Leabharlann na Meán


Margaret O’ Callaghan: Recovering Imagined Futures

Thursday 27th May, 2021

I have been asked by the President to reflect upon the idea of Recovering Imagined Futures in the Irish independence struggle and its historiography from the perspective of the summer of 1921. We know what happened after that summer of the Truce then, but the protagonists at the time did not.

My colleagues will reflect on hope, class, and gender, on Labour, land and longing, and on freedom as personal for women’s participation and purpose. I am going to look backwards from that crucial summer of 1921and to reflect on some futures imagined in the decades before it.

In June 1921 King George V opened the parliament of Northern Ireland and a month later the military Truce of July 1921 opened the way for the end of the British Irish war of the previous two years. Settlement talks between Britain and Dail representatives were anticipated all through that summer. What possible futures beckoned?

Looking back at that summer of 1921 the key shape to see here is that British policy had already put in place an entity called Northern Ireland prior to any ceasefire, talks or future agenda with the rest of Ireland. Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and William T. Cosgrave, countless volunteers in the field, are preoccupied by the hope of an imminent all-Ireland settlement; but British policy has already put in place the reality of a new six county Northern Ireland. It would take a very brave man, Carson said to Bonar Law, to take away Ulster’s parliament. At the British cabinet table the discussion is of a ‘war to the death’ in Ireland, or a limited settlement.

As Ronan Fanning quotes Arthur Balfour in that summer of 1921 ‘we’ve made our Irish policy on all fours with our European policy of self-determination and which no American can say is unfair’. That was the nub of it. American and international opinion of Great Britain could be satisfied by the structures put in place by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. In foreign policy terms that mattered to London. International horror at reprisals in Ireland was unendurable, but if a coherent narrative of respective self- determinations on the island of Ireland could be told by Britain, then the later choice articulated by the Lord Lieutenant Fitz Alan- ‘now it must be peace or real war and no fooling’ could be made.

De Valera’s push for the assault on the Customs House in May 1921 was part of his expectation of imminent talks – a costly one. It reflected his desire not to be presented in peace talks as guerrilla gunmen as depicted by the British. (p255) Ernie O’ Malley and other fighting men and women in pursuit of the Republic failed to see the scale of the meaning of the border until some of them fought on the ground in what became the territory of Northern Ireland.

This year, the State and others are commemorating aspects of the Irish past of one hundred years ago, but we must recognise that commemorations are traditionally used by States to glorify their origins. What is being attempted by the Irish State and separately, though relatedly, by the President is a more innovative approach - an attempt in this decade of centenaries to acknowledge the past in its diversity and complexity while exploring and reflecting on a national narrative. The desire, too, is to show empathy to those who opposed what the state retrospectively recognises as the national revolution, and to address the endless recurrence of division around partition as an issue in every generation. The President characterizes this as ethical commemoration or ethical remembering.

We remember but we also forget. As Patrick Modiano in the novella recently published in English as ‘Invisible Ink’ put it, we can’t remember without forgetting. Social remembering or commemoration is always a process of negotiation in society. No living person now actually remembers what happened in 1921. What we call our memory of it is a complex mixture of what we have read, what we have heard, how the social and community relations and media we are immersed in choose, at a particular time, to represent that past. Our memories are socially and culturally constructed.

History aspires to be something different- an attempt to explain what happened and how and why it happened and to whom. This of course raises questions about where the historian is coming from ideologically and how their ideology informs their historiography.

The particular history of the border drawn in Ireland by the British imperial government in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the consequences of that divide, the Northern Troubles, the debate on Irish historical revisionism, reflections on the shared capital of Irish political and cultural nationalism since the 1970s: These, and other, considerations shape the framing of commemoration by government and by President today.

Shaped by what those over a certain age have lived through and the historical cultural wars about commemoration since the 1970s, much of this is really not apparent for most people under a certain age in this society. Commemorations are easy for societies where the outcome of the past is not contested. But here, because of the fall-out from partition’s legacies, history is and has been the raw meat of politics and of our recent conflict. It all relates back to the architectures put in place in that summer of 1921when partition took place and a Truce beckoned to a settlement.

