H-Nationalism Interview with Eunan O'Halpin

H-Nationalism Interview with Eunan O’Halpin, conducted by Bill Kissane May 22, 2014.


In 2000, Eunan O’Halpin became Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History in Trinity College Dublin, where he is also the director of the Centre of Contemporary Irish History. This is a good time to be a contemporary historian in Ireland. Just over one hundred years after the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, a decade of commemoration has begun, which will involve many formal ceremonies north and south. Educated (BA, MA) in University College Dublin and Cambridge (PhD), Eunan O’Halpin's first book was on Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule, during the Irish revolutionary period (1916-1923). Once a civil servant, O’Halpin is unusual in looking at this period from an administrative perspective. The topic of his PhD was the career of Sir Warren Fisher, the first person to be known as the Head of the British Civil Service. O’Halpin has also been involved in research projects on Irish foreign policy, on the role of intelligence agencies (British and Irish) in World War Two and the Northern Irish troubles, and on the security policies of the Irish state during and after its civil war victory in 1923. Thus while the focus may be Irish nationalism in its most radical manifestations, his perspective is of 'the administrative mind'. The dramatis personae is not the nation, but Irish, British, and sometimes American states. His work covers conflicts which saw violent challenges to both the British and Irish states, often at the same time.

In terms of official attitudes and sources, Ireland is today far more open to contemporary history than at any time in the past. The Irish Army’s Bureau of Military History contains witness statements, 1,773 files, from participants in the Irish independence movement between 1913 and 1921. These files were kept classified for 45 years after being collected by the Army and civil service between 1947 and 1957. In 2001 the Irish government took the decision to make them available to the public. They are now available online at: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/

Later on, O’Halpin helped persuade the Irish government to start the publication of the Military Pensions Collection, which contains a huge volume of files relating to 80,000 men and women who claimed to have been involved in the independence movement. The first tranche of this material is now available at http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/. He is also a founding co-editor of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project (www.difp.ie), and is a member of the expert advisory group formed to advise the Irish government on the ‘decade of commemoration’ from 1912 to 1923. Its first press release commented that 'the state should not be expected to be neutral about its own existence'. The question is whether this new research environment will change views of the past. The period 1916-1923 still dominates historical consciousness in Ireland and debate has long been polarized between traditional nationalist and revisionist perspectives. O’Halpin discusses his recently completed The Dead of the Irish Revolution, which accounts for each fatality in the period between April 1916 and December 1921, to be published by Yale University Press. (A second volume covering the later civil war, and the foundation of Northern Ireland between 1920 and 1923, is planned).

Before his appointment at TCD, O'Halpin was Professor of Government at Dublin City University. What does the current economic crisis tell us about the Irish political system? Before 1970 the Irish state projected a very traditionalist self-image: basing its legitimacy on the claim to be loyal to Irish traditions. During the Celtic Tiger boom era, which ended in financial collapse in 2008, the claim was made that the new-found wealth marked the end of Irish history. The 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement encouraged this illusion. A myth of change was replacing one of stasis. What stands out here, however, is how past patterns of political participation, party politics, and ways of thinking about the state still endure. So does emigration: since 2008 at least 300,000 people have left for abroad. Derided by many on the Left as a failed state, by some Republicans as the reactionary product of partition, and by Europhiles as a transient apparition, O’Halpin defends the Irish state. The interview covers the crisis, the growth of Sinn Féin, the issue of 'clientelism' (even in the big cities), and the state of the state generally.


Bill Kissane: So Eunan, you began as a civil servant, what made you become an historian?


Eunan O’Halpin: Well, I started history in college. Starting it in college rather than school enabled me to, to some extent, get away from a very traditionalist way of looking at Irish history. I hadn’t done it in school: I had done Latin and Greek, which were my only exposure to history really. I did economics as well initially, which was really interesting, and then I switched to politics in the second year, which in those days in University College Dublin was really just very light area studies and a lot of incomprehensible, largely Catholic, political philosophy. I was awarded a scholarship on my BA results to do a Masters in history. I had initially hoped to study anti-Semitism in Ireland but by the time I got my BA, I decided to do a history of Fianna Fáil, which was a mad choice in many ways because I was probably too close to it for family reasons. I was six months into Fianna Fáil when Professor Robin Dudley Edwards told me in public that I couldn’t continue because of the sources, which was a shock to me. Probably for the best, he said go and study Dublin Castle.


