Review: Conor Kostick – Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917-1923

Contributed by Justin Dolan Stover

Conor Kostick, Revolution in Ireland:  popular militancy, 1917-1923 (2nd edition, Cork: Cork University Press, 2009)

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  The common factor of the proletariat struggle was superseded by the revolutionary glue which was Catholicism, nationalism and the cult of Irish-Ireland.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.

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22 Responses to “Review: Conor Kostick – Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917-1923”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Sounds like a good book. Certainly it seems that cultural identity and catholicism divided many potentially successful working class movements, particularly in the North, throughout the 20th century and continues to do so today.

    On another note, marxism and socialism are not the evils of the world…think i’d tend to agree with Kostick on this one. but that’s another matter!

  2. Conor Says:

    Hi Justin, thanks for that review, very fair. I spare my readers remarks about Karl Marx in most of my books, but here I think it was appropriate to give him a plug. I should say, however, that I don’t think Marx’s ideas were ever implemented anywhere in the world, certainly not the former Eastern block countries: I agree with you about oppression, censorship and economic failure. I’m probably one of the few historians, perhaps the only one in Ireland, who has read the collected works of Marx and Engels and the Karl Marx whom I find inspiring is the one who comes across in those volumes, i.e. through his own words rather than his ‘interpreters’.

  3. Frank Says:

    While I agree that the author addresses an overlooked aspect of the Irish revolution, socialism didn’t then and never will never take hold in Ireland even when the Church and unrestrained capitalism have been discredited. The simple reason, of course, is that from each according to his means to each according to his needs is not workable in practice. If I spend many years training in a given field, be it history, law, medicine, engineering, etc, I should not expect to be given the same salary as a lowly factory worker (by the way most of us working in academia have been lowly minimum wage earners at some point in our lives so this is not meant to be judgemental). If everyone earned the same, this would act as a disincentive to better oneself and society as a whole would suffer as a result.

  4. Harry Crake Says:

    ’m probably one of the few historians, perhaps the only one in Ireland, who has read the collected works of Marx and Engels’
    Pretentious Moi?

  5. Sarah Says:

    I think people misjudge socialism because they look to the history of oppressive states of Russia, China and Cuba and say, it didn’t work there. But that was communism, not socialism, which is fundamentally different. Socialism isn’t about taking everything off everyone and giving everyone the same wages – it’s about creating a society based on need, rather than greed. It’s about putting people before profit.

    @ Harry Crake – I think it is more than possible that Kostick is the only Irish historian who has read the collected works of Marx and Engels. If you can think of another, please suggest. There may be other academics, but most probably not in the field of history. Is that pretentious or stating a fact?

  6. R. Ascal Says:

    I am sure he is the only Irish historian to have read Marx and Engels; he is the bestest of them all.

  7. Conor McCabe Says:

    I don’t know whether Henry Patterson and Paul Bew have read all 50 volumes of the collected works of Marx and Engels – including the 13 volumes of letters – but they have produced Marxist readings of Irish history.

    Similarly, I don’t know whether Tom Crean has read Karl Marx’s doctoral thesis on the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature, but again he’s read enough Marx (and Trotsky) to be considered a Marxist historian – and Tom Crean is an historian whose work Conor Kostick is all too familiar with.

    and again, I don’t know whether Emmet O’Connor has read Karl Marx’s letter to Arnold Rufe, dated 13 March 1843, or the album of poems dedicated to Jenny von westphalen, but again he’s produced significant studies of the Irish working class and labour movement from 1917 up to the 1960s – and again Conor Kostick would be well aware of the work of Emmet O’Connor.

    As, indeed, he would be with the work of D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, especially Lysaght’s work on the Munster creameries and the Limerick Soviet. and, you know, I reckon O’Connor Lysaght HAS read all 50 volumes.

    Fintan Lane has read more than his share of Marx and Engels, of course, but maybe not ALL 50 volumes.

  8. Paul Dillon Says:

    Yes, well said Conor McCabe.
    The author’s comment about reading all of Marx and Engels comes across as schoolboy-level boasting. It’s no guarantee that he can write a good book. And as Conor McC. says there are many Irish historians, academic and otherwise, who have read a great deal of Marx and Engels. In fact they’re ten a penny.

