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Greaves the historian (1)

Dr Brian Hanley', NUI Maynooth, evaluates Desmond Greaves' contribution as an historian. Dr Hanley's lecture was delivered at the 2005 Desmond Greaves Summer School, Saturday 27 August 2005.

I WOULD firstly like to thank the organisers of the Desmond Greaves Summer school for their invitation for me to speak here today. I have to admit being somewhat wary of critically examining his contribution to the writing of Irish history.

To have written The Life and Times of James Connolly alone would have guaranteed Greaves a prominent place among Irish historians: this being the first major study of Connolly since the 1920s and one which established the not insubstantial fact that Connolly was born in Edinburgh among many other things. But to have also chronicled the revolutionary period through the life of the best known left republican of the era, Liam Mellows(Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution), and through his history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, gives his work major significance; as do his other writings on Sean O'Casey and Wolfe Tone.

If I seem in the course of this talk to be over- critical of some of his work, than please accept that I am also aware of my own relative position to his.

Greaves of course was not simply an historian, and indeed expressed a fair degree of contempt for "academics", in which he may or may not have been justified, as we will hopefully see. Above all he was an activist in the labour movement, the movement for Irish independence, and of course in the Connolly Association in Britain.

His life's work was centered around the issue of Irish unification and independence and he edited the Irish Democrat for 40 years; he had practical experience of political activity and this was an advantage when writing about political movements; he was not a detached observer. Necessarily his political philosophy influenced his historical writing, sometimes positively, sometimes problematically, in my view, as I will argue.

First, I am going to take Greaves at his word. In his Table Talk Greaves makes a number of observations about history and historians that are worth quoting at the outset:

"It is a pretence of academicism that history can be written without bias. One can no more avoid bias in history than one can in food." So some bias is to be expected from me!

"History is always written from the point of view of the person writing it. You want perfect truth. But there is no perfect truth. There is no such absolute. History, economics, even chemistry, are coloured by the politics of the person concerned."

"There is no such thing as a neutral historian - or at least one cannot be neutral except about events that are so far in the past that they do not matter in the present, like ancient history."

I think obviously that Greaves is right there and to be congratulated for displaying an honesty that many historians would not; but I think that in terms of history-writing from any perspective, we shouldn't perhaps be content with this. But again to agree with him, I can hardly be neutral.

Other comments on academic historians are more cutting;:

"The academic historians talk about 'primary sources' as if cabinet papers and documents are primary sources, when everyone knows that the minutes of meetings commonly leave out all the important things. They have no sense of dialectics and do not realize that the primary thing is practice and experience. Oral history, what people saw and participated in, is much more fundamental than the written record and more likely to be nearer the truth."

"Academic historians go into inessentials in meticulous detail, adding a reference number for every statement. Yet they make the most sweeping assertions without supporting evidence."

Indeed Greaves excluded much of the source references for his own research on Liam Mellows from the published work on the basis that "the academics could do their own work."

Finally Greaves maintained that he didn't "mind engineers or scientists or lawyers, who are experts on something. It is the academic ideologists who get me, the historians and so-called sociologists who pretend that history is objective truth, when it is and can only be THEIR truth."

I will return to these statements, which I think contain a great deal of truth, particularly in the light of claims for "value free" scholarship, but I think they also imply more questionable ideas which could tend to have a negative effect on historical research.

First however I want to signal one area where Greaves was ahead of the academic pack: the argument centering on the 1916 Rising and the "myth", as he termed it, of the "blood sacrifice."

In 1966 Greaves delivered a lecture in response to an article by A.P.Ryan in History Today magazine. Ryan had argued in terms that were to become very familiar over the next two decades: that the Rising was conceived as a symbolic gesture, without any hope of success, inspired by a desire for violent death at the hands of the British; that it was completely unrepresentative and only won widespread support because of the repression in its aftermath; and that it disturbed and derailed what otherwise would have been a peaceful transition to Irish self-government.