BK: The sources on Fianna Fáil were not plentiful enough?


EO’H: Well that was Dudley’s view. I thought they were plentiful enough. Anyway I think he was right because he got me involved in the study of Dublin Castle, which I would never have done otherwise, and I found it fascinating. And then I joined the civil service where I got further exposure to ‘the administrative mind’ if you like. I got interested in how law and order, and how police and military in Ireland attempted to deal with the rise of revolutionary nationalism and all that. And then to my surprise I won another scholarship and went to Cambridge to do a PhD, and I studied a British civil servant who came into the Irish story in May 1920, Sir Warren Fisher, who was the first ‘head of the civil service’, an extraordinary and very odd man. So I decided to do essentially a biographical study of him. I did Warren Fisher in Cambridge, so I learnt a lot about the Treasury and Fisher, although he wasn’t a technical expert in economic and financial terms, he was the first person to be called Head of the Civil Service. It was a title which he hadn’t devised, it had been wished on him (he didn’t know by who, but I found out). Fisher stuck his finger in all sorts of different policy pies, particularly defence and foreign affairs, so I was able to pursue a sort of schoolboy interest in Britain preparing for the Second World War.


BK: From the perspective of studying Irish nationalism, the first book you wrote, The Decline of the Union, what kind of perspectives do you get from studying it from the administrator’s point of view?


EO’H: I think you get a much less teleological perspective for a start, because you can see at points, where arguments are coming forward, certainly after 1916 for example, from some elements of the police, even immediately after the Rising from General Maxwell - known as ‘Bloody Maxwell’ - pointing out the consequences of the repressive policy being pursued, and asking if this is the way to go forward, if it will inevitably lead to radicalisation. That is a paraphrase of what he said - is this what we want to do? - and of course he got no clear answer from London, and so he went ahead with those executions and the mass deportations and so on. So I think you get a certain insight into the administrative mind, civil and military and police, and that is something I would always be more interested in, not so much in how states cope with nationalism and militant nationalism of one kind or another, and obviously I have done quite a lot of work on intelligence and security policy on Northern Ireland since, but what comes out of having developed a liking for the administrative record as opposed to the more romantic side: studying not the guerillas, but how the state studied and tried to cope with them, be it the British state, the Irish state or to some extent the American state.


BK: You have also studied the Irish Nationalist administrative mind after independence (1921) with respect to Foreign Policy, Intelligence, Security. Was it any different?


EO’H: Not very much. Irish security organisations, if that is not too grand a term for them, have a much better understanding of the cultural dynamics almost if you like, or radicalism, certainly within Ireland, than any British agencies did, and I think that is as true in relation to the recent Troubles just as in the 1916-1923 period, or even during the Second World War. As far as I can see you look at UK institutions, the one that had the best grasp, ironically, would have been the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was a provincial police force. It knew a good deal, not about everything - perhaps it didn’t understand it in the same way, militant nationalism in the North, because it was so culturally segregated from it - but I think it made a better fist a lot of the time of appreciating the consequences of particular policies then say the British Army, although the army prides itself now on its expertise in counter-insurgency. It seems to me police are better at reading the local feelings, if you like, and have a better cultural grasp in relation to radical movements.


BK: Do you think that was why the IRA were defeated during the civil war in 1922-23?


EO’H: I don’t really, because I think that in ‘22-23 the general public, as far as I can see, were utterly disenchanted with the prospect that political violence should continue. I think it’s amazing, not simply the civil war outcome, but that Ireland gets so quiet so quickly afterwards. There clearly was an aversion if you like to continuing support for armed campaigns against the new state, an absolute aversion to the proposition that the new Ireland should do anything about the loss of six counties and so on. I don’t know that could be explained simply by state policy but rather by – we didn’t have opinion polls in those days – by generalised dislike of the continued use of political violence. It didn’t follow electorally that there wasn’t sympathy for the anti-treaty side, as the August 1923 election showed.


BK: The public rejected the gunmen, but when the gunmen went into politics they became the dominant party.


