The Lost Revolution: A sketch on republican geography


In Joy Street in Belfast, at the edge of the Markets, there is a little wall plaque paying tribute to Joe McCann on the spot where he fell in 1972. I used to walk past it every day on the way to work, although it barely registered for a long time, the way you don’t really notice something that’s always been there. In The Lost Revolution, Hanley and Millar describe the Markets as “notoriously clannish”, which I guess is one way of putting it, and mention McCann’s rare ability as an outsider to be accepted there. Which leads me onto the importance of geography and territoriality as regards Irish republicanism and how it developed.

In his book on the Officials, Seán Swan has a nice aside at one point about how Dublin was distant from Belfast, and was also distant from Kerry. The contradiction Seán refers to is that you had a movement whose leadership was headquartered in Dublin but whose base was mostly rural and western, and moreover which had a powerful element in the north with very different concerns again. The basic schema, and I know this is a great simplification, is one of a traditionalist republican constituency in Connacht and Munster, a working-class socialist constituency in Dublin (Costello, from Bray, counts as an honorary Dubliner in this instance) and an essentially Defenderist constituency in the north. There’s a lot of truth in that, but, as I say, it’s a simplification.

We may start, I suppose, with western republicanism, which doesn’t quite get the understanding it deserves – Goulding, Garland and Costello were always impatient with the rural traditionalists, and Adams has shown little sign of a deep understanding. Western republicanism is a thing in itself, quite distinct from the concerns of the east coast metropolis, but is well worth considering as it was, prior to 1969, the main reservoir of support for republicanism. The WP would in later years consider this a petty bourgeois element, which may be true in strict Marxist terms – the typical activist would be a small farmer, a schoolteacher, a publican or an auctioneer, not Tone’s “men of no property” but rather men of small property. And while western republicanism had a strong militarist streak, it was primarily concerned with southern matters.

We are talking here about a movement formed by the memory of the Civil War, but that wasn’t as distant in the 1960s as it seems now. There were still rather a lot of Civil War veterans around. The Civil War was still a living memory, and much more so were the persecutions of republicans that followed, with those enacted by Fianna Fáil felt with especial bitterness. For traditional republicans, de Valera was a byword for treachery – even today, it’s hard to get traditionalists to take a balanced view of him – while men like Joe Clarke and Tom Maguire were personifications of republican fidelity. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, from Longford, will talk not only about his father, a hero of the Anglo-Irish War who was badly wounded and died relatively young as a result, but also about how he, as a young boy in the 1940s, attended the funerals of republican hunger strikers. Such is the republican concept of living history that there are always veterans around to transmit the memories.

What animated the traditional republican in the west was a burning, visceral hatred of the Saorstát and all its works and pomps. This found its expression in abstentionism, and in the legitimist concept that the de jure Republic of 1916 still existed in shadow form, and that the Army Council of the IRA was the legal government of the Republic. (Abstentionism and legitimism aren’t inseparable, and it’s logically possible to have one without the other, but they make for a powerful, mutually reinforcing combination.) These people were anti-partitionist, to be sure, but were equally if not more concerned with sustaining a revolutionary opposition to the southern state. This is important to consider when we come to the 1969 split. It wasn’t the north that occasioned the split, though the eruption of the north sharpened the questions. Nor was it the move to socialism as, though there was still a genuine fear of Muscovite communism, most traditionalists were not opposed, or at least not strongly opposed, to the moderate co-operativist socialism of Sinn Féin in the latter half of the 1960s, as long as this did not involve breaching abstentionism. The movement had in the past swung to the left and to the right and back again, and would do in the future, but abstentionism was the line in the sand that the traditionalists would not cross, and that by itself would have precipitated a split.

Things in the north were, of course, different. Northern republicanism was never all that concerned with the theology of the traditionalists, and northerners were often dismissive of abstentionism, particularly as regards Leinster House. Recall that the northern IRA had rallied to Mick Collins, because Collins provided guns to the north and took a tough line against the unionists. Republicanism in the north was and is basically separatist and anti-unionist, with a strong overlay of defence. Even so, there are significant regional differences.

