Leabharlann na Meán


Machnamh 100 - Michael Laffan

3rd December, 2020

I appreciate the opportunity to join in responding to President Higgins’s wide-ranging and stimulating address.  In particular, as a historian, I welcome the chance to illustrate, or to elaborate on, a few of the approaches he has outlined.  Prominent among these is his insistence that, although some centenaries are more esteemed than others, commemorations should be open to different narratives of historical experience.  In particular, they should include the narratives of ‘the other’, the ‘enemy of yesterday’.  They should not censor the memory of ‘painful events’ – even though aspects of the past can often be embarrassing or distasteful. 

In our commemorations we should take heed of Eric Hobsbawm’s shrewd warning: ‘it is not a question of the people constantly remembering: they remember because someone is constantly reminding them.’[1]  We should try to ensure that those who ‘remind’ – normally governments – do so in a generous and inclusive spirit.  As Emmet O’Connor wrote recently, annual state commemorations ‘normally focus on one or two big events, chosen not for their historical weight, but because they are deemed emblematic of how the regime would like to see itself’.[2]  Commemorative rituals have become historical forces in their own right; [3] they can provide occasions for inventing traditions.  It is even possible that there are too many commemorations.[4]

Whenever we find historical distortion, whether by the state, by groups, or by individuals, it is the task of historians to point this out – even at the risk of making themselves unpopular. 

Historians have a dual role: one is to try to understand what happened, why, and with what consequences; to discover what the past was like; to see it in its own terms (often strange, and even alien); to avoid tidying it up, gentrifying it, projecting back into it some of our own ideals or fantasies.  History is a record of what one age finds interesting in another,[5] but in looking at our ancestors we should avoid ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’;[6] we should not mock the dead by distorting them and their beliefs; we should not search the past simply in pursuit of reassuring things we want to find; and we should avoid a Whig interpretation of history in which everything leads naturally and inexorably towards the present.  But, on the other hand, we also have to try to understand how the past relates to the present – in effect, how we came to be what we are, and how others came to be what they are.  And it is for this purpose that history is used (and sometimes abused) for purposes of commemoration.  

In the context of the Irish Revolution, the ‘others’ should include innocent victims of violence, such as children; the defeated Irish Parliamentary Party, whose vision of a Home Rule Ireland within the United Kingdom was destroyed between 1916 and 1918; and ‘losers’, such as the minorities in the two new political entities that emerged in 1921-22 – Northern nationalists and Southern unionists.  The ‘others’ should include the triumphant Ulster unionists, and also the British, who had their own perceived national and political interests – in particular, a refusal (at that time) to accept the idea of an Irish republic.  These were often at odds with the interests of many, or most, Irish people, and therefore a particular effort may be needed to understand them.

In responding to the president’s request for openness to multiple narratives we must see the Irish revolution in a wider, international context.  From this standpoint it is striking how mild and moderate were the changes that resulted.  Despite persistent urban poverty there was little social unrest, largely because many Irish grievances had already been resolved.  Under British rule (particularly under Conservative rule) Ireland had already experienced its great social revolution: the change in ownership of most of the land from unionist landlords to tenant farmers.  This transformation, too, deserves commemoration. 

The violence that played a central role in bringing about the new Irish state was limited in scale – especially when it is seen against the background of the Great War.  The toll of violent deaths between 1916 and 1921 has recently been calculated at under 3,000, 500 of them in the Easter Rising.[7]  In the same week as the Rising, the Irish 16th Division suffered 570 killed and over 1400 wounded – and the total number of Irish soldiers killed in the war was over 27,000.[8]  British losses in Ireland between January 1919 and July 1921 were less than those on an average day on the Western Front.[9] 

Irish revolutionaries were fortunate in their opponents.  After the Easter Rising 90 rebels were sentenced to death, but only 15 of them were executed.  This is a modest figure compared with the 15,000 who were shot after the suppression of the Paris Commune; or of the fifteen hundred executed after the failure of the Kronstadt revolt against the Soviets in 1921; let alone the murder or expulsion of one and a half million Armenians by the Turks between 1915 and 1922.

Empires normally fight to maintain their possessions; ‘a Great Power does not die in its bed.’[10]  We should not be surprised that Britain used force to suppress rebellion in Ireland, or that until May 1921 it refused to contemplate the idea of Irish dominion status.[11]  The president rightly draws attention to the atrocities carried out by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, to their policy of exemplary collective punishments, reprisals and economic destruction.  But, sadly, in all guerrilla campaigns, government forces resort to brutal and bloody measures. Individuals suffered, and their sufferings should not be ignored, but Ireland’s experience a century ago was benign compared with more recent victims, of, for example, the wars carried out by the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, or the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Even the British, who were milder than most other dominant or imperial powers, acted far more savagely elsewhere.  In March 1919, two months after the first meeting of the Dáil, the British shot at least 379 (and probably far more) peaceful Indian demonstrators in Amritsar.  In 1920 they killed thousands of rebels in air and gas attacks in Iraq.  The Irish were lucky to be white, not brown or black. 

We must continue to shun the old, absurd idea that, in Liam Kennedy’s words, the Irish were ‘MOPE – the most oppressed people ever’.[12]  They weren’t.  (In the twentieth century the Jews, the Poles, and the Kurds are among very many whose experiences were vastly worse than those of the Irish.)  The British government could be – and was – shamed into changing its actions and policies; and the Irish benefited from the fact that they were fighting a democracy. 