Against this thesis Greaves countered that the Rising was well planned and executed, with consideration of success taken into account; that there was wider public support for the rebels than many suspected. He noted particularly the reaction to the Volunteer mobilization in Galway, where he claimed the rebellion "was a kind of peasant war" accompanying the Rising in Dublin, information based on work he was then doing on the life of Liam Mellows. He noted how tales of Dubliners abusing the defeated rebels presented only one view - and that rebel sympathizers were unlikely to display public enthusiasm in a situation of military repression after the rebels' defeat.

Finally Greaves saw the Rising as a product of a real and growing crisis, which hastened but did not create the War of Independence and not as an event that came completely out of the blue. Indeed he pointed out how repression of a far worse kind after other rebellions such as 1798 and 1803 had not led to any upsurge in support for the defeated rebels.

Now Greaves was not just challenging a "revisionist" view when he outlined this idea in 1966, as what is considered revisionism was not yet fully up and running at that time, in popular terms at least. He was also challenging the prevailing nationalist orthodoxy. Because most republicans and Irish nationalists in that era were quite happy for a variety of reasons with the idea of a blood sacrifice - Pearse and Connolly's "own red blood" being needed to bring the rose tree of national freedom into bloom.

In fact many republicans were extremely comfortable with the blood sacrifice idea, because it explained a world where with little popular support dramatic action could inspire retrospective endorsement. At the time the Irish state was also reasonably happy with this view of 1916 because it meant very little in reality: Pearse and Connolly awoke the Irish nation in 1916. Great, so let's commemorate it!

By the 1970s however things had changed dramatically and the fact that a real war was being waged in the North of this island saw revision become more fashionable for media, academia and the state - although the process was more complex than this of course. But by the 1980s the overwhelming historical orthodoxy was that 1916 was a bad thing and was indeed a "blood sacrifice."

But latterly Greaves's view has been supported in its essentials if not its political entirety by several academics - those dreaded characters again - since that time. In Joe Lee's "Ireland 1912-1985" (1989) he reassessed the blood sacrifice theory, arguing that the rebels struck when they felt they had the "maximum chance of success" and significantly looked at what we knew and really did not know about popular attitudes to the Rising, concluding that evidence of more popular support than heretofore assumed did exist.

The most complete recent military history of the rebellion, Brian Barton's and Michael Foy's "The Easter Rising" (1999) argues that far from being driven by idealistic dreamers the Rising was organized by "practical and down to earth" men like Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott who believed that they had a "fighting chance."

More recently a new study of Co. Galway during the 1916 period, Land and Revolution by Fergus Campbell has confirmed Greaves's comments on the situation there; Campbell argues that the evidence of Galway shows that the "insurrection was intended as a serious attempt to defeat the British" and that in Galway extensive preparations, local support and the relative success of the rebels showed that a serious rebellion was a possibility, an argument backed up by RIC reports and witness statements by participants. He also shows that the tradition of land agitation did overlap with rebel organization.

In this instance Greaves's historical and political view; that the Rising was a genuine effort to overthrow British rule in Ireland. led him to confront both nationalist and "revisionist" orthodoxy. But I think some of his other conclusions about the rebellion are more problematic. I think his view that James Connolly's participation in 1916 was part of an attempt to establish an independent democratic state as the essential prerequisite for socialist advance in Ireland, in effect the "first stage of freedom", led him to downplay the level of demoralization and despair that Connolly felt from 1914 onwards and to exaggerate the influence of Connolly's socialism on the other 1916 leaders.

Just to stress I am not arguing that Connolly abandoned his socialism in 1916; in fact there was nothing contradictory in him taking part in an anti-imperialist revolt. Or that there were no progressive thinkers among his allies in the IRB; there certainly were. But that Connolly entered this coalition from a position of weakness; he and the ICA were numerically and politically a minority - and that to suggest that by April 1916 the leadership of the revolutionary nationalist movement had "passed to the working class section" is to grossly exaggerate his influence.

