Book Review: R.J.C. Adams, Shadow of a Taxman

R.J.C. Adams, Shadow of a Taxman: Who Funded the Irish Revolution?

Oxford University Press, 2022

Its perhaps no surprise that the historiography of the Irish Revolution of 1916-21, like that of most revolutions (whether successful or not) is dominated by the revolutionary man (or woman) of action – the heroic or demonised wielders of weapons or manifestoes. Yet, as Robin Adams reminds us in his important new book, few revolutions stand much chance of success without funding, both to pay for those weapons and to maintain the revolutionary counter-state its adherents project in place of the old political order. So while, in Sean O’Casey’s famous phrase, the ‘shadow of the gunman’ always hangs over any account of the successful challenge to British rule, we need to understand also not just the ‘shadow of the taxman’ (personified in the alter ego of Michael Collins as the supremely talented Minister of Finance of Dail Eireann), but the team of committed fundraisers who worked in Ireland and overseas to make that Dail a reality, and the hundreds of thousands who placed not only their faith, but their hard cash into what was in 1919-21 still only the shadow of an independent Irish state.

The story is one with a lengthy historical hinterland, efficiently sketched and drawing on previous work by Michael Keyes, Niall Whelehan and others. Like much else in modern Irish political culture, mass fundraising at home and abroad was developed by Daniel O’Connell, and pursued both by his constitutionalist followers (both Parnell and Redmond undertook fundraising tours in the US) and by the revolutionary underground of the IRB, the Fenian Brotherhood, and their splinter groups. Yet never before or since has Irish political fundraising approached the scale and sophistication seen in the work of the Dail Finance Department and its envoys between 1919 and 1921 – justifying Adams’ description of the event as a ‘crowd-funded’ revolution, arising out of a strategy of necessity but providing added advantages from mass civilian participation and the sense of political legitimacy arising from that.

Like so much relating to the revolution, the First World War paved the way – not just in giving rise to mass-membership radical nationalist movements in the shape of the Sinn Fein party in Ireland and its allied Friends of Irish Freedom in the US, but in making war funding through low denomination bond issues widely known on both sides of the Atlantic and stimulating funding drives to support the internees of 1916 and to support the anti-conscription campaign in 1918. Crucially the latter had seen the adherence of large numbers of senior as well as junior Catholic clergy, most of whom came (in sharp contrast to their predecessors in the Fenian era) to endorse Sinn Fein and the legitimacy of Dail Eireann as the true government of Ireland by January 1919. As Adams makes evidently clear, this clerical endorsement was crucial to the success of the fund-raising drives that followed.

The book takes us through the origins of the key innovation of the Dáil Department of Finance under Collins – the use of national loans raised through the issue of small denomination bonds, repayable if and when the state was formally established following a hoped-for British withdrawal. Given the state’s active antagonism to the bond drive (including press censorship, arrests of canvassers and raids on Dail offices and friendly banks), this took some ingenuity, subterfuge and high levels of local and national organisation – and included actions ranging from fiscal evasion (such as the secreting of some funds in co-operative society accounts in northern England) to direction (such as the assassination of the investigating magistrate Alan Bell when he got too close to sequestering ‘Michael Collins’ war chest’ in March 1920. ‘Soft coercion’ of some less willing Irish contributors cannot be ruled out, but the book stresses the concern of the campaign to acquire the ‘respectability’ of an established state mechanism and the evident enthusiasm of the great majority of the 140,000 subscribers in Ireland (raising £372,000 by July 1920), despite the high risk of never seeing any financial return. One of the most important aspects of this book is the analysis made from surviving regional records of the social profile of these contributers.

Raising funds for the Dail in the US was both easier and more complicated than in Ireland. The fund-raising drive there, issuing ‘bond certificates’ to keep within US law, and led by Harry Boland and James O’Mara, had the advantage of an absence of official persecution, well-established Irish-American diasporic political networks and from May 1919 the presence in the states of Eamon De Valera, president of the putative Irish Republic, around whom a high-profile national campaign could be launched in 1920. The main problem here lay in the very pre-eminence of a centralised Irish-American body, the Friends of Irish Freedom, led by Daniel Cohalan and intimately linked to the venerable John Devoy and his Clan na Gael organisation (whose activities in Irish politics stretched back to the New Departure agreed with Parnell in 1879 and which effectively funded the Land War and the subsequent rise of the Home Rule Party). Often preoccupied with US political concerns, these clashed openly with De Valera, who was anxious to assert the supremacy of Dail authority. These conflicts threatened to disrupt the American campaign, but in the end De Valera and his associates surpassed their expectations, raising over five million dollars from 276,000 donors, the largest amount ever raised for an Irish cause in America.

Parallel campaigns in Australia, Canada and Argentina proved much less successful, but as with the domestic, the records of American contributors reveal, under Adams’ careful analysis, much about the nature and dynamics of this community. Interestingly, the number of women donors in the US was much higher than in Ireland itself (giving rise to hostile British commentary on the behaviour of Irish ‘bridgets’) and although 90% of donations came from the Irish-born or those of Irish parentage, the American bond campaign created opportunities for some internationalist co-operation with others campaigning for African-American rights, European nationalists and Jewish Zionists.

The December 1921 Treaty cut short a second External National Loan campaign in the US and its organisers returned home to take opposite sides in the ensuing Civil War (with a rush to seize control over any remaining US funds). Nevertheless, as the book clearly demonstrates, the revolutionary fundraising drives, launched under adverse circumstances,  had exceeded expectations and provided the funding that made Irish independence possible. So clearly had De Valera learned the lesson that he focused in 1927 on an American fundraising tour that would meet the bulk of the costs of his new Fianna Fail party and its Irish Press newspaper.

This book will I am sure make a significant contribution to the literature on the revolutionary era, not least through its careful and determined pursuit of the financial thread that ran beneath so much of the headline upheaval of the era. In addition to the plenitude of statistics one would expect of a winner of the Economic History Society’s Thirsk-Feinstein prize for best dissertation, here are many humanistic details to savour here – the clash with the Ulster Unionist delegation undermining De Valera’s Dixie tour with anti-Catholic theology in 1920, the Argentine donkey ‘Saoirse’ that was sold 47 times in one day for Dail Eireann funds, the rival pursuit of the celebrity endorsement of the singing sensation  Count John McCormack for Irish collections in 1921. It’s a concise and accessible read on a complex subject and deserves a wide audience.

Peter Gray, Booklaunch address, 31 Oct. 2022.

Published by

Prof. Peter Gray

Professor of Modern Irish History School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics Queen's University Belfast Belfast BT7 1NN N. Ireland, UK