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Eisenhower in Wexford, 1962



Headline in the Irish Examiner, 24 August 1924

The south-east tourist industry has reaped great currency out of the visit of an American president in 1963. However, what is perhaps less well known is that the visit of the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was preceded in 1962 by the visit of the 34th. Dwight D. Eisenhower was no longer a sitting president when he visited Wexford in 1962 but his visit emanated from a gesture of thanksgiving and commemoration during the course of his presidency. In 1956 a gift from the  ‘people of the United States’ was unveiled on Crescent Quay, Wexford  by President of Ireland Seán T. O’Kelly (who himself had married not one but two Wexford women from the nationalist Ryan dynasty, first Mary Kate and then following her death, her sister Phyllis). The bronze statue of Commodore John Barry was designed by William Wheeler and shipped to Ireland on board the U.S.S Charles S. Sperry.  Barry, referred to as the ‘father of the United States navy’, was born in 1745 in Ballysampson, Tacumshane, Co. Wexford. Having gone to see as a child of ten he settled as a merchant sailor in Philadelphia and was a ship’s master by age 21. With the outbreak of the War of Independence, he offered his services to the Continental Army. His ship the Black Prince was outfitted for naval service, renamed the Alfred and became the first ship in the Continental Navy. Commissioned as a captain he led the first American capture of a British ship and received a personal note of gratitude from General Washington. With the foundation of the U.S. Navy in 1794 Barry, though listed as the senior captain of the service, bore the courtesy title of commodore (the position of commodore was not formally created until 1862). He died in 1803.


The visit of JFK to Ireland in June 1963 is considered an iconic event due to the president’s Irish ancestry, his viewing of the ‘Kennedy homestead’ in Dunganstown, New Ross and to the poignancy of his promise to be ‘back in the spring time’ with the shooting in Dealey Plaza a mere five months away. Eisenhower’s visit to Wexford was undertaken at less notice, fanfare and was bedevilled with setbacks. Eisenhower was due to make a tour of Europe in late summer 1962 when a visit to Ireland was discussed with the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Wexford Corporation had to respond to charges from an aggrieved public and sceptical press that it had declined to receive Eisenhower. In a statement issued to the press, the Corporation claimed that ‘when the matter was first considered, the members genuinely felt that they could not do justice to such a distinguished person in mid-week.’ Eisenhower himself was also perturbed to learn that there was no airport close to Wexford. The Corporation decided to change its mind in response to ‘the wholehearted support they have now been offered from all sections of the community.’ Such support was expressed in erection of ‘We like Ike’ posters on the walls and streets of Wexford town, as reported by a journalist from the Irish Press. At a special meeting of Wexford Corporation on 16 August Alderman K.C. Morris expressed his hope that the visit would ‘clear up all the misunderstandings which had got wide publicity and should prove that Wexford at no time turned down the General’s visit’ and plans were put in place for Eisenhower’s helicopter to land on the G.A.A pitch two miles outside Wexford town. Eisenhower made quite literally a flying visit, arriving first in Dublin to stay in the Gresham Hotel and on the following day enjoying a luncheon with President de Valera. The former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe arrived in Wexford on 23 August by helicopter to a town bedecked by bunting and a higher than average population of American tourists. Cheered on from streets and doorways, Eisenhower arrived to lay a wreath at the Barry Statue. He announced that he has been ‘a dismal failure’, explaining to a crowd soaked through by a torrential downpour that he had previously enjoyed a reputation for bringing fine weather with him. Gardaí and security men reportedly fought a losing battle with photographers. According to the calculations of an Irish Examiner journalist present, Eisenhower’s speech lasted less than two minutes in which he praised Barry as ‘a great patriot’ and then spoke to the Mayor of Wexford for four minutes, the latter also making a short speech. Whisked away for lunch in the Talbot Hotel, Eisenhower was back in his helicopter twenty minutes later. President Kennedy paid his respects to the Barry statue less than a year later giving Wexford Corporation further exposure to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Barry’s statue still stands on Crescent Quay looking out onto the Slaney estuary; other statues were erected in Franklin Square, Washington D.C. and at the entrance to Independence Hall, Philadelphia.

Further Reading

Irish Examiner, Irish Independent, Irish Press, Irish Times, Aug.-Sep. 1963.

David Murphy, ‘John Barry’ Dictionary of Irish Biography.


MUSEUM OF THE MONTH: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam


As a historian I always feel a rush of gratitude for those diarists who maintained such painstakingly detailed and regular entries. Some diaries are preserved self-consciously for posterity; others avoid destruction or oblivion through good luck or meticulous care, only for the value of their contents to become apparent through chance investigation, donation or publication. Diaries are not, as few if any historical sources can be, objective, unbiased or comprehensive. Yet just as historical commentary is shaped by the perspective of the historian, diaries provide a fascinating insight into the perspective of one individual on wider historical events: perspectives that can be representative or completely unique. This intersection of the personal with the political lends greater colour to the narrative and reminds us that history is not just something that happened, but something that people actually lived.


In terms of diaries of historical significance, the diary of Anne Frank is arguably the most famous and certainly most widely read. As such I could not pass up on the opportunity to visit a monument to her experience and to the first primary source I had ever read as a child. Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht, Amsterdam) seeks to document Anne’s experience as a microcosm of the persecution of Dutch Jews and (as in the case of Anne’s family) of German Jews whose exodus to other European cities such as Amsterdam did not count on Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of 1940 and the extension of Fortress Europe to the Netherlands. As you enter the exhibition, context is provided on the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam and the anti-Jewish laws introduced after 1940. Documents are put on display in a space renovated in the 1990s to recreate the original front of the building, including the warehouse and offices of Opekta, Otto Frank’s business, licensed to sell pectin, the gelling agent necessary for jam making. The museum documents the gift of Anne’s diary and her cherished ambitions to be a writer. Text from its pages are used to narrate Otto’s decision to hide his family in unused rooms (the ‘secret annex’) in 1942 with the help of office staff while keeping it a secret from warehouse staff. Visitors travel up to the ‘secret annexe’ behind a bookshelf (the original bookshelf is on display) to enter the hiding place. Again excerpts from Anne’s diary are used to evoke the strained atmosphere of the annex with the Franks sharing the small space with another family, the van Pels, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Anne’s own sleeping space has been preserved and on display are copies of her posters of movie stars and the young Princess Elizabeth.

The visitor makes their way into a museum space that provides a sober reflection on the fate of the Franks, whose hiding place was stormed by the Security Police on 4 August 1944. Of the eight people in hiding only Otto Frank survived-he was in Auschwitz for its liberation. Short video clips provide first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, including an interview with a friend of Anne’s who met Anne in Bergen-Belsen only a few short weeks before her death. Another of the museum’s rooms reflects on the impact of Anne’s diary, preserved by Opekta office worker Miep Gies who returned it to Otto for it to be subsequently published in seventy languages. A manuscript version can be viewed in the museum. I was really interested to learn that in the months before the arrests, Anne had been editing and revising her diary and working on a novel The Secret Annex. This certainly prompts me to reflect on how much diarists consider if and how their personal entries will be preserved and received by posterity. The exhibition is a triumph of simplicity, in allowing the force and poignancy of the diary to be presented with the minimal intervention of audio-visual material that so often proliferates and which can, in some cases, distract from the contents and missions of museums. The curators thankfully resisted the urge to include too much material in the secret annex space which allowed them to successfully evoke the stark reality of two years of claustrophic confinement.

In terms of practicalities Anne Frank House is located quite close to the centre of Amsterdam and is easy to find via many of the tram lines. Booking a ticket in advance is strongly recommended as queues can reach epic lengths; however the museum staff do an excellent job of ensuring the small space does not become too crowded.

