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Conflict, Diaspora, and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Britain, 1912-1922 - A confident and original read

Darragh Gannon convincingly persuades that Irish nationalism in Britain was far from just a sideshow

Conflict, Diaspora, and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Britain, 1912-1922
Conflict, Diaspora, and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Britain, 1912-1922
Author: Darragh Gannon
ISBN-13: 978-1009158275
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Guideline Price: £85

What constituted the “Irish Race” during the revolutionary decade 1913-23? For all those in Ireland intent on independence from Britain, there were others abroad who felt they were very much a part of the campaign. This confident and original survey focuses on a crucial group of them – Irish nationalists in Britain.

As leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) focused on Westminster and winning home rule from Britain, John Redmond displayed little modesty in declaring himself “leader of the Irish Race”. Between January-August 1912, 43 of his party’s MPs addressed around 500 meetings in British constituencies to push their cause.

The variety of messages they espoused – including nationalism as a positive thing for the UK and a demonstration of true liberalism – was a reminder of a vision of “common citizenship between Britain and Ireland”, which ran through Edwardian Britain as attempts were made to make the Irish question a salient feature of British politics. Some Irish MPs also felt it necessary to stress their radical credentials in Britain due to Irish involvement in the British labour movement.

None of this was ever straightforward, and Darragh Gannon, with considerable fluency and insight, mines a variety of contemporary sources to do justice to the layers, entwinements, overlapping themes and interdependent languages. In a book dense with footnotes and a wide range, Gannon is also interested in “what looms large on the historiographical horizon” and pays generous tribute to the scholars who have specialised in various aspects of his overall themes, including the role of the Gaelic League, the struggle for women to be heard, and the sheer maze of Irish committees that emerged.


The first World War complicated everything and Redmond was keen to stress that, in this context, Ireland was not the enemy, Gannon noting that “identifying Irish contributions within the imperial war effort was integral to representations of the home rule project in Britain”. In tandem, members of British branches of the Irish Volunteers organisation maintained a high public profile in British recruitment centres. As T.P. O’Connor, the Irish-born Liverpool MP whose letters do much to illuminate this study saw it, the idea of collective British-Irish principles was paramount: “Our empire,” he insisted, “is founded on freedom… every Irishman who can go to the front should engage himself in this fight.”

In parallel, however, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), as a “UK-wide” body, was engaged in smuggling arms across the Irish Sea, while the Gaelic League in London was regarded by the IPP’s John Dillon as “by no means friendly” to the IPP. The GAA and Wolfe Tone clubs were also active, and some members of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na Mban in Britain crossed the Irish Sea to fight in the 1916 Rising. Meanwhile, the co-ordination of post-Rising relief efforts in London heightened the profile of Art O’Brien, the dominant figure in the advanced nationalist movement there.

At times, Sinn Féin struggled to make headway in Britain, given that it was an era of British patriotism; Dillon characterised their members as inhabiting “nests… numerically small but resilient and active under the surface”. The strength of this book is the extent to which it gets under that surface and assesses the numerous tensions and regional imbalances affecting Irish separatists in the UK. The Irish Self-determination League (ISDL) was pretty much ignored by Sinn Féin in Scotland, and British-based republicans showed little interest in women. Dorothy Carter in the London ISDL complained that “to wait and pray may be the woman’s part but I want some of my brother man’s share”.

A mass rally in London’s Albert Hall in February 1920 was a 10,000 audience sell-out, and the growing reach of republican-inspired organisations was reflected in increased interest being shown by the British intelligence services. Republican hunger-strike demonstrations also generated considerable British media coverage documenting “dramatic scenes at Wormwood Scrubs”. But the response of the Irish in Britain to the raising of a Dáil Éireann loan was distinctly “underwhelming”, Art O’Brien complaining to Michael Collins that “not one of our moneyed people here in London gave any support”. There was, however, a great mobilisation and “hushed religious rituals and practices” in response to the death of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton prison in 1920; as his body lay in Southwark Cathedral there were 30,000 present in the grounds.

Gannon deftly dissects the challenges associated with getting arms from Britain to Ireland and provides great detail on the logistics of these operations. IRB activists in Britain included Sam Maguire in London, Joe Vize in Glasgow and Steve Lanigan in Liverpool, who stressed the importance of activists who were “manly” and morally superior. It was a time of a “three speed communication system of post, courier and wire”, and next day arrival of letters from Ireland to Britain, assisting the co-ordination of “a live IRB arms network across the Irish Sea” with ship crews as conduits. The Liverpool Docks were of particular importance where “their labyrinthine maze of crews, crafts and cargoes stretched along seven miles of the Mersey”. Arms smuggling from London and Glasgow, however, was more sporadic and disorganised.

Twenty-eight Irish Republican Army (IRA) companies operated in Britain in 1920 and IRA headquarters in Dublin exercised limited influence over them: their targeting of Liverpool and Cheshire with arson attacks in late 1920 marked the eclipse by the IRA of the IRB, but this aggression caused consternation to some Irish in Britain. The attacks were no minor concern, being considered “as much of a threat to British security concerns by leading policymakers as republican military operations in Ireland”. In May 1921, IRA units carried out 16 attacks on the property of Royal Irish Constabulary auxiliaries and their relatives across London and Liverpool; ironically, some of those involved were Irish-born British civil servants. What the IRA ensured was that it remained “a UK wide security problem”.

This book fills a significant hole in the history of the revolutionary decade and the author convincingly persuades that Irish nationalism in Britain during this period was far from just a sideshow.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD. His new book, The Revelation of Ireland 1995-2020, will be published in September by Profile Books.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column