The shape that commemorations take tells us more about contemporary society than it does about the past it seeks to evoke. The revelations about the treatment of women and the children born to them outside marriage over the past decades , the ‘Waking the Feminists’ movement arising out of rage at the Abbey Theatre’s marginalisation of women in commissioning plays in 2016, international developments - this Decade of Centenaries has had a focus unprecedented in previous commemorations on the role of women. The commemorative version of the past is always viewed through the rear view mirror of a future that did not exist and was unlived at the time of that past – in this case the shadow of the treatment of women in independent Ireland. Social change in Ireland has been driven by women’s issues and the need for that change came from the nature of the post-revolutionary society.

That take from the present, in commemoration, was particularly evident in the 2019 RTÉ TV series Resistance that dwelt, at some length, on the role of women in the revolution. Apart from placing women at the centre of the action it addressed the pregnancy of one the key figures while not married. It is inconceivable that the Irish media in 1966 the 50th anniversary of the Rising would have wanted such then controversial coverage. In the 1960’s James Connolly was the figure the republican left wished to focus upon, while more pious forces focussed on a treacled, rather saintly, version of Padraig Pearse. From an historian’s point of view – trying to work out what actually happened at the time – Tom and Kathleen Clarke might be more captivating (and revealing) figures to focus upon.

As we know from the Bureau of Military History and Pensions archives many fought in the Irish revolution but most people did not. No revolution in the world is so minutely documented. The revolutionary generation were brought up in the shadow of another revolutionary period, the revolutionary Land War period, from the early 1880s, that changed the ownership and class composition of rural Ireland.

The providentialism of the Irish poor of the countryside has been seen as a consequence of famine trauma. The extraordinary rate of emigration, the social cessation of formerly common subdivision of rented land and changed inheritance patterns, all combined to create a highly class-stratified rural community.

The traditional Irish forms of Catholicism, around holy wells, places of pilgrimage, patterns and party wakes, had been ripped apart relentlessly, suppressed by the new monolithic and powerful Catholic Church, particularly after Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin, a church which acted as brokers with the British state and enforcers of a hyper-pious sexual morality. Roger Casement, who believed that the Liberal government had no intention of introducing a Home Rule Bill unless forced to do so, mocked the time John Redmond spent in the House of Commons negotiating the exclusion of certain ‘conventual establishments’ from British state inspections. The Catholic Church was well structurally embedded with the prevailing structures of power before independence.

The seemingly endless pause on Home Rule, and the Unionist pause in resistance to it, in the years after Gladstone- from 1893, created a new, more radicalised and impatient generation in Ireland. I teach a course in Queen’s University in Belfast called the The Politics of Irish literature and we read all the radical writers of these years – journalists, poets, novelists, historians, polemicists – Many of that generation were politicised during anti-Boer War, anti-imperial protests and commemorations of the 1798 rebellion in 1898.

The point is that 1916 was shaped by a small dedicated group who had a wider sympathetic cohort derived from those a decade older who had waited for Home Rule for the decades since 1886. As the Tory project of killing Home Rule by kindness appeared to proceed apace, fear of successful total absorption into a British imperial project, cultural no less than political, drove many of the key figures to revolution. Clearly there would have been no British- Irish war from 1919 to 1921 had 1916 not happened. It is also unlikely that anything other than the most restrictive form of Home Rule would otherwise have been on offer.

Roger Casement wrote to his friend Alice Stopford Green in 1906 and 1907 that he was convinced the Liberals never intended to facilitate Home Rule. Eamon De Valera when asked, years later, to recommend a history of Ireland suggested hers. Her books were best-selling in Ireland in the early 1910s. They countered the histories of establishment historians, mostly of Unionist politics, who endlessly iterated the Tory line that Ireland was not, and never had been a nation, except through English conquest. That seems scarcely believable today but it was the daily mantra of engaged politics at the time.