    Any book detailing the labour militancy and radicalism of this period is welcome, since today most academic historians deny it or play down its importance. Unfortunately while this book contains lots of valuable evidence, and many sound arguments, they are accompanied by SWM-style sloganeering and reductionism. Terms like ‘soviets’ and ‘red army’ need to be qualified in a study of this Irish militancy – the author knows the images they conjure up to anyone familiar with European history.
    Yes, ‘soviet’ occupations occurred and temporary workers’ militias were formed. But exaggeration and hyperbole only give ammunition to conservative historians of the period who want to dismiss these events altogether.

    Another notable feature of the book is the author’s egotism (evident in the above messages; and the flap of his book tells us that he has a PhD and a gold medal from Trinity College. So what?). The author describes how having come across evidence of labour militancy and soviets in provincial towns, he was consumed by a missionary zeal. Persistently blowing his own trumpet he presents his book as unique in documenting these events and in presenting a left-wing perspective on the period. However, at the time this book’s first publication (1996, I think) C.D. Greaves had already published his book on the ITGWU (1909-23) and Emmet O’Connor his ‘Syndicalism in Ireland 1917-23’. And Tom Crean and D.R. O’Connor Lysaght had written theses based on extensive research on labour radicalism on the period. Both Greaves’s and O’Connor’s books cover much of the same ground as this one, both with a mass of local detail. In fact C.K. adds little or nothing to those earlier books, except perhaps some simplistic conclusions about how the course of events was determined by leadership-betrayal in the labour movement.

    This is a useful publication in times when many historians don’t want to know about these aspects of this period. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be (by its author).

  9. Conor Says:

    Well, the remark about Marx and Engels’ works does seem rather vain in hindsight and I’m sorry for that. But Conor McCabe has missed the point, which was not to say that you become a better historian for reading those volumes, but that most of the former Communist regimes propounded a version of Marxism that looks very little like that presented by Marx himself. In contrast to dull apologies for dictatorship, Marx’s writing is passionate in its opposition to injustice and exploitation. It is generally vivid, enlightening and witty, especially the journalism.

  10. babeuf Says:

    Yes, Conor, because Marx certainly only believed in a pure revolution, or one that could only be judged by him, nor working class revolutions (the Paris Commune?), or further that he would never think of defending regimes he considered in some form progressive or in the interests of proletarian revolution (against self-determination of smaller European nations in the interests of acting against Csardom by the ‘progressive’ states of Germany and Austro-Hungary?) etc… …really what he meant about changing history, he really meant in a particular way? Hmmm.

  11. Conor McCabe Says:

    Conor, all I’m saying is that there are Marxist historians working in the field of Irish history, and you are quite aware of their work. I do not know whether you agree with them or not, but they are there.

    I don’t know whether it was vain or not of you to state that you’ve read all 50 volumes of the collected works of Marx and Engels, but if the implication was that you’re the only Irish marxist historian because you’re read all 50 volumes, then that is simply wrong.

    As for the comment on the version of Marxism propounded by former communist regimes as somewhat divergent from that propounded by Marx himself, as you are well aware, having read all of the collected works of Marx and Engels, Marx wrote very little on what a communist society would look like. His main concern was Capitalism and revolution, and his greatest contribution was the analytical framework he devised for understanding Capitalism and Capitalist societies.

    I have not read the new edition of your book. I have read the first edition and although I would have some issues with the book, it continues to serve a worthwhile function in drawing attention to the class dimensions of the revolutionary period. But as for claims of uniqueness, I agree with the points raised by Paul Dillon.

    On another point – and this has nothing to do with Conor Kostick – I find it somewhat demoralising that on an Irish history blog, one run by historians within the academy, there doesn’t seem to be any knowledge of the work of historians such as Emmet O’Connor, D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, John Cunningham, Desmond Greaves, Fintan Lane, J.W. Boyle, Henry Patterson, Dan Bradley, and Francis Devine, to name just a few. Is Irish labour and working class studies really that marginalised?

  12. Conor McCabe Says:

    Sorry, the words “continues to serve a worthwhile function” read quite cold in my comment above. Revolution in Ireland is a good book, a good read, and I’m glad it’s out there.

  13. Mervyn Crawford Says:

    I haven’t read Mr Kostick’s book so I can’t comment on it directly.

    However, I would like to thank Conor McCabe for his list of other writers on labour history. Some of whom I was unaware.

    I would agree with his appeal for furthe promotion and investigatrion on this topic.

    Might I make my own appeal also. If the study of Irish labour history is not simply to be an academic pursuit; but, rather advances the struggle for an equal world (socialist) then it is vital for readers to know the political allegiance of the writer.

