Category: Archive

Book Review The story of Irish nationalism

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Parick Farrelly


"The first King of England to dispatch troops to Ireland did so with the blessing of the pope. The king was Henry II; the pope was Adrian IV — the only Englishman to sit on the throne of St. Peter." So begins Terry Golway’s history of Irish nationalism, "For the Cause of Liberty — A Thousand Years of Irish Heroes."

This opening brought me back — not 800 years — but to my childhood in national school in Dublin, where we were taught the whole sorry tale of Irish history starting at the beginning. The story of that English pope was well known to us because our teacher was at pains to point out that this was not common popish activity. Hadn’t the church stuck with the poor Irish through thick and thin? It merely pointed up the gross stupidity of appointing an Englishman to an influential position like that. But the deed was done and like much else that was to follow, the tortured story of Irish attempts to control their own destiny was full of such bizarre twists of fate. An English pope? Could you credit that? What was to follow would make such grotesque twists of fate run of the mill.

But what a great story. My classmates and I would thrill to the stories of Brian Boru and his gallant fight against the Vikings. Then we would fall into the depths of depression when our fearless chieftain was cut down in his tent on the banks of the Tolka River, a mere stone’s throw from our crowded classroom in St. Patrick’s School in Drumcondra. The villain in this instance was the axe-wielding Broder, a fleeing Viking. Later, with grim and tedious regularity a traitor in the ranks would always do down the hero of the hour.

It has been said that it was Ireland’s luck to be an island but her great misfortune to be placed so adjacent to Britain. That it became part of the same business and labor market has had the effect of weakening the forces committed to independence and strengthening British military effectiveness. Right to the present day, Ireland’s advocates of independence have always balked at leading their followers past the latest pale shadow of sovereignty. The end result is always demoralization, division and underdevelopment. It is a tribute to the potency of the idea of independence that it seems to emerge in every generation regardless of the litany of defeat that precedes it. Terry Golway tells this often grim story with a degree of eloquence that most writers seem incapable of bringing to the subject.

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As we move through the centuries past ‘dh O’Connor, Edward The Bruce, Garret Moore and Silken Thomas, I cannot help remembering the dark question that rang in our young ears as we learned Irish history: what was it about our heroes that made them such losers in the end? Routs and betrayals came as night followed day. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, at what point does the repetition of tragedy become mere carelessness? One of the first major figures Golway discusses in depth is Hugh O’Neill, and here the basic problem or flaw is writ large.

O’Neill is one of the towering figures of Irish history. Initially a loyal subject of the queen, Elizabeth the First, O’Neill was an Anglicized Irishman who "spoke English at a time when his countrymen spoke Irish." Indeed, Golway writes, "he complained of Ireland’s refusal to adopt English ways, sentiments that further endeared him to the Crown and inspired hope that here, at last, was an Irish leader who might quell the island’s rebelliousness."

But O’Neill was forced to choose sides and eventually march his army south from Ulster to do battle with the ancient enemy at Kinsale in County Cork. His defeat at Kinsale as the supporting Spanish fleet lay storm-tossed off shore — another classic coulda-woulda-shoulda calamity — was a truly pivotal moment in Irish history. Everything afterward was downhill. With the Irish chieftains routed, the Plantation of Ulster began and the fruits of that endeavor haunt us to the present day.

In defeat, O’Neill came to symbolize the courageous resistance of generations to English barbarism and conquest. But that was mostly in the realm of wishful thinking because O’Neill’s opposition to the Crown was at best conditional. "Hugh O’Neill surrendered, and submitted to the authority of the Crown in 1603. Elizabeth pardoned O’Neill and offered a generous settlement just before she died. When O’Neill learned of Elizabeth’s death, he burst into tears," Golway writes. O’Neill and the rest of the chieftains went into exile and Ireland went down the tubes. Those unable to follow their betters to various European courts were left to endure the humiliation, dispossession, and genocide that is the fate of conquered peoples.

Inspired by the late 18th century American and French revolutions, Ireland’s upper-class radicals once again fomented a separatist revolt. Wolfe Tone and the founders of modern Irish Republicanism were allied with others in the United Irishmen who were, at best, ambiguous about their revolutionary venture. By its tragic end, Golway quotes the Belfast leader Henry Joy McCracken lamenting, "[The] present unfortunate state is entirely owing to treachery, the rich always betray the poor." But smart though he was, McCracken would attribute the betrayal of the rebels in County Antrim to the work of "a few wicked men."

Nowhere was the poverty of upper-crust leadership more evident than in County Wexford, where Fr. John Murphy — previously hostile to the separatist cause — proved himself a brilliant political and military leader when forced to confront the savagery that the pro-British militia was intent on inflicting on his parishioners. Golway quotes the British minister Castlereagh’s opinion of the Murphy-led revolt: "Rely upon it, there never was in any country so formidable an effort on the part of the people." Golway goes on to ask the pertinent question: "Would the effort spread?"

Spreading the revolt and taking Dublin was not an academic issue for Murphy’s peasant followers. Anything less than victory meant death. Murphy advocated a bold military strategy that would take advantage of the temporary routing of the British forces and make a surprise attack on the capitol. He was overruled by the propertied leadership of the Wexford United Irishmen. Defeat followed quickly. Many of the United Irishmen leadership were executed, but the consequences for the masses who followed their inept leadership were catastrophic. After 1798, radical republicanism lost its attractions for the Anglo-Irish elite, who began to fear the Irish underclasses as much if not more than the British themselves.

One of the most impressive aspects of "For the Cause of Liberty" is the long overdue emphasis Golway places on the role of women in the nationalist struggle. Figures like Anna Parnell, Countess Markievicz, and Bernadette Devlin are given the just treatment they deserve. In the long catalogue of shortsightedness and betrayal that is Ireland’s history, women activists have generally been the political conscience of the struggle, unwilling to accept compromises that could provide only short-term solutions at best.

Encapsulating the course of Irish history in fewer than 400 pages is in itself a remarkable feat. But Terry Golway does more than that. He blends historical scholarship and literary talent to bring the story of Irish nationalism alive in a way that is both compelling and informative. It is a seamless narrative that celebrates the achievements but never covers the warts.

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