Book Review: Myth and the Irish State

Cover myth stateTitle: Myth And The Irish State
Author: John M Regan
Publisher: Irish Academic Press 2013
ISBN: 978-0-71653-212-5
Price: €27.95 in paperback (cheaper via the publisher)
Reviewer:  John Dorney

This is an important book and one that should be read by anyone interested in the writing of modern Irish history.

In it John Regan asks what separates the discipline of history from popular mythology and warns of the dangers of history being contorted to serve the agendas of the present. We all know that all historical writing is coloured by the perceptions of the author in his or her own reality. What Regan asks is the pointed question of what happens when the political or cultural needs of the present outweigh the impartial investigation of the past.

How have Irish historians balanced the contradictory needs of the southern state to celebrate its revolutionary origins and to condemn modern republican violence?

More specifically how has Irish history of the independence struggle of 1916-23 been influenced by the needs of the existing (southern) Irish state? This question has long been all the more prickly given the ‘unfinished business’ left by the Irish revolutionary period of 1916-1923. The 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement left a partitioned Ireland and an incompletely independent southern state. For this reason the first major action of the new Free State was to put down the ‘die hard’ republican guerrillas in the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.

What is more, the ‘Troubles’ or Northern Ireland conflict from the 1970’s onwards left the southern state in the embarrassing situation of trying to defend its own ‘armed struggle’ of the 1920s while condemning that of the Provisional IRA, whose campaign undermined the security of what was now the Republic of Ireland and threatened constantly to cause a crisis in its relations with Britain.

From this background came what is often pejoratively termed ‘revisionism’, in which aspects of the Irish republican past were re-interpreted by historians to discredit modern day republican paramilitaries. Among the arguments developed was that mainstream Irish nationalism had always been defined by its democratic and popular mandate; in the independence struggle voting for independence and seceding from Britain.

However, the public also pragmatically accepted the 1922 Treaty but a minority of militant Irish republicans, rejected the Treaty and defied the popular will and tried to impose their militarist ideology onto an unwilling public. The paramilitaries of the late 20th century, it was argued were their ideological heirs.

The pro-Treatyites by contrast and especially Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, were presented as the inheritors, like the modern Irish state, of popular constitutional nationalism stretching back to O’Connell and Parnell. The Irish Civil War, by this reading was, in Regan’s words about ‘Democrats versus Dictators’.

Secondly it was argued that the Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland was, at bottom sectarian, directed in the end against Protestants, who were viewed to be outside the imagined Irish nation. For some historians, notably Peter Hart (of whom more later), this was an attitude that could be dated back to the ‘Old IRA’ of the 1920’s, who were alleged to have systematically targeted Protestant civilians. The end conclusion being that Irish republicanism was essence a Catholic ‘tribal’ ideology.

History or Propaganda?

So how did these arguments affect the writing of Irish history since the late 1960s? Regan argues cogently that in many cases, historians subordinated their presentation of evidence to the political needs of the day.

He notes for example that southern Irish historians, keen to emphasise the ‘Democrats versus Dictators’ interpretation of the 1922-23 Civil war, played down the British threat of re-occupying Ireland if the Treaty was not accepted. The apogee of this trend was Tom Garvin’s 1996 book, ‘1922 the Birth of Irish Democracy’ disavowing that any such threat was ever made by the British government at all.

Regan is highly critical of the trend of depicting the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 as a battle for democracy against republican militarism.

This, if true, would obviously be fatal to the anti-Treatyite argument that the ‘Will of the People’ could not be freely expressed while it was threatened by British arms. However Regan shows in ‘Myth and the Irish State’ that the threat of British re-occupation in 1922 was very real indeed. (A fact which is not terribly controversial and has been pointed to in detail by historians such as Michael Hopkinson) Which begs the question of why Irish historians would deny it.

One of the most striking arguments in this book is Regan’s reappraisal of Michael Collins, man and myth. He argues that Collins has been ‘re-packaged’ since his death in 1922 as a ‘moderate’ and a ‘peacemaker’ due to his acceptance of the Treaty. While obviously very convenient for his political and institutional inheritors in the Irish state, Regan argues that to accept this interpretation is to completely overlook the actual man and his record.

