The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, by Charles Townsend (Allen Lane, €29.50/£25)
Charles Townshend has followed his highly-praised Easter 1916 with a well-sourced, severely objective account of the origins and courses of the wars that followed the Easter Rising.
He links the renewed hostilities to the general disruption that accompanied the First World War. The wartime suspension of emigration swelled the number of young people in Ireland; many of them craved excitement, escape from the constrictions of rural life. Workers and the poor, who had endured years of privations by 1918, were now more willing than ever to throw in their lot with the separatists.
By opposing the imposition of conscription the Church gave nationalism a powerful fillip. The Catholic hierarchy, a powerful force in a pious country, was not opposed to Irish independence, although it deplored violence. But the lower clergy – often friends and brothers of the men in the field – had fewer qualms about the use of force.
How did the IRA survive a struggle against a vastly superior enemy? Townshend emphasises its tactical innovation. By 1918 the organisation had eschewed the static warfare of 1916 in favour of guerrilla war, the ‘war without fronts’ which would ‘baffle’ its opponents for almost the duration of the war. What use was modern military technology in a land of felled trees, trenched roads, and hostile people?
Their opponents’ tactics placed a great psychological strain on British soldiers, officials and policemen. Service in Ireland meant months of fear and apprehensiveness. It involved a struggle against a ruthless enemy who could strike anywhere, at any time. A horrified British official described an IRA squad dragging a man from his hospital bed and shooting him on the porch. British reprisals and atrocities were, Townshend argues, often the result of frustration, the work of men maddened at their inability to avenge the murder and mutilation of their comrades.
In the months before the Truce of July 1921 Britain seemed finally to have gained the advantage. By flooding Ireland with soldiers and imposing martial law throughout the land she might have achieved final victory. But she lacked enough troops to saturate Ireland, and martial law was a short-term answer to a problem that demanded a political solution.
The War of Independence was also a media war, as Townsend convincingly shows, and Britain lost it badly. The Irish Bulletin – the IRA propaganda sheet distributed around the world by Erskine Childers’ Publicity Department – heartened many enemies of empire, confirming that Britain was beatable.
The international press carried photographs of sacked Irish cities, and descriptions of violent repression. Townsend pays particular attention to the funeral of Terence MacSwiney, “a global media event”, and a propaganda disaster for Britain. Towards the end of the war Winston Churchill would speak of Britain’s “odious reputation” among the international public.
The compromise peace split the Nationalist movement, a loose alliance of militarists, social conservatives and left-wingers. Pragmatists chose to work the Treaty; idealistic republicans set their faces against it. But ‘idealists make bad analysts’. As Ireland slid towards civil war the anti-Treaty Republicans were unwilling to strike decisively, losing their military advantage when Collins and Mulcahy, under British pressure, struck hard against them.
Collins is the outstanding figure in this account. A man of exceptional energy, organisational ability, and versatility, he managed to create and finance a counter-state while simultaneously directing a war; in one of his flashes of wry humour Townsend notes that Collins was that rare thing: a finance minister with a death squad at his disposal.
His Republican enemies had nothing but contempt for him after the Treaty. Only later, much later, would some of them concede that the course he had chosen was the right one.
“You know…..maybe Collins was right,” Peadar O’Donnell remarked to a friend one day during his reflective old age.