EO’H: Absolutely, but look at Sinn Féin nowadays. I’m surrounded by posters around here, in South Central Dublin and elsewhere, nearly all of Sinn Féin candidates, many of them women, most of whom are too young even to remember, or have memories of, pre-ceasefire days in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin now have got a more-fleshed out economic and political agenda, and are in some ways reaping the benefits. I think in the North, it was, if you like, a peace dividend. In the South it has more to do, not with them having given up political violence, but more with being a highly organised political party now, in a sense with the exception of the issue of abortion, on the left of Irish politics, so they are getting what looks to me a well-rooted substantial electoral base.


BK: So are they another Fianna Fáil?


EO’H: To some extent but I don t think they will be as dominant as Fianna Fáil were, but like Fianna Fáil used to be they are conspicuously well-organised at the constituency level in many areas. They attract younger voters. They are not putting Adams and McGuinness much on posters around here; of course this is Dublin, and they are not referring to Northern Ireland at all. The campaigns here are all about water charges, medical cards and the like. I lived for four years out in West Tallaght, a very deprived area. It was clear that Sinn Féin were the most, I would not say they were omnipresent – but Sinn Féin were the party that appeared to resonate in terms of local peoples’ issues and so on, and they had an infrastructure, community workers, in terms of local issues and so on. So Sinn Féin are highly organised, highly disciplined, doing on the ground politics, and they are very good at it.


BK: But if you, as a historian, look at the overall context, the way in which this decade of commemoration has begun in Ireland, do you think this is changing the popular consciousness of history? You have told me before that contemporary history of Ireland sells, compared to other topics, so is there a re-evaluation of that period taking place?


EO’H: I don’t think there is a substantial new evaluation. I think what we are seeing – particularly with so many republished books from Mercier Press, some good, many terrible. For instance Kerry’s Fighting Story is an example which was originally a collection of pieces of journalism in The Kerryman (newspaper). When that was originally published as a collection, there was consternation, because they had for accidental or for reasons of spite, left out all sorts of stuff in Kerry and put in other stuff which was dubious. Now Mercier have republished that without any contextualisation, without anyone bothering to say that at the time, when this came out, many Kerry veterans didn’t like this, and people said you have left out x and y. So what we are getting is a kind of mindless reiteration of what we were getting in the forties and fifties through The Irish Press (a Fianna Fáil newspaper) and that side of things. I don’t think the appetite is for, as it were, revisionist or serious scholarly history.


BK: You say it is a mindless reiteration, but at the same time I get the impression that the period between 1913 to 1923 dwarfs every subsequent period, as if only long-term memory really matters in Ireland. Here we are, almost 100 years after 1916, in the middle of this huge Eurozone crisis, and the talk is of the Republic and 1916. Why is this particular set of events considered so important?


EO’H: Two things. We did have what became the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and that has created in some senses an improbable partnership of largely sentimental memory between contemporary Sinn Féin and those kind of arguments advanced by quite conservative political parties, and I don’t just mean Fianna Fáil, but Fine Gael as well, such that they are all to some extent co-operating and also competing for the legacy of 1916, whatever that is. They focus on that and plough on regardless, independently of what further scholarship discloses.


BK: One of the other aspects of the hold that period has on historical consciousness is the dominance of the biography in history, and the way in which, for a long period, it was only the biographers who were writing contemporary history. This just doesn’t seem to stop.


EO’H: I don it think it goes away at all. I think you are right there. Sean Lemass has now belatedly become a focus for this. Bryce Evans has tried to shake things up a bit, by a re-telling of the Lemass story, by challenging aspects of his integrity and things in a way that hasn’t been done before, and also about his thinking about the economy. Biography still sells: bad biography sells very well. Sales and academic quality don’t necessarily go together. (An academic would say that anyway). And you’re right that the fascination with Collins remains. To a lesser extent with DeV (Eamon de Valera) but I think it is absurd for an era to be described as ‘De Valera’s Ireland’. He was in power for a very long time, but not for the entire time. That becomes ‘an out’ for the other parties and their leaders in terms of things which we now see as very retrograde in relation to the Irish state in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But biography will continue to sell, and the other thing that will continue to sell is the IRA. Books on the IRA, it is just astonishing, how many there are, specifically on the Provos. There are very few studies, either good or bad, on policing, on the police in Northern Ireland. There are very few studies of the Gardaí (Irish police), a controversial group at present. I find amazing the continuous lure of the contemporary republican narrative projected backwards, specifically in relation to Northern Ireland, but to a limited extent here as well. The number of books is amazing.


