Tim Ellis attended the Global Irish Revolution Conference, held at Queen’s University Belfast in June 2018. Here he explores the ways that early career researchers are approaching the idea of the global Irish revolution.
Although some dismiss the transnational history of Ireland as merely a passing ‘fashion’, the field has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Both Fearghal McGarry and Enda Delaney currently run at research project ‘A global history of the Irish Revolution, 1916-23,’ based at Queen’s University Belfast. As part of this project, several early career researchers were invited to take part in a workshop at Queen’s University Belfast on 25 June 2018. This workshop was a ‘round-table’ workshop, where speakers were invited to give a ten minute paper followed by questions and discussion. Commendably, papers addressed a wide variety of themes:
‘The world is watching’:
Irish nationalists have long utilised international precedents and ideas to give their claims to self-determination greater weight and ‘respectability.’ The movement to establish an Irish dominion, for instance, by both moderate nationalists and unionists, as Mike Rast argued, drew upon precedents from Canada and Australia. Yet, interestingly, whilst Canadian and Australian politicians argued that their states’ contribution to the imperial war effort mandated greater autonomy, the Irish Dominion League did not make this argument. As my colleague Sean Donnelly argued, Irish nationalists saw the Paris Peace Conference as a significant boost for their goals. Although the Paris Peace Conference did not acknowledge Irish self-determination, it did increase international awareness of the ongoing circumstances in Ireland. Ultimately, as Sean argued, the awareness of a watching world prompted both British and Irish politicians to come to the negotiating table and accept dominion status for Ireland. My paper explained how Irish nationalists, conscious of the ‘watching world,’ recognised the need to appear ‘respectable’ in order to win support from the international community. This entailed projecting an image of personal cleanliness, sexual continence, and civility.
‘Exporting Sinn Féin’:
In turn, many non-Irish nationalist and radical movements watched the Irish Revolution carefully. Darragh Gannon explained how nationalist movements, in areas as diverse as Italy and Egypt, consciously appropriated the language of “self respect, self-reliance and self-help” articulated by Sinn Féin. As Maria Rodriguez noted, Catalan nationalists recognising several similarities between Ireland and Catalonia (both regions experienced a linguistic and cultural revival, and both were were small Catholic nations), and subsequently took inspiration from the Easter Rising as a model to emulate. Yet, the Irish Revolution was not always perceived positively outside Ireland. Brian Hughes argued that British conservatives utilised southern Irish loyalists as an example to project an image of an Ireland beset by anarchy and incapable of self-government.
Although Irish nationalists were willing to support other national movements (such as that of Egypt and India), they willingly distanced themselves from other movements out of pragmatism. As Brian Hanley noted, whilst African American civil rights activists responded warmly to Irish calls for self determination, Irish republicans offered little in return, arguably doing so to avoid offending the Irish American community (which, at the time, had a difficult relationship with the African American community). As Lili Zách argued, Irish nationalists could be quite contemptuous of the ‘new’ nations created out of the Peace Conference. They complained that whilst ‘no-one knows who the Czechoslovaks are,’ Ireland, an old nation, had been denied its rights.
‘Back and forth’:
Transnational history recognises that people, as well as ideas, can flow over national boundaries. During the revolution, the Irish travelled across the world, and not just to the US and Great Britain. As Jimmy Yan explained, many Irishmen and women made huge contributions to the broader Australian Labor movement. Frank Brennan, a prominent Labor MP during the early twentieth century was of the Irish descent. Yet, the Australian Labor movement, as a whole, was reluctant to outwardly support Irish republicanism: sectarianism had created numerous fissures within the Australian working class. Similarly, Maurice Casey argued that, whilst the international connections of revolutionary women have been neglected, they in fact participated and contributed to international radicalism in various complex ways. Indeed, some Irishwomen who had been active in the revolution went on to lead rather colourful lives in the Soviet Union. As Síobhra Aiken noted, many ex-revolutionary women regularly appeared before Irish-American audiences, functioning as emotive symbols of republican ideals. Yet frustratingly, there are gaps in the source base here. Whilst the Military Service Pensions Collection can tell us where women migrated to and when, it does not indicate if immigrants returned, or went repeatedly ‘back and forth.’ Many did just that. Patrick Mahony told the story of a policeman in Hartford, Connecticut, who dramatically disappeared for several months. Evidence suggests he was ‘summoned’ back to Ireland by republican contacts.
‘A Digital globe’:
Digital methods can help us to track these complex flows of people, goods, capital and ideas. Robin Adams’ presentation used attractive data visualisations to ‘map-out’ contributors to the 1919-21 Dáil Loan in the United States. Monika Barget explained how the ‘Letters of 1916’ project at Maynooth University has used the digitisation of contemporary letters to gain insight into the complex identities formed within Irish-American networks over the course of the revolution.
This workshop addressed an impressively diverse list of topics. It was inspiring to hear speakers from all over the world: Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada, the USA, Australia and continental Europe. The ‘round-table’ format worked very well, and contributed to a convivial, collegiate atmosphere. Thanks to the comments of my fellow attendees, I went away with several new ideas for my research. The workshop was very well-organised, and its organisers did a great job. Mo Moulton’s closing remarks suggested some future potential directions. Historians should not forget non-Irish (and indeed, non-English-speaking) perspectives of Ireland and the Irish. I also wondered what links and comparisons we could draw between Ireland and other contemporary revolutions: in Eastern Europe, in Latin America and East Asia. As one participant noted: ‘much has been done, but there is still much to do.’
You can follow the Global History of the Irish Revolution project on twitter @globalirishrev.
Tim Ellis is a second year PhD student and graduate tutor at Teesside University. Previously he studied at Queen’s University Belfast (MA) and the University of Oxford (BA). His PhD explores the significance of visual culture and visibility in constructing political power in the Irish Free State, 1922-39. His research has been supported in part by a bursary from the British Association of Irish Studies. He has also presented his research at conferences in Dublin, London and Bradford, and is due to give a paper in Galway later this year. He currently edits the NEE-HIP blog which has been set up to showcase postgraduate research in Irish history in the North East of England. His can be found on twitter as @6Howff.
Photographs courtesy of Tim Ellis.
Featured image: Eamon DeValera speech, Getty images.