Stopford Green, funded the School of Irish Studies in Dublin and paid for most of the guns in the Howth gunrunning. At a commemorative event for Casement in Casement Aerodrome in 2016 a speaker regretted Casement’s involvement in Irish revolutionary politics – He felt that it undermined Casement’s work in Africa and South America and his efficacy as a model for NGO’s in independent Ireland. I could not resist pointing out that there might not have been an independent Irish State but for him. In pushing for revolution Casement said ‘Africa will still be Africa in 100 years’ time, but Ireland will not be Ireland’. In saying that he was expressing the fears of the core revolutionaries that Ireland was perhaps on the brink of being finally successfully integrated into the United Kingdom before the First World War.

By the summer of 1921 as the new parliament was opened in Belfast, many of those who had reacted to the prospect of some kind of Ulster exclusion before the War were dead. Casement himself who had tried to organise an Ulster protestant resistance to the idea of Ulster exclusion, Sean MacDiarmid the former Belfast tram-conductor with whom he had consorted in Belfast with Bulmer Hobson. All the signatories of the Rising were dead: so the Truce came, in the summer of 1921, to a new leadership cadre who had emerged. The radical impulse that lead to revolution had been started, arguably, by the young women Alice Milligan and Ethna Carbery in their Belfast popular newspaper publication The Shan ban Bhocht. All of the focus on history that so drove the analysis of the revolutionaries was inscribed in their journal. Arthur Griffith took over the subscription list for The United Irishman newspaper, the popular print in which almost every active revolutionary was involved. Maud Gonne part financed it. Everyone with radical politics in Ireland read Griffith’s papers before the First World War.

Futures were imagined for Ireland before the First World War, but the imagined Home Rule future had been a receding reality until the Parliament Act of 1911. Liberals did not wish to introduce a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, as they made clear when they won power in 1906. They legislated for Home Rule in 1911 only because the changed powers of the House of Lords (put in place for purely British reasons) mandated it and they needed Redmond’s votes to stay in power.

Redmond got an unworkable bill only because Liberals needed his votes. That was not the fault of Redmond or the Irish party. It was, simply, the limit of their leverage. The scale of Ulster resistance and British support for it from the Covenant onwards made it clear that some accommodation for Ulster would be found. This is clear from the interventions of Churchill and Lloyd George from within the cabinet and from the actions of all levels of the Conservative party and the British Army from the Curragh episode onwards. The Buckingham Palace conferences around the pre-war Home Rule situation make it clear the small limited scale of the Home Rule proposals in any case. But the he summer of 1921 was when that Unionist resistance came to fruition in the opening of a northern parliament with the King’s speech.

Revolution is a process, not a single event. Yeats in September 1916 asks ‘was it needless death after all’. He reassumes his role as the national poet at Maud Gonne’s prompting, in the crucial use of the term ‘our’: ‘our part to murmur name after name as a mother names her child, when sleep at last has come to limbs that have run wild’. In a sequence of poems he reflects uneasily upon the transformative power of their actions. Images of Mac Donagh’s bony thumb, the image of watering the rose tree are presented as politically dynamic.

Yeats was a political genius of a kind. He was not sure that he liked it, but he understood the politically transformative power of the action of the rebel leaders and their executions and the politicisation of a new generation through those actions. Modern Ireland has difficulty with all of this but the historical record does show that a vanguard of public opinion was decisively shifted, and this is reflected in the results of the 1918 election.

Why did the Irish revolution return to the gun in 1919? A series of British cabinet and Dublin Castle political decisions had radicalised public opinion in Ireland, from the attempted introduction of conscription in the early summer of 1918. Irish men had fought for Redmond. The Gallipoli campaign disillusioned many of Dublin’s middle class as they saw their sons go to death there: ‘Better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Sulva or Sud el Bar’. The Irish public was a spectrum from committed unionists through liberal home rulers and Redmonite home rulers to committed advocates of complete independence. The Irish convention of 1917 had shown that while southern Unionists wanted a compromise in an all-Ireland frame, northern Unionists had dug in on the demand for separate treatment.

