Skip to content

Response to Review no. 583

I would like to begin by thanking John Regan for his challenging review; although I disagree with much of it, I think it is useful for historians explicitly to debate the ideological implications of their historiographical approaches. Before responding, it may be useful to summarize Regan’s argument, as I understand it. His principal charge is that my book is a product of what he identifies as ‘a new public history of Irish independence’ which emerged within the southern Irish state during the 1970s. The aim of this historiographical tradition was, ‘to distinguish state-formation violence in the period 1918–23 from that of the contemporary and unmandated Provisional IRA’. In addition, it sought to, ‘reconcile nationalism in the south with the established 1922 state as opposed to the thirty-two-county revolutionary republic’. The ‘community of professional Irish historians’ has pursued this counter-revolutionary agenda by championing the ostensibly democratic values of the treatyite founders of the Irish Free State, while denigrating the anti-treaty republicans as ‘non-democratic wreckers of the new state’. Rooted within this problematic tradition, the ‘legitimizing narrative’ of Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero amounts to what is, in effect, a ‘winners’ history’ of the Free State era.

Regan’s central argument—that Irish academic historians (excepting, presumably, a few mavericks outside ‘the dominant orthodoxy’) have colluded with the requirements of the southern state to produce a version of history intended to reinforce that state against the challenge of Provisional republicanism during ‘the Troubles’—is a serious one. I will address the examples of bias highlighted by Regan, before concluding by briefly discussing his thesis more generally.

Let me begin by acknowledging Regan’s criticism of my use of the term ‘Irregular’. The implications of this partisan term—coined by treatyite propagandists in order to emphasize the ‘legitimacy’ of the ‘regular’ pro-treaty forces—should have been clarified in my text, and I accept Regan’s point that it is inappropriate to apply pejorative or contentious nomenclature to one side in a conflict. Notwithstanding this mea culpa, however, I do not agree that my use of this term demonstrates a broader pro-treaty ideological agenda. Throughout my book, I use many terms contemporaneously in use, such as ‘Tan war’ or ‘occupied six counties’, without necessarily endorsing their underlying implications; for example, I occasionally refer to anti-treatyites as ‘Republicans’ without accepting the implication that opposing pro-treatyites were not republican. Historians should be careful about how they use such terms—clarifying their implications where necessary—but not feel compelled to replace such rich, and often revealing, language with the dryer, if more precise, terminology found in some academic texts, particularly if they hope to reach a non-specialist audience.

On the more substantive issue of treatyite bias, I do not believe that I invest the treatyites with ‘unqualified legitimacy’, accepting ‘treatyite claims to be democracy’s defenders’, while exclusively ascribing ‘authoritarianism and aspirations to dictatorship to the anti-treatyites’. Rather, I argue that for treatyites such as Eoin O’Duffy, public support for their stance was a convenient consequence rather than the activating principle responsible for their actions (after all, most pro- and anti-treatyites took sides before they knew which way the Dáil vote or any subsequent election would go, although most deputies would have had a fair idea of the latter). For example, referring to Eoin O’Duffy’s emphasis on democratic principles in his treaty speech of January 1922, I note: ‘This conversion to majoritarianism, eagerly if belatedly stressed by pro-treaty deputies, was a response to the wave of public support expressed in favour of the treaty over Christmas’ (p. 93). Elsewhere, I note that republicans, ‘did not regard their actions as anti-democratic believing that their opponents had no right to disestablish the republic which they had sworn to uphold’ (p. 95). Regan quotes my description of the ‘nasty row’ over civilian control of the IRA (between those who would subsequently adopt opposing sides on the treaty) but omits the sentence which followed it: ‘Like the treaty split, the dispute involved personal animosities, rivalries, and issues of political principle for which both sides could make a reasonable case’ (p. 87).

Nor, given the constraints of writing a biography spanning half a century (as opposed to a political study of the treaty split and civil war), do I feel that I underplay Britain’s role in the civil war. I explicitly state that, ‘responsibility for the civil war must be shared rather more widely than the treatyite leadership: the British government and anti-treatyites played their parts’ (p. 90); I also describe the obstacles placed by the British government in the way of the attempts by Michael Collins to reach an accommodation with anti-treatyites during the first half of 1922 (pp. 104–5).

