Books Referencing the Century Book

What follows was produced in the context of drafting an omnibus review for the Boston 'Irish Literary Supplement'. What appears in print, in mid 2010 in the latter publication, is subject to editing down. RJ 06/04/2010.

I give here an extended version of a review, for the Boston Irish Literary Supplement, of some books which reference my Century of Endeavour substantively. I have also reviewed The Lost Revolution for Books Ireland, and for the Irish Democrat; the review material developed for the Boston ILS below is subject to further editing prior to publication in mid-2010.

Politics, Violence and the Fenian Tradition

The books which I was asked to review are Decoding the IRA andThe Lost Revolutiom. These both relate, in different ways, to my own book Century of Endeavour(1) which however has received practically no notice in the American Irish Studies community, as a result of its unfortunate publishing history. It was first published by Academica/Maunsel in 2003, but due to a flaw in its indexing, was not promoted by the publisher, though it did receive one review, in Studies (Dublin). I managed to sort out the indexing problem, with the co-operation of the publisher, and managed to set up an Irish-based second edition published by a Tyndall/Lilliput collaboration, which came out in 2006. There was subsequently a second US edition with the revised indexing, and this is currently available via Amazon, but it has not as far as I know been reviewed.

I propose therefore to do the above two reviews in sequence, and then in a concluding section relate them to some of the ground covered to my own book, and to some additional review material, with suporting references where material is available via URL on the Web.

Decoding the IRA; Tom Mahon & James J Gillogly; Mercier, 2008; ISBN 978-1-85635-604-6

This book is a consequence of some UCD archive research done by Tom Mahon in 2001, during which he came across some IRA coded documents from the 1920s. He put them aside, but then found more, arousing his curiosity, to the extent that he was motivated to seek out James Gillogly who is a cryptologist. The resulting collaboration as thrown some new light on the evolution of the IRA during the period when many of its leading members made the transition to Fianna Fail. This can be seen as a forerunner of the current political process associated with Gerry Adams, and the earlier political process associated with Sean Cronin, Cathal Goulding and Tomas Mac Giolla, with which the the present writer was associated.

The initial chapter by Gillogly deals with the technicalities of breaking the cyphers, and is primarily of specialist interest; this is followed by a chapter on the IRA communications system, with its system of safe houses and cover addresses. The subsequent chapters, based on the decrypted material, contain the useful historic material, confirming many nuggets which had previous existences at the level of reminiscence and lore. Chapter 1 is based on the 1925 Army Convention which marked the rejection of Frank Aiken's bid for leadership, the election of Andy Cooney, and the Peadar O'Donnell resolution severing the connection with the 2nd Dail and asserting the right to declare war in the name of the Republic. Cooney soon handed over to Moss Twomey, remaining in the leading triumvirate which also included Sean Russell; O'Donnell was attempting to introduce Marxist politics via Twomey. His 2nd Dail resolution in this context was counter-productive, effectively giving the lead to the militarists. His Marxist influence overall was slight; he tended to be dismissed by his colleagues as a guy who came up with a new wild idea every week.

Along with Sean MacBride, O'Donnell put a lot of effort into various continental networks supportive of the USSR; the authors note that MacBride suppressed his many Soviet contacts during this period in his memoirs. There are many references to the women activists whom the Army excluded: Charlotte Despard, Maud Gonne and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; these tended to gravitate towards left-wing organisations which welcomed their membership. The IRA in this period was active in the destruction of 'imperialist newspapers', in effect joining with the Catholic Church in the campaign against 'imported filth' which led later to the censorship laws. Although many Fianna Fail cumainn evolved out of IRA units, and the IRA as such survived, remaining on friendly terms with the emerging Fianna Fail leadership, Sinn Fein in effect lost contact and went into decline. The abstention issue was totally corrosive. The foregoing gives some idea of the lengthy third chapter which identifies the problems associated with the emergence of Fianna Fail. In this period also the Soviet influence emerges as being mostly related to deals with individual IRA activists, in return for intelligence about Britain, seen by the USSR as the main enemy.