See: http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Practical-information/

Resources for Historians: Catholic Parish Registers at the National Library of Ireland

Parish register

The National Library of Ireland’s (NLI) digitalisation of Catholic Parish Registers is an encouraging example of how technology can both stimulate and satisfy the genealogical interests of the Irish public. Populating the branches of the family tree that stretch further back than the 1901 Census can often prove to be a challenging and onerous task. The first full government census of Ireland was carried out in 1821, followed by censuses every ten years thereafter. It is a tragedy for Irish genealogy that the pre-1901 records of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages have been decimated by the intervention of various unfortunate events and decisions. While the returns for 1861 and 1871 were never preserved for posterity, the census data for 1881 and 1891 was obliterated when the records were pulped during the First World War, possibly due to a shortage in paper. The returns from 1821-1851 were, famously, almost completely destroyed in the fire that engulfed the Public Record’s Office in 1922 in the early stages of the Civil War.

Consequently, arguably one of the best, if not the best, source of general data on individuals living in nineteenth century Ireland is the Catholic Parish Registers. The NLI holds a vast microfilm collection of Catholic parish registers on microfilm and has recently completed the project of digitalisation whereby the microfilm pages were scanned and uploaded as images to be perused on the NLI’s website. In fact the project is arguably the continuation of efforts that began as far back as 1949 when the NLI offered its services to the Catholic hierarchy to ensure the permanent preservation of parish registers. An NLI staff member was duly dispatched to every diocese and over a period of twenty years (with additional filming of some Dublin registers in the 1990s) the NLI developed microfilm copies of over 3,500 registers from 1,086 parishes in Ireland (North and South) with some records stretching back  as early as the seventeenth century. Now, approximately 373,000 digital images have been uploaded to the NLI’s website.

To search the records, the NLI has provided a user-friendly format, whereby the researcher reviews a map of Ireland, divided by county. Simply click on the county you are interested in, e.g. Wexford, and you will be immediately presented with the various parishes (in this example, from the Diocese of Ferns). Select your parish, e.g. Wexford (town) and you will be brought to the various digitalised microfilm copies of the original registers. The microfilm is arranged by time period and you can peruse records of births or marriages. Some of the very early registers can be that more difficult to decipher and appear to be a little damaged and perhaps watermarked, thus justifying the timely intervention of the NLI over sixty years ago in making permanent copies of the registers before their details were lost forever.  However as researchers and historians the digitalised microfilmed images can allow us to experience that evocative thrill of studying our ancestors, in the handwriting of a near contemporary who preserved, for posterity, the beginnings and the most significant moments in their lives.

Begin researching:


Further reading




Documentary review: Churchill – when Britain said no


In the wake of the recent general election in Britain, criticisms of what the Conservative Party perceived as a pronounced Labour bias within the corridors of the British national broadcaster are not likely to abate with the airing of the documentary Churchill: when Britain said no. Reviewing one of the most significant electoral defeats of the twentieth century, the documentary is a conscious, though thoroughly empirical effort to de-mythologise the wartime leader. With contributions from historians such as Professors Richard Overy Richard Toye and  John Charmley the documentary painstakingly accounts for the crushing defeat for Churchill and his Conservative party in 1945. It also attempts to disabuse viewers of the notion that Churchill’s wartime leadership enjoyed universal support and goodwill. Excerpts from contemporary sources such as the diaries of Lord Moran (Churchill’s personal physician), newspaper reports, interviews with members of the public and the personal correspondence of both Labour and Conservative politicians paint a more complex and less halcyon picture of the man who saw Britain through its ‘finest hour’.

Conservative Election Poster 1945

Conservative Election Poster 1945

Though most historians would be well aware of Churchill’s inglorious pre-war political record (as Chancellor of the Exchequer presiding over economic collapse in the 1920s) not many would question the popularity of his wartime leadership. The documentary reminds us that reactions to Churchill’s now mythic wartime orations were often mixed, with many critical and some even downright suspicious of his often slurred delivery. Indeed fewer people heard Churchill speak than is generally supposed. His famous ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech of June 1940 was delivered to the House of Commons rather than broadcast via wireless. In fact Churchill did not make a recording of his oratory on this speech until nine years later, sitting in his bed in Chartwell. Professor Overy argues in the documentary that history is not only kind to Churchill because he wrote so much of it himself but also because he is ‘immensely quotable’. The documentary reminds us that throughout his life Churchill had failed to set the polls alight and became prime minister, not on the groundswell of electoral support, but through default with the resignation of Chamberlain. Churchill was clearly completely unprepared to fight an election in 1945 and was dramatically out of step with popular opinion. War had led to a new impetus of political radicalism in the working class and Churchill had failed to recognise that the war effort had already introduced a form of collectivism and socialism into everyday life. The patrician Churchill who had only been on the underground once in his lifetime was not prepared to shed his Victorian conceptions of British society to create the kind of domestic reforms sought by an increasingly vocal working class. Conservative election posters were stuck in wartime rhetoric with a portrait of an austere Churchill emblazoned with the words ‘Let him finish the job’. The Labour party meanwhile had tapped into the public mood with their posters of an amiable Clement Atlee sporting the more optimistic slogan of ‘Let’s face the future’ and recognising that a war weary public wanted an end to both wartime sacrifice and the entire economic privations of the previous decades. Churchill blundered through the election campaign, disgusting huge sections of the public by predicting that a Labour government would inaugurate a socialist ‘Gestapo’, embarrassing younger Conservatives with his diehard imperialism in the face of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement in India and failing to impress voters with his lacklustre efforts at post-war planning.

All this and the documentary’s observation Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century trying to win a twentieth-century election contains few new or groundbreaking observations. What is interesting is its argument that there was a significant section of the working class who had never admired Churchill’s wartime leadership, never forgiving the enemy of the 1926 General Strike. While the historians featured do concede that Churchill rose to the challenge of wartime leadership, the documentary insists that the electorate’s rejection of Churchill represented a complete and utter disillusionment with the nineteenth century values for which he stood. As such the documentary itself is an incomplete effort at both political and social commentary for the reality was not such a straight line with such a neat endpoint. The documentary ends with a brief sentence acknowledging Churchill’s re-election in 1951, thus failing to explain why when Britain said such a firm ‘no’ in 1945, it was prepared to say ‘yes’ six years later.

Exhibition Review: National Museum of Ireland: The Easter Rising, Understanding 1916


The Easter Rising: Understanding 1916 is arguably one of the most popular permanent exhibitions of the National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks. What strikes the visitor most about the exhibition is its efforts to create a wide panorama of the origins and aftermath of the violence itself but also its self-conscious commentary on the varied interpretations of the Rising and its dominance of Ireland’s public past. Similar to RTÉ’s Road to the Rising Event in April, the exhibition carefully traces the political evolution of Ireland through the Home Rule crisis and the Dublin Lockout but also progresses to examine the aftermath of the Rising through to the War of Independence and the Civil War. As well as informative commentary boards with additional imagery, the exhibition allows plenty of space for the artefacts and the collection to tell the story. Gaelic League and GAA programmes, advertisements and propaganda reminds us of the political, social and cultural forces from which the Rising emerged. The iconography and nationalistic representations of the Rising in the years that followed successfully convey to the visitor the definitive place of the Rising in the process of independence and nation building. While an original Proclamation of the Irish Republic forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, the personal effects of the rebel leaders are its evocative heart. No history buff could fail to be intrigued by the personal effects of the incarcerated and soon to be executed readers, or failed to be enthralled by their final letters written from Kilmainham Gaol: Pádraig Pearse’s instructions for his personal effects to be conveyed to his mother; Sean Mac Diarmada’s reflections that he and his comrade’s ‘die so that the Irish nation may live’ , granted a ‘soldier’s death’ confident that ‘posterity will judge us right from the effects of our actions’.

And it is its commentary on ‘posterity’ and the impact of the Rising that elevates the exhibition into a responsible and meaningful contribution to public history. The exhibition outlines how the public memory of and academic discourse on 1916 has always been contested and often fraught with ‘opinions sometimes influenced [by] political leanings as by knowledge of the subject’. The exhibition then outlines the various commemorations and anniversaries of the Rising, illustrating how the past was inexplicably bound to the politics of the present, with post 1966 Commemorations overshadowed by the Troubles. While carefully navigating the perception of 1916, the exhibition does not shrink from insisting on the central importance of the Rising to the political development of modern Ireland. With plans to expand the exhibition in time for the centenary and with further public events anticipated, Holinshed Revisited will continue to reflect on the success of various institutions and bodies in engaging responsibly in public history. The NMI’s Understanding 1916 provides the public with an excellent place to start.

