Aflame with the Hope of Liberation

Ireland and the Middle East

In stark contrast to the Canadian monuments, Dublin’s main war memorial was a symbol of national amnesia. Originally the shrine to the 49,400 Irishmen killed in the Great War was to be erected at Merrion Square in the centre of the city. But in 1923 the government of the newly independent Irish Free State rejected this location because it would provide too prominent a reminder of a war fought for the British Empire. Eventually a site was chosen at Islandbridge on the western outskirts of the capital between the Zoo and Kilmainham Gaol, twenty-five acres on the south bank of the Liffey—it might as well have been the Lethe. Sir Edwin Lutyens, inevitably, designed the memorial park. It contained a tall Celtic cross of sacrifice and a stone of remembrance, said to have “the appearance of a shop-counter,”1 which was inscribed with the words chosen by Kipling: “Their Name Liveth for Evermore.” These images stood amid fountains, pergolas and hand-carved limestone pavilions. But although the British Legion conducted Armistice Day ceremonies, and women (some of them widows living on John Bull’s pension) sold poppies, and veterans sang “God Save the King” in Dublin as well as Belfast, Irish nationalists were determined to consign the Great War to oblivion. Islandbridge received no official opening on its completion in 1938 because the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Eamon de Valera, refused to countenance the flying of Union flags, the parading of regimental standards or any other “display likely to give offence to national sentiment.”2 Subsequently the memorial was permitted to decay. The pergolas rotted. The rose gardens withered. Vandals sacked the pavilions, smashed the fountains and defaced the obelisks. Whereas Canada reverently maintained its colossal altar on the “hallowed ground”3 of Vimy, Islandbridge suffered dereliction amounting to desecration. Other war memorials in the Free State were also slighted. The one in the centre of Sligo was superseded by a bronze statue of W. B. Yeats. The one at the main entrance of Dublin’s Connolly Station was relegated to the obscurity of Platform 4. “Let Us Forget” might have been a suitable legend for plaques in twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties. Those loyal to the green wanted no green memories of the sacrifice their countrymen had made in an irrelevant and erroneous war. They wished to recall instead the terrible beauty born at the Easter Rising in 1916, the glorious struggle for national freedom and the Irish achievement of blasting the widest breach in the ramparts of the British Empire since Yorktown.

All nations cut and shape their history to meet current requirements, but the new Irish state mutilated its past. This was understandable in view of its urgent need to fashion a separate identity, to efface the stigma of being John Bull’s other island, to rip the harp from the crown. Moreover, it was easy to blot out the episode of Irish participation in the Great War when contemplating the saga of English domination and the end of what the Republicans’ 1919 Declaration of Independence called the “long centuries of a ruthless tyranny.”4 That description itself ignores progress made in the half century after the Famine: the doubling in the number of schools, the building of 3,500 miles of railway, the development of health and welfare services, improvements in housing, significant economic advances and increased opportunities for gain in outposts of the British Empire. But none of that counted for much because galling grievances remained, notably over land, education and religion. British governments tried to alleviate them, assisting small farmers, sanctioning denominational instruction and disestablishing the Irish Protestant Church. Yet such concessions could never satisfy Ireland. The trouble was not that, whenever Gladstone found an answer to the Irish question, the Irish changed the question. The trouble was that the Irish question always remained the same—how to get rid of the Union? What obsessed the Irish mind was the unbearable tragedy of lost liberty. It was a wrong that poisoned every problem and infected every solution. Abroad, especially in urban ghettos of America where blood ran green, it bred an “embittered ‘buy-the-dynamite,’ ‘God-free-Ireland’ nationalism.”5 In the British Isles it engendered not just Fenian revolutionaries but Home Rule politicians at Westminster who sought, in Gladstone’s charged words, to march “through rapine to the dismemberment of the Empire.”6

In the wake of the Famine, of course, most Irish families were preoccupied with the struggle for survival. Many were still mired deep in poverty. Many others, those not altogether destitute, emigrated. England approved. “Ireland is boiling over,” wrote the Saturday Review, “and the scum flows across the Atlantic.”7 But Irish-Americans, especially, looked on economic exile as political banishment. Many refugees were tillers of the soil whose small potato patches had been consolidated into large pastures—cattle and sheep drove out men. A quarter of Ireland, five million acres, changed hands in the years after the Famine. And the new proprietors gained the reputation of being “cormorant vampires” and “coroneted ghouls”8 who took a fiendish delight in rack-renting and evicting their tenants. Few lived up to this description. In fact, the 150,000 tenant farmers occupying thirty acres or more (a total of three-quarters of the agricultural land in the country) enjoyed a modest prosperity until the depression of the late 1870s. They formed the core of an emergent middle class which sought parliamentary solutions to the ills of their island. But the Irish Party at Westminster, led by Isaac Butt and campaigning for limited Home Rule within the imperial framework, was ineffective. So were the Fenians, who in 1867 pitted pikes against Enfield rifles and got little in the way of transatlantic help apart from several dozen Irish-Americans who arrived in a ship called Erin’s Hope.

The Fenian uprising was hopelessly organised and speedily crushed. In a land where Christ and Caesar were hand in glove, as James Joyce said, it was also memorably anathematised. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kerry called down upon its managers “God’s heaviest curse, his withering, blasting, blighting curse,” and declared that eternity was not too long for their punishment “nor hell hot enough.”9 Their earthly fate was the gallows or the penitentiary. This all seemed to confirm the aphorism of one constitutional nationalist, J. P. Curran, that the Irish made bad subjects but worse rebels. However, these rebels kept alive the physical-force tradition, caught the imagination of compatriots and inspired a new drive to solve the Irish problem. Gladstone, who thought that the only danger to the Empire lay in Ireland’s combining with America and Canada, revoked Anglican privileges and reduced landlord rights. Charles Stewart Parnell, who defended the Fenians in the House of Commons and became the “Chief” of the Irish Party in 1880, tried to maintain a balance between revolutionary and constitutional forces. In the spirit of James Fintan Lalor, the rebel of 1848 who believed that the Famine had dissolved the bonds of society, Parnell flirted with violence over the land issue as a means of attaining Home Rule. “If we had the farmers the owners of the soil tomorrow,” he said, “we should not be long without getting an Irish parliament.”10 Only Parnell possessed the genius to create an alliance which, in the words of an admiring biographer, “brought Ireland within sight of the Promised Land.”11

Parnell was the antithesis of the genial, emollient, leonine Butt. He was aloof, implacable and tigerish. As Butt himself said just before Parnell entered parliament, aged twenty-nine, in 1875: “the Saxon will find him an ugly customer, though he is a good-looking fellow.” The Fenians themselves recognised that Parnell “was the man to fight the English; he was so like themselves, cool, callous, inexorable.”12 A cricketing squire from Wicklow, he had been to school in England, spoke with an English accent and had learned to hate the English on his American-born mother’s knee. He especially loathed their assumption of effortless superiority. Arrogance was much in evidence at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which was well known for the social rather than the intellectual distinction of its undergraduates. Here Parnell refused to join the Boat Club, which provoked quarrels “resulting in blows.”13 Contrary to myth, however, he seems to have fitted into the college quite well. Despite attending intermittently, he acquired some education—though a later associate claimed that the only book Parnell ever read was William Youatt’s The Horse. And fellow students gave him an alcoholic send-off when he was rusticated for brawling with a manure merchant. It was Parnell’s unflinching resolve to stand up to the English in the Commons that made him such a formidable leader. His cold-blooded courage eclipsed obvious political defects such as inaccessibility and inarticulacy. Almost equally disadvantageous was his dislike of funerals, the black propaganda of nationalism. Worse still, Parnell had a superstitious aversion to the colour green.

Moreover, he constantly risked exposure on account of his illicit affair with Katharine O’Shea, though he was strangely unmoved by the dangers. When Captain O’Shea threatened him with a duel because he had found Parnell’s portmanteau at his wife’s house in Eltham, Parnell only asked what the Captain had done with his luggage. His frigid reserve barely concealed jangling nerves and seething passions, akin, some said, to the madness that ran in his family. Parnell was fire in ice. More even than his ruthless filibustering, his “superb silences”14 impressed the people of his native land where, one Fenian remarked, all agitators talked. Parnell’s “sphinx-like”15 secretiveness came naturally to him—he would wave cheques in the air to dry the ink rather than risk leaving a replica of his signature on blotting paper. But inscrutability also enabled him to preserve the essential ambiguity of his political stance. He refused to define: despite his public Protestantism and his private agnosticism, he conciliated Roman Catholicism. He was devious to a fault: on adulterous business he sometimes adopted the alias “Mr. Fox.” He behaved, though, with autocratic assurance and had horses called President and Dictator. His pale, bearded countenance was majestic and his flinty, red-brown eyes were hypnotic. He was a visionary who attracted adamantine metaphors—a “man of bronze,”16 a bit of granite “encased in steel.”17 And he was a prophet whose assault on the integrity of the British Empire inspired sovereign salutations. Like the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, Parnell was hailed as “the uncrowned king of Ireland.”18

He gained this title to the country at a time when many Irishmen were losing their title to the land. As agrarian distress worsened during the late 1870s, the result of cheap food from America and more crop failures in Ireland, evictions multiplied. So did cases of arson, murder and other kinds of rural terror—“Captain Moonlight” and his minions indulged in cattle-maiming and the “‘carding’ of humans, whose backs were lacerated with nail-studded boards.”19 Parnell exploited the vital issue of land, for which, he was told, tenants were prepared to go to hell. He drew on the support of Fenians such as Michael Davitt who, having freed themselves from “the strait-jacket of intransigence,”20 campaigned to restore the land to the people as a means of giving Ireland to the Irish. As President of the Land League, Davitt’s organisation to help small farmers, Parnell urged resistance to high rents and evictions. He said that those who occupied properties from which the previous tenants had been expelled should not be shot but shunned as if they were lepers, morally excommunicated like Captain Boycott, who gave his name to the process. Yet such was the vehemence of Parnell’s language and the menace of his demeanour that he satisfied all save the most fanatical nationalists. He formed a mass movement among people who wryly acknowledged that disunity was “the primeval curse of our race.”21

As famine and crime paralysed the west, the new Liberal government (elected in 1880) prosecuted Parnell and his colleagues in Dublin for conspiring to create ill will among Her Majesty’s subjects. Predictably, it failed to obtain a conviction. The foreman of the jury amused the court by declaring, “We are unanimous that we cannot agree.”22 Gladstone then combined coercion with conciliation. He repealed the Habeas Corpus Act, a move fiercely resisted by Parnell’s increasingly well-disciplined party in the Commons. And he passed a Land Bill which gave tenants much of what they had long craved: the famous “three F’s”—fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale. Playing for higher stakes, Parnell continued to be obstructive. In October 1881 he was locked up in Kilmainham Gaol, a grim panopticon of glass, iron and granite run with “clockwork discipline” in “stupefying silence.”23 He thus became a martyr and a superhuman being—awed peasants noted that his incarceration coincided with the worst storm in half a century. Imprisonment clinched Parnell’s ascendancy in Ireland, as it would clinch the ascendancy of many other leaders of struggles for national independence throughout the Empire. It also won valuable support in the United States, which deluged him with dollars. They were subscribed, wrote the novelist George Moore sourly, by Irish-American “nursemaids and potboys,” who held the destiny of the British Empire in their hands just as “the Goths and Visigoths held the destinies of the Romans.”24

