Review: Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation In Ireland 1890-1923

With the centenary of the 1916 Rising looming, we are likely to see much more said and written on the subject.  Is R.F. Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation In Ireland 1890-1923 one of the books, from all this noise, that one should read?  I would certainly suggest so.

Particularly if one is Irish, the events of 1916 and the immediate years that followed it will be known from lessons in school and omnipresent journalistic and political commentary.  What does not seem to be as widely understood, however, is the social and cultural lives of the revolutionaries, the atmosphere in which they existed and how it may have influenced them in their actions and thoughts.

‘Apart from the brilliant short studies by Lyons and Tom Garvin some decades ago, and Senia Paseta’s pioneering work on Irish nationalist women, not much attempt has been made at analysing the backgrounds and mentalities of those who made the revolution’.

‘…to ‘know the dream’ of the revolutionaries, it may help to strip back the layers of martyrology and posthumous rationalization, to get back before hindsight into that encolosed, self-referencing, hectic world where people lived before 1916, and to see how a generation developed, interacted and decided to make a revolution…’

‘To get back before hindsight’ is exactly what Foster attempts to do by immersing us in the social and cultural feel of the time, rather than being merely a chronological retelling of the events.  The reader is treated to a unique sense of the Ireland of that period through the experiences and mores of the revolutionary generation which experienced it; their education; the plays they attended, wrote and performed in; newspapers they published and read; their poets, their writers, their diaries, and even their interpretation of history – especially their understanding and celebration of the rebellion of 1798.  The reader absorbs all of this atmosphere from 1890 until fateful 1916, and then, experiences how that idealism and culture ‘changed utterly’ through the War of Independence and the Civil-War that followed.

Foster’s prose throughout is poetic and absorbing, and generally easy to follow, a balance which can be difficult to achieve.  Foster, a biographer of W.B Yeats and an expert of Irish history, uses Yeats’ Easter 1916 as a kind of loose template on which to base the theme of the book, to excellent effect, and quotes sections of the poem throughout the book as the story of the revolutionary generation unfolds.  The generational approach is also an important structure upon which the narrative is based:

‘… the fact remains that during this era enough people – especially young people – changed their minds about political possibilities to bring about a revolution against the old order, which included not only government by Britain but the constitutional nationalism of the previous generation…’

‘The generation of 1916 can be seen as a self-conscious group of people, shaped by the circumstances of their time… the golden period of the revolutionary era was the decade from 1903 to 1913… the actual fighting, particularly in the latter stages of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War, was often undertaken by people from a somewhat different background… But the quiet revolution in the hearts and minds of young middle-class Irish people from the 1890’s onwards had given them their chance.’

Although the narrative is generally consistent, one area where this momentum is lost at times is the chapter on the Irish theatre scene, which is a little pedantic in some areas.  However, it must be said that this chapter is nevertheless enlightening in its portrayal the political influence of plays and theatres in Ireland at the time, and should not be shied away from by the reader.

One of the many strengths of the book is that it is quite a politically conscious narrative.  The sentiments of  individuals and their political outlooks are prioritised over their actions.  Thus, Foster unflinchingly showcases the ideological flaws and strengths of the personalities he has studied.  The inconsistencies of Arthur Griffith, for example, with his relatively conservative approach compared to that of the radical fighters in 1916 is highlighted (Griffith was an advocate of a kind of dual monarchy system, rather than advocating purely republican or absolute independence).

‘Griffith was passionately anti-Dreyfusard, partly from an admiration of French étatisme, partly from his own weakness for conspiracy theories featuring Jews and Freemasons, and partly because he instinctively distrusted any casue taken up by well-meaning liberals.  His interest in French politics also reflected his readiness to employ imaginative paralells from abroad – most famously, the example of how Hungary had achieved dual-monarchy status under the Austrian Empire, published as The Resurrection of Hungary in 1904… Griffith kept recurring to this possibility for Ireland, suggesting a link to the crown, and pouring cold water on the feasibility of physical-force, which infuriated many… radical nationalists which he fostered and sustained…

…Ireland could attain autonomy within the United Kingdom by the construction of a dual monarchy.  Since this depended upon a particularly skewed and idealized version of Austro-Hungarian history… it was read in some quarters as a Swiftian parody.’

