From Celtic Twilight to Revolutionary Dawn
The Irish Review 1911-1914
By Ed Mulhall
The July 1913 edition of The Irish Review, a monthly magazine of Irish Literature, Art and Science, leads off with an article 'Ireland, Germany and the Next War' written under the pseudonym 'Shan Van Vocht'. The article is a response to a major piece written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books and a noted writer on international issues, in the Fortnightly Review of February 1903 called 'Great Britain and the Next War'. Shan Van Vocht takes issue with a central conclusion of Doyle's piece that Ireland's interests are one with Great Britain if Germany were to be victorious in any conflict. Doyle writes: 'I would venture to say one word here to my Irish fellow-countrymen of all political persuasions. If they imagine that they can stand politically or economically while Britain falls, they are woefully mistaken. The British Fleet is their one shield. If it be broken, Ireland will go down. They may well throw themselves heartily into the common defense, for no sword can transfix England without the point reaching Ireland behind her.' However The Irish Review author proposes to show that 'Ireland, far from sharing the calamities that must necessarily fall on Great Britain from defeat by a Great Power, might conceivably thereby emerge into a position of much prosperity.'
In supporting this provocative stance the author initially tackles two aspects of the accepted British view of Ireland's fate under these circumstances: that Ireland would remain tied with Britain under German rule or that she might be annexed by the victor. Under the first, the author agrees with the supposition that tied to Britain and already 'weaker, poorer and less recuperative' than Great Britain, Ireland would suffer even greater hardship than Britain.
Under the second possibility ‘annexation’ he finds the outcome potentially more complex. The accepted British view would be that in this situation Ireland forcibly removed from Britain as the spoils of war would for Ireland be 'out of the frying pan into the fire'. 'German rule, we are asked to believe, would be so bad, so stern, that under it Ireland, however much she might have suffered from England in the past, would soon yearn to be restored to the arms of her sorrowful sister.' This view he challenges by examining what would be the dominant strategic requirement for Germany in regard to Ireland: 'Clearly not to impoverish and depress that new-won possession, but to enhance its strategic importance by vigorous and wise administration so as to make it the main counterpoise to any possible recovery of British maritime supremacy, so largely due as this was in the past to Great Britain's own possession of this island.' So Ireland is still a dominion but with some more benign policy determining its rule.
But there is a third possibility that, he argues, is at least as likely as the first option and more likely than annexation which he considers unlikely to be acceptable internationally in a post war settlement. This would be - for want of a better term - the European solution. Great Britain's defeat by Germany, with its fleet broken up, would be of enormous import to Europe and the whole world. If annexation is not feasible for the victor due to international pressure and the victor’s main aim is to maintain the security of the domination of the seas it has now attained, what other strategic approach might it adopt? Germany would have to attain her end, the permanent disabling of the maritime supremacy of Great Britain, by another and less provocative measure. Supported by European Diplomacy it would be an independent Ireland: 'An Ireland, already severed by German warships, and temporarily occupied by a German army might well be permanently and irrevocably severed from Great Britain, and with common assent erected into a neutralised, independent European State under international guarantees.' He argues that the other European states and America might support this outcome and so concludes that Europe is the answer to the Irish question: 'The changes wrought in the speed and capacity of steam shipping, the growth and visible trend of German Naval Power and the increasing possibilities of aerial navigation, all unite to emphasise the historian Niebuhr's warning, and to indicate for Ireland a possible future of restored communion with Europe, and less and less the continued wrong of that artificial exclusion in which British policy has sought to maintain her – ‘an island beyond an island’.'
But it was not just the provocative nature of this analysis that was interesting. So also was its timing politically, not just because of the growing international tensions, but also because domestic politics had entered a new phase. This was described in another article in that same edition of the Review as ‘half-time’ in the journey of the Home Rule bill. A critical period lay ahead according to that author writing under the pseudonym 'An Ulster Imperialist' who sees 'Ulster histrionics' rising and falling as the Government appears to be losing or gaining ground in the constituencies. But there was also a perceived failure of the current political parties, as Ernest Boyd points out in a piece on Dogmatism in Irish life where he asks 'Surely in the ranks of our young men there are some, as yet inarticulate, who are brooding over their plans for Ireland's welfare, with specific reference to the peculiar needs of their country? For Ireland demands much more than can be effected by the panaceas of the 'political middlemen'.'
This plea unknowingly heralds another timing issue which we now recognise in retrospect. In the notes at the end of that July 1913 edition of The Irish Review there is a small notice:
'The Irish Review has entered a good way into its third year of existence. After the present issue a new proprietor and a new editor will have charge. Since March, 1912, The Irish Review has been conducted by Mr. Padraic Colum.”
The new proprietor and editor was to be Joseph Mary Plunkett and for the rest of its existence he and his friend Thomas MacDonagh were to be the key figures as the Review moved from the literary and intellectual focus it had under Colum and James Stephens to one that was far more directly political and more directly linked to the revolutionary movement that shadowed it. It was a journey in which the author known as Shan Van Vocht was also to play a key role. He was Roger Casement.
The Irish Review was published monthly from 1911-1914 (with some combined issues in its last year) and contained within its pages poems, stories and essays by some of the key figures of that era; from George Moore to James Stephens; W.B. Yeats to P.H. Pearse; Lord Dunsany to James Connolly; William Orpen to Jack B. Yeats; Mary Colum to Hannah Sheehy Skeffington. We can trace though its pages how emerging young writers of that generation changed their focus from one concerned with literary and cultural pre-occupations to one that was increasingly political and how that politics, influenced by external events, moved from parliamentary to revolutionary.
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Ed Mullhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland