Ireland – The False Analogy

There’s a growing body of literature on the shared history of Zionism and Irish nationalism.[1] I’ve been exploring this comparison in my own work (here, here, here, and here). Recently, Guido Franzinetti at the University of Eastern Piedmont, who has written on Irish connections to Eastern Europe, contacted me to tell me about a useful primary source for this comparative historiography: a 1945 essay entitled Ireland – The False Analogy, by Richard Koebner. Its an interesting interrogation of the Ireland-Israel comparison and I’ve transcribed it with some brief notes below.

Richard Koebner (1885-1958) was a founding member of the history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in Breslau [Wroclaw] and left Nazi Germany for British Palestine in 1934. In Palestine, he became involved in Ihud [Union] a dovish Zionist group who advocated a shared Jewish-Arab homeland in Palestine. His article on Ireland was published in Ba’ayoth [Issues], Ihud’s Hebrew-language monthly publication and was republished in a 1972 edited English-language collection of works by members of Ihud; this is the version I reproduced below.

By the later 1930s and into the 1940s, comparisons between the extant situation in Palestine and that in Ireland two decades earlier were common currency. As Tom Segev notes in his famous book, One Palestine, Complete, the years of the Arab Revolt (1936-39) was the period of “Ireland in Palestine,” when British police and troops (many of whom had served in Hugh Tudor’s Black and Tans) felt a sense of déjà vu when a popular guerrilla campaign caused the British to lose control of much of the country. Many Zionists also saw parallels with Ireland and believed that guerrilla warfare was the only means for expelling the British and achieving a Jewish homeland. Some of these latter forces coalesced around Avraham Stern, and became known as LEHI (Lochamei Herut Yisrael, Israel Freedom Fighters). The parallels with Ireland during the previous world war would seem to have been clear enough for Stern to translate P.S. O’Hegarty’s The Victory of Sinn Féin into Hebrew.  O’Hegarty’s unwitting influence on Zionists is perhaps best hinted at by the fact that Yitzhak Shamir, a future Israeli prime minister but an underground LEHI activist in the 1940s, chose the nom de guerre “Michael”, in homage to Michael Collins  Similarly, Avsahlom Haviv, a member of ETZEL (Irgun Tzvai Leumi, The National Military Organisation), a slightly less extreme group than LEHI, quoted George Bernard Shaw during his trial for violent anti-British actions, and accused the British of “drowning the Irish Uprising in rivers of blood… yet Ireland rose free in spite of you.”

This comparison, though, was not universally accepted by all Zionists. The Marxist-Zionists of HaShomer HaTzair [The Young Guard], who sought to unite Jewish and Palestinian workers against their common enemies (Jewish capitalists and Arab feudal landlords), had little time for analogies with Ireland. HaShomer HaTzair made their views clear in this 1945 handbill condemning the “fascist terror” of the Zionist far-right:

DDI 5447

Central Zionist Archives, DDI 5447

And it is precisely this kind of Irish-Zionist militant comparison, and the political actions derived from it, that Koebner condemns in his short essay. The essay is divided into two main parts – first, a discussion of Irish nationalist history, from the Tudor period to World War Two; second, a critical discussion of the comparison with Zionism and Palestine. In a brief concluding section, he engages in a rapid-fire critique of Eamon de Valera. The version published in 1972 also includes two postscripts, from July and December 1946, that add to the argument and comment on contemporary developments.

Koebner’s central argument is that comparisons between Irish nationalism and Zionism are selective at best, fatuous at worst. He also points out that Zionism has as much in common with Ulster Unionism, foreshadowing a popular later comparison; as the great British conservative historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, stated in 1962, “Jewish history is part of European history and should be studied as such, even though, in recent times, by a brilliant operation of inspired colonization and successful war, the Jews have occupied and gained political control of a small part of Asia, an Ulster in the great Ireland of Arabia.”[2] This is a point of identification that Ian Lustick has also examined.

Nonetheless, Koebner’s essay does adopt a number of familiar Irish nationalist tropes – his description of Cromwell, for instance, seems to be borrowed directly from Irish nationalist narratives. And as with a lot of early 20th century nationalist writing, women are totally absent from his narrative of Irish nationalists and “Ulstermen”. There’s also a kind of great man view of history running through the whole essay; the Treatyite divide, for instance, is viewed as a division between de Valera, on one side, and Griffith and Collins on the other, with the Treatyites presented as those who have been heroically formed into shape by the latter.   Moderates opposed to violence are the heroes in Koebner’s narrative; John Redmond, Michael Collins (whose violent activities go unmentioned), Arthur Griffith, Parnell. The last of these he compares to Chaim Weizmann; Parnell’s revulsion at the Phoenix Park murder is equated with Weizmann’s views of the murder of Lord Moyne (a scion of the Anglo-Irish Guinness family) in Cairo in 1944.   Koebner has an overly positive view of John Redmond as a benevolent unifier of the nation, perhaps a projection of the idea that the Jewish nation in Palestine should unite around David Ben-Gurion and not extremists like Menachem Begin or Avraham Stern. And oddly, the Easter Rising is never mentioned. It’s hard to believe that any survey of 19th and 20th century Irish history could overlook such a seminal event; it’s probably the case that it didn’t fit with Koebner’s arguments against the use of political violence and so was duly ignored.

As a further example of his Zionist politics shining through into his discussion of Irish history, Koebner subsumes religion into ethnicity, and speaks in very broad brush strokes about the demographics of Ireland; all “Celts” are Catholics and all Protestants are “English” or “Scottish”. This is a telling assumption for a mid-century Jewish nationalist to make, reflecting his own political milieu where religion collapsed into ethnicity. Finally, given the role that the “ingathering of the exiles” played for Zionists, Koebner’s observations about the continuation of out-migration under de Valera seems intended to discredit him as well as any idea that Zionists should emulate his politics.

Koebner also places Ireland in a intriguing (and sometimes off-kilter) European context, comparing Anglo-Irish relations to Czech-German relations. Later in the essay, he places Ireland in a global British imperial context and also puts the British relinquishment of the Treaty Ports in the same frame as Chamberlain’s abandonment of the Sudetenland to Germany, as if both were acts of appeasement of extremists. Much of this is presumably derived from Koebner’s own training as a German historian as well as his direct experiences of Nazism. Indeed, in the concluding passage he directly compares the ascension to power of de Valera in 1932 with that of Hitler a year later. He also describes the Ulster Volunteer Force as “the first example” in the twentieth century “of an organised private army ready to oppose law and order”, thus suggesting that they were a prototype of continental fascism. His own comparisons here are certainly over-done.


Ireland – The False Analogy

Richard Koebner

(December, 1945)

The drawing of analogies is an extremely common feature when attempts are made to strengthen one’s case. This proneness is particularly characteristic when Palestine forms the subject of discussion. The analogy drawn in this connection is Ireland – but, it is a wrong one.

I do not know to what extent our activist extremists argue along these lines, since I am not personally acquainted with them; but what I do know is that a great number of people condone, or at least, do not condemn acts of violence, because they think that, in the long run, they will further the Zionist cause. Ireland provides these speculative patriots with an argument. In that country, a relatively small people has, by acts of violence, forced the mighty hand of Britain, so the argument runs. Jews are by no means the first or only ones to base their arguments on this analogy. To note the nearest example – those Arabs who have supported acts of violence in their midst, are adepts of this Irish theory. The mere fact that our real opponents make use of the self-same argument ought to give pause to those of us who advocate it, but we will not go into that at the moment.

We will not press the point that no analogy is absolutely correct and that nothing ever repeats itself completely in history. After all, why should not the causal nexus, on which our theorists insist, repeat itself? Again, we shall disregard the fact that the question of terror and armed resistance is not solely one of cause and effect, but has a moral angle to it. Finally, we do not wish to enter into a theoretical argument as to what extent and in what circumstances a small nation like ours is in a position to impose its will upon a great power by force or by the threat of force. We shall do our utmost to be “Real-historiker,” examining the validity of the Irish “parallel,” and to meet our “Realpolitiker” on their own ground. The Irish National Movement has, at times, employed violent methods and it did end up by realising some of its aims. This much is common knowledge. But whereas the “post hoc” is clear, the “propter hoc” stands in need of further elucidation. What have been the gains; by what means have they been achieved; and to what extent have acts of violence really benefited the Irish nation?


The history of the Irish National Movement is complex in the extreme. We do not wish to simplify it here as crassly as our “Realpolitker” are wont to do (those to whom we are addressing ourselves). yet, a certain amount of simplification is necessary to bring out the meaning features, which make a checking on the analogy possible.

The Irish National Movement has its origins in the violent repression and expropriation of the Irish people, which began under the Tudors and was continued with the utmost ruthlessness during the revolutionary epochs of the 17th century; under Cromwell, after the triumph of the Puritan rebellion; and under William III, after the Glorious Revolution. The two latter waves of repression already constituted a reaction to the liberation movement. The early history of the Irish National Movement, then, was unfortunate in the extreme and cannot serve as an argument. The same applies to the period of the French Revolution; the rebellion of the United Irishmen, 1798, which followed the attempt at reconciliation between the English and Irish – between Protestants and Catholics. The result of this rebellion, resented by all Irish patriots, was the constitutional union of Ireland and Great Britain, which existed until 1921.

Our “Realpoltiker” cannot consider these early days of Anglo-Irish conflict as constituting a precedent. The object of comparison is Ireland since the union, in January 1801; more especially, the development of Anglo-Irish relations since the rise of the Irish National Movement under Parnell, which dates from 1878 onwards.

The problem confronting the Irish National Movement was how to get the English out of Ireland. England was ruling the country in two ways:

  • Irish lands were the property of English land-lords, whether directly or indirectly. The Irish peasant had sunk to the position of a tenant with stiff rental conditions.
  • Ireland’s parliamentary representatives were condemned to a permanent minority status, which made it impossible for them to forget their past national independence.

With regard to both these forms of rule, the Irish fought against a powerfully-established system of vested interests. This system belonged only to a narrow social stratum, as far as the former point was concerned; as to the latter, it was a case of conflict between the interests of the state and a national principle comparable to the problems of the German border provinces and those within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

The latter analogy becomes even more apparent in view of another aspect, only very gradually discovered, of the modern Irish national problem. There were two kinds of Irishmen: Catholic Celts, and the Protestant offspring of English and Scots settlers. The Anglo-Irish, for the greater part, occupied the northern province of the Island – namely – Ulster. But there was no clear and rigid geographical division, any more than there was between Germans and Czechs in Bohemia. Anglo-Irish negotiations had been disastrously affected by the existing antagonism between the Celtic Irishmen and the Orangemen (as the Scots-Irish were then called). Since the time of the union this antagonism had not made itself felt much until the end of the 19th century. In varying degrees, Catholic and Protestant peasants had the same interests. Only when Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1886 brought the immediate possibility of the rule of the Catholic-Celtic majority over the Ulster minority within reach – rule by Dublin over Belfast – only then did this antagonism flare up.

Home Rule was not granted, however. Gladstone had been defeated twice, in 1886 and in 1893. By degrees, however, the land law in Ireland was amended to the advantage of the Irish peasantry. The last and decisive step was taken by Lord Balfour’s Conservative Government, through the Land Purchase Law of 1903, which enabled the peasants to buy their land cheaply from the landowners by means of Government subventions.

This reform was welcomed by the Irish, and its financial stipulations were loyally carried out until 1932. But there was a catch in it: It did away with the main interest shared both by Irish Nationalists and Ulstermen. When the Liberal Party, which was again in power since 1905[3] [sic], wanted to fulfil its promise of Home Rule and tabled the third Home Rule Bill of 1912, Ulster prepared for armed resistance, thus affording the 20th century the first example of an organised private army ready to oppose law and order. The Ulstermen were encouraged by the Conservatives and the House of Lords. Proposals to solve the problem by partition of the country were rejected by both sides. The Home Rule Bill was passed by Parliament, but it had not yet become law when England entered the war against Germany in August 1914. In view of the need for unity in the face of the enemy, the Southern Irish under the leadership of John Redmond agreed to a postponement of the solution.

Meanwhile, however, the Ulster movement and the Government’s attitude towards it had given rise to new developments in the Irish camp. The Irish Parliamentary party had lost ground, and the radical national party, the Sinn Fein [sic] – till then insignificant – had gained followers. They, too, had organised and armed. The decisive point in this development was that the Government apparently did not feel strong enough to suppress the Ulster movement and mobilize all efforts to put Home Rule into effect.

During the war, the radical national Celtic movement which demanded more than Home Rule gained momentum. While reform on the Gladstonian basis still envisaged a union with Britain in matters of foreign policy and trade, Sinn Fein aimed at nothing less than complete independence and the institution of a republic. The new national trend was towards complete severance of cultural relations, too, by means of a return to the old Gaelic tongue.

When the Home Rule Bill finally became law in 1920, the Southern Irish turned it down. A revolutionary Government was set up which broke off relations with the existing bodies representing the Government. Now Ulster was prepared to accept partition, which was effected. Since then, Northern Ireland forms an annexe [sic] to the United Kingdom, with a parliament of its own, with conditions such as the Liberals had desired for the whole of Ireland. Meanwhile, however, Civil War[4] was raging in the South, as well as war with the English police. The English police force – called the “Black and Tans” – met the terrorism of the Irish rebels with counter-terrorism no less cruel; but they were not strong enough to put an end to their opponents. This could only have been done by employing a regular army.

Under these circumstances, Lloyd George and his Coalition Cabinet decided to try a compromise, which had been advocated before the war by the Premier’s ex-liberal colleague, now his opponent, Lord Asquith. Lloyd George had declined to make this attempt so far. The constitutional basis of this compromise was the concept, as yet new, of “Dominion Status”. The large overseas settlers’ colonies of the British Empire, the “Dominions”, had gradually arrived at the status of independent states within the framework of the Empire during the last 70 years. The latest and most far-reaching concession that had been made to them was the recognition of their right to independent decisions in matters of foreign policy, – ratified at the Imperial Conference of 1917. Consequently, the Dominions sent their own representatives to the Peace Conference. The new solution of the Irish question was to amount to this that the new Free State[5] [sic], erected by revolutionary methods, was to receive the same status which the Dominions had attained gradually and by separate laws and agreements. This offer went much further than mere Home Rule; it did away with all that remained of Dublin’s dependence on Westminster. But at the same time it left unsatisfied the most extreme aspirations of the Sinn Feiners. The Republic, with de Valera at its head, was not recognized and the King’s suzerainty was once more acknowledged; furthermore, Northern Ireland was not incorporated in the new Free State, but was to retain its constitution of 1920.

Consequently, a strong faction within the Sinn Fein, led by de Valera, violently protested against the Treaty. On the other hand, Arthur Griffith, the founder of the Movement, as well as his collaborator, Michael Collins, agreed to the compromise, and succeeded in winning over the majority to their side. So the Treaty was put into effect. The resistance of the radical Republicans, however, did not subside, but now began to assume the proportions of ruthless terror against the representatives of the majority; Griffith and Collins themselves fell victim to this conflict, along with many others. But the treaty party emerged victorious, and until 1932, Anglo-Irish relations remained peaceful on the basis of the agreements reached by them.

