Fitz In Fantasy Land

Thomas Fitzgerald’s review of Out of the Ashes by Robert W White appeared in the October issue of the Dublin Review of Books and is available here. Professor White’s response to that review appears below. Readers are invited to read both pieces to make up their minds on the issues involved.

 Dear editors,

In his review of Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement (Social Movements versus Terrorism), Thomas Fitzgerald unfairly damages my reputation as a scholar and undermines the book’s message by suggesting that I consider the ongoing violence of anti-Good Friday Agreement Republicans to be “legitimate”.

He actually praises my argument that “through talking to ‘terrorists’ or non-state insurgents it is easier to understand or evaluate their point of view, rather than simply denouncing and demonising it” and then hypocritically condemns me for presenting the perspective of anti-GFA Republicans.

In reality, Out of the Ashes is unique and important because it presents oral histories from Provisional and anti-GFA Irish Republicans. Fitzgerald describes the end of my chapter on anti-GFA Republicans as “overtly emotional and inappropriate”. He complains that I describe “Wolfe Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Patrick Pearse, and so on” as people who “cannot be co-opted” and then quote from Patrick Pearse’s famous statement, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Thus:

Is White suggesting that the only solution in Northern Ireland is a return to violence, or that violence is inevitable? Certainly the sentiments he expressed could give succour to those who take this position.

It is up to the reader to decide whether they consider this to be a socially responsible attitude for any historian/sociologist to take. Fitzgerald conveniently ignores the context of my presentation. The final paragraph of that chapter shows that some Irish Republicans are remarkably committed to their beliefs. I quote an oral history from John Hunt, who was born in 1920, interned by the de Valera government in 1940, and, at ninety-six years of age, spoke at a Republican Sinn Féin event associated with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Hunt’s remarks outside of the GPO included a quotation from Pearse’s famous oration in 1915 over the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, “the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead.”

After quoting Hunt’s remarks, I wrote that Ireland is filled with people the authorities consider “dangerous” because of their unending commitment to physical force — “Wolfe Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Patrick Pearse, Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh” (emphasis added). After noting that the authorities can minimize but not eliminate the threat of violence, I completed the Pearse quotation — “while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

By leaving out the references to Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell, and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Fitzgerald conveniently avoids the influence that Pearse and his ilk have on more contemporary activists. When Fitzgerald asks, “Is White suggesting that the only solution in Northern Ireland is a return to violence, or that violence is inevitable?”, he is either painfully naïve and clueless or simply finds it easy to sidestep inconvenient facts.

Table 5 of Out of the Ashes shows that violence never ended in Northern Ireland; hence, a chapter on anti-GFA Republicans. I don’t know if continued violence is inevitable. I do know that in the past few years Patrick Pearse’s famous oration has been quoted many times by many people. Fitzgerald cutely draws on the punk band Stiff Little Fingers to write that “Pearse’s words were from ‘another time, and another place’”. Can we just assume that everyone believes this, including all those anti-GFA Republicans who refuse to go away? No. If the many different people who have quoted Patrick Pearse these last few years did not explicitly state that his oration was from another time and place, were they socially irresponsible? Put another way: It’s not my fault that most of nationalist Ireland spent most of 2016 celebrating the lives and actions of Patrick Pearse and his comrades. Fitzgerald’s attack on my reputation contributes to an intellectual climate that complemented Section 31 censorship of the Provisionals. With some exceptions, Irish historians, political scientists, and sociologists left it to journalists to investigate a long-term, high-profile conflict in their own back yard. Why? Because they risked condemnation from people like Thomas Fitzgerald. This is not new. In this “Decade of Centenaries”, Irish scholars have published excellent work on the 1916-23 era. However, I wonder if there is so much room for research on that era because it was safer for scholars of that time and place to focus on the Fenians, the Land War, and so on. In 1976, J. Bowyer Bell wrote that when:

the present Troubles began, contemporary Ireland had been ignored by academics, especially Irish academics, except in matters of literature … for many felt that writing seriously about the Irish present only exacerbated old quarrels.

Scholars have every right to pursue an interest in events of one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, or yesterday. At the same time, something is lost if we wait until all of the actors have died before we write about them. Many sociologists and political scientists study collective behavior and social movements. And there is a wellknown relationship between the state’s response to dissent and recruitment to protest —sometimes repression leads to more protest, sometimes it reduces protest. Something is bringing recruits to anti-GFA organizations. An Irish social scientist might use oral histories to investigate the influence that the Terrorism Act (2006) and the use of “internment by remand” to silence people like Martin Corey, Stephen Murney, and Tony Taylor have had on recruitment. That probably won’t happen. Why risk being labeled a fellow-traveler, an advocate of violence, or socially irresponsible? If the climate had been more open for Irish social scientists to fully engage with the conflict in Ireland between 1969 and 2005, then perhaps we would be that much closer to a just and lasting peace.

Out of the Ashes is not an apology for political violence, by anyone. The book, and my scholarship in general, is an attempt to help all of us better understand why people engage in small group political violence. That is socially responsible, as readers will see.


Robert White


  1. I wrote a comment on this site on 27th August 2017 under a transcript of a radio interview about the book with the Professor. I commented that when I was reading the book 'sometimes when I thought "oh he definitely has some agenda" he goes and follows up with a piece of counterbalancing analysis.'