Chapter 4 deals with what some of the local units were up to; there is no evidence of any coherent strategy; the Kevin O'Higgins assassination apparently was local initiative; sporadic raids on barracks and noted. The level of political understanding is illustrated by the fact that the major Ardnacrusha electricity generation project was seen as a potential source of explosives. Chapter 5 on 'Intelligence' covers matters relating to the Special Branch and to prisoners (escape plans etc). There is much reference to Mick Price who was subsequently involved with Peadar O'Donnell and George Gilmore in the Republican Congress episode. There is no reference to the Comintern influence in this context, which took place in 1934; this has been analysed by Ruan O'Donnell (UL) in a paper delivered to the Desmond Greaves summer school, in or about 2007; I have however been unable to track down a reference. (Proceedings of events such as this deserve accessible archiving.)

Chapter 6 on 'The IRA in Britain' gives the background to Sean Russell's view that it was 'not worth the energy expended and labout involved in maintaining it'. There is anecdotal material, delaing with smuggling weapons etc. There are refences to getting false passports for Soviet agents. The Soviet intelligence connections would appear to have been with individuals, as indicated earlier. The Left in Scotland was supportive of Irish issues, and John MacLean gets a mention. Chapter 7 on 'The IRA in America' has a much stonger background in the historical record, back to Fenian times, and up to the emergence of Clann na Gael, in which British intelligence comes in for some anecdotal mention. The Kerry GAA tour of 1927 had a significant IRA role, all references to it needing to be in code. There are references during the world war 1 period to attempts to get hold of mustard gas, though there was apparently no strategic thought went into how to use such weapins in the context of the war of independence. This shows some lack of political thinking in the minds of those concerned with military affairs in the context. There was much arms smuggling, with the aid of crew members of the transatlantic liners.

In the final chapter on the Soviet Union and China there is a record of a meeting of an IRA delegation with Stalin in 1925, as well as the various episodes involving James Larkin, Frank Ryan and Peadar O'Donnell. The authors regard the Soviet link as having ended in 1927, though links with individuals persisted during the 1930s. There was material in an Phoblacht on China indicating that they connected the revolutionary war in China with British imperial inteference. The China link seems to have occupied the IRA significantly during 1927, but it never came to anything significant, and was a victim of British intelligence 'sting' events.

There is a short concluding chapter and an epilogue, but little or no analysis of the foregoing material, which, to this reviewer at least, shows up the futility and irrelevance of all aspects of the 'armed struggle' subsequent to the establishment of the Free State as a compromise, regarded correctly by Collins as a 'stepping stone' to the Republic. Subsequent attempts to wean those reared in the Fenian tradition, in the 1930s via the Republican Congress, and then later in the 1960s via the Civil Rights movement, towards effective political campaigning for an all-Ireland secual Republic which would be decoupled from the 'Rome Rule' incubus, all failed, thanks largely to the persistence of the 'armed struggle' mythology.

The following review has been developed from the earlier Irish Democrat version, by a process of linking it with the related Sean Swan book Official Irish Republicanism 1962 to 1972(2), and the current Decoding the IRA book by Mahon & Gillogly, as reviewed above. I also develop some linkages with my own 'Century of Endeavour' book

The Lost Revolution; Brian Hanley & Scott Millar; (the story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party); Penguin Ireland 2009; ISBN 978-1-844-88120-8; pb, pp 658, €22.

This book fills an important gap in the record of the Northern troubles and their background, which have tended to have been dominated by analyses of the Provisionals.

For some obscure reason it had an extended 2-page pre-publication blurb in the Sunday Times on 30/08/09 which concentrated on the influence during the 1970s of the Eoghan Harris group on RTE programmes such as 'Today Tonight', mentioning names of various others involved who have since had distinguished careers, such as Charlie Bird and Brian Farrell. The feature was headed 'A Sticky Situation'. The source of influence was said to be the 'Ned Stapleton Cummann' of the Workers Party. Harris was alleged to be have declared the intent of getting rid of the 'green' (ie national-minded, not environmentalist, in the then current usage) leadership and making it a Communist Party.