In that year, however, de Valera came into power again and embarked on a policy of severance from England, in particular, and the Empire, in general. This policy, however, was no longer pursued by means of physical violence. For a number of years, there was a tariff-war between Eire[6] [sic] and Great Britain. By means of one-sided legislation, de Valera changed certain clauses of the treaty, for instance the one regarding the oath of loyalty to the King. During the appeasement period, the government of Neville Chamberlain renounced its right of garrisoning the Irish treaty ports. Finally, de Valera declared Eire neutral in the war against Hitler.


We have outlined some stages of the modern phase of the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict. The question now arises whether we, the Yishuv[7] of Palestine and the Zionist movement, have something to learn from it and if so, what. First, we must make up our minds which of the national parties of Ireland we are going to liken to ourselves, the “Irish” Irishmen, the Celts of the South, or the Ulstermen, the Anglo-Irish who predominate in the Northern counties. Our nationalist interpreters of history are only thinking of the former, who now have their independent state. Bernard Shaw, however, once complained that the Balfour Declaration created a new Ulster. The truth of the matter is that both these comparisons are accurate in some minor points only,. With the Ulster Irish we have this much in common that we constitute an enclave in a world of different nationality, and that we are interested in British protection of our national existence. But the conditions which ensure such protection in the case of the Ulster Irish, are lacking in ours. We are not a kindred people to the English [sic, British], and our country is separate from theirs, not by mere narrow straits, but by the whole Mediterranean and Continental Europe.

With the Celtic Irish we have this in common that like them we are striving to achieve an independent national life, but unlike them we do not enjoy a majority status in any geographically definable territory. True, official Zionist policy aims at such status and demands English and American assistance in order to attain it. Now the adepts of the Ireland theory consider that this assistance can be secured by force, arguing that England has been yielding to violence in the case of Eire. But, as a matter of fact, Irish violence, if it attained anything at all, arrived exactly at the opposite of want we want to get the English to do in Palestine: the English left Ireland and abandoned Ireland to themselves. Paradox is too polite a word for this particular brand of drawing analogies.

We shall now proceed to the question what methods were employed and what measure of success attended them. To begin with, let us put an end to an idea the absurdity of which should be obvious to all, but which is still playing a regrettably large part in the imagination of many Palestinian Jews, viz. that the English suffered military defeat at the hands of the Irish and were driven to capitulation by sheer physical force. The truth of the matter is that the first epoch of the conflict, the epoch of Parnell, ended with the renunciation of methods of physical violence on the part of the Irish National movement. Instead it was now waiting for the political moment when Gladstone’s slogan of Home Rule for Ireland would have a chance of realisation with his party’s return to power. No doubt, during the later epochs of the conflict, since 1912, the Irish were cruelly disappointed in this hope, and physical violence, first by the Ulster Irish, then by Sinn Fein, dominated the political scene. But there was no final trial of strength. Asquith postponed it from 1912 to 1914, until the outbreak of war spared him the trouble. In 1921, Lloyd George broke off the wear and tried the method of negotiation, before really decisive forces were thrown into the struggle by the English. In the words of Michael Collins: “We had not beaten the enemy out of our country by force of arms.”

Irish methods of violence assumed a great variety of different forms. For the first epoch, the time of Parnell, the following methods were characteristic: acts of sabotage on country-seats, attempts on the lives of estate owners, refusal to pay rent, boycott of land-lords who had driven out their tenants. Only the last-named had Parnell’s unqualified approval. The political struggle was not yet militarily organized. The acts of violence were for the most part perpetrated by oppressed peasants, inspired by hate and vindictiveness, with the support of individual fanatics. After the interval from 1887-1912, the new phenomenon of irregular armies sprang up, accompanied by acts of terrorism from ambushes.

There can be no doubt whatever that these various types of violence had a moral effect on the English. But this effect assumed two contradictory forms: on the one hand, a desire to appease the embittered Irish and to find a way out of a disastrous situation by means of compromise: on the other, a stiffening of resistance in the English camp, a determination not to yield to violence. During all phases of the struggle, both tendencies existed side by side. The former tendency found expression in the gradual concessions of Gladstone and finally in his conversion to the principle of Home Rule. But his efforts were paralysed by the fact that the terror has assumed proportions which made the majority of his fellow-countrymen unamenable to the idea of concessions. The murder of the Chief Secretary and his Under-Secretary in 1882 in Dublin (the so-called Phoenix Park murders) had a particularly disastrous effect; Parnell was no less appalled by this senseless act of cruelty than the English; his reaction was identical with that of Dr Weizmann after the assassination of Lord Moyne in November 1944. He felt this incident to be a stab in the back. Events vindicated his attitude when in 1886, Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill met with embittered resistance in England. After the rejection of the Home Rule Bill the acts of sabotage continued, but they did not intimidate the English any more. They ceased entirely when Balfour (then Chief Secretary for Ireland) intervened with a strong hand. The Irish found themselves reduced to parliamentary forms of resistance.

In the fight for the third Home Rule Bill, Asquith, like the Irish leader Redmond, at first under-estimated the danger of an armed Ulster. Later the pro-Ulster attitude, adopted by the Conservative party leaders and by numerous army officers, forced upon him a realisation of the true situation. The danger confronting him was simply that of civil war, not only in Ireland, but in England too. Hence his hesitation and evasions, which could not inspire confidence in his determination to carry the Bill through. Now we cannot by any stretch of the imagination conceive of a situation in which the Palestine question could in any way lead to civil war in England; here, too, the analogy fails.

Finally, there remains Lloyd George’s change of heart in 1921: instead of a real war a compromise on the basis of Dominion Status. If there is anything in this that calls for explanation, it is the fact that Lloyd George turned to this solution only after the counter-terrorism of the Black and Tans had greatly increased the bitterness of the victims. The solution itself corresponded to the world situation. The war against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian anarchy [sic, monarchy?] and Turkey had been brought to a successful conclusion under the slogan of “the self-determination of peoples”. It was impossible to threaten an autonomous organisation of the Irish with a war of annihilation after similar autonomy had been recognised in the case of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. It was equally impossible to refuse the application of the concept of Dominion Status in the case of Ireland, after having not only accepted it for the overseas settlers’ colonies, but also having admitted it into the official future programme for India. So there were the strongest moral reasons for avoiding war and striving for a compromise, provided Ireland was ready to accept it.

In our present situation, we too may look forward to all sorts of compromise proposals, not only from England, but from the U.S.A. as well. But the example of Ireland cannot lead us to expect that the Western Powers will seek compromise in a direction which involves the renunciation of force where we are concerned and at the same time the use of force against the Arab countries. Moreover, Winston Churchill put the point well when he said that in 1920-21 the British government found themselves in a situation which admitted of only two possibilities: “War with the utmost violence or peace with the utmost patience.” The British Government in the end took the risk of choosing the latter alternative. But we can hardly apply this choice of alternatives to our case. We certainly do not wish to experience “war with the utmost violence” at the hands of the British; but will “utmost patience” serve our purpose and further our aims?

To sum up: the example of Ireland cannot give rise to speculative hopes. But it can, and does, give rise to apprehensions. The constant conflicts between Unionists and Home Rulers, between Irishmen and Ulstermen, have again and again resulted in the postponement of a solution, and this postponement, so far from improving the situation has aggravated it. The same applies to the repeated rejections of compromise solutions on the part of the various parties.


We may ask, however, whether de Valera was not right after all in refusing to resign himself to the compromise of the 1921 treaty and in embarking on a more radical course in restoring the independence of the Irish Free State? The question would appear to be beyond the scope of our present enquiry, seeing that de Valera’s policy since 1932 has never resorted either to armed violence or to terrorism. In fact, the Irish President was himself threatened by a yet more radical group.[8] However, the causes and consequences of de Valera’s policy in the thirties may give us occasion to touch on the last aspect of the Irish question which is of direct interest to us, viz. the results of a radical national movement for the people whose future it claims to work for. The motives which brought de Valera to power in 1932 were largely economic in nature. The Irish people were feeling the effects of the world-crisis; but just as Hitler taught the Germans to seek the root cause of their troubles in political conditions, so did de Valera the Irish. The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 played a similar role in his propaganda to that of the treaty of Versailles in Hitler’s. He then attempted to establish a system of economic autarchy calculated to make Ireland independent of the English market, “reversing that policy which made us simply the kitchen garden for supplying the British with cheap food”. This policy turned out to be a failure; geographical circumstances proved stronger than economic nationalism in Eire.

What else has he achieved? The symbols of Royal power were removed; but this measure was itself of no more than symbolic value. Of deeper significance was the fact that Ireland was being wrenched out of the British defence system: first by the withdrawal of the British garrison from the Irish treaty ports, and then by de Valera’s declaration of neutrality after Great Britain had declared war on Germany. In both cases it may be doubted whether a different attitude would have been possible: the vast majority of the population approved of the policy of its leader. But in each case this policy has served to promote a line of development which was diametrically opposed to the natural tendencies of Irish national consciousness: viz. the alienation of wide and important sections of men of Irish descent from the national cause of the Irish state. The gulf between Ulster and Eire has been widened. There has been a perceptible cooling off in the attitude of Americans of Irish extraction towards their ancient homeland. Nor is that all. Emigration from Eire to the United Kingdom has once more increased. For a hundred years, the population of Eire has suffered continual losses through emigration. At first it was possible to explain the downward trend which began with the great famine of 1846 as the result of the bad living conditions of the Irish country people. But emigration and decline of population did not come to a standstill when the agricultural reforms of Gladstone and Balfour removed this cause. Not only America and other overseas countries, but also the country of the “oppressors”, England, continued to attract Irish immigrants. It was only when the economic world crisis of 1929 began to counteract this attraction, that Irish emigration was temporarily reduced to a fairly low figure. After the outbreak of war, however, there has been a fresh increase. Large numbers of Irishmen left the country which enjoyed the safety of neutrality and linked their fate with that of Great Britain. They entered the British Army where, like many descendants of Irish immigrants before them, they greatly distinguished themselves; or they accepted work in the British armament industries.

Does not this fact convey a warning to us? The national agitator, acclaimed by the masses and able to inspire many individuals to sacrifices of various kinds, may easily jump to the conclusion that the strongest and most progressive attractiveness of his people is embodied in his person and his slogans. But this confidence is not solidly based. Telegrams of admirers can be counted; disaffected fellow-countrymen cannot; but they are none the less real as potential forces and potential losses for being for being beyond the reach of statistical enquiry. The main point, however, is this: national agitation is neither directly nor indirectly the most important means of creating sound economic and cultural conditions for the people it wants to build up. For this task of upbuilding, work of quite a different kind is required.


POSTSCRIPT 1 – July, 1946

Recent voices from England are calculated to convey the impression that I have been mistaken. On the occasion of the events at the end of June 1946[9],various Englishmen both of the Right and the Left got up to draw the attention of their Government to the warning example of Ireland. But what is the real truth of the matter? The warning was given to Great Britain, and it must not be construed as meaning that the warners wanted to encourage our armed “fighters for freedom”[10]. They got up and warned the British Government against pursuing a policy which must inevitably lead to bloodshed and unspeakable bitterness. But it does not follow from this that bloodshed and acts of despair will be crowned with our victory. Neither did the warners mean to say that the British Government must accept the radical claims officially put forward by us in order to prevent a repetition of the bloodshed in Ireland and of the Irish wrath incurred. In part, the warners pleaded for a political solution in accordance with the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry: neither a Jewish nor an Arab State, i.e. nothing that might be said to correspond to the Irish example. Other warners pleaded for partition and it was precisely in this sense that they quoted the Irish example. Partition on the Irish model would mean a kind of Jewish Ulster. I trust I have succeeded in showing in the course of my essay that this is the very example that does not bear transplantation. Tel-Aviv never can hope to take the place of Belfast.


POSTSCRIPT 2 – December, 1946

The liquidation of the Mandate, still a remote issue when this article was written a year ago – though already envisaged by the Peel Report in 1937 and more seriously by the White Paper of 1939 – has meanwhile, in consequence of the incessant outrages of Jewish terrorists, gained ground in English public opinion, and doubtlessly is eagerly wished for by a large proportion of the English people.   Leaders of Zionist public opinion have been quick to adapt themselves to the new situation, and just as they have changed front in the question of partition, so they have professed acquiescence in the British leaving Palestine at an early date. It seems by no means impossible that impending negotiations are to lead to a solution which comes near this demand. If so, they way is prepared for the advocates of terrorism to boast of having helped the Zionist cause, and that the Irish analogy has proved right in spite of all dissimilarities.   But that will be a fallacy again. When Irish nationalism went to extremes in the policy of separation, it could, consciously or unconsciously, rely on the English retaining an interest in the island in general and Ulster in particular. If the English quit Palestine – or, for that matter, Jewish Palestine – no residue of interest is to be expected. Palestinian Jews will be thought a people better to be forgotten than to be remembered. Is that outcome to be wished for?

When the Irish Home Rule movement was still in its infancy, Punch voiced a warning which may not have attracted much attention in its days, but is certainly worth being unearthed to-day and adapted to our situation. The warning runs (vol. 74, p.46):

“To teach Home-Rulers than England’s difficulty is not Ireland’s opportunity, however Ireland’s importunity may be England’s difficulty”

Say “Eretz-Yisrael 1946” instead of “Ireland 1877”, and you have the real analogy.


[1] I compiled what I think is a complete list of this literature for a recent article for Israel Studies: Donald Akenson. God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); Aidan Beatty. Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938 (London: Palgrave, 2016); Hedva Ben-Israel. ‘The Role of Religion in Nationalism: Some Comparative Remarks on Irish Nationalism and Zionism’. In Religion, Ideology, and Nationalism in Europe and America: Essays Presented in Honor of Yehoshua Arieli (Jerusalem: Historical Society of Israel/Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1986) 331-340; Abby Bender. Israelites in Erin: Exodus, Revolution, and the Irish Revival (Syracuse NY, Syracuse University Press, 2015); Joe Cleary. Literature, Partition and the Nation State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Shulamit Eliash. The Harp and the Shield of David: Ireland, Zionism and the State of Israel (New York: Routledge, 2007); Dan Lainer-Vos. Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States (Cambridge: Polity, 2012); John Maher. Slouching Towards Jerusalem: Reactive Nationalism in the Irish, Israeli and Palestinian Novel, 1985-2005 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2012); Kevin McCarthy. Robert Briscoe: Sinn Féin Revolutionary, Fianna Fáil Nationalist and Revisionist Zionist (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016); Rory Miller. Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005); Muiris Ó Laoire, Athbheochan na hEabhraise: Ceacht don Ghaeilge? [The Hebrew Revival: A Lesson for the Irish Language?] (Baile Átha Cliath: An Clóchomhar, 1999).

[2] Hugh Trevor-Roper. Jewish and Other Nationalism (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1962) 15.

[3] The Liberals won a landslide victory in 1906, strong enough to not need Irish Parliamentary Party votes. In 1910, they were re-elected on a slimmer mandate and did need the IPP and introduced the Third Home Rule Bill. Koebner seems to confuse the two elections, and his date is off by a year.

