Book Review: The Shaping of Modern Ireland.

biagini-mulhall-cover-rgbEdited by Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall

Published by Irish Academic Press, 2016

Reviewer: Rhona McCord

The Shaping of Modern Ireland is a collection of seventeen essays, mostly biographical in nature, dealing with the political, cultural and economic influences that played a significant part in shaping Ireland after independence.

This book is a reboot of one with the same title published in 1960 and edited by Conor Cruise O’Brien. The original was a collection of fifteen essays, written by the leading academics of the day, surveying the prominent figures deemed to have influenced or played a role in the development of the new state.

The Shaping of Modern Ireland , a reboot of a 1960 book of the same name, is a collection of 17 essays on the political, cultural and economic influences that shaped modern Ireland.

This version of The Shaping of Modern Ireland, structured in much the same way as its 1960 counter part, is a useful exercise in historiography if nothing else.  Reevaluating the same figures over and over may seem to have little merit but it depends entirely on how critical the writer and indeed the reader is prepared to be. Another evaluation of the role of Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins for example in terms of more recent historiographical trends and the portrayal of both men in film media warrants fresh investigation.

There are very good biographies here too on some of the less popular subjects, particularly, Eugenio Biagini’s chapter on Edward Carson, Elizabeth Kehoe’s piece on the Daughters of Ireland and Margaret Ward’s on Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.

Paul Bew takes on the first chapter by reviewing Conor Cruise O’Brien’s original essay, a survey of the period between 1891 and 1916.  This is followed by R.V. Comerford’s revaluation of Desmod Ryan’s original piece discussing the role of the Fenian leaders, James Stevenson, John Devoy and Tom Clarke.  Frank Callanan discusses three different figures central to the politics of Parnell and the Irish Party after his demise: John Redmond, James Dillon and Tim Healy.  Callanan points out that Dillon had not been included in the original book and outlines why he warrants inclusion now as someone who was a dominant personality in Irish politics of the time.

The Patrick Maume penned essay on Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, shows great understanding of the nuances of Irish historiography as well as the duality of Irish political culture and of the Gaelic and Anglo Irish influences that dominated.  Interestingly linked to the 1960 version of Shaping Ireland the original author of this chapter was Myles Dillon the son of James Dillon featured in the previous chapter.  Michael Laffan discusses the divisive figure of Arthur Griffith.  While Irish Times journalist Stephen Collins gives an account of the role of the GAA and its founder Michael Cusack.

Reevaluating the same figures over and over may seem to have little merit but it depends entirely on how critical the writer and indeed the reader is prepared to be.

Martin Manseragh tackles the legacy of the aforementioned Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.  Manseragh’s observations regarding the historical treatment of both figures, having been particularly coloured in the minds of the public by the popularity of Michael Jordan’s movie, are very interesting.

The chapter gives a good account of the historiographical difficulties when dealing with these two figures and rightly points out that, perspectives will continue to shift over time. Currently it has to be agreed that Collins is somewhat mythologised while de Valera has been undermined; firstly by his association with the Catholic hierarchy and Archbishop McQuaid in particular, a subject which has not always been dealt with accurately, and secondly by the unsympathetic and often inaccurate portrayal of him in Neil Jordan’s movie.

Mansergh’s analysis on the success of Irish Independence is a bit aloof as he opines that partition is the only long lasting failure of Independence.  Many would disagree, particularly those survivors of the laundries and industrial schools.  The unhealthy obsession with female sexuality that led to incarceration, forced adoption and a plethora of state facilitated crimes against women and their children remains to this day an enduring failure and shame of Irish Independence.

Unionist leaders James Craig and Edward Carson in 1922.
Unionist leaders James Craig and Edward Carson in 1922.

The Dublin barrister Edward Carson, unlike Collins and de Valera is largely an unknown entity in popular history particularly south of the border.