When the Volunteers and the ICA became the Irish Republican Army Greaves writes that for Connolly and his supporters "there was no need to keep your rifles now", meaning all participants in the Rising were out for the same goals. Indeed Greaves suggests that Connolly's earlier statement was aimed at the likes of Eoin MacNeill - again I find this view questionable in terms of the views on social questions of some of the other 1916 leaders.

Of course as you will know, this view is key to Greaves's book on Connolly. In his epilogue Greaves locates Connolly's greatness is his conception that the national revolution was a prerequisite of the socialist revolution. This, Greaves argues, is the significance of Connolly's phrase "the first stage of revolution" (p. 425). Greaves quotes Connolly from the Workers' Republic of 15 January 1916 in an article entitled "economic conscription" arguing that as the "propertied classes have so shamelessly sold themselves to the enemy, the economic conscription of their property will cause few qualms to whomsoever shall administer the Irish government in the first stage of freedom." (p. 384)

Such phrases as "the first stage of freedom", argues Greaves, "recall the approach of Lenin" in Two Tactics. Greaves stresses this phrase but it isn't there; what Connolly wrote was "whomsoever will administer the Irish government in the first days of freedom." (WR, 15/1/16). The meaning of the phrase "first days" is rather more open to discussion.

I stress again that I am not arguing for a negation of the importance of the Rising or imply that it was unjustified; rather that Connolly's role within it is not necessarily the highest point of his political career and not the result of his most insightful political thinking. I think that in Greaves's effort to argue this, to see every step Connolly takes closer to the IRB as shrugging off his earlier syndicalist ideology and becoming a more more thinker - "at his most mature and profound" - to present Connolly's thought as running parallel to Lenin's, he ignored evidence of Connolly's frustration and desperation, although he did allude to it (p.302) and does so more explicitly in the Liam Mellows biography.

I think evidence of that frustration is clear: in an article also quoted by Greaves, although he draws different conclusions from it, entitled 'The Ties that Bind', Connolly wrote that while traditionally the Irish working class had been immune to the lure of Empire - something questionable in itself - the previous two years had seen its evil influence spread deeply among them; thousands of working men for a "few paltry shillings" had joined the British Army, thousands of women and girls had encouraged their men folk to become traitors for monetary reward, and the humiliation and degradation that this rush to embrace imperialism was causing could only be cured by "the red tide of war on Irish soil", striking a blow to regain national self-respect.

It is not his most "mature thinking", I think, more evidence of desperation than clear thinking. Neither is an aspect of Connolly's wartime thought that Greaves also ignored, his support for Germany.

There is no doubt that from September 1914 Connolly not only desired a German victory over Britain, a logical enough position, but also that he eulogized Germany as a modern, progressive state containing the "best educated working class in the world, the greatest number of labour papers, the greatest number of parliamentary and local representatives elected on a working class platform, the greatest number of socialist voters - all of this was an infallible index to the high level of intelligence of the German working class as well as their strong and political and industrial position."

This Connolly pointed to the "high civilization of the whole German nation. Upon such a formula Germany laid her success in trade. And her success in war." So after 1914 Connolly's articles justified harsh German repression in Belgium as the fault of Belgian resistance. He claimed that Germany's empire allowed a measure of freedom for its "self-governing peoples" in Africa and elsewhere as opposed to Britain's. He felt that German war successes were due to the country's "socialized" nature, and he counterposed the image of the "savage Cossacks" of Russia ravishing the daughters of a race at the "head of Christian civilization."