[4] Koebner appears here to not be referring to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, but to the War of Independence, which was, of course, a civil war of the United Kingdom,

[5] Koebner’s vocabulary muddies matters, since he uses the term “Free State” to refer to the Republic declared by the Dáil of 1919, when the “Irish Free State” was not established until the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922.

[6] The Economic War began in 1932 and lasted until 1938, but “Éire” was not used as the official name of the Irish state until de Valera’s constitution of 1937.

[7] From the verb Leyashev, to sit or to settle, Yishuv is the term commonly used in Zionist discourse to denote the Jewish population, and is often delineated into the Old (non-Zionist) Yishuv and the new (Zionist) Yishuv.

[8] Koebner does not say who the “yet more radical group” were, but presumably this is a reference either to the fascist Blueshirts or the anti-Treaty rump of the IRA.

[9] The 1972 translation of the article gives the following explanatory footnote: “The sudden searches of the premises of the Jewish Agency and other public institutions and of numerous agricultural settlements, the arrest of several leading Jewish Agency members as well as several thousand citizens in the communal settlements and in the towns.”

[10] This is a reference to LEHI [Lochamei Herut Israel, Fighters for the Freedom of Israel] a right-wing Zionist terrorist militia also known as the “Stern Gang”, after their leader, Avraham Stern.


The Strange Career of R.S. Devane

– This is a paper I presented at the 2017 National Meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies.

Where Does The Church End And The State Begin?

In 1925, Richard S. Devane, (1876-1951) a Jesuit priest, social reformer and political activist, wrote an article on ‘Indecent Literature’ for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. In this article, Devane addressed what he saw as the need for the censorship of print publications in the Irish Free State. He placed this in a broader context of contemporary reforms in other areas of sexual morality, such as prostitution, age of consent laws, and the legal status of illegitimate children. Devane said the issue of “indecent literature” must be addressed using “our new-won powers” but also “according to Irish ideals and Catholic standards”; in other words Church and State were melded in his conception, and he drew on his own experiences as a social-reforming priest; but where Devane had lead a vigilance committee in Limerick in the previous decade that pressured Catholic shop-owners to boycott certain publications, he felt that such approaches would not work in larger and more religiously diverse cities like Cork or Dublin. Thus he argued that the State has to step in, what he called “the necessity of falling back upon the law”.[1]

Of central concern for Devane were publications that advertised or otherwise promoted the use of contraception. Devane condemned contraception on Catholic lines, identifying its “immorality” and discussing how advertisements for contraceptives educate women “in hideous forms of vice”. But he also called contraception a form of “race suicide” promoted by dangerously independent female “Malthusians”. His concerns were both sacred and secular, clerical and statist, gendered and racialised. Privileging the State over the Church, though, Devane said he had “no doubt that the Ministers of the Irish Free State, who have the custody of the Nation’s life and morals in their hands, will not hesitate to take every means necessary for the exclusion of this vile stuff [contraception], and we trust that they will have the support of every member of the Dáil and the Senate who has the moral welfare of the Nation, especially of the young, at heart, and who truly represent the mind of the Irish people.” Throughout his discussion of “indecent literature”, Devane moved between Ireland and Irish politics as it is and as he expects it to be once the State, not the Church, has enacted the proper reforms.[2]

Devane claimed in this article that, through his work with the Priests Social Guild, he had urged the then Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, to act on this issue, to “legally [strangle] this vile traffic.” This appears to be disingenuous. According to the records of the Censorship Judgements for the Jesuit Province of Ireland, Devane wrote his article on ‘Indecent Literature’ after it had been “suggested” to him by O’Higgins, “who is conscious to excite an atmosphere in advance so as to facilitate legislation”[3]. There is an important dynamic on display here; “the State”, represented by the Minister of Justice, requested that “the Church”, personified by Fr. Devane, write an article that will publicly tell “the State” what to do. The circularity of all this reveals an important conceptual problem in Irish historiography; it is rarely clear where the Church ends and the State begins in modern Ireland. Indeed, Devane ended his article by affirming that it “has been written to help to clear they way and to inform public opinion”, perhaps meaning that public opinion is to be massaged by the Church and convinced to go along with the State’s legislative agenda?

The Marxist state-theorist Nicos Poulantzas has argued against the idea that “the State” should be understood solely in terms of its formal institutions. Rather, Poulantzas contends that the State should be understood as a strategic field that blurs the boundaries between formal state institutions and civil society; the latter being the “space” in which the State acts and enforces its power.[4]   And for Poulantzas, the Church is an integral part of the State; “All the apparatuses of hegemony, including those that are legally private (ideological and cultural apparatuses, the Church, etc.), all these form part of the State”[5]. Poulantzas perhaps over-determines the power and reach of the State; the Catholic Church in Ireland, for example, was not a mere adjunct of the State. Yet his insights about how to understand the State are of great value; Devane’s short essay certainly highlights how a statist project was being carried out through the “private” machinery of the Church.

Moreover, just as understanding “the State” solely in terms of its formal institutions can be narrowly restrictive, so also “the Church” should not be perceived as a singular, coherent entity. The conceptual fuzziness of “the State” finds a parallel in that of “the Church”. Devane’s article was published in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, “a monthly journal under episcopal sanction”. Devane, as a Jesuit, worked outside of the episcopal hierarchy. In addition, he regularly worked in concert what a number of lay vigilance groups. Such lay Catholic groups were often at odds with the hierarchy and certainly tended to have a different perception of the nature of the Church-State relations.[6]


R.S. Devane (1876-1951), from his obituary in the Irish Independent, 24 May 1951

This paper is a study of Devane’s political-theological work and an investigation of how Devane’s writings and activism reveal some of the important dynamics and conceptual problems of Church-State relations in the years after 1922. Devane was one of the most important figures in the legislative history of the Irish Free State, with a strong influence on the soft authoritarian world of post-1922 social reform and social control. He was present at the legislative birth of much of the socio-political order of the newly independent state. Yet his importance has been underestimated by historians; while he surfaces in a large amount of the historiographical literature on the 1920s and ‘30s, to date there has been no biography published of Devane and he has received only a small amount of direct scholarly attention.[7]

Devane was born in Limerick City in 1876, growing up in solidly bourgeois surroundings.   His father was “a well-known merchant of that city.” He studied at Mungret College and St. Munchin’s Seminary, both in Limerick, before moving to Maynooth, where he was ordained a priest in 1901. Though he would later rail against the evils of English culture and the negative presence of the “garrison”, which he claimed promoted prostitution,[8] he spent the early years of his vocation in Yorkshire as well as serving as an army chaplain for ten years in Limerick. He was the curate at St. Michael’s Parish in Limerick, “a large working class district”, from 1904 to 1918.   Already at this early point, he was involved in “rescue and vigilance work” – synonyms for proselytising among prostitutes and for censorship[9] – and in outreach to labourers that presumably aimed to protect them from the evils of atheistic socialism. He was also a force behind the early regulation of cinemas in Limerick, which received the support of Limerick Borough Council, and was involved in temperance work. In July 1918, Devane entered the Society of Jesus at St. Stanislaus College in Tullamore and was professed two years later; his joining the Jesuits was apparently a shock to many.   From 1922 to 1932, Devane was in charge of a retreat house for working men in Rathfarnham and also served in the 1930s and ‘40s as director of a retreat house in nearby Milltown Park. Fortuitously he was thus in Dublin and promoting “social Catholicism” at the founding moment of the Irish Free State, with a position that afforded him “more leisure and larger scope for his special talents.” Indeed, he may have joined the Jesuits precisely because it would give him time and space, free from parochial duties, to devote to social activism.[10]

More Cotton-Wool For Frail, Feckless Pat

The support for censorship of the press on display in Devane’s 1925 essay on ‘Indecent Literature’ was a trope that ran through much of his career. He had already been a strong advocate of “vigilance” in the 1910s, and showed a willingness to work “outside the law” up to and including seizing newspapers from trains as they arrived in Limerick and burning them.[11] He would later fondly recall this as a “memorable and effective attack on the filthy Sunday cross-Channel papers”[12]. When Devane was called as a witness to the Free State government’s Committee on Evil Literature in 1926, his testimony was primarily concerned with the “hideous literature” and “filthy pornographic matter” in which the use of contraception was promoted.[13] He also provided the Committee with examples of this published material, which he had legally purchased in Dublin; A Letter to Working Mothers by Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation (Handbook for Working Mothers) were two prominent titles. Devane’s testimony was also peppered with voyeuristic stories about various businesses in Dublin that sold contraception which Vigilance activists had surveilled or a story about a “jew” [sic] found selling contraceptives in Ballina; when the Gardaí failed to stop him, the local parish priest held an ad hoc trial and attempted to extract a £100 fine from him. “The jew paid £10 and cleared out.”[14]

Evil Literature

Evil Literature: Some Suggestions (1927)

In a 1927 pamphlet on Evil Literature, which publicised his contributions to the Committee on Evil Literature, Devane spoke of the need to make the public “sufficiently prepared” for the implementation of censorship. He felt there had been a ‘failure to create atmosphere… the Government needs an informed public opinion to facilitate its efforts in introducing legislation, and to help towards countering in advance a certain opposition which cannot be burked and which must be faced.” Devane revealed much here about the role the Church plays in shaping public opinion for the State; needless to say, he saw this article as a way to do all this.[15] In 1950, a year before his death Devane published a short pamphlet that restated his verbal assault on The Imported Press; what is perhaps most noteworthy about this pamphlet is how much it repeats Devane’s views from a quarter century earlier; on issues of censorship and the building of a correctly moral nationalist culture, he was not prone to changing his mind. It is not for nothing that Myles na gCopaleen once snapped that Devane was motivated by a desire to protect the child-like Irish people by imposing, via censorship, “more cotton-wool for frail, feckless Pat”[16]

The Imported Press

The Imported Press (1950)

An Irish Sun Was Replaced By An English Sun 

            In that late career pamphlet on The Imported Press, Devane looked back at his early years as a priest in the north of England, asserting that his experiences from that time informed his desires for press censorship. He claimed to have witnessed with unease how English workers spent their Sundays reading salacious tabloid news until the pubs opened and they could start their heavy drinking.[17]   The idea that England was a morally dangerous place, and thus that publications coming from that country must be censored, were intensified by Devane’s emotive language and turns-of-phrase; “the cross-Channel unclean press”; “the reptile press”; “cross-Channel looseness, grossness, and vulgarity that are nowadays being propagated with impunity throughout the country”; “unclean and vulgar literature”; “tainted goods”; “Advertisements of manuals of immorality, of immoral appliances, and of diabolical books, mostly written by women, are becoming quite common in what is appropriately styled the “gutter press,” which is dumped by the ton each week on the Dublin quays.” He also spoke anxiously about the dangers that Irish “girls” faced upon moving to the fleshpots of England.[18] Indeed, Devane believed that “English Standards” of legislation, which gave legal sanction to contraception, were the source of much of Ireland’s problems.[19] This moral horror in turn worked to buttress an image of Irish moral purity over and against the baseness that supposedly existed on the other side of the Irish Sea. Devane happily talked of “the clean tradition of the Irish Press”[20] and said that “The Irish people have been ever remarkable for their high appreciation of purity and chastity”[21].

There was indeed a strongly felt disgust at England and English culture running throughout Devane’s prose. In one of his oddest moments, he attacked Daylight Savings Time in a 1928 essay, describing it an insidious British importation. While other European nations – “saner” nations – have rejected the “hysteria” of Daylight Savings, “We retain it because it has been imposed on us together with Greenwich Time by Great Britain, and because we have neither the social sense nor the national spirit to reject it.”   Devane saw something important in the fact that Daylight Savings Time was imposed on Ireland just after the Easter Rising, when the nation was distracted: “Let me emphasize the fact that we were never consulted as to whether an agricultural country such as ours needed Summer Time or not; it was simply thrust on us when the nation was sorely distracted, in one of the most tragic periods of our history, and in the sole interest of Great Britain. We have had the power of removing this cruel infliction on rural Ireland for many years, but we still lie slavishly under it.” Ireland had been forced into British Time, literally and figuratively: “by a few lines of a British Act we lost our own Irish Time… an Irish sun was replaced by an English sun.”[22] Now Ireland must break out of this.

Summer Time

Summer Time (1928), signed by Devane

It would be all too easy to caricature Devane as an unthinking anglophobe. And yet there was a certain kind of respect for England, as well as perhaps a desire for England to respect Ireland, that recurs in Devane’s writings; even the notion that Ireland should prove its moral superiority over England draws on a desire for English respect. His 1927 discussion of Evil Literature: Some Suggestions was introduced with a preface by Evelyn Cecil, a Tory MP who had advocated censorship in the UK and whose work had attracted European-wide attention. In a 1931 essay on the dangers of public dancing, Devane approvingly quoted the more stringent regulations enforced in Britain and he also praised the English system of local government as a form of social organisation that could rectify “the disintegrating influences operative to-day”. With some adjustments for “our own peculiar conditions” such English-style governance would “preserve our rural traditions” and “keep our people rooted in the soil.”[23] He also maintained a correspondence with Alison Neilans, the General Secretary of the English-based Association for Moral and Social Hygiene.[24]

Indeed, Devane showed an awareness of international currents in censorship, and in moral legislation in general, that is at stark odds with the stereotypical image of Ireland as an isolated sacra insula in the years after 1922. He approvingly referenced the International Convention for the Circulation and Traffic in Obscene Publications, organised under the auspices of the League of Nations on 31 August 1923. Devane also showed himself aware of similar work being done by the New England Watch and Ward (Vigilance) Society and looked to the British Dominions of Canada and Australia for models of literary censorship worth emulating.[25] He praised the anti-dancing legislation passed in Mussolini’s Italy, in the Netherlands, and in contemporary Greece and Cuba as well as the attempt in the German state of Thuringia to ban “jazz music and negro dances” which, Devane claimed, “glorify negroism and strike a blow at German kultur.”[26] Similarly, his support for film censorship looked for inspiration to, among others, Japan, Germany, France, Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, and, incongruously, Soviet-era Russia.[27]

A Chivalrous And Catholic Nation

Devane’s views of sexual morality, taken as whole, reiterated the notion that a Catholic conception of individual sexual morality would make for a neat partnership with the State. This was certainly the case with his contribution to the infamous Carrigan Committee of the early 1930s.   Devane was present at the Committee’s fourth meeting, on 1 July 1930, and like Frank Duff (who had presented his evidence a week earlier, on 27 June), Devane agreed that prostitution was rife in Ireland. For Devane, it was temporary migration to England, as well as the new fashion of dance halls, which had “ruined” these “girls”. [28] Devane, like Duff, urged that prostitutes be sent to special “homes” for treatment, something the Carrigan report repeated in its recommendation that “Girl offenders” [i.e. aged 16-21] should be dealt with via a borstal system.[29] In other words, Devane was a supporter of what James Smith has aptly called Ireland’s “architecture of containment’” the institutional machinery that allowed “the decolonizing nation-state to confine aberrant citizens, rendering invisible women and children who fell foul of society’s moral proscriptions…. a national identity that privileged Catholic morality and valorized the correlation between marriage and motherhood while at the same time effacing nonconforming citizens who were institutionally confined.”[30]