Certainly Gladstone felt obliged to negotiate with Parnell, continuing a pattern of British behaviour towards Ireland known as “kicks and ha’pence,” sticks and carrots.25 They reached an informal agreement, misleadingly named the Kilmainham Treaty and denounced by the Tories as a pact with treason. It stipulated that the Grand Old Man would make up tenants’ arrears of rent while the liberated Chief would use his influence to stop the land war. On 6 May 1882, however, a terrorist splinter group called the Invincibles murdered the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and a leading official within sight of the white Ionic columns of the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park. The assassination, carried out with long surgical knives, sent a pulse of horror through the United Kingdom. The loudest cry for vengeance came from Printing House Square. The Times not only tried “to fasten this hellish crime on the Irish people,”26 a charge which Gladstone thought diabolical, but it also suggested that the Irish population in England should be massacred. Even Parnell’s arctic composure was shattered by the crime. He offered to resign and, “white and apparently terror-stricken,” he told Sir Charles Dilke that the blow had been directed against him.27 Actually it was not a personal threat, though he took the precaution of carrying a revolver in the pocket of his overcoat. But it was an assault on Parnell’s policy, which had now veered strongly in the direction of a constitutional settlement. Gladstone, although he had to impose another measure of coercion after the Phoenix Park murders, moved towards the same goal. It was the realisation of his long-held belief that “England owed a debt of justice to Ireland.”28

Imbued with a spirit of magnanimity stronger even than his bent for casuistry, the GOM had for years sympathised with small nations struggling to be free. Recently he had acknowledged that the Union had no moral force behind it. And he aspired to make “the humblest Irishman…a governing agency”—not an idea that appealed to Lord Salisbury.29 By 1885 Gladstone faced an Irish phalanx in parliament (itself now elected on a wider franchise) and a nation whose turbulence (extending to acts of terrorism in England) not even royal magic could assuage. When Edward Prince of Wales visited Ireland he was greeted in some districts with black banners bearing the words, “We will have no Prince but Charlie.”30 For a time the GOM, who was also groping for an issue to unite the factions in the Liberal Party, kept his own counsel. And the Chief embarked on a fleeting liaison with the Tories. But when it emerged that Gladstone did support Home Rule, as the only means of pacifying Ireland, Parnell entered into a firm alliance with the Liberals. Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill (1886) provoked uproar in Protestant Ulster, drove Whigs such as Lord Hartington and Liberal imperialists such as Joseph Chamberlain into the arms of the Tories, and failed to secure a majority in the Commons. Nevertheless, the fact that a great British party had acknowledged the validity of Ireland’s national aspirations was of momentous importance. It signified not only that the Union was doomed but that the days of the Empire were numbered. This was not because Gladstone was proposing, as Lord Randolph Churchill charged, to plunge his “knife into the heart of the British Empire.”31 The GOM aimed to secure the Empire on the foundation of consent. But that implied the option of dissent. If Ireland defected, as empire-builders always warned, India could hardly be retained, for India was “a larger Ireland.”32 The Conservative and Unionist Party, which now took power for two decades (with a Liberal interlude between 1892 and 1895), was determined to prevent this catastrophe. “Ireland must be kept, like India, at all hazards,” declared Lord Salisbury, “by persuasion if possible; if not, by force.”33

In 1887 Salisbury commissioned his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to govern Ireland along these lines as Chief Secretary. Almost everyone derided the appointment, not just because of the flagrant nepotism but because Balfour seemed so ill suited to the post. To consign such a languid sybarite to the hurly-burly of Irish politics seemed, as his soul mate George Curzon remarked, “like throwing a lame dove among a congregation of angry cats.”34 But Balfour shared his uncle’s patrician disdain for the Irish, regarding them as no more fitted for self-rule than Hindus or Hottentots. There was something perverse about people who starved in bogs and mountains when they might have emigrated or grown lentils, which were less susceptible to disease than potatoes. The Irish had to be disciplined, otherwise, as the Edinburgh Review warned, the colonies would lose respect for the mother country and England would “cease to be regarded as the dominant nation.”35 Nevertheless, Balfour promised to be fair as well as firm. “I shall be as relentless as Cromwell in enforcing obedience to the law,” he declared, “but, at the same time, I shall be as radical as any reformer in redressing grievances.”36 So Balfour sustained the landlords and suppressed the “Plan of Campaign,” or rent strike—which Parnell himself repudiated. The Chief Secretary paid for bailiffs’ battering rams out of secret service funds. He supported the police when they shot down rioters at Mitchelstown in September 1887. He resisted the amelioration of gaol conditions likely to kill political prisoners in poor health, privately complaining that there was “some mysterious connection between diseased lungs and Irish patriotism.”37 Irish MPs likened “Bloody” Balfour to the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, “who was in the habit of recruiting his debilitated energies in a bath of children’s blood.”38 He remained serenely indifferent to abuse, greeting taunts with quips and responding to threats with a nonchalant twirl of his pince-nez. For a time his brand of repression, though by no means Cromwellian in its severity, did manage to quell Ireland. But its long-term effect was to exacerbate a Celtic hatred for the Saxon as fierce, said George Moore, “as that which closes the ferret’s teeth on the rat’s throat.”39

Balfour’s panaceas, even when assisted by economic recovery, did little to improve race relations. It is true that he continued the process of assisting tenants to purchase their holdings, which would in due course solve the land problem. But he hedged it about with so many conditions that it became known as “Mr. Balfour’s Puzzle.” Most of his other reforms were still less successful. His project for a Catholic university collapsed. He wasted resources in the west and failed to invest enough in the east. He got little credit for light railways that were accompanied by heavy punishments. Finally, like other British imperialists, he never understood that administrative nostrums could not cure the ills of a conquered nation. Neither the lance of coercion nor the poultice of conciliation could draw the poison from the Irish body politic. Only Parnell’s remedy, though it never took Ulster into proper account, would do. By 1889 the Chief reckoned that he might soon accomplish Home Rule, for his prestige reached its zenith when The Times was exposed for using forged letters to implicate him in the Phoenix Park murders. But the following year disaster struck. Parnell’s adultery with Katharine O’Shea, which had complicated his life for a decade, was revealed when her venal husband cited him as co-respondent in a divorce action. Wishing to marry his mistress, Parnell offered no defence and his character was duly blackened. But he tried to hold on to his leadership, thus alienating custodians of morality, splitting the Irish Party and gravely damaging the Home Rule movement.

Within twelve months Parnell was dead, leaving Ireland a bitter legacy of frustration and division. Some said he fell like Lucifer, others that he was crucified like Christ. Whatever the verdict, the passing of its uncrowned king became a key episode in the nation’s history. Yeats mourned him, visualising Parnell guiding Eire from the tomb:

His memory is now a tall pillar, burning

Before us in the gloom.40

James Joyce harped still more poignantly on the loss, identifying himself with the betrayed Caesar. And he too juggled with the idea that Parnell’s “spirit may/Rise like a Phoenix from the flames”41 and free his native land from the “brutish empire.”42 It was an alluring conceit for Parnell had embodied hope, instilled confidence and made Irish independence a living issue. What is more, he did rise again—on a fifty-seven-foot obelisk erected in O’Connell Square shortly before the Great War. Perhaps because it stirred “some instinctive memory of ancient priapic cults”43 or seemed a tribute to the virility which had captivated Mrs. O’Shea, Dubliners used the word “parnell” as slang for penis. Respectable votaries at this shrine dwelt not on phallic symbolism but on the lapidary inscription of Parnell’s most celebrated sentence. It inspired enemies of the British Empire all round the world: “No man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation.”

The nation changed course after Parnell’s death, marching to the beat of a different drum. Conspicuous in the 150,000-strong crowd at his funeral were those emblems of revolt, low-crowned, broad-brimmed hats known as wide-awakes. They belonged to leading Fenians, who asserted that the constitutional method of achieving emancipation was as lifeless as the corpse now being interred in Glasnevin Cemetery—under a sky filled with “strange lights and flames” that reflected the “electrical and high-wrought” sentiments of the mourners.44 Irish MPs in disarray could not revive that method: in 1893 the House of Lords snuffed out Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill by 419 votes to 41. Not until 1900 did the Irish Parliamentary Party reunite. But it never regained its former cohesion under the leadership of the able, amiable John Redmond, who resembled Butt rather than Parnell. Meanwhile, the Tories promoted self-help and continued to extend peasant proprietorship. Adopting a technique that would be increasingly used in an effort to keep the Empire intact, they also gave Ireland a large measure of local self-government. This knocked the Protestant Ascendancy off its perch and, according to Redmond, “worked a social revolution.”45 Although such concessions could never satisfy the aspirations of subject peoples, Irishmen feared that Englishmen might succeed in killing Home Rule by kindness. So they challenged constructive Unionism with cultural nationalism. This was the campaign to show that Ireland, light of the world while England was in the Dark Ages, possessed a historic civilisation which entitled it to be master of its own fate. It was the endeavour to burnish heroic myths, notably that of “Cuchulainn the Valiant,” who shed his blood for his homeland. It was the effort to embellish the superstructure of fable raised by Irish bards and monks, “two orders of men,” as Gibbon wrote, “who equally abused the privilege of fiction.”46 It was the attempt to replace the caricature of the poor, ignorant, brutal, feckless Paddy with the character of the pure, spiritual, vigorous, imaginative Gael. Many organisations and impulses helped to create this ideal, which was deeply subversive to the Empire.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 to encourage the playing of native games, especially hurling and Gaelic football, and it became “a central pillar of Irish nationalism.”47 Two thousand hurlers marched at Parnell’s funeral. And with their fellows they opposed English sports like cricket, which was intended, as W. G. Grace said, “to knit together the various sections of the British Empire.”48 The National Literary Society, set up in 1892, was one of many expressions of the fin-de-siècleefflorescence of Irish literature, W. B. Yeats (who also helped to establish the national theatre) being its presiding genius. The stifling of the Irish voice after the Famine complicated the task of nationalist writers since most of them had been educated in English. But the Gaelic League, formed in 1893, was dedicated to the revival of the native language since, as George Moore said, “the soul of Ireland was implicit in it.” Moore satirised many aspects of the cultural renaissance in which he himself participated, notably Yeats’s saga-inspired vision of mystic peasants, his occult superstitions as a Hermetic Student of the Golden Dawn and his fairy fantasies as High Priest of the Celtic Twilight.

