Jason K. Knirck. Women of the Dail: Gender, Republicanism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006. xii + 205 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7165-2801-2; $29.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7165-2803-6.
Jason K. Knirck. Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006. xii + 203 pp. $83.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-4147-4; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-4148-1.
Reviewed by Peter Hart
Published on H-Albion (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Michael De Nie (University of West Georgia)
The Anglo-Irish Treaty and Its Enemies
The Anglo-Irish “Treaty” of December 1921 (technically Articles of Agreement since the Irish negotiators did not represent a sovereign state) can fairly be described as the most important document in modern Irish history, as well as the most controversial. From it flowed independence, civil war, a new party system, and the certainty of partition. While not nearly as significant in Britain, it removed the Irish Question from politics for generations and helped render the Liberal Party irrelevant.
Given its importance, it is most odd that, prior to Jason K. Knirck’s new works, only one book devoted to the treaty has ever been published: Frank Pakenham’s Peace by Ordeal, which dates all the way back to 1935. Pakenham (also known as Lord Longford) was the first to properly reconstruct the Irish side of the tortuous negotiations that produced the great document, but he did not really tackle the lengthy debates that followed in the revolutionary parliament, Dáil Éireann. Various biographers of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera--the leaders, respectively, of the pro- and anti-treaty factions of Sinn Féin--have presented more or less partisan versions of these events, but the best post-Pakenham account is in Joseph Curran’s The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923, published in 1980. Credit must also be given to Michael Hopkinson, whose history of the civil war, Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (1988), includes a masterfully succinct summary of the whole affair. Both used new sources and embedded the treaty in a wider narrative.
Knirck’s Imagining Ireland’s Independence does not attempt a full reworking of the facts, nor does it introduce much in the way of new research, in the manner of Pakenham and Curran. “Designed for the classroom,” it is instead a general overview of the treaty negotiations and debate, prefaced by a summary of the preceding phases of the Irish revolution, and concluding with a discussion of the treaty’s legacy (p. xi). A novel (to me) addition to the main text is a Web site that provides speeches and documents for students to consult (http://pdfs.rowmanlittlefield.com/Tr/eat/TreatyDocuments.pdf). I suspect that we will see more of this in the near future.
All in all, I liked the book and thought it would indeed be useful to students. Its focus is probably too narrow for it to be a course textbook, but the two central chapters on the talks and on the debate do a good job explaining most of the intricacies of the treaty and the Dáil’s responses to it. These chapters will make a good addition to course reading lists, being more expansive than Hopkinson’s action-packed chapters and less voluminous than those in Curran’s equally excellent but much more detailed book.
Knirck tells the story of the negotiations more or less as a narrative. The third chapter proceeds from the David Lloyd George and de Valera preliminaries, through the formation of the delegation and a discussion of what Knirck sees as the five key issues, and then climaxes with the controversial December 3 Dáil cabinet meeting--discussed at (relative) length--and the final confrontation back in London. Largely left out here are the initial plenary sessions in London and the final (six-hour) Dublin cabinet meeting of December 8.
The book covers the actual debates thematically, issue by issue and argument by argument, ending with the January vote. Knirck has obviously read the debates with care, and has an excellent command of procedural matters and the personal by-play between former comrades rapidly turning into enemies. However, he does not provide much information on the behind-the-scenes activities, or of strategy and tactics. This means that he underplays de Valera’s overriding goal of unity, and fears of civil war.
The major problem with the book is the almost complete absence of the British side. After all, Lloyd George had his own political problems with which to deal, which help to explain his agenda and maneuvers. This dimension is also missing from the introductory chapters (occupying nearly half the book), which provide a decent survey of the rise of Sinn Fein, etc., but give little sense of how British thinking or policy developed. Most important in this regard, Knirck does not properly describe the last two home rule bills of 1914 and 1920, or the Home Rule Crisis, so the reader cannot compare the treaty with what came before, or follow the way Ulster wove in and out of the conflict.