The fallout from the Carrigan Committee also shows that “the Church” is not a singular or static entity. The “Catholic” input into the Carrigan Committee was from figures such as Devane or lay activists like Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, as much it came from conventional priests subject to episcopal authority.[31] And Devane and Duff’s attitudes were far closer to the extreme measures recommended in the Carrigan Report than was the Catholic Hierarchy. Indeed, the Hierarchy were themselves far closer to the Government in their shared unease about Carrigan’s findings.[32]

A year after his appearance before the Carrigan Committee, Devane returned to the perceived dangers of public dancing in an article for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record.[33] Here, he described saw dance halls as “A moral and national menace’ and claimed they were bastions of drunkenness and even worse: “Not only is drink taken by the men but girls [sic] are induced to do so. Hence the orgies one sees so often reported in the Press and which centre round the dance-halls.”   Devane spoke of dance venues as “man-traps” and physically dirty places, and notions of sanitised space were central, if subtle, elements in his thinking.[34] Fitting with his ambiguous perceptions of British society, Devane approvingly quoted the more stringent regulations enforced in Britain, whereby dance halls were more closely monitored by the authorities: “There is a spirit of discipline in all this that it would be well we should copy, if for no other reason than to teach many of our young folk a sense of restraint and discipline, of which they seem scarcely to have a rudimentary idea.” Whereas Devane saw Irish public spaces as increasingly polluted by dance halls, British authorities, he believed, had properly disciplined their public spaces. His conclusion was that “The moral health of the [Irish] Nation is not quite sound and shows signs of being gradually undermined… There is a general languor and malaise in the body corporate which seem to imply a general poisoning of the national system.” Pushing this medical metaphor, Devane urged: “Remove the source of infection and a surprising recovery will soon take place…. We need the hand of a national surgeon, of a strong Minister, to rid us of its poisoning influence and so to lead to the restoration of our normal moral health. God send it soon.”[35] Where organisations such as the Catholic Truth Society argued for a Church-led reform of Irish society, Devane saw the State as the ideal motive force.[36] He felt the State should work in a negating way, to remove the problem of public dancing, while the Church, the Home and the School would work in a positive way, to promote a better alternative morality.[37]

Devane’s sense that England was a source of moral danger played a determining role in other aspects of his views of sexuality. In a 1928 pamphlet on The Unmarried Mother and the Poor Law Commission, Devane claimed that 317 pregnant Irish women had arrived in Liverpool in 1926/27, drawing on figures supplied by the Liverpool Port and Station Work Society. Reflecting the surveillance culture of Irish sexual morality in the Free State years, Devane said that “It would be interesting to follow the careers of these 300 of our young countrywomen, stranded in a large seaport city, and to discover their fate.” It is also telling that in Devane’s prose, Irish women seem to have no free will; they are “stranded” in England, rather than emigrants.[38] This recurs throughout this piece, which moves to a discussion of age of consent laws. Devane seems to work from the premise that any sexual contact is initiated by men, with “prematurely developed girls, inexperienced and an easy prey to the seducer” being acted upon by these men.[39] He elsewhere spoke of “the insuppressible lust of men” which exists in contrast to “the independent and free and easy airs of the growing girl of to-day”. Thus, Devane concluded that there was a “greater need for protection”, to guard “girls” from both “the seduction of the designing blackguard” as well as from “her own silliness and stupidity”. Such protection was something women had a right to expect in “a chivalrous and Catholic nation.”[40]   In this mode of analysis, Devane departed sharply from the views of Frank Duff, perhaps the prominent lay Catholic social reformer of the early Free State. For Duff, sexually active girls and women were a source of danger who actively seduced otherwise innocent men[41], for Devane the dangers resided within men themselves with “girls” remaining innocent victims or, at most, foolish children. And both Church and Nation-State would need to legislate for this.

Parish Councils

A Guide for Parish Councils in Ireland (1940)

The Films Are A Grave National Menace To Our Culture

Later in life, Devane developed a keen interest in film production and the regulation of the cinema industry. He saw films as a useful means of modern mass education and also as a prophylactic against “demoralising and denationalising influences”[42]. Accentuating the need for a nationalist cinema to educate the people was Devane’s fear that Irish children’s nationalist education would be erased by the denationalising effects of commercial movies. “Will their impressionable minds be any more able to resist the seductive lessons of the screen than African primitives armed with bows and arrows can oppose a modern mechanised army with airplanes and tanks?”. He also believed that adults were just as liable to be infected by the commercial cinema. Films, he said, have the potential to be “a grave national menace to our culture”[43]

Unsurprisingly, Devane had favourable views of film censorship. He was certainly aware of the (in)famous Hays Code in the US, having learnt of it from a book entitled Decency in Motion Pictures by Martin Quigley, which he recommended to the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in 1941.[44] On this issue, Devane returned to his regular idea that public opinion needs to be “formed” so as to support film censorship and said that the film industry is so powerful that “nothing but the State can control them”.[45] He was particularly interested in establishing a National Film Institute that could co-ordinate all this and would ameliorate the “baneful influences” of commercial cinema:[46]

“The National Film Institute should link up various organised elements of the nation and help towards awakening national consciousness as regards the propagandist, cultural and educational value of the films. It would act as a clearing house for information on all matters affecting films at home and abroad, particularly as regards education and general culture, influence public opinion to appreciate the value of films as entertainment and instruction and advice educational bodies and other organisations.”[47]

As with so much else of his proposals, Devane looked overseas for examples worth emulating, identifying the Danish Film Institute as a useful model.[48]

There was also a certain kind of fear of global capitalism here. In his contribution to The Irish Cinema Handbook (1943), Devane spoke of “our commercial exploitation by cosmopolitan adventurers” in the film industry.[49]. He claimed that Irish cinema owners worked under “oppressive conditions imposed by foreign film renters” who force Irish cinemas to take their products. He called this a “despotic invasion of authority from outside” which “should not be tolerated in a sovereign State”, though it is not clear if he was offended by the coercion itself rather than its foreign origins.[50] Confirming the idea that Devane was animated by a certain fear of capitalism, his obituary in his alma mater’s school magazine talked of how he “did not underestimate the power of paganism backed by wealth” and “he often met bitter opposition from those who made money at the cost of human souls.”[51]


Scannáin (1942)

In a preface [Brollach] he wrote for a one-off film magazine published by the short-lived fascist group Ailtirí na hAiséirghe [Architects of the Resurrection], Devane voiced his fears about the denationalising effects of the film industry, “which has all the driving power of limitless capital behind it, appealing to the taste of the ignorant and the half-educated who constitute the great majority of humanity”, thus mixing his idiosyncratic anti-capitalism with old-fashioned social snobbery. There were also nationalist concerns at work here, as he pondered “Can any people preserve for long a distinct national character, a national culture, when these huge organisations, with unlimited resources can break into and take possession of the minds of men everywhere, creating images, sensations, ideas of life which with few exceptions are cheap, vulgar and sensational?”   Anxieties about “the degeneration of culture under the impact of modernity”, as Gopal Balakrishan has observed, were one of the main “thematic prongs of the Right in the twentieth century”[52]. Devane certainly appears to have feared the fissiparous effects of the capitalist culture industry on Irish traditions. Also worth noting is the suggestion, again, that some people are passive in the face of danger (as with “girls” in the face of rapacious men); even Devane’s description of the culture industry penetrating men’s minds has a sexual tinge to it.[53]

In his views on the cinema, though, he did not find favour with Fianna Fáil. An attempt to gain an audience with Eamon de Valera, so that Devane and a group of supporters could present proposals for “a government inquiry into the use of the cinema for nationalist propaganda purposes” appears to have been received with a polite rebuttal.[54] It seems that by the mid-1930s, Devane had been sidelined by Fianna Fáil; despite his strong views on the topic, he does not appear to have been consulted in 1935 when the government was preparing the Dance Halls Act[55]. Perhaps his longstanding association with the legislative agenda of Cumann na nGaedheal put him at odds with the anti-Treayites. His contributions to the debacle of the Carrigan Committee may also have hurt his reputation in government circles. All of which raises interesting questions about how the State interacts with the Church; shifts in control of the State clearly affect which factions of the Church are consulted or allowed access to State power.   Additionally, Devane’s fascist leanings, on display from the 1930s onwards, further compounded his problem of finding a stable place within fluid Church-State relations.

Ireland Wants Neither Extremists Of The Right Nor Of The Left

By the 1930s, Devane began to flirt with continental fascism. While he appears to have been a supporter of Mussolini,[56] he reserved a special note of affection for António de Oliveira Salazar, “one of the greatest statesmen in Europe to-day”, who had expurgated “Grand Orient Masonic Liberalism”, an import from France, from Portugal. In a pamphlet in the early forties, proposing reforms in local government, and which drew on examples from across Europe, Devane held particular praise for the reforms under Salazar. Only the heads of families could vote in local elections in Portugal’s Estado Novo, a reform Devane praised for the way it made families the basic unit of society; a familial state would, he claimed, be free of internecine ideological strife. Though Devane, generously recognising the existence of female political concerns, such as welfare and school lunches, did allow that mothers, as well as fathers, should be allowed to vote.[57] Three years prior to this, Devane had used a similar vocabulary to praise de Valera’s new constitution. Breaking from ‘conventional liberalism’, with its undue focus on the individual, Devane wrote to the Taoiseach of his happiness that the family would now be the basic unit of Irish society. Fr. Devane suggested that Dev now borrow from Salazar and give votes to heads of families only in future elections. Devane’s letter leaves it diplomatically unstated, but tacitly assumed, that heads of households are generally men.[58]

In a 1938 article for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Devane reiterated his support for Salazar, praising his focus on the family, his anti-liberalism, and his “restoration of a Christian Portugal” in a state that was supposedly “poisonously anti-Catholic” prior to Salazar. Devane also boosted Portuguese education as a model for Irish schools, “a scheme of moral and civic instruction drafted by the State itself – no doubt acting in accord with the Church.”[59]

Challenge from Youth

Challenge From Youth (1942)

In the 1940s, Devane published his two longest and most ambitious works, both of which continued in this hard-right political vein. In Challenge from Youth (1942), Devane looked at various youth movements in contemporary Europe; in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Portugal, Pétain’s France, and Britain. Much of this was a continuation of an earlier interest in adolescence as the deciding period in citizens’ religious, moral and political development.   And again, Devane showed a sharp awareness of developments elsewhere in Europe.[60] He stated that in a Christian country such as Ireland, “there can obviously be no place for State regimentation of youth and, furthermore, that religion must be the basis and formative spirit of youth training.”[61] Thus, he seemed to suggest that the Church should take an unquestioned lead in organising the nation’s youth. Devane was clearly shocked by the irreligious nature of the USSR and the Third Reich, yet he also recommended a Catholicised version of the Nazi Arbeitsdienst [Work Service] as a model to be adopted in Ireland and concluded that

“the secret of the success of Communists, Fascists and Nazis lies in one single fact, namely, that they have an intense, personal, all-consuming faith, a totalitarian faith, colouring their minds, influencing their outlook and operating in a conscious way throughout the actions of their daily lives. The question of questions for the whole of Christianity to-day, and much more of to-morrow is – “Can we Christians develop such a totalitarian Christian faith of a like white-heat intensity?””

And he spoke of his hope that the Irish could become “as consciously Christian or Catholic as the Germans are Nazi, the Russians, Communist, the Italians, Fascist”. What he thus seemed to be arguing for was a state-backed youth movement that would percolate an authoritarian and political Catholicism throughout Irish society.[62] Looking approvingly at youth labour schemes in post-1939 Britain, Devane observed that “The laissez-faire attitude of Liberal Democracy towards Youth is at last being buried in Britain; how long more will it be allowed to remain alive in Éire? There is a big job waiting to be tackled both by Church and State in Ireland… It is useless to suggest that we have too many things on hands at present; Britain, with her colossal war, can yet find time for her youth; why cannot we also?”[63] State and Church were again coterminous in his conceptualisations.

Failure of Individualism

The Failure of Individualism (1948)

Where Challenge from Youth ranged across the spaces of Europe, his next book, The Failure of Individualism (1948) manoeuvred back in time, to find the root cause of the chaos Devane felt was gripping post-war Europe. Devane described this book as a ‘Handbook of Politics and Economics’ for citizens who wish to understand ‘the present social chaos.’ And he traced this back to the post-Reformation erosion of “the organic structure of society”, replaced by individualism, atomism and an antisocial and unnatural isolation.[64] Devane identified three forms of individualism; political individualism, represented by the liberalism of Locke and Rousseau; religious individualism, embodied in the English Protestantism he believed had destroyed the unity of medieval Catholic Europe; and economic individualism, also known as capitalism. Devane drew on an eclectic range of sources for all this; the Anglo-French Catholic thinker Hilare Belloc, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen, the French Catholic intellectual Jacques Maritain, Max Weber, and Nicholas Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher who had moved from Marxism to an Orthodox-inflected Christian existentialism and was duly exiled by the Bolsheviks. He also critically referenced Friedrich Hayek and, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Harold Laski.[65] When Devane turned his attention to economic individualism, he drew on Marx and Engels, “two remarkable men”. He evinced a certain sympathy for them, admitting that “Capitalism was no doubt an evil economic system” but argued that socialism and communism, by destroying private property, would be far more evil and would reduce all men to the level of the oppressed proletariat.[66] Devane’s reference points are broader and far more cosmopolitan than is generally presumed for the dour guardians of Catholic Ireland; worldliness does not necessarily equate with the “correct” form of liberal politics.

There is also a curious paradox here: as he moved further from access to power, his writings become far more in depth and far more sophisticated (if still deeply reactionary), from succinct polemical essays of the 1920s to 300-page treatises by the 1940s.[67] Moreover, that Devane went from consultant-at-large on important pieces of government legislation in the 1920s and early 30s, to an overt authoritarian-sympathiser in the following decade, had been largely ignored. Scholars like John Regan, R.M. Douglas and Kenneth Shonk have all shown how authoritarianism was by no means alien to the political culture of post-1922 Ireland.[68] The trajectory of Devane’s writings fits with this assessment. As Devane moved from being a Cumann na nGaedheal surrogate to a booster of Pétain and Salazar, there was a marked consistency across his writings. A Catholic political theology was always central to his worldview, but so also was a strong state that could enforce this social project. Devane’s clerico-fascist leanings were as much statist as they were religious. Indeed, fitting with Nicos Poultanzas’ model, it is rarely clear where the Church ends and the State begins in Devane’s politics.

Studying Devane’s voluminous writings, reveals much about the tortuous dynamics of Irish Church-State relations, about how strong an impact European politics and philosophy had on Ireland (thus countering the caricature about isolated Ireland), and how anti-capitalist notions bubbled under the surface of Irish political debate.[69] Paraphrasing Gopal Balakrishnan’s study of the legal theorist turned National Socialist ideologue, Carl Schmitt, R.S. Devane “is a difficult figure. But even people of diametrically opposite political allegiances can profit intellectually from taking him seriously, and not just with the intention of refuting everything he has to say.”[70]

[1] In one footnote to the article, Devane revealed what he means by the problem of enforcing vigilance in a religiously diverse city. He condemned one bookshop as having an Irish name ‘which is in strange conflict with that of the alien who owns it’, in what was presumably a coded reference to a Jewish-owned business.

