The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Talkin’ ’bout Their Generation

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

R. F. Foster

New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2014.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

R. F. Foster, the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University and author of a celebrated biography of W. B. Yeats, here turns his attention to the people Yeats called “them.” In 1916, these people were rather more obscure than Yeats, who wryly noted in his poem “Easter 1916” that when he had from time to time “met them at close of day / Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk,” he had exchanged “polite meaningless words” with them before going on to make some “mocking” comment about them at his club. They were not clubmen, for sure; but just what kind of people they were has never been altogether easy to say.

In Vivid Faces, Foster’s aim is to re-examine the period up to the 1923 establishment of the Irish Free State in order to get beyond traditional approaches to understanding revolutionary change in terms of class or ideology, which, he says, seem inadequate today. “We search now,” he writes, “to find clarification through themes of paradox and nuance.” And, as Foster suggests, we have also become interested not just in what changes but also in what does not.

To recover their world, and answer the question, “When did the revolution begin?,” Foster embarks on a kind of collective biography of the revolutionary generation whose reputation was “changed utterly” when it launched the 1916 rebellion—an event that also changed the course of Irish history. He has unearthed letters and diaries that provide a uniquely intimate view of that generation’s socialization into “separatism.” Although some of his hundred-plus cast of characters contains what are household names in Ireland, including such prominent literary and political figures as Constance Markievicz, Roger Casement, and Éamon de Valera, many are less familiar—people such as Desmond FitzGerald, Piaras Beaslai, and Liam de Róiste, who left rich evidence of their thinking about the movement that took over their lives. Foster continues and perhaps completes the restoration of the Belfast Quaker Bulmer Hobson to his centrality in that movement, while also breathing life into some who remained auxiliaries, notably Min and Mary Kate Ryan and the remarkable Rosamond Jacob, another Quaker.

All of these, and many more, formed “a generation bent on self-transformation.” Perceptively comparing them to their Russian equivalents, Foster observes that they had a sense of deep differentiation from the generation of their parents, and were affected by currents of religious purism. In half a dozen gerund-titled chapters—“Learning,” “Playing,” “Loving,” “Writing,” “Arming,” “Fighting”—he explores key constituents of their collective life experience: education, drama, publishing, sex, and (for some) violence. His concluding chapters, “Reckoning” and “Remembering,” provide a concise analysis of the changing nature of the armed struggle after the Easter Rising in 1916 and through the War of Independence (1919–21) and the subsequent Civil War (1922–23), a grim, fratricidal struggle pitting supporters of a treaty to make Ireland a “free state” within the British Commonwealth against anti-treaty Irish Republican Army partisans. Foster’s scintillating excursion through the vagaries of memory and commemoration concludes on a rueful note: “The mechanisms of public memory and amnesia continued to operate by keeping the two Irelands in mutual isolation, preserved by mutually exclusive views of history.”

The influence of education in the creation of separatist nationalists has long been recognized, but measuring it with any precision is by no means easy. Foster’s people demonstrate not just the role of the schools but also of the Irish language movement, the Gaelic League, and the new universities like University College Dublin—the last especially significant for women. The correspondence of the Ryan sisters of Wexford “vividly conjures up the liberation, fun, and intellectual excitement” of UCD before 1916, and he finds a wonderful subject in the spiky Mary Kate Ryan, perhaps the nearest thing to a heroine in this book.

As for writing, Foster notes that 1916 has often been labeled a poets’ revolution. Poetry gets its due here, but “playwrights and actors were far more prominent,” and his analysis of Irish drama is particularly acute and convincing. The battles over Yeats’s direction of the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater, are well known, but the anti-Yeats campaigners were not all wedded to crude nationalist fantasies. It is interesting to note that Terence MacSwiney (whose Revolutionist Yeats eventually put on at the Abbey, after MacSwiney’s death on hunger strike in 1920) revered Ibsen.

The central puzzle of this generation, perhaps, is that of radicalization: why they moved from apparently reasonable nationalist politics—the campaign for home rule—to take up the cause of absolute independence, secured by force if necessary. This was not a uniform process. Foster notes that while some revolutionaries came from nationalist or republican families that had “kept the faith” since Fenian times, others “decided autonomously to challenge the assumptions with which they had grown up.” It would be tempting to see conversions such as that of Seán O’Faoláin at a performance of Lennox Robinson’s Patriots as central, but they were just one among many strands of experience. A striking number of the revolutionaries were, Foster suggests, “at an angle” to family life, having a dead or absent father. But while there were elements of youth rebellion in the movement, it was not simply a generational conflict.

