As we enter the “decade of centenaries” that marks 100 years since many of the founding events of the Irish Republic, a whole slew of books focusing on the revolution and subsequent civil war are being published.
Fergal Tobin’s The Irish Revolution: An Illustrated History 1912-1925 is an excellent one-volume introduction to this contentious corner of Irish history. The great strength of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not the pictures and maps — although they are extensive and very well integrated into the text — but the clear way the author sets out the shifting political world views of Irish people at the time. One of the remarkable things about this time is that the population moved from a point where the partition of Ireland was not even conceivable in 1912, to becoming the only possible solution a decade later.
Balancing the demands of accommodating the outsized personalities of the era with an analysis of the political machinations and content of innumerable bills, Tobin demonstrates how the sectarian warfare of 1922-’23 could easily have begun a decade earlier had WWI not intervened and diverted so many young men from both religions to France. Those men were either loyal to Great Britain (on one side) or of a more moderate political persuasion (on the other), willing to fight against a greater foe in order to prove Ireland’s right to home rule. The men who would not go at all were the intransigent nationalists, and they were now able to change the agenda at home.
It was the desire of these ultra nationalists who brought about the Easter Rising in 1916, a gesture that was likely always doomed to military failure. But, the act of rising, and the brutal reprisals of the British Army — who didn’t consider the political nature of the situation — changed the politics of the situation entirely. Before the rising, home rule would have satisfied most people; this would have resulted in a parliament in Dublin under a union flag swearing loyalty to the crown. Afterwards, British rule was so morally tainted that only independence would do. Home rule would have kept the 32 counties together, but the price of independence was partition.
Although the events of the Easter Rising occupy a lot of the book, Tobin gives a great deal of attention to the shifting political landscape, and the shifting fortunes of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the rise of Sinn Fein, as that illustrates the changes in sentiment and political goals of the general population (or at least those who had a vote — as suffrage was greatly increased after WWI).
As a primer on the Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, The Irish Revolution: An Illustrated History 1912-1925 is a great introduction and serves to frame much of the later history of the Republic of Ireland: from the stranglehold of Catholic dogma on the social and cultural life of the country, to the inevitable resurgence of violence in Ulster during “The Troubles.” The Irish Revolution is a valuable book for anyone who wants to understand Ireland better.
Readers in the UK or Ireland can buy The Irish Revolution here…
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