Let me illustrate this concretely. War and an Irish Town is a good read, but what you miss is how untypical Derry was. Since there were relatively few unionists on the west bank of the river, and there are many fewer now, the Troubles in Derry took the form of a more or less demographically solid nationalist community pitched against an external force in the shape of the state. There are few other areas of the north – South Armagh, perhaps, although that’s a very different place – where the lines were as clear cut. Even in mostly nationalist areas of Tyrone and Fermanagh, where separatism was a realistic programme, there were still considerable numbers of unionists living cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The potential for a separatist project to devolve into sectarianism was always there, and the need to consider defence was always there.

Things become more complicated still in Belfast. If you go to Short Strand, you get a good sense of the physicality of ghetto Defenderism. It’s a small, overcrowded estate in East Belfast, surrounded on three sides by hardline loyalist areas and on the fourth by the Lagan. During the Troubles and even at points in the peace process, the fear of a loyalist pogrom has been tangible in the area. It’s not surprising, then, that Short Strand republicans have a notoriously independent streak – whether they’ve borne allegiance to the Provos, the Sticks or the INLA, the theoretical leadership of their organisation has always had trouble keeping the Strand in line. Equally, Ardoyne republicans are essentially focused on what affects Ardoyne, and don’t particularly want to know about West Belfast.

Even in West Belfast, where there’s some security in numbers and relative geographical spread – which is why Bombay Street in 1969 was such a shock – one should never underestimate the importance of defending the community against the Prods. One could be a Second Dáil legitimist or a socialist equally well, as long as defence was not forgotten. What’s more, there is an element of variation that will come into play in terms of the story of the Officials. If we want to talk about the Sticks in Belfast, to a very large extent we’re talking about their strongholds of the Lower Falls, Twinbrook and the Markets, and the specificities of those areas, and the friction with the Provos that aris at regular intervals. (I quite like Henry Patterson, but his vision of Stickyism seemed a very long way removed from what people in Twinbrook would understand by it.) And again, if we’re to understand why the IRSP/INLA turned out as they did, it’s worth remembering that most of their Belfast membership spent 1975 physically under siege in Divis Flats, which would have a disorienting effect on anyone.

And that leaves us with Dublin. It’s probably an exaggeration, if we’re talking about the republican movement in 1967 or so, to see there as being a real constituency of horny-handed proletarian republicans in Dublin. Sinn Féin’s paid-up membership in Dublin at the time was probably in the same ballpark as Mick O’Riordan’s IWP. Quite a few of these people (including leadership figures such as Tomás Mac Giolla or Seán Ó Brádaigh) would have been rural transplants. Of those who were native Dubliners, there would have been as many from a small business background (Goulding with his painting and decorating business, de Rossa from a shopkeeping background) as actual wage labourers. Nonetheless, it was the case that most of those Dubliners who moved into republican activism were motivated at least in large part by the experience of poverty, and that led to an openness to socialist thinking.

What you had then in Dublin was not so much an actually existing working class constituency, as an ideal or potential constituency. But this constituency was not particularly interested in traditional republican concerns, and much of the Dublin-based leadership (Costello comes to mind) were either indifferent to or even contemptuous of those concerns, not being animated either by Civil War resentments or by northern sectarianism. The trouble then is when you have a leadership that, in pursuit of a new constituency, develops a fractious relationship with the old one. And when that leadership makes inroads into the new constituency, beginning to reshape the movement in its own image and at the same time accelerating its own evolution – that’s when you get a combustible mix, just ready for a movement to split right down the middle.


  1. Garibaldy said,

    October 13, 2009 at 12:09 am

    The Turf Lodge people will get very upset if I don’t mention them as loyal to the leadership from the get go. There’s a streak of rural left activism I think is perhaps missing from your account. There are people in The WP today who were well to the left in the 50s from places like South Derry.

    I agree though on geography. I think you can add quite a few places in west Belfast to your comment about Derry being primarily aimed against the state forces (while acknowledging the importance of the Springfield Road, Fall/Shankill interfaces) due to the absence of proximity to unionists. I suspect that this is partly why loyalists are accepted so readily at things like west Belfast talks back. Ardoyne or the New Lodge may well have been different when that type of thing began.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 13, 2009 at 12:41 am

    The rural leftism is interesting, and it’s probably why Peadar O’Donnell could make a comeback in the 60s. The whole Economic Resistance perspective seemed to be a decent fit for rural radicalism. But there are rural areas and rural areas – I have a fair number of family connections in the South Derry-East Tyrone area, but I still find South Armagh hard to read.