[2] R.S. Devane. Indecent Literature: Some Legal Remedies (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1925). Reprinted from Irish Ecclesiastical Record, February 1925.

[3] Irish Jesuit Archives (IJA), ADMN12/13 (1), Note to Fr. Nicholas Tomkin, 28 November 1924

[4] Nicos Poulantzas; Timothy O’Hagan, et al, trans. Political Power and Social Classes (London: New Left Books, 1975). For an application of Poulantzas’ ideas to Irish political history, see: Richard Dunphy. The Making of Fianna Fáil Power in Ireland, 1923-48 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[5] Nicos Poulantzas; Patrick Camiller, trans. State, Power, Socialism (London: New Left Books, 1978) 36

[6] In his study of elite Catholic schools, Ciaran O’Neill touches on the similar problem of speaking of The Church in singular terms, since secular clergy, the various monastic orders, and the episcopal hierarchy are all included under this umbrella term, as are the autonomous Jesuits. Catholics of Consequence: Transnational Education, Social Mobility, and the Irish Catholic Elite, 1850-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 14-15.

[7] To my knowledge, there has only been one academic paper on Devane: Martin Walsh, ‘Richard Devane: Social Campaigner in the Free State, 1920-51’. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 103, No. 412 (Winter, 2014/15) 562-573.

[8] Maria Luddy. Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 195; Diarmuid Ferriter. Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (London: Profile Books, 2009) 148, 156.

[9] For the history of ‘Vigilance’ work in early twentieth-century Ireland, see: Maurice Curtis. A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland (Dublin: The History Press, 2010).

[10] Devane’s personal papers in the Irish Jesuit Archives contain little about his early life.   The biographical information presented here comes from the entry on Devane by Maurice Cronin in Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Martin Walsh’s essay on Devane  and from the obituaries of Devane in The Mungret Annual (Limerick: Mungret College, 1952) and Irish Province News (July, 1951); both of these draw heavily on the obituary of Devane in the Irish Independent, 24 May 1951; a press cutting of that obituary is available at IJA J44/3 (2).

[11] R.S. Devane. The Imported Press: A National Menace – Some Remedies (Dublin: James Duffy, 1950) 10.

[12] ‘Indecent Literature’ (1925) 4.

[13] National Archives of Ireland (NAI) JUS 7/1/1, Committee on Evil Literature, Secretary’s Correspondence with Chairman and Members of Committee, Letter from R.S. Devane to Fr. Dempsey, 21 April, 1926

[14] NAI JUS 7/2/9, Rev. Richard Devane, S.J., 24th June 1926: Rev. R.S. Devane, S.J., examined. See also: Dermot Keogh. Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998) 80. For more on his voyeuristic knowledge of the various places one could buy contraception in Dublin, see: Ferriter, ‘Occasions of Sin’ (2009) 193-194.

[15] R.S. Devane. Evil Literature: Some Suggestions (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1927)

[16] IJA J44/2, Undated Cutting from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’/Irish Times

[17] Devane. ‘The Imported Press’ (1950) 8.

[18] NAI JUS 90/4/1, Criminal Law Amendment Committee (1930) Minute Book ; NAI 2005/32/105, Report of the Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment Acts (1880-85) and Juvenile Prostitution

[19] NAI JUS 7/1/1, Committee on Evil Literature, Secretary’s Correspondence with Chairman and Members of Committee, Letter from R.S. Devane to Fr. Dempsey, 21 April, 1926

[20] ‘Indecent Literature’ (1925); Aidan Beatty. Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism: 1884-1938 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) Ch. 7.

[21] R.S. Devane. ‘The Unmarried Mother: Some Legal Aspects of the Problem’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 32 (January-June 1924) 58.

[22] Summer Time: An Imposition and an Anomaly (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1939). Reprinted from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, February 1939. See also Vanessa Ogle. The Global Transformation of Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015) 52-53.

[23] Richard S. Devane. A Guide for the Parish Councils in Ireland: Based on Parish Councils in England, Portugal, Denmark and France (Dublin: The Kenny Press, n.d.) 8.

[24] Ferriter, ‘Occasions of Sin’ (2009) 145-146

[25] ‘Indecent Literature’ (1925) 6, 8, 16.

[26] R.S. Devane. ‘The Dance Hall.’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 37 (January-June 1931) 170-194; R.S. Devane. The Unmarried Mother and the Poor Law Commission (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1928). Devane’s positive views of anti-dancing legislation in Cuba also reiterated his deeply racist views of jazz music, Ferriter, ‘Occasions of Sin (2009) 179

[27] IJA J44/10, Letter from R.S. Devane to Eamon de Valera, 22 April 1937

[28] NAI JUS 90/4/1, Criminal Law Amendment Committee (1930) Minute Book. See also NAI JUS 90/4/13, Memo of Evidence of Rev. R.S. Devane, S.J. These are ‘Heads of Evidence’, rough notes based on Devane’s evidence. Under the heading “Preventive Work”, Devane spoke of “Unmarried Mother; Mentally Defectives; Girls out of Control; Dance Halls…”.

[29] NAI 2005/32/105, Report of the Committee on the Criminal Law Amendment Acts (1880-85) and Juvenile Prostitution.

[30] Smith, ‘Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries’ (2007) 46-47. For Devane’s views of Magdalen Laundries, see: Luddy, Prostitution’(2007) 120.

[31] See: NAI JUS 90/4/2, Criminal Law Amendment Committee, List of Witnesses

[32] NAI JUS H247/41B, Criminal Law Amendment Committee (1932-1933), Rough Notes made by the Minister for Justice after an interview on the 1st December, 1932, between the Bishop of Limerick, the Bishop of Ossory, the Bishop of Thasos and the Minister

[33] For the broader history of the gendered and racial history of dancing, and of moral panics surrounding it, see: Maxine Leeds Craig. Sorry I Don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse to Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Barbara O’Connor. ‘Ruin and Romance: Heterosexual Discourses on Irish Popular Dance, 1920-1960’. Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 12, No.2 (2003) 50-67.

[34] R.S. Devane. ‘The Dance Hall.’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 37 (January-June 1931) 170-194. One article by Devane, The Dance Hall: A National and Moral Menace, was censored by the Jesuits’ authority for the ‘province’ of Ireland, since it was felt that the earlier draft included language ‘more indelicate or suggestive than need be’, particularly in its descriptions of dances. IJA, Censorship Judgements (1924-1968), ADMN12/15 (2), Judicium Censorum Provinciae Hiberniae, 29 December 1930.

[35] R.S. Devane. ‘The Dance Hall.’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 37 (January-June 1931) 170-194. Devane also supplied copies of this article to the members of the Carrigan Committee, along with a contemporaneous article, also from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, on ‘The Legal Protection of Girls’. NAI JUS 90/4/13, Memo of Evidence of Rev. R.S. Devane, S.J.

[36] Beatty, ‘Masculinity and Power’ (2016) 202. It is perhaps also the case that public dances tapped into Devane’s fears of anonymity and social control in a modern society no longer based around isolated villages: ‘[I]n lonely country places the dangers are too obvious to need description. If the dance were confined to the people of the district one could be more tolerant. But, when it is open to all and sundry who come from many miles away, and who are complete strangers, then a new element of danger becomes only too apparent.’ R.S. Devane. ‘The Dance Hall.’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 37 (January-June 1931) 170

[37] ‘The Dance Hall’ (1931) Ibid, 194

[38] Elsewhere, though, Devane showed himself to be closer to Duff’s horror in the face of uncontrolled female sexuality. See: Luddy, ‘Prostitition’ (2007) 200, 207.

[39] R.S. Devane. The Unmarried Mother and the Poor Law Commission (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1928). Reprinted from Irish Ecclesiastical Record, June, 1928

[40]R.S. Devane. ‘The Unmarried Mother: Some Legal Aspects of the Problem’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 32 (January-June 1924) 58-64

[41] Beatty, ‘Masculinity and Power’ (2016) 191-196.

[42] IJA J44/14, My Suggestions for Terms of Reference for Proposed Cinema Enquiry.

[43] Scannáin (Dublin: Craobh na h-Aiséirghe, n.d. [ca. 1942]).

[44] IJA J44/22, Letter from R.S. Devane to the Archbishop of Dublin, 5 May 1941. Quigley was a devout Catholic, instrumental in the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) and was the publisher of the Motion Picture Herald, a trade publication.

[45] Scannáin (Dublin: Craobh na h-Aiséirghe, n.d. [ca. 1942]).

[46] IJA J44/14, My Suggestions for Terms of Reference for Proposed Cinema Enquiry, n.d. [ca. 1937]

[47] R.S. Devane. ‘The Film in National Life’ Irish Cinema Handbook (Dublin: Parkside Press, 1943) 14.

[48] R.S. Devane. ‘The Film in National Life’, Irish Cinema Handbook (Dublin: Parkside Press, 1943) 18.

[49] Ibid, 13.

[50] Ibid, 16.

[51] The Mungret Annual (Limerick: Mungret College, 1952)

[52] Gopal Balakrishnan. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt (London: Verso, 2000) 6

[53] Scannáin (Dublin: Craobh na h-Aiséirghe, n.d. [ca. 1942]). For the history of Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, see: R.M. Douglas. Architects of the Resurrection: Ailtirí na hAiséirghe and the fascist “new order” in Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

[54] IJA J44/10, Letter from R.S. Devane to Eamon de Valera, 22 April 1937; IJA J44/11, Letter from P.S. O Muireadhaigh (de Valera’s Private Secretary) to R.S. Devane, 22 May 1937

[55] Luddy, ‘Prostitution’ (2007) 199.

[56] Douglas, ‘Architects’ (2009) 50

[57] Richard S. Devane. A Guide for the Parish Councils in Ireland: Based on Parish Councils in England, Portugal, Denmark and France (Dublin: The Kenny Press, n.d. [ca. 1940]) 13-21

[58] NAI TAOIS/ S9856, Draft Constitution, May 1937: Misc. Suggestions and Criticisms, General, Extract from a Letter dated 29/5/37 addressed to the President by Fr. R.S. Devane, S.J.

[59] R.S. Devane. ‘The Religious Revival Under Salazar’ The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. 51 (January-June 1938) 20-41. Emphases Added.

[60] Other than the six chapters on the USSR, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, and the UK, Devane also drew on material related to Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and South Africa.

[61] R.S. Devane. Challenge from Youth: A Documented Study of Youth in Modern Youth Movements (Dublin: Browne & Nolan, 1942) xi.

[62] Devane, ‘Challenge of Youth’ (1942) 149, 168

[63] Devane, ‘Challenge of Youth’ (1942) 256

[64] R.S. Devane. The Failure of Individualism: A Documented Essay (Dublin: Browne and Nolan/The Richview Press, 1948) xi, 5.

[65] Devane, ’The Failure of Individualism’ (1948) 12, 88, 112, 140-141, 167, 285

[66] Devane, ’The Failure of Individualism’ (1948) 313. It is interesting that Devane writes about capitalism in the past tense here; it was an evil system, but presumably no longer is evil.

[67] Challenge of Youth was 297 pages. Failure of Individualism surpassed this, at 342 pages.

[68] John M. Regan. The Irish Counter-Revolution, 1921-1936: Treatyite Politics and Settlement in Independent Ireland (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999); Douglas, ‘Architects’ (2009); Kenneth Shonk. ‘Ireland’s New Traditionalists: Gender and Fianna Fáil Republicanism, 1926-1938.’ Paper presented at American Conference for Irish Studies, Midwest Regional Meeting, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 9 October 2015.

[69] Indeed, drawing on the work of Nicos Poulantzas, Richard Dunphy has defined Fianna Fáil’s economics as the ‘status quo anti-capitalism’ common to the petit-bourgeoisie. Dunphy, ‘Fianna Fáil Power’ (1995) 39-40. See also, Beatty, ‘Masculinity and Power’ (2016) Ch. 6. Devane’s writings suggest that this conservative anti-capitalism had purchase elsewhere in Irish society.

[70] Balakrishnan, ‘The Enemy’ (2000) 9

How the Israeli Press Reported The Good Friday Agreement

– This is an edited version of a paper I recently published in Israel Studies.

The Good Friday Agreement, which brought to a close a thirty-year conflict whose roots in fraught Anglo-Irish relations went back much earlier, was one of the major global news stories of 1998. Israeli newspapers, no less than in many other parts of the world, devoted considerable attention to the successes of the peace negotiations. All the major Israeli newspapers – Ha-aretz, Maariv, Yedioth Ahronoth and the Anglophone Jerusalem Post – published lengthy articles, opinion-pieces, and multi-page spreads on Northern Ireland in April and May 1998. The front-pages of these four papers, usually devoted to Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, all featured lead articles on Northern Ireland. That there were seeming parallels between Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine was an additional factor in this press coverage. Indeed, much of the Israeli press coverage of the Good Friday Agreement drew on shared vocabularies of religiously-inspired nationalist violence, supposedly ancient tribal hatreds, and terrorist militias.

After the successful referendum in May, Sharon Sadeh, the Ha-aretz correspondent for Britain, quoted one theologically-minded Protestant opponent of the agreement: “zu mazima noalet le-chibosh et machuz ha-notzriut ha-achron hamaamin be-tanach” [this is a foolish plot to conquer the last Christian region that believes in the Tanach (Bible)]. And a counterpart on the other side of the communal divide was described as a “katoli adok”, an observant Catholic, using a word more ordinarily used to describe Orthodox Jews than devout Catholics.[1] In their two-page spread explaining the background to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Maariv summed it up as “Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood” which could be traced back to the actions of Protestant mitnachlim [settlers] in the seventeenth century, using a term with specific resonances for an Israeli audience.[2]

There was a basic linguistic problem that Israeli journalists faced in their coverage of Northern Ireland; namely, how to translate English- and Irish-language terms into Hebrew. And as with many acts of translation, the words chosen echoed the political realities of the target language rather than those of the original Irish or English. The Ulster Defence Association thus became Agudat HaHagana shel Ulstr[3] and the Alliance Party became Ha-Mifleget Ha-Brit [lit. the Party of the Covenant][4]. The seeming exoticism of Northern Ireland could thus become more recognisable to Israelis, as Irish idioms were recast in Hebrew. Those responsible for the negotiations were labelled the “givrei ha-secem ha-shalom” [the heroic men of the peace agreement], again using a word, givrei, with specifically Israeli and Jewish connotations. The Irish Republican Army was generally translated as ha-machteret ha-erit [the Irish Underground][5] or the Irish Catholic Underground[6], rather than the more literal ha-tzva ha-erit ha-republikanit. Thus, the IRA’s claim to be a legitimate army was avoided, with a name instead calling to mind the actions of the Jewish Underground [ha-machteret ha-yehudit], an Israeli extremist group that grew out of the settler movement in the early 1980s, perhaps suggesting that theirs also was the illegitimate form of an otherwise legitimate form of nationalism. Nonetheless, the IRA were also discussed in terms usually used for Palestinian militias. Their actions were just “poa’lot ha-teror” [acts of terrorism].[7] While in other cases, there was a curious lack of translation suggesting a lack of a desire to fully understand the intricacies of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, whose Irish-language name means ‘We Ourselves’, remained simply ha-shin fain and no effort was made to explain the nationalist meaning of this name.[8] Bloody Sunday, the shooting of thirteen civil rights protestors in Derry in 1972 usually remained blady sandai, transliterated directly into Hebrew.[9]

In the one of the most evocative pieces from this wave of Israeli reporting on Northern Ireland, the peace activist and journalist Igal Sarna recounted his meetings with Catholics in Belfast. Joining a Catholic parade, “I walked with the marchers to the graves of the IRA dead”. Sarna reported a far more subdued, even solemn atmosphere than the elation found in newspaper headlines: ‘“we departed on a new road from a history of death”, said the politicians, but the Catholics of Belfast with whom I marched, used lower and more quotidian words [hishtemesho be-milim yotar namochim ve-yom-yomiot].’ The sombre mood evoked some interesting memories for Sarna:

“As a fairly lonely Israeli in the parade that passed beneath light snow in poor and sad neighbourhoods, I thought about the hope of Belfast but also about the danger that was within it. I carried with me a memory of another winter, the Israeli winter of 1995, and the possibilities of a small group or of one man to put an end to the painstaking work of 100 wise diplomats.”