Though Lloyd George had offered an immediate form of very limited Home Rule to 26 counties after the Rising of 1916, it was clear that Irish work on the Home Front and Redmondite sacrifices counted for little in British political eyes from the end of the war. Redmond’s imagined future of a new dispensation between Irish Unionists and Nationalists who had fought together in the war was just that – an imagined future, never to be. The Marquis of Londonderry, who later became Education minister in the new Northern Ireland, said that the Ulster Unionist lack of acknowledgement of that shared experience and sacrifice on the European battlefields astonished him. The so-called German plot in late summer of 1918 alienated moderate Nationalist public opinion and further radicalised those who had been earlier interned in Frongoch and were now arrested again. Lloyd George was busy, in Paris and elsewhere. Ireland could wait. But it didn’t. It radicalised.

That Walter Long, a political anachronism even before the war, was given the chairing of the imperial cabinet committee on Ireland after the war was astonishing. Or perhaps not. The high political decision by the Tory dominated cabinet in London to greet with repression the result of the 1918 election and the establishment of Dáil Éireann was tactical. The best account of British thinking in this period is still Charles Townshend’s book The British campaign in Ireland. The extraordinary number of diaries and memoirs from Dublin Castle officials – Mark Sturgis’s, Ormond de Winter, versions of the activities of Andy Cope, mean that we can see very clearly into their political calculations at different times. There is no mystery about what British politicians and officials intended by the summer of 1921. The intentions are documented on file and in publications.

Punishing rebel Ireland after the war had been subsidiary to a policy of providing Ulster’s supporters within the Tory dominated coalition cabinet with an acceptable palliative. That was the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. The time line is extraordinary. While the undeclared British war with nationalist Ireland proceeded from 1919 onwards details of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 were being drawn up by Walter Long. Called the fourth Home Rule Bill it had negated the premises of all three earlier Home Rule Bills and is better described as an act for the division of Ireland. The imagined Unionist future of remaining in an all-Ireland within the United Kingdom that Edward Carson had sought was recognised as impossible, as it was clear by the summer of 1921 that Britain had made its choice.

Extraordinarily, Arthur Balfour who had fought Parnellism in the 1880s and built Carson’s career in that process, was still core to British cabinet decision making at this time. His lines are telling ‘Behind Irish politics, behind the moderates, there is the real force making for change and that force always makes for independence, which this cabinet won’t give’.

Women pervaded the revolution and the revolutionary process. Many had cut their political teeth in the long and bitter war for the franchise only finally conceded with great reluctance after the war. The women of Inghinidhe na hEireann, those who had been in the Gaelic League, in Cumann na mBan, the Stopford women, Albina Broderick the sister of the former leader of southern Unionists Lord Midleton, had joined other women like Kathleen Lynn. Irish Protestant women, many from Unionist backgrounds disproportionately joined the revolutionaries. The subscription lists for collection of funds in Tralee shows the names of countless local Kerry women who had emigrated to the US and subscribed from there. Dulcibella Barton, cousin of Erskine Childers wa,s like her brother Robert Barton who was to sign the Treaty, an advanced nationalist, but the rest of her family were Unionist, and she paid a high social price for her loyalties. Alice Milligan had no money and was forced to return to the support of her brother in the north. She described being in a partitioned Ireland as like being in a prison.

But as the Truce beckoned a new jockeying for position was now in place. Mary MacSwiney was very close to De Valera, as were some other revolutionary women; but as the Truce settled it was the so-called fighting men who moved into the front line of politics.

Outside church and state, free and on their own march, many of these men closed the door on their former female comrades.

The fact that women now had the vote did not mean the addition of a large number of active female candidates to the selection lists of candidates for election in 1921. The names of male candidates crowded the nomination spaces. A tenth of the BMH witness statements are from women. Alice Stopford Green sold her house in London and moved to Dublin after Casement’s execution. She wrote anti-partition propaganda and travelled to Belfast to retain contact with FJ Bigger. Her house on St Stephen’s Green was a hub of revolutionary activity. Arthur Griffith came to her for advice. Maire Comerford as her secretary was incredibly active. Alice Green’s nieces in Foxrock provided a safe houses for the Dáil cabinet to meet at this time – she describes Collins stacking his bicycle outside it. Numerous other women in the city were similarly engaged. In Unionist Ulster we can see political strategy revealed most clearly through the diaries and letters of women who were close to the power brokers, and drove much of the politics but had no public role.