The centenary commemorations must also acknowledge that very many people did not share the wish to belong to ‘an Ireland of democratic citizenship and collective participation’– if this involved belonging to an independent Irish state.  A quarter of the Irish population wanted nothing more than to remain loyal subjects of the British crown; they wished then (and their descendants wish now) to exercise their citizenship and collective participation within the United Kingdom, not in an Irish republic. 

A century ago, if a war between nationalists and unionists were to be averted – a war that might have been comparable to that which destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s – partition was the obvious, natural solution.  It had been accepted by John Redmond, as a temporary expedient, in 1914.  It was accepted in practice (though of course, not in theory) by the leaders of the Easter Rising two years later.  Any attempt to stage a rebellion in Ulster would have resulted in bloody sectarian conflict – with the unionists as the probable winners – so they confined their plans for insurrection to the three southern provinces.  Ulster would be abandoned, and their northern followers would retreat to the safety of Connacht.[13]  In similar fashion, with only a few exceptions, the War of Independence was fought in the south, and not in the north – although there was much killing in Belfast and elsewhere.[14]      

Without partition there would have been no full independence for what became the Free State.  The British government did not begin to negotiate seriously with Irish nationalist leaders until the Ulster unionists had been satisfied, until after the Belfast parliament and government had been established; only then did a compromise settlement become possible. 

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, on 23 December 1920, the partition of Ireland became embedded in the law of the United Kingdom.  Ulster unionists got what they wanted – the largest possible area that they could control (and as a corollary, the area with the largest possible nationalist minority that could be controlled).  The new entity was a gerrymander, in which the wishes of the people concerned were carefully ignored.  By the standards of the 1920s (the only ones that really matter) it was a repudiation of the ‘spirit of the times’, of the ‘rights of small nations’.  A one-quarter minority, in the whole island, was succeeded by a one-third minority, in the North.  The result was a pattern of discrimination and resentment that endured for half a century, and that ultimately destroyed the Northern Irish state.  The fall of Stormont in 1972 has its origins in the events of 1920 and 1921.

All commemorations of the Irish revolution should include this victory – a Pyrrhic victory – of its determined enemies, the Ulster unionists.

In the south a parallel development occurred.  The British, no longer having to worry about Ulster, abandoned the small unionist minority to its fate.  Embarrassed by the nature of the campaign they had waged, and feeling that southern Ireland now caused more trouble than it was worth, they granted a degree of independence unthinkable only a few years earlier.

The Protestant minority in the Free State, being small and harmless, was treated well, apart from having to make distasteful but minor concessions to Catholic beliefs and linguistic nationalism.  It was lucky. 

In commemorating the revolutionary decade we must appreciate that independence was achieved not only by violence but also by the votes of most of the people – including, for the first time, the votes of women.  The demand for independence was expressed by the second Sinn Féin party, by the Dáil, and by a formidable underground administration.  We should acknowledge the remarkable attempt – partly successful – not merely to wage a guerrilla campaign but simultaneously to set up a counter-state.  To a limited extent, a rebel Irish government was already functioning before the handover of power in 1922,[15] thereby helping to preserve the Irish democratic tradition.  This tradition has at times been neglected in national commemorations, which have often emphasized violence, and it deserves appropriate recognition.  

Commemorations need not revive old animosities.  But they should reveal the past, in all its complexity, both those aspects that we can admire and those that we regret or deplore.  We can choose from the diverse patterns of our history those that we find valuable and constructive, and try to incorporate them in our present and future.  Over time the chosen features will change, to match society’s changing needs.  This can and should be done without ignoring the negative contexts – such as bigotry and discrimination – with which congenial elements were often intermixed.

The Irish revolution involved cruelty, injustice and bloodshed; all revolutions do.  Commemorations, while not glorifying such aspects, should not erase them.  When the time comes to commemorate the Civil War the atrocities carried out by both sides must be recognized, but also put in context; civil wars are normally more vicious than wars between states.[16]

Commemorations held in the spirit of the president’s remarks must be welcomed.  But we should have no illusions; a generous inclusivity will prove controversial in some quarters, and it will provoke resistance.  That should not be a deterrent.  In recent years there has been much to admire in the ways the country has examined and commemorated the events of a century ago, and we should build on this achievement.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, The New Century (London, 2000), 25.

[2]  Emmet O’Connor, ‘Toasted Heretic’, Dublin Review of Books, November 2020.

[3]  Ian McBride, in McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge, 2001), 2.

[4]  Eberhard Bort, in Bort (ed.), Commemorating Ireland (Dublin, 2004), 11.

[5]  Jacob Burckhardt, quoted by Peter Gay, The Naked Heart (New York, 1995), 214.

[6]  E. P. Thompson, quoted in Fritz Stern, The Varieties of History (London, 1970), 427.

[7]  Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, The Dead of the Irish Revolution (Yale, 2020), *

[8] Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000), 51; David Fitzpatrick, in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds), A Military History of Ireland (Cambridge, 1996), 392. 

[9]  D. G. Boyce, Englishmen and Irish Troubles (London, 1972), 56. 

[10] Martin Wight, Power Politics (London, 1978), 48.

[11] Nicholas Mansergh, The Unresolved Question (New Haven, 1991), 173, 178.

[12] Liam Kennedy, Unhappy the Land: the Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin, 2015).

[13] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: the Easter Rebellion (London, 2005), 109, 225.

[14] Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin 2002), 154.

[15] Tom Garvin, 1922: the Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin, 1996) 63-91; Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland (Cambridge, 1999), 304-45; Mary E. Daly, The Buffer State (Dublin, 1996), 47-92.

[16]  See Anne Dolan, Commemorating the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2003).