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Ireland’s bitter revolution still resonates in world today

This is the story of Ireland’s War of Independence (1919 – 1921) and more.  “Bitter Freedom” is a masterful description of both the gritty detail and grand picture of the struggle all at once.  

It is a history “that places Ireland in the panorama of a shifting world order while illuminating local politics at work…”  Ireland’s war was “part of a civilization in turmoil,” as described in a compelling narrative by former BBC journalist, Maurice Walsh.  

“Bitter Freedom” is out just in time for the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rebellion of 1916.  It connects quickly changing times and its preoccupations throughout the world to Irish issues and its leadership engrossed with gaining freedom from England.   

“Bitter” is the right adjective for the freedom gained, as Walsh presents not a roseate story, but one that traces “the evolution of a local rebellion – fought along the streets and back roads of Ireland.”  Walsh tells about skirmishes battled along “streets raked by sniper fire and the swaggering brutality of the Black and Tan militias, to priests hiding revolvers in the statue of St. Joseph, and rampant police assassinations with terrible reprisals…”

Remember that this was a time when revolutionary fervor swept the globe after WW I.  Anti-imperialist sentiment was rife; Lord Milner, English secretary of state for the colonies, observed “The whole world is rocking.”  Other countries in the Union were requesting freedom within the Commonwealth: Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.”  But not Ireland.  As Walsh concludes, “This sense that the revolution was a failure because it did not create a new country was the bitterest feeling of all,” he remarks.”

It was in this context that “leaders of the Irish Party appealed to President Wilson for recognition as a free nation in 1918 when they declared: ‘Every national question is international.’ That seems too sweeping an assertion to me, but it’s clear that Irish leaders understood the international world had clout within their country.  Today even more  so,  national questions have linkage and reverberation on the international level. 

As a comparative aside, take a look at whether national questions are internationally considered and successfully mediated today.  Mostly, they are not.  Don’t hold your breath to be helped if you’re knee-deep in blood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or other broad swathes of Africa, for that matter.

Why no rescue by the big powers for so many minority people?  It’s a fact that today’s superpowers and the United Nations have failed to deal successfully with numerous national calamities.  Regrettably, there are too many disasters in countries across the world in 2016.  This condition is a reflex, to some degree, of important powers ignoring earlier injustices that have grown like weeds over the last decade in the world’s garden of evil. 

Countries that might come to the rescue have arguments that always center on whether “it’s in their interest” to intervene.  The result is a huge corollary to history: powerful countries overlook the dispossessed and their interests.

From these present circumstances of helplessness across the globe, you can see the necessity of the connection requested by the Irish leaders when they petitioned Wilson in 1918.  Wilson’s indifference to the Irish entreaty is the context of Maurice Walsh’s book.  Ireland’s War of Independence was ironically “…a brutal civil war to be known as ‘the war of friends.’ ”

Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of Modern Irish history at University College Dublin and author of  “A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-23”, contends that Maurice Walsh’s new book distils well the existing literature, but fails to examine events in a global context as a result of new research.  This criticism doesn’t tally with my reading.

A bit more detail for you to make up your own mind: Maurice Walsh tells us that President Wilson was a favorite in Europe, who made it respectable to be “anti-imperialist.”  To wit: after WW I, an immediate love affair between Americans and the Irish seemed aroused. 

Part of the reason for that mutual admiration was that thousands of American soldiers, who were demobilized (de mobbed, as the English say,) passed through Dublin, “so many that they occupied their own hostel and their special concerts and dances became a feature of life in the city in the months after the war.”  For their part, the Irish saw the value of American capital and the U. S. – in the person of Henry Ford – invested millions of pounds in a factory in Cork that promised work for 2,000 people.

  “Bitter Freedom” is a cross-over book, good for experts and for the general reader.   It has brilliant illustrations of both disagreeable and reverent behavior: for example, there’s the destruction caused by Auxiliaries and Black and Tans in the Centre of Cork, November 1920, and Michael Collins arriving at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin for the funeral service of Arthur Griffin.

A chronology of the period includes years 1918 through 24 May 1923, concluding with De Valera issuing a cease fire order to anti-treaty forces.  And there’s a map of Ireland to sort things out.  Chapters ring out with loud reports, such as “The American Spirit”, “Victory of the Rainbow Chasers”, “Over a Policeman’s Body”, “Would You Shoot a Man?”, and “Bolshevism in the Air.”  You get the picture.

Now get the book.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books about Ireland and England for The Buffalo News.


Bitter Freedom: Ireland In A Revolutionary World

By Maurice Walsh


544 pages, $35.00