    Turf Lodge, yes. Then there was that odd North Belfast thing where families would have one son in the Officials and one son in the Provos. Sometimes you’d get a large and enterprising family who would place a son in the IRSP as well.

  3. Phil said,

    October 13, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Thanks for this – from the title I was expecting a kind of Tony Parker/Dervla Murphy Geography Of Entrenched Hatreds deal, but it’s much more informative than that.

    Not wanting to do the whole socratic ignorance thing, but one reason I was always impatient with the quiet hegemony of PSF over the British Left was that I realised I didn’t know very much at all about Republicanism – & I had a hunch a lot of their supporters didn’t know much more. (And that those supporters’ minders were quite happy for them to stay that way, incidentally.) Lately I’ve started to realise that I’m not even sure what, precisely, Republicanism is – “belief in the eventual establishment of a 32-county republic” seems logically correct but too broad in practice, while “belief in whatever the Provos are up to this month” may work in practice but lacks a certain something on the theoretical level.

    So for me the idea that it has actually meant (continues to mean?) three different things, all claiming descent from the IRA of 1922, but with different (and complex) relations to nationalism & different (sometimes antagonistic) relations to socialism – such that you could end up with socialists who were fairly relaxed about reunification actually sharing a party with people who were hostile to the Left but fired up by Partition – makes a great deal of sense.

  4. Mick Hall said,

    October 13, 2009 at 11:13 am

    “quiet hegemony of PSF over the British Left”

    If only that were always so, but what you call the quiet hegemony of PSF over the British left, only came about after SF accepted or acquiesced to British rule in a part of Ireland. For a great many years much of the British left regarded the Provos as green Fascists and when in there’re cups often said so.

  5. malachi said,

    October 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Interesting too that the SDLP breaks up – or down – on similar lines; baronies or fiefdoms rather than constituent elements of a coherent party.

  6. Phil said,

    October 13, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Depends what you mean by Left. I’ve heard the “green Fascists” line from a Labour MP, so I do know what you’re talking about. But PSF were a major reference point for the Labour Left & points leftwards, even back in the 1980s; the Mils were the odd group out, as I remember it.

  7. Mick Hall said,

    October 13, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Until Livingstone became boss at the GLC and began to take a more sympathetic line towards the Provos, the CPGB mainly set the UK left’s Irish line, whether it was in the trade unions, left labour or organizations like the Connolly Association. They’re standpoint on the PIRA was that of the ‘officials’ almost word for word, hence the green fascism stuff, this was also repeated in left LP publications like Tribune, etc.

    Your correct in the 1980s it did begin to soften somewhat, but much of this was not that deep and it was only after the peace process set in the Provos became respectable enough to be given house room about the place.

    The UK far left were no better, they were all over the place, although it is only fair to say there were a good number of honorable exceptions.

  8. October 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    From the mid-80s on it seemed as if the Brits and the loyalists really laid into Tyrone republicans. The area saw the likes of the McElwaine and the Lynagh/McKearney units as well as some important non-military figures. I’m wondering what the republican geography of Tyrone/Monaghan is that made Tyrone such a center of the war, at least in the last decades.

  9. johng said,

    October 13, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I seem to remember McCann making a big deal of the difference between Derry and everywhere else. Oh God. That sounds ridiculously petty and defensive does’nt it. The main thing is can I buy this book in London and where?

    • Ramzi Nohra said,

      October 18, 2009 at 6:39 pm

      I appreciate this is a bit late, but I saw a couple of copies at the Waterstones in Piccadilly yesterday.

  10. Mark P said,

    October 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Have you tried ringing Housmans? Otherwise I think that the internet is your most reliable option.