Visit: http://www.museum.ie/en/intro/arts-and-history.aspx

Review event: RTÉ Road to the Rising


How we choose to commemorate historical events can provoke both impassioned debate and cynical dismissal. If a sense of occasion is lacking or if balance, accuracy and nuance is completely shed in favour of emotive myth making then the event has failed to serve as a commemoration: an act of remembrance implies that the memory is rooted in a factual reality that has been faithfully recorded. The 1916 Rising represents both the real military battleground and the later polemical battleground of interpretation between nationalists and historians of different motivations and hues. As we head towards the centenary it is reasonable to expect that debate will deepen but we can hope that differing forums can accommodate and acknowledge the competing interpretations and by doing so create a broader understanding and appreciation of the implications of 1916 for Irish history.


One of the first events to wet the public’s appetite for the centenary was RTÉ’s Road to the Rising, a public event, inviting people to ‘step into history’ on a pedestrianised O’Connell Street (or Sackville Street as it was fondly referred to for the occasion). This was a very impressive affair, encompassing academic talks, broadcasts and exhibits. It was an entertaining and commendable effort to contextualise the Rising for the public, giving attendees the opportunity to immerse themselves in recreated scenes of Dublin life in Easter 1915. There were music hall acts showcasing material popular in the period, stalls displaying period wares (including tailors, milliners and a barbershop), a period wedding and funeral with Liberty Hall hosting a broadcast of Insurrection, the documentary made by RTÉ for the 50th anniversary of the Rising. RTÉ also provided access to sound booths for the recording of family history and genealogists, Dublin Public Libraries and an army of actors and volunteers worked hard to ensure public engagement with events. Talks from historians and authors on such diverse topics as wives, mothers and revolutionaries, the twilight of empire, law and order in Ireland, the Irish language and the cultural revolution, family members of the volunteers, living and dying in 1915 and ordinary life in 1915, acknowledged the broad vagaries of Irish politics and society in the lead up to Easter 1916.

The efforts of all those involved in Monday’s public history event has set an inclusive and stimulating tone for the coming centenary commemorations which will hopefully continue to provide an opportunity for wider historical engagement and debate.

Book review: Doris Kearns Goodwin: Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 2005)

When historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was asked why she undertook to produce a biography of perhaps the most documented political figure in American history, she cited the explanation offered by twentieth century writer Ida Tarbell. According to Tarbell, researchers like to spend so much time with Lincoln because he was so ‘companionable’. What sets Team of rivals apart is this acknowledgement of Lincoln as a being whose political legacy was predicated on his ability to forge working relationships with old adversaries to help preserve and then repair a disintegrating Union. This study offers a refreshing depth of focus on the careers of Lincoln’s peers, with Goodwin convincingly demonstrating that Lincoln’s political success was less determined by his own talents and ego, which could be matched by many of his contemporaries, than by his genius for handling the talents and egos of others. This book is really a collection of biographies of the many politicians who opposed and worked with Lincoln,  their contributions to the age in which they lived and the foundations each of them built for the many changes that were effected during the Lincoln administration. In this Goodwin is replicating a successful formula from her Pulitzer prize-winning study of the personalities of the F.D.R. administration- No ordinary time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The home front in World War II.

Team of rivals chronicles how Lincoln, the epitome of what a self-educated man could achieve in a more fluid nineteenth century mid-western society, relied on his folksy homespun style to both charm allies and disarm adversaries, lulling them into a false and often fatal sense of superiority over the former labourer. As a former Illinois congressman who returned to practise as ‘prairie lawyer’ having served briefly in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lincoln’s career was certainly less starry than those of his three main rivals for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates. However Goodwin painstakingly documents how Lincoln positioned himself for success by securing the commitment from Republican delegates that he would be their second choice for nomination. As there was greater division between the supporters of Seward, Chase and Bates, who reflected different interests and wings of the Republican party, Lincoln emerged as the acceptable compromise candidate, who expressed himself with greater moderation on the burning political issues of the day. Lincoln’s bold step of constructing a cabinet of rivals is chronicled with Goodwin using extensive primary source material to illustrate how Lincoln’s wartime cabinet initially expected to be able to manipulate and pull the strings of the sixteenth president only to ultimately grow to respect and even revere Lincoln’s judgement.  Goodwin shows how Lincoln managed to exact rivalry from many (but not entirely all) of his former rivals by astonishing his often wayward cabinet members with his insistence on taking full and public responsibility for their often disastrous missteps.

What is most satisfying about this book of biographies is that Goodwin allows the primary material to take centre stage and speak for itself. The vast collections of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, government reports, memoranda etc., featured in the book serve to remind us that the politics of Civil War era American was driven by the clash of both the political convictions and the personalities of the people who produced them. An impressive piece of wide-ranging scholarship that provides an new perspective on Lincoln’s shrewd political acumen and most of all, his stage management skills to create a more rounded, nuanced and honest biography of Honest Abe and the people who shaped his presidency.

The Christmas Truce 1914


On Wednesday 17 December 2014 Aldershot Town football club played host to the ‘game of truce’; a  football match between representatives of the German and British armies in commemoration of the match purportedly played on the Western front on Christmas Day 1914. On this occasion the British Army managed a 1-0 win but, according to a report in The Times on the first day of January 1915, it had been the Germans who had emerged as the 3-2 victors, in the, for once, bloodless fixture in No Man’s Land. While the reality of this yuletide game has been disputed for some time, with it more likely to have taken the form of numerous casual kick-abouts, the reports and letters from serving soldiers confirm  the organisation  of informal truce arrangements on the Western Front on 25 December 1914. As per The Times, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery wrote that ‘it has been agreed between the soldiers on both sides that there should be no firing until midnight Christmas Day…….it was all arranged privately by one of our fellows going across! I think he was rather brave to be the first to do it.’ According to this officer, this détente led to personal exchanges and attempts at conversation with the ‘enemy’: ‘We all saluted, shook hands and exchanged cigarettes.’ A member of the London Rifle Brigade as well as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps wrote of the playing of football, with the major claiming that ‘some of our people actually went into their trenches and stayed there for some time, being entertained by the enemy.’ The solider from the London Rifles was quite effusive in his admiration for the Germans in allowing the British regiment time and safety to afford a ‘decent’ burial to their dead on Christmas day:

They were really magnificent in the whole thing and jolly good sorts. I have now a very different opinion of the German. Both sides have started the firing, and are already enemies again. Strange it all seems doesn’t it?

Another major from the Leicestershire Regiment questioned the stereotype of the brutal ‘boches’ and even the necessity of combat, noting friendly conversations and carol singing and observing of the German soldiers: ‘They are jolly cheery fellows for the most part and it seems to silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.’ The Manchester Guardian, by far one of the least militarist publications, recorded the sentiments of a solider from the Front, writing on his experience of the truce: ‘I wouldn’t have missed the experience yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.’

Manchester Guardian, 31 Dec. 1914

Manchester Guardian, 31 Dec. 1914

As many historians have pointed out, the Christmas Truce of 1914 was not universal with fighting continuing in many sections of the Front, with resulting casualties. Nor were such truces unique to Christmas. However these truces became rarer with the escalation of the conflict in the aftermath of the huge casualty tolls of Verdun, the Somme and Passchendale. There has been much commentary in the media on the style and tone of the commemoration of the First World War. Many were left uncomfortable at the sentiments expressed by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom, in the build-up to the centenary of the outbreak,  expressed the hope for ‘a commemoration that, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who we are as a people. Remembrance must be the hallmark of our commemorations.’  While many historians are moving away from the perception of the First World War as a senseless undertaking, commemoration of the Christmas Truce strikes a resonance with those who value it as a moment of sanity in an insane conflict; a brief respite for humanity in the industrialised machine of war. How we, as individuals and as a society choose to commemorate and the divisive response to such orchestrated acts of remembrance, reveals much about the evolution of historiography and the organic relationship between the practice of history and the contemporary political climate.


Manchester Guardian, 31 Dec. 1914

The Guardian, 8 Oct. 2013

The Times, 1 Jan. 1915

Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas truce: the Western Front December 1914 (London, 2011).