There was also a 'review' in the form of an unsigned news feature in the Irish Examiner on 31/08/09, with pictures of various official IRA events. This also has selective extracts from the texts, beginning with the August 1967 IRA meeting in Pallas Co Tipperary, where socio-economic issues and tactics were discussed, in the context of Haughey's Taca mafia which generated Fianna Fail funding from developer-led land rezoning. (I understand the minutes of this meeting exist and will eventually emerge in a memoir by a participant.) The persistence of the Fenian tradition of ultimate dependence on arms was highlighted. The extracts go on to consider the Fianna Fail response to the 1969 Northern crisis, and the move to fund and arm the IRA, in a process that led eventually to the emergence of the Provisionals.

Neither of these 'reviews' makes any attempt to go critically into the politics behind this process, largely I think because the book fails to do this; it simply records a series of events and incidents, based on contemporary reports and where possible interviews with some of the people concerned. The book is therefore to be seen as a source book for future critical historians, rather than an actual history. One of the authors, Scott Millar, is an Irish Examiner journalist, and in this context he also contributed a short feature, on the same date, under the heading 'Former IRA members reveals minister's role in armed plot'. In this he highlights a meeting between Bobby McKnight and Charles Haughey, at Dublin Airport, in the context of which weapons were transferred. He also outlines how in the book the Dublin Government developed plans to split the IRA on left-right lines, leading to the development of the Provisionals.

All three of these promotional reviews may help to sell the book, but it will be some time until the full significance of the contents of the book sinks in. The first apparently 'real' review I have seen is by one John-Paul McCarthy, who is a historian in Exeter College Oxford. He assesses the book in the Sunday Independent on 08/11/2009, as '..a blizzard of innuendo, pub-talk and cul-chaint...hours of taped monologues with old-timers..'. He then apparently discovers the index, which is fairly extensive (though perhaps it could be improved in a future edition), and uses it selectively to scratch the surface of some of the underlying issues emerging in the post-split politics: the 'Garland faction' and the 'Smullen group', identifying Eoghan Harris as Smullen's 'formidable lieutenant', and regretting the failure of Harris to contribute input. He suggests that the 'Smullen team' in RTE were '...more interested in supporting Section 31 than supporting socialism..', a position he sees as justified by the civil war threat, seen as a 'Balkan-scale catastrophe'. Very few names are mentioned in the review; he seems to concentrate his attention on the Harris-related episodes. On the whole, we must look forward to a full series of analytical reviews and commentaries, many perhaps from concerned activists (as indeed was the present writer), to get a full critical picture, from which, perhaps eventually, some lessons may be learned.

In what follows, I try to develop some of the analysis hinted at in the above, and in my December 2009 Books Ireland review.

In my own attempt to cover some of the ground in my Century of Endeavour (Academica 2003, Lilliput 2006) I gave an overview of the 1960s political processes with which we attempted to develop a non-violent political alternative to the classic Fenian tradition. We ran into problems with the latter, and these are documented in the book under review with reasonable accuracy. For me personally the problems became insuperable by early 1972, and I resigned, remaining however in reasonably friendly contact with those activists who retained something of our left-republican politicising agenda, so that I was aware of most subsequent developments, increasingly critically.

The book under review fills in the picture for me, coinciding with my own experience where it overlaps. So my feeling is that it can be taken as a reasonably reliable record of the processes as they evolved, interacting with the the politics of the Republic, interestingly and in some cases constructively, and also interacting with the complex processes on the Continent which were undergone by the Marxist Left in the latter's attempts to deal with the disastrous legacy of Stalin.