Moore was not afraid to speak ill of the Druids, to suggest that “gossip was Dublin’s folklore” or to mock Douglas Hyde, President of the Gaelic League, who frothed Irish “like porter”49 through a drooping tawny moustache that resembled an abandoned bird’s nest. Actually, according to the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, he spoke only “Baboon Irish.”50 But Hyde, though a serious writer, made a broad butt. He talked in a “pigeon-cautious coo,” according to Sean O’Casey, and assisted with the worship of crepuscular gods such as “Aeonius Pure Bolonius.”51 His revolt against British sartorial imperialism was particularly risible. He urged Irish women to spin knee-breeches (a Celtic equivalent of Gandhi’s dhoti) for their men and his rallying cry was “down with trousers.”52 How effectively the diffuse, white-collared cultural movement fostered an aggressive national consciousness is a matter of debate. But anti-British feelings certainly ran high during the Boer War, when the Empire’s forces were kept at bay in South Africa by “about as many able-bodied men as one would find in the province of Connaught.”53 The League did much to propagate “Gaelic ideas of equality and democracy.”54 And the titular leader of the Easter Rising, Patrick Pearse, concluded that history would recognise the Gaelic League as “the most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland.”55

Pearse, a schoolmaster and poet who revered Ireland’s past paladins and present peasants, was apt to read history backwards. He subsequently interpreted his endeavour to promote the integrity of the Irish folk as a deliberate apprenticeship for the fight to win independence for the Irish nation. In fact, he was a late convert to physical force since favourable conditions for its use were slow to materialise. Arthur Griffith, a prickly controversialist, founded Sinn Féin (Ourselves) in 1905 to foster self-reliance in Ireland and non-cooperation with England, but it soon languished. More effective was militant trade unionism led by James Larkin, a fiery syndicalist in a dark, wide-brimmed hat that was allegedly never removed because it hid the third eye of Antichrist in the middle of his forehead, and by James Connolly, an intellectual who found it easier to explain his socialism to the Irish than to explain the Irish to socialists. Exploiting social conditions that made Dublin unhealthier than Calcutta, they generated a wave of strikes, lockouts and disturbances. By 1911, though, when H. H. Asquith’s Liberal government restricted the legislative veto of the House of Lords, there seemed a real prospect of attaining Home Rule by constitutional means. But Ireland’s opportunity was England’s difficulty. It now had to confront a Protestant community in Ulster which damned Home Rule as Rome rule, mustered behind the banners of loyalist Orangemen and prepared to resist it whatever the cost. Furthermore, the brusque new Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, played the Orange card. He pledged to support Ulster by all necessary means rather than submit to what he saw as a crooked parliamentary deal between Asquith and Redmond. Although born in Canada, Law came from Presbyterian Ulster stock. He was alert to what Louis MacNeice called “the voodoo of the Orange bands”56 and believed that the Catholic “Irish were an inferior race.”57 On Easter Tuesday 1912, standing on a platform at Belfast’s Balmoral show grounds with Tory MPs, churchmen and other dignitaries, in front of what was supposedly the largest Union Jack ever made, Law told an Ulster multitude that “you hold the pass for the Empire.”58

So, as Asquith’s Home Rule Bill began its progress through parliament, Ulstermen, whose own uncrowned king was the charismatic Sir Edward Carson, pioneered a course that would be followed by other menaced minorities within the Empire. They threatened rebellion for the sake of loyalty and plotted treason in the name of the King. They pledged, mobilised, drilled and armed. The Ulster Volunteers seemed to intimidate the government (though Winston Churchill, saying that there were “worse things than bloodshed,”59 professed his readiness to bombard Belfast). And the Secretary for War capitulated entirely to the so-called “Curragh Mutineers.” These were fifty-eight officers in the British Army who extracted an assurance from him that there would be no military coercion of Ulster.

Southern nationalists could do no other than respond with their own mailed fist. Irish Volunteers mustered in scores of thousands, supplemented by a tiny Citizen Army. Organised by Connolly, this was a proletarian Praetorian Guard wearing slouch hats and dark green uniforms and serving under a blue banner adorned with a plough and stars. The Irish Volunteers also equipped themselves by gun-running as, on the eve of the Great War, party leaders in London reached deadlock over the Ulster problem and what seemed to be its only feasible solution—partition. Like Parnell and Redmond, Patrick Pearse completely underestimated the intransigence of the Protestant north. Once armed, he thought, Irishmen would abandon sectarian strife to fight for national emancipation. They would propel Ireland, no longer divided and ruled, towards “a destiny more glorious than that of Rome.”60 Pearse had few scruples about what might be involved in the liberation struggle:

We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.

But he was also willing, even eager, to shed his own blood in order to save his people. As Yeats observed, Pearse was a dangerous man, giddy with “the vertigo of self-sacrifice.”

The Great War showed Pearse the way to his personal Calvary. He was inspired by the example of millions laying down their lives for their countries and, in the spirit of fascist patriots like Gabriele D’Annunzio, he intoned: “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields.” Anyone who thought like that, said James Connolly, was a “blithering idiot.”61 He himself aimed to spark off a social revolution, believing that the beleaguered British Empire was now uniquely vulnerable. “Ireland,” he declared, “was in the position of a child that might stick a pin in a giant’s heart.”62 Yet early in 1916, during a secret meeting with leaders of the revived Irish Republican Brotherhood who had infiltrated the Volunteers and were planning the coup, Connolly succumbed to Pearse’s dizzying rhetoric. He concluded that freedom could be achieved by “no agency less powerful than the red tide of war on Irish soil.”63 Others shared this vision, scurrying after Pearse, as Sean O’Casey observed, to keep their “rendezvous with Death.”64 But most hoped that a small band of rebels would stir into a blaze the embers of mass hatred for England, which Pearse called a “holy passion.”65

Although prosperity was increasing and there was no obvious discontent, after two years of war the auguries appeared favourable. Home Rule was in suspense for the duration and it seemed as if Englishmen would help Ulstermen to mutilate Ireland. Many nationalists resented Redmond’s support for the British war effort. Dubliners scorned posters appealing for recruits to defend the rights of small nations and the flow of volunteers had soon become a trickle. “Enlist?” one young man was supposed to have said. “Is ut me enlist? An’ a war going on!”66 Conscription therefore loomed, which Irishmen would contest. However, Pearse and his fellows did nothing to ready the nation for action. Hardened conspirators like Sean MacDermott and Tom Clarke feared the English sword less than the Irish tongue. They planned the Easter Rising in such secrecy that even Eoin MacNeill, commander of the small section of Volunteers not under Redmond’s control, was duped. When he discovered the deception he countermanded the orders. Insurrection seemed hopeless, especially after the capture of the German ship Aud, with its twenty thousand rifles, and the arrest of their envoy to Germany, Sir Roger Casement. There were other setbacks and muddles, which virtually confined the rebellion to Dublin, delayed it until Easter Monday and limited the number of rebels to 1,600. MacNeill himself was as bemused by the current confusion as only a professor of history could be. He could not decide whether to support the Rising in uniform or plain clothes—and it was over before he had made up his mind. Connolly and Pearse were unperturbed by the chaos. “We are going to be slaughtered,” said Connolly. But without bloodshed, as Pearse agreed, there could be no redemption.

So on the sunny Monday morning after Easter, as Irish Volunteers and troops of the Citizen Army assembled at Liberty Hall, Connolly’s headquarters, Pearse ignored his sister’s embarrassingly shrill plea: “Come home, Pat, and leave all this foolishness!”67Instead he marched off with his men. The various units, some going by electric tram and paying the fare, moved to seize key points in the city. Pearse’s company resembled a legion of the lost. Some Volunteers wore plain clothes and had yellow armlets on their left sleeves. Others carried picks and sledgehammers as well as bandoleers and haversacks held together by straps and string. Their weapons were various—Mausers, shotguns, Sniders, sporting rifles, Martini-Henrys, Lee Enfields, pikes and home-made bombs. However, they quickly invaded the General Post Office in what is now O’Connell Street. The GPO, a massive, colonnaded block of granite, constructed in 1818 and recently refurbished, became their command centre. From its roof they flew the orange, white and green tricolour of the Young Ireland Movement and a huge green flag bearing the legend in white letters, “Irish Republic”—which did not stop the occasional British officer from coming in to buy stamps.

The insurgents also secured a ring of other large buildings, including the Mendicity Institution, the South Dublin Union, Jacob’s biscuit factory, the College of Surgeons, Boland’s Mills, City Hall and the Imperial Hotel, which were duly fortified. Dublin Castle itself might have been taken if anyone had known how weakly it was held. As it was, the first rebel to die, the actor Sean Connolly, shot the first policeman at the entrance to the Castle’s Upper Yard—a baroque gateway topped by a statue of Justice which, as Dubliners cynically remarked, faced away from the city. Outside the GPO Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic. He asserted Ireland’s right to nationhood in the name of God and dead generations of fighters for freedom. He also declared that the egalitarian Republic was supported by Ireland’s “exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe”68—a provocative and imaginative reference to Germany. There were a few thin cheers. But the onlookers, shabby men in broken boots, shawled women in patched dresses, barefoot children in ragged hand-me-downs, were puzzled and largely hostile. Some shouted, “Shitehawks! Lousers! Bowsies!”69 Others pushed against the barricades, to be driven off by a Volunteer who hit them over the head with a lady’s umbrella. When a company of Lancers galloped down O’Connell Street, to be sent racing back by a fusillade from the GPO, the crowd expressed its sympathy for the horses. A British cavalry charge against a heavily defended building, said Connolly, signified that “there was great hope for Ireland still.”70

Connolly’s buoyant courage did more than anything to animate resistance. The young firebrand Michael Collins, formerly a postal clerk, said: “I would have followed him through hell.”71 But the round-headed, potbellied, bandy-legged Connolly was no strategist. He had stated confidently that heavy guns would not be used since a capitalist government would never destroy the capital. So instead of imitating the guerrilla methods of the Boers, the insurgents tried to hold their scattered strongpoints. This made them sitting targets for the superior fire power which the British did not hesitate to deploy once they had recovered from their initial shock. They garrisoned the Castle and summoned reinforcements, which did engage in some fierce street fighting. At Mount Street Bridge, for example, their advancing khaki serpent was bloodily attacked by a handful of Republican riflemen. For the most part, though, the British masked hostile enclaves south of the Liffey and kept rebel heads down with sniper fire from tall buildings like the Custom House. This did not stop widespread looting: at one point Dublin’s “slum lice,”72 as a character in The Plough and the Stars called them, carpeted the cobbles of O’Connell Street with the unwanted starched collars of shirts plundered from Clery’s department store. But the looters vanished as the British blasted their way towards the GPO with machine guns and artillery. The gunboat Helga fired shells from the river, pulverising “Liberty Hall, that ‘nest of sedition.’”73 By Wednesday the cordon had tightened and defenders in the Post Office were cooling their rifles with oil from sardine tins. Elsewhere the strain told on even the hardiest Volunteers. During one night-time foray de Valera was so overcome by nervous exhaustion that he went to sleep in a railway carriage at Westland Row Station. He awoke surrounded by nymphs, cherubs and angels, believing that he had died and gone to heaven. In fact he was in the Royal Coach, decorated in celestial style, which he later used as President of Ireland.

On Thursday incendiary shells and tracer bullets created a firestorm opposite the GPO in O’Connell Street. It engulfed the Imperial Hotel and the Dublin Bread Company. It melted Clery’s plate glass windows and turned Hoyte’s chemist’s shop into a roaring inferno. The heat was so intense that sacks of coal used to barricade the GPO windows ignited and the water that sooty rebels poured on them hissed into steam. From a distance the flames soared so high that “the heavens looked like a great ruby hanging from God’s ear.”74 Inside the postal redoubt the consumptive poet Joseph Plunkett, still immaculate with spurs, sabre and jewelled fingers, rejoiced: “It’s the first time this has happened since Moscow! The first time a capital city has burned since 1812!”75 But once the roof of the GPO caught fire the rebels faced defeat. Connolly was severely wounded in the left ankle and Pearse now strode to the centre of the stage. Small, proud and reserved, with a cast in one of his blue eyes, he was no great captain of men. He wore an officer’s sword but he could hardly slice a loaf of bread. He forbade the use of explosive bullets. Devoted to Mother Church, Mother Ireland and Mother (to whom he wrote a moving poem from the condemned cell), he hated the sight of suffering and agreed to end it. So, on Saturday afternoon, wearing a slouch hat and a long coat over his thin, grey-green uniform, Pearse marched through an “arena of tragedy”76 that resembled, according to one witness, a vast, shattered Roman amphitheatre. He surrendered unconditionally. Magnetic but repellent, he had been the Savonarola of the Irish independence movement. Now, knowing that he would be shot, he hoped to be the saviour of the nation.