Foster’s account reminds us of the reduced role of Protestants in the republican guerrilla struggle after 1919, relative to their involvement in the pre-1916 separatist movement, and of their even smaller part in the post-revolutionary power dispensation. The rebuilders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army), Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough, were key figures in the secret organization that would launch the 1916 rebellion, and women such as Alice Milligan, Susan Mitchell, and Mabel McConnell equally manifested the intensity of the republican ideal. Still, although McCullough might voice a Protestant contempt for Catholics—too fearful for their “miserable souls” to risk violent action—they came increasingly to form the movement’s center of gravity. Thomas MacDonagh temporarily lost his Protestant faith; Maud Gonne and Casement (under sentence of death) converted to Catholicism.

Not just education but “a number of other cultural phenomena,” as Foster says, had “always taken on a political and religious complexion.” One such phenomenon that does not come into focus here is sport. (Foster’s index has entries for homoeroticism, homosexuality, and homosocial bonding, but not hurling.) Not all the revolutionaries were enthusiasts, of course, but many were, and games “racy of the soil” were a central element of the Gaelo-centric “Irish-Ireland” movement. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) operated alongside the Gaelic League as a pervasive constituent not only of the cultural movement but also of revolutionary separatism. A significant proportion of the officers of the Irish Volunteers military organization were elected because of their prominence in the GAA, and it can be argued that the GAA’s intolerance of “English” games was one of the vital impulses that propelled separatism from the cultural to the political sphere.

Besides the impulse toward radicalization, the other great puzzle of the revolution is its subsequent—and steady—loss of radicalism after 1916. For instance, the elements of sexual liberation in the “revolutionary temperament,” as Foster says, seemed at that point “to disappear with alacrity.” Feminism was choked off, and the kind of romantic relationship enjoyed by Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen before 1916 disappeared from public view, at least. Women’s eclipse as the revolution rolled forward remains something of a mystery, although Foster makes clearer than most the deep misogyny that afflicted Sinn Fein as much as any Irish organization: “The natural Irish feeling of both sexes has some contempt for women in it,” as Rosamund Jacob put it. Women played their part in this. Mabel FitzGerald’s radicalism gradually ebbed away; she followed her husband’s line in supporting the treaty that established the Irish Free State, and eventually lost faith in the people. “I find the masses always wrong, they seem to stand for the worst in man…. Adult suffrage seems to have led only to the supremacy of the people without standards and values and of the half-baked educationally.” Min Ryan, displaying the “survival sense of a Balzacian heroine,” married the leading treaty supporter, Richard Mulcahy.

Sex was a victim of the dour mentality that governed post-revolutionary Ireland; there had also been a strong puritan strain in the revolutionary movement. Was it the case that, as Todd Andrews (a teenager—apparently not in love—in 1916) said, that “the absence of sexual relations between the men and women of the movement was one of its most peculiar features”? Foster shows that it was certainly not, in any simple sense, although his most extravagant examples—such as Casement (who tried to conceal his homosexuality) and the remarkable Northern nationalist, antiquarian, and folklorist F. J. Bigger—did not break this rule. But he agrees with Andrews that revolutionaries tend to be “puritans by nature.”

Finally, Foster acutely unpacks the ideal of “freedom” that radicalized this generation. It is, as he says, “extremely striking how seldom a sense of economic or class grievance comes through the recollections recorded by the Bureau of Military History.” Although they lived lives that by all appearances were free—often “spectacularly” so, Foster suggests—separatists felt enslaved by the simple fact of being part of the United Kingdom (a reasonably democratic state in whose legislature Ireland was arguably overrepresented). This capacity for experiencing something more imagined than real is perhaps a key part of the revolutionary urge.

The breadth of Foster’s survey raises the question of whether it is possible to write the collective biography of a generation, or to analyze it as one would an individual. The richly differentiated picture of “them” he presents may suggest not, yet the sense of unity underlying the variety is unmistakable. This was a “movement,” a social process defying precise delineation and able to accommodate a surprising range of ideas. After 1916, that began to change. The kaleidoscopic brilliance of this generation is an almost bizarre prelude to the dour monochrome of post-revolutionary Ireland. As Hobson sadly remarked to his old Irish Republican Brotherhood comrade Denis McCullough in the 1950s, “The phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen.” Such disappointment left Hobson with no heart to write their generation’s history. In Roy Foster, that generation has found a worthy stand-in.

Charles Townshend is an emeritus professor of history at Keele University, Staffordshire, England. His recent books include Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion and The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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