The pitfalls of failed peace agreements were, for Sarna, a poignant reminder of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Israel may have once shared similarities with Northern Ireland but “From this week, it seemed that from now on the roads depart: Belfast says bye-bye to Tel-Aviv”. And with the ending of both of the Northern Irish “Troubles” and South African Apartheid, Sarna started to see that Israel “remains as a kind of archival relic of a conflict”. What Sarna presents as the tragedy of post-Oslo Israel stands in contrast to politicians’ expectations for Northern Ireland, and Sarna quotes one local political commentator, who, with a with a suspiciously Hannukah-inflected flourish, felt that “A great miracle happened here” [nas gadol kerah po][10]. Sarna was clearly investing the events in Northern Ireland with meanings drawn from Jewish and Israeli political discourse. More specifically, he was using “Ireland” as a set of ideas to talk about Israeli politics, a common discursive move in much of the Israeli reporting on Northern Ireland; the “Ireland” that appears in the Israeli press is one that would not always be immediately recognizable to Irish people, rather it is an “Ireland” reconstructed for Israelis. And as Israelis talk about (and with) this “Ireland” they are actually talking about their own domestic political concerns

A number of Israeli journalists and political commentators ploughed a similar comparative furrow. David Newman, a British-born Israeli academic, used his column in the Jerusalem Post to sketch out a number of ways in which Northern Ireland and Israel could be understood together. Newman compared the first public meeting between Tony Blair and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to the 1993 meeting between Rabin and Arafat and spoke of how a need for reconciliation and education about each other was at work in both contexts. On a deeper level, Newman also suggested that a new comparison was emerging. He spoke of Catholics and Protestants successfully building “long-term stability and an end to violence, where Israel and the Palestinians have failed to live up to the euphoria and the expectations which were present in the heady days following the two Oslo agreements”. Northern Ireland provided a way for Newman to highlight the shortcomings of the Oslo Accords. While alive to the possibility that opponents to the Irish peace agreement could still wreck its chances, he argued that the use of island-wide referenda imbued the agreement with popular support and rued that this option had not been pursued by the Rabin government after the signing of the Oslo Accords:

“Had there been a referendum shortly after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the chances of a large majority in favor would have provided the Rabin government with the necessary mandate for its implementation. This would also have taken the wind out of the right-wing opposition in their attempts to delegitimize the government by arguing that it lacked the necessary popular mandate for making such far-reaching concessions.”[11]

As Newman gazed longingly at Northern Ireland, he saw a polity where right-wing extremists had been circumvented by a democratic process that taps the essentially dovish sensibilities of the general population. His wish was clearly that Israel could be like Northern Ireland and his closing words for his readers were “We should wish them [peaceful Catholics and Protestants] the very best of Irish luck.”

13 April 1998 - Cartoon

“Four Sons Discuss Torah”, Ha-aretz, 13 May 1998

In two striking cartoons, Ha-aretz pursued the comparison of Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine further and drew on some surprisingly deep veins of Jewish religious thought in the process. In a caricature entitled ce-nigad arba’a benim dibrah torah [four sons discuss Torah differently], two men representing the divided Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland embrace, having placed their weapons in the dustbin of history. In stark contrast, two other figures representing Yasser Arafat and the State of Israel (or perhaps just Benjamin Netanyahu) stubbornly refuse to even face other, much less embrace. Although their glancing eye-lines suggest a continued interest in each other. The title of the cartoon references the standard Passover Haggadah and the story of the four sons who all relate to their Jewish heritage in abruptly different ways: the wise son, the simple son, the wicked son, and the son who does not know how to ask. Not only is there the inference that Netanyahu and Arafat embody the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask for peace, but there is also the sarcastic allegation that Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants are better, more peace-seeking Jews than one can find in the State of Israel. In other words, there is again the familiar refrain: why can Israelis not be more like Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants?

12 April 1998 - Cartoon

“Next Year in Jerusalem”, Ha-aretz, 12 May 1998

A second Paschal-themed cartoon depicted Netanayahu with his family. Though participating in a traditional Passover seder, this modern-style family continue to watch TV through dinner. On the TV, tuned to CNN, Bill Clinton stands by a bank of microphones against the backdrop of British and Irish flags. To what appears to be Netanyahu’s embarrassment, the American president is announcing Le-sha-na ha-ba-a be-ye-ru-sha-la-im [Next Year in Jerusalem], a central part of the Passover liturgy. The obvious message is that within a year Clinton will bring Northern Irish-style peace to Israel-Palestine, which is presumably the reason for Bibi’s awkward facial grimace. Clinton’s words, however, are not written in Hebrew but instead are transliterated into Latin script, suggesting that this future peace mission is something foreign to Israeli concerns.

In contrast to the claim that Israel should emulate the Good Friday Agreement, though, a significant section of the commentariat engaged in a wilful refusal to make this comparison. Nonetheless, how these pundits discussed Ireland (or rather, refused to discuss Ireland) revealed much about their views of Israeli realities. Zalman Shoval, a former Knesset member for Likud, produced an opinion piece for Yedioth Ahronoth with the decidedly blunt title of “Belfast Zeh Lo Ca’an” [Belfast Is Not Here]. Shoval began by taking aim at Bill Clinton’s assertions that US-mediated peace agreements in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Haiti could now be followed with an American arbitration in Israel-Palestine. Not only did he dismiss the depth of the peace agreements in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, he expressed serious pessimism about the future successes of George Mitchell’s work in Northern Ireland. He followed this up by zeroing in on a major difference between the Oslo Accords and the Good Friday Agreement: “while the Irish agreement is said to be a final peace agreement – “the permanent deal” in the language of the Middle East – Oslo represents a sequence of interim deals, without a peace agreement” Shoval then proceeded to identify what he felt was the ‘essential difference’ between Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine, that of the ‘basic fundamental [political] assumptions’ that animate the opposing sides in both conflicts.   Northern Irish Catholics, he pointed out, had been willing to forego any separate sovereignty, something that Palestinians would not do. Moreover, he argued that Northern Irish Protestants did not face the existential problems that Israelis did: “Northern Ireland is Protestant, but with a large Catholic minority – it is not surrounded, like Israel, by a hostile and powerful world with eighty-five times more of a population than the number of its inhabitants, with substantial parts of it on the inside since before it came into existence.” And pushing his point further, Shoval ended by arguing that the government of the Republic of Ireland, in their willingness to revoke a constitutional claim of sovereignty over the North, treated peace with far greater seriousness than the Palestinians, “who notwithstanding all their promises have not yet cancelled their covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.”[12]

Moshe Zak, the former editor of Maariv, used his English-language column in the Jerusalem Post to make a very similar set of claims in an article entitled “Belfast is Certainly No Oslo”. His bold opening salvo was that “There is no similarity between the Oslo Agreement, signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Belfast Agreement reached in 1998 between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.” And he was clear in his view that the Good Friday Agreement could never serve as a model for Israeli-Palestinian peace. For Zak, the positive role of the European Union in Northern Ireland, versus what he say as negative European interference in Israel, as well as the absence of similarly negative UN resolutions, deepened the breach between the two contexts.[13]


“Ireland’s Aneshei Ha-Ruach Relate To The National Struggle”, Maariv, 12 April 1998

Other articles moved the focus away from political negotiations or religiously-inspired violence, instead placing the emphasis on the uniquely cultural and creative nature of the Irish people. A piece in Maariv traced the effect of the national struggle on the works of Ireland’s aneshei ha-ruach. Literally meaning “people of the spirit”, Maariv provided an eclectic photo collage to help define this otherwise hard-to-translate term: the pop-musicians Sinead O’Connor and U2, the writers James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, and the actors Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis – the latter of whom is a naturalized Irish citizen of English-birth – as well as, bizarrely, George Best. The article talked of Ireland as being “ever and always” a land of “cultural creativity” and explained this as the direct result of the ongoing clash with Britain. And while the Maariv piece identified this conflict-borne aestheticism in film and literature, it placed a particular emphasis on music:

“The national songs of the Irish – from Danny Boy [Dani Boi] to The Rising of the Moon [zarichat ha-yerach] – deal with combat, death and bereavement. In recent decades a variety of rock stars [cochavei ha-zmar] have come out of Ireland, many of whom continue to deal with these themes. U2 [yu-2] became the most important band in the world with the song Bloody Sunday [blady sundai], commemorating a massacre of civilians in Northern Ireland at the hands of the British in 1972. Clannad work in the ancient Gaelic language; Sinead O’Connor denounced the British brutality that led to the Great Famine in the 19th century; The Cranberries [ha-kranberis] sang about the “zombies” [zombiim], the living dead, on the streets of Belfast.”[14]

Much of this can be explained, of course, as a function of print-capitalism and the presumed need to provide celebrity-content to tabloid newspaper-readers. But there also seems to be a deeper imperative at work here. By constructing them as a uniquely creative, even spiritual people, journalism such as this served to exoticize the Irish, and thus to reinforce perceptions that the actions of the Irish bear no comparison to the supposedly harsher realities of the Middle East. Indeed, this Israeli focus on Irish music and Irish culture can be placed in a longer history of perceptions about Irish people’s inherently artistic or poetic sensibilities. Consciously or not, news coverage such as this echoed the famous views of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century, that Celts are a wonderfully poetic if politically naïve people.[15] And it is a small leap from seeing the Irish as a uniquely artistic people to seeing their peace process as the product of a gentler (more artistic?) conflict. Again, the precise ways in which Israeli media covered events in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1998 did important work for Israeli popular political discourse.

Another function of print-capitalism and the general workings of the media industry is how quickly Northern Ireland disappeared as a major story from the pages of Israeli newspapers. After the referendum of May 1998, attentions were turned elsewhere. Israel’s brief Northern Ireland moment had ended. Nonetheless, the sporadic mentions of Irish themes in Israeli newspapers continues to reflect Israeli political concerns. Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, Ha-aretz returned to Northern Ireland to report on the “historic reconciliation” that had allowed the “small territory” “to outgrow deep religious hatred and learn to live together”. Ha-aretz’s Haggai Mattar claimed that “There is a reason for optimism.”[16] Two years later, though, Ha-aretz spoke more grimly about the ‘The Lesson of Northern Ireland’ in terms of a rhetorical question: “Can there be peace without justice?”[17] Whatever hopes had once surrounded the Oslo Accords had dissipated into a bleak pragmatism. Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Yitzhak Benhorin, the paper’s Washington correspondent, reported with an air of satisfaction that even George Mitchell had admitted “The reality in the Middle East is much more complex” and peace would be much harder to achieve in Israel-Palestine than in Northern Ireland.[18]

When “Ireland” does feature as a newspaper topic in Israel today, it is less in terms of shared hopes for peace and more in terms of widespread support for Palestinians. Reflecting major shifts in post-Oslo, post-Second Intifada, post-Arab Spring Israel, the focus is on European apathy in the face of Islamist terror, international hostility to Israel, and the looming threat of Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions. An article in Maariv in 2012 talked of how Ireland was now “One of the Most Hostile States Towards Israel” and, with an almost pathetically resigned air asked “what happened to the pastoral friend of Israel” [ma koreh la-yedidah ha-pastoralit shel yisrael].[19]

[1] ‘“It can’t get any worse” say voters in support of the agreement’, Ha-aretz, 24 May 1998.

[2] ‘Historic Peace in Northern Ireland: Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[3] ‘People Shaping Northern Ireland’, Ha-aretz, 12 April 1998.

[4] ‘Adams: The Struggle for Unity with Ireland Will Continue’, Ha-aretz, 12 April 1998.

[5] Background: 30 Years of Conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth, 9 April 1998. See also: Geulah Cohen, ‘For us, there are no possibilities for compromise’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 12 April 1998, where she talks of her admiration for lochemei ha-mecheret ha-erit [the fighters of the Irish underground].

[6] ‘After 30 years of Terrorism and Violence – A Peace Agreement is Signed in Northern Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 12 April 1998; ‘The Peace Agreement in Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth 13 April 1998.

[7] Background: 30 Years of Conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth, 9 April 1998.

[8] ‘Tony Blair is going to Belfast urgently with the intention of saving the peace talks with Northern Ireland,’ Maariv, 8 April 1998.

[9] ‘Historic Peace in Northern Ireland: Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[10] ‘It is difficult to set out the levels of death’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 13 April 1998.

[11] David Newman, ‘Bravo, Ireland’, Jerusalem Post, 15 April

[12] Zalman Shoval, ‘Belfast Is Not Here’, Maariv, 13 April 1998

[13] Moshe Zak, ‘Belfast is Certainly No Oslo’, Jerusalem Post, 16 April 1998.

[14] ‘Ireland’s intellectuals and artists [aneshei ha-ruach] relate to the national struggle’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[15] Matthew Arnold. Irish Essays and Others (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1891); Ernest Renan. Poetry of the Celtic Races and Other Essays (London: Walter Scott, 1896). See also, Sinead Garrigan Mattar. Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) Chapter 1; Declan Kiberd. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) 29-32.

[16] ‘Good Friday’, Ha-aretz, 10 April 2013.

[17] ‘The Lesson of Northern Ireland: Can There Be Peace Without Justice’, Ha-aretz, 24 April 2015

[18] ‘Mitchell Admits: Peace in the M.E. more difficult than in Northern Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 2 October 2011.

[19] ‘How Ireland Turned Into One of the Most Hostile States Towards Israel’, Maariv, 20 November 2012.