On the key theme of legitimism, Regan criticizes my description of de Valera’s republican government (1922–25) as a ‘notional’ entity, arguing that the government ‘was far from “notional” to de Valera’s supporters who fought their civil war in defence of its republican legitimacy . . . it should be recalled de Valera’s “notional” government was endorsed by nearly 290,000 votes or 26 per cent of the poll’. Several points arise here. I do not understand Regan’s objection to the use of the term ‘notional’. That the republican government was ‘notional’ (that is, a hypothetical—or theoretical—non-functioning government established for symbolic purposes) rather than based on some reality such as the control of territory or the exercise of administrative functions (as, for example, could be claimed by the Dáil government of 1919–21) is simply a statement of fact, and indeed one of the key arguments put forward by republicans in favour of its disestablishment in 1925. Moreover, Regan is mistaken in his belief that the anti-treaty IRA participated in the civil war in defence of the legitimacy of this government; the chronology of the period clearly demonstrates that the government was established in October 1922, at the height of the conflict, in order to provide a veneer of political legitimacy to the anti-treaty military campaign. In reality, many anti-treaty combatants were uninterested—and quite a few were hostile—to this government, believing that the politicians had mishandled events after the truce won by the fighting men, and that de Valera, in particular, had tarnished their cause by promoting an ‘external association’ compromise which fell short of ‘the republic’.

Regan’s reference to the number of votes cast in favour of de Valera’s government appears to miss the point of ‘legitimism’—the belief that the republic could not legitimately be disestablished by a pro-treaty electoral majority as it rested on some higher moral, political, legal, theological, or metaphysical foundation (whether it be the blood sacrifice of Easter 1916; Sinn Féin’s electoral mandate of 1918; the right of the entire Irish nation to self-determination; the belief that only a decision exercised by an Irish electorate without the threat of British coercion could abolish the republic; or constitutional technicalities such as the failure to dissolve the second Dáil in 1922). The essential feature of legitimacy, for those who subscribe to it, is that governmental authority (whether it resides within an IRA office in the back-room of a tenement house in 1930s Dublin, or the decrepit body of Tom Maguire—the last living member of the Second Dáil who bequeathed governmental power to the (still in business) Continuity IRA in 1986—or the Provisional IRA’s army council) is no less legitimate for its lack of an electoral mandate.

As Regan implies, I am not personally sympathetic to the ‘legitimist’ arguments underpinning the repudiation of the treaty by some republicans (although I acknowledge that they provide a sense of certainty, moral righteousness, and political consistency for those few uncompromising republicans who never abandon the legitimist path). That the treaty was signed by plenipotentiaries who were entitled to conclude the agreement, that it was subsequently accepted by a majority of the Executive Council, that it was endorsed by a majority of Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament), that it won the support (both electoral and in practical terms) of a substantial majority of the Irish electorate are, to me, of great significance in assessing the relative merits of the opposing sides in the civil war divide. Conversely, that the anti-treaty position was supported by only a minority of the electorate was, I believe, important in undermining its credibility. In presenting the legitimist position as—on balance—less credible, coherent, and convincing than the pro-treaty one, I have also been influenced by the fact that the concept of legitimism has been discarded by every successful republican politician—from Eamon de Valera to Gerry Adams—to have adopted it (once these politicians succeeded in winning sufficient electoral support to access power in the previously illegitimate, but unavoidably ‘real’, political entity).

It is not, in my opinion, the place of the historian to endorse, legitimize, or repudiate ideological positions—what is important is to understand what motivated people at the time (and some republicans clearly were motivated by legitimism)—but I do not think that historians should feel compelled to adopt some form of intellectual relativism or self-censorship in discussing opposing ideological positions. Rather, I think it is reasonable that the historian points out what he or she regards as the strengths and weaknesses of a particular position (whether in terms of its logic or ability to generate support or some other factor), notwithstanding the fact that the historian’s opinion may be partly influenced by his or her social background, ideological outlook, or the political context at the time of writing. I think it is useful for historians to disagree on contentious issues, and that there is not always a universally agreeable core of empirical truth which can accommodate radically different perspectives. That, for example, Tom Garvin’s sympathetic account of the treatyite state, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy, or Brian P. Murphy’s uncompromisingly-republican text Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal, adopt divergent positions which are partly influenced by the contrasting ideological approaches of their authors, makes them, in my opinion, no less valuable in illuminating the mentalities which they describe (1). Students of my courses on republicanism read, evaluate, and rarely agree on both texts.

