Books: The delirium of the brave

REBELS AND INFORMERS by Oliver Knox, John Murray pounds 20
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W B Yeats's poem, "September 1913", has been called one of the great polemics of literature. In it Yeats laments the passing of 18th- century Irish nationalism, "All that delirium of the brave", and declares repeatedly that "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone". The brave here are represented by the rebel Irish Protestants of the period, among them Wolfe Tone and Edward Fitzgerald, and it is clear that Yeats finds a great deal to celebrate in their nobility and heroic grandeur. There is something mournful in the poet's recognition that the well-intentioned Republican ideals of these men have been abused and wilfully thrown away in the sectarian bloodbath that has followed.

Oliver Knox's study of these early stirrings of Irish independence takes a stanza from Yeats as its epilogue, and his book, like Yeats's poem, combines an attraction to the reckless glamour of the rebels with a more thoughtful stance which traces the roots of Ireland's present troubles back to the doomed rebellion of 1798.

First and foremost, Knox is concerned to make the characters of all his major protagonists come alive, and to this end he has amassed a vast collection of colourful anecdote, vivid correspondence and compelling reminiscence, from which he quotes liberally. Rebels and Informers may not possess the incisive literary qualities of Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats or Citizen Lord (both of which also follow Edward Fitzgerald's ill-fated leadership of the United Irishmen), but Knox positively relishes the novelistic flourishes in his enjoyable narrative of intrigue, conspiracy and betrayal; and although he occasionally sacrifices scholarly accuracy to the interests of a good read, he never falls into the trap, unlike so many other historians of the subject, of attributing simple-minded motives to the many sides in the struggle for independence.

The four principal rebels of the story are Wolfe Tone, Hamilton Rowan, William Drennan and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, all members of the Society of United Irishmen, the first Irish Republican movement, and all Presbyterians. It was Tone who, in 1791, published the famous pamphlet which argued that neither reform of the Irish political system (which was corrupt, unfree and, in its exclusion of the Catholic majority from political rights, unrepresentative) nor independence from England would come about unless Catholics and Dissenters were united.

Men like Tone were imbued with Enlightenment ideals, inspired by the examples of the American War for Independence and the early days of the French Revolution. But their dream of a united Ireland was fatally undermined, then as now, by squabbling sectarian divisions which decimated the United Irish and which, after the bloody 1798 rebellion, produced a still more divided country with the extremes of loyalism and nationalism adopted on the one hand by the Protestants, and by the Catholics on the other.

Tone and Fitzgerald became the proto-martyrs of Irish Republicanism. Denied a military execution after the movement's failure, Tone made an horrific mess of cutting his own windpipe with a penknife. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had died a slow and painful death in Newgate gaol from the festering wounds he had received resisting arrest. The Judases of the drama, men like Leonard McNally, who betrayed their friends and co-conspirators to the English authorities at Dublin Castle, ended their days comfortably pensioned off.

"For a fair and open war I was prepared," Tone announced at his trial. "If that has degenerated into a system of assassination, massacre and plunder I do ... most sincerely lament it." As we reach a fateful moment in negotiations over the future of Ireland, Oliver Knox's book serves to remind us that for Ireland the past, the present, and the future sometimes seem indistinguishable.