- The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916–1918 by John Borgonovo
The Dynamics of War and Revolution: Cork City, 1916–1918, a revised doctoral dissertation by John Borgonovo of University College Cork, is an excellent addition to the scholarship on the Irish revolutionary era of 1916–23. Such works multiply as Ireland approaches the centenary of the Easter Rising, but Borgonovo’s deeply researched and well-written study is singularly important for several reasons.
First, it is as much a social as a political history of Ireland’s third largest urban center during the last years of World War I. Cork was an essential cog in the British military machine: an industrial city of 77,000 inhabitants, plus 200,000 in its suburbs, and high levels of poverty and unemployment—which initially aided the British military’s recruiting efforts. Cork (and adjacent Queenstown) was also southern Ireland’s major port and naval station, vital for the protection of British shipping from German submarines. Likewise, from Cork flowed farm products essential to feed Britain’s military forces and civilians. There also the U.S. navy established an overbearing presence after America entered the war in April 1917, and one of Borgonovo’s most interesting chapters dispels any apprehension that relationships between the American navy and its Irish “hosts” were any more congenial than the U.S. military’s relationships today with the people of, say, Okinawa.
Second, although most studies of the Irish revolution move quickly from the Easter Rising of April 1916 to Sinn Féin’s parliamentary election victory of December 1918 and, a month later, to the start of the so-called Black and Tan War for Irish independence, Borgonovo argues convincingly that the years between those events were a crucial rehearsal for the more dramatic and (partly) successful Irish political and military struggles of 1919–21. Even before the Easter Rising, Irish enlistments and support for the British war effort had eroded, but it was in the two years after the Rising—and the British execution of its leaders—that Cork’s radical nationalists, hitherto a small if dedicated minority, mobilized growing numbers against the British and their local supporters, in the process undermining the perceived legitimacy of British power and destroying popular deference to official authority. By mid-1917 Cork was convulsed by street warfare between the police and a radicalized populace, as well as chronic unrest by republican-allied labor unions, and by 1918 Cork’s nationalists were united in open rebellion against Britain’s wartime demands for Irish farm products and conscript soldiers. [End Page 279]
Third, Borgonovo demonstrates that Irish experiences of World War I and of nationalist mobilization against British rule were not compartmentalized and mutually exclusive, as many historians have portrayed them, but were instead intimately and symbiotically related. The British government’s pursuit of military victory against Germany led to official acts and expressions of insensitivity, arrogance, and even brutality that alienated increasing numbers of Irishmen and women, and made them sympathetic to Irish republican arguments and agitation—which in turn provoked greater British repression that only deepened popular disaffection. The result, Borgonovo argues, was that, by the time of the December 1918 election, most Irish Catholics in Cork had effectively withdrawn their city from the British war effort and, psychologically, from the British Empire itself. Revolution was now virtually inevitable, especially when London refused to recognize that election’s mandate for Irish self-government.
A refreshing novelty of Borgonovo’s analysis is its challenge to “revisionist” critiques that were advanced during the 1968–98 “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Borgonovo argues, for example, that the events of 1916–18 comprised a “real” revolution in that the leaders and members of Sinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers, and other advanced nationalist organizations represented groups and classes that, prior to the crisis, were socially marginalized and politically powerless. Yet by late 1918 it was artisans and shop clerks like Florrie O’Donoghue, an important local IRA officer in 1919–21, who...