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Reviewed by:
  • Cathal Brugha by Fergus O'Farrell
  • Jason Knirck
Cathal Brugha, by Fergus O'Farrell (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2018, 111 p., paperback, $24)

Cathal Brugha is an often-caricaturized figure in the Irish revolution. When discussed at all, he is depicted as a die-hard republican possessing neither the political skill of Éamon de Valera nor the field experience of Liam Lynch or Tom Barry. Ernest Blythe, ever charming, recorded in his witness statement that every other person in the revolutionary cabinet had at least twice the brains that Brugha possessed. In works on the revolution, Brugha rarely plays a central role, [End Page 151] instead being depicted as losing power and influence over the army and within the cabinet to the more ebullient and active Michael Collins. Even de Valera, Brugha's purported ally, later said that he stayed away from the Treaty negotiations in London in order to "bring Cathal along" toward any potential settlement, implying that Brugha needed careful management and external political wisdom.

Brugha himself did his historical reputation few favors. As Fergus O'Farrell writes in his new biography of Brugha, "his secretive nature and covert lifestyle have meant that historians also know almost nothing about him. He kept no diary and destroyed virtually all correspondence." He also gained notoriety for fairly vicious personal attacks on colleagues. At the fateful cabinet meeting on December 3, 1921, when the penultimate draft of the proposed Treaty was discussed, Brugha said that the British government "selected its men" in negotiating primarily with Arthur Griffith and Collins, thereby implying that those two were either weak or pro-British or both. As the Dáil debates on the Treaty wound down, Brugha made a venomous speech attacking Collins. Decrying the commonly voiced notion that Collins was "the man who won the war," Brugha emphasized that Collins was only a middling and barely competent officer on the general headquarters staff and had not been an active gunman. His reputation, according to Brugha, stemmed from his relentless seeking of publicity and fame, not his actual record. Brugha also harmed his own reputation, particularly in later accounts of the revolution by participants, by his "pet project" to assassinate the British Cabinet, a position that seems to have led Collins, Richard Mulcahy, and Blythe to conclude that Brugha was not possessed of astute military or political judgment.

The result, as O'Farrell writes, is that Brugha, when he is mentioned at all in revolutionary histories, is depicted as "honest, ignorant, stubborn, brave, devout, fastidious, and cantankerous." His commitment to physical force republicanism is also emphasized, alongside a disinterest in or even contempt for politics and politicians. O'Farrell wants to alter this perspective, arguing instead that Brugha believed in the efficacy of politics and that "he fused politics and war together in pursuit of freedom." This argument is difficult to prove given the paucity of reflective materials left by Brugha and because he was, as O'Farrell admits, "no political theorist" and he "left no record of his thoughts on political systems." Other than what appeared to be his unswerving commitment to it, we have little idea with what meaning Brugha invested the word republic, or what kind of post-independence Irish state he envisioned outside of its basic political form. Nevertheless, O'Farrell admirably adds depth to the general portrayal of Brugha through skillful reading of the available sources.

Several major themes emerge from this book, many of which attempt to paint Brugha as less of an extremist and more representative of the mainstream of Sinn [End Page 152] Féin and the Irish Republican Army. Like many members of the movement, Brugha underwent a radicalization in the decade before the First World War, as demonstrated by his decisions to Gaelicize his name, join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and swear off "English" games. He demonstrated his organizational ability, dedication, and courage by playing a key role in the Howth gunrunning of 1914 and then cemented his reputation within advanced nationalist circles by the part he played in the Easter Rising. An officer in the (relatively) successful South Dublin Union garrison, Brugha received upwards of twenty-five wounds and had to...


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pp. 151-154
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