The book, in 17 chapters, with preface and epilogue, falls naturally into 4 sections. The first section, chapters 1 to 4, deals with the consequences of the '1950s aftermath' decision in 1963 to try to build broad-based support around the Wolfe Tone bicentenary. (This decision is attributed to Goulding, but perhaps Cronin and others deserve credit? Goulding's long-term strategic thinking in subsequent events left much to be desired! RJ.) This led to the setting up of the Wolfe Tone 'Directories', basically Army Council creations. Subsequently, after the bicentenary events had taken place, some of those concerned set up the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society (WTS), with its own independent constitution, taking on board the present writer and others.

My own personal motivation was to attempt to decouple Marxist analysis from the Lenin/Stalin overlay and develop it on the home ground, on a basis wider than the 'proletariat', invoking the Connolly legacy. There was also considerable influence from Anthony Coughlan, who joined the WTS under the new constitution and later became its secretary; in this context he was influential in building retpublican support for the development of the Civil Rights movement in the North, with a view to providing an environment where republican democratic political objectives might be pursued legally, via a movement emerging from underground via the Republican Clubs. During this period however the IRA remained in existence, with its own historical Fenian legacy, and this led to events taking place, documented by Hanley & Millar, which to my mind at the time were counterproductive in our politicisation attempt. It is impossible to miss the parallel with what happened in the 1920s during the process that led to the emergence of Fianna Fail.

Key passages in this period, as seen from my own perspective, were:

1. The attitude of some of the 1950s leadership to Sean Cronin; it seems he was regarded as 'communist' (p24), due to his wife Terry's favourable treatment of Castro in a United Irishman article. I have it on good authority that there was a threat that the US-originating money supply would be dry up if Cronin were to take up a leading position upon his release from Mountjoy (in or about 1961). His subsequent interactions with the Wolfe Tone Society were however positively supportive of our politicisation process. In this context he was inclined to think we underestimated the internal problems in the movement, due to his earlier experience; this in confirmed by the 'US money' reference above. He had met with the present writer in or about 1959 or 1960, when 'on the run' during the 1950s campaign; we had explored tentatively the 'left-republican' development potential, but at the time this was premature.

2. The Mansion House seminars in September 1963 commemorating Wolfe Tone (p30); these had been set up by Goulding via the 'Wolfe Tone Directory' which had earlier been set up in IRA Army Council initiative. The lecturers included Roger McHugh of UCD, who headed the 'WT Directory', and managed to pull in Hubert Butler and other prominent intellectuals who were able to project an inclusive secular-republican image of the nation to which Tone aspired. This was convincing at the time to the present writer; I had recently returned from London, with a left-politicising republican agenda in mind, as an alternative to the left-sectarian position of the communist 'Irish Workers League' (IWL), which later amalgamated with the CPNI to become the CPI.

3. The outline of my then political position (p38) is a reasonable summary; I wanted to distance myself from the Irish Workers League and its quasi-religious regard for Moscow (as a sort of 'infallible Rome'). I must have been a precursor of what subsequently became known as the 'Eurocommunist' trend. I was impressed by Cuba, while realising that the Cuban use of arms was a consequence of their situation, not a 'principle'. Thus my background differed from that of O'Donnell.

4. On p57 there is a reference to my attempt to get commemorations made into political rather than religious events, pointing out the divisive nature of the practice of saying the rosary, in a movement that wished to unite 'Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter'. This generated some backlash, primarily via Mac Stiofain and Mac Carthaigh in Cork. I stood my ground, but perhaps underestimated the strength of the Catholic-sectarian groundswell. I attempted subsequently to persuade Sean Mac Stiofain of the relevance of early Christian radicalism, with the aid of the Pasolini film on the Gospel of St Matthew. This episode is referenced on p42, by implication earlier; if fact I think it was subsequent to the 'rosary' episode; this is an indication of the problem of dating the many episodes listed.

