Review: From Parnell to Paisley

Contributed by Brian Hanley

When John Bruton was Taoiseach he famously placed a portrait of John Redmond in his office reinforcing the notion that Fine Gael were the modern heirs of the Irish Parliamentary Party tradition. Bruton’s gushing tribute to the visiting Prince Charles in 1995 further seemed to confirm the view that ‘Redmondism’ was essentially pro-British. Whatever about Bruton’s personal royalist tendencies, there are many for whom the ‘constitutional’ Home Rule tradition represents a moderate, peaceful road to self-government-particularly when contrasted with Irish nationalism after 1916. The reality, as several of the best essays in this collection illiustrate, was rather different. The book contains eleven studies, of subjects as diverse as the funding of Charles Stewart Parnell’s movement (and more research on the funding of Irish political movements would be very welcome) to Fianna Fáil’s handling of the IRA in the 1940s and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland during the 1960s. While some of the authors have already produced distingushed work, most, encouragingly, are new scholars.

The book’s general theme is the relationship between constitutional and revolutionary politics but for me it is the essays dealing with the Home Rule movement in its later stages that are the most coherent. Colin Reid provides an analysis of the relationship between the Irish Party and the Volunteer movement, throwing new light on the National Volunteers. He notes how Padraig Pearse worried about how the Irish Volunteers might be used to enforce Home Rule on Ulster leading to the ‘dismemberment of Ireland’. Pearse also suspected that Irish Volunteer weapons would be sent by the Irish Party leadership to arm Ancient Order of Hibernians in Belfast, a course of action he opposed. Reid provides telling evidence of the lack of Volunteer support for Great War service: of an estimated 156,750 National Volunteers in December 1914, just 19,000 had enlisted in the British Army by 1916. Margaret O’Callaghan examines the life and thought of Tom Kettle, Catholic (and European) liberal, killed on the Western front in 1916 and symbol for many of a ‘Lost Generation’ forgotten after Irish independence. John Borgonovo provides the best description I have read of the contest between Home Rulers, Republicans and Unionists at local level (in this case Cork city) in December 1918. Frances Flanagan throws new light on the politics of revolutionaries like P.S. O’Hegarty, who played long-term roles in the development of organisations such as the IRB (O’Hegarty mentored the young Michael Collins in London) but who were sorely disappointed with the revolution itself. His The Victory of Sinn Féin (1924) remains a bitter classic.

These essays alone could have formed the basis for a study based entirely on the 1912-22 era, but the book also contains an illuminating explanation of the politics of Ian Paisley, which is very good on the class and regional basis of his early organisation. Also of interest is Shaun McDaid’s discussion of Labour TD David Thornley, the ex-Trinity lecturer and RTE presenter whose appearance at a banned Provisional Sinn Féin rally in 1976 seems to bewilder many.  In fact Thornley’s position was not exceptional: many on both the right, and far left, of the Labour Party have held militanty anti-partition views at various stages. I am not convinced either that Thornley’s attendence at the rally had a major impact on his losing his seat in the 1977 general election: Labour’s role in a very unpopular coalition government surely counted more in terms of lost votes. It might be noted that in December 1972 Thornley was also the only TD from any party who attended a protest fast for peace at Dublin’s GPO led by a Protestant cleryman whose son had been killed by an IRA bomb on Bloody Friday. Nevertheless McDaid’s essay vividly illustrates how the Northern conflict created fractures across Southern politics.

As with any such collection the quality of the essays varies and some contain factual errors that might have been spotted with tighter editing. However I learned something I didn’t know from every essay and I look forward to reading more from each of the authors.

From Parnell to Paisley (Caoimhe nic Dhaibheid and Colin Reid, eds) is published by Irish Academic Press.

Brian Hanley is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Ireland. His latest book (with Scott Millar), The Lost Revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, is published by Penguin Ireland. His next book, The IRA: a documentary history, will be published by Gill and Macmillan in October.

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One Response to “Review: From Parnell to Paisley”

  1. Justin Says:

    Great review Brian! Can’t wait to dig into this one – particularly Colin Reid’s contribution on the National Volunteers, a subject which forms a cornerstone of my thesis.

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