Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923

R.F. Foster
Allen Lane, £13.60,
ebook £11.99

Vivid Faces is a history of the thinking of the revolutionary generation in this country between the fall of Parnell and the end of the Civil War.

Much of the material has been published elsewhere, but the book itself is a valuable collection of a broad range of views of participants that publishers dared not mention for decades. It dissects the propaganda to provide an insightful look at the real contemporary thinking.

The witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History provide an invaluable historical record, but these must be used with care, because those were recorded more than a quarter of a century after the events, with the result that, at best, they are only as good as the memory of each witness. Professor Roy Foster therefore relies heavily on contemporary journalism, letters and diaries that activists wrote while involved.

He adopts more of a thematic than chronological approach in trying to get behind the thinking of people at the time. Those who are looking for new details of the actual struggle will be disappointed, because this is more about what they thought than what they did.

In 1965 Todd Andrew wrote to Seán Ó Faoláin that “the absence of sexual relations between the men and women of the movement was one of its most peculiar features. I suppose all revolutionaries are basically Puritanical. Otherwise they wouldn’t be revolutionaries.”

There are things in this book that could not have been published without provoking public outrage around the time of the golden jubilee of the Easter Rebellion. One can easily imagine the horror of the older generation in 1966, if Gay Byrne had referred to those stories on the Late Late Show. As it was, one of the first requests that Todd Andrews made after becoming Chairman of the RTÉ Authority in 1966 was that Gay Byrne should be sacked.

People involved in the revolution were all human. They made mistakes, even if those writing about them tried to pretend otherwise. All too often writers conformed to an expected norm in which they were uncritical of certain people and unreasonably hostile towards others. In the process they seriously distorted our history.

“The revolutionaries were part of a generation which explored other forms of liberation besides the political and national, and one of these concerns the drama of loving,” Foster writes. He explores “the sexual identities of some key figures in that remarkable generation”.

Patrick McCartan who ran for President in 1944 was not afraid to express reservations about suspected Episcopal misbehaviour before the Easter Rebellion. He speculated in letters about whether Archbishop John Healy of Tuam was responsible for two illegitimate children born to servants in his household.

Grace Gifford was already pregnant when she married Joseph Mary Plunkett in his prison cell on the eve of his 1916 execution, according to his sister Geraldine. The latter also recorded later seeing a big white chamber pot “full of the remains of an abortion” in Grace’s bedroom.

At another point Geraldine noted that her sister Nellie and her sister-in-law Grace shocked the patriot Rory O’Connor by suggesting that he sleep with them. Bulmer Hobson told his son that Countess Markievicz used to warm herself up at night by getting into bed with Fianna boy scouts.

Maud Gonne had an affair with Frenchman journalist Lucien Millevoye with whom she had two children. When she married John McBride in 1903 they “briefly became a poster couple for radical Irish nationalism”, according to Foster. But the marriage collapsed in bitter recrimination and a very messy legal separation in 1906. She accused McBride of sexually molesting her 11-year old daughter Iseult.

When Piaras Beaslaí wrote his two-volume biography of Michael Collins, he omitted all mention of Kitty Kiernan, to whom Collins was engaged. Beaslaí was, of course, aware of the relationship. “Again and again I wondered how she attracted Michael,” Beaslaí wrote in his diary. “I can discern in her no brains, no beauty, no charm.”

Beaslaí suggested in his biography that Collins had no time for women. After reading it, one grandnephew told me that he concluded that Collins was homosexual. He actually said this to his grandfather — the Big Fellow’s eldest brother, Johnny. His grandfather burst out laughing.

“If Michael had a problem,” he said, “it wasn’t that he was not fond of girls. Since the 1960s they have been digging up girl friends from all quarters.”

There was no doubt that Roger Casement was gay, as he left diaries with detailed descriptions of his homosexual exploits.

Foster concluded that Patrick Pearse’s poem, “Little Lad of the Tricks,” had disturbing implications in that it betrayed “his fascination with boys,” which seemed to have “a subliminated sexual component”.

Patrick McCartan described de Valera as “the most honestly dishonest man I ever met. He kids himself and poses. Give me a bloody crook if this be honest.” Kevin O’Higgins privately denounced de Valera as “a crooked Spanish bastard.” Of course, they were on opposite sides in the civil war, but O’Higgins was on the same side as Collins, whom he branded “a pasty-face blasphemous fucker from Cork”.

“Every devilish thing we did against the British went its full circle and then boomeranged and smote us ten-fold,” P.S. O’Hegarty wrote as early as 1924 in The Victory of Sinn Féin. “The cumulative effect of the whole of it was a general moral weakening and a general degradation and a general cynicism and disbelief in either virtue or decency, in goodness or uprightness or honesty.”

“By the 1930s,” Dr Foster concludes, “the ex-revolutionaries had long been accustomed to abusing each other in private; and it was now possible to suggest that the revolution had brought in its wake certain elements of disillusionment.” Clearly it was not all sweetness and light among the revolutionary generation.

Dr Foster book is a valuable contribution, because history demands the recall of times as they were, not as a glorified fairy tale!

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