Review: The Limits of Liberty on RTE 1

Contributed by Adrian Grant

(Review of Part 1, broadcast Tuesday, 1 June, 10.15pm)

In a post on this website back in April I questioned the ability of RTE to make a decent historical documentary. However, I held out some hope that The Limits of Liberty would prove me wrong. The prospects for the series were good. Its subject matter is something that will stir the public consciousness at this time and it is co-written and presented by a competent historian. It sets out to show how successive Irish governments in the first decades of independence were preoccupied with the pursuit of centralised power. The first part of the series does not disappoint in this regard. There was no moralistic back slapping of the Cumann na nGaedheal government for its defence of democracy. Instead, Ferriter showed what is often lacking in mainstream historiography. The Cumann na nGeadheal government was a conservative regime that abandoned the principles of the Democratic Programme. Ferriter was at his best when showing the audience the primary sources that backed up his points. Cosgrave’s opinion on the children of the workhouses forcefully drove the point home that these people simply did not care about the children who fell through the cracks. His description of the continuance of the workhouse system as a “sick joke” sums up the pure evil of the system. Even a historian who normally remains emotionally detached from his subject cannot help but be moved to anger by such an obscene system.

The treatment of the Labour movement was very welcome. The last television documentary of this kind, Seven Ages, barely mentioned organised Labour at all. Looking at the bread and butter issues of the day shows that the Irish people were not obsessed with constitutional questions. An examination of the Irish historiography of this period would lead to that conclusion. Analysis of the postal strike of 1922 was also a welcome addition. The government’s attitude to this strike really summed up its attitude to organised Labour in general. While the inclusion of Labour in this is most welcome, and long overdue, Ferriter fell into the trap of accepting some of the myths of these years. Firstly, Labour did not step aside in the 1918 and 1921 general elections for the common good, or because it was under pressure from Sinn Féin. It did so for its own reasons. Secondly, “Labour must wait” was never a catchphrase of Sinn Féin and, in fact, no one ever said these words. Labour chose to wait for the dawning of a new age of democracy that never came. This short review does not allow me to go into any great detail on these points but I can elaborate for anyone who wishes to comment.

All in all, the first part of this series was good and addressed some of the major issues of the day which have been swept under the carpet for too long. The documentary was particularly good on the issues of child abuse and the suppression of the Carrigan Report. The use of O’Casey’s plays to highlight how little things had changed in independent Ireland was also good. This week’s instalment looks at Fianna Fáil in power and grassroots action. It will also be reviewed here.

Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period.

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18 Responses to “Review: The Limits of Liberty on RTE 1”

  1. dfallon Says:

    Excellent review, like yourself it was the inclusion of labour that I found particularly interesting.

    I really don’t think enough emphasis is placed on the postal strike of 1922 at all, and also broader issues of social agitation in the new state.

    It’s only from reading works like Emmet O’ Connor’s excellent ‘Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals 1919-43’ and Desmond Greaves wonderful biography of Liam Mellows you realise not alone the attitude of the new government to labour, but the fact republicans really missed the boat with regards the abandonment of the Programme , and the opportunities it presented to win mass support.

    Mellows himself wrote that:

    “The Programme of Democratic Control adopted by the Dail coincident with Declaration of Indepenence, January 1919,
    should be translated into something definite. This is essential if the great body of workers are to be kept on the side of independence”

    The abandonment of the fundamental aspects of the Programme doesn’t seem to have created any real shockwaves at the time.

    The response of the new state to the earliest actions of social agitation within it are most worthy of examination. In fact, it’s incredible such important details are so often overlooked, like you mentioned in the case of Seven Ages. Why is this?

    Still, that’s another days topic. The social elements of this effort from Ferriter should be welcomed, and as a study of the pursuit of power by Government it is a great contribution in the field. The manner in which Ferriter highlighted child abuse is something several people have told me they found interesting about the first episode.

