Ireland Since the Famine: 1850 to the Present
by F. S. L. Lyons.
Fontana Press, [1971] 1985.
Paperback, 880 pages.

Reviewed by John Rossi

Fifty years ago, a book appeared that refined the writing and understanding of modern Irish history. F. S. L. Lyons’s Ireland Since the Famine was the culmination of forty years of serious historical research into Irish history by three generations of Irish historians, a process that began with the founding of the journal, Irish Historical Studies in 1938. Lyons, who was a major contributor to deepening our knowledge of Irish history, undertook to write the first comprehensive synthesis of developments in Ireland from the famine onward.

The book weaves together the political, cultural, and economic developments that shaped Ireland from the 1850s to the period just before Lyons wrote in the late 1960s. Among other features, his study is based on an exhaustive understanding of the key works in Irish history. Lyons also recognizes those scholars (J. C. Beckett, T. W. Moody, T. Desmond Williams, and others) who broke new ground in Irish historical study. Forty-six pages of notes and twenty-one pages of what he labels a selective bibliography attests to the scope of Lyons’s scholarship. It is safe to say that anyone teaching Irish history over the past half-century relies to some extent on Lyons’s masterpiece.

If there is an overarching theme to Lyons’s book, it is the gradual drift of Ireland away from its connection to Britain. He stresses four factors that he argues shaped Irish history after the famine: a deepening of religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the struggle for control of the land, the emergence of new forms of nationalism, and the question of what some form of Home Rule or independence would satisfy Irish nationalist demands.

The book is divided into four parts, the strongest of which are in parts one through three, on the period from the 1850s until the late 1920s. Part four, labeled “The Partitioned Island” and covering the years from the late 1920s to the 1960s, is the weakest section of the book. When he wrote, Lyons was the first scholar to try to analyze dispassionately what happened to Ireland after it had achieved its independence. There is also a long chapter on developments in Northern Ireland after it achieved Home Rule. With part four, unlike the first three parts, Lyons did not have the volume of serious scholarship to draw upon, thus it is lacking the depth and sharp insights that characterize his interpretation of Irish history from the mid-nineteenth century until the achievement of independence in the 1920s.

Throughout the volume we benefit from Lyons’s provocative insights about developments in the years immediately following the famine. Borrowing heavily from the work of the historian Emmet Larkin’s concept of the “devotional revolution,” Lyons notes that one of the byproducts of the post-famine years was a growing intensity of Catholic religious practices: increased recitation of the rosary, novenas, parish missions, and the like. The real victor of the famine, he notes, was the Catholic Church and not the peasantry who were “hovering perpetually on the brink of starvation.” The number of clergy increased dramatically and they came from the same class as the mass of the population and often supported their political, economic, and religious demands.

The hierarchy led by Cardinal Paul Cullen in the middle years of the century (1866–1878) exercised a degree of religious and political power unmatched in Ireland’s past. Various British administrations tried with little success to co-opt his support. While they appreciated his denunciations of radical nationalist movements, on every issue of significance—education, ending the special status of the Protestant Church of Ireland—he drove a hard bargain and usually got his way.

Another byproduct of the famine was the emergence of a new form of nationalism, Fenianism, which looked for inspiration to the republican ideals of Wolf Tone rather than the constitutionalism of Daniel O’Connell and the generation of Catholic Emancipation. While the Fenian movement had few successes at first and an embarrassing failure in its attempt at revolution in 1867, Lyons points out that it made a major contribution to Irish radicalism. It was the first political movement to resist the wrath of the Catholic Church and the first to grasp that the real basis for Irish nationalism lay in the land question. It was also the first to make the movement international with its large base of support from the Irish emigres, especially in the United States.

Lyons is particularly good in his analysis of the role that Charles Stuart Parnell (1846–1891) played in transforming Irish politics, which is not surprising given that he wrote one of the best biographies of that enigmatic individual. Lyons shows how Parnell navigated between the various factions in the Irish nationalist movement while dealing with such complicated pieces of legislation as the 1881 Land Act, which Parnell endorsed as a way to make the peasant farmer and the landlord co-partners in the soil. He was a master at satisfying the radicals with fearsome denunciations of the English while also accepting the maximum concessions from the English. Over the O’Shea question, Lyons believes Parnell lost his political balance. His sensitivity and pride as an Irish leader was fearfully wounded “and in his fierce reaction to his torment he himself lost all moderation,” Lyons believes.

