Okay, it perhaps might not carry the same cultural weight as rediscovering Aristotle’s volume on comedy, or Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Won, or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ early poetry, or James Joyce’s lost stageplay.
But in terms of sheer unexpectedness, it’s on a par with hearing of the existence of Ernest Hemingway’s secret gay erotica, Franz Kafka’s rediscovered techno thriller, or Sylvia Plath’s long forgotten shopping and fucking chicklit.
Actually, it’s even less likely than all of those. But, we are assured, nevertheless, it exists.
This alternative history was written at the time of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, which had led ultimately to both Irish independence, and partition.
It was published in the 16th April 2006 edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday newspaper, where I was a staff journalist. I expect they might hold the copyright, but I wrote it and I think it’s fair of me to reproduce it here as I suspect they’re unlikely to reprint it anytime soon.
THE TRIALS of the trenches seemed a long time ago now. On Sackville Street, in glorious June sunshine, Prime Minister John Dillon and his guest, David Lloyd George, led the cheering thousands who saluted the returning Irish troops who had defended their nation and empire so valiantly against the Germans. It was a time of celebration, even if the seditious activities of the once-respected lawyer, Edward Carson, were beginning to cause unrest in the north of the island.
And for the joyous crowd, their Union Jacks held proudly aloft, it was the achievement of the soldiers in the trenches that had helped bring about Home Rule. There might always be the odd crank for whom self-determination was never enough, like the wild-eyed MP for East Clare, Mr de Valera. But the vast majority of the Irish citizenry as the recent landslide election victory for Dillon’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had indicated were delighted to have their own parliament and saw no need to reject the monarchy or sever the brotherly bond with Britain.
Of course, things could have been so different, as one Rathgar schoolteacher noted sullenly. Had the Irish Volunteers’ chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill, not learned of their plans to strike for Irish independence three years earlier and immediately countermanded them, then PH Pearse and his comrades in the Irish Republican Brotherhood might well have obtained complete independence for Ireland while England was embroiled in a foreign war.
Or so he believed. But the arrest of the former diplomat, Roger Casement, and the scuttling of the shipful of arms he was bringing to Ireland had made their plans for an uprising pointless, as Mr MacNeill had argued. The rising had evaporated before it had even begun.
By 1919, Mr MacNeill was prominent on the opposition benches in the House of Commons on College Green. Sinn Féin, led by the irascible Arthur Griffith, still argued for absolute independence but its minority status in parliament proved that desire was not shared by the people in general. Casement still languished in Kilmainham, and the IRB had withered away to an irrelevant handful of dissidents. With Home Rule now a fact, their role seemed increasingly defunct.
After decades of trying, the late John Redmond had finally secured Home Rule from Britain as a reward for sending the National Volunteers to the trenches. The humourless poet, Pearse, had returned to teaching Irish to sour-faced lads and dreaming of fomenting revolution. The radical Scot, James Connolly, was still preaching the gospel of socialism from his trade union headquarters in Liberty Hall. But few listened to them.
Instead, the general election held in late December 1918, while many of Dublin’s tenement poor were wracked with Spanish flu, was heavily influenced by two factors. One was David Lloyd George’s firm commitment to Irish Home Rule, made in his Armistice speech only weeks earlier. ‘This is no time for words,’ he had declared. ‘Our hearts are too full of gratitude to which no tongue can give adequate expression. We especially pay tribute to our Irish brethren, in return for whose valiance long-promised Home Rule is the least reward we may grant them.’
The other factor that swung the election so forcefully in the IPP’s favour was the introduction of universal suffrage. The radical Countess Markievicz was elected to represent Sinn Féin but most Irish women who voted for the first time were much more conservative and rallied to Dillon’s paternal leadership. A State visit in 1921 by King George V helped to shore up the popularity of the monarchy but, throughout the ’20s, the popularity of Sinn Féin seemed inexorably to rise.
Sinn Féin, led by a younger generation than the increasingly tired IPP, by now renamed the Irish National Party (INP), were making huge inroads into the working class vote. Sinn Féin’s charismatic young leader, the Corkonian Michael Collins, made a series of angry speeches in Dublin’s House of Commons calling on the government to deal with the increased sectarian rioting in Belfast.
Unionist Party leader Edward Carson, by now deputy prime minister in the ruling coalition with the INP, denounced the activities of his former colleague, James Craig, a stockbroker turned terrorist. In 1926, under pressure from Sinn Féin, the INP pressed to have Ireland included in the declaration made by the Earl of Balfour at that year’s Imperial Conference. Prime Minister Kevin O’Higgins triumphantly returned from London to an Ireland now officially considered independent within the British Empire, sharing only a monarchy with Britain.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, left wing governments swept to power in Britain and Ireland. With the support of Jim Larkin’s Labour Party, Sinn Féin at last made it into power, despite the recent split in their ranks (Eamon de Valera had formed his own party, named Fianna Fáil, after a bitter row with Michael Collins over devolution for Ulster).
The following decade was a dark one for the nation. While membership of the British Commonwealth continued to encourage trade and helped to grow Ireland’s economy, the dark spectre of fascism was spreading across Europe. General Eoin O’Duffy attracted many disaffected soldiers to his quasi-fascist National Guard movement quickly named the Blueshirts in recognition of the traits they shared with Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain.
By 1933, the fascist salute could be seen in every town and village in the royal dominion of Ireland. Clashes between O’Duffy’s paramilitary organisation and the RIC became a weekly, almost daily occurrence. O’Duffy announced a major rally for Dublin in August 1933, to be held in the Phoenix Park. Fearing a coup, since O’Duffy carried much support in the Irish battalions, Prime Minister Collins banned it and announced martial law. The Irish civil war had begun.
