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For anyone with even a passing knowledge of modern Irish history, the name of Cobh has a particular emotional resonance. Associated within Ireland most especially with the trauma of the Irish Famine, during which (and for years after) it was the principal point of embarkation for hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants, internationally it will also forever be associated with two of the great naval tragedies of the early years of the twentieth century – the sinkings respectively of the Titanic and Lusitania. Site of one of the great natural harbours of the world, and location of a strategically important naval base – the significance of which had been magnified during the First World War by the emergence of the submarine threat to the British surface fleet – it was no surprise that it was one of the facilities over which the British insisted on maintaining control under the terms of the Treaty of 6 December 1921.
There are, however, other aspects to the history of the town, and its hinterland, that can be overlooked in this maritime-oriented narrative. As with almost all parts of Cork city and county, the story of its experience during the revolutionary decade of modern Irish history is a fascinating, and significant, one, and which is related in a strikingly readable form in a new edition of Kieran McCarthy’s fine work, Republican Cobh & The East Cork Volunteers Since 1913. The time-frame explored in the work extends up to the present day, but for reasons of time this review will focus on the earlier chapters up the end of the Civil War.
The author’s motivations for the study are varied, ranging from personal interest, a wish to convey the historical significance of the story, and, from a political perspective, a desire to correct what he sees as tendentious interpretations of the independence struggle, coloured by the more recent Troubles. There was a potential danger that over-compensation arising from the third motive might interfere with demands of the second, but a sustained emphasis upon primary sources (particularly those collated by Séamus Fitzgerald, one of the senior figures in the local campaign) ensures that the analysis, while undoubtedly personal, remains within an inquisitorial framework. The terminology employed is broadly familiar, although this reviewer demurs from the author’s description of the events of 1919-21 as the ‘Tan War’ as opposed to the more conventional ‘War of Independence’, on the basis that the former term seems to imply that the republican campaign was a negative, reactive one whereas the latter connotes a more positive, aspirational endeavour – and this is actually the general tenor of the book’s approach to that campaign. But the difference is not significant.
With some occasional exceptions the book is arranged in chronological sequence, and ‘gets down to business’ swiftly, with 1913 chosen as the ‘year zero’ for subsequent developments on the basis that it saw the creation in the town of branches of both the Irish Volunteers and Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The decision is a sound one, as the militancy of the latter certainly was of a piece with that of the former, and the labour unrest of the 1919-21 period remains a greatly under-studied aspect of same. The author notes that while some committed republican activists were collaborating in the locale over previous years (of whom P.S. Hegarty, postmaster of Cobh at this time, was the most famous), in common with much of the rest of the country they found it difficult to make much headway given the strong currents running in favour of the home rule party. That said, they succeeded in making available the IRB’s journal, Irish Freedom, to sympathisers, and the good work being done to revive the Irish language, via both the local branch of the Gaelic League and the Presentation Brothers’ school in the town, was helping to nurture a youthful cadre of future leaders.
One of the strongest features of the study is its detailed exploration of the role that key individuals played in the evolution of the independence movement in the area, as well as the contribution of the organisations through which they worked. The figures of Séamus Fitzgerald and Michael Leahy figure prominently in this regard, with the latter given much credit for the creation of the local company of the Volunteers, with part of the groundwork for same being undertaken even before the formal inauguration of the movement in Cork.
Another key theme is the significance of the interplay between the imperial presence in, and influence over, the locality, and the local republicans who opposed them. While the main thrust of this discussion is, not surprisingly, on this oppositional relationship, there are also some interesting tangents which explore how the Volunteers in particular used the presence of the British army and navy for their own benefit. The most obvious of these was the fact that there was an abundance of modern weaponry in the area, and it was surprisingly easy in some respects (and lethally difficult in others) for the Volunteers to acquire a portion of same, whether through planned raids, illicit purchases, or opportunistic theft. But there were others, with the assistance of some retired members of the British armed forces proving very useful on occasions – not least in the earliest months of the Volunteers’ existence when an ex-naval warrant officer drilled the new recruits and helped to impose a hierarchical disciplinary ethos into them.
The activism of the other separatist organisations – notably Cumann na mBan and na Fianna – is also documented in fitting detail. The contribution of the latter organisation was truly striking, founded upon (as was the case with the Gaelic League mentioned above) a fruitful relationship with the local schools, with, also again, the services of a Royal Navy pensioner being utilised for the purposes of drill instruction. Such detail reminds one that this war was, as all wars are, fought by the young – sometimes the very young. It would be an interesting study, one for another day, to examine the manner in which the events of these tumultuous years helped to shape these juvenile personalities, and had a legacy (for good or otherwise) later in their lives.
The broad sweep of the sequence of events is familiar – the foundation of the Volunteers (accompanied by much spiteful mockery among certain quarters), the attempted Redmondite take-over, the split at the outset of World War One, and the subsequent slow, but steady, recovery of the republican wing in the period leading up to the Rising. The positive and negative consequences of the status of the Volunteers as a People’s Army are explored in this discussion – the sense of shared purpose and camaraderie that voluntary association always engenders on the one hand being balanced against the vulnerability of each individual to harassment by police and employers alike. On this point it is striking just how many of those involved in the republican campaign found employment of various sorts with the local British presence, perhaps most obviously in the substantial dockyard facilities – and equally striking how many of these men were able to return to such employment even after the arrests and questioning that was part and parcel of their daily lives under the Defence of the Realm Act. This significance of this form of subversion from within cannot be underestimated – the author illustrates how many acquired skills that were utilised by the engineering sections of the Volunteers once the shooting started in earnest in 1920, and also how such employment brought forth vital intelligence, that most prized weapon of all.
Given the lethal nature of what transpired during these years it is not surprising that humour was not in abundant supply, but, as always seems to be the way, the high value of the stakes at play were counter-pointed by the odd comic interlude, and the author adroitly introduces such episodes into the discussion, as a means of both lightening the mood and humanising the narrative. The sight of Volunteers employed at Haulbowline bringing their hurleys to work with them and pretending to practice during their lunch break, only to use them as mock rifles for drill practice as soon as they were left unsupervised is typical of such incidents, and illustrates the thin line than exists in armed conflict between mirth and death
But the real value of the book lies in two directions. The first is the detailed recreation of the sequence of events that transformed the nascent Volunteer movement in the area in 1913-4 into the deadly efficient guerrilla fighters of the Irish Republican Army between 1919 and 1921; the second, how that campaign was supported both by local public opinion and complemented by political and other activities, such as the local election campaigns of 1920, and the successful (if not aways problem-free) advent of the Dáil courts in 1919-20. The interplay between these local events and personalities and their national counterparts is explored in depth, and the author makes clear that this relationship was by no means just one way, and that east Cork was among the leading exemplars of the separatist campaign in the entire country. That campaign had its limits, of course, and the shattering experience of the civil war – both in terms of the events of same, and its enduring legacy – is not ignored, and correctly so.
This new edition of an existing text is one of the best studies of the evolution of republicanism in a specific locale in Ireland over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, and can be read with profit by those who share the author’s political viewpoint and those who do not. The author is to be congratulated for having seen the volume through the presses at a time when the Covid epidemic has disrupted so many other aspects of the centenary commemorations of the struggle for independence.
School of History
University College Cork
7 January 2021