The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Martial law was restricted to the south-west to keep Dublin open for those, in Sturgis’s jokey phrase, ‘as wants to negotiate’. A few on both sides seem to have wanted to. They found a new intermediary in Patrick Joseph Clune, Archbishop of Perth, a man with some experience of the war — he had been visiting his native Clare at the time of the Rineen ambush and the reprisals that followed it, and his nephew had died in Dublin Castle along with McKee and Clancy on Bloody Sunday. Shortly after the Kilmichael ambush he was enlisted by Joe Devlin as a go-between, and spent most of December moving between Dublin and London, talking to Griffith in prison, and twice to the Prime Minister, who certified him as ‘thoroughly loyal’.1 He seems to have drafted agreed truce terms that included immunity for Collins and Mulcahy.
1 Lloyd George to Greenwood, 2 Dec. 1920. HLRO F/19/1/28.

This won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in 2015, along with a special mention for The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but I found it a tremendous book – a blow-by-blow account of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, looking pretty neutrally at both British and Irish records and coming to some interesting conclusions. Like most Irish people with any interest in history, I was pretty familiar with the outlines of the story, which meant that the new details were very interesting indeed.

Going through it chronologically, there are points of interest in each of the long chapters. The British conceded a massive chunk of territory, quite literally, by evacuating small rural police stations as soon as the first trouble began in mid to late 1919. The Royal Irish Constabulary were more of a paramilitary law enforcement agency than a community police force, but even so, the withdrawal to fortified regional redoubts basically conceded the monopoly on the use of force to the IRA. This created space for the Dáil court system to start functioning a year or so later – the received history is that the Dáil courts were a turning point, but in fact they could not have functioned if the police had been, well, policing.

In 1920 the IRA worked out how to fight a guerilla war more or les from first principles, with ultimately the introduction of the Black and Tans, whose violence shifted what remained of neutral opinion in most of Ireland towards separatism, culminating in Bloody Sunday. This is one part of the generally believed narrative that Townshend confirms. But even so there are some interesting wrinkles. The strike of railway workers – or rather, their refusal to carry British troops on the trains – was a serious blow to British mobility. And also, British policy itself was completely unhinged, with no medium to long term goals – if they were to win the war, what next? But they were too poorly organised to have a chance of winning, with lines of control at the top (and indeed middle) deeply obscure.

1921 saw the two sides edging towards a truce, and eventually to the December 1921 Treaty. What’s especially interesting is that both sides were motivated to keep talking because neither believed that they could win if war resumed. My father always used to say that most armies are so badly organised that it’s just as well that they only ever have to fight other armies. The turning point here, and I guess I knew this but had not seen it that way before, was the election in May. The British commanders had assured the government at the start of the year that they would have crushed dissent by late spring, so the elections were duly scheduled and organised. But in fact Sinn Féin won every seat outside the new territory of Northern Ireland (er, and Trinity college Dublin), unopposed. As Asquith put it (not quoted by Townshend, but I’ve seen it elsewhere), London gave Ulster a parliament that it did not particularly want, and the rest of Ireland a parliament which it would not have.

1922-23 saw the difficulties in implementing the Treaty eventually spill over into the Civil War. I had not realised quite how quickly the Republican side basically lost the war by default. They assumed that as in 1919-21, the latent support of the people as a whole would sustain them and delegitimise the Collins / Griffith / Cosgrave government; and they controlled large parts of the south and west of the country, and two small but strategic parts of Dublin. But the Free Staters picked off the areas of Republican strength one by one, and retaliated brutally to individual attacks by executing prisoners; meanwhile the Legion of the Rearguard waited for a popular revolt that never happened.

It’s a great chronology. I do have two complaints. There is not enough about Northern Ireland / Ulster; Townshend remarks several times that Collins rather ignored it, but is somewhat guilty of doing the same himself. On the other hand, there is too much about political ideology. The understanding of the Republic mattered a lot to many of the participants, De Valera in particular, and not only him. but I find it personally rather difficult to grasp.

Anyway, this is a great book which anyone interested in that place and time should read. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is a Bolivian government production, El Libro del Mar (fortunately in English), if I can find it. If I can’t, the next will be Neither Unionist nor Nationalist: the 10th (Irish) Division in the Great War, by Stephen Sandford.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

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