Robert Kee, The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1972), [Chap. 2:] “Contradictions of Irish Nationality”

In a letter to a friend in February 1918, Eamon de Valera wrote that for seven centuries England had held Ireland ‘as Germany holds Belgium to-day, by the right of the sword’ [1]. This is the classical language of Irish separatism and can be very misleading.

An Irish nationalism of this sort, which saw England and Ireland as two separate and hostile countries, had itself then only been in existence for a little over a hundred years. From its origin at the end of the eighteenth century until the very year in which Mr de Valera was writing, it had been not so much a normal patriotic faith as an intellectual theory held by idealists who were trying, with little success, to make their theory materialize in practice. Inevitably they used many synthetic and unreal concepts as if they were facts. Chief of these was the notion that England ‘held’ Ireland by force. Its corollary was that the undoubted ills from which Ireland suffered over the centuries were those inflicted by a strong oppressor over a weak and subject alien people. Both of these notions area large enough distortion of events to amount to a historical untruth. Between 1845 and 1919, the period during which this view of Irish nationalism laid what foundations it could among the ordinary Irish people, Ireland was in fact ‘held’ by twelve thousand Catholic Irishmen of the Royal Irish Constabulary, drawn largely from among the younger sons of the suffering peasantry. In these circumstances to talk of Ireland as being ‘held’ at all in a military sense is patently ridiculous.

It is perhaps a virtue of the British that, often so arrogant when the star of their power was at its zenith, they cheerfully accept almost any interpretation of their former behaviour now that that star has grown dim. They have thus come to accept almost without reserve that what took place in Ireland between the years 1916 and 1922 was a bitter struggle by a small subject nation battling for its independence against British imperialist might in a conflict which the British morally deserved to lose. But perhaps the British like to see it this way because the truth is even more difficult to face. For Britain can take little credit for the way in which she managed that part of herself that was Ireland for seven centuries.

Though the sword indeed played its dreadful part there as savagely as in any other country of Europe, to see Irish history in the plain, uncompromisingly nationalistic terms of Mr de Valera’s statement is to miss, together with the truth, much of the poignancy and drama of the strange relationship that persisted between the two islands for so long. It is also the surest way to become bewildered and confused by the very events in which Mr de Valera was then embroiled, as certain obvious facts about these events make plain enough.

For example, the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish forces in the heroic Dublin Rebellion of 1916 was not strictly an Irishman at all, but the son of a Birmingham man. The rebellion itself was unpopular with the great majority of the Irish people at the time, and, after the rebels' surrender, some of the prisoners being marched away through the streets of Dublin by the British were jeered at by the local population. By contrast, one of the British officers who guarded those prisoners was, just over five years later, to be a member of the very Irish delegation which signed the Anglo-Irish treaty on behalf of Ireland [the Old Rugbeian, Robert Barton].

The first problem, in fact, is to define an Irishman at all. An English civil servant, Erskine Childers, was one of the most steadfast of all supporters of the Irish republican cause between 1919 and 1922 and was reviled as an Englishman by both English and Irish alike for his pains. He even met his death before a firing squad in the end – and an Irish firing squad at that. One of the bravest of all the many other brave men who died during these years, Cathal Brugha, at first sight an authentic enough Gaelic hero, is on closer examination just plain Charles Burgess, also shot to death by uniformed Irish soldiers for his loyalty to an Irish Republic.

On the other hand Sir Henry Wilson, British Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918, was as much an Irishman by his own or Sinn Fein's standards as the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who killed him with revolver bullets on the door-step of his home, 36 Eaton Place, SW3 in 1922. And Sir Edward Carson, an equally implacable enemy of Irish independence, was proud to be able to refer to Ireland as 'my country'. Equally an Irishman, by descent at any rate, was the British General Sir Nevile Macready, who on 10 July 1921 walked up the steps of the Dublin Mansion House to negotiate a truce with the leaders of the Irish Republican Army. Many thought then and have thought since that he went unarmed, but, complimenting himself in a peculiarly English sort of way that he knew the Irish too well for that, he put a revolver in the right-hand pocket of his tunic where it can be discerned to this day in the photograph of him taken as he made his way through applauding Dublin crowds to that historic meeting.'

The confusing contradictions multiply indefinitely. The leader of the Ulster Volunteers, Carson, was a Dubliner, the leader of the Irish Volunteers {7} in the south, MacNeill, an Ulsterman. At the conclusion of the story ‘Ulster’ is no longer Ulster [2], and the most northerly point of Ireland, Malin Head, is in ‘Southern Ireland’. But the most serious proof of the complexity of what is still sometimes so simply called the ‘War of Independence’ can be seen in a study of the judicial executions which took place during and after it. For, between 1919 and 1921, the British Government shot in cold blood or hanged twenty-four Irishmen who had taken up arms for an independent sovereign Irish Republic. Between 1922 and 1923, in the so-called ‘Civil War’, the new Irish Government executed over three times that number of Irishmen who had taken up arms for exactly the same cause.

Part of the explanation of all this is that the whole struggle was really something of a civil war from the start. But how it came about, and how it was possible for some people to regard it sincerely, however self-consciously or even half-heartedly, as a national struggle, can only be understood if it is seen in the wider context of the Irish history to which it provided such an unexpected climax. For on both sides of this struggle men were sometimes self-consciously, sometimes unconsciously, in the grip of forces other than those of the time in which they lived. For over seven centuries the history of the people who lived in Ireland had been a folk-trauma comparable in human experience perhaps only to that of the Jews. In these years of the twentieth century a haphazard series of events finally exorcized that trauma for ever.

[End chap.]

John Devoy's Post Bag, ed. Williams & Ryan, Vol. 2, 1953, p.552.
The historic province of Ulster consists of the nine counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, and the state of Northern Ireland consists only of the first six of these.

[ back ]

[ top ]