Century of Endeavour

Irish Republicanism - the Authentic Perspective

Derry Kelleher

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

The following review was prepared for the Boston 'Irish Literary Supplement', the Autumn 2001 issue, where it appeared along with a review of his Buried Alive in Ireland, both being published early in 2001; also Norman McMillan's Prometheus' Fire. Stocks of both books are held mainly by Athol in Belfast, whose e-mail is athol-st@dircon.co.uk, and also marginally by Connolly Books in Essex St, Dublin 2.

Irish Republicanism - the Authentic Perspective, Derry Kelleher, (Justice Books, Fernhurst, Hillside Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow, but see above), 2001; 490pp £20 pb (add £10 for postage).

Kelleher adds two different sub-titles; on the title-page we have 'through truth to enlightened action, peace and Irish unity', and at the beginning of the Preface we have 'a primer for peace in the millennium'. The 20-page preface opens with a quote from Nelson Mandela. He dedicates the book to his mentors whom he identifies as Mick Kelly, in whose history classes in the Curragh Internment Camp in 1940 Kelleher learned to question school history, Desmond Greaves as the progenitor of the Civil Rights approach to Northern political radicalisation, and George Gilmore as the founder of the 1934 Republican Congress and as a living link with the Dissenter republican tradition.

Together with the other book, we have an attempt by the author to place on record a lifetime of struggle and marginalisation, in his attempt to rescue the Enlightenment tradition of the 1790s Dissenters, with their inclusive Republic, from the unwelcome overlay of Catholic nationalism and from the dead hand of the Fenian conspiratorial tradition. The former he attributes to British influence in the way they set up Maynooth, and the latter he identifies as pervading Free State establishment thinking, surfacing with particularly pernicious consequences in 1970, with active support given to the emergence of the Provisionals by elements in the then Dublin Government, and the consequent undermining of the NI Civil Rights Association and its campaign for a Bill of Rights.

Both books share a concern about the culture-gap between political leaderships (whether mainstream or emergent left-republican) and the application of scientific technology in the Irish context, concerning issues such as the Whitegate refinery, production of nitrogen fertiliser at the Avoca works, or the Asahi synthetic fibre works at Killala. There is a socio-technical dimension, and he documents the interaction with the present writer on the various issues.

The first book is Kelleher's personal odessey, while the second focuses on the 1960s politicisation of Sinn Fein and the then IRA, on the Provisional split, and on the subsequent erosion of the embryonic 1960s Enlightenment republican tradition within the post-split 'officials' and its substitution by a pseudo-Marxist 'workerist' economism, with the evolution of the movement towards its current 'Workers Party' situation, and the subsequent shedding of its opportunist political wing towards the Labour Party via the Democratic Left.

The first half of the book is taken up with historical background, in the form of a polemical re-interpretation of Irish history from a variety of sources. To get its flavour I can perhaps quote some of the chapter heads and sub-heads. Foreword: Republicanism is not a Papish invention... when English Rule was Rome Rule... King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne, Fact and Fantasy: the League of Augsburg... the class issue at the Boyne... the fate of the Presbyterians after William's victory... The Legacy of the English Revolution: ...international significance.. economic and social determinants.. the Irish Dimension... the New Model Army, the Levellers and the Diggers... He instances the mutiny of Cromwell's army at Banbury on May 2 1649, the Leveller leaders holding that '...the cause of the Irish natives ... was the very same with our cause here...' He argues that the first supporters of, and martyrs for, the Irish Republic were the English Levellers who attempted to resist being sent to Ireland.

Kelleher then has a chapter on the French Revolution, the Nation, the wars of intervention and the Bonapartist counter-evolution, leading in to a chapter of the Legacy of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. The key point in this section is that Tone's Argument on behalf of the Catholics was addressed to the Dissenters, and he recognised that the '...historically anomalous position of the Catholics vis-a-vis the Stuart dynasty was the cause of the lingering prejudice against them amongst the Dissenters..'. He follows with a chapter (the Genesis of Neo-Colonialism) in which, leaning heavily on Connolly, he adumbrates the arguments for the key role of the British in setting up the Catholic Church as their 'moral constabulary', and the role of O'Connell in keeping Protestants out of the Repeal movement. In passing he relates the arguments to the politics of the NICRA and Stormont.