TV review: HBO’s John Adams


Historical dramas often provoke exasperation among historians for what they perceive as gross inaccuracies and simplifications. Both Tudor historian David Starkey and Hilary Mantel, award winning author of the historical fiction series that offers a new perspective on the life of Thomas Cromwell, criticised Showtime’s The Tudors for straying too far from the chronology and realities of the court of Henry VIII. While most historians would concede that tv dramas and films need to deviate somewhat from the recorded timelines for dramatic effect, producers should not patronise or underestimate their audience. People who are driven to watch historical dramas tend to have a wider interest in and knowledge of history and appreciate narratives that are receptive to the complexities and nuances of the past. Good historical drama can provoke a deeper awareness that history is not black and white and can propel viewers to further reading to gain a more complete understanding of the subject matter. Excellent historical drama reminds viewers that history itself is often the result of competing interpretations, deviating enough from stale mainstream versions to explore the political and social forces that confer a mythic quality to certain events and actors.

HBO’s often overlooked 2008 miniseries John Adams achieves this level of sophistication with intelligent writing and superb acting with Paul Giamatti as the eponymous lawyer turned reluctant revolutionary and second president of the young United States and Laura Linney as his wife and chief counsel. The story is refreshingly told through the eyes of a figure central to its history but often overlooked by historians. Running through the series is an implicit awareness that it is not Adams that history has recorded as one of the chief architects of an independent American state and we watch as the son of a Massachusetts farmer has to come to the terms with the fact that, even in his own lifetime, he was being squeezed out of the holy trinity of the revolution by the higher profile figures of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. The drama flies in the face of the hyberbole and excessive romanticism surrounding the War of Independence, depicting the revolution not as a sudden spark (which must be tempting in tv land) but as a slow burn of indignation against the intransigence of the metropole. The opening episode devotes much time to Adams’s successful defence of the soldiers who took part in the Boston massacre. A later scene finds Adams wondering at his unlikely transformation into ambassador to the Court of St. James’s on behalf of the newly formed ‘States United’; as he is presented to George III the viewer can appreciate his inner turmoil as he speaks to his former sovereign in the guise of a foreign diplomat.

John Trumbell's famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

John Trumbell’s famous depiction of the committee presenting the Declaration of Independence for signature

While the drama takes some liberties with the timeline, the dialogue is largely based on correspondence from the time-the many letters that passed between Adams and his wife Abigail form an important commentary on the course of the revolution and the foundation and beginnings of the new state. Historians have accused the writers of over-exaggerating a rift between Adams and his somewhat wayward son Charles but they cannot claim that the drama over-emphasises the friction between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While their political disagreements and rivalry is depicted, so too is their understanding of each other and their attempts at reconciliation. This drama is also stripped of the glamour, gloss and sheen that is often an implausible feature of historical dramas. Instead makeup is minimal, clothes are soiled and teeth blacken and disappear with the passage of time.

What the drama does brilliantly is capture the process by which history transforms into myth. An aging Adams despairs of ‘modern history’ and the inaccuracies surrounding the revolution and its leaders, for the better and for the worse. One of the dramas most thought-provoking scenes involves a very elderly Adams being shown the artist Trumbell’s famous painting which depicts the committee’s presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Adams lambasts the painting as a falsehood; at no point, Adams asserts, during the summer of 1776 were all the celebrated figures presented in the painting, in the same room, at the same time-rather signatures were affixed whenever the delegates happened to be in Philadelphia. Thus John Adams is as much about the process of history as it is about chronicling the life of a farmer’s son, lawyer, revolutionary, diplomat, vice president, president and father of a president.

John Adams: Written by Kirk Ellis, based on the book by David McCullough and directed by Tom Hooper.

Documentary review: One Million Dubliners


Once in a while a historical documentary will achieve the status of instant classic-a documentary that provides as much of an insight into contemporary ideas about history and the present state of the nation as it does into the historical significance of past events. Aoife Kelleher’s One Million Dubliners explores the story and legacy of Dublin’s necropolis, Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery. Glasnevin is not Ireland’s national cemetery but as the documentary reminds us, it occupies an important place at the heart of the national experience, a conscious memorial and marker to the process of state building and to the cultural invention of the Irish nation. The documentary recounted Glasnevin’s origins from the lobbying of its most famous occupant, Daniel O’Connell for a graveyard for those of every or no religion with the astonishingly detailed records of the 1.5 million people interred since 1832 arising from the Victorian mania for record keeping. It was the story of how the living interact with the dead; of people’s interpretation and remembrances of the lives of figures both documented and undocumented by history. We had a French woman whose interest in the life of Michael Collins was fanned into a long-term devotion with frequent pilgrimages made to his graveside. We were also fortunate to witness a young man’s moving homage to the cultural impact of Luke Kelly. Our more enlightened attitudes to once contentious aspects of Irish history were also discussed with the documented scenes of Glasnevin’s Armistice Day service. We were also exposed to the stories and rituals arising from the passing of ordinary Dubliners and the delicate line to tread in maintaining a heritage site that remains a functioning place of burial and cremation.

Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery

Glasnevin/Prospect Cemetery

However the most stirring part of the documentary was the masterful way in which Glasnevin Trust maintains and shares the history and heritage of the graveyard with its many and varied visitors. The dedication and devotion of its staff shone through with some sage yet compassionate reflection on the place of death in the Irish psyche. Most poignantly of all, the documentary became a much deserved tribute to the man who did the most to cherish and share the story of graveyard with the Irish public-Glasnevin’s late resident historian and guide, Shane MacThomais. The passion, empathy and dedication MacThomais brought to the history of Glasnevin and to its tours was wonderfully captured-whether he was seamlessly breaking down the complexities of Irish history for foreign visitors or lapsing into his natural storyteller mode, making history come alive for a cohort of rapt schoolchildren. This, above all, is the lasting value and legacy of One Million Dubliners: as a fitting celebration of the role one Dubliner played in the preservation and democratisation of local and national heritage.


One Million Dubliners: An Underground Films production in association with RTÉ, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Shoot for the Moon and Bord Scannán na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board

Tips for Conducting Archival Research Overseas


Budding researchers and students embarking on history projects with an international dimension will at some point have to confront the challenge of research in archives abroad. I know for this historian that the first trip to a foreign archive was quite nerve-wrecking. What if the archive did not have the documents I was looking for? What if I was denied access to certain documents? A research trip abroad can incur considerable expense if self-funded and even if the researcher is supported by a grant or scholarship that researcher is often obliged to justify such financial support with an outline of what was achieved during the trip. The following tips may help reduce the anxiety induced by a research trip abroad to transform a daunting challenge into positive professional development.

1. Put careful consideration into selecting the most appropriate dates to visit the archive. Archives are usually opened 5-6 days a week but not all operate by traditional Monday-Friday hours. For example the National Archives in Kew opens Tuesday-Saturday. Opt to make the journey on the day on which the archive is closed to ensure that you do not waste any research time. Bear in mind that many archives close down to the public at certain times of the year – these times do not necessarily correspond to traditional holidays. Avoid travelling at peak times e.g. on dates on which a major international conference is held in the vicinity as reading space may be already booked out. Take special care to let the archive know that you intend to visit on certain dates and remind personnel that you are coming around a week in advance of a trip so that they know to expect a new reader.

2. Make sure that you have the correct documentation to obtain a reader’s ticket to the archive. For example, as well as a valid form of photo ID a letter from your thesis supervisor, proof of your affiliation with a university or research institute, or proof of address may be required. This will vary from archive to archive. For example, the British Library will not provide a valid reader’s card unless a valid proof of address (from an official source) is provided. The Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs will expect the submission of your passport for every visit (even following provision of a reader’s ticket) and will hold your passport for the duration of your visit. Ensure that you have fully read and complied with the documentation requirements of the archive concerned to avoid the frustration of a wasted or stalled excursion.