To more mundane factual matters: Regan highlights my statement that the northern IRA’s offensive of May 1922, ‘was directed by O’Duffy with the knowledge of Collins but not the cabinet’ as a key example of my ‘stateist’ approach. ‘But who can know what the government minister knew at such a time’, Regan enquires, noting that, ‘it is also important in any interpretation arguing for constitutional development to maintain the civilian government’s innocence in this area’. My interpretation of this episode, Regan concludes, ‘provides an instance of the constitutional narrative over-riding the evidence’. What this particular section of my biography attempted to convey was that the pro-treaty IRA’s northern policy was formulated by a small number of figures, including Michael Collins and the chief of staff Eoin O’Duffy, with little input from the cabinet. The broader context must be briefly outlined. In the early months of 1922, senior pro-treaty military figures were responsible for a variety of initiatives which breached the treaty’s acceptance of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. On 14 January, Dan Hogan, O/C of the 5th northern division, was arrested while attempting to liberate some comrades from a Derry jail; this was followed by the kidnapping of several dozen unionists from the north on 7 February, a reprisal orchestrated by Eoin O’Duffy who nonetheless publicly denied any involvement in the outrage. During this period, O’Duffy also gave his subordinates permission to raid unionist homes and shoot members of the Ulster Special Constabulary; those who participated in these actions knew, in their own words, that ‘They were not really official’. Pro-treaty commanders also met secretly with anti-treaty leaders to arrange the exchange of Free State weapons (provided by Britain) in order to arm the northern IRA.

In short, prior to the northern offensive of May 1922, the pro-treaty military leadership was involved in a variety of unorthodox activities which were conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy. That these initiatives were carried out without the approval or (in most cases) the knowledge of the cabinet seems—at least to me—more likely than not, for a variety of reasons. These include the fact that most of the ‘civilian’ members of the cabinet (such as Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins, and Ernest Blythe) were strongly opposed to violent intervention in the north (along with any other breach of the treaty settlement); that ministers such as Blythe and Mulcahy who have left reasonably detailed (and often revealing) accounts of cabinet meetings in this period have left no record of cabinet disputes over northern military policy; that key officials, such as Kevin O’Shiel, have stated that Collins made decisions on the north without consulting his colleagues; that the North East Ulster committee, established by the cabinet in the summer of 1922 to exert control over the pro-treaty army’s involvement in the north, explicitly ruled out the continued use of force shortly before the death of Michael Collins; and that there was no need for Collins—given his powers (as chairman of the provisional government and minister of finance) and intimate working relationship with Richard Mulcahy, the minister of defence, and Eoin O’Duffy, the chief of staff—to bring such controversial matters to the cabinet for approval.

Such behaviour continued the precedent established by Collins and the ‘band of brothers’ at GHQ who directed military policy throughout the war of independence with little regard for the views or approval of the cabinet (including its minister of defence, Cathal Brugha). While I may be proven incorrect in my assertion that the northern offensive was directed by O’Duffy and Collins without cabinet approval, it is the reasons outlined here which led me to this assertion, rather than any desire to conform to a ‘constitutional narrative’. Nor, incidentally, do I consider—given Collins’s position as chairman of the provisional government and by far the most important figure in the cabinet—that his northern intervention conforms with any such ‘constitutional narrative’, even if other members of the cabinet remained largely ignorant of his attempts to subvert a settlement which he had himself negotiated and signed.