Regan’s thesis is that Collins, driving force within the IRA from 1919-21, bolstered by his personal network within the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in both the Dáil and the Army, was in fact a dictator in waiting. He cites, among other things, Collins’ assuming, without consultation with his cabinet colleagues, simultaneous supreme command of the National Army and head of government on the outbreak of the Irish Civil War.

Was Michael Collins a dictator in waiting in mid 1922?

Moreover, Regan notes that Collins would not let the Third Dáil, elected in June 1922, meet in session, nor did he consult it about the declaration of war on the anti-Treaty IRA. It was not until after his death in ambush in Cork in late August 1922 that the Dáil was finally recalled.

This is indeed, a very different picture of ‘The Big Fellah’ to that portrayed in most Irish history books, or in popular culture, notably by Neil Jordan in his biopic ‘Michael Collins’. At the very least it hugely complicates the picture of the democrat Collins versus the anti-Treaty demagogue De Valera.

The sectarian question

On the question of sectarianism during the independence conflict, Regan has further provocative things to say. During the 1990’s, the world was introduced to the ugly term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the context of the wars that marked the breakup of Yugoslavia. The expression referred to the forced mass expulsion of ethnic and religious minorities from their homes, by means of violence and intimidation. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was soon picked up by both sides in the Northern Ireland conflict, who accused the other side of committing it. Regan notes how among Irish historians at this time, ‘ethnic cleansing’ began to appear also in account of the Irish revolutionary period.

Did assertions that the Provisional IRA was sectarian lead to theses of ‘ethnic cleansing on the part of the 1920’s IRA?

Peter Hart in particular, the now deceased Canadian historian, wrote that, ‘what might be termed ethnic cleansing’ took place against Protestants in several locations. Regan however argues, (it seems to this reviewer with no more than common sense) that nothing approaching the scale of Balkan-style ‘ethnic cleansing’ occurred in any 20th century conflict in Ireland. The use of the term therefore should be seen as propaganda rather than historical analysis.

Writing about the worst episode of the killing of Protestant civilians in southern Ireland – the shooting of 13 men in West Cork in April 1922 – Regan upbraids Hart for jumping to the conclusion that the killings were sectarian. He notes that in Hart’s PhD thesis the episode was linked to the simultaneous abduction and killing of three senior British intelligence officers in the area, a fact that might lead the reader to conclude that those killed were targeted because they were named as contacts by the British officers. This was relegated to a footnote in Hart’s ‘The IRA and its Enemies’. Regan also asks why Hart downplayed the role of Frank Busteed, an IRA man of both Catholic and Protestant ancestry who may have admitted to the killings (he told Ernie O’Malley that he shot ‘a load of loyalist farmers’).

Regan concludes that Hart suppressed evidence that complicated his simplistic thesis that ‘these men were shot because they were Protestants’; and concludes that as we cannot establish the killers’ identities in this incident, assigning motive to them is foolhardy at best, dishonest at worst.

This then, is the essential argument. ‘Myth and the Irish State’, a collection of essays by Regan on Irish historiography over the last 15 years; argues that Irish historians, motivated in part by the need of the state to control popular understanding of its own history, have fallen into a kind of group-think and too often have produced ‘ahistorical public histories’, to the detriment of the historical discipline. Even worse, some, he writes, have fallen prey to the (Conor Cruise) ‘O’Brien ethic’, whereby public figures must actively work to undermine support for political violence.

Is Regan right?

So is Regan right? Undoubtedly he is right about many things. It has long been a habit of this reviewer to mentally adjust much recent historical writing to allow for the expected biases against militant republicanism. You will look long and hard for anything sympathetic to the anti-Treatyites of 1922 coming out of Irish academia since the 1970’s and not a great deal that is sympathetic to Irish republicanism of any kind.

Moreover, the ‘Democrats versus Dictators’ paradigm has done as much to obscure as to enlighten study of the Irish Civil War. How, Regan asks, were the anti-Treatyites, supposedly irredeemable militarist fanatics in 1922, able to enter democratic politics so seamlessly in the years afterwards, at no cost to the democratic character of the state? Only if they were never motivated by antipathy to the ‘People’s Will’ in the first place.