  11. Phil said,

    October 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Until Livingstone became boss at the GLC and began to take a more sympathetic line

    We could both be right. Livingstone took over from Horace Batchelor in 1981 – my entire political experience dates from after 1982. In that period I remember the active Left as about 10% Militant, 10% publicly pro-IRA, 30% pro-IRA behind closed doors and 50% pro-British withdrawal (and not actually anti-IRA as such on general revolutionary-defeatist grounds). The ILP were the only people listening to SFWP, and they didn’t amount to much.

  12. Mick Hall said,

    October 13, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I agree with you, all but Horace Batchelor, unless I am mistaken he was the guy who used to advertise on Radio Luxemburg in the 1960 about winning the football pools, perhaps we are both showing our age;) Cutler was the guy you were thinking of, goatie beard and all.

    All the best comrade.

  13. Ger Francis said,

    October 13, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    ‘The main thing is can I buy this book in London and where?’

    Check out the Irish section in Foyles on Charring Cross Rd. There were two copies there on Sunday. (They didn’t have it in Houseman’s when I popped in). It’s well worth the trip. The political evolution and journey of the Workers Party is a fascinating one, and their story is told brilliantly. The book is set to become a classic of its genre.

  14. Ciarán said,

    October 13, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    As a quick aside, I remember that the unveiling of that plaque above to McCann was a matter of interest because there were Officials, Provisionals and Irps, all in attendance together. Even in Turf Lodge, McCann is still well respected by most Provisionals (which, considering all that happened there, is interesting to say the least).

    Still, the thing that grabs most people’s attention is that the plaque has a tricolour instead of a Starry Plough on it. It’s odd when you consider how iconic that image from Inglis’ Bakery has become.

    • Garibaldy said,

      October 13, 2009 at 10:44 pm

      I was going to comment on the tricolour thing, but decided not to. But seeing as you’ve raised it. The plaque also names him as a staff captain, IRA, without distinguishing. It seems entirely possible to me that there is an attempt to create an ambiguity about which organisation he was a member of; or to have people of an age to be unfamiliar with the IRA to assume he was a Provisional.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        October 13, 2009 at 11:02 pm

        And indeed Provisional rolls of honour in certain areas now include reference to people who died in the first couple of years of the Troubles and in fact belonged to the IRA eile. Republicans have always had the ability to be creative with the past… The charitably minded might think of that as a commendable ecumenism, but I am put in mind of the Irps being forcibly excluded from hunger strike commemorations. Seeing as three of their members died on the 1981 hunger strike, they should really have been there by right, whatever your reservations about their movement.

  15. Phil said,

    October 13, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Mick – well spotted; that was deliberate, I’m afraid (although I only remember Horace B. from the Bonzo Dog Band’s references to him).

  16. Garibaldy said,

    October 13, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Re Splintered before comment 15.

    Yep, the shamelessness knows no bounds regarding IRA volunteers being put on their rolls of honour. I saw them justify the presence of people killed by the British in 1972 as being because there was no split in rural areas at that time. Utter nonsense.

    It’s a fair point about the IRSP. Having said that, IIRC the IRSP roll of honour on the internet starts with James Connolly, then Joe McCann, and then their own people. I’ve always wondered why they separate McCann out as opposed to claiming all the IRA volunteers. They may have changed it as its a very very long time since I looked at it.

  17. johng said,

    October 14, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Thanks Ger I certainly intend to. It sounds fascinating. After the first wave of Naxelism in the early 1970s many found their way into the Indian civil service. So much so that people made jokes about the ICS (Marxist-Leninist). I recall chatting to a comrade from Ireland and him saying this ‘sounded like the sticks’. But I’ve always been fascinated by the larger story that went untold in most accounts which focused on PIRA.

  18. baslamak said,

    October 14, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Without meaning to be a spammer, there is a review of this book here, and in the comments below it, Garibaldy makes a powerful defense of the workers party.

  19. johng said,

    October 19, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Finally got it in Bookmarks. Fascinating, depressing and wierd by turns. Excellent history.

  20. October 22, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    […] Sunrise has been continuing his very thoughtful and insightful series on The Lost Revolution here, here and here. Required […]

  21. January 20, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    […] reptile A note on cognitive bias Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology The Lost Revolution: a sketch on republican geography The Lost Revolution: the Intercontinental Reggie and his malcontents The fall of the House of […]

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