Analysis: for Ahmad Tawfiq Al-Madan, Ireland was an inspirational story of a small nation that won its freedom from the world's most powerful empire
In 1923, a young Tunis-based intellectual of Algerian origin, Ahmad Tawfiq Al-Madani, published Niḍāl Irlandā (Ireland's Struggle), an Arabic-language essay celebrating the Irish revolution. The Irish Free State may have been grappling with the after-effects of a bitter Civil War and partition at the time, but Ireland remained a "wonderful example" for this 24 year old activist, from which his North African brethren could "draw much wisdom". The often-disappointing realities of Irish independence and the lasting consequences of the conflict that secured it mattered less to him than the inspirational story of a small nation that won its freedom from the world’s most powerful empire.
While historians have written extensively on how activists across the British empire, from India to Egypt to Tanzania, drew inspiration from the Irish revolution, its influence in the French colonies of North Africa has largely gone unstudied. The fact that a young activist in Tunis could access all the latest news from this island in the pages of French and Egyptian newspapers underlines the global reach of Ireland's revolutionary years. This allowed figures like Al-Madani to reimagine the story of anti-colonial resistance in Ireland to advocate for the freedom of their own homelands.
Like many leading Irish revolutionaries, Al-Madani was born into exile. His ancestral homeland of Algeria had been invaded by France in 1830 and subjected to a long and brutal campaign of colonial conquest. His family were members of the old Algerian elite and fled to Tunisia following the failure of an 1871 revolt against French rule. By the time he was born in 1899, Tunisia had come under the control of the French empire as well. He became involved in politics at a very young age, publishing his first articles at 14. His outspoken criticism of the French meant he soon fell foul of the colonial authorities and was imprisoned at the age of just 16.
Al-Madani’s career as a publisher and activist was as long as it was fascinating. He is best remembered as a key figure in the development of cultural nationalism in Algeria. His writings sought to craft a heroic version of Algeria’s past defined by resistance to foreign rule. This, he hoped, would inspire the Algerian people to organise against the French, just as the Irish cultural revival had inspired a generation to organise against the British.
Niḍāl Irlandā, which appeared in the Tunisian newspaper Al-Fajr, began with a bold statement: "freedom is the fruit of jihad". Al-Madani was not endorsing violent direct action per se, but recognising that freedom could only be secured through hard fought spiritual, cultural and political struggle. After all, he argued, history teaches us that "freedom is not given to nations, nations take their freedom". While he acknowledged the well-known histories of the French and American revolutions and the ongoing political upheaval in Turkey, India and Egypt, he asserted that it was Ireland that best showed how no "authority on earth was capable of subjugating a people".
He used the example of Ireland to denounce the "beautiful promises" made by the colonial powers to their subjects
Al-Madani offered his readers a version of Irish history that ran parallel to that of colonial North Africa. His claim that the English "made a lot of efforts to leave the country in a state of poverty so that they could enslave it" must have resonated with readers in Tunisia and Algeria where the large-scale confiscation of land and wealth by the colonial authorities was a recent, and in some cases, ongoing process. His condemnation of the role colonialism played in exacerbating famine in Ireland came at a time when Algeria was recovering from a disastrous famine of its own. The essay’s North African audience would surely read between the lines, seeing an attack on French rule in their own region in his blistering critique of British colonialism in Ireland.
Al-Madani identified the First World War, in which many North Africans served, as a key turning point for all colonial peoples. He used the example of Ireland to denounce the "beautiful promises" made by the colonial powers to their subjects in their "hour of need".
The Irish, he argued, were never taken in by such promises, seizing on the "opportunity that arose from the context of the war" to stage a "revolution". This may have failed but it paved the way for a final acceptance that the "Irish could not rely on hope of help from the British". Nor could they or other colonial peoples count on the "wise" US President Wilson and his famous "Fourteen Principles". They would have to take their fate into their own hands. For the Irish, this meant waging a "final war against England".
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Al-Madani’s account of the war celebrated the heroism of Irish republicans and denounced British oppression without overly dwelling on the reality of combining political action with armed struggle. Unsurprisingly for someone who had experience of colonial prisons, he focused on the unifying effect of policies of repression. "Imprisonment, torture and executions were but a motivation for the Irish", he argued, adding that the coercive power of the British state served only to "spark a fire of patriotism …that is impossible to quell".
He paid special attention to the emblematic figure of Terence MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork whose lengthy hunger strike ending in death made of him an international martyr for the Irish cause. He lauded MacSwiney’s sacrifice, describing him as a "mujāhid", a term that might be best translated as "spiritual warrior" and that would subsequently be used to describe the fighters of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) during the Algerian War.
However, the roles played by MacSwiney, Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins in organising politically and militarily against British rule received little attention. Al-Madani offered no real analysis of the tactics pursued by the IRA, an entity which, like Dáil Éireann, is not specifically discussed in the text. The mobilisation of organised labour and women behind the national cause, so central to the success of the Irish movement, went unmentioned. Al-Madani evoked Ireland as an inspirational tale of heroism, bravery, and national revival and not a playbook that the Algerians might seek to reproduce.
By the time Al-Madani published his memoirs in 1977, he sought to reposition himself as a life-long advocate of the armed struggle
This occlusion of the armed struggle was carried over into his narrative of the Civil War, portrayed as a political (not military) dispute between two camps lead by great heroes, Collins and de Valera. While Al-Madani acknowledged the integrity of the positions held by both men, he ultimately endorsed the Treaty, claiming that the Free State "gives full life to the nation", allowing for the development of the ‘national spirit’ so a Republic can eventually be secured.
His embrace of the gradualist approach of the Treatyites is hardly surprising. Throughout the interwar period, Al-Madani continued to campaign for a negotiated transition out of empire in which power would be transferred from French colonial officials to the existing Algerian elites. His vision of an Arabo-Islamic Algeria ruled by these elites was not too distant from the Catholic and Gaelic Ireland that the first Free State government was trying to craft in 1923.
By the time Al-Madani published his memoirs in 1977, he sought to reposition himself as a life-long advocate of the armed struggle as Algerian independence had been secured through a violent anti-colonial revolution. Describing himself as a "born rebel", he specifically cited his publication on Ireland as evidence of his unyielding commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of colonialism. His autobiography recast the Irish War of Independence as a popular struggle in which "the people crushed their internal and external enemies", denouncing those who opposed Sinn Féin in the name of "moderation" and reserving all his praise for "the hero Eamon de Valera".
It seemed that Al-Madani had embraced a more radical Irish republicanism in his old age. Just as Irish history had once allowed him to imagine a different future for Algeria, it now permitted him to imagine a different past for himself.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