Working towards Irish Unity




Irish Nationalism in Britain – Book Review

Last month the Irish community in London gathered in Islington to unveil a plaque to Michael Collins at the spot he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood –  the revolutionary organisation dedicated to achieving Irish independence. But how  successful were Irish nationalists in Britain in shaping the struggle for Irish freedom? Conflict, Diaspora, and Empire: Irish Nationalism in Britain, 1912-1922`, a new book by Darragh Gannon tackles this question head on.

The actions of Irish nationalists in Britain are often characterised as a sideshow to the revolutionary events in Ireland in 1912- 22. But Gannon argues that the Irish in Britain were integral to the Irish revolution. To support his case he lays out in forensic detail successive Home Rule and IRA campaigns in Britain to argue that John Redmond and Michael Collins respectively, mobilised Irish immigrant communities in huge and unprecedented numbers.

“Between 1912 and 1914, the Home Rule movement in Britain attracted almost 50,000 members annually; hundreds of thousands, meanwhile, followed Edward Carson and John Redmond to mass rallies in Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Leeds. Ulster and Irish volunteers, further, mobilised in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff bringing the spectre of civil war to mainland Britain” (P5).

Between 1916 and 1919, Sinn Fein eclipsed the Irish Parliamentary Party as the foremost political force in Ireland and established itself as the `brand leader` of Irish nationalism. Undermined and hollowed out by the First World War, the Home Rule movement was succeeded by energetic republican organisations such as Sinn Fein and the Irish Self Determination League (ISDL) in British cities. Mass rallies platforming Sinn Fein celebrities such as Arthur Griffith and Countess Markievicz generated tens of thousands of members from Lanarkshire to Lancashire. Major showpiece events at high profile venues like the Albert Hall and Trafalgar Square meant British policy makers from the Home Office to the Colonial Office sat up and took notice. Irish political violence in Britain increasingly occupied the attention of the British Cabinet. Support for Irish independence and the actions of the IRA in Britain was no longer something that could be ignored. The establishment of the Irish Self Determination League in  March 1919 marked the victory of Sinn Fein over the Irish Independence Party (IIP) in Britain, resulting in a revolutionary, radicalised  Nationalism that the British state could no longer ignore. Eventually, after failing to defeat republicans during the War of Independence the British government invited them to London for negotiations. It would be later acknowledged that IRA attacks in Britain were taken very seriously by the British authorities and viewed as part of an effective coordinated strategy.

The author paints a vivid picture of the widespread support republicans and Michael Collins in particular enjoyed from the Irish in Britain. During the Treaty negotiations hundreds of tricolour waving London-Irish waited for Michael Collins, and the other plenipotentiaries outside No.10 Downing Street each day to show support for the Irish delegation. Women knelt in devotion, some with rosary beads, praying for a successful treaty outcome that would deliver independence. While attending a memorial for Terence MacSwiney at Southwark Cathedral, Gannon recounts how Michael Collins was mobbed by a group of London Irish girls who  showered him with kisses. Reproached by the parish priest, one replied, `what you saw me doing was patriotism`. It was this patriotism that brought audiences out in British cities during the revolutionary period in huge numbers to hear speakers like  Dillon, Devlin, Connolly, Clarke, Pearse, Griffith, and Markievicz.

During the revolutionary period Irish volunteer companies were set up in South Wales and IRA flying columns in the West of Scotland. Irish nationalists in London maintained a visible and voluble presence outside Westminster. Gannon notes; “The potent influence of Irish nationalism in British cities further occupied the minds and minutes of senior British policy- makers from Winston Churchill to David Lloyd George”.

There was a complexity and fluidity to the different generations of Irish living in Britain. They didn’t all think the same.With the emergence of mass democracy some of the Irish who benefited from the extension of the franchise moved towards supporting British Labour politics while others did not. Margaret Skinnider, born in Glasgow –  was a teacher, feminist and IRA sniper. Facing up to the complexity of internal identities, in her memoir she wrote: `Scotland is my home, but Ireland is my country`. Many Irish  joined the British army and sided with the British state. Some of them later changed their mind and moved to support Irish Independence, some joining the IRA in Britain. Many previous supporters of constitutional politics and the IIP also moved towards support for physical force republicanism and Sinn Fein. The fluidity and complexity of the political leanings of the Irish in Britain was also apparent in their response to the Treaty. Gannon brilliantly (and heartbreakingly) draws out how Irish activists in Britain would be divided in their response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In Glasgow, the Scottish Sinn Fein executive decisively opposed the treaty. Whereas the central executive of the Irish Self Determination League pledged support to the Government of the new Irish Free State. Divisions among the Irish in Britain mirrored the split back home.

The level of detail presented on the various currents of Irish nationalism in Britain makes for a fascinating read. Gannon has done the Irish in Britain a great service in identifying the very full contribution of those Irish nationalists living in Britain who played a significant part in the fight for Irish freedom during the revolutionary period. He brilliantly brings alive the battle  for the hearts and minds of those Irish living in Britain from  pro-Union and pro-Irish independence sides but also different sides within the Independence movement.

Gannon has made a seminal contribution to the history of the period in what is a very comprehensive study. .From the Home Rule crisis to conflicting new and old Irish nationalisms. From conflicting mobilisations –  as both the British army, the Irish volunteers and revolutionary republicans competed for the hearts and minds of the Irish diaspora in Britain and also for recruits. The strength and weaknesses of Irish republican politics in Britain via Sinn Fein and the Irish Self Determination League is both balanced and nuanced. In contradistinction to the traditional view Gannon concludes that IRA military attacks in Britain were more strategic than previously given credit for. Noting the British government judged IRA attacks in Britain as part of the  wider, coordinated campaign in the months leading to the Truce.

100 years later things are very different yet the same. Ireland never achieved full independence from Britain. Only independence for 26 of its 32 counties. As the saying goes, there is unfinished business to attend to –  the reunification of our country. Things are far from inevitable or certain but in 2023 we are closer to full Irish self determination than ever before. We are now in a pre-referendum phase of a border poll that will determine whether we achieve the Unity that many of us so passionately desire. As we move closer to our goal many Irish in Britain along with others will be called upon to step up and be persuaders for Unity. To press home to British politicians and government that it’s time to play a constructive role in Anglo-Irish relations in laying the groundwork for a border poll and Irish unity. I have a feeling that just like the revolutionary period of 1912-1922 there will be no shortage of the Irish diaspora in Britain willing to play their part.