Myth and the Irish State

John M Regan

Myth and the Irish State

IN the 1950s, myth surrounded recent Irish history, especially in relation to the Easter Rebellion, the struggle for democracy, and partition. History in our schools stopped around 1916.

What the people got was what John M Regan refers to as public history, “the version of history that gains currency in the public domain and represents popular understanding of what happened in the nation’s past.” This differs from academic history, “based on research on contemporary records, conducted in accordance with the historical discipline’s methodology”.

“The [Easter] rising became enmeshed in ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom, and entwined with the imagery of Christ’s death and resurrection,” the author says. Rhetorically strident and insular, the nationalism of the day “contained potentially destabilising ideologies in the form of its obsessive irredentism and its veneration of republican militarism.”

Most of the state papers relating to the early governments were only released in the mid-1970s. For decades, a great myth developed in the public history that the Treaty controversy and Civil War revolved around partition.

“Southern nationalists were not overly exercised by partition or the fate of their co-religionists in the North, in 1920 or after,” saysRegan.

“Southerners talked up the rhetoric of a united Ireland, but their interest after 1920 lay with the stabilisation of the border.”

As early as 1921, “de Valera secretly argued that partition, while not ideal, had to be accepted”, Regan says.

“The institutionalisation of Roman Catholic theology and the Gaelic language, in the southern state, widened the gulf between North and South. De Valera cannot have failed to notice this.”

But he sought to unite nationalists by manipulating partition and exploiting the injustice of the border, which he considered a necessary evil.

Following the eruption of the Northern Troubles in 1968, however, Irish historiography became more concerned “with the fabrication of a new historical consciousness”.

It was not recognised that various histories were not based on the most acceptable evidence but on the interpretation, or ideology, “most acceptable to the intended audience”.

De Valera had exploited partition for his own political ends. He never made any effort to win over the Northern majority to the idea of a united Ireland.

Over the past 40 years, there have been attempts to depict Michael Collins as a man of peace and as a committed democrat. There certainly was an element of avoiding war in his acceptance of the Treaty, but it is hard to square his commitment to democracy with his surreptitious involvement in the Northern Offensive, behind the backs of his own government colleagues, in May and June of 1922.

Regan’s book, which originated as a series of articles in historical journals, rightly dismisses the argument that the British had not threatened to wage war on this country unless the Treaty was accepted. The evidence is conclusive from both Irish and British sources.

Britain’s prime minister Lloyd George had threatened “immediate and terrible war” if the Irish delegation did not sign the Treaty on the final night of the negotiations, and colonial secretary Winston Churchill warned in writing, on April 12, 1922, that Collins had to choose between “the threat of civil war, or of a republic followed by a state of war with the British Empire”.

Regan says Collins established a “military dictatorship” in the early months of the Civil War, when he deferred the convening of the third Dáil on three occasions, despite the expressed wishes of his political colleagues. The late Capt Seán Feehan argued — in his book The Shooting of Michael Collins — that WT Cosgrave and his colleagues essentially staged a coup d’etat by removing Collins as chairman of the provisional government and appointing him commander-in-chief of the army, but Regan shows that it was the other way around.

Collins appointed himself and set up the three-man War Council to run the war.

Collins only informed Cosgrave and President Arthur Griffith of his decision afterwards.

“It would be well,” Collins wrote to Griffith, two days after the public announcement, “if the Government issued a sort of official instruction to me nominating the War Council of Three and appointing me to act by special order.”

“Only when Collins was dead did power begin to devolve to the embryonic parliamentary democracy,” says Regan. “If no crisis followed his death, it may well be because, by August 1922, Collins was the crisis.”

For decades, there was no suggestion of sectarian violence in the 26 counties, but this was because the issue was under-researched, says Regan.

The emphasis changed drastically with the writings of the late Peter Hart.

“The historiography moved from emphasising the relative absence of sectarian violence outside Ulster to drawing analogies with contemporary Bosnia.”

The author takes strong issue with Hart, who exhibited “a compulsion not only to exaggerate, but also simplify”, especially in relation to what the author calls the Bandon Valley massacre, in which 13 men were killed over three nights in April, 1922.

“These men were shot because they were Protestants,” said Hart.

Regan says, though: “There can be no doubt that the Protestant victims were all murdered, but what has always been disputed is the reason why and by whom.”

There were grounds for suspecting that those killed may have provided the British with intelligence information, but the war with the British was over and that would have been no justification for the killings, as it would have been a barbarous violation of the truce.

“Whatever light any of this casts on recent historical writing, there remains the insidious influence of Irish public histories presented as objective historical research on our understanding of the past,” says Regan.

Conor Cruise O’Brien argued that the Northern Troubles were inspired by the jubilee commemorations of the Easter Rising in 1966. As we now approach the centenary celebrations, have we learned the lessons of the importance of ensuring that real history replaces myth?

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