UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter's latest work, A Nation and Not a Rabble - now available in paperback - is an absorbing record of the watershed decade 1913-1923.
In the current - and indeed admirable - fervour that surrounds the business of documenting 1916 once again, one might forget the silence that once surrounded the revolutionary period of this country’s early twentieth century.
When there was a relative plenitude of participants alive who could have recalled their involvement, many chose not to talk for their own good reasons. Ferriter makes mention of the grandson who referred to his grandfather’s efforts ‘in later years to avoid any mention of his past, details of which he steadfastly refused to divulge.’
Ferriter has drawn on a multitude of sources to complete his exhaustive account. Bibliography and notes alone amount to 70 pages in the 517 –page work. He looks at the Unionist view - in the work of historians preternaturally inclined to Unionism - and he teases out in detail the various strands of nationalism, from the Irish parliamentary Party adherents to the IRB supporters. He carefully separates the wheat of the pragmatic from the chaff of the bombastic. Interestingly, he points out that many of the Volunteer generation were involved in the struggle because they wished to counter the Unionist threat, rather than for a patriotic ideal of the kind promulgated by the IRB.
Helena Molony became the first female political prisoner of her era after she smashed a portrait of King George V when the monarch visited Ireland in 1911. In this case the burgenoning women’s suffrage movement was trumped by republican beliefs. “We held that an agitation for votes for women inferred claiming British citizenship and consequently was inconsistent with Irish republicanism,’ Molony later declared, explaining her actions.
In his introduction, the author examines the notion of the ‘rabble’ and how Lady Gregory and Yeats both used the disdainful term, before both, in their individual ways, began to look at the rabble in a radically different light after the executions of the 1916 leaders.
The book is as much about social history as political history, and we learn that house visiting was the most common form of social interaction. January and February were the match-making months as there was little work happening on farms. Most Irish farmers now owned their land, following the Land Acts.
The slums and the tenements are also recalled and the 26,000 families - 87,000 individuals - living in one-room dwellings in Dublin in 1911. Meanwhile, Catholicism was proudly asserting itself through Catholic associations, sodalities and literature. There were 2,000 nuns living and working in the country in 1861, which figure had dramatically increased to 8,800 in 1911. Taxation was higher in Ireland than in England, due to indirect taxes on tea, tobacco and whiskey, the latter commodities consumed by many poor people. Ferriter quotes another historian, Louis Cullen, who observed that “Ireland was not poor because she was overtaxed but overtaxed because she was poor.”
A compelling and illuminating work, ideal for the general reader.