3. Do a comprehensive list of all the files you would like to peruse in advance of the trip.

copyright: Baloocartoons.com

copyright: Baloocartoons.com

Verify that these documents will be available when you need them (e.g. that they have not been removed from the collection for preservation work). Inquire as to whether you need special written permission from a senior archivist to access certain restricted files. Order these files in advance if you can, in order to make the most of your time. Some archives will not permit this action unless the researcher is already in possession of a reader’s ticket but it is still a good idea to register your intention to order certain documents with the archivists so that any restrictions may be flagged in advance of your trip.

4. Familiarise yourself with the regulations of the reading room in the archive. Standard rules regarding the prohibition of pens and bags apply to most archives but others may apply further restrictions e.g. having to submit to a security check.

5. Ask whether you can use a camera to take digital copies of files. This will make the most of valuable time by saving you the effort of transcribing and the expense of photocopying. Ensure that your camera has good battery life and take care to bring a charger or even a spare battery. A good camera is a better investment than a hand-held scanner as many archives prohibit the use of the latter devices.

6. Do not forget to bring adapters for your laptop and camera charger. This is easily overlooked, bringing what might be a fruitful day of research to a premature end.

7. Make an effort to forge good relations with the archivists and to keep them informed on the progress of your project. This is obviously essential for any researcher as archivists are encyclopaedias of knowledge on the collections and this knowledge is an additional asset for a researcher whose time in a foreign archive may be short. This historian has benefitted from keeping in contact with archivists abroad who have often brought pertinent files to my attention and who have even kindly acquiesced to posting copies of certain files to save me the expense of a trip.

Museum of the Month: Johnstown Castle and the Irish Agricultural Museum, Wexford


Suitably situated in the old farm buildings of Johnstown Castle estate, Wexford, the Irish Agricultural Museum offers a fascinating insight into the history of rural Ireland. Making superb use of the character and history of the estate, the permanent and temporary exhibitions provide an engaging and visceral social history. The museum has much to offer, with displays to excite the interest of anyone with a passion for local and rural social history as well as those with a grá for the history of technology. Visitors are exposed to the evolution of farm machinery and practises as well as to the everyday realities of rural living, with a particularly charming exhibition of an Irish country kitchen. A new exhibition in the museum traces the importance of farming to Dublin, reminding visitors of the expertise and practices that sprung from Dublin county which was once, long before it became the model of an industrial and then tertiary economy, as dependent upon farming as the rest of the country.

Johnstown Castle

Johnstown Castle

However the lasting impression that visitors will take from the museum is its sublime location. The often turbulent history of Johnstown Castle alone as well as the beauty of the lovingly maintained grounds provides more than enough diversion for anyone with a passion for neo-gothic architecture and Victorian landscaping. Gifted to the nation in 1945, the history of the estate dates back to the twelfth century with its association with the old Anglo-Norman Esmonde family. After changing hands several times during the Cromwellian period, the Grogan family eventually took possession of the house and sprawling grounds. Cornelius Grogan, the best remembered Grogan scion, was a member of the United Irishmen and a supposedly ‘reluctant rebel’ during the 1798 rebellion in Wexford. According to Grogan, he was forced to assume leadership of local United Irishmen but was not guilty of any overt act of treason. Despite this professed reluctance, Grogan was hanged and beheaded on Wexford bridge with his body flung ignominiously into the Slaney from where it was later recovered by his friends and buried in secret proximity to his ancestral estate.

Today’s castle was constructed between 1810 and 1855 and local historians believe that it was Kilkenny architect Daniel Robertson who designed this neo-gothic turreted edifice as well as the grounds and gardens. Two additional lakes, home to the estate’s many swans, were also dug into the grounds sheltered by an impressive assortment of redwood, cypress, fir, beech and ancient oaks. A walled garden, meandering walkways which lead you to the ruins of an older castle, shrubberies and wandering peacocks add to the character and timelessness of the demesne. One of the finest examples of a Victorian estate in Ireland.

In the winter months the museum opens from 9am-4.30pm on weekdays and from 11am-4pm on weekends and bank holidays. Run by Teagasc, the grounds and gardens are opened from 9am -4.30pm every day. See:  http://www.irishagrimuseum.ie

Resources for Historians: Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP)


Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) is an eight-volume collaborative project undertaken by the Royal Irish Academy, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Archives of Ireland chronicling the evolution of Irish foreign policy, from 1919-45. The collection constitutes an important gathering of pivotal source documents from the collection of the Department of Foreign (previously External) Affairs in the National Archives. All volumes are available in hard copy form with digital versions of volumes I-VI available through the DIFP website. The latest volume (IX), covering Irish foreign relations from 1948-51, is set for publication in November 2014.

As with any collection of primary source documents, these volumes are not exhaustive but have been carefully selected by the editors and organised along thematic and geographic lines. This is quite similar to the Foreign Relations of the United States series.  Therefore while the collection is an invaluable resource and reference tool for historians of Irish foreign policy and international relations, serious scholars should not rely solely on the collection but rather use it as a springboard for more focused mining of the DFA documents in the National Archives.

Great care has been taken to preserve the integrity of the documents and to ensure the transparency of the editorial process. An excellent editorial touch to the collection has been the addition of the marginal notes to the reproduced documents and the identification of the authors of these notes, where possible. Such notes are often quite telling and gleefully seized upon by historians of foreign policy looking to gauge the reaction of the home government to the observations and reports of the diplomatic corps and to international affairs in general. While spelling mistakes may have been corrected by the editors, all other additions and amendments have been tracked. Although the collection cannot be comprehensive, the editorial board of the project is composed of the pre-eminent scholars of Irish foreign policy-seasoned historians such as Professor Ronan Fanning, Dr. Michael Kennedy, Professor Dermot Keogh and Professor Eunan O’Halpin who select the documents for inclusion based on their perceived importance and significance.

Users can browse the online volumes by year or document number. The DIFP website also provides a key word search option. The advanced search setting is highly recommended along with Boolean methods (i.e. search for “Vatican”, not Vatican). Any historian interested in the DIFP collection or in Irish foreign relations in general should certainly make the effort to follow @DIFP_RIA on Twitter. Links to digital copies of illuminating DFA documents are posted as part of the project’s #docoftheday social media drive.  For example followers can read the 1936 report of the Irish delegate to the League of Nations on Emperor Haile Selassie’s infamous speech to the League of Nations Assembly or the correspondence surrounding the appointment of Professor T.A. Smiddy as Ireland’s first Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to the United States (1924-9).

The efforts of the DIFP project to publicise and disseminate crucial documents on Irish foreign policy should serve as the inspiration and foundation for any budding historian of Irish foreign relations.

Useful website





Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is broadly concerned with the ethos and practise of the League of Nations and with the evolution from pre to post-war internationalism.

Enlightened imperialism? The League of Nations Mandates Commission


In the aftermath of the First World War, the League of Nations established a form of ‘enlightened imperialism’ whereby member states were authorised to administer former German and Ottoman imperial possessions. Article 22 of the League Covenant established ‘mandates’ over ‘those colonies and territories, which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the states which formerly governed them, and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’. The mandate system was not a threat to colonialism but rather served to legitimise it as a (perceived) necessity within the international landscape on the understanding that ‘the well being and development of peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation’.


1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

1. Syria, 2. Lebanon, 3. Palestine, 4.Transjordan, 5. Mesopotamia, 6.British Togoland, 7. French Togoland, 8. British Cameroons, 9.French Cameroun, 10. Ruanda-Urundi, 11. Tanganyika and 12.South West Africa

Britain, France and Belgium were granted mandates over German East Africa, Togo, Cameroon, South-West Africa, Palestine, Lebanon, Transjordan, Mesopotamia and Syria. However the great powers were not given free reign to annex the mandated territories into their own colonial administrations but rather undertook to comply with conditions set by the League. The Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) met twice yearly in Geneva with its work supported by the League Secretariat. Member states were obliged to submit reports to the Commission to ensure that they complied with the strict terms of their respective mandates. The Commission was populated by distinguished personnel, mostly former colonial governors, appointed by the League Council.  According to Zara Steiner not only could these appointees match colonial administrators in experience but the latter came to hold the PMC in high esteem and did not ignore any interrogation or criticism emanating from Geneva. While the PMC could report to the League Council it was devoid of any coercive function. As such it was powerless to confront states for any omission or distortion of information. Nor could its members conduct on-the-ground official inspections of the various mandated territories. As with the League Assembly, the PMC could only act as a moral force, holding the threat of a public rebuke over offending states.