This seemed unlikely at first. As the rebels were escorted through the crowd, Dubliners cursed, spat, hurled rotten vegetables and cried, “Bayonet them! Bayonet them!”77 They were angry at the destruction of their city, the centre of which was now said to be a ruin “more complete” than war-torn Ypres.78 They mourned the dead, 300 citizens as well as 70 insurgents and 130 British combatants. Amid much rumour and speculation there was also some sympathy for the rebels. But if the Easter Rising was propaganda from the barrel of a gun, it had evidently misfired; if it was street theatre, most of the audience was disgusted. Within weeks, though, the situation changed utterly. Although the British had regarded the Rising as a stab in the back, wantonly delivered at the time of the fall of Kut, they had played it down as a mere riot. So their retaliation, severe in itself though mild by the standards of Drogheda or Amritsar, seemed fair to them but savage to the Irish. They were still more embittered since it came on top of the British murder of five civilians during the Rising itself—one was the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who had condemned it as “noble folly.”79 But General Sir John Maxwell, who had imposed martial law, felt that he could not show weakness, particularly as Kitchener had advised him to “decimate” the prisoners.80 He told Asquith that because of

the gravity of the Rebellion and its connection with German intrigue and propaganda, and in view of the great loss of life and property arising there-from, [he had] found it imperative to inflict the most severe penalties on the known organisers of this detestable rising.81

As well as imprisoning and interning nearly two thousand suspected dissidents, courts martial held in secret sentenced ninety to death. Most were reprieved. One or two escaped fortuitously, de Valera perhaps because of his alleged American citizenship and Countess Markievicz because she was a woman—the British had condemned the German execution of Nurse Cavell. But between 3 and 12 May 1916 fifteen rebels were shot, including Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, Clarke and MacDermott. As invariably happened in imperial history, British reprisals prompted a fatal reaction.

The most impassioned parliamentary protest came from John Dillon, Redmond’s trusted colleague, who accused an insane government of “letting loose a river of blood.”82 Americans were also outraged, equating the killing of prisoners of war with German frightfulness. The British ambassador in Washington wrote home, “The Irish question is poisoning our relations with the United States.”83 Some, like the Bishop of Limerick, contrasted the cruelty visited on the Easter rebels with the mercy extended to the Jameson Raiders. Bernard Shaw said that Maxwell’s punishments resembled those inflicted by Lord Cromer on the unruly villagers of Denshawai. By their policy of blind retribution the British authorities had “worked up a hare-brained adventure into a heroic episode in the struggle for Irish freedom.” Nothing more “stupid and terror-mad could have been devised by England’s worst enemies.”84

The hanging of Sir Roger Casement in August provoked more fury, for it was vengeance served cold. Moreover, he had won fame as an anti-colonial humanitarian, denouncing Belgian rule in the Congo, for example, as “a tyranny beyond conception save only, perhaps, to an Irish mind alive to the horrors once daily enacted in this land.”85 So he was discredited by unavowable methods. Extracts from Casement’s diary revealing homosexual exploits were privately shown to influential people in England such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the American ambassador. In most of Ireland, through the familiar Christian paradox, the Easter rebels triumphed through failure. The erstwhile pariahs won their martyrs’ crowns. “Kings with plumes may adorn their hearse,” ran a current jingle, “but angels meet the soul of Patrick Pearse.”86 Yeats wrote of the haunting impact of the sixteen sacrifices:

But who can talk of give and take,

What should be and what not

While those dead men are loitering there

To stir the boiling pot?87

Irishmen had worse civil strife to endure before they achieved Connolly’s ambition to break the link with the “Brigand Empire.”88 But at Easter 1916 they had struck the vital blow which, as Lenin said, was “of a hundred times greater political significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or in Africa.”89 It was a blow at the heart of the Empire and it inspired nationalists everywhere, especially in India and Egypt. As Gandhi later said, Irishmen had not purchased freedom with the blood they had taken but with “the gallons of blood they have willingly given.”90

At first it seemed that the Rising had reinvigorated the Home Rule movement. But it foundered once more on the rock of Ulster. Loyalists there (and in the south) contrasted the noble sacrifice of Irishmen on the Somme with murderous treason in Dublin. Yet again grandees in England insisted that there must be no surrender. The lackadaisical Balfour went so far as to repeat Lord Randolph Churchill’s baleful warning: “rather than submit to Nationalist rule Ulster would fight—and Ulster would be right.”91 So Redmond and his followers were made to seem still more irrelevant and the ultimate beneficiary of the Rising was Sinn Féin. This was not because Griffith had taken part in it, though he had offered to, but because the British blamed his party, which alone was identified with the cause of total independence. Martial law encouraged recruitment and the rat-infested internment camp for Irish prisoners at Frongoch in Wales was accurately known as the “University of Revolution.”92 In July 1917 Sinn Féin scored a stunning victory when de Valera, outspoken in his “wish that the British Empire will be blown into ruins,”93 won at the East Clare by-election.

Tall, bespectacled, aloof and austere, this former teacher of mathematics was described by Yeats as “a living argument rather than a living man.”94 He was, indeed, so preoccupied with the nationalist case that in discussion with the Ulster leader Sir James Craig it took him half an hour to reach the era of Brian Boru and when negotiating with Lloyd George he only seemed interested in talking about Oliver Cromwell. At this early stage, though, de Valera was not clear about how the Republic was “to be raised on the ruins of the British Empire.”95 But the British themselves came to his assistance. They cracked down on minor instances of sedition such as drilling, wearing uniforms, whistling nationalist songs and displaying the green and black “Sinn Féin mourning badge.”96Then, in September 1917, a Volunteer hunger striker named Thomas Ashe died as a result of forcible feeding in Mountjoy Prison, provoking a funeral procession that was a tableau of national defiance. A volley fired over the grave, said Michael Collins, was the only proper tribute to pay a dead Fenian.

Sinn Féin also benefited from Britain’s apparent resolve to impose conscription on Ireland. The party reacted as though to a declaration of war, whereupon de Valera and his senior colleagues were arrested. Further repressive measures followed, such as the Sunday ban on Gaelic games, which was widely flouted. Michael Collins, who had evaded capture, favoured rifles over hurleys. Violent resistance was the only alternative, he declared, to remaining “a vassal state of John Bull.”97 So while on the run he organised Volunteers into what by mid-1919 became, with the initial connivance and the subsequent support of Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). There was always an ambiguity in the relationship between the two organisations, confused still further by local loyalties and personal rivalries. Collins himself, jovial, handsome and audacious as well as ruthless, vain and homicidal, attracted hero-worship and hatred in almost equal measure. De Valera, known as the “Long Fellow,” distrusted Collins, who was called the “Big Fellow” more on account of his pretensions than his size. They were at odds personally, politically and tactically. Amber-eyed with rage, Collins would let fly volleys of violent, grotesque and obscene oaths; de Valera was invariably cool and courteous. Lecturing about the role of the Catholic hierarchy in Irish history, Collins finished with the cry “Exterminate them” when de Valera visited the assembled hierarchy, one bishop said, “it was as the descent of the Holy Ghost upon them.”98 Collins was an irregular fighter of rare skill. De Valera did not “object to slaughter so long as it was organised,”99 but he preferred to rely on votes before rifles. At the post-war general election, based on a large new franchise, he received democratic endorsement: Sinn Féin got 73 of 105 seats and virtually annihilated the old Home Rule party. Boycotting Westminster, the twenty-seven Sinn Féin members who were still at liberty met in Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919 to form the Dáil Eirann, or Irish Parliament. It did not seem a momentous assembly, particularly as the Lord Mayor had that day welcomed home four hundred Dublin Fusiliers who had been prisoners of war and the place was ablaze with Union Jacks—a flag James Connolly had dubbed “the butcher’s apron.”100 But the Dáil took up where the Rising had left off and at once issued a Declaration of Independence proclaiming that the Irish were a free people.

On the same day, Volunteers shot two policemen in County Tipperary, the first they had killed since the Rising. This began a process of terrorism designed to make Ireland ungovernable. Collins and his militants forced the pace. Being their leader, de Valera followed them. As the British hit back, Sinn Féin first encouraged and then organised further attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The party was duly proscribed, Lloyd George condemning as crimes what Collins deemed acts of war. De Valera took other initiatives. He fostered an alternative system of administration, complete with its own courts and taxation system, which by 1920 superseded British rule in many areas. He also tried to gain the support in the United States of President Woodrow Wilson, patron of the rights of small nations. This was a shrewd move since, as the journalist A. G. Gardiner wrote, “The Atlantic bridge that Anglo-American good will must erect, must have Ireland as the keystone of its central arch.” But Wilson, a Presbyterian minister manqué, had little sympathy for Sinn Féin. He refused, as a Chicago priest said, “to take poor Ireland down from the Cross on which she has been hanging for seven long centuries.”101 Moreover, de Valera’s eighteen-month absence in the United States enabled Collins to accelerate the vicious cycle of outrage and retaliation. It was conducted with particular ferocity where green clashed with orange. When Lloyd George attempted to find a compromise in 1920 with his complex Government of Ireland Act, the six north-eastern counties of Ulster got a parliament of their own, eventually housed at Stormont. This made partition a fact on the ground. But Sinn Féin rejected Britain’s right to interfere in Irish affairs and repudiated any parliament in the south except the Dáil, its authority soon strengthened by another election. By the autumn of 1920, though, a widespread guerrilla war was raging. The IRA tried to fight their way out of the Empire, which struck back. Having defeated the Huns, said Winston Churchill, the British Empire would not surrender to “a miserable gang of cowardly assassins like the human leopards of West Africa.”102 With his fire-eating colleague Lord Birkenhead, who damned Ireland as “a plague-spot” of sedition at the heart of the Empire, he insisted on “coercion full-blast.”103

So the government augmented their forty-thousand-strong contingent of constabulary and soldiery with a force known from their dark caps and belts and their khaki uniforms as the Black and Tans. Many of these mercenaries, together with an Auxiliary officer corps, had been toughened in the trenches. But their training for police work was inadequate. They found that their new enemies dispensed sudden death with military incontinence. But since the IRA wore plain clothes and were indistinguishable from civilians, the Black and Tans exacted vengeance on the population at large. When the IRA bombed and burned RIC barracks, which were described as “the blockhouses of imperial rule in Ireland,”104 the Black and Tans incinerated factories, farms and houses, smashing, looting and driving people to take refuge in hedgerows and haystacks. IRA flying columns ambushed Crossley lorries used by the Black and Tans, who responded with night-time raids and arbitrary arrests. Both sides practised intimidation, the IRA shooting collaborators and shaving the heads of women alleged to have consorted with soldiers, the Black and Tans torturing and executing suspects in front of their families. Two bayoneted corpses discovered after a particularly barbaric attack on Balbriggan, County Dublin, “looked as though they had been killed not by human beings but by animals.”105 Commenting on the proliferation of atrocities, one Black and Tan volunteer wrote, “The real sufferer in this fratricidal war was the non-combatant.”106 The material fabric of Ireland also suffered. On a lovely May day in 1921 a large active service unit of the IRA, operating at the behest of de Valera himself, made a costly assault on the British local government office at Dublin’s Custom House. The crowd gazed in fearful silence at the scene, which culminated in a fire and the collapse of the massive copper dome. John Dillon wrote despairingly: “the most beautiful building in Ireland a mass of flame and awful clouds of black smoke…deliberately destroyed by the youth of Ireland as the latest and highest expression of idealism and patriotism.”107

Such a guerrilla army could not hope for military victory but it possessed certain advantages over a state wedded to liberal principles and constrained by democratic pressures. The imperial authorities might inflict violence, take hostages, impose curfews, place selected areas under martial law and hang terrorists, but they were not able, as Lloyd George wished, to grab murder by the throat. In deference to public opinion at home and abroad, Britain was inhibited from exerting its full power. It could not, as Lord French proposed, set up concentration camps. It could not, as recommended by Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (assassinated on Collins’s orders in 1922), shoot the enemy “by roster.”108 Nor could it, as Churchill suggested, machine-gun Sinn Féin meetings from the air. The government vacillated about retaliation, both defending reprisals and denying that they had occurred. It maintained, as Lord Hugh Cecil said, that “There is no such thing as reprisals, but they have done a great deal of good.”109 Meanwhile, the death of Irish hunger-strikers made more telling propaganda than British claims that they themselves were engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the Empire. In the American press the news that Terence MacSwiney, the Republican Lord Mayor of Cork, had died in Brixton Prison after a fast of seventy-four days eclipsed reports of the presidential election. Furthermore, respectful Londoners lined the route taken by his bier, which was draped in the Republican tricolour.

