16 February, 2015Issue 27.3History

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Children Of The Nation

Kenneth Madden

R.F. Foster
Vivid Faces
Allen Lane, 2014
£20 (hardback)
496 pages
ISBN: 9781846144639

Writing to a London publisher from Trieste in May 1906, James Joyce described his native city as “the centre of paralysis”. A stultifying air permeates several of the stories in Dubliners, most of which were written around 1905 but would not be published for another nine years. This is the period and the setting which is the concern of much of Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces, a brilliant reconstruction of the lives of political radicals before, throughout, and after Ireland’s revolution. There is little which seems stultifying or paralytic about the world encountered here, the atmosphere of which is as vibrant and diverse in culture as it is in politics. And yet we discover that James Joyce was just one among several young Irish Edwardians, men and women, who were full of pent-up frustrations: political, cultural, and sometimes sexual. Whereas Joyce sought freedom in exile, the revolutionaries who populate Foster’s narrative seek personal fulfilment and political freedom in the theatre, Irish language schools, newspapers and journals, political parties and suffrage organisations, and, of course, para-military organisations. These young, often middle-class, radicals are presented as a self-conscious generation who excoriate their elders for entrenching British political rule and English culture in Ireland, and who doggedly pursue their ideal of a new Ireland, reconstructed along national lines.

Foster writes that young, advanced nationalists “were, paradoxically, both empowered and alienated by their British rulers” and that “by the turn of the twentieth century, English oppression manifested itself in ways that were historical and cultural rather than economic or political.” It is this sense of unfulfilled expectations which perhaps explains the frustrated attitude of young intellectuals in an Ireland which, in retrospect, was passing through something of a cultural golden age. Foster is both a highly skilled and a sympathetic guide to this terrain, taking the reader from the fall of Parnell in 1891 into the networks and lives of advanced nationalists throughout the years of the Irish revival and across the period of the violent struggle for Irish independence inaugurated by the Easter Rising in 1916.

His skill will come as no surprise to readers familiar with his superb back-catalogue. Foster’s sympathetic treatment of radical, often violent and fanatical, nationalists may produce some raised eyebrows, however. Foster’s own temperament is liberal, his style cool and ironic. This he has deployed to great effect in his treatments of Irish history in the past, earning him a reputation as one of the chief pugilists in the revisionist camp of Irish historiography. It has also earned him the scorn of unreconstructed Irish nationalists, about which he hardly worries, and, occasionally, the criticism of more nuanced and subtle readers, which he has had the impressive generosity to take on board. When some critics were unhappy that there wasn’t enough about poetry in the first volume of his formidable biography of W.B. Yeats, Foster’s response was to take this criticism entirely seriously, placing Yeats’s poems at the centre of his second volume, to great acclaim.

A willingness to respond to worthwhile critics may lie behind the sympathetic approach adopted towards nationalists in Vivid Faces, too. Reviewing Foster’s collection Paddy and Mr Punch back in 1993, the novelist Colm Toibin, having praised the delicacy of the treatment of “posh Protestants” in that volume, thought it a pity that Foster was “not prepared to offer the same level of nuanced study to the contradictions and complexities in the Irish revolutionary tradition, or to the individuals who took part in it as he is to, say, Elizabeth Bowen.” Well, this is certainly something like what he has undertaken to do in Vivid Faces, which is nuanced and complicated, as well as carefully attuned to paradox and contradiction. Indeed, such is the seriousness of tone and benevolence of treatment that for the first few pages, I was worried Foster might have gone soft. A parenthesis on page nineteen relieved my concern, however. Writing of the mixed response of different activists to the actual legacy of the revolution, he tells us that the mystical poet and Celtic revivalist, Ella Young, had “kept the faith, along with the belief in earth-spirits (though, in her case, moving to California probably helped).” Now that’s more like it. It isn’t a particularly good habit for historians to make jokes at the expense of their subjects, but it is some kind of an offence to the world of civilised letters to avoid making a joke like that. We can’t always be dour and worthy, nor should we want to be.

Whatever the influence of Toibin, others almost certainly suggested the approach taken here. The idea of a revolutionary “generation” in Ireland appeared in an essay written in the 1960s by Conor Cruise O’Brien and was re-iterated by F.S.L. Lyons in his seminal volume, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, published in 1979. There the “generational” approach to the Irish revolution more or less stayed, untroubled and untroubling, until Vivid Faces. In this, the first substantial treatment of the theme, Foster seeks to establish the conceptual validity of “generations” as a model for explaining the revolution. He underpins this analysis with a wide range of empirical evidence, most importantly a series of private diaries. These range from the Wexford nationalist Rosamund Jacob to the Cork republican Liam De Roiste, and the blow-in Piarais Beaslai, who left Liverpool to organise rebellion in Ireland. Jacob joins a cast of several women revolutionaries who, quite rightly, occupy prominent roles in the narrative. What Foster is after here are revolutionary mentalities, or what historians, in more pompous moments, call histoire des mentalités, and for which diaries are especially useful sources. From many of these he identifies a sense of contempt held by young intellectuals towards the politics and attitudes of their parents.