The central purpose of stateist narratives, Regan argues, is to distinguish the (good) state formation violence of the revolutionary period from the Provisional movement’s (bad) violence. It was not my intention that readers should draw this conclusion from my extensive treatment of republican violence in Monaghan; I was more concerned that my analysis of the brutal and, not infrequently, sectarian nature of IRA violence in this border county might be seen as insufficiently sympathetic to the idealistic aspirations of many republican activists. Prior to my book, the (not unreasonable) historical consensus on the war of independence in Monaghan was that not a lot had happened there. In contrast, I detailed the killing of eighteen people by the Monaghan IRA in a six month period; the majority of these victims were not armed combatants (which partly explains why they disappeared from the nationalist narrative of the conflict) but rather constitutional nationalist rivals, Protestants, suspected informers (including a retarded youth), cases of mistaken identity, tramps, ex-servicemen and poitín-makers who had provoked the suspicion, envy, or resentment of local republicans with fatal consequences. In most cases, they were unarmed civilians who were abducted at night by large groups of their neighbours, shot outside their homes, and dumped in ditches or at crossroads in order to intimidate non-republican members of the community. I am surprised that my account of this and my explicit conclusion—that ‘alongside the drive for independence, the struggle for domination of the nationalist community, sectarianism, and even murkier factors played some role in republican violence’ (p. 71)—should be seen to form part of a legitimizing narrative of the state violence of the period. It seems equally odd that another explicit conclusion—that ‘the brutal methods by which republicans prevailed in the Irish War of Independence were not as far removed from the recent Northern Ireland conflict as many southern politicians like to believe’ (p. 71)—should be seen to conform to the same paradigm.

The final point that I would like to respond to is the suggestion that I present an overly-sympathetic account of treatyite politics. How could a biography of a bigoted, delusional, alcoholic fascist reflect well on the state in which he played such a pivotal role? Only by explaining ‘him away as a bad apple in an otherwise healthy barrel of treatyite democrats’. O’Duffy, Regan notes, is ‘presented as exceptional in his political leanings. That such a central figure should be quite so ideologically peripheral has always been suspect’. In contrast to this, more naïve, interpretation attributed to me, Regan writes sceptically of ‘O’Duffy’s supposed journey from defending democracy in 1922, to backing fascism in 1933’, resolving the apparent contradiction by noting that O’Duffy was always ‘a tactical democrat, endorsing majorities when they suited his interests’.

The problem, however, is that I present O’Duffy as neither a bad apple nor a democrat who strayed from the path; that Regan could attribute either of these interpretations to me is the result of either a misreading of my book or a distortion resulting from the requirements of his own historiographical thesis. The reason I found O’Duffy such an interesting biographical figure was because of my belief that he embodied ideological and cultural impulses which were central (rather than peripheral) to the revolutionary republican elite. I thought that I had made this explicit in my text. In my preface, for example, I note that, ‘rather than dismissing him as an unrepresentative anomaly, this book argues that O’Duffy’s acquisition of power and status was partly a consequence of his successful invention of a persona which reflected, if in a highly distorted and exaggerated form, the values of the society and times in which he lived’ (p. vi). I return to this theme in the conclusion: ‘to contemporary eyes, O’Duffy may appear a ludicrous figure, but the status and power which he enjoyed during his lifetime tell us something about the nature of the society in which he lived’ (p. 343); ‘many of the evasions, contradictions, and hypocrisies evident in O’Duffy’s life were those of his society writ large’ (p. 344).

As for my assessment of treatyite politics, while I don’t unmask Fine Gael as a party of goose-stepping fascists, I do dispute Maurice Manning’s influential thesis that the Blueshirts merely adopted the trappings of fascism, arguing that he and other academics have underestimated the extent of admiration for fascism among the treatyite elite, and, consequently, the potential for an Irish fascism which existed at that time (pp. 266–7). I also argue against the recent ‘revisionist tendency to present the Blueshirts in a more positive light’, explicitly concluding that ‘the role played by establishment figures in legitimizing anti-democratic views has not been sufficiently acknowledged’ (pp. 267–9).