Lyons admires the movement of what he labels “Constructive Unionism,” which believed that the question of independence or autonomy was basically a “knife and fork matter” that they mistakenly believed could be managed by acts of political and social amelioration. He has a soft spot for the work of Sir Horace Plunkett (1854–1932) and his cooperative policies. Cooperative organizations were set up throughout Ireland that saw improvement in the quality of Irish agricultural and dairy production.

Lyons argues that the high point of this approach was found in the Congested District Act of 1898 which built roads, bridges, and harbors, stimulated the Irish fishing industry, and brought in experts to improve the quality of the Irish cattle and sheep industry. Interesting enough, the act was the work of A. J. Balfour (1848–1930) who had earned the reputation of “Bloody Balfour” for his repression of Irish radicals as Irish Secretary in the late 1880s.

Along with the Irish Local Government Act of the same year which he labels “as one of the most important measures of conciliation in the history of the Union,” the effect was to shift power away from the landowning ascendancy class toward the democracy of shopkeepers, publicans, and small farmers. None of this undermined the drift toward a more radical version of nationalism.

Some of the finest parts of Lyons’s study can be found in Parts II and III from the emergence of Home Rule through the Easter Rising and the Civil War. Those fifteen chapters form a book by themselves. There is a long chapter on what Lyons labels “The Battle of Two Civilizations” that focuses on the Gaelic revival and its impact on the nationalist movement. Lyons notes that many of the leaders of the Easter Rising came to their extreme nationalist views through the language movement, which was, paradoxically, the work of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, men like Yeats, Douglas Hyde, AE (George William Russell), and Standish O’Grady. They wrote in English but recalled the Gaelic past and as Lyons notes harnessed it “to a doctrine of emergent nationality” that had a special appeal to the new generation of middle-class readers. The material in this chapter Lyons later expanded to book length in Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890–1939, published in 1979.

The Home Rule movement that had collapsed following the fall of Parnell revived in the first decade of the twentieth century. The party was led by John Redmond (1856–1918), a follower of Parnell, but unlike the “Uncrowned King,” someone in Lyons’s view who “found it difficult to hate Englishmen and things English.” Redmond consistently underestimated what Lyons calls the “siege mentality” of the Protestant majority in the North and its determination to maintain the link to England.

In the years before World War I, Redmond believed it would be possible to negotiate some form of Home Rule that would include the North. Ulster extremists preferred to arm and drill. Negotiations in 1914 allowing the exclusion of the most populous Protestant counties in Ulster in 1914 to create a Home Rule parliament collapsed, as Prime Minister Asquith noted, around “that most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of man, the County of Tyrone.”

Lyons believes that Redmond blundered by not insisting on the implementation of Home Rule when World War I broke out and even worse by calling on the Irish to fight on the side of Britain. For radical nationalists this was the final straw. That movement had been growing for over a decade and among its members there was a determination to strike a blow at Britain.

Lyons is fascinated by what he calls the “revolutionary romanticism,” the dwelling on the necessity of a blood sacrifice by the more extreme nationalists like Padric Pearse (1879–1916). While admiring the honorable qualities in Pearse, Lyons is put off by talk of a noble death in battle or a “harder death at the foot of the gibbet.” Pearse found the war exciting, even thrilling: “The last six months,” he wrote, “have been the most glorious in the history of Europe.… The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields.” Even the more hard-headed socialist, James Connolly (1868–1916) got caught up in this talk about the necessity of a blood sacrifice. “Men who have suffered themselves to be deprived of their manhood have suffered the greatest of indignities … we in effect abrogate our manhood.” With this kind of thinking it did not take much to set off an attack on England.

In his chapter on the Easter Rising, Lyons leans heavily on the groundbreaking work of F. X. Martin, Owen Dudley Edwards, and general histories by Edgar Holt and Max Caufield. He sees the Rising as doomed to disaster before it had even begun as it failed to involve the country at large. The Rising was limited essentially to Dublin, which played into the hands of the British as they could use superior military power to pound the Irish forces into submission. Had the Irish adopted street-fighting tactics the Rising would have been more difficult to crush, but it also could have been bloodier.

