Contributed by Justin Dolan Stover
Conor Kostick’s revised second edition is a timely release. The author is up front about his sympathy and identification with the working-class movement in Ireland, and the current adversity that they face. In his own words, additional research for the book was undertaken ‘with the intensity of enthusiasm that an active socialist brings to a subject of this nature.’
The book confronts traditional historical narratives that the IRA and Dáil Éireann alone forced the British administration toward compromise. Instead, Kostick elevates the efforts of the Irish working class and its organisers. For instance, he presents the Belfast general strike of 1919 as a defining moment of the Irish revolution – one which redefined conceptions of nationality and identity, and would contribute to the partition of Ireland. Kostick explains how strikes of the revolutionary period, not only in Belfast, produced social upheaval and were of much greater concern to the British cabinet than the assembly of Dáil Éireann, or the murder of a few policemen.
Other episodes expose what many would come to label products of the conservative revolution. In the realm of the Dáil courts, which grew and functioned in the absence of British control, Kostick points to the status quo maintained by the courts in their verdicts, and the enforcement of such decisions by the IRA. In order to maintain or win the confidence of the landed classes, as well as large farmers and wealthy elites, it was important that the Dáil administration not allow vacated portions of land to be seized by the displaced agricultural poor. Law, order and the confidence of those who in part financed the revolution was to be maintained. This introduced a great deal of difficulty in terms of class solidarity. As Kostick explains, ‘The IRA, often with misgivings, were conducting arrests and imprisoning people from the same poor rural background as themselves.’
One key argument proposed by Kostick, which subsequent scholars have failed to highlight and explore, is that the cultural and religious solidarity which drove the revolution in the South of Ireland ultimately alienated and divided Ireland as a whole. The common factor of the proletariat struggle was superseded by the revolutionary glue which was Catholicism, nationalism and the cult of Irish-Ireland. Thus, cultural factors actually divided the movement for pan-Irish solidarity. Kostick argues that the class-based alternative would have shaken the British to the core. Lord French’s release of those arrested in connection with the ‘German plot’ is evidence that the British favoured negotiation with Sinn Féin moderates over more radical elements.
Kostick strikes an admirable chord of objectivity in a work which investigates the ideas, activities and potential of the working class during the Irish revolution – a group and ideology to which he overtly subscribes. Only rarely does the author speculate as to the potential of the working class to bring off a socialist revolution in Ireland, permitting license to few ahistorical quandaries of ‘what if’.
To imitate Kostick in tone, this review was undertaken with the intensity of enthusiasm that an objective scholar brings to his work. In this regard, it is unfortunate that the reader is subjected to the author’s Marxist sympathies after such a fair and balanced treatment of the Irish working class. Despite the decades of oppression, censorship and the human cost under communism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and elsewhere throughout the twentieth century, Kostick concludes that in view of the recent economic downturns in the world economy, he subscribes ‘more than ever to the idea that Karl Marx’s ideas are vital for the future of humanity.’ While certainly a turn-off to those who simply wish to engage a work detailing the enormous contribution of the Irish working class to the Irish struggle for independence, Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917-1923 will not leave the reader seeing Red.
Justin Dolan Stover is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin specialising in the Irish revolution and the history of loyalty.