- Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912–1925 by Robert McLaughlin
During the 1980s and 1990s, Irish-Canadian historiography focused largely on the extent to which people of Irish ethnicity became acculturated to Canadian norms. In the process, a consensus emerged: partly because of their successful integration into Canadian society, and partly because of “ethnic fade,” Irish Canadians became historically invisible, with only a vestigial interest in the Old Country. Over the last decade, this consensus has been challenged. It is now clear that despite, or because of, their primary loyalty to Canada, many Irish Canadians were highly visible and audible in their response to Irish affairs. This was particularly but not exclusively the case during the revolutionary decade of 1912–22 that began with the Home Rule crisis and ended in independence, partition, and civil war.
Robert McLaughlin’s book is part of that challenge. When it first appeared as a PhD thesis in 2004, it was more original than it is now. The author has made hardly any changes to his dissertation and has failed to engage the scholarship that has appeared over the past five years. Thus we have him arguing that the relationship between Irish Catholics and French-Canadian nationalism is “crying out for further investigation” (23) when Simon Jolivet has written several articles on the subject and a major book, Le Vert et le bleu (Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2011). Similarly, he has not read Frederick McEvoy’s “Canadian Catholic Press Reactions to the Irish Crisis of 1916–21,” or any of the other articles in David A. Wilson, ed., Irish Nationalism in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).
Instead, McLaughlin focuses his fire on earlier historians, such as Cecil Houston and William J. Smyth, who are viewed as being soft on Orange sectarianism; Brian Clarke, who is criticized for arguing that Orange-Green riots disappeared from Toronto after the 1880s, even though McLaughlin provides no evidence to the contrary; and Mark McGowan, whose work on Irish Catholics in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Toronto is described as being detailed and well researched but full of “glaring flaws and weaknesses.” [End Page 612]
Cautionary tales about throwing stones in glass houses immediately come to mind. McLaughlin is undoubtedly right to argue that Irish-Canadian nationalism and Orange-Canadian unionism were in conflict between 1912 and 1925, and that before 2004 the subject had not received the attention it deserved. Beyond that, however, there are so many glaring flaws and weaknesses in McLaughlin’s work that one wonders how the external readers and the University of Toronto Press failed to catch them.
Part of the problem is straightforward sloppiness, carried over from the dissertation to the book. The eighteenth-century Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone becomes “Theobolde Wolfe Tone” in one place, and “Theabold Wolf Tone” in another. It would have come as a surprise to James Stephens, the founder of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, to learn on his way to mass at Notre-Dame that he was actually a Protestant. The men who established the Ancient Order of Hibernians in New York in 1836 would have been startled by McLaughlin’s statement that their organization was founded in Ulster during the 1790s. Historians of Irish Canada will be equally surprised to read that “the vast majority of Irish-Catholic Canadians were descendants of those who fled Ireland during the Potato Famine” (53); they will be less surprised, however, by the absence of a supporting footnote. Neither is there sufficient evidence to substantiate McLaughlin’s assertion that Canadian Orangemen sent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” (50) to the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Such errors and exaggerations are embedded within a melodramatic narrative structure, peopled with Irish nationalist heroes and Orange villains. In the pre-revisionist Irish historiographical world that McLaughlin proudly inhabits, Irish nationalists have reason, logic, and justice on their side, while Orangemen are characterized by opportunism, double standards, and narrow self...