The League of Nations has been cited by many historians as an important force in establishing norms of state behaviour. Michael Callahan argued that Britain and France did treat the mandates areas as distinct from the rest of their colonial territories. The PMC encouraged British and French measures to limit unrestrained land acquisitions by white settlers and to establish humane labour conditions for the native populations as well as initiatives for the improvement of public health. The mandated territories did not conform to the traditional economics of imperialism. The governor of the British mandate of Tanganyika exploited the international status of the region to ensure that the territory could buy cheaper American products over British merchandise.  In 1933 British military officials even conceded that it was contrary to the mandate system to establish a naval base in Tanganyika or to expect that territory to contribute to the defence of neighbouring Kenya. However the mandated system did not prevent the white populations from acquiring the best land; nor were native inhabitants permitted to play a role in administration.

The League’s mandates system certainly did not hasten the transition to self-rule. The Unied Nations on the other hand became synonymous with the postcolonial era. The UN Trusteeship Council assumed the role of the PMC, overseeing the administration of the 11 former mandated territories of the League: by 1994 all of these territories had either obtained independence or combined with neighbouring independent states.


Further Reading

Michael D. Callahan, ‘“Mandates territories are not colonies”: Britain, France and Africa in the 1930s’ in R.M. Douglas, Michael D. Callahan, and Elizabeth Bishop (eds), Imperialism on trial (Lanham, 2006), pp 1-20.

Susan Pedersen, ‘Back to the League of Nations’ in The American Historical Review, cxii (2007), pp 1091-1117.

Zara Steiner, The lights that failed: European international history 1919-33 (Oxford, 2005).

Between a rough wooing and a love match: The Acts of Union 1707


The Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland, 1707, as painted by Walter Thomas Monnington

The Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland, 1707,
as painted by Walter Thomas Monnington

Two weeks ago, during the climactic build-up to the recent referendum, this historian found herself in Edinburgh confronted with the rich and very deliberate historical markers of a complicated political union. Edinburgh Castle, with a triumphant ‘Yes’ banner unfurled across the rock face from which the very walls of the bastion appear to be carved, had become, for some, a statement of Scottish separateness; the site of an almost impenetrable defence from a much more powerful neighbour. However for others it remained a reminder that Scotland had also played the part of protagonist and eager partner in the union of the two kingdoms.  The official guide book reminds visitors that on the morning of 19 June 1566 one of the single most important events in ‘British’ history occurred in a small room in the royal apartments, with the birth, to Mary Queen of Scots, of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. In 1617, as part of his golden jubilee celebrations, James made a (by-then) rare visit to Scotland for which the royal apartments had been lavishly refurbished and festooned with the symbols of his expanded kingship. On the window pediments of his birthplace, the Scottish thistle was joined by the English rose and the Irish harp to reflect his inheritance of the kingdoms of England and Ireland from his cousin Elizabeth I.

While the three kingdoms shared a common monarch, full legislative and political union for England and Scotland  did not follow for another hundred years and not for another hundred years after this for the entire British Isles. James’s early attempts to win support for a proclamation uniting the two kingdoms won little favour in Westminster and so he was confined to setting symbolic foundations for a subsequent union by (from 1604 onwards) styling himself as ‘King of Great Britain’ and by approving the creation of a flag which combined the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.  Subsequent monarchs showed little interested in uniting the kingdoms (although an experiment in a combined parliament arose out of practicality in the Cromwellian period) until the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688). The newly crowned King William III was eager to promote he common adherence to the Protestant religion and antipathy to the Catholic faith shared between the two parliaments. A political union might also prove a safeguard against the Jacobite cause (those who supported the exiled Catholic monarch William’s father- in-law and uncle James II and his heirs). The Scottish Convention Parliament in Edinburgh appointed commissioners to negotiate a union with the English parliament but the apparent indifference and inflexibility of that body stoked anti-English sentiment. The unpredictable Scottish parliament was also increasingly frustrated with unfavourable trade terms and the failure of the English parliament to compensate Scottish investors in the Darien scheme, an unsuccessful venture to establish a new colony in Panama. William and his co-monarch Mary were childless and the death of their nephew, William of Gloucester, the son of their heir apparent Princess Anne, raised the possibility of the Scottish crown passing not to their named Protestant German successor, the Electress of Hanover and her issue, but back to the native Scottish dynasty of exiled Stuarts. Two new bills emerged from Westminster in late 1704 offering the Scots a single trade area and full political union but threatening a ban on Scottish imports unless the Edinburgh parliament accepted the Hanoverian succession. Spurred by these developments, agreement for union was secured between representatives of both the English and Scottish parliaments in just three days in April 1706. To summarise the resulting acts, Scotland gained full access to English domestic and colonial markets, the House of Hanover was poised inherit the throne of a united kingdom from Queen Anne and Scottish MPs would sit in the Westminster parliament. The Acts were finally ratified in spring 1707. Assent to the Acts in Edinburgh was not a straightforward affair and parliament did not quietly vote itself out of existence but rather debated against a backdrop of public disorder and Kirk disapproval. As with the Acts of Union in Ireland a hundred years later there were accusations of parliamentary bribery.  Indeed the debate for union proved more inflammatory than the debate to undo it 300 hundred years later.


Further reading

For a full text of the Scottish Union with England Act 1707: (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aosp/1707/7/contents)

Steven Ellis & Sarah Barber (ed.), Conquest & union: fashioning a British state 1485-1725

(London, 1995)

Hugh Kearney, The British isles: a history of four nations (Cambridge, 1989).

David L. Smith, A history of the modern British isles 1603-1707: the double crown (Oxford, 1998


Book review: Mark Mazower, Governing the world: the history of an idea (London, Penguin, 2012)






A student of the history of internationalism is often confronted with volumes that are theoretically complex or devoid of solid empiricism. It is often difficult to secure a traditional historical investigation into the competing dogmas of internationalism that emerged long before the existence of international organisations themselves. Rather, in our increasingly multi-disciplinary world, historians of internationalism are engaging more and more with the interpretations of political scientists. This cross fertilisation does little damage the practise of international history and certainly adds a new dynamism into a subject often stereotyped as fusty and slow to adapt to new methodologies. However it is my firm opinion that while a historian can be inspired by the theories expounded by other disciplines, an armchair historian, seduced by hypotheses and waylaid from the hard evidence of the past, will fail to make a valuable contribution to the field. For the history of internationalism is a minefield of competing theories closely married to and coloured by the opposing political ideologies of the left and right. Scholars of internationalism may unwittingly stumble into and rely on undiagnosed biases and agendas while failing to gain exposure to any exercises in primary research.

Thankfully, any student approaching the evolution of internationalism has an excellent starting point and example before them with Governing the world: the history of an idea by Mark Mazower, award winning historian and Professor of History at Columbia University. As with his previous contributions Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century and Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazi’s ruled Europe, Mazower retains his astonishing capacity to embrace a massive theme without sacrificing empiricism, detail or cohesion. Mazower draws on a wealth of international sources to demonstrate that internationalism was not one idea, born from pacifism or war-weariness but rather an assortment of competing proposals which emerged from both national pragmatism and international idealism. The book chronicles the ‘battle of ideologies’, tracing the rivalry of internationalists such as Marx and Mazzini, Lenin and Wilson. Mazower also teases out the libertarian anxieties awakened by internationalism and by ever-growing technocracies and international bureaucracies. He traces the not necessarily opposing relationship between nationalism and internationalism, multilateralism and imperialism. Mazower uses the various political embodiments of internationalism to demonstrate that while organisations such as the League of Nations may have retained a Eurocentric approach while perpetuating an Anglo-French hegemony, once inaugurated international institutions and the idealism they inspire are difficult to restrain and often lead to something far different than what their founders intended. Mazower’s book is not only an excellent investigation into the figures, groups and movements that jostled for the realisation of their own specific and alienating brand of internationalism, it also draws out the context and underlying conditions that shaped those ideologies and which has hamstrung organisations from the Concert of Europe to the United Nations.  What lends Mazower’s account legitimacy as a work of objective scholarship is his insistence that history ‘does not proceed in straight lines’. For instance while idealistic liberal internationalists were keen to portray the transition from the League of Nations to the United Nations as the story of human progress, Mazower demonstrates the reactionary and regressive forces at work in the creation of the U.N. Security Council which was for Mazower, a return to nineteenth century Concert of Europe -style diplomacy. For any historian struggling with the great patchwork of internationalism, seeking to find coherency and clarity in the globalisation of world politics, the interconnection of world trade and social policy and the aspirations for a ‘post-political mingling of peoples’, Mazower provides  the perfect launchpad. This book would also make an excellent textbook for any history module introducing undergraduates to the evolution of internationalism and the development international organisations.



Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is broadly concerned with the ethos and practise of the League of Nations and with the evolution from pre to post-war internationalism.

Resources for historians: Foreign Relations of the United States


Historians of Irish Foreign Policy will be familiar with the work of the Royal Irish Academy to digitalise the papers of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Digitalisation projects such as this, which are often key term searchable, save considerable time, effort and resources for practicing historians, for both established scholars and students embarking on postgraduate theses. Digitalisation projects can never be expected to be complete or exhaustive with editorial input sometimes influencing the presentation and arrangement of primary sources and most historians (including this one!) would not be prepared to exclusively embrace digital sources in order to forgo the pleasure of traditional archival research. However the digitalisation of important sources marks the increasing and welcome tendency to ensure a greater democratisation and accessibility of academic research.

While a trip to Dublin’s National Archives may be within the means of most Irish historians, a research topic that encompasses international or transnational elements can be financially draining on scholars bereft of funding. Certainly few historians, let alone postgraduate students, could manage a research trip to Washington to comb the ambitions and reactions of the superpower that held such a pre-eminent position in post-war international affairs.

The Foreign Relations of the United States published series (FRUS) comprise the collated diplomatic correspondence, reports and memoranda of the U.S. State Department that have been declassified and edited for publication. A large cohort of these sources have also been digitalised and uploaded by the library of the University of Wisconsin. The digitalised collection of the University of Wisconsin begins with the Lincoln administration and covers over one hundred years of U.S. diplomatic history with a selection of post 1945 documents also made available online by the State Department and maintained by the University of Illinois at the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website.

The collection is presented in volumes arranged by subject area and year with a table of sources and abbreviations at the beginning of each volume. To access the documents on the University of Wisconsin page, browse their collections until you reach FRUS. There are two different methods of researching the material. You can browse the collection which will allow you to locate material by year and by subject. The subjects of the volumes are usually divided by the area of the world with which they are concerned e.g. the British Commonwealth, the American Republics, the Far East and Europe or by a particular event or organisation e.g. Conferences at Malta and Yalta (1945). This method would suit a researcher who is broadly interested in the practice and evolution of U.S. foreign policy. The collection includes the observations and reports of the U.S. diplomatic corps as well as the responses and accompanying reports of senior State Department staff. If you have a more specific research objective, the collection is also key word searchable. Ensure that when you select the ‘search’ option to limit your search to the FRUS catalogue rather than the entire collection of the University of Wisconsin. A Boolean search is essential to ensure a more exact match to your search time e.g. look for “League of Nations” rather than League of Nations. This method brings you to the precise pages within the volume in which your search term can be found.

FRUS portal


It is the back and forth and changing nature of the diplomatic correspondence in this collection that provides intriguing nuggets of information for historians. It is interesting to note what ideas and observations from diplomatic staff on the ground were accepted and taken on board by Washington and what was rejected and why. Engagement with this collection is an easy and rewarding experience for any scholar of twentieth century world history, a history undoubtedly shaped by the growing reach, confidence and increasingly globalist foreign policy of the United States.



Tracking the evolution of wartime internationalism: the London International Assembly


Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cecil of Chelwood (1864-1958)

Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cecil of Chelwood (1864-1958)

The Second World War is often erroneously identified as an interregnum for the type of international cooperation and consultation that was first inaugurated by the League of Nations (1919-46). While preserving the economic and social activities of the League, in December 1939 member states had voted to suspend the organisation’s political organs, the Assembly and Council, for the duration of the conflict thus creating a vacuum for multilateral debate against a backdrop of national mobilisations. The breach was filled in 1941 with the introduction of a new ‘London International Assembly’. Presiding over this project was the irrepressible British internationalist, Viscount Robert Cecil. As one of the British representatives at the Paris Peace Conference Cecil, a Conservative politician, contributed to the drafting of the Covenant and represented both Britain and South Africa at the League Assembly all the while rallying public opinion in support of the League. Cecil maintained that it would be ‘useless to win the war if we lose the peace’ and was convinced that the opportunity provided by the presence of so many exiled European statesmen in London should not be squandered. Meetings were arranged ‘to endeavour to reach something like a common mind on principles that should govern and inspire national and international policies after the war.’ The London International Assembly thus acted as a kind of informal substitute for the League Assembly, attended by those attached to the British government, its Dominions and members of the Allied communities (including embassy staff from the United States) gathered in London. While British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave the Assembly his blessings he feared it might interfere with his own negotiations with the Allied communities in London. Cecil, according to his private correspondence, assured Eden that the proposed meetings would be confined to discussion and would involve no resolutions of any kind. Eminent delegates attended in their personal capacities, not as government representatives. When the London International Assembly first convened it did so in closed sessions for the purpose of ‘study and discussion’ but by 1942 some of its monthly meetings were opened to the public and were attended by over 150 members. Prominent figures in the governments in exile, including Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian secretary of state for foreign affairs and René Cassin, the commissioner for justice and public instruction in the council of the Fighting French, became officers in the assembly, helping to ensure its smooth operation.

Despite Eden’s reservations, the Assembly did wade into very important and delicate issues under consideration by the Allied governments. Thes issues discussed included important problems for the post-war settlement such as future trials of war criminals, reparations, social and economic reconstruction and the prospect of a future international organisation. Cecil’s executive committee, however, decided ‘not to allow any discussion on [ultra sensitive] territorial questions.’ Cecil confided to Eden that the speeches made at the London Assembly reminded him ‘of the kind of earlier debates that used to take place at Geneva on the general principles of peace and cooperation.’  The press described the London International Assembly as a ‘kind of private, unofficial League of Nations.’ The Assembly effectively foreshadowed the first U.N. General Assembly of January 1946 with the Manchester Guardian predicting in September 1942 that it might ‘contain the seeds from which a new organisation may ultimately spring.’ Participation in the Assembly was limited to a ‘representative body of people from the Allied and friendly nations, very carefully chosen’. It is often forgotten that whereas neutral states such as Switzerland and the Irish Free State retained their membership of the League of Nations, the United Nations Organisation was, at first, the continuation of the wartime alliance system. The London International Assembly therefore embodied and articulated an important shift in the evolution of internationalism.

Further reading

Robert Cecil, All the way (London, 1949).

__________, The great experiment: an autobiography (London, 1941).

Mark Mazower, No enchanted palace: the end of empire and the ideological origins of the United Nations (Princeton, 2009).

Bio: Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is broadly concerned with the ethos and practice of the League of Nations and with the evolution from pre to post-war internationalism.

Book Review: A Scott Berg, Wilson (London, Simon and Schuster, 2013).

