February 17th, 2008


February Books 14) Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising

14) Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising: The Story of Sir Matthew Nathan, by Leon Ó Broin

This is a good example of how to take a rich and largely untapped vein of source material - the private papers of Sir Matthew Nathan, supplemented by the memoirs of Arthur Hamilton Norway and his wife Mary Louisa - and turn it into a good read. It's not as comprehensive - because it doesn't aim to be - as Charles Townshend's more recent book, but is way better than Brian Barton's treatment of similar documents.

Sir Matthew Nathan was the most senior civil servant in Ireland in 1916. Because the political head of government, Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, spent most of his time in London, and their nominal superior, the Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimborne, was being kept out of the loop, Nathan was effectively in day-to-day control of the whole of Ireland until events overwhelmed him on that Easter Monday. He was a dedicated documenter of his own activities, and therefore a historian's dream: and Mrs Norway published her own reminiscences of the Rising shortly afterwards, from the perspective of the woman whose husband ran the GPO. (Their son later reminisced as well.)

The first half of the book is, sensibly enough, taken up with an account of Nathan's career in Ireland and before up to Easter 1916, and how it was that the rebellion was allowed to break out. It illustrates well one of the points also made by Townshend, that the old Irish Nationalist Party had completely lost credibility by 1915. But a related point that was largely new to me was the extent to which Nathan in particular was discussing the handing over of control of the government to a Home Rule administration headed by John Redmond and John Dillon. It was an opportunity missed, in a way - if their talks had been more public, it would have been possible to construct a public narrative of an all-but-imminent handover of power (as has been done in Kosovo over the last couple of years), which would have undercut the extremists, rather than the perception of Liberal dithering and a creeping reinfiltration of Unionist influence which corroded public confidence.

The second half of the book is taken up with the Rising itself and the aftermath. Again, one of Townshend's points, that British surveillance of and intelligence on the rebels was pretty minimal, is reinforced. In fact, it seems that, thanks to the Admiralty's radio intercepts, London had better information on what was going on behind the scenes in Berlin than Dublin Castle had about Ireland. They still failed to put the pieces together - in particular, the official line on Roger Casement, that he had been sent from Germany to take charge of the Rising when in fact he had returned to Ireland to try and call it off, was supported by dodgy intelligence dossiers the like of which we have seen in other contexts more recently. I believe that some of the British official documents from 1916 are still not open to the public, and won't be until 2016; whatever can be in them, I wonder?

Ó Broin himself was actually Norway's successor - in his professional life, he was the Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and was instrumental in the creation of the T in RTÉ. The book was published in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and must surely have been a rather odd contribution to the political discourse of the time, rather a contrast to official glorification of the political heritage of the rebels by looking at it from a completely different point of view. His political credentials were impeccable, which must have given the book extra weight (he also wrote books about Charles Gavan Duffy, Augustine Birrell, the 1867 Fenian rising, Michael Collins, Joseph Brennan, Parnell, Robert Emmet, and the I.R.B.) I'd read a couple of his other books - in particular, his autobiography, ...Just Like Yesterday - and had this one on the bookshelves for years; I'm glad I finally got around to it.

February Books 15) The Megalithic European

15) The Megalithic European, by Julian Cope

Like Ian, I recently acquired this book and have been browsing it in preparation for further excursions; it's long been a fascination of mine. Cope has some thoughts about sacred landscapes and what you can tell about the monuments just by looking at them and feeling what the builders must have intended. There is a nice gazetteer section covering the Belgian and Irish monuments - I really hadn't appreciated that there was so much in the Sligo area! - plus various other parts of Europe, some of which I knew about (Brittany, the Mediterranean, especially the Maltese cart ruts and temples which I saw aged 8) and some of which I didn't (the monuments dotted all over Denmark and southern Sweden). Illustrated with gorgeous pictures as well, some including Cope himself or else his wife Dorian.

The maps are not always terribly clear, and I wonder how much this would actually help me find some of the sites - I shall hope to put it to the test at Wéris some time this year. Also I was puzzled that Cope seems to buy into what has always seemed to me the least convincing bit of megalithic orthodoxy, that dolmens (see userpic) were usually originally covered with earth or stones which has since weathered away; it seems to me vanishingly unlikely that this can be true of more than a handful of them.

Anyway, a lovely book to look at.

Kosovo and Cyprus

A lot of my work involves steady slogging against the prevailing political winds. So when I get not one but two favourable gusts filling my sails on the same day, it is definitely worth noting.

Kosovo has declared independence, after years of restraint; and it seems likely that the international community by and large will recognise it - most of the EU member states will decide to do so at tomorrow's regular meeting of foreign ministers, and various other international actors have been lined up at least to facilitate the process. It's no big secret that I've been in favour of this for a long time; I'm glad that we appear to have a fairly soft landing for this process, though of course there are many pitfalls ahead. As one of my Kosovo friends said last year, this was one of the least unexpected developments in the Balkans in the last two decades: the ground had been well prepared, and the choreography is being duly executed.

The unexpected good news is that the Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, has lost his bid for re-election, by quite a narrow margin but none the less he is out. There's still some way to go - in particular the two remaining more moderate candidates must now compete for Papadopoulos' hard-line votes - but the prospects for a Cyprus settlement suddenly look a bit better. As usual the Cyprus Mail has a trenchant commentary (written before the election took place) as part of its regular Tales from the Coffeeshop series; you may have to concentrate to interpret the columnist's nicknames for the personalities involved - eg: 'The ad contained the following statement by the five-star, luxury hotel suite freedom fighter: “My history does not allow me to be silent.” As if there is anyone in Cyprus who does not know his history as a windbag.'

There is a possible connection between the two events. The two situations are more closely linked than may be immediately apparent; certainly I have always been conscious of the similarities. Papadopoulos is practically the only Greek Cypriot president who could not even manage a modest lurch towards a settlement, and the voters have duly taken note. It may possibly be that a crucial bloc of Greek Cypriot voters realised that his policy towards the Turkish Cypriots was dangerously similar to the Serbian policy towards the Kosovars, which has so visibly and catastrophically failed today. Sometimes the 'domino effect' can be a positive one.