Book review: Bitter Freedom - Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918-1923

Ryle Dwyer says Bitter Freedom is, a thoughtful and balanced history that exposes the need to be wary about what actually happened around 1916 before we engage in an unquestioning orgy of centenary celebrations. 

Maurice Walsh

Faber & Faber, €22.99;

ebook, €15.98

THIS book is not so much a history of the Irish Revolution and Troubles of 1918-1923 as a look at the history of Ireland during the period. 

The focus is on the country and the people in the midst of the conflict, rather than an account of the revolutionary events.

The author recognises symmetry between the blood sacrifice of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion and the Irishmen who fought and died in France. Patrick Pearse and John Redmond called for a blood sacrifice.

‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, was the anthem of the 200,000 Irishmen who volunteered to fight in the First World War, and it was ironic that the war of Independence actually began in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary. 

The world was changing during the period with the enormous influence of the democracy being advocated by US president Woodrow Wilson. 

The various empires were being forced to adapt to a world in which imperialism was discredited.

Within the British empire, the demand for democracy and national freedom was widespread. 

The Dominion leaders of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were demanding recognition as autonomous nations, but they were doing so within the framework of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Michael Collins, who was privately critical of the leadership of Pearse, was the main architect of the War of Independence in this country. 

He courted the support of militant Tipperary rebels like Dan Breen and Seán Tracy, while recognising that it would take time to wear down the opposition of the movement’s moderates who were holding out against a full-scale war.

Collins wanted war, but a limited war. The Squad, which he established, was forbidden to shoot policemen indiscriminately. He insisted on assassination of policemen by order only.

The secret of the Big Fellow’s success was the invaluable help of the policemen that he enlisted throughout the country. Although members of the Crown forces, they were Irishmen. 

When they found themselves in the midst of a war, most sympathised with their own Irish people, not with the thugs introduced to implement British rule.

All of the dominions obtained their independence without resorting to war. 

This thoughtful book is particularly good on the forces that led people in different directions. Did this country actually need to resort to war to achieve national freedom?

The old argument has always been that the British ignored Irish democracy during the 19th century, but the demand for democracy within the empires only developed worldwide in the 20th century, largely as a result of the ideas articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

By February 1921 The Times of London recognised Ireland as “a world problem,” as a result of the mass Irish migration of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish question had become “an integral factor in modern civilisation.”

With their police tactics in Ireland, the British were unwisely encouraging challenges to its own empire and straining Britain’s relationship with the United States.

In responding to the Irish challenge, the British government was initially overly influenced by militarists like Field Marshall John French, General Neville Macready, and by the imperialist Winston Churchill.

As Minister for War, Churchill was responsible for the introduction of the Black and Tans in Ireland, and he shamelessly defended their excesses, which he compared merely to the freedom that police in New York and Chicago had in dealing with gangsters. 

Churchill actually advocated emulating the Bolsheviks by implementing a kind of summary justice in Ireland.

“His most fantastical idea was to recruit 30,000 unionists from the north to uphold law and order throughout Ireland, which would likely have provoked the sectarianism civil war that the Irish had so far avoided,” Dr Walsh writes.

Was Churchill actually trying to provoke sectarian strife?

“Ireland was spared methods of pacification deployed more easily in peripheral corners of the British empire,” Dr Walsh adds.

Churchill used the RAF to police Mesopotamia, where the RAF acknowledged that the essence of Churchill’s air control “was collective punishment of villagers by indiscriminate bombing.”

Maybe people should be looking a bit closer at Churchill’s influence in the Middle East, when one remembers that former US president George W Bush professed a strong admiration of Churchill. 

“I love Churchill,” he declared on American television.

People frequently overlook that Churchill was a slow learner. Indeed, his teachers at school thought he was stupid.

By May 1921 when the British government was considering the possibility of a truce in Ireland, Churchill was fortunately learning.

He abandoned his old policies and advised that it was “of great public importance to get a respite in Ireland,” because the news from there was damaging British interests throughout the world.

“We are getting an odious reputation; poisoning our relations with the United States,” he warned cabinet colleagues.

The British government promptly changed adapted its policy and sought talks with the Republicans after JC Smuts, the South African leader, warned Lloyd George that “the situation in Ireland “was ‘an unmeasured calamity,’ which was poisoning Britain’s relations with its Commonwealth partners and the rest of the world.”

Britain had lost the war, but did Ireland win?

“The truth of many incidents from this time remain unknown or only half apprehended,” Dr Walsh concludes. 

“Men who ‘couldn’t tell one end of a gun from the other’ ended up with pensions and medals while others who had fought were forgotten, dying young or emigrating.

“This sense that the revolution was a failure because it did not create a new country was the bitterest feeling of all,” the author says.

Many people in Europe thought that the way to go in the changing world was a choice between the democracy espoused by Woodrow Wilson, and the socialism of Lenin.

In the aftermath of the revolution people in this country turned their backs on Lenin and Wilson.

“The utopian dreams had been reduced to the preservation of stability and order,” the author contends. People in nationalist Ireland essentially turned to the Catholic hierarchy for direction.

“It was a time for Irish Catholics to acknowledge the wisdom of their spiritual superiors,” Dr Walsh concludes.

“In a frightening and insecure world the bishops would be the best sources of reassurance and protection, so their voices should be heeded on whatever matter they cared to pronounce.”

“At independence some 7,000 children were confined in industrial schools and reformatories runs by religious orders who were paid by the state for each child in detention,” he says.

“Instead of rescue from mistreatment the children were delivered to a brutal punitive regime of beatings, humiliation and sexual abuse,” he says.

Of course, there were abuses, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the good that was done. In terms of the overall numbers, 7,000 was a comparatively small number. 

But in covering up that abuse the church leaders, and those who blindly facilitated them, betrayed the sacrifices of so many good people. That was the grossest betrayal of all.

This thoughtful and balanced history exposes the need to be wary about what actually happened before we engage in an unquestioning orgy of centenary celebrations.

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