BK: But outside of Ireland it is the one subject that has comparative significance. Whatever about the actual record since 1922, Irish contemporary historical experience is defined in terms of violent conflicts and their resolution. You yourself are doing this project on The Dead of the Irish Revolution. Maybe you can say something about what you have come up with that has changed the picture, vis a vis Republican Politics and the Independence movement?


EO’H: First of all it was simply an attempt to find the number of fatalities arising from political violence between 1916 and - I hope to do - up to the end of 1923. At present the imperfect manuscript comes up to 31st December 1921 and I just had to stop there. So far I have only published two pieces from it, but I am just astonished at how much it does tell me - I don’t know if other people are interested in the Irish revolution, in things you wouldn’t consider important. For example, British military fatalities arising from Irish political violence, just over a quarter, nearly 27% were what we would call own goals, accidental shootings by their own side, and traffic accidents. I am amazed that the professionals in these matters are the ones who have by far the most accidental deaths. A student of mine did his PhD on a region in Ireland during the civil war - he came up with almost exactly the same percentage of self-inflicted fatalities for the Free State Army, and that is to do not simply with a lack of training, but with the ubiquity of weapons and ammunition. The only people with weapons, in any numbers, in the Irish War of Independence and to some extent the civil war, were the forces of the state. If you are a soldier you carry a gun all the time. You carry ammunition all the time. If you are a guerrilla, most of the time the last thing you want to do is be seen carrying a gun, because that only means trouble. It is also striking, if you look at the data I have, as compared to David McKittrick’s study of Lost Lives 1966 to 2000, on the nature of deaths and how civilians are clearly more of a target in the more recent Troubles than they were 1918-21. Killing civilians by and large, particularly females, simply wasn’t acceptable. For them to be selected for death, the few that were killed were more or less killed accidentally. Whereas in the Northern Ireland Troubles, although there was a slight taboo against killing females, it wasn’t remotely as powerful it seems to me.


BK: There is also the important question of the regional variation in violence. What about the county and local level analysis?


EO’H: It tells us a lot. I use the county as a wholly imperfect unit of measurement but it is the only one we have. It is the one to which people are attached. It’s unavoidable and inescapable. I think it tells us a lot. It throws up a lot of puzzles. When you take a county like Cavan, which since Independence would always have had quite a strong republican vote, and yet Cavan turned out to be quite a sleepy hollow. I think there are nine fatalities I could trace from political violence from 1916 to December 1921, it was just amazingly quiet. Almost no non-fatal violence either. You take other counties like Queens County, (now Laois), it is one of I think ten counties where there was not a single British military fatality. Yet Laois in the civil war gets a lot of headlines for political killings and so on. So my study throws up a lot of puzzles. It confirms what others have said that Cork is by far the most violent place. Now there is a controversy in relation to Cork, specifically in relation to people who may have been murdered and killed and ‘disappeared’, both during the War of Independence and the Truce period and into the Civil War. Leaving those problematic possible deaths aside, Cork is still by far the most violent county as measured by fatalities. It is a huge space, but even allowing for that, in terms of population it is by far the most violent place, as measured by fatalities. What’s also interesting is that some of the countries around it are relatively quiet. Cork City, like Waterford, has a lot of ex-servicemen and so on, but yet the story in those two places, which are quite close, are very different . I can’t explain a lot of these variations, but by highlighting them I will enable others to do so.


BK: Stathis Kalyvas, in his book on the Greek civil war argues that causes are national but the production of violence within conflicts is always local. Going back to your comment on the Mercier Press, maybe the way people in Ireland write books about the civil war in Galway or the civil war in Sligo reflects the fact that the independence movement was very decentralised in terms of its impetus, and the momentum was acquired in some places with not others.