5. On p75 there is an account of Denis Foley's attempt to get the issue of abstentionism discussed via the United Irishman; this got him into trouble, and he was replaced as editor. This illustrates the complexity of the obstacles in the way of developing the political process.

6. On p82-3 there is an account of the formation of the student Republican Club in TCD, led by Eoin O Murchu, Kevin McCorry, Dalton Kelly and others who subsequently became well-known. The inaugural meeting was addressed by the Quaker historian Theo Moody on 'Wolfe Tone and the Republican Protestant Tradition'. This, for me, gave the right signals, and reassured me that we were on the right track.

7. On p85 there is a reference to the November 1966 seminar in the War memorial Hall, addressed by Kader Asmal, then a TCD law lecturer and South African anti-apartheid activist, which initiated the process leading to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Asmal has recently retired from a Ministerial position in the current South African Government.

8. On p91 there is a brief, and inadequate, outline of how we tried to broaden the scope of internal education to include some understanding of the problems of European Marxist thinking, and its move to decouple from Moscow and the Stalin tradition, in the context of the developing Marxist-Christian dialogue. There is perhaps scope to explore this further.

9. On p95 the impact of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is mentioned, an event which sterilised the process of the attempt we were making to adapt Marxism to democratic national politics. Hard-core left elements tended to support Moscow, but those of the republican left with whom I was associating tried as best we could to decouple what we were doing from the Soviet position. Yet, according to the authors, Goulding at the time was keeping close to Micheal O Riordain, who headed the Moscow-oriented IWL. Could this perhaps have been a precursor of the subsequent Moscow-orientation of the post-Goulding leadership? I was not aware of this at the time.

10. The pattern of development in 1968 is documented in Chapter 4, with increasing domination of the situation by the student Left, led by Michael Farrell, under the influence of the continental Trotskyist ultra-left. The Belfast-Derry march in January, which the more cautious Civil Rights leadership advised against, was ambushed violently by the loyalist supremacist hard-right at Burntollet, initiating the pathological processes which culminated in the August 1969 armed B-Special provocation. The politicising republican clubs along the route of the march were supportive of the march. Grassroots activity outside the north was scattered, complex, confused and obsessed with the 'political abstention from the Dail' problem. The August '69 B-Specials armed provocation came as a surprise, and the net effect was a call to arms to defend the people. In this context the Blaney wing of Fianna Fail, intent on getting rid of the left-republican influences in the movement, which they saw as a threat, offered to fund the 'arming of the people' process in the North, provided Goulding, Costello, Ryan and Johnston were excluded from the process (p139). This was the trigger for what became the anti-left Provisional process. It seems that there was competition from 'left' and 'right' arms-oriented processes; Goulding and Costello attempted to get arms from the USSR via Micheal O Riordain, as well as from the US via the Irish-American network. In this context, the present writer found himself mostly in the dark and irrelevant. There are also echoes of the earlier episodes involving both sources, mentioned in the previous review above.

The second section, chapters 5 and 6, covers the period subsequent to the August 1969 pogrom led by the RUC and the B Specials, when it was considered necessary to prioritise the defence in arms of the Catholic population. This period coincided with the build-up of the Provisional movement, with covert Fianna Fail support, having the objective of directly taking on British rule and getting rid of the Stormont statelet. The 'official IRA' found itself involved in actions on two fronts, the British and the Provisionals, at a time when they were politically trying to keep the Civil Rights issues on the agenda, a contradictory position which led eventually to an 'official IRA' ceasefire, in late 1972.

In this period the events on record (which included bank and payroll heists) were part of a background of which I was to some extent uneasily aware, while attempting to help those trying to keep the political demands for civil rights top of the agenda, countering the drift into civil war. I can endorse the concluding note at the end of Chapter 6, which places on record that the 'official' leadership had begun to realise that the armed campaign was in no sense the makings of a revolutionary situation, and that it such a context any aspiration to working-class unity across the religious boundaries was unrealisable. (Again we can identify echoes of O'Donnell's issues with the 1920s-30s leadership.) Distancing themselves from the Provisional armed campaign became the priority, and the subsequent chapters document the varied and sometimes contradictory policies and actions which resulted.