Obviously he was the face of Ulster Unionism and the main opponent of Home Rule, apart from his role in the demise of Oscar Wilde, he remains relatively unknown.

Here Eugenio Biagini, one of the books co editors follows in the footsteps of R.B. McDowelll in attempting to enlighten us. He discusses the role of religion in Carson’s motivation and corrects some of McDowell’s assumptions pointing out that independence was in fact not on the table when ulster unionism mobilised against home rule.

Contributors tackle subjects as diverse as reevaluating figures such as Collins, de Vlaera Pears and Carson, examining the role of women and tracing the fortunes of the Guinness family.

Daithí Ó Corráin’s subject is Archbishop William Joseph Walsh who perhaps personified the close ties between nationalism, agrarian struggle and Catholicism at the time of the rising.   Walsh aware of the dangers for the church if they condemned the political activity of their congregation tried to lend a degree of support to all popular struggle but falling short of support for radical or violent tactics.

Although he claimed to sympathise with the workers in the 1913 lockout, his actions spoke louder than his words.  It was Walsh’s intervention, which prevented the great act of solidarity from British trade union members who agreed to take in the children of their striking comrades.  Walsh, who was vociferous in his stance against partition and conscription, overtime moved away from politics toward education and religious concerns before his death 1921.

The figures of George Russell, D P Moran and Tom Kettle dealt with here by co editor Daniel Mulhall, are united according to Mulhall in ‘their concern for Ireland’s economic development’.  Kettle a nationalist and supporter of Ireland’s involvement in WWI saw himself as a European and justified his involvement in the war on those terms.

Moran’s influence was summed up by his characterisation of the new state as both Catholic and Gaelic.  Russell perhaps the more progressive of the three men was critical of what he perceived as the ‘introverted nationalism that had narrowed its focus with the advent of independence’.   These three men, all concerned with Irish independence, to a degree personify some of the divergent influences on the new state.

In chapter 11 we meet some women, The Daughters of Ireland to be precise, that is Maud Gonne MacBride, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dorothy Macardle.  The author of this chapter, Elizabeth Kehoe, points out that there were no women featured in the original Shaping of Modern Ireland although MacArdle herself was the only female contributor.

Patrick Pearse addressing a meeting of Volunteers. (Courtesy of the Irish Volunteer website).
Patrick Pearse addressing a meeting of Volunteers. (Courtesy of the Irish Volunteer website).

It was, as Kehoe articulates ‘as though the women of the revolution had been erased…possibly an accurate reflection of their perceived impact in the shaping of the Ireland of the late 1950s.’   Changes in historical approach have led to a revaluation of the role that women played in the revolutionary period and in a wider sense in society but that was not the approach in the mid 20th century and there is little to be gained by transplanting todays standards or attitudes to those of 60 years ago.

The role of another woman in Irish affairs is often greatly neglected and that is the role of Queen Victoria.  The policies of her reign had a huge impact on Irish politics and in mobilising both nationalist and agrarian activists.  Kehoe describes the Daughters of Ireland as ‘the antithesis of Victorian ideals of feminine behaviour.’ These women ‘fought with the same weapons-rhetoric, protest and violence-as their male counterparts.’

Yet they were considered as outside of the mainstream often isolated and condemned for their political activity.  It was this treatment by the establishment that encouraged Maud Gonne to set up Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Daughters of Ireland in 1900.   A hybrid of nationalism and early feminism it was later subsumed by larger organisation’s like Cumann na mBán, the Irish Citizen’s Army and the Irish Women Workers Union.

Kehoe demonstrates here the huge impact these women had on politics, culture, medicine and feminism in Ireland.  All three came from somewhat privileged backgrounds with a strong sense of justice and self-sacrifice.

Gonne stands out here as being a bit dramatic, Lynn perhaps somewhat naïve in her surprise at the extend of sectarianism in the new state and MacArdle perhaps the most disappointed of the three women given her loyalty to republicanism and de Valera in particular.  Many republican women felt betrayed by the actions of the first independent governments but Fianna Fáil in the 1930s completed a programme that subordinated the role of women with the introduction of the 1937 constitution; the last straw for women like MacArdle.

