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Revolutionary Limerick.

WITH Revolutionary Limerick (2010) John O'Callaghan established himself as the leading authority on the republican campaign in the mid-west. Books on the 1916 leader Con Colbert and the early stages of the Civil War in County Limerick further enhanced his reputation. Now O'Callaghan has provided us with a broader and more nuanced study of society and culture in revolutionary Limerick. This book provides vivid portraits of a city and county divided by class and religion, as well as wracked by political conflict. It is published as part of the valuable series on the Irish Revolution, edited by Mary Ann Lyons and Daithi O Corrain. The editors' aim, to make "concise, accessible, scholarly" studies of each county during the 1912-23 period available certainly succeeds in this instance. There is no better guide to how the tumultuous events of those years impacted on Limerick than this book.

Building on his earlier research, O'Callaghan deftly tackles issues of revolutionary violence, state terror, civil war and the fear these produced among the general population. He shows a welcome willingness to place these events in their European contexts. Of course, O'Callaghan rightly points out that "the scale of the displacement of people and ferocity of the violence employed" was on a vastly different scale to that experienced in Limerick; but there were often similar processes at work (3). The Great War had a transformative, if uneven and contradictory, impact on Limerick. Most obviously, over 4,000 Limerick men joined the British military between 1914 and 1918, and over 1,000 men and at least six women from the county were among the war's dead. Ex-servicemen and soldiers' wives were to remain a factor in local politics. Indeed the role of so-called "separation women" and other inhabitants of Limerick's poorest areas had been evident in the violent clashes during a Volunteer parade on Whit Sunday 1915. (It was after this event that Tom Clarke reputedly exclaimed how he "had always wondered why King William couldn't take Limerick--I know now.') Enmity between republicans and ex-soldiers would remain a factor, clashes in Newcastle West during 1920 perhaps leading at least one war veteran, Thomas Hanley, to become an Auxiliary policeman. As an aside, this phenomenon, of some Irish ex-servicemen choosing to support the Crown forces is an under-researched aspect of the revolution.

Limerick did not rise in 1916, but the city's revolutionary elite, in particular the Daly family, were among the drivers behind the revolt. Nevertheless, bad blood about the non-performance of the city's Volunteers would blight organization in the city throughout the later period. Even before 1916 Bishop Edward O'Dwyer was a separatist sympathizer, his denunciation of the treatment of Irish emigrants at Liverpool and his denunciations of Britain were eagerly amplified by radicals in the months before the Rising. O'Dwyer's stance prefigured important clerical support for local Sinn Fein candidates at the 1918 election. As O'Callaghan illustrates again, personal and organizational rivalries and suspicions, class tensions and urban-rural divides disrupted the local IRA's campaign. Nevertheless, Limerick, or parts of the county at least, still became one of the more active areas of the war. The RIC proved incapable of responding once republicans stepped up their campaign in 1920. Their reinforcement by Auxiliaries and Tans shifted the balance of forces somewhat. But the IRA was capable of devastating attacks, such as the Dromkeen ambush of February 1921 (second only to Kilmichael in terms of police fatalities in this period). Interestingly, there is no controversy about the fact that the IRA certainly did kill some Black and Tans after their surrender at Dromkeen. Here the role of Maurice Meade, British army veteran, volunteer in Casement's Irish Brigade and ruthless guerilla operator was crucial. But a dirty and brutal cycle of violence, often personalized between individuals on either side, would characterize the campaign in Limerick until the Truce. A number of Crown forces personnel distinguished themselves by their brutality and several were killed by the IRA after July 1921 in revenge for their earlier activities. The revolution was about more than the IRA, and there is valuable discussion of the role of the emerging counter state in building republican legitimacy. There is some detail on another under-written area, the nitty-gritty of republican policing. It would be interesting to see if "tramps and undesirables" driven off from a fair in Abbeyfeale included travellers as they did elsewhere in this period.

Quite apart from his descriptions of revolutionary violence, O'Callaghan paints an evocative portrait of society in Limerick on the eve of transformation. The remaining landed elites, such as the Barringtons and Dunravens feature alongside their more plebian co-religionists. Throughout O'Callaghan displays a talent for deftly summing up complex relationships. Both religious communities "choreographed displays of mutual public respect, but also careful avoidance along parallel paths" (16). Rioting in the city in 1912 after the last major public display of Limerick unionism marked the end of Loyalism as a public force. Limerick's Protestants were divided by politics and class, but there was little doubt that some felt threatened despite republican protestations of non-sectarianism. Protestants were still over-represented among the city's business elite prior to 1912. Limerick was, of course, "Pigtown"--a center for bacon curing, with several flour mills along the dock road and the Cleeve's condensed milk empire (the "fall of the House of Cleeves" being one of the stories of the revolution in the region). The Limerick Clothing factory flourished during the war years making uniforms for Allied armies (as its predecessors had done during conflicts, including the American Civil War throughout the nineteenth century). What strikes this reader is that elements of this society remained evident as late as the 1970s: Cannocks and Todds were leading department stores, the mills still produced flour and the Cleeves name appeared on locally made toffees but it has almost entirely vanished now.

