Book Review: The Republican – An Irish Civil War Story

The Republican, an Irish Civil War Story by TS O’Rourke

Reviewer: John Dorney 

History, Napoleon Bonaparte once mused, is nothing more than myth agreed upon. Cynical the Corsican dictator undoubtedly was, but he may have had a point. History can be boiled down to a series of stories we put together to make the past – in the end a jumble of confusing and contradictory events – make sense.

The stories can certainly be compared and tested for accuracy and documentation but they remain essentially that; stories. The problem with this is that we tend to leave out the bits we don’t like or that we can’t fit into a comfortable version. The Irish Civil War of 1922-1923, and particularly the Republican view of it, has long been like this in Irish nationalist memory.

If Irish history is the story of “Ireland’s” fight against “England” why did Irish nationalists end up fighting one another? If the modern Irish state is the culmination of nationalist ambitions, how could an armed Republican minority have fought against it at its birth?.

The story of the anti-Treaty fighters of the Civil War needs to be told 

TS O’Rourke’s ‘faction’ novel, “The Republican” does not answer these questions but what it does do is represent the semi-forgotten conflict from the point of view of an anti-Treaty Republican fighter. This story, quite at odds with the consensus that the Free State represented democracy and the Republicans some kind of fascistic militarism, needs to be told.

From the point of view of Jack Larkin, the books protagonist, the Treaty is a weak-hearted sell-out when the Republic is just a step away. He and his friends, young working class Dubliners in a small IRA unit, find themselves propelled into civil war almost by the force of events – they get told to stick up a bank to raise funds and do it. They get told to occupy the Four Courts and again find themselves there, fortifying the building but also being told not to fire on the surrounding Free State troops.

For quite a while the young men – idealistic but not ideologically sophisticated, seemed more mystified by than strident about the course events are taking. It is hard to blame them – at one point the Free Staters deliver them new weapons and take their old ones away to be delivered to the IRA in the North. And in case anyone may think O’Rourke has taken artistic license here, this really did happen on the brink of the Civil War.

The depiction of the Republicans as young, determined but not terribly clear about where they were headed, is a fairly good representation of what actually happened. O’Rourke has clearly done his homework and many of the set-piece events of the civil war are here.

O’Rourke has clearly done his homework – the set piece events of the civil war are here

Jack Larkin gets shelled in the Four Courts and wounded by machine guns on O’Connell Street in Dublin. He sees his friends executed under the Public Safety Act and gets involved in the hateful cycle of tit-for-tat assassinations that marked the latter stages of the Civil War, before eventually coming to a tragic end himself.  At one point Jack ponders whether the war is even about politics at all anymore, or merely about revenge.

As a representation of the Civil War as experienced by Dublin Anti-Treaty fighters, I can certainly recommend this book.

However, it is not totally without flaws. As a historical novel, it more Sharpe than War and Peace. The characters at times seem there mainly as props for the story and the dialogue can sometimes be a little stilted.  

O’Rourke is at his best when describing the bank job, the gun battle or the assassination attempt.

Fortunately though, the story itself has enough drive to keep the reader interested. O’Rourke, normally a writer of crime novels, is at his best when describing the bank job, the gun battle or the assassination attempt. For those who know Dublin, there is also an intimate sense of place – all the action (bar a brief trip out to Bodenstown) takes place in the old inner city.

Historical fiction in the end is not history. But if The Republican helps to re-awaken interest in the Civil War and helps us to better understand those who fought in it, TS O’Rourke will have done us all a service.

The Republican was originally published by in 2006 and is now being re-released as an e-book. You can buy it here

Note: A previous version of this review noted some small factual errors in the text of The Republican. These have since been corrected in more recent versions of the book.

John Dorney’s short book on the Irish Civil War is here

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