Who could imagine in the summer of 1921 that within a year Griffith and Collins would be dead? That a whole new cohort would die after the Treaty of December 1921, that the aspired for Republic with its radical demands would never be, or never as a 32 county entity.

Conor Cruise O’ Brien has documented the class wound to the families of those like his own. Hannah Sheehy Skeffington did carve out a future for herself but Mary Sheehy who had married Tom Kettle had a future she saw as denied. Some of the revolutionaries in due course produced their own elite – often Irish speaking, respectable and comfortable. Class change was real from those educated by the Jesuits and Holy Ghost fathers to Christian brothers boys. But of course De Valera was himself a product of the Holy Ghost fathers. In the novel Amongst Women John McGahern shows the father as a force of post-revolutionary disappointment oppressing and quashing the next generation.

In that summer of 1921 still carried on by the hopes of a republic many did not see the hard fates that lay ahead of them- exile, poverty, and loneliness. Some never got jobs again. Some fell into poverty and failure remembering the four glorious years when they were young and free and fought for Ireland.

We look back now on that summer of 1921 and find it hard to understand that most nationalists at the time refused to countenance the idea that the partition effected in that summer could be permanent. Those who had run the Dungannon Clubs in 1907 and the revolutionaries in Belfast around Ard Righ, on the Antrim Road in Belfast, did not believe that the Tyrone of George Sigerson and Patrick Mc Cartan and Dennis McCullough would be permanently politically severed from the rest of Ireland. Sigerson’s daughter Dora Sigerson Shorter never saw any future at all. Southern Unionists were uncertain but willing to try to accommodate whatever emerged. The writer Barbara Fitzgerald, daughter of John Allen Fitzgerald Gregg, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, expressed their fears.

Once the Truce was put in place all conservative forces in the country were anxious to maintain it at any cost. The summer soldiers joined up – people who had not fought in the previous two years but signed up as Trucileers. The Truce provided an opportunity for some to settle old scores, agrarian and other. In the North, or rather the just established jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, the Truce barely registered. The Northern Volunteers in fact became more active over that summer. All of this strengthened James Craig’s hand in his dealings with Lloyd George, and later Churchill, in demanding a full security apparatus which at least on paper Northern Ireland was never intended to have.

Northern nationalists, southern unionists, women, the rural and urban poor, all to some degree lost the peace in different ways - the futures they had imagined and hoped for were not to be.

Kathleen Clarke who had spotted and hired Michael Collins, who had all the documents to keep the revolution running after the executions in 1916, lost her husband, her brother, and miscarried a pregnancy she never told Tom Clarke about. After over a decade in prison Clarke, years older than her, known in prison as Wilson, amnestied and returned to recover with the Daly’s in Limerick had, much to the family’s initial horror, married her. Her fascinating autobiography was not published in her lifetime because it was assumed that she really did not matter very much at all. Of the brilliant female writers and analysts in these circles at that time only Dorothy Macardle succeeded in print.

What appears to matter in that 1921 summer of the Truce is who will negotiate on the Irish side with Lloyd George? It seems clear that though the women had been the equals of the men in the struggle they were not to be included in the negotiations. And if you look at the nominations for safe Sinn Fein seats in the May 1921elections you will see the pattern begin to emerge – very few women at all.

We have the gift of knowing what happened. In the summer of 1921, none of the actors knew where the future would bring them. In the extraordinary language of the Nestor section of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book concerned with all of these questions, there is that powerful riff on what are called the ‘ousted possibilities’:

‘Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of infinite possibilities they have ousted’.

Recovering imagined futures from that summer of 1921 takes us back, as well as forward, and the Irish revolution has to be seen in the space from 1880 to 1925; it is from that time frame we can make sense of the summer of 1921 and all of that which it presages.


Thank you.