was precisely to such interests that the Home Rulers and the Sinn Feiners appealed. They were a petit bourgeois layer that resented the bourgeoisie, but differentiated themselves from the wage slaves. For them an independent Ireland would in itself give them a place in the sun. Whether or not a socialist organisation more active in that political struggle could have won them can be only imagined. The fact is that after Connolly, the socialists offered only economic collectivist proposals to be executed, if possible, after independence was achieved. 

In the end, the mainly Catholic bourgeoisie, was able to detach the upwardly mobile petit bourgeoisie from too great an identification with the wage earners, outside Belfast and its hinterland, where the overwhelmingly Protestant capitalists  brought in their Protestant employees and excluded the Catholics of all classes, with results, social, economic and political’ infesting Ireland to this day.

Is this Diarmaid Ferriter’s explanation? It may be, but he doesn’t say. He provides a lot of material, but a pile of bricks is not a house.  

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