Even by the standards of the day, the poverty of urban Limerick was striking. A 1915 report found the city "very much behind the times as regards the provision of sanitary accommodation" (4). Scarlet fever, typhoid, diphtheria and TB stalked the urban poor. The presence of 1,000 tenement homes in Limerick marked it out as having some of the worst housing outside Dublin. The era would also see working class militancy of various types, particularly the growth of the ITGWU in the city and county. The general strike of April 1919 gained worldwide headlines but the local takeovers in places like Bruree probably exemplified more the new confidence of rural labor. The various Limerick "soviets" illustrated both militancy and the influence of world events. Significantly, O'Callaghan shows how as Minister for Labour Countess Markievicz, despite her radical reputation and Connollyite rhetoric, twice threatened to use the IRA against Limerick workplace occupations. Indeed, the IRA in Kilmallock was mobilized against striking farm laborers in early 1922. Land, sometimes mingled with resentment of Protestant landowners, was as much of an issue in Limerick as elsewhere. Seizures intensified during 1922, the new state, unable or unwilling to defend every former "loyalist" farmer. For some unionists, such as Digby Hussey de Burgh of Dromkeen, this proved the fundamental disloyalty and untrustworthiness of the Catholic Irish. O'Callaghan's use of de Burgh's memoirs illustrates how some southern unionists retained a sense of superiority over their neighbors which made the political transformation after 1919 particularly galling.

In his depiction of Limerick prior to 1912, O'Callaghan mentions the anti-Jewish "pogrom" of 1904. This is important because, as he notes, these events showed "how suggestion could lead to intimidation and mark one section of the community out as an internal enemy" (3). "Pogrom" has become the accepted term for these events, but they were far less violent than anti-Jewish outbreaks in north Wales during 1911 and across many British cities in 1947, none of which were dubbed with the same label. The events were certainly dramatic enough to be debated in Westminster, where, as O'Callaghan notes, the boycott was defended by Limerick's Nationalist MP Michael Joyce. O'Callaghan correctly notes that these events were largely erased from "social memory" in Limerick (3). As late as 1970, one of the city's leading politicians (Steven Coughlan of the Labour Party) defended the boycott, and until recently the Limerick Leader tended to regard any discussion of it as part of a conspiracy against the city by the "Dublin media." While obviously not a central part of O'Callaghan's study, the boycott and reactions to it say something about the political culture of a city, which even within Catholic Ireland was noted for both religiosity and intolerance.

Every local study of the revolution to some extent follows the example of David Fitzpatrick's groundbreaking 1977 book Politics and Irish Life, while almost every scholar writing since 1998 has had to grapple with the questions raised by Peter Hart's the Ira and its Enemies. O'Callaghan's is a fair-minded and balanced narrative, taking on board the research of both Fitzpatrick and Hart and that of their critics while reaching conclusions all of his own. Examining each of the cases where the Limerick IRA killed men as informers, O'Callaghan shows how targeting was driven by a variety of factors, and while the IRA strove to get the "right" men, prejudices and local animosities could play some role in their decisions. As he pithily puts it, "IRA justice was not blind and not everyone was equal before IRA law" (93). Most dramatically, a Limerick IRA man was framed by some of his comrades and shot as a result of an internal feud. O'Callaghan never loses sight of the fact that "most Limerick people were not revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries and, as far as they could, avoided the extremes of the revolution" (17). But republicans enjoyed a popular mandate for independence and British rule had been steadily losing legitimacy for decades. The culture of the home rule movement at a local level was often very different from that of Redmond's conciliatory rhetoric and for many, moving from "a Nation Once Again" to "the Republic" was not that great a step. The Civil War had a considerable impact on the region and brought not only fratricide but disillusion and despair. Some of those who desired greater change were to be disappointed, but as a perceptive Free State army report put it, "One revolution and a civil war seems to satisfy most people for a life time" (137). This is quite simply a marvelous study of those transformative years.

--University of Edinburgh


John O'Callaghan.

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Title Annotation:Limerick: The Irish Revolution, 1912-23
Author:Hanley, Brian
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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