The following witty correspondence between Mabel Fitzgerald (mother of future Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald) and renowned writer George Bernard Shaw is another example of the flawed thought processes of the figures discussed in Vivid Faces.  Fitzgerald – a protestant – was writing to her former employer Shaw about her wish rare her young son to speak Irish and to adopt a ‘traditional hatred of England and all her ways’:

‘…you should just hear him say “Sasanach” (Englishman), the concentrated hate in his voice is worthy of Drury Lane.’

Shaw’s clever and teasing reply was:

‘As an Ulsterwoman, you must be aware that if you bring up your son to hate anybody except a Papist, you will go to hell… You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with a burden of old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of… You make that boy a good International Socialist – a good Catholic, in fact, in the true sense – and make him understand that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past’.

Foster unashamedly conveys how bourgeois the majority of the revolutionary leaders were, with the exception of notables like James Connolly.  Foster conveys how many of the Irish bourgeois revolutionaries were, in a sense, rebelling against their own privileged and conservative backgrounds of ‘repressive tolerance’, characteristic of Edwardian Ireland.

Although Vivid Faces takes a narrow perspective on the mentality and social experiences of these privileged leaders, it does not discuss the experiences of the majority of the Irish population of the time and how they felt on the issue of nationalism;  The book does not observe 1916-era culture and society from a working-class point of view.  However, Foster seems to do this knowingly – he points out the bourgeois-nationalist nature of the revolution time and again, and notes the element of irony – even hypocrisy – at the fact that those who fought so long for national freedom from Britain were among the freest members of that generation, and of Ireland under British rule to that point.  The revolutionary generation enjoyed more freedom within the press and the arts pre-1916 than they would under the newly established conservative Free State.  The notion of slavery or freedom that bourgeois nationalists spoke of ‘would not have meant the same thing to’ Geraldine Plunkett’s ‘army of domestic servants and urban tenants’ for example.

‘But the dynamic power of nationalism trumped – as so often – a socio-economic analysis.  In its pietistic aspects, it also trumped the secular, sceptical, pluralist instincts of the agnostics among the revolutionaries…’

Muriel and Mary MacSwiney at Cathal Brugha's funeral, Dublin, 1922
Muriel and Mary MacSwiney at Cathal Brugha’s funeral, Dublin, 1922

Another strength of Foster’s book is his emphasis on the significant role that women played in shaping the revolutionary culture of the time (including the striking front cover of Muriel and Mary MacSwiney at Cathal Brugha’s funeral).  The diverse egalitarian, pluralist, feminist, secular, Gaelic, republican, socialist, cultural nation of full suffrage that various women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Countess Markievicz, Rosamond Jacob, Maud Gonne and others advocated is well noted.

Foster’s Vivid Faces is thoroughly researched and written, as one can see by its substantial notes, bibliography, and biographical appendix; it is acutely focused by use of original structures on which to base the narrative, such as the idea of the cultural environment and experiences of the revolutionary generation, and through his use of literary references like Easter 1916.  Foster arranges all of this seamlessly, and it is hard to criticise the creative use of those ideas.  However, one should not expect a broad or accurate overview of the political, economic and social reasons for the outbreak of revolution generally across Ireland during this period from Vivid Faces – though the book does not promise to do this.  Rather it is the story of the idealism and the tragedy of the revolution and does not judge very much the events or people beyond that.

Vivid Faces is lacking a perspective on the feelings and motives of the general population – the working class of the period – and the seismic events of the 1913 Dublin Lockout are conspicuously not discussed.  Thus it gives a highly detailed and colourful snippet of the generation, but not the whole picture.  This is hardly a criticism of the book though as it unapologetically chronicles the contemporary bourgeois perspective of events.  One should purchase Vivid Faces expecting as much.  It is educational and vastly insightful in its own way.  For anyone interested in the history of the 1916 Rising, and has a knowledge of the basic events and characters – which are ubiquitously available anyway – I recommend R. F. Foster’s book as a balanced and very insightful experience, and perhaps one of the best available.

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