October 6, 2017

Young Ireland and Irish History

James Quinn, Young Ireland and the Writing of Irish History (UCD Press, 2015, 227 pp, €30 PB, ISBN 9781906359881)

‘If Young Ireland had failed and failed definitively in her revolutionary policy, she had certainly not failed in her educating and propagandist policy. The soul she had brought into Eire still stirred in many of us.’

So wrote the veteran Fenian John O’Leary in his two-volume Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (1896), a personal memoir and reflection on the eponymous political movement with which he was involved. O’Leary, a keen student of Thomas Davis and subsequently president of the Young Ireland Society in Dublin, is one of those unique figures whose long political career illuminates the broader, intergenerational transmission of Young Ireland’s ideas across various parts of the Irish nationalist movement(s). In his latest book, James Quinn presents a well-researched and skilfully crafted account of the Young Ireland cadre of intellectuals, their writings and legacy. Shifting the focus from the well-ploughed furrow of key events to the neglected history of ideas, Quinn argues convincingly that despite their immediate political failures, the Young Irelanders were to have a hand in shaping the political landscape of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland.

The chief organisers of the Young Ireland movement included John Blake Dillon, Charles Gavan Duffy, the exuberant Thomas Davis, and a tightly knit group of middle-class students which had coalesced around Trinity’s College Historical Society. The primary purpose of history, for them, was to inspire people towards participation in a popular movement for Irish national unity and independence. According to Davis, national morale was undermined by widespread ignorance, fostered by the neglect of Irish history in national schools, and the historical misrepresentations propagated by ‘England’ and her historians. With the launch of the Nation newspaper in 1842, the Young Irelanders had set off on their mission of providing ‘The history of Ireland [which] has not yet been written’.

Having foregrounded his study with a fascinating exploration of Young Ireland’s engagement with the historical literature available to them, Quinn goes on to situate their contributions firmly within the romantic nationalist tradition sweeping across Europe. Although Davis in particular professed a rhetorical allegiance to the values and ideals of the United Irishmen, the Nation’s school of writers gestured towards the celebration of a mythologised past, as opposed to the Enlightenment thinking promoted by their republican forebears. Quinn notes that the familiar narrative of barbaric conquerors being met with the valiant resistance of Irish patriots ‘was endlessly repeated in Young Ireland’s writings’ (p. 65), which ‘contained an insistence on Irish heroism that was more defensive than most’ (p. 70). This emphasis on a historical continuity and unceasing resistance was designed ‘to provide an aspiring nation-state with an historical lineage to justify its foundation’ (p. 73).

At the same time, Quinn is quick to acknowledge the revolutionary ways in which the Young Irelanders harnessed certain aspects of capitalist modernity to their own ends. Specifically, he points to the Nation’s impressive circulation rate and the distribution of cheap, mass-produced books such as the Library of Ireland historical series – covering subjects ranging from the Volunteers of 1782 to the Plantation of Ulster and the Confederation of Kilkenny – ‘as a prime example of Benedict Anderson’s theory of the use of print-capitalism to create a new kind of shared experience and mass solidarity that formed the basis of nineteenth-century nationalism’ (pp. 74-75).

For those unable or unwilling to read, meanwhile, Young Ireland’s historical verse succeeded in bringing the learning of history ‘into the family and social settings in which repeated performance confirmed and reinforced nationalist sentiments’ (p. 49). In 1843, these songs were collected and published as The Spirit of the Nation, which was to go through no fewer than 97 editions over the course of the next hundred years. Quinn argues that the most memorable ballads such as ‘A nation once again’ (Davis), ‘The memory of the dead’ (John Kells Ingram) and ‘O’Donnell Aboo’ (M.J. McCann) ‘propagated national pride more effectively than any other means’ (p. 49). Indeed, their enduring resonance with contemporary generations of nationalists and republicans is a testament to their emotive power and the authors’ craftsmanship.

A major strength of Quinn’s work is his ability to provide a social and political backdrop to Young Ireland’s writings without becoming engulfed by the immense detail of names, dates and events. Thus he manages to account for the tumultuous impact of the Famine and the key developments around the 1848 rebellion in just a few short pages. Here the politics and writings of John Mitchel come to the fore, representing as they do the radical, insurrectionary wing of Young Ireland and its depiction of the rebellion as both essential and inevitable. Mitchel’s History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time (1868) and Jail Journal (1854) have to be counted among Young Ireland’s greatest successes: the former helped to cement Wolfe Tone’s reputation as the father of Irish republicanism whilst dealing a critical blow to the legacy of Daniel O’Connell; the latter provided a template for the prison notebooks of radicals such as Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Michael Davitt and Tom Clarke. Mitchel’s body of work as a whole inspired successive generations of nationalist historians to celebrate separatist principles and violent tactics, and his understanding of the Famine as a British act of genocide survives to this day in certain Irish-American quarters and the work of historians such as Tim Pat Coogan.

In many ways the most interesting chapters of Quinn’s book are those which examine the continuities and legacy of Young Ireland’s writings. The turn of the twentieth century brought new agrarian and nationalist movements whose emergence owed much to the rapid increase in literacy and an expansion of print culture in the intervening decades. An abundance of reading circles and literary societies sprouted up to cater for the intellectual thirst of the lower middle classes, giving new life to the educational methods and historical interpretations developed by the Young Irelanders. The groups who laid claim to the legacy of Young Ireland during the period included constitutional nationalists and republican separatists, as well as those who fell between the two stools. Arthur Griffith stands out as the individual who did most to republish and popularise Young Ireland classics, although it was Casement and Pearse who went furthest in emulating their attempt to make history.

Readers who are interested in the twentieth-century legacy of Young Ireland will be disappointed to find that the book ends rather abruptly, with a limited discussion of the people who made the revolution and counter-revolution. Connolly’s omission from the story seems odd, given his extensive reading of Davis, Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor, while there is scant use of the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements to assess the impact of Young Ireland’s writings on the IRA rank-and-file. This subject would have arguably provided an original and highly interesting line of enquiry, as would the battle of ideas between conservative statebuilders and radical elements – the left republican and socialist movements, for example – in the decades following partition.

Whilst it is understandable for an author to aim for a clear and concise narrative, there are a number of subjects in Quinn’s study that would have benefited from greater elaboration. How, for example, were Davis’ reading groups organised? And what of the ordinary people involved? What were the class and gender dynamics at play in Young Ireland’s writings? These are just some of the questions which interest this reviewer.

Despite or perhaps because of this tight focus, Quinn has managed to cover considerable ground in 147 pages. He by no means subscribes to the Young Ireland school of history, characterising it as ‘conservative’ (p. 6), ‘vulgarised’ (p. 64) and ‘more interested in telling the right story than consulting the right documents’ (p. 58). Crucially, he argues, they had neither the time nor the inclination to look beyond a core body of secondary texts, and, despite Davis’ best efforts, ‘produced no great historian nor any great work of history’ (p. 147). Yet for all of this it is clear that Quinn shares with T.W. Moody and Roy Foster a sneaking admiration for Young Ireland’s long-term achievements. The strength of this book is such that it would be difficult for any reader to think otherwise.

Seán Byers is the author of Seán Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican (2015) and works for Trademark, the anti-sectarian unit of the ICTU.