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  • Designing Modernism:Harry Kernoff, Russia, and Postindependence Ireland
  • Elaine Sisson (bio)

Making Modernism in the Free State

In a letter to the Irish Statesman on 18 October 1924, the Irish Communist and novelist Liam O'Flaherty suggested that the "wild tumult" of contemporary Ireland was lending itself to an energetic creativity. The Civil War was finally over, and the task of building a nation had begun in earnest by 1923 after a turbulent ten-year period marked by the labor lockouts of 1913; the Great War of 1914–18; the Easter Rising and its revolutionary aftermath, culminating in the first Dáil of 1919; the 1920 Government of Ireland Act; the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; and the divisive events of the ensuing Civil War.

At the time of O'Flaherty's letter the battle for ownership of the mechanisms of power had been won by the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal government. Histories of the Free State expose the tensions and contradictions inherent in our understanding of this period. The new regime was certainly under threat from militant anti-Treaty republicanism; thus the need to impose law and order helps to account for its conservatism. John Regan observes that as the Free State began to consolidate its power, the "vision of the future became increasingly modelled on the past" of a more recent period, when power resided with the prewar elites of the professional classes, rather than on the romanticism of a revolutionary version of the past. The drive for the restoration of order led not so much to the creation of new social formations, but to the reinscription of old ones. During the nineteenth century the nationalist middle classes had gained footholds in politics and the professions, but they had witnessed their "moment of inheritance" (i.e., Home Rule) "swept away by a Sinn [End Page 31] Féin revolution." Now, as the Free State administration swung into action, they reemerged to take their places at the top table. Their perceived rightful reinstatement, much of it informed by class snobbery, was contingent upon the creation of a civil society "out of the chaos they had inherited."1

This political conservatism stands at odds with an apparent cultural cosmopolitanism that was jarring to some of Sinn Fein's isolationist policies. The new leaders were cultured, well-traveled, and well-read men who sought to situate Ireland within a European context and to position Dublin as a global capital city.2 This government recognized the power of images and spectacle in legitimizing the state—hence the creation of currency, stamps, and the Great Seal. It was the driving force behind the creation of the first Tailteann Games in 1924, Dublin Civic Weeks, and other municipal promotions, as well as the ambitious modern engineering of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme.3 Nicholas Allen suggests that the fracturing of Irish politics and culture during the Civil War period created the possibility of new social and cultural forms. Certainly by 1923 the ideological dogmas of the revolutionary period—a Gaelic state, national unity, and self-determination—were dead in the Cumann na nGaedheal Free State.4 Fantasies of Irish-Ireland were quietly set aside; for example, the revolutionary educational philosophies of Patrick Pearse were so watered down as to be meaningless. That new social and cultural forms were as yet unclear has led to a conventional characterization of the early Free State as a society dominated by nationalist insularity, the Catholic church, censorship, and an inward-looking retreat from world developments. But this mindset has slowly been challenged by scholars of the period who have sought to examine the contradictions between the innovations of the new state and its social conservatism.

Modernity embodies both continuity and rupture, for an ongoing tension between the past and the present elicits modern forms. Jürgen Habermas attests to the unfinished project of modernity and suggests [End Page 32] that although all definitions of it are fluid, they are, nevertheless, always defined in relation to the past.5 Paige Reynolds has examined how revivalism, often set in opposition to modernism, is indeed a discourse of modernity. Yet because the exploration...


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