The chapters in Vivid Faces, which are constructed around extracts from such diaries, deal thematically with education, sexual relationships (which were often liberal and occasionally experimental), theatre, journalism, revolutionary activity, and remembrance. This is an elegant means of presentation which secures the reader some mooring amongst a vast array of historical personages: the indispensible biographical appendix runs to over a hundred names. Foster has a reputation for empirical density (Clive James memorably referred to his experience of reading W.B Yeats: A Life: Vol. 2 as “Slogging to Byzantium”) but there is no sense of getting bogged down in too much detail here. The stand-out chapters on the theatre and journalism are master-classes in historical synthesis, and they display a deceptive lightness of touch which manages to keep the narrative on course despite the breadth of coverage. Whilst the final third of Vivid Faces presents a narrative, chronological account of the revolution and its fallout, the earlier chapters (concerned with the period before 1916) contain much that is illuminating and original. This “pre-revolutionary” period in Ireland is in need of much social and cultural history. In Vivid Faces, there is a bit of both. The chapter on secondary education tends towards social history, totting up the numbers of which nationalists went to which schools, for example. Chapters on university politics, sexual relationships, and the theatre are more firmly in the mould of cultural history, inflected and expository, selective and particular.

It won’t escape the notice of many readers that several of the preoccupations here, womens’ liberation, sexual experimentation, socialism, student politics etc., bring to mind a rather different “revolutionary generation”—that of the 1960s. By the time that vegetarianism and anti-vivisectionist politics make an appearance in Vivid Faces, Edwardian Dublin starts to look really racy. The old cliché that the 60s didn’t come to Ireland until the 70s may be in need of some revision; “swinging” Dublin here looks like it burnt out, along with much else, sometime between 1916 and 1922. Roy Foster is, of course, a 60s person himself, and although he has a certain fondness for French phrases (“couche sociale” is a particular favourite) he is not a soixante-huitard. The distinction is an important one, because the diaries and recollections of soixante-huitards such as, say, Rudi Dutschke, Danny Cohn-Bendit, and Tariq Ali would give a very particular perspective on the 60s, a view from the radical revolutionary left. To take the standpoint of such people as representative of their generation, the 60s generation, would create an altogether distorted picture of the actual revolutionary potential of the time. And revolutionary potential, perhaps tinged with a bit of 60s nostalgia, is a real concern of Roy Foster in Vivid Faces. We’re told that a

quiet revolution in the hearts and minds of young middle-class Irish people from the 1890s onward had given them their chance. It is impossible not to speculate how different the new Free State would have been had it enshrined more of the ideals, objectives, attitudes and eccentricities of the revolutionary generation.

This is an old theme, that of “the revolution betrayed”, but to what extent can we say that such a betrayal took place in Ireland between 1916 and 1922? To what extent did a counter-revolution supress a genuinely progressive social movement? Part of the answer must lie in the extent to which the views presented in Vivid Faces, those of educated, urban, secular, and leftish nationalists can be taken as convincing representations of the “generation” that made a revolution in Ireland. When such people are promiscuous diarists, there is usually an untrustworthy ego at work as well, compounding the impression of unconventionality, generational or otherwise, which is especially problematic when it comes to attitudes towards things like sex. There is no arguing that such people, and the sources which they leave behind, are not a rich, fascinating and worthy object of historical enquiry in their own right (as perhaps future historians of the 60s might, if they have the patience, care to reconstruct the world of the SDS, the Fédération Anarchiste and the New Left Review). But such an enquiry would produce a convincing profile of an avant-garde; a revolutionary elite whose mentality is not generalizable to an entire age-cohort.


There are several other problems with the conceptual tool of “generations”, not least that it is vulnerable to the same epistemological challenges which have plagued class analysis. Foster’s suggestion that “generation” may come to replace ‘class’ as a go-to unit of analysis is at least premature, if not entirely dubious. As a heuristic device or a tool of narrative emplotment, the idea of ‘generations’ is less harmless, but its use in the stronger, determinist sense offered here, which argues that a generation “made” the revolution through opposition to their parents’ values and expectations, would have to be either abandoned or at least heavily qualified. Then there are empirical concerns. How do we account for the extent to which revolutionaries like Pearse were obsessed with establishing continuity with the generations which preceded them, an ambition that was important enough to be enshrined in the Proclamation of 1916? And were there not at least two generations at work in the revolutionary period in Ireland? Is it not more sensible to speak of a generation of 1916, young people whose political outlook was shaped by a shared experience of the Rising and its aftermath, and who filled the ranks of the genuinely popular armed revolt against British rule between 1918 and 1922? Are these not the people who “made” the revolution in Ireland, the plain people of Ireland: Catholic, rural, anti-intellectual and socially conservative; keen meat-eaters whose main involvement in cultural nationalism was through the Gaelic Athletic Association, an organisation that hardly features in Vivid Faces and which, startlingly, doesn’t even merit inclusion in the index. There is a very serious argument that the GAA was the most significant cultural organisation in pre-revolutionary Ireland, which, along with the land agitation organisations of the 1880s, established the structures which facilitated the political revolution. This argument was advanced by Conor Cruise O’Brien back in the mid-60s, but readers wouldn’t get a hint of it from Vivid Faces. The otherwise rich empirical substance of this book is undeniable; its presentation is elegant and its prose urbane, but it could have done without the appended theoretical overture on “generations”, which confuses as much as it clarifies.

And yet I have not read a book of Irish history with such a sense of enjoyment in several years. There was definitely something in the air in pre-revolutionary Ireland, and Roy Foster has done much to bring us to an appreciation of that atmosphere. Vivid Faces is the work of a serious thinker who is the outstanding Irish historian of his generation, and who has done much to shape the way in which we who are of another generation think about the Ireland of our own time, as well as the Ireland of yesterday.

Kenneth Madden is reading for a PhD in History at Pembroke College, Cambridge.