Shayla Warmsley reviews Green Against Green: the Irish civil war by Michael Hopkinson Gill & MacMillan, ISBN 0 7171 3760 0, £16.99/€19.99 pbk
IF THERE is a source Hopkinson missed, it's buried 20 miles deep in a cast-iron casket guarded by a gorgon. This, if ever there was one, is a thorough job of evidence-gathering and history-writing.
When it was first published in the 1980s, Hopkinson's book changed the tack of previous writing that was still much influenced by the civil war's internecine aftermath. He quotes a contemporary claim that Irish politics, even as late as 1948, were even the dominated "but the hunters and hunted of 1922".
Yet much of the war, he suggests, was more cock-up than conspiracy. Republican ranks laboured in cash-strapped chaos, unable to take prisoners (they cost too much to keep) and short on tactical nous. The army of the provisional government was "weak", "inexperienced" and facing "chronic problems", including the "criminal element" in its own ranks.
If the thesis was radical in the 1980s, scholarship has moved on. One quibble would be with the absence even of a new preface for this edition, let alone an indication of historiographical trends since it was first published.
Second, there is, simply, too much detail - and it occasionally rises to stony-faced farce. Relating the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson MP, Hopkinson points out that prospects for the two shooters' getaway "were not aided by (one of the assassin's) wooden leg…Liam Lynch remarked that it was unfortunate that (he) did not possess two sound legs."
Not Lynch's most searing observation, perhaps. And while we're on Lynch, if you were coming to the civil war a novice, you'd find out what he thought of one-legged assassins but you wouldn't find here any notion of who he was. He bursts into the book pretty much unannounced and unexplained.
If Hopkinson mires himself in more detail than he needs, he mostly emerges with an explanation of why the detail matters. Yet it would be hard to justify, for instance, three pages of close text for Cork IRA men who "very reluctantly entered the war and showed little commitment to it".
He has little time for iconic moments - Collins's death included. "It matters more that Collins was killed than how he was," he says. Amen to that.
And ironically, he concludes, the civil war changed nothing - at least not in the sense of resolving the constitutional issues that had caused it. It ended instead without a negotiated peace, with much of the national leadership gone. It was "a strange mixture of tragedy and something resembling comic opera".
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Copyright © 2005 Shayla Warmsley