(The editing of these chapters leaves a lot to be desired; the story dashes backwards and forwards in time, and no sense of chronology emerges; I was unable to pin down the exact date of the ceasefire, and it is not indexed. It poses the problem for the present writer, however: if I had held out until the ceasefire, would I have been able to influence the subsequent political evolution in the direction of Connolly-based Irish-oriented rationality, in the maelstrom of Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist and other influences which were symptomatic of the global crisis of the Marxist political legacy, leading subsequently to the break-up of the USSR?)

The third section, chapters 7 to 11, deals with the development of SFWP (Sinn Fein the Workers Party), increasingly with nominal decoupling from the OIRA. I had distanced myself from the processes described, being marginally aware of them via various personal contacts, primarily with Derry Kelleher, whose memoirs covering the period deserve to be mined for additional insights,

The 4th section, chapters 12 to 16 deals with the Workers Party and its 'Group B', a sort of conspiratorial industrial group, within which the OIRA maintained a shadowy existence. These later sections deserve further analysis, using this book as source, and other relevant sources, including those concerned with the European Marxist crisis and the break-up of the USSR. Key actors in the process were Eoghan Harris and Eoin O Murchu, both of whom aspired to develop an analysis based on Marxism, but who went off in different directions. If they could be persuaded to contribute memoirs to the record, there might emerge a more complete basis for analysis than is feasible with the record outlined in the book under review. My own 'Century of Endeavour' memoir also contributes perhaps to laying the basis for a Marxist approach to the global environment problem, via some sort of 'green-left convergence', but this is another story.

It becomes evident from the book under review that the processes leading to the formation of the Democratic Left, with 6 of the 7 WP TDs walking out and taking most of the activists with them, was the culmination of a combination of pathological processes rooted in European history and underlying the two world wars of the last century. The Fenian tradition, with its admiration of Stalin's robbing banks for the Bolsheviks, turned out to be deep-rooted and persistent. The final chapter, 17, deals in some detail with this break-up, the eventual outcome of which has been the addition of some competent people to the Labour Party leadership.

One can speculate on what might have happened had the 'Group B / OIRA' undergrowth not poisoned the political development of the WP and its potential for developing effectively a creative Marxist political analysis aimed at democratising economic life in Ireland. Would they have come up with a land tax, and the need to regenerate the co-operative movement, getting away from the doctrinaire straitjackets of 'democratic centralism' and 'proletarian hegemony'?

This book, despite its lack of analytical structure, presents a serious challenge to those concerned with reconstructing politics in Ireland to deal with the current economic crisis.

There are a few minor errors in the text which I feel I should note. On p32 there is a reference to the present writer, said to be living in Ranelagh; it should have been Rathmines. In a reference to the IRA internal newsletter an t-Oglach on pp57,64,94 and in the index the aspiration for some reason gets dropped: an t-Oglac. There probably are quite a few minor errors given the multiplicity of oral sources. Also the publishers Penguin note that on p574 line 22 there is an incorrect reference to New Consensus receiving British funding. In fact it was the Peace Train that got the funding.

Notes and References

1. Reviews of the actual Century book are accessible from the public overview area; this page is dedicated to reviews in ILR (Boston) of books which make substantive use of it in their arguments.

2. For Sean Swan's book Official Irish Republicanism 1962 to 1972 see also the supplementary hypertext associated with my Century book.

[to Library Overview][to Techne Home Page]

Some navigational notes:

In general, if you click on the 'Back' button it will bring to to the point of departure in the module from which you came; this may be different from those listed at the bottom. Even if the module from which you came is listed at the bottom, it is still preferable to use the 'back' button, because the explicit bottom-of-page hot-spot will return you to the beginning of the module, and you will have to scroll down to get back to where you were.