Book Reviews - Spring 2015

Hearts With One Purpose

A revealing group portrait of Ireland’s motley crew of rebels

By George O’Brien | March 4, 2015
Detail from Birth of the Irish Republic, by Walter Paget
Detail from Birth of the Irish Republic, by Walter Paget


Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923, by R. F. Foster, Norton, 464 pp., $29.95

W. B. Yeats’s celebrated poem “Easter 1916” opens with encounters between the poet and people with “vivid faces,” enthusiasts glowing with what the poet saw as improbable revolutionary ardor. Partly in order that they be “changed utterly” over the course of the poem, Yeats identifies these unlikely heroes as lower-middle class. But as R. F. Foster—the best-known Irish historian of his generation—shows in his impressive and revealing group portrait, the revolutionaries were a motley crew, a blend of the “privileged young” and the working class, shopkeepers and college professors, a knight of the realm and militant socialists. Gay, straight, mystical, practical, this colorful and strident cast of characters agitated for a revolution in cultural consciousness as well as in national politics (indeed, the two together formed the ideal whole known as Irish independence, to which all concerned aspired). And the historian, no less than the poet—though in cooler, more critical, and more sardonic terms—registers the persistence and diversity of the agitation of Ireland’s exceptional “crowded years.” James Joyce’s famous assertion that Dublin was “the centre of paralysis” has never met a more comprehensive counterargument than the one Foster skillfully assembles. His extensive documentation of the sources, expressions, and consequences of the surge of cultural and political intensity, particularly in the period before 1916 (covered in the book’s most original chapters), projects a historiographical “new look at the pre-revolutionary period in Ireland”—an approach for which “class or ideology seem inadequate”—that is a wide-ranging and ambitious critique of radical mentalities.

To sustain the vivid note, chapter titles are simply present participles, “Playing,” “Loving,” and “Writing” among the early ones, and in conclusion the notably darker “Reckoning” and “Remembering.” Taken together, they map an archipelago of activities, all connected to each other by a fast-running current of idealism. Debate and organization—rehearsals of independence—generated a feverish intellectual climate, its temperature further raised by numerous “mosquito” newspapers and periodicals. Feminism, education, the Irish language, and the role of labor—structures of the nation-in-waiting—were prominent on editorial agendas and among the various interrelated groupuscules, each insisting in its way on the sovereign character of Irish distinctiveness and the autonomy it entailed. Or perhaps, as Foster argues, the different energies coalesced in “a robust Anglophobia,” initially under the broad front using the Sinn Féin newspaper as its principal organ. (The phrase means “ourselves”; Foster, uncharacteristically but perhaps provocatively, mistranslates it as “We Ourselves.”)

The phobic reaction is said to be unwarranted because England’s administrative grip on Ireland, and political concern for it, had become so relaxed. But it may also be that this ostensible disengagement made continuing English supervision of the country insufferably condescending. Foster uses the phrase “repressive tolerance” to describe the public atmosphere in Edwardian Ireland. A synonym for that phrase suggests itself—passive aggression. Think of the demoralized citizenry of Ulysses, those “beingless beings.” (Although it notes initiatives in Cork, Belfast, and Waterford, Vivid Faces is inevitably a Dublin-centered work.) To the revolutionary generation, the fact that a form of independence had become a legislative fait accompli in the Home Rule Bill, passed in 1914 but suspended for the duration of World War I, was irrelevant. That legislation had been secured by politicians whom so-called advanced nationalists considered yesterday’s men (“advanced” here runs the gamut from naïvely chauvinistic to socially progressive). Home Rule merely weakened the connection with England. For the vivid ones, the point was to break it.

The revolutionary generation’s Ireland was not merely a semi-autonomous administrative apparatus but rather a singular and high-minded way of life. The radical, or utopian, interplay of cultural and political nationalism that they pioneered was not necessarily combustible in itself. But it became so with the introduction of martyrological Catholicism and clandestine republicanism. The extremes of the former’s ethos of blood sacrifice and the latter’s strategy of conspiratorial opportunism expressed themselves in the violent and irreversible gesture of the 1916 rebellion. Not for the first time, this event is thought of here as theatrical (if not, for some of the protagonists, narcissistic). The kind of performance it was is not stated—both tragedy and farce, perhaps, a repetition of Ireland’s traditional futility in arms and at the same time a foundational occasion. And whatever the histrionics, the blood was real. Further, the rebellion made up in emotional voltage for what it lacked in political acuity and military aptitude. Its impact was boosted by the authorities’ heavy-handed reaction, highlighted, if that’s the word, by the peremptory execution of its main participants. These shootings created leadership problems during the endgame years in which Vivid Faces concludes. Foster suggests that had England chosen “to impose a form of Home Rule after the Rising,” the subsequent violence from which an independent Ireland came into being in 1921 might have been averted. That violence was not only lamentable in itself; it also facilitated the emergence of a reactionary, theocratic polity, one that seemed unworthy of the cost of securing it. But after 1916 the tide of feeling filled too rapidly for a quick legislative fix to avail, even supposing it was politically feasible.

The life of feeling is the most powerful component of the prerevolutionary gestalt; it might be argued that what the generation in question achieved was the freedom to feel. Evidence of this achievement is amply supplied by Foster’s copious citations of diaries, letters, and other forms of personal testimony. Strength of feeling is sometimes shown as a foot-stamping infantile disorder, and the generation’s activism can seem to be regarded as acting out. Such perspectives are sharpened by revelations of intrafamilial feuding (although it is a rare generation that does not have an embattled relationship with its immediate predecessor). And though Irish conditions obviously produced Irish reactions, a hectic mood also pervaded Europe in those days, as Robert Wohl’s The Generation of 1914 details. Foster refers to Wohl but does not quite allow for his own material’s international resonances. His concern is with the national, its impassioned gestation and premature, damaged parturition. Yeats’s “terrible beauty” turned out to be more terrible than beautiful.

Ireland’s current half-hearted engagement with its official Decade of Centenaries makes Foster’s “reconstruction” not only timely but also something of a ghost story in which the past rises up to shake its maenad locks and point its bloody fingers at its progeny. A good deal of the book’s critical zest comes from its implications that these ghosts have not been laid, or have perhaps been conveniently mislaid, in today’s Ireland. The past’s complexion is delineated in Vivid Faces with the many resources of the historian’s art. But the work is also likely to be remembered for its vivid, if rather more subtle, assertion of a distinctive place in its own generation’s mentalities.

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