    For example, I know that Desmond Greaves was a member of the British(?) Communist Party and is therefore regarded by myself, a Trotskyist (and reader/supporter of the Wortld Socialist Web Site as a Stalinist.
    This is important information for me when I consider Greave’s analysis of James Connolly; and my view that the Stalinists work mightily to tie the Irish working class to nationalism by exploting Connolly’s weakness, and mis-interpreting him, with regard to his view of nationalism.

    Similarly, knowing that Conor Kostick is a member of the Socialist Workers Movement helps me when I come to read his book.

    And what of the political allegiances of the so=called leaders of the Irish working class? Namely, the Trade Unions. Where is one to readily find that information.

    It’s not the fact that a writer is a member or supporter of a political party that is the problem, as some above have suggested. It’s that the membership or support is hidden. That can only undermine the working class in it’s struggle to raise it’s cultural level and understanding of the epoch.

  14. Conor McCabe Says:

    A couple of months back I was reading an historical analysis by the Irish Trotskyist organisation, the Irish Workers Group / Workers Power. In it they argued that the reason why Irish farmers joined the stampede to export cattle in the 1850s and 1860s was because of the famine – so many people had died, you see, that the demand for beef in Ireland collapsed, making the export market to Britain all that more attractive.

    Now, this is historical nonsense – those who died during the famine were the beef eaters of Ireland? – but, is it nonsense because:

    A) the Irish Workers Group / Workers Power were Trotskyists

    B) the Irish Workers Group / Workers Power were affiliated to the League for a Fifth International

    C) They didn’t do their homework and came up with an historical analysis that was written on the back of a beermat

    an historical analysis of the Irish working class which ticks all the predetermined revolutionary boxes is worthless. It serves no purpose to anyone except in possible point-scoring fights between the various left factions – especially when the predetermined revolutionary boxes are based on the experience of the British working class, not the Irish working class.

    Because of the influence of the British left on Ireland, you get this idea that the Irish working class was traditionally small and marginalised outside of Belfast, because the British left’s analysis of capitalism was coming from, well, the British experience. The study of agrarian capitalism, which should be Marxism 101 for any Irish Marxist of whatever hue, is virtually non-existent. That should be an embarrassment for the Irish left.

  15. Mervyn Crawford Says:

    Mr McCabe, it would be useful if you could give a link to the article you are referring to.

    For readers of this site might I point them in the direction of a site contributed to by Conor McCabe:

    This is a very important site bringing to light important documents in Irish labour history.

    Discussing labour history politically, as opposed to academically, does not necessarily mean the discussion is sectarian.

    I do believe the Irish working class would be better served by Mr McCabe if he also stated his political sympathies. Though he does express an obvious distaste for Trotskyism and hostility to British influence.

    I believe there is no fundamental problem with positive influences from any quarter, including Britain. However, if a ‘socialist’ political movement from Britain is in essence hostile to the overthrow of capitalism then that group invariably includes a strong element of Great British arrogance towards Ireland.

    Mr McCabe possibly believes my views on the positions of other political groups is hair-splitting sectarianism?

    Be that as it may; but the problems facing the struggle for socialism in Ireland are objective, are real. And perhaps the greatest obstacle in the way of the working class is Irish nationalist ideology.

  16. Conor McCabe Says:

    So my ‘distaste’ for Irish trotskyism is the reason why I’ve spent the past year working on an oral history of Irish Trotskyism then?

    Interviewing for the historical record people who have been involved with groups such as Irish Militant, Revolutionary Marxist Group, League for a Workers Republic, Socialist Labour League, Irish Workers Group, League for a Workers Vanguard and Workers League?

    Copies of these interviews have been deposited with the Oral History Archive in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and will be available for public consultation pending the access criteria set by the interviewees themselves.

    I believe the history of Irish trotskyism is important and needs to be recorded. That’s why I’m recording it. Whether I agree with all the tenets of Irish trotskyism is immaterial. I mean I obviously don’t, but I understand its importance to an understanding of the Irish left in the 20th century.

    I saw the history of a political tradition in Ireland ebbing away as those who reconnected with Trotskyism in the 1960s and applied it to Ireland were growing old and passing on. It is important to record their stories, so I am doing precisely that.

    This oral history project is not funded in any way. I am paying for all costs myself – transport, tapes, CDs, recording material – and am making it available to anyone who is interested in it, via the oral history archive in Limerick.

