Book review: The Literary Review

Vivid Faces

The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923

By R.F. Foster

Allen Lane. Hardback £20. 433 pages

My mother was born in 1900 in a small town in Co Galway, far from the vogueish vegetarian restaurants and feminist covens of the Dublin intelligentsia (who, as Roy Foster reminds us, mainly dwelt in Dublin 6, that is, Rathmines and Rathgar): and yet she caught the whiff of the zeitgeist, recalling those early years of the 20th century in Ireland as the most exciting, sizzling, expectant and exhilarating period there could ever have been.

I thought, when she spoke about that Golden Age, that it might have been infused with nostalgie du passee: but as Roy Foster’s magnificent and magisterial chronicle of that age demonstrates, it was altogether so. Ireland really was throbbing with budding writers, artists, poets, playwrights and revolutionaries, all swimming in this melee of high talk, fiery ambitions and passionate persuasions. As it happens, the economy was also improving – there was a mini Celtic Tiger boom – and that must have lifted expectations too.

On every page of this meticulous and extraordinarily knowledgeable group biography there is a potential for a drama or a novel and the cast is fabulous – that is, the stuff of fables: Yeats, Constance Markievicz – the posh girl turned revolutionary, who, we learn from a contemporary witness, always maintained a “tony” accent while still adored by the Dublin poor – Terence MacSwiney, the Catholic-mystical Mayor of Cork (and his heiress wife, Muriel, who eventually became an atheistic and a continental socialist), Patrick Pearse (and his “homoerotic” poetry), Maud Gonne – who bankrolled the United Irishman Sinn Fein newspaper edited by Arthur Griffith – the devoted lesbian couple, Dr Kathleen Lynn (who pioneered hospital care for children) and her revolutionary partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Bulmer Hobson, the gentry-born rebel Albinia Brodrick, neice of the Earl of Middleton who once held her uncle at gunpoint on the orders of Sinn Fein and changed her name to Gobnait ni Brudair, Roger Casement, humanitarian, patriot and explicitly sexual diary-writer (the tabloids would crucify him as paedophile nowadays), Father Paddy Flanagan of Ringsend – who invented the saw-off shotgun – Collins, De Valera and many more fascinating characters from a generation mostly born in the 1880s.

Professor Foster has also brought to light – some should be brought to the movies – some of the lesser-known personalities too, whose lives and adventures tell us so much about the extraordinary flowering of Ireland in this period: the glamourous and doomed Gifford sisters, Muriel, Nellie and Sydney  – Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh, who was executed for his part in the 1916 Rising – and the no less remarkable Ryan family: these were twelve offspring of a small Co Wexford farm, nine of whom (in the 1900s) became university graduates, and two of whom married, in sequence, the President of Ireland, the genial Sean T. O’Kelly (a rebel who wept at the death of George VI).

The Ryan girls were terrific; they travelled widely,  talked articulately, they flew through their academic degrees, and although the siblings took different sides in the Civil War of 1921-22, family solidarity was maintained – by the nun in the family, who kept the peace.

Professor Foster suggests that besides the revolutionary activities, the writing, the poetry and the thespianism – play-writing and play-acting was ubiquitous – there was a certain level of sexual liberation occurring between these spirited young people. For some, certainly – the Quaker-educated Rosamond Jacob seems to have found free love (with the IRA man turned Nazi courier Frank Ryan) and that the Gifford girls “shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend the night with them”, but I am not convinced that national liberation was, at that point, frequently accompanied by the sexual (it’s evident from Michael Collins’ letters that he did not consummate his courtship with his fiancee).

As C.S. Andrews – another political character who wrote a great memoir of that time, Dublin Made Me – remarked: revolutionaries are often puritanical. And feminism itself, then, as now, had a puritanical streak:  Christobel Pankhurst’s battle-cry was “Votes for women – and chastity for men!” Maud Gonne’s biographers claim she had little interest in sex, despite her reputation as a femme fatale: it was politics (and Anglophobia) which turned her on.

But there was much highly-charged emotional activity, all leading up to the Irish revolution of 1916, and then, what came afterwards: the War of Independence, the Civil War, and finally, the founding of the rather staid Irish Free State in 1923. Professor Foster allows himself some expressions of disappointment that after all the radical politics, Catholicism seeped into Irish revolutionary movements – an astonishing number of converts to Irish nationalism also became Catholics: Casement, Gonne, Markievicz, Albina Broderick among others. But Catholicism was – and to some extent still is – the vin du pays and what is embedded in the culture always seeps.

Moreover, firing up for a revolution is a different task from settling down to build a state. Sartre distinguished between “a rebel” and “a revolutionary”: the rebel challenges the prevailing order: the true revolutionary changes it to assume power. The men – and it was mostly men – who took over Free State sought power: but they also understood that a small and poor fledgling state needs stability more than high-flown passions, and so, life in Dublin was bound to become duller. The revolutionary generation which had felt so different from their own parents now became their parents. Don’t we all?

Yet the stories and the memories are marvellous. The description of Min Ryan’s last visit to Sean MacDermott, the condemned 1916 rebel about to face a firing squd is almost operatic – deeply touching, hugely inspiring, exquisitely tragic. Counting his last few Woodbine cigarettes, MacDermott felt total elation in offering his life for Ireland: it is hard not to see in this unforgettable vignette a beautiful emblem of romantic  valour.

A psychologist recently published a book about the formula for happiness. After much research he concluded that happiness is having a driving sense of purpose – and that these Vivid Faces surely possessed. ENDS