Knirck devotes a short section of Imagining Ireland's Independence to female Teachtai Dála (TDs), which serves as a teaser for his companion volume, Women of the Dáil. This, too, focuses on the treaty debate, only this time through the prism of gender. Once again, the book begins with substantial introductory material. The first chapter offers a brief discussion of the historiography of women and the Irish Revolution, including the idea that the escalation of violence and rise of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)--“militarization”--marginalized women’s roles in the republican movement. Interestingly, Knirck suggests that this is a “most problematic” argument by asserting that women actually increased their political profile after 1919 (p. 13). He does not quite say how, but I assume he means in terms of the number of women in the Dáil and those who engaged in high-profile propaganda tours. Also, the fact that women activists mostly ended up on the more militaristic anti-treaty side seems to undermine the purported antagonism. This is an intriguing debate, but it would need a lot more data to arrive at a conclusion.
The second chapter concerns political culture. Here, women’s roles as mothers and mourners are emphasized, with sacrifice being a key theme. Much of the discussion is taken up with literary images, including a fair bit of James Joyce. I am not sure if this is useful as a guide to gender in politics, when basic social history on such matters as education and employment is omitted. Chapter 3 analyzes the themes of female sacrifice and victimization as they played out in 1916-21, with relatives of male martyrs, such as Mary MacSwiney and Margaret Pearse, emerging as revolutionary politicians and celebrities. Knirck identifies Grace Gifford, who married Joseph Plunkett just before he was executed, as a particularly “poignant” case, but, in fact, there is reason to suspect she was playing up her victimhood for her own benefit (p. 53). In any case, what gets largely missed here are the fund-raisers, organizers, election workers, branch officers, and executive members who carried out non-sacrificial revolutionary work. How typical were the “women in black” who made it to the Dáil?
The second half of the book--the final three chapters--looks at the role of the six women TDs in the treaty debate. Here, Knirck somewhat contradicts his other book’s view of the proceedings as substantive and often impressive by calling it “a lengthy frenzy of vituperative speech-making, procedural wrangling and personal invective” (p. 72). The women’s part was to raise the specter of the dead and to claim the right to speak for them. Even the women who were not widows wore black. This brought up a lot of other questions about majority rule and the sovereignty of the IRA and the republic, all of which Knirck explores in chapter 5 (with considerable but forgivable overlap with the other book). Female TDs also raised the uncomfortable issue of the franchise, which left a large number of women without the vote in the 1922 general election.
Chapter 6 deals with the civil war and aftermath, which continued the free state and mainstream media belittling of republican women (and, by extension, of all republicans) as silly or hysterical--hence the classic Gaelic American headline: “Mary MacSwiney talks nonsense to small meeting” (p. 139). This was the natural rhetorical strategy to match republican bone-rattling, as put to the test during MacSwiney’s hunger strikes. The government’s response was to suggest that they were symptoms of mental and physical instability akin to menopause. Knirck argues that the government’s portrayal of republicanism as essentially feminine was part of a wider policy of eliminating both the ideology and women in general from public life, in an attempt to restore stability and order. This is an interesting hypothesis, but one that needs much more support and elaboration to become convincing.
Knirck’s conclusion is as follows: “Rather than stake out a bold new role for themselves, or make feminist demands, most female politicians during the revolution chose to fit themselves within a comfortable niche in nationalist political culture” (p. 170). This argument suggests that women had such a choice, but it is hard to see how. After all, the only topic that male politicians talked about was the revolution, the republic, and the treaty, and they were all part of the same movement. The book’s focus on the Dáil also excludes women elected to the Sinn Fein executive and local government. Can they be slotted into the same niche? Did men play any less gendered roles--the men of honor, the soldiers, and the statesmen? Most of all, I am still not sure why women TDs all voted against the treaty without exception--and why the most republican organization was the all-female Cumann na mBan. It cannot just have been typecasting.
Women of the Dáil is a brave effort at tackling an important and difficult topic, but it needs much more grounding in biographical, organizational, and social facts. Knirck provides no proper analysis of the presence and role of women in the revolutionary movement and no detailed profile of the TDs themselves. He also neglects to offer much sense of just how personally formidable and unmarginalizable MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz really were: the Xena and Buffy of the republican movement. You would not want to see their impression of Gandhi.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Peter Hart. Review of Knirck, Jason K., Women of the Dail: Gender, Republicanism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty and
Knirck, Jason K., Imagining Ireland's Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
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