Such events pricked the British conscience. So did mendacious denials at Westminster about the depredations of Crown forces: the assertion, for example, that “the citizens of Cork had burnt their own city.”110 In fact, the hostilities were sporadic and the total number of lives lost amounted to no more than 1,500—an average day’s casualties for the British Army during the Great War. But the Irish Times doubtless summed up the general view of the conflict: “The whole country runs with blood. Unless it is stopped and stopped soon every prospect of political settlement and material prosperity will perish and our children will inherit a wilderness.”111 There was also popular revulsion in England against the increasing use of “blackguardism” to defend the Empire. Protests were heard from Ottawa to Delhi, from Cape Town to Sydney, from Rome to Washington—the American agitation being a matter of particular anxiety to Lloyd George and Churchill. The writer Sir Philip Gibbs was struck by the universal

amazement and indignation that England, the champion of small peoples, the friend to liberty, pledged to the self-determination of peoples, should adopt a Prussian policy in Ireland after a war in which, after all, hundreds of thousands of Irishmen had fought for the Empire.112

“Bloody” Balfour himself wished “to end this uphill, sordid, unchivalrous, loathsome conflict.”113 On a visit to Belfast in June 1921 George V appealed for reconciliation and peace among all his subjects.

To the astonishment of Collins, whose fighting men were reaching the end of their resources, the British government executed an abrupt volte-face. Heeding Field-Marshal Wilson’s warning that a still greater military effort would be required to crush the IRA, Lloyd George proposed instead to negotiate. In July a truce was arranged and de Valera himself took part in the initial discussions, stage-managed by the Prime Minister in front of a large map of the world, with the Empire marked in red. The confrontation ended in frustration. Arguing with this Catholic conservative nationalist, said the Welsh Wizard, was like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. Certainly the Irish President was a student of Machiavelli as well as a follower of Christ. Realising that compromise was unavoidable, he returned to Ireland and sent a team to London led by Collins and Griffith. Months of hard bargaining followed, culminating in the Prime Minister’s threat to resume the war. So, on 6 December 1921, the two sides agreed terms. Collins correctly forecast that he had signed his own death warrant. In part this was because the Sinn Féin delegation had accepted the partition of Ireland, though it expected that a Boundary Commission would reduce Ulster to a rump which could not survive on its own. But the main count against Collins and his colleagues was that the treaty failed to produce a Republic, the sacred focus of what one Irish writer has called “a mystical, hysterical, neurotic worship.”114 Instead the new Irish Free State remained within the British Empire, accepting an oath of allegiance to the King. Those on the British side who had worked for a settlement regarded this as “the miracle of Anglo-Irish reconciliation, the resurrection of a nation, the redemption of the Commonwealth”115—General Smuts’s term, which had just been officially adopted. Die-hards said that England’s cowardly surrender to gun and bomb had doomed the Empire.

After bitter debates in the Dáil the treaty was ratified by a handful of votes, de Valera himself opposing it and Griffith forming a provisional government. The issue split the IRA as well as Sinn Féin and in 1922–3 Irishmen fought each other in a civil war that was far more ferocious than the conflict with England. Collins was shot, a victim of his own organisation. Yet his argument prevailed. The treaty achieved Parnell’s dream of ending the Union. It afforded the new state a degree of independence—dominion status on the Canadian model—which permitted the evolution of a Republic as envisioned by Pearse. It gave “not the ultimate freedom to which all nations aspire,” as Collins said, “but the freedom to achieve it.”116 De Valera lived to take advantage of that freedom, shaping the nation’s past as well as its future. As Taoiseach he unveiled a memorial to the Easter martyrs at Dublin’s General Post Office, deemed holier ground than Islandbridge. Set on a base of Connemara marble, inscribed with the proclamation of 1916, it was a representation of the death of Cuchulainn, the ancient Gaelic hero who symbolised “the dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people.”117 Two years later, in 1937, de Valera introduced a new constitution for the Irish Free State that rejected the Crown. This was political apostasy in the view of imperialists such as Winston Churchill, who took to pronouncing his name “D’evil Éire.”118 But it was a crucial move towards breaking the last links with the British Empire. Ireland freed herself by her exertions and would help to free others by her example.

While the British tried to crush one nationalist rebellion in Ireland, they tried to foster another in the Middle East. The Turks had dealt the Allies crushing blows at Gallipoli and Kut, and by the beginning of 1916 they were poised to strike across Sinai at the Suez Canal. So Britain encouraged the Arabs to rise against their Ottoman masters. The nominal leader of the rebellion, which began in the Hejaz, the rocky province bordering the Red Sea, was Sherif Hussein of Mecca, a vicious local ruler who traced his descent back to Mohammed and to Adam, and liked to recite his genealogy. The campaign that followed became an imperial epic, glittering with oriental romance amid the gloom of Armageddon and correspondingly puffed in the western press. Its hero, Lawrence of Arabia, shaped his own legend by art as well as by action. T. E. Lawrence’s book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) is a huge, complex, richly textured saga of the Arab revolt, in whose leaders he kindled a “flame of enthusiasm, that would set the desert on fire.”119 It is still not clear how much Lawrence’s sumptuous account owes to his imagination, for even admirers considered him untrustworthy. Bernard Shaw noted that he was no “monster of veracity.”120 John Buchan said that he had a “crack in the firing.”121Aubrey Herbert thought him “an odd gnome, half cad—with a touch of genius.”122 Even General Allenby reckoned him a brilliant poseur. Certainly Lawrence dramatised himself as a warrior-sage, an Arabian knight with a Stoic philosophy. In passages of modest-jaunty prose, he appears as a condottiere of cut-throats, who “cut throats to my order.” He also features as an ascetic in the wilderness, doing without food and sleep, shunning the “unhygienic pleasure” of sex and driving his body with his mind. Adding layers of paradox to the self-portrait, Lawrence acknowledged that he was a man of masks.

He was a compulsive actor, a modern Hamlet (with a pinch of Puck) always eyeing his own performances “from the wings of criticism.”123 He yearned to occupy the centre of history’s stage but would only back into the limelight. He courted fame but shunned publicity. Ostentatiously anonymous, he concealed himself behind flamboyant gestures and meretricious revelations. A slight, blonde figure, he enjoyed flaunting his white, silken Sherifian robes and relished Arabs’ aversion to his blue eyes, which looked to them like the sky shining through the sockets of an empty skull. He presented himself as a flawed protagonist tormented by pride, remorse, doubt and degradation. But in his book, as in his career, mummery shades into mendacity. His various reports of his adventures do not tally. Lawrence admitted to inflating “dull little incidents” into “hair-breadth escapes” and acknowledged that he was “imprisoned in a lie.”124 Championing the Hashemite dynasty, he misrepresented the Emir Feisal, Hussein’s timid and unreliable third son, as the Saladin of the Arab forces. Lawrence’s celebrated account of being captured, tortured and raped by the Turks at Deraa is evidently a sado-masochistic fantasy. Such deception has prompted stern critics to denounce him as a charlatan engaged in a charade. One described Lawrence as “our Sodomite Saint” about whom everything is true except the facts.125 Another damned the Seven Pillars as a “corrupt work” which transformed “a fronde” executed by loot-hungry tribesmen into a national uprising.126

Although Sherif Hussein proclaimed himself “King of the Arab nation,”127 the Arab nation was a mirage. It lacked political, geographical and even linguistic coherence. It was a congeries of cultures. Islam had split into sects. Educated urban Arabs, whom the British (Lawrence included) tended to despise as the babus of the Middle East, afforded little unity. The nomadic clans of the desert existed to feud and raid. Although Lawrence complained about “the beastliness of living among the Arabs,”128 he idealised the Bedouin as Pearse idealised the peasants; but they were capricious in their loyalties. They yearned for the “carnal paradise,”129 replete with banquets, jewels and houris, promised by the Prophet Mohammed and proffered by the Ottoman Caliph. Yet they also desired the gold sovereigns which Lawrence distributed with such cavalier munificence. Without them, together with British ships, aeroplanes, armoured cars, explosives, weapons and supplies, the Arab revolt would have fallen to pieces. As it was, the Turks dismissed Arab attacks as “pinpricks” beside the “sledgehammer” blows of the British.130

Yet guerrilla raids on the railways and mass assaults on isolated garrisons forced the Turks to concentrate on defence and assisted General Allenby in his drive through Palestine. A modern army joined a feudal host which, as Lawrence described, advanced in barbaric splendour:

Feisal in front in white. Sharaf on his right, in red headcloth and henna-dyed tunic and cloak, myself on his right in white and red. Behind us three banners of purple silk, with gold spikes, behind them three drummers playing a march, and behind them a wild bouncing mass of 1,200 camels of the bodyguard, all packed as closely as they could move, the men in every variety of coloured clothes, and the camels nearly as brilliant in their trappings—and the whole crowd singing at the tops of their voices a war song in honour of Feisal and his family! It looked like a river of camels, for we filled up the Wadi to the tops of its banks, and poured along in a quarter-of-a-mile-long stream.131

The Arabs themselves were astonished by the military force they could muster. Lawrence reported a remark of the brigand-like sheikh of the Howeitat tribe, Auda abu Tayi: “It is not an army but a world that is moving on al Wajh.” A confederate replied, “Yes, we are no longer Arabs but a nation.”132

Although the march on al Wajh, like many of Feisal’s manoeuvres, actually proved to be a fiasco, some measure of Arab solidarity did emerge from the struggle against the Turks. The British even declared it to be a war of independence. Such assurances did not “matter much,” according to Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary, since an Arab state was “a castle in the air which would never materialise.”133 It was more sensible to consider what advantages the British themselves could extract from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Having long sustained the sick man of Europe in order to keep the Russian bear at bay, they now aimed to kill him off and split up his inheritance. Perhaps they were inspired by Gibbon’s account of the division of the spoils after the first crusade, whereby “the Latins reigned beyond the Euphrates.”134 Certainly they schemed for key territories on the road to India, to be ruled more or less directly according to circumstances. Officials ranging from Lawrence himself to Sir Reginald Wingate, who governed first the Sudan and then Egypt, wanted to create “a federation of semi-independent Arab states…looking to Great Britain as its patron and protector.”135 However, it was impossible to ignore France’s historic interests in the region. So in 1916 the Sykes–Picot Agreement, named after the two diplomats who signed it, secretly carved Arab territories into spheres of influence, allotting their own countries the Fertile Crescent. The French would control Syria, the British Mesopotamia and southern Palestine, while the Arabs would be left with a desert almost the size of India. Lawrence, a British empire-builder with an “almost mystical zeal for the Arab cause,”136 took this as a betrayal of those he was encouraging to fight. A divided self with divided loyalties, he was riven by guilt: “I was almost the chief crook of our gang.”137 Yet from his illegitimate childhood upwards, ambiguity had been the essential dimension to Lawrence’s existence. So he connived at the intrigue, revealed the agreement to Feisal and relished the singularity of his double life.

