VIVID FACES by R.F. Foster


The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923
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A bracing study of the rebels who secured Ireland’s freedom from Britain nearly a century ago.

When it comes to people who once lived and breathed, Foster (The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland, 2002, etc.), perhaps the pre-eminent student of Irish history working today, is no hagiographer. Moreover, he does not subscribe to the great man theory of history. As he writes here, by way of prelude, one of his interests is to show “how a revolutionary generation comes to be made, rather than born.” Although Irish politics has been definitively sectarian, especially in its nationalist (or unionist) dimensions, the author observes that many of the first-generation rebels against British rule were Protestant; one, Alice Milligan, described herself as an “internal prisoner” of her family. In passing, Foster fruitfully compares the generation of rebels that brought on the Easter Uprising of 1916 to the Bolsheviks who overthrew the czar a year and a half later. While he notes that “this comparison should not be pushed too far,” it is useful to remember that the Irish, whether the comparatively conservative W.B. Yeats or the socialist Éamon de Valera, were not operating in a vacuum. As Foster charts the growth of the nationalist and revolutionary movements, the violence mounts. What had begun as a war of words and ideas soon took on armed force, so that, by the time of the first Republic, “ ‘soldiers’ and ‘politicians’ were already regarding each other suspiciously, and the implicit tension between moderate and extremist elements stretched to other issues besides that of separation from British rule.” By the end of Foster’s illuminating account, it is clear that the factionalism could only grow, to often tragic ends.

Readable and provocative. Students of contemporary Irish history have few better guides than the sometimes-dyspeptic but refreshingly agenda-less Foster.

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0393082791
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2014


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