There are many other ‘shapers’ to read about in this collection and not all are given blind praise.  Theo Dorgan’s description and analysis of WB Yeats as a ‘profound reactionary’, is both apt and refreshing.   Mary E Daly examines and contrasts the impact of Horace Plunkett and William Pirrie.   These two figures personify the duality of the Irish economy, one an agricultural reformer the other the man behind the success of the Harland and Wolfe shipyard.  In many ways this essay shows the economic challenges faced by the nascent state, a subject often neglected in popular historical commentary.

J.J. Lee continues this theme with a chapter on the Guinness family.  The Guinness family’s contribution to the brewing industry, as well as their philanthropic endeavours mark them out, but they were not the only success story as exemplified here by the inclusion of a short piece about the Jacob’s Biscuit company.

A book of this nature, written in the midst of the decade of commemoration would not be complete without three of the most revolutionary figures of Irish history; Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, and Constance Markievicz.   Interest in these three figures has grown and grown over the century.

Diarmaid Ferriter reassess Dorothy MacArdles 1960 essay on the role of both Pearse and Connolly. Connolly’s reputation as an international socialist, writer and thinker has significantly developed not just among historians and academics but also in the minds of the general public.  Treatment of Pearse is often complicated by an ideologically driven motivation to either dismiss him as a two-dimensional character with a blood lust or to foist current political prejudice onto his shoulders.  Uneasiness about Pearse’s legacy still exists and stems from the fact that the establishment just cannot seem to wrest his memory from the hands of the ‘provos’.

Sonja Tiernan, in discussing the Gore Booth sisters, comments on the undervalued and overlooked role of women in Irish history and their glaring absence from the original Shaping of Modern Ireland, she suggests it was a ‘product of its time and reflects the position of women in Irish society in 1960’.

The persistence of the biography in Irish history writing is somewhat disappointing and can narrow our interpretation of events.

Without disagreeing with that, the charge of sexism is still warranted.  Given that Ireland had in Markievicz one of the first female government ministers in the world, it just doesn’t wash that Cruise O’Brien et al forgot that fact or didn’t see its relevance.  By 1960 Women had the vote in all western democracies and the international labour movement was calling for equality in the workplace.

The 1916 proclamation, aspirational as it may have been, also reflected a political desire for equality.  Even if hope evaporated in the face of the reactionary policies of Kevin O’Higgns and later de Valera and Lemass, their actions in marginalising women were not unknown in 1960.  Cruise O’Brien and his contemporaries just did not have the will, the courage or imagination to challenge the narrative.

The final chapter, on the Sheehy Skeffingtons, demonstrates that Ireland was not simply a backwater immersed in religion, sexism, fear and superstition.  There was and is a radical legacy that is often overlooked and should be utilised to challenge the conservative perceptions of Ireland.  Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were what Margaret Ward describes here as ‘militant feminists’.   And before we jump to a conclusion that they were not of their time a quick glance at Ward’s essay will assure you that they were not unique and in fact very much of their time and a part of a wider movement of what Ward describes as a ‘pre-revolutionary bohemian Dublin’.

The persistence of the biography in Irish history writing is somewhat disappointing and can narrow our interpretation of events.  In the Shaping of Modern Ireland an examination of wider based organisations would be welcome.  Apart from Stephen Collins examination of the GAA, there is no attempt to look at the role of wider society.

A mass organisation like the ITGWU for example with its base at Liberty Hall pivotal to many of the physical struggles taking place on the street, the role of its membership and structure are completely overlooked.  There has always been a tendency in Irish history to look at change from the top down, which is frustrating given the massive movements throughout Irish history that came from the grassroots and also played a role in shaping modern Ireland.

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