The British decision to sentence to death sixteen of the leaders, Lyons stresses, was a major blunder that would make martyrs out of the Rising’s leaders. The funeral Masses for those executed gradually created a cult of the dead and turned the populace of Dublin and the Irish in general, including the Irish Americans, into bitter foes of England. In a sense, Pearse’s idea of a blood sacrifice had worked. After 1916, the various components of Irish nationalism, from the most radical to the more moderate, lost interest in cooperating with England.

A new radical leadership emerged following the Rising. Arthur Griffith (1871–1922) the leader of Sinn Fein, Michael Collins (1890–1922) of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and Eamon de Valera (1882–1975), the most senior of the military leaders of the Rising, coalesced around the idea of withdrawing from all forms of cooperation with the British. Lyons is critical of British policy after 1916, accusing them of “inconceivable foolhardiness” and useless “pin-pricking” when they threatened to extend conscription to Ireland. John Dillion, leader of the Home Rule after Redmond’s death, warned them that “all Ireland will rise against you.” Even the Church hierarchy agreed, calling conscription oppressive and inhuman and arguing the Irish people had a right to resist it “by every means that are consonant with the laws of God.” The ground was now laid for a broader war against England, one that aimed at nothing less than independence.

Ireland’s war for independence began when Irish members elected in the British general election gathered in Dublin and declared their independence, linking the nation’s sovereignty to Ireland’s past struggles against “foreign usurpation” and asserting the existence of an Irish Republic since its proclamation on Easter Monday, 1916. The Irish hoped for outside help, especially from the large contingent of Irish in America, as well as a sympathetic hearing from the newly convened Paris Peace Conference. The Irish American community supplied money and the Paris conference gave them a hearing but took no action.

Most of the nation’s natural leaders, men like Griffith and de Valera, were in jail, while the majority of the newly created parliament, the Dáil, was made up of young men with little experience in government. He also notes that there were just two Protestants in the first Dáil, not a good sign if the Irish sought to appeal to public opinion in Ulster.

Lyons divides the war into three phases. The first saw small-scale fighting in 1919 and early 1920 throughout the island. Beginning in mid-1920 the British took harsh countermeasures, enlisting the two military groups that came to define the war for many with their uncontrolled violence: The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. The Irish used terror tactics of their own and social ostracism to render the civil authority of British in Ireland nugatory.

The third and final phase took place in the first half of 1921 and saw the violence mount to a point that Lyons argues pushed Ireland close to a reign of terror. Both sides were exhausted emotionally if not physically and peace negotiations began in the fall of the year. Lyons is critical of de Valera’s refusal to lead the Irish delegation arguing that he saw himself as head of state. The Irish delegation was led by Griffith and Michael Collins, who represented two of the most influential Irish factions, Sinn Fein and the IRB. The talks almost broke down not on the question of Ulster, as many expected, but on the recognition of the Irish Republic and the oath of allegiance to the Crown. The treaty that emerged granted southern Ireland not full independence but something resembling Dominion status within the British Commonwealth.

Fighting broke out early 1922 over whether to accept the peace treaty. A violent civil war that lasted almost a year saw more deaths than those killed in the conflict with England. Lyons’s sympathy lies with the pro-treaty forces. He admires Collins’s and Griffith’s behavior in the terrible circumstances they faced and laments their deaths within ten days of each other in August 1922, which Lyons believes cost the emerging nation deeply. He is sharply critical of de Valera’s role in provoking the fighting and of his dog-in-the-manger actions once the pro-Treaty forces won the war.

Lyons credits the leadership of the pro-treaty forces—particularly William Cosgrave and Collins’s right-hand man, Kevin O’Higgins, whom he labels “a remarkable man”—for putting the new Irish government on its feet. He is less kind to de Valera, calling him the “constitutional Houdini of his generation” for his talent to change his political views on the Ireland created by the Treaty.

Lyons’s history of modern Ireland set the standard for all the subsequent studies. In many ways, his book is an historian’s idea of what scholarly synthesis should be. He did not set out to write a revisionist history but instead sought to incorporate the latest and best scholarship in the field of Irish Studies. In that he succeeded. His real heir, Roy Foster, regarded Lyons as both friend and mentor. Foster’s massive Modern Ireland, 1603–1972 (1988) can be seen as a running commentary on Lyons’s interpretation of a century and a half of Irish history. He admired Lyons’s “Olympian, assured, decisive tone” while noting that such an outlook no longer comes easily. Perhaps it is this very sense of confidence that gives Lyons’s book such appeal.  

John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

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