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

Over the years biographies of the twenty-eight president of the United States have wavered between hagiography and contempt. Common to both versions, Woodrow Wilson looms as a tragic figure who was either, depending on the competing historiography ascribed to, an idealistic prophet of the New World betrayed at the Paris Peace Conference by the vengeful political realism of his European contemporaries and congressional adversaries; or a blinkered academic who sought to impose a new international order without taking domestic constraints into account. Into this debate steps A. Scott Berg the American Pulitzer Prize winning biographer who tries and succeeds to inject some much needed historical nuance into the tired narrative of the Princeton professor who climbed down from the Ivory Tower to define a new direction for the modern Democratic Party. In his 700 page-long magisterial tome, Berg offers a painstakingly comprehensive portrait of Wilson, gleaned from his extensive mining of the Wilson archives. Berg is also the first biographer to be given access to the records of Wilson’s personal physician and to the private papers of his middle daughter, Jessie Wilson Sayre. The result is a highly personal account of a president that offers original insights into the motivations and inspiration behind his national and international policies. Berg insists on the importance of Wilson’s southern pride: though he only spent his infancy in Virginia, Wilson continued to hold fast to his association with a state that has produced more presidents than any other. Berg reminds us that Wilson was a child of Civil War/Reconstruction Era America; he had seen what defeat, humiliation and retribution could do to his ‘country’ and as Berg convincingly shows, these memories helped shape his approach to the Peace Treaty. Berg also uses personal papers, letters and correspondence to dispel the image of an enigmatic holy ascetic (in the Wasp rather than Roman mould) but rather presents us with a man who enjoyed limericks, golf and who courted and married his second wife, the vivacious Edith Galt, during his first term of office. Now and then Berg appears a little in awe of Wilson’s talents and intellect; unable, at times, to resist the iconography of Wilson as the tragic hero, broken by his failure to secure a ‘just peace’ or American membership of the League of Nations and prevented by a debilitating stroke from halting the slide back into Republican ‘normalcy’. Berg’s account would have benefited from greater engagement with the Makers of the Modern World series devoted the Paris Peace Conference. The authors of this series questioned the accepted centrality of Wilson to the Conference and, importantly, demonstrated that the greatest contribution to the Covenant of the League of Nations came from Britain and her dominions rather than from the brain of the American president. While Berg is correct to emphasise that it was Wilson, above all other leaders, who assumed the rallying cry for the League, he does little to acknowledge that it was Britain’s Robert Cecil and South Africa’s Jan Christiaan Smuts who put the meat on the bones. However Berg certainly does not shrink from the controversies of Wilson’s presidency: acknowledging his undoubted racism and chronicling the conspiracy of Edith Wilson effectively wielding executive power on behalf of her incapacitated husband. Overall this book provides a valuable panoramic view of early twentieth century American politics and of a presidency, party and republic in transition, capturing the fluctuations but growing confidence of American foreign policy. An excellent read for anyone interested in American or international history.

An Irish Wake for the League of Nations

Lester (centre) formally handing over League assets to UN representatives (Source: UN Library, Geneva)

Lester (centre) formally handing over League assets to UN representatives, July 1947 (Courtesy of the UN Library, Geneva)


On 18 April 1946 the League of Nations, a community of states bound to respect and protect the sovereignty of fellow members, ceased to exist as a political association. Eleven months after the end of hostilities in Europe and three months after the first General Assembly of the United Nations, the League’s forty-four member states gathered for the last time in League headquarters, the Palais des Nations,on the shores of Lake Geneva, to dissolve the organisation and to transfer the League’s assets as well as its work in social, economic and humanitarian cooperation, to the new United Nations Organisation (U.N.O.). This continuity in the international tradition allowed the aged Viscount Robert Cecil, one of the principal architects of the Covenant, to bring down the curtain on the League’s existence with the words: ‘The League is dead: Long live the United Nations.’

According to Time Magazine,the fact that an Irishman was at the apex of the League’s Secretariat ensured that the organisation was given a ‘real wake.’ Carrickfergus-born Secretary-General Seán Lester oversaw the dissolution and liquidation of the first ‘great experiment’ in international cooperation. A former journalist, revolutionary and official of the Department of External Affairs, Seán Lester’s rise to the highest echelons of the League Secretariat had been hastened by his steely turn as the League’s high commissioner for the Free City of Danzig (1933-7). Succeeding to the position of second-in-command at Geneva, Lester unexpectedly assumed the mantle of acting secretary-general in September 1940 when Secretary-General Joseph Avenol was obliged to leave the Palais des Nations under the cloud of his own pro-Vichy, pro-Axis, Anglophobic pronouncements. During the final League Assembly member states voted to formally confer upon Lester the full rights and responsibilities of secretary-general, making him the last ever official elected to this post and the first small-state national to rise to the very top of an international civil service.

Even in the earliest days of the war Lester was aware that the League was unlikely to come out of the conflict unscathed and intact; post-war internationalism, tempered by extreme politics and polarity, was likely to take a different form to the organisation so bound up with nineteenth-century liberalism. Lester instead hoped for ‘dissolution with dignity’. In trying political circumstances, receiving, in his own words, ‘more kicks than half-pence’, Lester and his Secretariat were able to preserve the League’s technical role as a ‘clearing house of ideas’, or advisory body of experts, for member states facing wartime social and economic dislocation and post-war reconstruction.

Snubbed by the Swiss federal and municipal authorities, Lester was determined to preserve a pragmatic and symbolic nucleus of peaceful international cooperation in the heart of Fortress Europe. As British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told Lester in 1942: keeping the flag flying in Geneva…….[has] a moral and political significance which could perhaps only be accurately measured if you were ever obliged to haul it down. It is an outward sign of the hollowness and transience of the German ‘New Order.’ Lester’s contribution was recognised by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 1945 when it conferred upon Lester its eponymous award for ‘distinguished service in maintaining throughout World War II the traditions and the organisation of the League of Nations.’ According to the Canadian delegate to the last Assembly, Lester assumed leadership of the Secretariat ‘in the darkest hours of modern history’ but persevered ‘in the midst of discouragement which would have made a lesser man resign in despair’.

Upon the liquidation of the League, Lester was approaching his sixtieth birthday and was worn out by the exertion and exile of the previous few years. He declined national and international offers to prolong his diplomatic career and retired to Ireland to indulge his passion for trout fishing. He died in Connemara in 1959.

Further Reading:

Stephen Barcroft, ‘The international civil servant: the League of Nations career of Seán Lester, 1929-47’ (PhD thesis, Trinity College, Dublin, 1973).

Douglas Gageby, The last secretary-general: Seán Lester and the League of Nations (Dublin, 1999).

Emma Edwards ‘The wartime experience of the League of Nations, 1939-47’ (PhD thesis, NUI Maynooth, 2013).

Michael Kennedy in Ireland and the League of Nations 1919-46: international relations, diplomacy and politics (Dublin, 1996).

Bio: Emma Edwards, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, completed her PhD on international history (NUI Maynooth) in 2013. Her research is based broadly on the ethos and practice of the League of Nations and on the transition from pre to post-war internationalism.

Museum of the Month: Glasnevin Cemetery Museum

Glasnevin Round Tower

Glasnevin Round Tower

By Emma Edwards

If you are looking for an alternative heritage experience Glasnevin Cemetery Museum provides a unique insight into modern Irish history. Glasnevin Trust runs excellent walking tours of the cemetery which recount the tragic, macabre and colourful history of Dublin’s necropolis. The guides are enthusiastic and adept at ensuring that everyone, of all ages, gets involved in the story of the cemetery. The Trust works hard to make history come alive. Our tour began with a rousing re-enactment of Pádraig Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa. The tour ticks off the cemetery’s ‘greatest hits’-bringing visitors to the graves of the main movers and shakers of modern Irish history and culture. The drama and pageantry that accompanied the burials of political giants such as Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins is relayed in vivid detail. A visit to the towering round tower crypt of the ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell is a thoroughly memorable (and somewhat spooky!) experience. The establishment of a national graveyard for those of every and no religion was the cherished ambition of O’Connell but the tour does more than chronicle the ‘great men’ of Irish history. Our guide made a special effort to draw attention to the interred women and men who were airbrushed or overlooked from mainstream history. The tour also provides moving details and social commentary on the lives of ordinary Dubliners and remembers the poverty-stricken victims of malnutrition and disease epidemics for whom Glasnevin also serves as a final resting place. Quirky accounts of nineteenth century efforts to deter erstwhile grave-robbers adds a frisson of ghoulish excitement to the tour. Within the museum itself sophisticated interactive exhibits allow visitors to learn more about the graveyard’s beginnings and its illustrious residents. Visitors with genealogical objectives can also access the Trust’s astonishingly comprehensive burial records. Owing to the precise gridding of the graveyard, if your ancestor was interred in Glasnevin, you will be able to locate the burial location, even if a gravestone or marker is absent. A highly original museum experience. See http://www.glasnevintrust.ie/

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