“The Irish Jew Who Had Taken a Pledge Never to Work”: Emma Goldman, the Irish, and the Easter Rising

Irish people feature regularly in the writings of Emma Goldman, the notorious early-twentieth-century anarchist activist and writer. In her autobiography, Goldman talks of encounters with various Irish and Irish-American characters: A policeman with “a luscious Irish brogue” who took a protective stance toward a young Emma Goldman shortly after her arrival in New York; Billy Reedy, the anarchist-sympathising editor of the St. Louis Mirror, who won her over with “his rich Irish humour”; Goldman’s close political ally M. Eleanor Fitzgerald, “Fitzi”, who “charmed people into sympathy and action – not merely by her Irish name and beautiful auburn hair, but by her fine and suave personality. Little did anyone outside of her immediate friends sense the Celtic temperament behind her tranquil manner.” There are also unnamed Irish women to whom Goldman quietly offered advice on birth control and a prison matron with a “good Irish soul” who confessed that she shared Goldman’s anti-war sympathies (“She was Irish, and she had no use for the Allies”).[1]  

 Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Much of this, of course, is due to the simple fact that Emma Goldman’s political activism brought her through the multi-ethnic locales of turn-of-the-century America; her encounters with Irish immigrants parallel her work with German, Russian and Yiddish anarchists and radicals in what remained very much a life and politics in non-English-speaking and immigrant communities.

And yet, there are also distinctly political aspects to Goldman’s interests in the Irish, moving beyond these simple stereotypes of warm and loveable Irish rogues. In her memoirs she recounts her political emotions upon hearing about the 1916 Easter Rising: “My sympathies were naturally on the side of the revolting masses and against British imperialism, which had oppressed Ireland for so many centuries.” Extensive reading of Irish literature had given Goldman an affection for “the Gaelic people” and she saw similarities between Irish peasants and Russian mujiks: “In their naïve simplicity and lack of sophistication, in the motif of their folk-melodies, and in their primitive attitude towards law-breaking, which sees in the offender an unfortunate rather than a criminal, they were brothers.”[2] In other words, she saw something of political importance in the supposedly anarchist strains of Irish peasant culture.

Padraic Colum

Padraic Colum (1881-1972)

Shortly after the Rising, Goldman gave over space to Irish nationalist politics in her Mother Earth journal. As well as an excerpt from Patrick Pearse’s 1916 essay “The Separatist Idea” (here retitled “A Paean of Freedom”), Mother Earth also published an article “On the Death of James Connolly and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington” by the poet Padraic Colum. In this piece, Colum sought to explain Irish politics to a presumably radical-left readership. Focusing on the executions of these two leftist figures, he implied that the Rising was an essentially anti-capitalist act. And Goldman’s editorial for this issue was bold in its pronouncements for where the Rising would lead, with anarchist politics very much to the fore in the predictions:

“The Irish revolution may grow in significance and importance in the near future. The rebels of Dublin may become the advance guard of an international social revolution, which will shake the very foundations of all governments and privileged classes, who have thrown humanity into the hell-fire of this war. The bold spirit of the Irish rebels, their hopes, sufferings and martyrdom will certainly arouse the masses of European and American peoples. It will be realized that they fought and died for more than a mere national issue, that their noble example and sacrifice worked like a trumpet call and storm signal to all the oppressed of the earth.”[3]

The following year, when Goldman began the campaign against American involvement in World War One that would eventually lead to her arrest and deportation, she was joined at one anti-war rally in New York by “the distinguished Irish rebel” Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: “A lover of peace and an eloquent pleader for freedom and justice, she was a sweet and gentle soul. In her was personified the spirit of our gathering, the respect for human life and liberty that was seeking expression that evening.”[4]

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)

A less generous assessment of Irish politics, though, was made in an article on “The Echo from Erin”, written by an associate of Goldman’s, Warren Starr van Valkenburgh, which appeared in the July 1916 issue of Mother Earth. While still taking aim at the “barbarity of the British Empire”, van Walkenburgh stated that anarchists should have “scant sympathy” for “any attempt to change the form of coercion to a home government”.[5] Rather than romantically praising the desire for “freedom” of the Irish rebels, van Walkenburgh argued that they had misunderstood the very nature of freedom as well as the limits of freedom under a conventional capitalist state.

Mother EarthMother Earth, July 1916

There is one other interesting encounter between Emma Goldman and “Irishness”. In one of the later chapters of her memoirs, she recalls the problems that emerged with an odd follower of hers named Herman Mikhailovitch. A long-time subscriber to Mother Earth, Mikhailovitch began to follow Goldman across the United States, popping up at her public lectures in Omaha, Seattle, Spokane and New York. A free spirit as well as a kind of anarchist groupie, Mikhailovitch became known, alternately, as “Herman the Hobo” and “Mickey”. Goldman’s then-partner Ben Reitman, himself something of a wanderer, took “Mickey” under his wing and promoted him as an exemplar of a hobo lifestyle freed from capitalism. The press duly eulogised “Mickey” as “the Irish Jew who had taken a pledge never to work.” (Though it’s not clear if he was actually Irish, or just presumed as such because of his adopted name). The attention apparently enflamed Mickey’s ego, making him even more of a nuisance to Emma Goldman. He soon pledged his love for her and threatened to kill himself if Goldman did not reciprocate. Despairing of this unwanted hanger-on, one of Goldman’s comrades, Bolton Hall, informed “Mickey” that he had reported him to the poorhouse authorities who would look to commit him on account of his indigence and poor mental health. “Mickey” quickly left New York. In a subsequent letter to Hall, “Mickey” declared that not only has he moved to the west coast of the United States, but he is also a surprisingly wealthy man. After this, this obnoxious “Irish Jew” seems to have completely disappeared from the historical record.[6]

[1] Living My Life, Volume I (New York: Dover Publications, 1970) 103, 142, 186, 464; Living My Life, Volume II (New York: Dover Publications, 1970) 629, 635

[2] “Living My Life”, II, 572-573

[3] Mother Earth, Vol. XI No. 3, June 1916

[4] “Living My Life”, II, 604-605

[5] Mother Earth, Vol. XI No. 4, July 1916

[6] Living My Life”, II, 542-545

Nationalists As Real Men

Why feminism and socialism have been systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement.


– This article originally appeared in The Village, April 2016



In 1909 Patrick Pearse wrote a short six verse Irish-language poem, A Mhic Bhig na gCleas, translated into English as Little Lad of the Tricks. A relatively disposable piece, it has since gone on to have an infamous status; proof for many that Pearse had dark sexual proclivities:

…Raise your comely head

Till I kiss your mouth:

If either of us is the better of that

I am the better of it

There is a fragrance in your kiss

That I have not found yet

In the kisses of women

Or in the honey of their bodies.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ 1979 revisionist biography, The Triumph of Failure makes much of this poem, presenting it as evidence of Pearse’s supressed tendencies.   And later works have echoed her, to the point that the trope of Pearse-as-Paedophile is now standard fare among Irish historians. Similar speculations have also been made about Eoin O’Duffy’s sexuality and even about Michael Collins.

Such tabloid innuendos, though, ignore a central truth about Irish nationalists in the early years of the twentieth century: masculinity mattered for them. Not in the sense of private peccadilloes, but as a key part of their public ideology. The trope of masculinity did much work for organisations like Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers, allowing them, as it did, to imagine what national sovereignty and the end of British colonial rule would look like. It allowed them to critique that British rule as an effeminizing influence on Irish men. And it allowed them to attack opponents, such as the Irish Parliamentary Party, as unmanly traitors. The heavy emphasis on masculinity also does much to explain how and why women and leftists were systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement; imagining the nation as a male fraternity was a convenient way to dismiss feminism or socialism as divisive ideologies that pitted brother against brother.

In another of Pearse’s most famous texts, The Murder Machine, the educator-nationalist railed against the British state schools in Ireland (the eponymous “machine”). And in a telling passage, Pearse denounced contemporary school system as being worse than “an edict for the general castration of Irish males.” Anglicized Irishmen, he said, are “not slaves merely, but very eunuchs.” For Pearse, Irish men had been emasculated by British colonialism and by the slow parallel process of Anglicisation.

These were common anxieties among almost all Irish nationalists.

A recurring theme in Gaelic League publications was that the Irish, by longer speaking their native language, had become deficient and deformed and no longer real men. As one turn-of-the-century Gaelic Leaguer said, if the Irish continued to speak only English, then “we can never be perfect men, full and strong men, able to do a true man’s part for God and Fatherland.” The movement to revive the Irish language was thus imagined as a process of reasserting a purified male power and was often associated with a recovery of sovereignty and strength.

When the Irish Volunteers were established in 1912, many of their founding members had already imbibed this thinking that saw national revival and masculine revival as two parts of a broader whole. Writing in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Irish Freedom newspaper in July 1912, Ernest Blythe, later to be a government minister in the 1920s, discussed the contribution that the Volunteers would make to healthy Irish masculinity.   While he criticised the weak “flabby men” that predominated in Ireland, he also spoke of a subterranean manliness still surviving, he said, thanks to both militant nationalists “but also those whose thoughts have gone no further than the running and leaping and hurling which they delighted in”. The future Irishmen, which physical-culture and physical-force enthusiasts such as these would birth, would be noticeable by their “mighty lungs and muscled frames”. The Volunteers were “the rebirth of manhood unto this Nation”. Their muscular masculinity would replace the flabby weakness of Ireland under British rule. Talk of masculine power continued to circulate in the years after the Rising. Indeed, Ernie O’Malley, a medical student turned IRA soldier, later remembered that one positive effect of the war was that the “familiar stage Irishman had disappeared”, replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.

The rhetoric of heroic men standing together for the national interest, also lent itself to suppressing the “wrong” kind of politics. A 1921 pamphlet on The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail presented socialism as an intrusion into the national fraternity of men: “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system… whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”. Feminism was denounced in almost the exact same terms.

The tourism-friendly version of Irish nationalism that has featured in the Decade of Commemorations has received a large dose of justified criticism. With the government promoting an image of romantic, if depoliticised Irish rebels, it is worth remembering, first, how much Irish nationalism was a product of the encounter with British colonialism. Second, the state that emerged from this national struggle was noticeably coercive, particularly when it came to female citizens or left-wing politics. Masculinity, and the nationalist desire to create a harmonious nation of muscular men, was central to all of that. Masculinity matters.

“Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy”: Friedrich Engels and the Conditions of the Irish Working Class

[Cross-posted from The Irish Story]

In May 1856, an unassuming German industrialist and his common-law Irish wife arrived in Ireland for a tour of the country. Writing to an old friend in London, another ex-patriot German, the wealthy tourist described his trip, from Dublin to Galway and down along the west coast, the landscape, and the people he met along the way. Post-Famine Ireland was an island of ruins, some dating back to the early middle-ages, some more recent: “The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.” The level of policing was intrusive and shocking in “England’s first colony” and “I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country… armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.” Additionally, the locals, “for all their Irish fanaticism”, were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome: “By consistent oppression they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation and now, as everyone knows, fulfil the function of supplying England, America, Australia, etc., with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other rabble.” The German industrialist traveller was Friedrich Engels. His common law wife was Mary Burns (older sister of Lizzy Burns, who would later be Engels’ second wife). And his German correspondent in London was, of course, Karl Marx. Indeed, Engels ended his letter with a desire to write a History of Ireland and an admonitory request that his old comrade should visit Ireland: “Concerning the ways and means by which England rules this country – repression and corruption – long before Bonaparte attempted this, I shall write shortly if you won’t come over soon. How about it?”[1]

Lizzy Burns        Young Engels Lizzy Burns (1827-1878) and a young Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

In fact, Engels had long had a fascination with the Irish (not least with regards to his two Irish wives). Echoing his observations about Irish migrant labour in his 1856 letter to Marx, his famous 1844 work on The Condition of the Working Class in England features a detailed excursus on the Irish population in Manchester’s “Little Ireland” slum district. Engels described how Irish immigrants, with “nothing to lose at home”, were flocking to cities like Manchester in search of “good pay for strong arms”. At his time of writing, there were 40,000 Irish in Manchester, with similar numbers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool. London had 120,000. Yet Engels looked askance at a people who had “grown up almost without civilization” and were now importing their “rough, intemperate, and improvident” ways and “all their brutal habits” into Britain’s already overcrowded cities. The Irish arrived “like cattle” and “insinuate themselves everywhere.” In quasi-ethnographic terms, Engels claimed that “Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises as different from the Saxon physiognomy.” Focusing on “filth and drunkenness” and a “lack of cleanliness… which is the Irishman’s second nature”, Engels moved into a more racialised key, perhaps revealing his own biases along the way.

Little Ireland 1849

Little Ireland Plaque

“Little Ireland”, Manchester, 1849 and today

“The Irishman”, Engels wrote in the singular, “loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill.” Bearing in mind that “Arab” in the nineteenth century referred to Bedouins, rather than any Arabic-speaking person, it is clear where Engels was placing the Irish in a broader racial hierarchy. They were a people with “a southern facile character” and “For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.” They were too different, and too backward, to ever be properly assimilated into British life: “even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilized, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.”[2] In many ways, he presented Irish immigrants to industrial Britain as exhibiting what he and Marx would later call “the idiocy of rural life”, a backward people who would soon be submerged by the dynamics of industrial capitalism.[3]

Yet his moralizing tone and his racial determinism could also accommodate a certain envy about Irish political power. Writing in June 1843 for Der Schweizerische Republikaner [The Swiss Republican], Engels eyed up Daniel O’Connell’s famous monster meetings with leftist jealousy:

“The wily old fox gets around from town to town always surrounded by two hundred thousand men, a bodyguard such as no king can boast of. How much could be achieved if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity, or if O’Connell had a little more sense and a little less egoism and vanity! Two thousand men, and what kind of men! Men who have nothing to lose, two-thirds of them not having a shirt to their backs, they are real proletarians and sansculottes, and moreover Irishmen – wild, headstrong, fanatical Gaels. If one has not seen the Irish, one does not know them. Give me two hundred thousand Irishmen and I could overthrow the entire British monarchy.”[4]

As Engels gained in philosophical sophistication, his use of such overtly racialized language tailed off. His earliest writings on Ireland date from only a few months after his first meeting with Marx; they had met at the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung [Rhinelander Newspaper] in November 1842, shortly after which Engels’ stern father dispatched his troublesome twenty-two year-old son to the family’s cotton mills in Manchester.[5] First by correspondence, later in person, Marx and Engels developed their materialist understanding of history and social change. Increasingly, Engels explained people’s behaviours not in terms of inborn racial tendencies but in terms of material conditions under industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, the Irish continued to occupy a curious status for Engels. They were now the living exemplars of a pre-capitalist social formation, and visiting contemporary Ireland provided a front-row seat to the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.