He continues with 'The Lessons of the Civil Rights Struggle' which illustates Connolly's 'carnival of reaction', and shows how the Civil Rights movement was destabilised from the right by catholic-nationalism and from the ultra-left by the 'Peoples Democracy'. He credits the Cameron Report with recognising the constructive role of the then politicising republican movement. Bloody Sunday killed the last vestiges of potential for the Civil Rights approach, and Kelleher attacks bitterly the pathological 'official republican' response to it with the Aldershot bombing. In this context he is also critical of my evaluation of Goulding in a letter to the press round the time of his funeral last year. I accept his criticism; Goulding's attempts to manage the politicisation process was indeed deeply flawed and inconsistent, and I hope to treat this in some depth elsewhere in due course.

The remainder of the book is taken up with an attempted critical analysis of Fianna Fail, the demise of 'official republicanism', Orange mythology etc; this is the least satisfactory part of the book but even in its incomplete state it gives a myriad of trails for researchers to follow, and poses many unanswered questions.

The notes and references are extensive but their editing leaves a lot to be desired. Books on this scale badly need indexes, and we must wait for this, alas, until a second edition. In fact, the two books would benefit hugely by being put together into one, edited down and indexed, a technical challenge for an empathetic modern historian dedicated to resurrecting the embers of the Enlightenment tradition in the philosophy of the Irish Republic.


The following review by Joe Carroll appeared in the Irish Times weekend supplement on July 30 2001:

Irish Republicanism: the Authentic Perspective. By Derry Kelleher. Justice Books. 515pp. £20

The author calls his book "the first history of Irish Republicanism defining its origins, propagation and finally its distortion in the 19th century". But it is more about Derry Kelleher himself, a fascinating figure whose passionate love of Ireland has led him down many pathways, including the internment camp in the Curragh as an IRA member in the 1940s.

But he has long since renounced violence as the way to unite Ireland and pleads here for a return to the Wolfe Tone formula of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. In recent times, he believes the only genuine attempt to go the Wolfe Tone way was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1968-72, as inspired by the left-wing activist Desmond Greaves.

Kelleher himself was involved in NICRA through his membership of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society. He was also on the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle before the split with the Provisionals and was Vice-President of Official Sinn Fein in 1971-72.

He resigned from Official Sinn F6in in 1976 when "it became obvious that the organisation still calling itself Sinn Fein was abandoning its position on the national question and that 'the tail was wagging the dog' in a loss of democratic control".

As a boy in Cork he joined Fianna Eireann, a junior IRA; was a member of the Republican swimming club, perhaps an aquatic IRA; then the IRA itself, which resulted in a brief internment in 1940. Renouncing violence, he was released and resumed studies for a science degree in UCC. He and other ex-internees formed the Liam Mellows branch of the Labour Party. When that party split in the 1940s, Kelleher and friends founded the Cork Socialist Party, which he claims helped end anti-Semitism in Cork.

Forced to emigrate, Kelleher worked for a while in Trinidad and was not impressed by "the dying British colonial system." Back in Britain, he qualified as a chemical engineer and worked for Esso. He returned to Ireland in 1960 having failed to secure a post in Whitegate refinery because, he believes, of his IRA background.

Subsequently, he worked for Gouldings fertiliser company and, briefly, for the Asahi plant near Ballina. He thus became what he describes as the "most senior and most industrially experienced chemical engineer in the State". When he moved to Greystones, he became active in Sinn Fein with the late Seamus Costello and worked in campaigns by the party for better housing and to prevent a development at Brittas.

The author was a vigorous opponent of Irish entry into the then EEC following the Sinn Fein line that it was a sell-out to capitalist Europe.

His adherence to Sinn Fein's northern policy was shaken when the Official IRA bombed the Aldershot barracks of the paratroop regiment following Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 killing cleaning women, a chaplain and a gardener. He himself was arrested on suspicion of membership of the IRA and later released, but he says it damaged him in his professional career.

It must be said that this lengthy book is not easy to read as the author jumps from the 20th century to the 1798 Rising as the humour takes him, and his reference section is unhelpful. He has harsh words for his former Sinn F6in colleagues who he believes betrayed Tone Republicanism by heading down the road to Sinn Fein - the Workers' Party and then the Workers' Party seeking "an illusory imminent socialist party". For those who ended up in the Labour Party, he has even less time.

He has his own blind spot over the unionist population in Northern Ireland. He sees the abolition of Stormont in 1972 as a disaster which played into the hands of the militarism of the Provisional IRA. But he has little to say about the role of unionists in a more democratic Stormont beyond assuming naively that the descendants of the Presbyterian Dissenters "who sold the pass by joining the Orange Order in the 19th century, would join with Catholics/nationalists to campaign for Tone's total separation from England.

It would have been interesting if the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had been analysed as a belated attempt to democratise Stormont on NICRA lines.

Joe Carroll was a former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999