    How we interpret an author's work is often subjective. If something isn't explicit you can draw an inference but that's all it is, an inference. Although every author has his bias, the reader's bias is usually more pronounced. There's nothing to show my inference is more correct than Fitzgerald's but that's the point. Unless something is beyond argument, is obvious and irrefutable we cannot say with conviction it is fact.

    Saying the Professor supports violence through a reader's perspective or bias and stating it as fact when all it is, is an inference with a paucity of evidence to support it is disingenuous at best and also dishonest. Dishonest, as you cannot say with any accuracy what another person thinks.

    The Professor's analysis, if supportive of dissidents in any shape or form would've brought a charge of "supporting terrorism" long before now. Unionist politicians are usually the first to complain. However, it's easy to imagine someone who thinks Pearse's words are from a different time and place. I understand it was a play on Stiff Little Fingers' lyrics. Maybe a different time but all time is relative and surely it's still Ireland? A different time, yes. A different place, no. But maybe the critic is thinking of the Professor's homeland? Only he can say for certain.

  2. Simon,

    there is a strain of totalitarianism in the mindset of the reviewer that cannot abide by a differing interpretation or an alternative means of understanding. It therefore has insidiously undermine the credibility of the author whose work is being reviewed and gradually close down a competing narrative.

    My experience of Bob White is that he gets up close to better listen to the people he observes so that he can insert his understanding into the public domain. He never gets that close that he comes to hold their view as the proper one.

    Fitzgerald is typical of so many of those GFA supporters who proclaim its democratic essence but simultaneously undermine that democracy by trying to ban dissent from it. Democracy has no meaning if it lacks the ability to choose for or choose against. Bob White has contributed immensely to public understanding on matter of Irish republicanism. Perhaps that is why he is criticised in this review.

  3. You might be right as there is no substance, from my point of view as a reader, to the allegations.

    It's not as if Prof. White writes to create smoke and mirrors, he is a straight-talker and he hasn't voiced support for violence. If he did, as someone who talks in such a manner it would have been clear and unequivocal. Not something that has to be looked into like a crystal ball.

    I guess avoiding or hiding from Republican arguments might bring comfort to some but it doesn't help understanding or allow a challenge on some fronts or a meeting of minds.

    It's disappointing that we still have violence but without understanding why, our ability to find a solution is diminished.

    Prof. White, by aiding our understanding, helps the situation unless of course your stance is one of haughtiness and perhaps of totalitarianism.

    Let's all live like identical drones, think the same happy thoughts and watch our televisions and vote for more miserable, neo-liberal, well-mannered thugs to take care of us.

  4. There's an essay by Howard S. Becker called 'Whose Side are We On', which Gareth Mulvenna quotes in his interview for Balaclava Street (reproduced on TPQ). Mulvenna writes "I think basically the premise of the article is that no matter what sociological research you carry out you are damned to be seen to be taking a side, so rather than have an existential crisis over this you have to decide which side you are on. He concludes by saying ‘We take sides as our personal and political commitments dictate, use our theoretical and technical resources to avoid the distortions that might introduce into our work, limit our conclusions carefully, recognise the hierarchy of credibility for what it is, and field as best we can the accusations and doubts that will surely be our fate.'"

    If you're conducting such research, I would suspect that the author would have to have a minuscule amount of understanding/sympathy for the position of the people he/she are interviewing. Otherwise, it would lead to a very dry and unnunanced piece of work.

  5. Read both but found this line interesting from Fitzgerald's review,
    "It is up to the reader to decide whether they consider this to be a socially responsible attitude for any historian/sociologist to take."

    Is he suggesting that the author should conform to the current politically correct dogma of the day and ignore the accuracy of fact?

    Also, SLF, thinking back to my youth, we sang their songs as they conformed to the punk music of the day but they were still a bunch of black bastards in our eyes!

  6. Niall, one of the members out of SLF hailed from Lenadoon. When I was a punk we hated sectarianism with a passion. I saw a conflict with my Republican leanings and the Punk culture but not because of sectarianism. The conflict was purely based on acceptance of violence.

    The Punk music I listened to was all anti-violence although "The Ballad of Tom McElwee" by the Crucifucks supported violence and unfortunately sectarianism too which made me cringe and still does.

    Music by Subhumans and Culture Shock carried the message that the Brits were as bad as the IRA. But that's as far as it went.

    There was also a crossover with CND, Troops Out movement etc. The campaigns for justice for the Birmingham Six etc were on the whole supported by punks as they knew injustice when they saw it. I used to read 'Class War' and it too supported violence. I remember a headline which read that one of the Broadwater killers "is our friend because he kills coppers". Of course, for want of a better analogy those anarchist circles which supported violence would have, by all accounts, had more spies than the Belfast Brigade in the 1980s.

  7. Simon,

    yes, you're correct re. SLF. Jim Riley hailed from Lenadoon. His brother (Thomas 'Kidso' Riley) was shot dead by the army in "disputed circumstances."

    You're also bang on regarding the crossover between the punks and the campaigns of the day. Certainly, Crass put out the Hit Parade 7', which criticised the H Blocks and Thatcher (but they did add a disclaimer that they considered all sides as bad as each other.) But I think a lot of that was down to the (somewhat romantic) perception the English left had of the IRA. Certainly, the Chumbawumba saga (where they performed at the Feile in the mid/late 80's) outraged many of the ones involved in Giro's, who felt they should be playing to the people attempting to break down barriers and be actively non sectarian.

    And bonus points to you for mentioning the Crucifucks!