- Widening the Fight for Ireland’s Freedom: Revolutionary Nationalism in Its Global Contexts
In this review essay, we invited Alvin Jackson to explore issues raised in:
Political violence in Ireland, particularly militant resistance to the Union, is no neglected theme, so in a sense the cluster of books on this broad topic, all published between 2009 and 2010, reflects an elaboration of a well-established scholarly pattern. And yet the effusion of interest these volumes embody arguably represents more than the normal, well-honed contours of modern Irish historiography. A combination of seismic political events—the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements in Northern Ireland, the attacks of 9/11 in New York and of 7/7 in London—as well as several notable political anniversaries, including the sesquicentenary of the foundation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the centenary of the death of the great Irish nationalist, Michael Davitt, provide the unmistakable and distinctive backdrop to the writing of these several volumes.
Close-grained analyses of the triangular set of relationships binding Britain, Ireland, and the United States have not been wanting in [End Page 95] Irish historical scholarship, so in a sense the clutch of books under discussion here represent another familiar trope. Yet the concerns of these volumes perhaps embody more than merely an extrapolation of a recognizable theme. Just as in the realms of trade and diplomacy there has been a tension in Ireland between the rival pulls of Boston and Berlin, of North America and continental Europe, so this tension has had a historiographical dimension. There has been a tendency within much recent Irish historiography to emphasize the island’s interlinkages with mainland Europe, the perceived success of Irish membership in the European Union (certainly until the economic chaos of recent years) being an obvious and important context. These works, which might in theory have had much to say about the British-Irish (or the Irish-American) relationship alone, in fact present a striking portrayal of the complex layers of relationships—British, continental European, North American, imperial—within which Irish history can now successfully be cast.
But there are other striking motifs linking some or all of these volumes. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Dublin in 1858, and soon bound to sister organizations in the United States, drew upon European exemplars as well as the legacies of the 1848 Rising in Ireland, and contributed in turn to recurrent militant assaults upon British rule in Ireland until the achievement of independence in 1921–22. The IRB, or “Fenian” movement as it became commonly known, has a well-established place in the narrative of the Irish conflict with Britain, and has been in particular a central feature of a patriotic historiography that emphasizes the interconnectedness, integrity, and persistence of the armed struggle against the imperial power.
The IRB is central to all of the volumes under discussion, but there is also evidence of new concerns and approaches. The years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland have been linked to what has been variously described as a more clinical, embarrassed, or nervous approach to the history of Irish militant nationalism, or political violence more widely. But it was certainly the case that the clash between militants and the British state in Ireland was of no less scholarly interest (rather the reverse), even if this work was conducted in the oppressive and limiting contexts of insurgent terror and state counter-terror in Northern Ireland. In a sense, the Provisionals’ “armed struggle” simultaneously stimulated renewed scholarly interest in the interaction between nationalist violence and the government of the Union, while also limiting some of its possibilities. It is frequently [End Page 96] alleged, for example, that professional historians working in this and cognate territories have been suffocated by the fear of...