In both the Irish Worker and then the Workers' Republic these views are apparent from early in the war. The Germans are a "civilized people who respond to every progressive influence - whereas the Russian empire stretches away into the depths of Asia and relies upon an army largely recruited from amongst many thousands of barbarians who have not yet felt the first softening influence of civilization." (IW, 22/8/14)

The Workers' Republic even carried an interview between a German socialist journalist and the Kaiser where Wilhelm claimed to understand the views of the German left and where he praised most German socialists as "splendid fellows". Now Connolly's position is one thing; it is quite understandable in many respects, was not unique - it was common on the Jewish left for instance, as Czarist Russia was the most anti-Semitic power in the war - and a strong argument justifying it has been made in recent times by one of its former critics; but it was not Lenin's position, who, while he wanted the defeat of his own government, damned the German Social Democrats for their support for that country's war effort and would have had few illusions about the benevolent nature of German imperialism. And Greaves ignores it because politically Connolly has to be at his best in 1916, not as Desmond Ryan put it, "embittered, horrified, depressed", feeling a "profound and proud despair."

Similarly Connolly's praise for the Polish Socialist Party and its leader Pilsudski, which is quite open and accessible in the pages of the Workers Republic, is not referred to. Here I think we have a problem of fitting a very definite political perspective, Connolly's thought running parallel to Lenin's, with the evidence that on important areas they deviated. Here I think Greaves the political activist won out over the historian.

When we turn to the other major Greaves biography, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution" I have a broader problem. Again I must stress the strength of this work: the vivid picture of the mass movement sweeping Ireland from 1917, the tragedy of division and defeat, the confusion and grappling for analysis among the Anti-Treatyites encapsulated in Liam Mellows' own personal struggles.

Unlike many historians. Greaves rightly identifies the British threat of "immediate and terrible war" as a key factor in the Treaty acceptance; as Mellows put the "fear of the people" rather than the "will of the people" as the foremost influence. Greaves does not attempt to confuse anti-Treaty IRA strength with real popular support. As he says, the IRA was one thing, "the mass of the people another."

This is an important question as even had the anti-Treatyites won the Civil War they actually lacked a popular mandate to start with. He does not ignore where anti-Treatyite volunteers break strikes or land agitations and he also acknowledges the "spectacular success" of the Labour Party in the 1922 general election, a result often curiously overlooked by republican historians, a result that raises questions about how important the Treaty was for at least a section of the working class. Mellows' work with the Irish Progressive League in the US, the contacts with Soviet Russia, the solidarity movement in Britain, are all brought to life brilliantly, but most of all the social aspect of the independence struggle is stressed, the strikes, the land seizures, and that is still relevant when recent historical work on the independence struggle has ignored this.

My qualms relate to his treatment of the issue of partition. This is very much an issue with which I am personally grappling and its less a criticism of Greaves than an observation.

Greaves came into politics in a period in which the partition of Ireland was becoming the central issue for nationalists and republicans of almost all stripes. The idea of partition being the symbol of the unfinished democratic revolution remained central to his activity. And I think in terms of his work on Mellows it meant he underestimated the differences between northern and southern nationalists in the revolutionary period and overstressed the significance of partition - as he says, the "all-important issue of partition" - to the debate over the Treaty and the outbreak of Civil War.

But for most southern anti-Treatyites in 1922 partition was not the "all-important issue". It was so for northern nationalists of all descriptions, but there is little sense in the Mellows book that quite a different debate is unfolding north of the border, especially in Belfast. The violence of that city between 1920-22 is there, but not in all its complexity.

For Greaves as for many, the IRA in this period in Belfast acts as protectors for nationalists, their "sole" protectors indeed. But in Belfast during 1920 there were still 18 UIL clubs and 25 AOH clubs to just 9 Sinn Fein ones. The National Volunteers still claimed 1,300 members in the city. The bitter warfare in Belfast involved the IRA to a lesser degree than imagined, as Catholic ex-servicemen, Hibernians and National Volunteers also were active.

The failure of Sinn Fein, even at its highest point, to secure a dominant position among nationalists in Belfast had major importance for any Irish revolution but Greaves does not ponder on it. Joe Devlin is absent from the book in any real sense (there are just three brief references), but he won the Falls in 1918, not de Valera.

