The more you research history, the more you realise you don’t know. This is especially the case with what historians call a ‘general history’; that is one which aims to paint a broad picture for a general audience. Inevitably, once the author steps outside his or her field of specialist research, they begin to rely heavily on the work of other historians to fill the gap. Confident generalisations that one once threw around with abandon in conversation suddenly appear shrouded in complexity.
Did the 1912 Home Rule Bill give an Irish parliament authority over education? Were there really clear pro and anti-Treaty parties in the 1922 election? Did Eamon de Valera ever actually use the phrase, ‘a republic in all but name’? These are the kind of questions that keep this author of a general history awake at night.
For all of these reasons and more, when Eoin Purcell of New Island Press approached me at the end of 2012 with the idea of writing a general overview of the Irish revolutionary period from 1912 to 1924, the task seemed much easier than it proved in practice. I had previously written a number of short e-books for Purcell’s previous label, Green Lamp, on discrete episodes of this period. Surely it was simply a matter of putting these together, expanding the odd passage and re-writing the transition from say, the Easter Rising of 1916 to the War of Independence? It could be done in a few months surely?
Like Lloyd George contemplating the rapid suppression the IRA ‘murder gang’ by police action in mid 1920, however, this vastly underestimated the complexity of the issues involved. Advancing like a newly arrived Black and Tan into unmapped territory, I found myself ambushed by unexpected volleys of historical problems. What exactly was the connection between the land question and radical nationalism? How popular was the First World War in 1914? How representative was the Irish Parliamentary Party? On which street did Con Colbert serve in 1916? All of these questions quickly put paid to hopes of a rapid conclusion to the book.
Aside from problems of unfamiliar historical detail, I also encountered another problem, common, I think, to all general histories; how to include enough detail to make the book informative while still retaining enough of a narrative flow to make it interesting to read. How for example to properly discuss the role of women in the nationalist revolution without devoting a chapter to them alone (something not possible due to restrictions of space)? How to convey the often chaotic reality of the War of Independence from 1919-21 in one relatively short chapter? How, moreover, to develop complex concepts such as the relationship of elitist guerrilla fighters to popular opinion, or the relationship of idealistic Irish republicanism with the realities of sectarianism in Irish life?
I tried to get around these problems of style and substance by following the stories of individuals such as, for instance Paul Galligan and Ernest Blythe and to show, through their experiences, how important themes in revolutionary history played out in practice. Similarly, to try to convey a taste of a complex reality I tried always to give human examples. Not for instance to merely assert that the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries brutalised and alienated Irish civilians, but to give the example of a small village in County Leitrim whose inhabitants applied for compensation for damage done by the paramilitary police 1921.
At the same time, I felt it was important to try to answer some questions with a broad brush; most importantly how the nationalist revolution affected Ireland’s long term economic and social development. I tried to set this question up in the opening chapter to provide some tentative answers in the closing chapter. Readers will judge whether I made a good job of this or not but I felt I could not get away without trying.
While my book was written in a fairly short time – around 11 months – it was also the fruit of around 7 years of research and writing on the topic of the Irish revolution. The challenge in the end was not how to fill chapters but how many important details could be left out.
In closing, if I had to give advice to anyone writing general non-fiction, my tips would be these;
- Do your research in pointed way – in other words try to answer specific questions. Even is this does not work and you find your questions were not the most relevant, it will sharpen your thinking and lead you to better questions.
- Assemble your notes and references around you, but write before you reference. Have a clear idea of what a chapter is going to look like, how it will be structured and the points it is trying to make. Then write. Do your footnotes afterwards. The great thing about writing in the age of the word processor is that your text can always be re-arranged afterwards.
- Be confident in your conclusions and don’t shy away from tackling controversial questions. But be humble too. Say what you think but don’t leave out evidence to the contrary.
- Get it done! Agonising over structure, conclusions or writing style will get you nowhere. Write first and then edit back, no version before going to print is final. Editing is far easier than creating a chapter in the first place.
Peace After the Final Battle – The Story of the Irish Revolution, will not be a perfect book, no more than any other. But it will, hopefully, give the reader an informed but also readable introduction to the decade that shaped twentieth century Ireland. It’s available in all good bookshops and online here.
(c) John Dorney
John Dorney is an independent historian and editor and main writer for The Irish Story website, and author of the ebooks The Story of the Easter Rising, The Story of the Irish War of Independence, The Story of the Irish Civil War and The Story of the Tudor Conquest of Ireland. His first print book, Peace After the Final Battle, the Story of the Irish Revolution, will be published by New Island Press in the spring of 2014.