Many of Regan’s criticisms hit the mark, and are an overdue airing in public of some issues long raised in private in Irish history.

Similarly, why has the thesis of systematic IRA sectarianism and ethnic cleansing been given such an uncritical hearing – not only in academia but, perhaps more so, in the world of journalism – if it was not implicitly to discredit modern day republicanism? Raising the question of the treatment of the southern Protestant minority in the 26 counties is legitimate and undoubtedly some did suffer from violence and intimidation but the idea of a systematic sectarian campaign by the IRA against Protestant civilians is rather poorly grounded in evidence.

I do have some reservations about Regan’s arguments though and the first is along the lines of ‘let he who is without sin throw the first stone’. He writes for instance that Fearghal McGarry’s analysis in the recent ‘Terror in Ireland’ of violence during the 1916 Rising (McGarry writes that the Volunteers did their best to protect civilians and most civilian casualties were caused by British firepower) is a reversal of his previous criticism of militant republicanism and is simply a response to a changed public mood. Perhaps so, but if one reads Regan’s own writings, one can also find examples of ‘presentist’ interpretations.

All of us are guilty at some points of viewing the past through the lense of the present and Regan has been no exception.

Writing for instance, in his fine 1998 book, ‘The Irish Counter Revolution’ of the series of assassinations and executions in December 1922 during the Civil War, Regan writes that an anti-Treaty campaign of assassination against leading Free State political figures could have been more effective, ‘if implemented by the IRA with a Provoesque [sic] ruthlessness’ . But the Provisional IRA were not notably more ruthless than the ‘old IRA’ in terms of political assassinations. Their toll of high profile political victims in the 30 year Troubles does not greatly exceed that of the IRA in the four years of 1919-23 (neither in fact primarily targeted civilian politicians although both killed several).

What this line conveys is the perception, shared at the time by this reviewer and many people, that the Provisional IRA campaign was far more ruthless and indiscriminate than what had gone before. It is no endorsement of the Provisionals to say that this is no longer so clear. The Provisionals killed around 800 civilians over 30 years. The ‘old’ IRA roughly 600 over four years. It is of course, much easier to come to this conclusion now that it no longer implies approval of continued killing in Northern Ireland. The point is, we all reassess the past based on a changing present, even John Regan.

My second reservation is that while many of Regan’s criticisms of Irish historians in ‘Myth and the Irish State’ are well founded, they imply that his own analyses are correct. Regan posits that no one has adequately investigated the secret role of the IRB and a possible clandestine dictatorship by Michael Collins or the link between the ‘disappeared’ British intelligence officers and the ‘Bandon Valley Massacre’ of April 1922.

Perhaps so, but it does not follow that these theories are correct. The latest investigation of the West Cork shootings; ‘Massacre’ by Barry Keane, argued that the abduction of the intelligence officers had nothing to do with the Bandon Valley killings, which Keane writes were a reprisal for the shooting of IRA commandant Michael O’Neill by a local loyalist. Peter Hart’s work on the topic, which is criticised in ‘Myth and the Irish State’, is full of tendentious language and failure to disclose information that pointed away from the ‘sectarian killings’ argument. But perhaps Hart was correct after all not to link the Bandon valley killings with the fate of the British intelligence officers at Macroom?

Similarly while Michael Collins may well have had authoritarian tendencies, it is not at all certain that he was dictator in waiting in 1922. And lastly Regan’s argument that the Four Courts IRA garrison were planning an assault on Northern Ireland just before the pro-Treaty forces’ attack on them in June 1922 is intriguing, but unproven.

John Regan may counter that he is more concerned in this book with why such avenues have not been explored by other historians, and he is right to do so. But the issues can only be resolved once he has more fully explored them himself. Hopefully John Regan will do just this in the years ahead.

A critical approach to historiography, Regan writes, is not an optional extra. He is right about this. In other words historians should bear in mind their own attitudes and those shaped by the writing of others before them before coming to conclusions. And he is right in many of his criticisms of modern Irish history writing in this very well-written and provocative book. But history, the attempt to discover what happened in the past is always more important, in the eyes of this reviewer, than the debates among historians.

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