In 1917 the Allies added new strands to the web of equivocation being spun around the Arabs. Carnage and mutiny on the Western Front, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic all made it seem that Germany might win before America could mobilise. So Lloyd George calculated that “the Jews might be able to render us more assistance than the Arabs.”138 Because of the Russian pogroms, Jews all over the world tended to favour the Central Powers. By satisfying the Zionist aspiration that the Children of Israel should return to the Promised Land, the Allies hoped to win their support. Many British leaders, brought up on the Bible, had listened sympathetically to Chaim Weizmann’s account of “the tragedy of Jewish homelessness.”139 Weizmann, allegedly the controller of “universal Zionism,” combined an “almost feminine charm…with a feline deadliness of attack.”140 So pro-Zionist members of the British government concluded that now was the time to right a historic wrong. But having swallowed the myth about the pervasive power of International Jewry, they were also animated by more sinister notions. Arthur Balfour, for example, accepted some of the “anti-Semitic postulates” of Cosima Wagner, herself later admired by Hitler. Although Balfour acknowledged that western civilisation owed the Jews a debt it could never repay, he wanted to alleviate the “age-old miseries”141 which their alien presence caused in Gentile society. Many Jews suspected that the proposed refuge was a prelude to their compulsory repatriation and Balfour was not alone in thinking that “rootless cosmopolitans”142 were best planted in the land of Israel. Any such initiative, though, might lead the Turks to massacre the 85,000 Jews of Palestine as they had massacred a million Armenians. Edwin Montagu wrote a cogent and perceptive paper entitled “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government.” His objections were ignored, as were those of Lord Curzon, who said that Jewish claims to Palestine were weaker on historic grounds than English claims to parts of France.

On 9 November 1917, the very day of the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, the Balfour Declaration was made public. It committed the British government to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”143 No one knew how these antithetical aims could be reconciled. But Balfour, who exaggerated the propaganda impact of the Declaration in Russia and America, soon added a gloss to it. Zionism, he said, “is rooted in age-long traditions, in present need, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” Since Britain had freed them from Turkish tyranny, they would not grudge a “small notch” being taken out of “what are now Arab territories.”144 This proved to be a tragic miscalculation. Equally misguided was the idea that Jewish settlement would be British colonisation by proxy. But it was an idea shared by American Jews, who were thus alienated from Zionism, as well as by British leaders. The government in London reckoned that a Jewish Palestine, which it controlled but justified on the impeccable basis of self-determination, would guard Suez from the French in a diminished Syria. It would also secure British supremacy, challenged by the force of local nationalism, in the entire region. Palestine was the cornerstone of the Middle East and thus vital, in the Foreign Office’s view, “to the security and well-being of the British Empire.”145 Instead of relying on treacherous Arabs, adept only at looting, sabotage and murder, wrote Richard Meinertzhagen in an influential memorandum, Britain should garrison the Holy Land with loyal Jews, a people who had “proved their fighting qualities since the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.”146

British antipathy to the Arabs grew as Allenby prepared to mount the most spectacular advance of the whole war. Having earned his nickname in France largely by dint of bellowing, “the Bull” found scope in the Middle East to charge and gore. In 1917 Allenby became the first Christian soldier to capture Jerusalem since the Crusaders and he entered the city during the Maccabean feast of Hanukkah—achievements that offended Muslims but were otherwise much celebrated, not least by the first wartime ringing of the bells at Westminster Abbey. In 1918 he planned the final defeat of the Ottoman Empire, using Arab forces on his right wing. Although Lawrence, one of a number of Allied officers who fought with them, set an inspiring example of courage and élan, they still proved quick to retreat and desert. Nevertheless, in a series of daring forays they cut the Turks’ railway link with Medina, an iron welt across the sand which the Bedouin regarded as an industrial assault on their pastoral existence. Allied air power was the key to these piecemeal successes. Arabs were particularly impressed by the huge Handley-Page bomber, which they saw as a stallion that had sired the smaller British fighters. Still more stirring was the breakthrough of Allenby’s ground troops. Among them were British, Anzac and Indian cavalry, as well as French, Jewish and British West Indian units, which attacked in September, surprising and enveloping the enemy. Mounted men even managed to charge down Turkish and German machine-gunners. They swept over the hills of Judea and through the town of Nazareth, forcing General von Sanders to flee in his pyjamas. They cantered across the Plain of Armageddon and past the Sea of Galilee. East of the River Jordan, Arab forces made their own dash for Damascus. They inflicted hideous cruelties on the shattered Turkish columns, which Lawrence either glossed over in the Seven Pillars or condoned as a reaction against centuries of tyranny. The Anzacs, who themselves committed war crimes against hostile Arabs, a “race they despised,” likened their native allies to jackals and vultures, scavenging ravenously over this “old blood-drenched land.”147

In the hope that Feisal might “biff the French out of all hope of Syria,”148 Lawrence urged him to beat Allenby to Damascus. He stressed the magic character of the oldest living city in the world, where the Omayyad caliphs had ruled over an empire stretching from India to the Atlantic. Here Abraham fought, here Trajan built, here Saladin lies. With its white minarets and gilded domes, its fountained courts and latticed caravanserais, its groves of palm and orchards of pomegranate, Damascus from a distance resembled “a pearl in the dancing sunlight.”149 Closer inspection revealed a warren of narrow streets filled with offal, patrolled by starving dogs and so dilapidated that in places the tram lines were nearly a foot above the ground. Still, the “queen city of the Levant”150 was for the Arabs the glittering prize in the war. So Lawrence was mortified when the Australian Third Light Horse entered Damascus first. The inhabitants showered them with confetti and rose-water, kissing the men’s stirrups and “becoming hysterical in their manifestations of joy.”151 Lawrence claimed that the Bedouin had earlier infiltrated the city. He also said that the Damascene welcome was really sparked off by the appearance of Feisal’s main force, hundreds of dust-covered men riding camels and ponies and shooting their rifles in the air as fast as they could empty the magazines. Lawrence himself could not suppress their appetite for blood and spoil, and he had to call in Australian troops to restore order. But Arabs, whether citizens or soldiers, exulted over the smashing of the Ottoman yoke. All were “aflame with the hope of liberation and national independence.”152

In the final week of the war the British and French fanned the fires of hope with another paper pledge. They declared that the peoples of the Ottoman Empire could freely establish national governments. Lloyd George aimed to discredit Bolshevik propaganda by thus endorsing the twelfth of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. He was also moved by a visceral hatred of the Turks, “a human cancer, a creeping agony in the flesh of the lands which they misgovern, rotting away every fibre of life.”153 Now nationalities liberated from Ottoman rule seemed to have an unmolested opportunity for self-development, a dispensation that excited an almost spiritual fervour throughout the region. A wounded Kurd in a Baghdad hospital was found to have had the promise translated on flyleaves of the Koran and “strapped like a talisman to his arm.”154 Yet acceptance of the Wilsonian point added to the tangle of British commitments in the Middle East. Moreover, ministers such as Curzon and Milner, encouraged by victory in the Levant and in the Caucasus as well as in Europe, now aimed to found a new empire between Egypt and India—tightening the golden thread of self-interest that made the entire mesh impossible to unravel. Luckily for Lloyd George, the Versailles Peace Conference cut this Gordian knot.

The mandate system was devised to enable winning powers to hold the colonies of the losers in the name of the League of Nations. The Americans took a Burkean view of mandates as “a sacred trust on behalf of civilisation.”155 The British regarded them as a method of draping “the crudity of conquest…in the veil of morality.”156 Curzon, for example, envisaged that “British influence in the Arab Middle East should be as self-effacing as possible and discreetly veiled by a façade of self-determination.”157 Mandates were thus a continuation of imperialism by other means. But it was a more emollient, apologetic, mealy-mouthed kind of imperialism, watered down by the ideals of Wilson and Lenin. As Sir Mark Sykes (of Sykes–Picot fame) wrote in 1918, “imperial annexation, military triumph, prestige, white man’s burdens have been expunged from the popular political vocabulary.”158 However, Arabs exposed the euphemism, translating the word mandate as sovereign power. And from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf they resented the alien intrusion. Thus when France acquired the mandate over Syria, ousting Feisal, who had been proclaimed king, it faced a long rebellion. Britain, now ruling more than half the world’s Muslims, obtained the mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia, where a justified sense of betrayal also led to trouble. Arabs were particularly resistant to European domination after the Great War. Gertrude Bell, the intrepid desert traveller who worked for the British High Commission in Baghdad, noted that the West had lost all credit among Iraqis. They naturally revolted against a civilisation that had, she said, relapsed into barbarism during the conflict—“the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel.”159

Although sometimes a prey to doubt and division at the end of the war, the British had reason to feel confident. “We are the victors,” declared King George V, “we are the Top Dog.”160 Curzon expressed the same sentiments more majestically. Ringing down the curtain on one of the most stupendous dramas in history and heralding the dawn of a golden age, he declared: “The British flag has never flown over a more powerful and united empire…Never did our voice count for more in the councils of nations; or in determining the future destinies of mankind.”161 The destiny of the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, Britons on the spot surmised, would be rather similar to that of the land of the Nile. Mesopotamia would be a disguised protectorate with the added advantage that there was apparently no need to divide in order to rule. For the three million inhabitants of Iraq, to give the country its Arabic, nationalist name, could hardly be regarded as a nation. It was a “skein of tribes”162 on a frieze of sheikhdoms. Iraq had porous borders, roads that were either dust or mud, and a social structure so confusing that the British recreated it in their own image: urban effendi were seen as a corrupt aristocracy, sheikhs as loyal gentry, and tribesmen and fellaheen as sturdy peasants. Half the Muslim population were Sunnis, owing allegiance to Mecca, while half were Shias, looking towards Persia. The 700,000 Kurds in the mountainous north, a fierce Indo-European people in baggy trousers, coloured boleros and bandoleers, resisted all attempts at assimilation. Adding to the diversity were other communities, Jews and Assyrians, Sabaeans, whose religious duty was to live near running water, and Zelidis, who revered Satan.