The significance of this is that the comparative lack of interest in the partition issue among southern anti-Treatyites was countered by a high level of activity by pro-Treatyites militarily and saw most of the Belfast IRA support the Treaty. It is not the impression gained from Greaves where the "six counties were held as hostages in the hands of British imperialism. Half a million Catholics were in the hands of Craig. In return for dubious assurances regarding their physical and economic safety, Collins agreed to abandon the Belfast boycott and in effect to recognize the legitimacy of the six-county regime."

Now without signing up for the already over-subscribed Michael Collins fan club, northern nationalists did not see him as selling out their interests; indeed more belligerent speeches and actions against partition came from the pro-Treatyites, or more correctly a section of them, than from the anti-Treatyites in this period.

When Greaves talks about the Treaty debates he tends to give the impression that partition is an issue raised again and again; it wasn't and it was rarely a central objection. Some of the most powerful anti-Treaty speeches did not mention the issue of partition at all. Here I think a life's work and beliefs do cloud Greaves's historical judgment. It is tempting and easy, so much so that Gerry Adams can't resist it in his introduction to the new edition of the Mellows book, to see Fine Gael as the home of the lost Redmondite forces of conservatism done down by Sinn Fein in 1918; but it was not that simple then and it is not now. (But that is Gerry Adams's view and not Greaves's.)

I return to Greaves's comments on academic historians because I think that, while true enough in some respects and certainly attractive, there is also a danger within them of celebrating a lack of critical research. It is disappointing that Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution is bereft for the most part of notes(there are some). There are pages and pages of accounts of meetings, rallies, speeches, debates and activity, but often no guide as to the source of Greaves's information, whether newspapers, diaries or word-of-mouth. Perhaps most disappointing of all however is the lack of a source in the James Connolly biography for one of the most famous quotations of Connolly's;

"In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty."

Greaves may have heard an account of this from impeccable sources; I'd just like to know who or what they were. Now we can damn academic historians as footnote obsessed, divorced from the real world and usually reactionary to boot, but there is a point to signaling your source of information, particularly when dealing with political history. Greaves did significant research; nobody writes books like those on Connolly and Mellows without doing so.

Greaves was absolutely right in many ways about the value of oral history. The experiences of people, their feelings, the unique ways in which any political movement or event affect people involved or observing them, cannot be explained any better than by participants themselves. Reading only archival documents, newspapers or the political press cannot convey this. Greaves was lucky to have had access to veterans of the revolutionary period and earlier who knew Connolly and Mellows to speak to. It reminds us how imperative it is that the participants in political and social life in our own era are also recorded.

But oral history too carries potential dangers. People forget, or they confuse events, or they are genuinely convinced that such and such was at that year's commemoration, when they were not. People tell stories that place themselves in the best light or they don't guide the researcher towards sources that might portray themselves in a bad light. People take the aspect of a particular party or movement's politics they most agree with and mentally transpose it onto their whole political involvement, when the party they joined might have stood for something very different.

Therefore I suggest oral history is not the panacea for "historical truth" anymore than government documents, police files (especially not those, although they can be useful too!), newspapers or TV documentaries. But a critical historian should examine them all.

Historians should try to achieve balance, and if absolute objectivity is impossible, nevertheless they should strive to achieve it. Why? Because I think it is possible to write balanced history. Some may not want to; that is fair enough. But I think it should be possible to judge and weigh up the available evidence and present it without inflicting your own bias fatally on the subject. It means having to be disciplined enough to accept evidence that contradicts your thesis and perhaps annoys you. The alternative - and here I think there is a danger in some of Greaves's remarks on the subject - is that you accept that all historians are biased and unobjective, especially the academic ones, so you ignore what they write. You exclude yourself from new thinking on the basis that you are likely to disagree with it. You are always on the defensive. It would be a poor reflection on Greaves's scholarship to allow our prejudices to hinder historical research when we are lucky enough to have access to material unavailable to him.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2005-10-05 19:00:37.
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