Ermen and Engels Mill, adjacent to the  Manchester-Liverpool Railway Line

The Ermen and Engels Mills, adjacent to the Liverpool-Manchester trainline

In the notes for his sadly unfinished History of Ireland – begun around 1870 – Engels traced Irish economic development back to their “ancient origins”. Engels even flirted with self-taught Irish language classes for his study of Irish history, only to admit his frustration with this “philological nonsense” to Marx.[6] It was Ireland’s “obvious… misfortune”, Engels said, to be so geographically close to England, which retarded the country’s trajectory out of feudalism and into capitalism: “the English assisted nature by crushing every seed of Irish industry as soon as it appeared.”[7] Whilst preparing for this work, Engels had come to feel that “communal ownership of land was Anno 1600 still in full force in Ireland.”[8] Pre-capitalist forms of social organisation and property-ownership lingered on in Ireland long after they had disappeared in Britain. In a letter to Marx in early 1870, Engels confessed that “The more I study the subject, the clearer it is to me that Ireland has been stunted in her development by the English invasion and thrown centuries back”.[9]

Marx had similar views. Writing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, he placed the restructuring of land-ownership in post-Famine Ireland in a longer history of land enclosures in early modern England and the Highland Clearances in post-1745 Scotland. In his florid journalistic prose, Marx spoke of how “the pauperised inhabitants of Green Erin” were being “swept away by agricultural improvements” and by the “breaking down of the antiquated system of society.”[10]

For Marx, as for Engels, Ireland still displayed traits of feudal property-ownership but was now being violently dragged into capitalist modernity.   Yet, this traumatic transformation also held out a revolutionary possibility. In contrast to the “solid, but slow” conservatism of “the Anglo-Saxon Worker”, Irish immigrant labourers had a “revolutionary fire”.[11] Not fully schooled in the rules of private-property, they carried their essentially non-capitalist consciousness to the very heart of capitalist Britain. This was a contradiction that needed to be exploited politically. Just as he had written in Der Schweizerische Republikaner in 1843, Engels continued to feel that the Irish could be the ones to bring down the British state. Marx similarly saw Ireland as the “weakest point”[12] in the British Empire, and looked forward to a social revolution that would be “Ireland’s Revenge” upon England.[13]

Indeed, Engels and Marx were of one mind in their view that Fenianism, a product of this contradiction, could be a revolutionary force on both sides of the Irish Sea:

“What the English do not yet know is that since 1846 the economic content and therefore also the political aim of English domination in Ireland have entered into an entirely new phase, and that precisely because of this, Fenianism is characterised by a socialistic tendency (in a negative sense, directed against the appropriation of the soil) and by being a lower orders movement.”[14]

Which is to say, by Marx and Engels’ lights, Fenians were unconscious socialists. Giving voice to the resentments of dispossessed Irish peasants, they stood in unwitting opposition to the transformation of rural Ireland into a capitalist economy. Not that this detracted from Engels’ perception (at the time of the 1867 trial of the “Manchester Martyrs”) that the leaders of Fenianism were “mostly asses”.[15]

Engels’ later writings, though, were less hopeful for the revolutionary future of Ireland. Visiting Ireland again in September 1869, with Lizzy Burns and Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, he saw some important changes. Dublin was now “unrecognisable”. Trade was at a high level at the port and the city had acquired a newly cosmopolitan air: “On Queenstown Quay I heard a lot of Italian, also Serbian, French and Danish or Norwegian spoken.” All of this portended a regrettable conclusion: “The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, that is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.” [16] It would appear that Ireland had made the leap from feudalism to capitalism before Engels or Marx could finish theorizing the transformation.

Old EngelsEngels, 1891

Indeed, in an 1888 interview with the New Yorker Volkszeitung [New Yorker People’s Newspaper], Engels confessed that “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time. People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more.”[17] Looking to a bleak future, Engels made the intriguing prophesy that for socialist revolution to take root, Ireland would have to wait for a mortgage-backed financial crisis to ruin the country!

[1] Letter from Engels to Marx, 23 May, 1856. Reprinted in full in L.I. Golman, V.E. Kunina, eds. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971) 83-85

[2] All quotes are taken from the chapter on “Irish Immigration”, in The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press/Oxford World Classics, 1999) 101-105

[3] The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 1985) 84

[4] ‘Letters from London’ (1843). In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 33-36

[5] Tristram Hunt. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (New York: Henry Holt, 2009) 63-64

[6] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[7] Friedrich Engels, ‘History of Ireland’. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 171-209

[8] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 279-280

[9] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 19 January, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 286

[10]New York Daily Tribune, 9 February 1853, 22 March, 1853. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 53-58

[11] Karl Marx, ‘Confidential Communications’. Die Neue Zeit, 28 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 160-163

[12] Letter from Karl Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March, 1870. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 290

[13] Karl Marx. ‘Ireland’s Revenge’. Neue Oder-Zeitung, 16 March, 1855. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 74-76

[14] Letter from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 30 November ,1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 147

[15] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 29 November, 1867. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 145

[16] Letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, 27 September, 1869. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 273-274

[17] 20 September, 1888. In Golman & Kunina, ‘Ireland and the Irish Question’ (1971) 343

Pádraic Ó Conaire, Sinn Féin, and the Workers of Ireland

There were a number of pamphlets published at the height of the Irish War of Independence that simultaneously point to the marked social strife of this period whilst also promoting a harmonious cross-class vision of an Irish people united in shared pursuit of national liberation. A representative example is the 1921 discussion of The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail [Republican Lecture Group]. Though seeking to present an image of aloofness from petty ideological squabbles, the pamphlet’s clerical author, S. O’Ceileachar, did claim that strikes were the product of unions’ “selfish” demands for higher wages. O’Ceileachar also openly stated that “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system” and “whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”.[1]


At first glance, the 1919 work Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? might appear to be cut of the same cloth, its title the kind of purely rhetorical question that should be answered with a resounding “Yes”.   In actual fact, it is something far more idiosyncratic. Couched in Orthodox Marxist language, this anonymously written pamphlet trenchantly critiques the politics and class interests of Irish nationalism, and astutely places Irish economic and social development in some broader historical contexts.[2]

The author, a pseudonymous “Charles Russell”, promises to “dissect and lay bare” the “real nature” of Sinn Féin, which lays covered by a “mystical atmosphere”. This is a situation exacerbated by the fact that, in the modern world, “workers are rendered docile and submissive by venal intellectuals and subsidised newspapers.” Thus, because of this miasma, Irish people have failed to see Sinn Féin for what they really are: “The “Sinn Fein” system of society is the most complex, subtle, and contradictory. It is but the new name for developed capitalism in Ireland, using Nationality and the Irish language as a cloak to reach its goal.” While Sinn Féin might baulk at any collaboration with “English capitalism”, “Russell” points out that they are “quite prepared to accept in its stead German and American capitalism.”   He also takes issue with the very idea of freedom espoused by the party. Employing a Marxist base-superstructure argument, “Russell” states that:

“People’s views are, in the main, the product of their particular social environment – they see the world from the point of view of the class into which they are born and with which their interests are bound up. Consequently the members of the small commercial firm (the germ of the large industrial concern) burn with injustice and struggle to break the bonds that interfere with the expansion of their business. They bawl at the tops of their voices for freedom, like their brothers of the 18th century in France, but bye and bye we shall see that the freedom they desire (also like that of their French brethren) is commercial freedom – the liberty to exploit nature and the worker to the fullest extent possible.”

In other words, Sinn Fein’s revolution will be a bourgeois revolution. Instead of supporting this, “We, who are working men, should concern ourselves with the bands that bind us to the wheel of capital – that doom us for ever to the toil and sweat of slavery.” “Russell” sums up his critique of Sinn Féin’s capitalist nationalism thusly: “The continuance of the private property system is the central idea in the movement, and so long as private property remains the miseries that necessarily flow therefrom will remain also and continue to afflict the workers under the Irish Republic” and “So long as private property is the order of the day it matters little to the propertyless Irish worker (the vast mass of the population) who rules Ireland.”

“Russell” couches his critiques of Sinn Féin in standard Marxist terms: workers create wealth socially, but profits are held privately; unemployment is caused by overproduction; rationally organised production exists within a system of market anarchy; capitalist production requires peace but creates war. Sinn Féin are thus doomed to fail because capitalism is doomed to fail, as it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

While the language could be polemical, a common trait in contemporary socialist literature, there was also a clear intelligence at work here. The various problems identified by this pamphlet – the critique of official intellectuals and the role they play in maintaining dominant ideologies, the analysis of nationalism’s universalizing discourse and how that elides the competing social interests in favour of a harmonious vision of cross-class (but in actuality, bourgeois) harmony, the selectively defined notion of freedom that prevails in capitalist societies – all of these are familiar questions in twentieth- and twenty-first century academic writing.

Nonetheless, it also seems that “Russell” recognised how contentious this anti-nationalist critique of Sinn Féin could be in 1919; the author proceeds to claim that, in fact, it is Sinn Féin who are the truly anti-national force. Their proposed system of land tenure is “entirely foreign to Gaelic ideals as well being, from its very nature, opposed to a real virile National life.” It is telling that it as at this point that the pamphlet draws on familiarly national language of virility and the rebuilding of a pre-Norman Gaelic Ireland. He proposes a communal system of land ownership that, “Russell” claims, is the same as that which existed in the clan-system of Gaelic Ireland. Capitalist private property is thus presented as an insidious Anglo-Norman importation: “The whole Island was replanted in the good old English landlord and tenant style. The system was universally established from North to South, from East to West. The land that was communally owned by the Gaelic Clansmen became the fee-simple estate of Protestant, Catholic and Puritan landlord” and “the old Gaelic land system never again made its appearance in Ireland.”

The argument was clearly developed in a careful and judicious manner, making it doubly frustrating that the pamphlet’s pseudonymous author, “Charles Russell”, remains unknown. When the Cork Workers’ Club, a short-lived schism from the British and Irish Communist Organisation, reissued this pamphlet as part of a historical document series in 1977, they could do little but say that “Russell” was a self-described “wage slave of Ireland”[3] – which tells us little other than that this orthodox Marxist saw himself in correctly orthodox terms!

O Ceallaigh Signature 1

O Ceallaigh Signature 2 - From a 1932 Letter

What could be Ó Ceallaigh’s signature on the 1919 pamphlet and what is definitely his signature on a 1932 government memo

A possible clue as to the author’s identity, though, can be found on the front cover of the National Library of Ireland’s copy of this pamphlet. As well as what appears to be the signature of future president Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh, scrawled across the middle of the cover, there is a name and address: “P O Conaire, 56 Mary Street”. It is tempting to think that this is the well-known writer and language activist Pádraic Ó Conaire. The National Library do not keep records of when or how they acquire pamphlets like this, but this would suggest that both Ó Ceallaigh and Ó Conaire owned this specific copy of the pamphlet.

O Conaire Name + Address“P O Conaire 56 Mary St”

Pádraic Ó Conaire lived a famously nomadic life, regularly moving between Galway, Dublin and London, though he does seem to have been in Ireland in 1919, when this pamphlet was published. There is a Mary Street in Galway but no number fifty-six. Dublin does have a 56 Mary Street, on the north side of the Liffey, and according to the 1911 census it was divided into what appear to be a series of flats. Apart from these speculative associations, though, there are also some good textual reasons to think that Pádraic Ó Conaire might actually have been “Charles Russell”.

Padraic-O’Conaire-Statue-with-Eamonn-DeValera-pic_NUIG 1935

Eamon de Valera unveils the famous statue of Ó Conaire, Galway, 1935

Aside from the Irish language prose for which he is usually known today, Ó Conaire was an avowed socialist; that this fact that has been smoothed over in favour of the far less contentious image of a hard-drinking bard, would surely confirm the views of “Charles Russell” (whoever he actually was).

In Cummanachas Céard San Am Ata le Theacht [Trade Unionism in the Future], a 1919 essay later republished by the British and Irish Communist Organisation as a part of a pamphlet on Marxachas-Lenineachas [Marxism-Leninism][4], Ó Conaire not only openly avowed his radical politics but did so in terms remarkably similar to those of “Charles Russell”. Like “Russell”, Ó Conaire’s political analysis was couched in a much longer historical frame: capitalism would eventually fall just as Constantinople once fell to “an Túrcach borb” [the terrible Turk]. Ó Conaire’s predictions were also familiarly Marxist: “go bhfuil lucht oibre an domhain, lucht soláthruighthe gach maoine, ag teacht i réim” [that the working class of the world, the class that produces all wealth, is coming into power].

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s recent biography, Réabhlóid Phádraic Uí Chonaire [Pádraic Ó Conaire’s Revolution] goes a long way to rediscovering this forgotten aspect of his career. And in a companion volume, An tAthrú Mór: Scríbhinní Sósialacha le Pádraic Ó Conaire [The Great Transformation: The Socialist Writings of Pádraic Ó Conaire], Ó Cathasaigh has compiled a extensive amount of Ó Conaire’s political prose, the bulk of which were originally published in well-known newspapers like The Freeman’s Journal or more obscure periodicals like An Branar [The Fertile Land]. Intriguingly, his socialist writings clustered around 1918-19, contemporaneous with Should The Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Féin?, and like “Charles Russell”, Ó Conaire’s short political essays showed a strong interest in developments in continental Europe [see, for example, his April 1919 piece on Drochobair san Ungáir, The Terrible Work in Hungary] and an intriguingly similar sensitivity to broader historical structures.

An tAthrú Mór

In any case, whether or not Ó Conaire was “Charles Russell”, one interesting aspect of his political writings definitely remains: the manner in which his Marxist writings were also an attempt to redefine the Irish language.  JJ Lee once said that “The preoccupation of “Irish-Irelanders” with legitimising their aspirations by invoking alleged precedents from the celtic mists have misled some observers into portraying them as simple reactionaries. In fact, far from prisoners of the past, the modernisers created the past in their image of the future.”[5] The Gaelic Revival should perhaps be more accurately called “The Gaelic Invention”, as Irish language writers sought to recreate modernity within a Gaelic idiom. Ó Conaire also seems to have been working in this mode, as he sought to create a modernised and socialist Irish language. His political prose is peppered with familiar Marxist slogans, albeit in Irish, as if he was trying to fuse Marxism and Gaelic League-ism. He talks of the need for aon chumann mór amhain [one big union] and says that this is one of socialism’s rosgcatha [an archaic term meaning battle-cries, here seemingly re-purposed to mean something akin to slogans]. With one eye on contemporary events in Russia, he spoke of the soon approaching “an t-Athrrach Mór” [the Great Transformation] that would be “an t-Atharrach tionnsgalach agus economic is mó dar thainic ariamh” [“the greatest industrial and economic transformation ever”]. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh’s edited collection corrects many of these anachronisms and replaces them with standardised spellings. Where Ó Conaire might have spoken of an t-Atharrach economic [The Economic Transformation], for instance, Ó Cathasaigh makes the subtle shift to an t-Athrach eacnamaíoch. Yet, as genuinely helpful as this might be to contemporary Irish language readers, it also means that something of historical interest is lost in the process. We miss out on how Ó Conaire was not just writing in the Irish language, he was perhaps also trying to create an Irish socialist language. What might appear to be anachronisms, could actually be rough-and-ready building blocks.

[1] Military Archives, BMH CD 250/4/16, S. O’Ceileachar, D.D. The Labour Problem (1921)

[2] “Charles Russell”. Should the Workers of Ireland Support Sinn Fein? (Dublin: W.H. West, 1918)

[3] Historical Reprints, No. 11, Sinn Féin & Socialism (Cork: Cork Workers’ Club, 1977).   My thanks to Benjamin Lee Stone, the Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries, for his help in tracking down a copy of this pamphlet.

[4] Marxachas-Lenineachas (Belfast: Cumann Comharsheilbhe na hÉireann, 1968]

[5] J.J. Lee. The Modernisation of Irish Society (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1973) 141.