EO’H: Yes I think you are right. I know the Kalyvas book but I think there are also puzzles even within that. There are personal factors which come into play: in some places good leadership matters. I think there may also be questions about the topography, the geography of places. In Offaly they say ‘oh the reason they do nothing is partially because the place is too flat’: in Cavan they say the reason they do nothing is because the place is too hilly. But at the local or at county level even, people find explanations for relative inactivity, partly in terms of the lie of the land, but also in terms of the composition of the population. In Monaghan, where you have a very significant Protestant population, some Monaghan veterans say this is part of the reason, but Monaghan also had strong elements of the Catholic nationalist Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH): of the 26 fatalities there I think 5 or 6 were members of the AOH, whom the IRA killed. So even if violence is local while the struggle is national, within the local there are puzzles, which is why this type of micro study is valuable: you get extraordinary deviations from what you might expect. Not only in relation to the AOH, but also to the killing of Protestants. At the local level very often the more you go into it, the less you can say that the killing is simply sectarian, which surprised me, the more it turns out to be linked to other matters, such as land and things like that.


BK: Aside from conflicts, on the connection between the national and the local –Sean McGraw, a political scientist in Notre Dame, is publishing a book on Irish party politics in the Celtic Tiger era. Then (1990-2008) you had a narrative of national economic boom, which though modernising in some ways, involves the reassertion of many aspects of the political system which you would call local, especially with respect to clientelism and the way in which constituency politics is dominated by local political machines. It is an impetus not confined to political violence, but something important in the political culture.


EO’H: You can call it localism, brokerage, clientelism (I don’t want to go into that debate), but absolutely, it is extremely strong, there are no signs of modernisation, of it disappearing with innovations like the Ombudsman, complaint procedures, you can do lots of stuff online - without any intermediaries at all - but still certainly the politicians here, what they are selling, what they are pushing, is essentially ‘I might be able to fix it for you’. That hasn’t changed at all in terms of politics. I personally think it is not the end of the world. The idea of a dispassionate robotic administrative system simply rationally doling out benefits to those who are entitled to them and so on. It might work in Scandinavia, but I am not as against it as some critics of Irish politics and Irish political culture are.


BK: It existed under the British system, when we had a different electoral system, so it is a deeply enduring tradition.


EO’H: Absolutely. I learnt that by studying Dublin Castle, when you had the Irish Parliamentary Party in there, trying to get temporary clerks made permanent. This culture of politicians as intermediaries and ‘Mr Fix Its’ long predates PR/STV, which is why I doubt even if you change our electoral system that you would change political behaviour all that much.


BK: That takes me to the final topic, your work on Afghanistan and India. Are there parallels with Ireland? The question of whether Ireland is post-colonial is an ideological one. But the pragmatic question is how much can we learn from these comparisons. And one of the things people say is that precisely this tradition (of clientelism and a localised political culture) might exist in such countries? Ireland might be more like them in these respects than Scandinavia.


EO’H: Well I haven’t been to Scandinavia, but I was in India for three months two years ago. I remember for example being up in Shimla way up in the Himalayas, you know they have an entire bureaucracy devoted to, a local provincial ministry of anti-corruption. There was a very colourful election campaign going on. The Chief Minister of whatever Province Shimla is in (Himachal Pradesh) was re-elected for the sixth time, and he has, even by Indian standards, a list of cases against him and criminal convictions, which he is currently contesting, as long as your arm. I think in Ireland – India is a pretty big place so you can see why localism and regionalism are important factors – but with Ireland as it turns out, there are enormous parallels. Even before the current meltdown of Congress they were incredibly culturally similar to Fianna Fáil, amazingly so, and they have just experienced an incredible electoral reverse like Fianna Fáil in the last Irish general election. I think this allows us to make judicious comparisons, but we have to be careful. I think we have to ask, as social scientists, not simply why people are so gullible and why they don’t believe in rational administrative systems - why they don’t chose the Ombudsman more than the local fixer. We have to look at the positive side, why people find it in some way beneficial to seek politicians’ help, not necessarily in a crass way, but why human agency if you like, seems to be an important cultural element in those two societies. Whether it has to do with having administrative systems which were developed by a foreign power - a kind of colonial argument - or whether it is for other reasons, I don’t know, but Ireland and India, despite the absurdly different scale and different cultural values, the sheer variety of India, merit comparison in these matters.