One English visitor gauged the cosmopolitan confusion by the variety of headgear—“tarbushes, topees, turbans, straw hats, skull-caps, the Arab’s aagal and kefieh [cord and the headdress it holds in place], the elongated felt coal-scuttle of the Lur or Kurd, the brimless top-hat of the Bakhtiari, the black astrakhan of the north.”163 But underneath this medley of coverings Iraqi minds concentrated on the fashion as well as the fact of infidel control. The acting Civil Commissioner in Baghdad, Sir Arnold Wilson, determined to encase the country in a “steel frame” of British officialdom.164 Its authority buttressed by a fraudulent “plebiscite” and its power manifested in regular tax collection, his regime became “increasingly dictatorial.”165 Accustomed to Turkish flexibility and fired by Syrian appeals to “the Unity of Islam and the Rights of the Arab Race,”166Iraq rebelled. By the summer of 1920 tribal cavalry, flags waving to signify jihad, was ravaging much of the countryside. Baghdad itself was threatened and strengthened its citadel. Wilson, who flew from place to place variously dropping bombs and British officials, concluded that the revolt was caused by the “new wine” of nationalism fermenting in the “old bottles” of imperialism.167 In essence it resulted from the attempt to create a unitary state from such diverse elements that they could only be fused together by force. Shocked by the explosion of ferocity, General Sir Aylmer Haldane called for reinforcements and urged his men to “be as rough as nutmeg-graters.” They burned villages, destroyed crops, slaughtered livestock, killed some nine thousand people and executed ringleaders without trial. Within three months Haldane quelled the insurrection. He also disarmed tens of thousands of tribesmen, forcing them, as he put it, “to pass beneath the Caudine Forks.”168

Since humiliation was likely to exasperate nationalist sentiment still further, the British government plumped for collaboration. Wilson was superseded by the hatchet-faced Sir Percy Cox, a man renowned for “his ability to keep silent in a dozen languages.”169Called “Kokkus” by the Arabs, he was regarded by his compatriots as “a political officer with a gift for handling fickle and turbulent African barbarians.”170 Cox’s task was to transform “the façade of existing administration from British to Arab.”171 This he did by establishing a new Council of State and replacing hundreds of imperial functionaries with Iraqis. At the behest of Winston Churchill, who as Colonial Secretary took advice from Lawrence, Cox also managed “to secure the early choice” of Feisal as King of Iraq in 1921.172 In theory he was the people’s sovereign, acclaimed in a referendum which gave him 96 per cent of the votes. In fact Feisal was a puppet foisted on the country and elected by ballot-rigging on a dictatorial scale. It was typified by an Arab prefect in the Kirkuk region who organised a petition supporting Feisal’s candidature and then heard a rumour that the British had changed their minds; so he provided a petition opposing Feisal, complete with signatures, and presented both to his superior.

Still, the Hashemite King at least looked the part. Despite occasional manifestations of hatred for the imperial powers—during the Peace Conference he and Lawrence had flown over Paris dropping cushions in lieu of bombs—Feisal bore himself with regal dignity. Slim, bearded and aquiline, he liked to speak in proverbs: “everybody thinks their own lice gazelles.”173 The American Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote, “his voice seemed to breathe the perfume of frankincense and to suggest the presence of richly coloured divans, green turbans, and the glitter of gold and jewels.”174 Gertrude Bell was dazzled by his appearance: the white gold-edged robes, the fine black abba (cloak) over them, the flowing white headdress and silver cord. But behind the exotic exterior, Feisal remained a slippery customer. Like other clients uncertain about where their best interests lay, he intrigued with his subjects and dissembled with his patrons. As a result everyone distrusted him. Gertrude Bell, usually as sweet as the roses around her beautiful little villa (known as “Chastity Chase”) beside the Tigris, told Feisal that she “did not believe a word he said.”175Meanwhile, the state threatened to disintegrate from internal feuds and external pressures, the latter mainly from a renascent Turkey. Lloyd George suggested handing Iraq (and Palestine) to America. Churchill was incensed by Feisal’s procrastination over the treaty of alliance that would confirm Britain’s paramount position in Iraq. Asking whether the King did not have some wives to keep him quiet, the Colonial Secretary threatened deposition: “He will be a long time looking for a third throne.”176 By dint of further menaces and manoeuvres High Commissioner Kokkus got the treaty accepted in 1922. Feisal’s role as shadow sovereign was confirmed whereas, wrote Curzon, Cox had made himself “King of the Gulf.”177

The Gulf states generally deferred to guns and gold, but Cox and his successors reigned with difficulty in Iraq, where eventually they themselves had to fade into the background, retaining substantial power but ceding formal independence. During the 1920s, though, the British fought for their position. They did so for the sake of prestige, an evanescent commodity, and oil, vast deposits of which were then discovered. They wanted to keep the Turks and the Bolsheviks at bay. They aimed to reverse the “moral degeneration” of Iraqi townsfolk, exemplified by their addiction to “certain unmentionable indoor sports.”178 This would be accomplished through education, organised games and the Boy Scout movement. The British also valued Iraq as a staging post in the new Empire Air Route and as a training ground for the Royal Air Force. At the 1921 conference that he held in Cairo to settle his policy for the Middle East, Churchill was primarily concerned to cut imperial expenses and he put his faith in aeroplanes. They came to be seen as the cheap, efficient, modern method of colonial control. They could deliver the high explosive that would stop Iraq from falling to pieces. Twenty-pound bombs dropped by low-flying, 114-mph De Havilland biplanes (all struts and spars, fixed wheels and open cockpits) would also induce impoverished desert dwellers to pay tax. There was a surreal quality about the enterprise. While enjoying the hospitality of Sufran tribesmen who were little more than beggars, Special Services Officer John Glubb “candidly told them that I was preparing the map to be used for the bombing, and that I myself would have to be in the leading aircraft.”179

Most contemporaries seem to have been more impressed by the technical virtuosity of air control than by its moral deficiencies. The RAF gave demonstrations of bombing “native villages”180 in Baghdad and at the Hendon Air Show in London, though these did not reveal the devastating effect of incendiaries on the vaulted reed houses of the marsh Arabs. Winston Churchill was “strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”181 In fact, aerial repression was often used as a convenient alternative to terrestrial administration. The RAF privately acknowledged that “we rely on ‘frightfulness’ in a more or less severe form”182 and at Westminster left-wing MPs protested about “this Hunnish and barbarous method of warfare against unarmed people.”183Certainly bombs helped to entrench Iraqi hatred of alien authority, a hatred liable to concentrate opposition and to express itself in terrorism. Despite the factional rivalries and ministerial convolutions that punctuated Feisal’s reign, Iraq continued to agitate for a measure of national sovereignty. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government granted this by the treaty of 1930, which came into force two years later when Iraq entered the League of Nations. Britain would retain control over defence and some administrative matters for a quarter of a century, it was agreed, but Feisal’s oligarchy would exercise much more sway within the country. Iraq was far from being free but it had significantly weakened the imperial hold.

A similar process went on in Egypt, where post-war rebellion (thaura) also became the catalyst that precipitated nominal independence. “A witch’s cauldron had been brewing,” said Lord Milner, “almost ever since Cromer left.”184 It reached simmering point in 1914, when the British stripped the veil from Cromer’s protectorate. They renounced Ottoman overlordship. They replaced the Khedive with a Sultan. And they openly incorporated Egypt into the British Empire. Having broken all promises to let the Egyptians go, Britain had to hold the lid on the cauldron throughout the Great War. A large garrison assisted, including units that boasted such nicknames as the Jordan Highlanders, the Royal Jewsiliers and Pharaoh’s Foot. The imperial power imposed martial law, tight controls on newspapers and stern rules of assembly. Bars and cafés had to close early. Restrictions were placed on gatherings of all sorts, among them weddings, funerals, and feasts for local saints. The authorities even suppressed “snake charmers, acrobats, wandering conjurors, and suchlike Oriental accessories.”185 The conflict itself caused extra hardships such as high prices and a shortage of imports. “Volunteers” were forced to labour, which effectively revived the corvée and broke a British promise that Egypt would not have to bear any burden of the war. Furthermore, camels were conscripted and farmers had to grow grain rather than the more lucrative crop of cotton. The 1,600 British officials hardly sensed the mounting head of steam. Indeed, they sometimes augmented political provocation with personal affront. At the British Residency, a large, uncomfortable, verandahed house built for Cromer overlooking the Nile, one senior man apparently interviewed Egyptian notables with a dog (unclean to Muslims) perched on his shoulder. Yet the British prided themselves on giving Egypt the best government since a “Roman prefect was seated on the splendid throne of the Ptolemies.”186

In fact, civil servants such as Ronald Storrs, an aesthete whose silky auburn moustache conveyed “a hint of dilettantism in the way it curled up slightly at the ends,”187 were inveterately idle. Storrs, known as “Oriental Storrs” after an untrustworthy emporium of that name in Cairo, claimed that he and his colleagues were “hard and honourable” workers.188 But he acknowledged that they only worked until noon. They spent the rest of the day at the Turf Club or the Gezira Sporting Club, where any Egyptian presence was “ground for indignation.”189 Wartime recruits to the service, often “temporary gentlemen,” were still less likely to make contact with the natives. In any case, the British were deceived about the effervescence of opinion by their own censorship—the muzzled press did not growl. Portents of trouble might have been discerned in the manoeuvres of the new Sultan, Ahmed Fuad, who in 1917 attempted to assert his prerogative of appointing ministers. The following year, just as the war was ending, the Anglo-French declaration encouraged Egyptian politicians to demand a programme of complete self-rule. The High Commissioner, Sir Reginald Wingate, realised that nationalist sentiment was now coming to the boil: crowds of men in white gallabeahs, inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s “twelfth commandment,” haunted the American embassy in Cairo as if seeking a sign. Wingate urged the Foreign Office to respond favourably to reasonable Egyptian wishes. But the instinct of its chief, now Lord Hardinge, was merely to give brown politicians “a good dressing-down.”190 It ignored Wingate, just as his own officials ignored the discontent about to engulf Egypt. Warned that a conflagration was imminent, Wingate’s Financial and Judicial Adviser Sir William Brunyate said that he “would put out the fire by spitting on it.”191

Wingate himself struck the spark that kindled the blaze. Immediately after the armistice he prohibited the foremost nationalist politician, Said Zaghlul, from leading a delegation to put the case for Egyptian independence in London and Paris. Zaghlul thereupon formed his own delegation, or Wafd. This was a political party (though he preferred to call it a national movement) dedicated to breaking the imperial bond. Like de Valera and Feisal, Zaghlul was a complex and inscrutable figure. Tall, white-moustached and red-fezzed, with a wrinkled Mongolian visage, he was a lawyer from a prosperous peasant background who had been a minister under Cromer and later navigated cannily through the shoals of court cabal and pasha faction. The British now viewed him as an opportunist and a demagogue. By contrast, the American ambassador characterised him as Egypt’s Theodore Roosevelt. Zaghlul possessed a stubborn will and a flamboyant personality. Ruthless, charming, eloquent and vain, this ailing old man came to dominate both the Wafd and the nation. Furious that Feisal was at the Peace Conference while Egypt was unrepresented, Zaghlul organised petitions and stirred up anti-British agitation. On 9 March 1919 he and three associates were arrested for sedition and deported to Malta. This provoked an explosion of wrath. Protests and demonstrations rocked Cairo. Chanting “Free Egypt” and “Death to the English,” students poured through the gates of el-Azhar, the radiant mosque revered as the most ancient seat of learning in the Muslim world. For the first time women engaged in political action, casting off their veils and waving banners as they marched through the streets. Crowds attacked Europeans, burned houses, smashed trains and looted shops.

Over the next few weeks riots, strikes and killings multiplied. The Commandant of the Cairo Police described his confrontation with thousands of men carrying staves, spear heads, chisels, adzes and jagged bits of cast-iron gratings.