  2. Frank Says:

    Emmanuel Kehoe’s review in the Sunday Business Post is well worth reading:

    I disliked some of the gimmicry used to make a point such as the slugging of pints in bars and the introductory section replicating the inaugural Dail meeting at the Mansion House went on a bit too long and was perhaps unnecessary. I also felt that more archive footage could have been used of the other government ministers rather than constant reference to blow-up photographs on seats but of course others may disagree. Despite his treatment in the programme, I remain an unrepentant Kevin O’Higgins supporter and feel that the hard work he and Cosgrave put in to stabilise a state made fragile by years of violence orchestrated by Collins and others was not properly highlighted.

    The circumstances surrounding the foundation of the Irish state ensured that a tough line would be taken towards striking workers as the government sought to show the world that it was capable of self-rule amid the worry that were the government to collapse under internal pressure then the British would return. Interestingly, the most ambitious industrial project of the first government which also resulted in a strike, the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme, was completely overlooked by the presenter.

    While highlighting the slums issue, Ferriter failed to explain in this programme why there was such a failure to signficantly deliver on housing by a government led by a former Dublin Corporation Councillor who was passionate about housing issues as a young Sinn Fein member of the Corporation.

  3. patrick maume Says:

    One point that might be made in relation to the slums issue is that the government had to rebuild large sections of central Dublin which had been burnt out in the fighting 1916-22, and to reconstruct a transport infrastructure which the Republicans did all they could to destroy. Cumann na nGaedheal election advertisements in the late 1920s contain pictures of a reconstructed O’Connell Street, Customs House, etc as symbols of the government’s achievements in reconstructing the state (as well as reminders that De Valera and his supporters had burnt down many of these buildings).
    Perhaps this might be seen as symbolising the “trickle-down” economic approach of the government as represented by Paddy Hogan’s bet on the big farmers as primary source of capital formation.

    I haven’t seen the programme so I can’t comment in detail, but I think Kehoe makes a couple of interesting points – how much else could have been done under the circumstances? How far does his concentration on the middle-class elites (and I think a great deal more can be said good and bad about their attitudes – I remember hearing a paper a couple of years ago by an American postgrad who is working on Arensberg and Kimball’s unpublished research notes, in which she quoted some of their middle-class informants denouncing De Valera’s small-farmer supporters as men who had no stake in the country and should never have been given the vote at all, and making other remarks that reminded me of some of the pro-landlord Tory journalism I’ve read from the Land League era) disguise the extent to which the attitudes Ferriter denounces actually had widespread support? For example, one reason why a lot of ex-industrial school boys had difficulty finding work was because trade unions refused to recognise such trade skills as they had been taught as qualifying them for union membership (they wanted to restrict competition in the inteerests of existing members).

  4. Ciaran O'Brien Says:

    Well you got your Shannon scheme in part two anyway Frank.

  5. Wee Joe Says:

    ‘Labour must wait’ like ‘play it again Sam’ is one of those things everyone has heard, but wasn’t actually said. And Labour did very well in the 1920 rural and urban council elections.

  6. Adrian Grant Says:

    It seems the phrase “Labour Must Wait” was coined by the press at the time. De Valera sent a letter of protest to the Freeman’s Journal after they put the words in a sub-heading of an article reporting one of his speeches. D.R. O’Connor Lysaght summed it up when he said “De Valera was not fool enough to order industrial peace when inflation stood at seventy-five points above 1914 prices”.

    The importance and strength of organised Labour at the time can be seen, too, from the fact that the first business of the Dail after De Valera led his followers out of the house in Jan 1922 was to meet a Labour delegation led by Tom Johnson. The anti-Treatyites actually came back in to hear the delegation.

    I liked Kehoe’s review. It was much better than Liam Fay’s from the Sunday Times anyway. There is one point I would take issue with Kehoe on though. He says that at least politicians accepted the results of elections. I can’t understand why anyone would congratulate people for not being despotic. This is what I was referring to when I said there was no moralistic back slapping of CnaG.

    I think a whole lot more can be said about 1920s Ireland. I agree that the housing question could have been teased out a bit more by Ferriter and even the campaign against land annuities by small farmers could have got a mention. Hopefully this film will generate some interest amongst the general public.