BK: I know a sociologist who believes that Ireland is like it is because the Romans never got as far as Ireland. We didn’t develop certain things that exist in Western Europe.


EO’H: Did the Romans get as far as Italy Bill?


BK: In the political science work on Ireland, when it started off, there was this theme that we had an over-developed state apparatus but an underdeveloped political culture: a very pejorative way of putting it. In 1931 the Prime Minister William Cosgrave lamented ‘the absence of a state sense’ in Ireland. He was trying to justify the introduction of fresh special powers. The paradox again is that there is a state sense in that that people did reject the anti-treatyite position in favour of the state in 1922, but ten years later the losers of the civil war became the dominant party.


EO’H: In the 1960s I was at school with the sons of the high command of Fine Gael which saw itself as the responsible party: the ones who did what needed to be done. Despite their economic and social privileges, they radiated a kind of sulkiness at the persistent ingratitude of the Irish electorate. The Jesuits seemed to feed this sense of Fine Gael entitlement, much to my irritation as a boy conscious of my family’s republican and Fianna Fáil credentials.


BK: What is happening now!


EO’H: What we are not seeing at the moment from any party, there is no real emphasis in the current election on it - although the Government are stuck with austerity - there is no passionate advocacy of it at all. There are only grim faces in relation to it around the cabinet table, but there is no one in government saying this might be not simply an obligation, but that this might actually be worthwhile. There is no argument against the size of the state as it is, there is nothing like the Tea Party type argument that the state should do less, there has been no ideological abandonment of the state if you like: the concept of the state as a taxer and the best provider of services and so on is not under attack. Rather the contrary, which I think is interesting. For example, we are getting a new state agency, but not a formal one which requires legislation, to deal with homelessness in Dublin. We are still looking to the state, all the political parties basically are, and there are no free marketeers here at all now.


BK: There is also the relative quiescence of the public during this crisis, despite the depth of its financial woes over the past years. Can this be explained as a historical legacy?


EO’H: I think it can be, but I came back to Ireland in 1982 and boy was this a poor place, right? For four years of this crash I lived in West Tallaght, a poor place all right, but the visible standard of living and the fabric of public spaces and so on, even there, even with horses on the grass, is just immeasurably better, people are immeasurably better off now than when I started working as an academic in 1982.


BK: So both the state and the clientelism are delivering?


EO’H: I think they are. I am not saying people should be happy. Materially Ireland is a much richer place than it was forty years ago. I think we have enormous technical problems, but not remotely the difficulty Greece has had. Education has also prospered during the depression, too weak a word, despite the claims to the contrary.


BK: To wrap up, what are your future plans as a researcher?


EO’H: I hope to get back into the British records to look at Northern Ireland more from the point of view of security co-operation and things like that. I would love to do more work on Jews in Afghanistan. I would like to do collaborative work with scholars who will know a lot more about that country but don’t have access to the sources that I do, particularly with the diplomatic and intelligence records in London and things like that. I want to get the The Dead off to Yale this summer. I am now going through the Military Pension records in relation to the 1916 veterans and I was instrumental in having these codified and released. I would like to do more work on political violence in the civil war: of this ‘body counting’ character, so at least we have a reliable, at least we will know, where deaths happened and why, and so on, up to the end of 1923. I also have a yearning to use non-Irish sources to study Ireland, but also to use Ireland and Irish material to study other places and other issues. And it is mainly going to be through the prism of the British state, the British diplomatic and military.


BK: So you are back where you started.


EO’H: I’m always back where I started.


BK: Thanks Eunan.


Short Bibliography


The decline of the union: British government in Ireland, 1892-1921. Gill and MacMillan, 1987.


Head of the Civil Service: a study of Sir Warren Fisher. Routledge, 1982.


Defending Ireland: the Irish State and its Enemies since 1922. Oxford University Press, 1999.


The Dead of the Irish Revolution, 1916-1921 (with Daithí Ó Corráin), Yale University Press, 2011.


Kerry’s Fighting Story, 1916-21: Told by the Men who Made it (intro J.J. Lee). Mercier Press, 2001.


Thornton, Chris, Kelters, Seamus, Feeney, Brian, McKitrick (eds.) Lost Lives: The Story of the Men and Women Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Mainstream Publishers, 2004.