The whole mob was shrieking and yelling and waving their weapons in the air. If you can imagine a drawing by Hogarth of a scene made up of Dante’s Inferno and the French Revolution, add to that mad oriental fanaticism—and you have something like this mob.192

Hideous instances of murder and mutilation occurred, often carried out by terrorists who were promised paradise in return for martyrdom. When a British police officer was shot in front of the Abdin Palace men and boys danced in his blood, shouting “Allah, Allah,” and women urinated on his corpse. Moreover, violence spread to the provinces. The fellaheen, the “Tortured on Earth,”193 who had not been regarded as politically combustible, took fire. Fearing another Indian Mutiny, the British fought fire with superior firepower. They employed aircraft and armoured cars. They bombed and machine-gunned crowds. They imprisoned and flogged villagers. Imperial troops, Indians as well as Australians, reacted ferociously against a race for which they had the utmost contempt. But while taking punitive measures, top British officials recognised that “the principles of Nationalism and the desire for independence have bitten deep into all classes.” They believed that imperial policy towards Egypt must change to reflect an “increased sympathy with national aspirations so far as they keep within legitimate limits.”194

The struggle to define those limits continued for more than three decades, but the essential decision was made by “Bull” Allenby, who replaced Wingate in April 1919. That rarity, a general who had won laurels in the Great War, he was appointed High Commissioner to restore order to Egypt. This he did during the following months though intermittent disturbances persisted and discontent remained at fever pitch among all classes, from effendi to fellaheen. The Wafd organised opposition ranging from boycotts to assassinations. Secret societies such as the “Black Hand” and the “Red Eye,” some fostered in el-Azhar, practised intimidation, sabotage and murder, often by garrotting. In the familiar British manner Allenby leavened severity with appeasement. He released Zaghlul and permitted him to go to Paris, where his delegation achieved little—President Wilson privately advised Arabs to imitate the Americans of 1776 but publicly recognised Egypt as a British protectorate. Allenby also accepted a commission of inquiry into the disorders. It was led by Lord Milner and charged with the task of devising a constitution that would secure peace and prosperity. The Wafd instigated further violence and ostracised Milner’s mission. They picketed the Hotel Semiramis, the new marble and bronze monstrosity where Milner and his colleagues were staying, so that they could only consult Egyptians in secret. Zaghlul refused to meet the mission in Cairo even after dark. Despite present rejection and his own proconsular past, Milner rapidly came to adopt Allenby’s view of the situation. Nothing but self-government could pacify Egypt, which was currently a thorn in Britain’s side as sharp as India, Ireland and Iraq.

Of course it would be the shadow of self-government not the substance, about which, he thought, orientals cared less. Milner told Lloyd George,

The difficulty is to find a way of making Egypt’s relation to Great Britain appear a more independent and dignified one than it ever really can be without our abandoning the degree of control which, in view of native incompetence and corruption we are constrained to keep.195

He tried to overcome this difficulty by producing a plan for Egypt (but not the Sudan) to receive formal independence while Britain retained control of defence and other administrative matters, mainly to do with finance and foreign residents. Negotiating an agreement along these lines was complicated by rivalries in both Cairo and London, where politicians were anxious not to be accused of betraying their country’s interests. Zaghlul was so uncompromising that he provoked outbreaks of communal strife. Winston Churchill, who feared imperial dismemberment at a time when “Red Bruin” was on the rampage and regarded Arabs as barbarians who lived on camel dung, also opposed Milner’s scheme. So did Lloyd George, who was simultaneously trying to conciliate Ireland. But the Prime Minister heeded the warning that unless a settlement were reached in Egypt “Zaghlul will begin to create a Pan-Islamic Sinn Féin machine making mischief everywhere and linked up with Turks, Indians etc. all over the world.”196

To preserve the Empire, coercion must give way to cooperation. Allenby clinched the matter by exiling Zaghlul to the Seychelles and then threatening to resign if the protectorate were not brought to an end. Exactly forty years after the occupation, therefore, Britain unilaterally declared Egypt independent—on limited terms acceptable to Lloyd George. They were anathema to Zaghlul. Hard-line British imperialists also condemned the grant of liberty, which they took to be a capitulation to violence. And it has subsequently been represented as another instance of a post-war “weakening of the will to rule…which was to make the dissolution of the British Empire so ugly and ruinous.”197 There is no doubt that by ceding autonomy Britain had cut at the root of its position in Egypt. But the concession resulted not so much from a failure of nerve as from a change of mind. The British government recognised that it lacked the military strength and the moral authority to run the Empire in the manner of old Cromer or young Milner. Times had altered. Money was tight. Fresh ideals were in the air, perhaps to be realised if Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party took office. White domination of coloured races was ceasing to be respectable. As one Whitehall mandarin said, the traditional type of imperial rule was “dying in India and decomposing in Egypt.”198

However, the new type of imperial rule, dressed up in liberal language and presented as a form of trusteeship, enjoyed a certain vigour during the course of its short and troubled life. This was because hard-headed British practice belied high-minded British professions. The High Commissioner made full use of his remaining powers, which could always be backed up by force. As one official wrote, all the Egyptian army’s “ammunition is in the Citadel with a perfectly good British battalion sitting on it.”199 At the bosky fifteenth hole of the Gezira golf course Lord Lloyd, who succeeded Allenby in 1925, was sometimes prompted to draw on heavier metal. “When I see those jacarandas in bloom,” he said, “I know it’s time to send for a battleship!”200 Lloyd’s mission in life was to advance himself and to prevent an imperial retreat. He had deplored Milner’s truckling to Egypt and said that “we all know what happens to Empires when they begin to withdraw their legions.” He came to believe that the spirit of compromise was rotting the soul of the Tory party at home. Indeed, he dreaded the slow, voluntary disintegration of Greater Britain abroad, preferring some kind of imperial Götterdämmerung, when the Last Post would ring out “on the flaming ramparts of the world.” A dapper, monocled little misogynist, with oiled hair and an olive complexion, Lloyd had been an authoritarian Governor of Bombay. Now he longed to administer the smack of paternal government to the Egyptians, described by his wife as “childish, half-baked people.”201 The Lloyds’ hauteur was as pronounced as their hostility. He particularly disdained the citified Arab in bowler hat and brown boots who lived as “a parasite upon the fringes of Western civilisation.”202 He thus alienated most Cairo politicians, including Zaghlul. In 1929 the Foreign Office actually negotiated with the nationalists behind Lloyd’s back in order to secure his departure.

Nevertheless, Lloyd and his two successors, Sir Percy Loraine and Sir Miles Lampson, were adept at playing the King (as Fuad became in 1922), the Wafd and the sectional parties against one another. Fuad himself was no cipher despite a family weakness for Italian mistresses and an unusual handicap. He had a bullet lodged in his throat, put there by his brother-in-law, which made him bark like a dog—meeting him in 1922 Edward Prince of Wales was almost reduced to convulsions by the “royal yappings.”203 Fuad, whose moustache waxed so spiky that he seemed to have sprouted tusks, was a Machiavellian monarch. Austen Chamberlain described him as “sly, scheming, corrupt and autocratic.”204 Fuad pulled the strings of his court marionettes, as he called them. He also exploited the new constitution to acquire as much power and wealth as possible, while condemning Egyptian politicians for trying to get rich too quickly. This did not make him popular. Zaghlul was right in saying that although Fuad was “the King of Egypt, I am the King of their hearts.” But, opposed both by the Residency and by the Palace, as well as by other influential interests, the Wafd could seldom hold office for long despite overwhelming majorities at the polls. It was, moreover, badly led after Zaghlul’s death in 1927. His successor, Mustafa Nahas, was volatile to the point of madness. Described as “a cross-eyed albatross,”205 he presided over a party that succumbed to faction, corruption and ossification. During the years of economic crisis caused by the Great Depression, therefore, political intrigue and royal repression prevailed in the land of the Nile. The British High Commissioner held the ring, usually in an intimidating manner—Loraine regarded Egyptians as “wretched brutes”206 and habitually stared at those he invited to his study “without a word, his large lack-lustre eyes revealing no flicker of interest.”207 Fuad complained in 1935 that the Egyptian Prime Minister “dared not move a pencil on his desk without Residency advice.”208

Yet the British position was steadily weakening in the Levant. This was largely because of the rise of potent foes in Europe and Asia, which stretched the Empire’s defensive resources to breaking point. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 sharply exposed the extent of British feebleness. Having failed to buy off the Duce, whom the Admiralty thought liable, if thwarted, to carry out a “mad-dog act,”209 Stanley Baldwin’s government would not even close the Suez Canal to Italian ships. When General Badoglio marched into Addis Ababa in May 1936, Egypt seemed still more vulnerable to Fascist aggression, situated as it was between the Libyan hammer and the Ethiopian anvil. So in that year another Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed, stipulating (among other things) that Egypt would join the League of Nations and that British troops would only garrison the Suez Canal zone. Britain’s prestige was also seriously damaged by its conduct in Palestine. By carving the Arab state of Transjordan from the Promised Land and putting Feisal’s brother Abdullah on its throne, it offended the Jews. By appointing Sir Herbert Samuel as High Commissioner in 1920, “the first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus II, that last degenerate Maccabean,”210 in about 40 BC, it offended the Arabs. When he opened the door to Jewish settlement, in the spirit of the Balfour Declaration (which officials refused to publish in Palestine), Arabs were still further alienated. As will appear, the problems of Palestine were uniquely intractable. They were epitomised by the fact that Jerusalem was at once the city of David, the sepulchre of Christ and the site of Mohammed’s ascent into heaven. So the holy ground, which the Romans ploughed up after they had destroyed the Temple of Solomon, was always polluted by the presence of infidels and always a scene of conflict.

Lloyd George and Baldwin could not succeed where Hadrian and Titus had failed. They were anyway preoccupied by trying to build a nation fit for heroes to live in at home, by attempting to satisfy the demands of a democracy that now gave most women the vote. Moreover, Britain was on the defensive elsewhere in the Middle East, the broadness of its grasp concealing the fragility of its grip. In 1919 Afghanistan declared war and Britain signed a treaty that allowed the Emir Amanullah to pose as the liberator of his people. Simultaneously the “Mad Mullah” was again on the attack in British Somaliland. In 1921 the new military dictator of Persia, Reza Khan, abolished Britain’s traditional sphere of influence. The following year Lloyd George nearly spilt more British blood at the Dardanelles by supporting Greece in its war against Turkey. But he got little support from the Dominions and his coalition ministry was brought down by the Tory leader, Bonar Law, who declared: “We cannot act alone as the policeman of the world.”211Violence flared up in the Yemen and Transjordan, where the Arab Legion was formed under British officers. During 1924 mutinies occurred in the Sudan. At the same time Ibn Saud of Riyadh defeated Britain’s Hashemite client Hussein and in 1932 he created the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The post-war setbacks to the British Empire, particularly those in India and Ireland, were all the more serious because of its economic stagnation and its exposed position on the international scene. It could expect little save distant rumbles of thunder from the United States, now withdrawing into isolation. But it anticipated bolts of lightning from the other incipient superpower, Communist Russia, which purveyed throughout the world an ideology profoundly hostile to colonialism. In the apocalyptic words of Lord D’Abernon, the Soviet Union threatened Great Britain and its stupendous possessions with a “cataclysm equalled only by the fall of the Roman Empire.”212

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