In conclusion, I feel that Regan’s review is an attempt to impose a preconceived historiographical model on a text which does not bear the characteristics of that supposed model. In my view, Regan’s thesis—that there exists a widespread ‘public history’ intent on legitimizing the southern state—amounts to little more than a recasting of the old anti-revisionist position, with a less plausible twist. While those opposed to the writings of most modern Irish academic historians have, since the late 1960s, largely grounded their position on the charge that such historians are unduly hostile to the republicanism of the revolutionary era because of the contemporary political context of the Northern Irish Troubles, Regan is arguing that much the same body of historians have, in fact, been busy legitimizing the republicanism of the revolutionary era because of the contemporary political context of the Northern Irish Troubles.

Of the two propositions, I find the former the more plausible. The fact that the Provisional IRA’s violent campaign was partly justified by reference to the history of the revolutionary period did cause disquiet among southern politicians (whose parties emerged from the violence of this period and claimed the same ultimate objective as the Provisional IRA—a united Irish republic). As a history undergraduate at UCD during the late 1980s, a time when feelings ran high on this subject, I felt that revulsion at the violence of the Provisionals, and the mandate claimed for it through history, did lead some historians to adopt a more critical tone in writing about the revolutionary era than they might have had violent republicanism been a thing of the past. However, I disagree with Regan in assuming that a deliberately distorted historical narrative, produced by a cabal of present-minded historians, was the inevitable outcome of any such unease.

Regan’s thesis strikes me as impractical on pragmatic grounds. If the revisionists have been beavering away to legitimize the southern state, their efforts have gone unnoticed by its politicians. At a recent book launch, the Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern denounced ‘revisionists’, no doubt reflecting the popular view that academic historians show insufficient respect for Ireland’s patriot dead. It would hardly be surprising that a historical project predicated on denouncing the anti-treaty tradition as ‘non-democratic wreckers of the independent state’ might not win the gratitude of Fianna Fáil, the semi-permanent government of that state over much of the past century.

The historians of revolutionary republicanism come not only from southern Ireland but Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere; in terms of their personal sympathies for the republican, constitutional national, and unionist historical traditions—such as these can be discerned—they appear to hold diverse views. I think it unlikely that such a disputatious group could agree on lunch, let alone a historiographical project intended to bolster the southern state. And what would such a project achieve? Regan’s thesis places more faith than I have in the ability of academic historians to influence opinion. We may all be revisionists now—the Irish public has consigned Articles 2 and 3 to the historical dustbin of bad ideas and God Save the Queen is played at Croke Park—but I’m not persuaded that this outcome can be attributed to the influence of academic historians. For all that has been written on, or against, revisionism, there has been little research on its actual impact on official or public opinion. Conversely, too little interest has been shown in the impact of popular history-writing in Ireland, which reaches a far wider audience than university press monographs. Anyone seeking an influential ‘public history’ which sought to legitimize the republican violence of the Tan War era, and has had a significant impact on popular thinking, might do better to analyse these (generally anti-revisionist) popular narratives generated and read outside academia: whether biographies of national heroes such as Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins (which formed the basis of Neil Jordan’s successful film), or the memoirs of IRA leaders such as Dan Breen or Ernie O’Malley, or the many highly sympathetic accounts of local IRA heroes such as Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter or Diarmuid Begley’s Road to Crossbarry (all of which appear to have influenced Ken Loach’s popular and influential movie, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) (2).

Despite the flagging of the revisionist controversy in recent years, new research has continued to increase our understanding of the revolutionary period, not by pondering unanswerable questions such as whose fault the civil war was, but by continuing to strive for new methods, questions, and lines of inquiry, and by devoting more attention to the significance of gender, class, ethnicity, regional variations, culture, and mentalities (3). It is surely in this direction, rather than a return to the sterile historiographical controversies of the past, that the future of Irish history lies.


  1. T. Garvin, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin, 1996); B. P. Murphy, Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal (Dublin, 1991). Back to (1)
  2. T. P. Coogan, Michael Collins: A Biography (London, 1990); D. Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom (Dublin, 1924); E. O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (London, 1936); M. Ryan, Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Cork, 2003); D. Begley, Road to Crossbarry (Bandon, 1999). Back to (2)
  3. On this theme, see P. Hart, The I.R.A. at War 1916–1923 (Oxford, 2003), pp 3–30. Back to (3)