Book review: Activities Wise and Otherwise: The Career of Henry Augustus Robinson, 1898-1922

BRENDAN O’DONOGHUE, former secretary general of the Department of Environment and Local Government, has written a magnificent assessment of the career of one of his predecessors during the period before independence. 

Brendan O’Donoghue

Irish Academic Press, €29.99

This study of Sir Henry Augustus Robinson provides some invaluable insights into the workings of the civil service in this country under the British.

Another former civil servant and eminent historian, the late Leon Ó Broin, described Robinson as “perhaps the ablest official of them all”.

Much as we may vaunt our independence, we inherited the governmental structures from the British and have not introduced much change. Thus we can learn from the earlier period in which the British set the template for our own civil service.

JJ McElligott, who served as secretary of the Department of Finance from 1927 to 1953, was probably the most influential figure in the Irish civil service during the first half-century of independence.

Historians often single out Maurice Moynihan, the long-term secretary of the Taoiseach’s Department, or TK Whitaker, the brilliant secretary of the Department of Finance for playing an essential role in revitalising the economy in the late 1950s and 1960s, or John Leydon, who distinguished himself in the Departments of Industry and Commerce under Seán Lemass.

All of those men first came to prominence in the Department of Finance under McElligott. He had learned the ropes under Robinson, who was reluctantly compelled to dismiss him for taking part in the Easter Rebellion.

The book provides interesting insights into the chaotic regime of Field Marshall Sir John French, who had an influence far exceeding his abilities.

“He was a man of strong prejudice and of limited intellect,” the reader is told.

Because he owned land in Ireland, some British politicians deferred to his opinions on Irish matters.

Yet he had only spent a few years in Ireland in the 1870s. Even French’s strongest supporter admitted to Robinson in June 1918 that the Field Marshall had “yet to learn the ABC of Irish affairs.”

As a result, his administration was chaotic and strangled by incompetence. On Robinson’s recommendation, French called for an inquiry into the Dublin Castle administration.

This led to the report by the British civil servant, Warren Fisher, who concluded in May 1920 that the Irish administration was “almost woodenly stupid and quite devoid of imagination.”

Although always a unionist, Brendan O’Donoghue concludes Robinson was one of the few, “if not the only” official in the administration who “sought to minimise the effect of the partition solution that was emerging.”

He advocated that that northern unionists should be ignored and “let screech and yell till they were tired.”

They are still screeching and yelling! Although Robinson was critical of the Black and Tans while they were running amok, he later described them as “a light-hearted, reckless set of men who carried out humorous stunts.”

Of course, he wrote that after learning that it was no longer safe for him to stay on in Ireland, where he was born and reared. In exile he concluded that the Truce was introduced at the psychological moment that the Tans “had established a reign of terror of their own which bid fair to take all the heart out of Sinn Féin.”

This comprehensive and balanced book provides a fair assessment, which clearly shows that Robinson’s judgment not always flawless. But then it is puerile to think that any official that ever achieved anything never made a mistake.


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