    The point for me is not whether I agree with the views of those I am interviewing, again as I said I don’t, but whether that tradition is important in terms of the history of the Irish left. For me it is vitally important, and that is why I’m spending my own time and money in recording it for future generations.

    I am not a member of any political organisation. My political views would be centre-left/social democratic, and I have voted Labour in every election since I was eligible to vote.

    “Mr McCabe possibly believes my views on the positions of other political groups is hair-splitting sectarianism?”

    If I was going to get into hair-splitting I’d probably point out that it’s Dr, not Mr., McCabe. But that would be just hair-splitting, I agree.

  17. Mervyn Crawford Says:

    Dr McCabe, sincere apologies concerning your title.

    I would like to read the famine article you referred to; but perhaps I should search Cedarlounge? It’s maybe on that?

    You are to be heartily commended for your research, I believe. It’s invaluable; and will go a long way to providing an understanding of the socialist struggle in ireland. It is refreshing to see a serious attitude towards this most important of issues.

    I do believe that many, many people who claim be Trotskyist in their outlook are in fact sectarians. A ‘hard’ left stance often hides a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the revolutionary potential of the working class. In place of a rigorous approach to history and theory the ‘militant’ bellows! Empty vessels make most noise.

    However, have you noticed how quite the ultras have becoime as the ruling class squeezes ever harder, with the avid support of the Trade Union wing of management?

    I’m not expecting you to agree with this position; but you were honest enough to be open about your views. I would think you have plenty of experience of various ‘lefts’ hiding their position from their audiences?

    I’m a bit confused about access to the Limerick archives of your work.
    Can they be listened to today?

  18. Conor McCabe Says:

    No need to apologise, Mervyn, I was being flippant anyway so if anyone should apologise it should be me.

    Access to the recordings is set by the interviewee. Some have given instant access, while a few have put time periods on access. One individual last week, for example, put a five-year block on his recording being used for research. Another individual put a ten-year block. Also, the archive is quite under-funded so access itself is limited. There are no transcripts of any of the recordings, which limits and hampers research. However, hopefully in the future these issues will work themselves out. The important thing is to get the life stories recorded now, while the individuals involved are still able to talk about their experiences. The practicalities we can work out later. That’s the nature of oral history: you have a finite amount of time to ‘grab’ these stories, and if you do not do it while the people are still alive, well, then they’re gone forever.

    One person, though, John Throne, asked me to put his recording up on the web. John was one of the founders of the Irish Militant tendency. His interview, which is in three parts, can be heard online here:

    The article which references the famine isn’t online. It came from a pamphlet written by the Irish Workers Group (the 1970s Ireland-based group, not the London-based 1960s one). I’d need to dig up the reference, but I’ll get it for you.

  19. Conor McCabe Says:

    I’m also recording rank-and-file trade union activists, and members of the Irish communist movement. If you’re interested you can see short snippets of video recordings I’ve done with some of these people below.

    This one is of Joe Deasy, who is 86 years of age. Joe was a member of the Irish communist movement, and here he’s talking about a retail co’op he helped to set up in Dublin in the 1940s, which was eventually shut down by the Catholic church.

    This clip is of Des Brannigan, a senior trade union leader. He’s 92 years of age, and here he’s talking about the first time he heard Jim Larkin speak.

    final clip is of Sam Nolan, who was also a member of the Communist Party of Ireland. He’s 80 this year, and here he’s talking about trade unionism in Dublin in the 1940s.

    That’s about it as far as online material from the oral history project.

  20. Mervyn Crawford Says:

    Conor, an acknowledgement of your posts. I’m up to my ears at present. (How DO you win the Lotto?!!)

    As I’m simply haven’t time to attend to my Algarve pool this holiday weekend I shall have a moment to mull over your comments, later.


  21. Mervyn Crawford Says:


    I’m very sorry but my work is making big demands on my time. I haven’t looked yet at any of the links you were good enough to leave above. I did have a quick view of a video you did on the series you have been producing on Left media.
    Do you think the work you are doing, and Cedar Lounge, and…….(?) is an expression that there exists a hunger for left views? That the wheel is turning and the socialist agenda is on the up?

  22. You have been reading, in order of appearance… « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] Review: Conor Kostick – Revolution in Ireland: popular militancy, 1917-1923, 11 December 2009 Justin Dolan Stover reviews Kostick’s history of revolutionary Ireland. […]

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