Troops loyal to the House of Commons moved to secure the capital, while O’Duffy’s men marched through Cork, Belfast, Londonderry and Limerick. James Craig’s Ulster Volunteer Force, a heavily armed terrorist organisation responsible for sporadic bombings and murders in the north of Ireland, declared its own ‘war’ for independence in Ulster.
Collins moved quickly against O’Duffy and Craig. With the help of troops provided by Ramsay McDonald’s national government in Britain, both rebellions were quickly suppressed and their leaderships interned in The Curragh army camp. Before restoring democratic government, Collins approved the executions of O’Duffy and Craig. He told Deputy Prime Minister Jim Larkin later that day: ‘Early this morning, I signed my own death warrant.’
However, Collins’s decisiveness contrasted with Britain’s dithering. Westminster moved to ban the fascist Blackshirts only in 1937 but, by then, the world was lurching towards another world war. The first had brought Ireland Home Rule; the second would prove devastating. Accused of dictatorship by the leader of the opposition, Eamon de Valera, Collins formed a government of national unity on the eve of German hostilities breaking out. Only William Cosgrave’s Irish National Party, where many former blueshirts had found a political home, refused to take part, arguing instead for peace at any price.
Once again, British troops flooded into Ireland, and were stationed on the Allies’ westernmost border. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Collins used Radio Eireann to inform the people that little Ireland was at war with Nazi Germany. The western seaboard was prowled by ‘ wolfpacks’ of U-boats and patrolled by the Royal Irish Air Force. German nationals were interred in The Curragh camp recently vacated by O’Duffy’s and Craig’s followers. Rationing began. Dublin and Belfast were devastated in the Blitz. Carpet bombing reduced many historical buildings to rubble. The key ports of Derry and Queenstown, where convoys from the United States came to dock, were blockaded by U-boats.
In 1941, as the dogfights of the Battle of the British Isles raged, a plot was uncovered. William Joyce, like his party leader, Eamon De Valera, was an American of Irish heritage. It soon emerged that he was in secret negotiations with the Nazi regime to provide a ‘backdoor to the British Isles’. Together with some extremist republicans, who espoused an independent Eire free from the monarchy, he planned to smuggle Nazi troops into the largely unguarded southwest of the country.
De Valera, who personally espoused neutrality in the war though he sat in Cabinet, was appalled at the treachery and exposed it to Collins. Not for the first time, Prime Minister Collins was forced to sign execution orders. Hundreds of thousands of Irish troops fought valiantly on the African front under Allied General Richard Mulcahy, who later played a major role in the D-Day landings. For many Irishmen who had been conflicted by their republican sentiment, the discovery of the Nazi death camps seemed to vindicate the decision by de Valera to expose Joyce’s treachery.
In the post-war elections, Fianna Fáil swept to power, backed in coalition by William O’Brien’s Irish Labour Party. Collins’s Sinn Féin was reduced to a fraction of its former power. Basil Brooke’s Unionist Party boycotted the Commons in protest and again called for a regional parliament for Ulster. Returning soldiers in the North were dismayed by this lurch towards republicanism, and the Ulster Volunteer Force attracted many of them into its fold.
The assassination of Collins by an unknown UVF man while driving through remote north Antrim in 1952 is believed by many to have sparked the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Ulster. Collins had never been forgiven for ordering the execution of William Craig. Collins’s State funeral was the biggest ever seen in Ireland. It was attended by dignitaries from around the world including US President Harry Truman and the heir to the throne, Princess Elizabeth. Prime Minister de Valera gave a valedictory speech, in which he said: ‘History will record the greatness of Michael Collins.’
By the late 1950s, an economic revival was under way. As the population edged towards seven million, Ireland joined other European countries in inviting foreign workers to its shores. The first wave of ethnic immigrants, from the Caribbean, docked in Queenstown in 1958, and black faces were soon commonplace in Ireland’s major cities. The call also went out to Irish descendants in Australia, North America and even Argentina to return to help build up the economy of the motherland.
By the mid-60s, the so-called ‘Celtic Boom’ economy was in full swing. Ireland and Britain were invited to join the EEC. But Catholic Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was appalled by the loose morals and drug-taking of young Irish people in the swinging ’60s. In 1969, firebrand Ulster preacher Ian Paisley, whose fringe political party, the DUP, had been linked by some to the ongoing UVF terror campaign, helped to negotiate a Unionist ceasefire and the ‘Troubles’ finally came to an end.
Se·n Lemass’s Sinn Féin government agreed to devolved government for the nine counties of Ulster, within a federal Ireland. The oil crisis of the following decade led to years of stagnation, and Sinn Féin finance minister Charles Haughey famously warned the people to tighten their belts. The ’80s was a period of unstable coalitions. Haughey-led Sinn Féin twice entered coalition with Gerry Adams’s Fianna Fáil. In between came the so-called ‘rainbow government’, in which INP Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald led four parties, including Dick Spring’s Labour Party and David Trimble’s Unionists.
But in 1996, following the election of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin again, the radical government called for a referendum on an Irish republic within the British commonwealth. The proposal was passed by a narrow margin and, in the subsequent presidential election, INP veteran John Hume became the Irish Republic’s first president, 80 years after an abortive rebellion in Dublin now almost forgotten by the history books.
1926: Irish PM Kevin O’Higgins gains Dominion status
1933: Michael Collins tells Jim Larkin ‘I’ve signed my death warrant’
1945: U-boats fight the Royal Irish Air Force off Queenstown
1958: first shipload of Caribbean migrant workers arrives in Ireland