  7. patrick maume Says:

    Surely if they could have made themselves dictators, and didn’t they deserve to be given credit for it? The fact that both the Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail mindsets contained anti-democratic elements (in Cumann na nGaedheal’s case the resort to such tactics as death squads in the later stages of the Civil War and the persistent sense that the people don’t know what’s good for them and need to be taken in hand by ruthless and clear-sighted professional administrators; in Fianna fail’s case the equation of party, state and nation with the implicit and sometimes explicit implication that those who don’t support Fianna fail are not really Irish) makes it all the more noteworthy that they did ultimately maintain democracy.
    In Cumann na nGaedheal’s case (at least when they were in government – the backlash after they had been defeated is another matter) I think this partly reflected a sense that they wanted to show that nationalists had been right to argue that the Irish people could take the tough decisions necessary for self-government, and that to set up a dictatorship would be to implicitly admit the old unionist argument that the Irish were not really fit to govern themselves.
    Interwar Europe did see the overthrow of many democratic or semi-democratic regimes by dictatorships of left and right, and it WAS a considerable achievement for Ireland to escape this. Too many states failed the test for Ireland’s success in this area not to be worth mentioning.

  8. Adrian Grant Says:

    Patrick, I agree that it was a considerable achievement for Ireland to have escaped the kind of dictatorships that took over in Europe. And yes, of course it is worth mentioning. But, I dont think you should receive plaudits for resisting the urge to become a dictator. You’re point on CnaG trying to prove the old unionist argument wrong is a good one. I think the first Labour government in Britain found itself in a similar situation. Its position on the Boundary Commission ran counter to the party’s traditional policy on the partition of Ireland. They felt they had to maintain the appearance of respectability to show that they were capable of governing effectively.

  9. Frank Says:

    I preferred the second programme to the first. The fact that the first programme concluded with Dev coming to power lead me to believe that the second programme would deal exclusively with events from the 1930s until the 1960s. Thus, it was good to see the Shannon Scheme getting a mention in the second programme although, given his preoccupation with the post office strike in the first programme, I was expecting him to comment on the Shannon Scheme strike. Michael McCarthy’s High Tension: Life on the Shannon Scheme offers a good account of this event. Hopefully, the first programme will encourage historians to provide us with a fuller account of life in Ireland during the 1920s. I recently came across a 100 page supplement published in the Irish Times to mark the first decade of Irish self-government. Interestingly, the publication date (Jan 21st 1932) clashed slightly with the decade (1921-1931) higlighted on the cover as the supplement was issued to mark the ten years from the signing of the Treaty in December 1921 but it neatly linked the latter anniversary with that of the inaugural meeting of the first Dail in the publication date which I’m inclined to think was carefully chosen for this very reason. I’m not sure whether this important publication has received much attention from historians as it was very well received by national and regional newspapers at the time.

  10. Wee Joe Says:

    I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the great UCD TV room when Michael Laffan, Brian Farrell, Tom Garvin, Mary Daly and co. were watching this.

  11. Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period. You can read his review of part one of The Limits of Liberty here. […]

  12. Marie Coleman Says:

    Reading the obituary of Dr Diarmuid Whelan of UCC in last Saturday’s ‘Irish Times’, I was reminded of the poignant reference to his work in publishing Peter Tyrrell’s memoir of Letterfrack, in ep. 1 of LOL. I didn’t know Diarmuid [Whelan] terribly well but am shocked by his death at such a young age. He is a huge loss to Irish history. Perhaps Pue’s could post the link to his obituary

  13. Review: Part 3 of The Limits of Liberty, RTÉ1 « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] and communist movements in the period. You can read his review of part one of The Limits of Liberty here, and his review of part two […]

  14. Review: Part 3 of The Limits of Liberty, RTÉ1 « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] and communist movements in the period. You can read his review of part one of The Limits of Liberty here, and his review of part two here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Review Lesson: […]

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