Book Review: Riotous Assemblies: Rebels, Riots and Revolts in Ireland


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Book Review: Riotous Assemblies: Rebels, Riots and Revolts in Ireland, Edited by William Sheehan & Maura Cronin, Mercier 2011

Riots get a bad press.
After the rubble is removed, rioters tend not to have a press office established to spin their take on events. But it’s not principally this lack of media savvy that means their narrative is ignored. Rather, riots represent a violent rupture of the everyday. Momentary maybe, but carrying enough menace to those who benefit most from the status quo, that even seeking to understand the motives of the rock thrower is anathema to official society.

Time changes this-somewhat.
Thus the small numbers of young people who engaged in “riotous assemblies” during the recent visit of the British Queen are currently damned as demented dissidents. But in a few decades time when the first academic sits down to write about the strange, post-colonial, national psychodrama which engulfed the island during that visit, she will have to consider the motives that moved the young rioters. She will have to take them seriously, because she will have to make their actions understandable.

Don’t believe me?
Well then you should get a copy of ‘Riotous Assemblies: Rebels, Riots and Revolts in Ireland’ Edited by William Sheehan and Maura Cronin (Mercier Press) because making riots understandable is what this book is about.

You would think one way of conclusively removing all the sweaty passion, anger, fear and yes, fun from riots, would be to let thirteen academics tell their stories. Yet, happily this interesting and at times engaging book does justice to the varied, complex phenomena of riots.

For one thing, not all riots are the same. I was in Lansdowne Road in 1995, when a section of the English support reacted to an early Dave Kelly goal by experimenting on the flying capabilities of their seats in the upper west stand. (Not good as the Irish fans in the lower west stand could quickly testify). In Palestine, where stone throwing is a national sport, street violence between local youth and soldiers is commonplace. At the weekly protests in Bil’in I attended, a brave community resisting the seizure of their land is met by state violence. Tear gas, bullets and stones inevitably crisscross the scorching skyline, pejoratively classified as “riots” by Israeli media, celebrated as rigorous resistance by local Arabs.

Two events described as “riots” by many- but obviously social phenomena of very different content.

The product of a 2009 Limerick conference, this book comprises 13 separate essays covering riots in Ireland’s cities in the late sixteenth century to the policing of the anti globalisation movement over the past decade. As with all academic studies, the devil is in the definition- and what defines a riot is contested. Indeed some of the empirical case studies contained within, can only be very loosely defined as examples of riots. Thus the essays lack a thematic unity- and the result is a rather sprawling collection that jarringly jumps across time and space, leaving the reader a little dizzy. But on balance the book is improved by such a fluid definition of ‘riots’, allowing for illuminating historical tangents.

The book’s stand out essay is at the centre of the book, John Cunningham’s fascinating history of ‘Recovering the Cargo of the Julia”. The friction between a  Connemara  community living by its own customs in 1873, essentially a variation of ‘finders keepers’, and the official maritime law of salvage ends with violent protest and blood spilled.  Sea wrecks were frequent and important to impoverished coastal villages.

“During the third quarter of the nineteenth century, there were generally more than a hundred wrecks annually around the coast of Ireland…That salvaged materials were important to the lives and economies of island and coastal communities in Ireland is indicated by folk memories surrounding the bountiful yields of particular wrecks.” (Page 131)

A wonderful story, well researched and told, about an intense clash of civilisations. A clash of values between the widening application of capitalistic central state authority from London to the Irish periphery, and the disorganised local resistance this provokes. There are also some illuminating insights into island life.

The books opening three essays by Clodagh Tait, Stephen Carroll and Mark Empey focus on the seventeenth century- a time of historical flux, complex political allegiances, both emerging and residual.  Tait posits that in the structure of society of the time, “riotous” actions were often the only opening for the mass of people to voice their desires.

“Tactics, ranging from non-cooperation, petitioning, rumour, slander and libel, to riot, violence and rebellion, were the means by which populations could attempt to make their voices heard when they felt their interests were being compromised. They engaged in various gestures of protests, and exploited the weaknesses of the state and the threat of disorder and violence to achieves their aims.” (Page 24)

All three essays provide solid examples of ‘history from below’. Further essays deal with riots and mobilisation in nineteenth century rural Ireland, and two essays focus on Limerick as a “centre of turbulence and rioting” from the early nineteenth century until the end of the First World War.

Bryce Evans opens his study (‘Notorious Anarchists?’) into the friction between farmers and the state during the Emergency with de Valera’s much maligned 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech and his talk of a pastoral idle full “with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens”.

Evans point is that Dev’s tranquil vision contrasted sharply with a deeply contested and disruptive rural landscape during the war. The Irish State, prompted by fear of food shortages, forced farmers to grow wheat on a percentage of their land. Failure to do so was followed by fines and eventual land seizures. This was radical state action.

“The compulsory tillage scheme represented a very different form of state intervention, aiming to get Ireland’s farmers to till their land to cultivate wheat and other cereal crops rather than giving land over to dairy farming or other uses. Put simply, the government sought to use the scheme to provide people with enough bread to prevent social discord”. (Page 194)

The policy was controversial, reminiscent to its opponents of Stalin’s collectivisation policy, an abhorrent, ideological and actual, attack on personal property rights. This fundamental example of state intervention, was most enthusiastically supported by the future free-marketer Sean Lemass the then Minister for Supplies. Farmers protested in the courts, some lost their land.  Huge media and government pressure was placed on farmers. In the end it seems to have been successful, at least for the state, wheat harvesting was up.

Stephen Kelly seems rather unsure whether his essay (‘Conditional Constitutionalists’)  should be contained in the book;

“Though not strictly speaking either riotous or based on a one-off assembly, the reaction of Fianna Fáil grass-roots to the IRA border campaign of 1956 to 1962 does enable us to explore the subculture of popular revolt.” (Page 210)

Yet his research has unearthed some interesting information about the ferocity of debate with the party regarding the IRA and the border campaign in general. Essentially the leadership was brutal in its suppression of militant republicans, while many of the party’s rank and file was sympathetic to republicans – particularly prisoners. Kelly quotes party members urging the party leadership to become more forceful in its anti-partitionist policy and actions. But most of these calls are based on a very spatial, or geographical republicanism – basically give us back our fourth green field. The party’s rank and file (and leadership) talk about reunification almost solely as the reversal of a historical wrong or the reattachment of a violently severed limb. The unionist community are almost totally absent in all this internal party debate, while most tellingly, the northern nationalist community are completely ignored.

That lost tribe are very much put under Liam Kelly’s microscopic lens in his highly provocative “Belfast, August 1969”. An example of ‘thick descriptive’ historical research, Kelly’s style of research is one where traditional local history would almost be described as just another of the totalizing meta-narratives. For Kelly’s research method is not so much micro- as subatomic. This type of history displays a deep Lyotardian incredulity towards meta-narratives.  With a subtitle “The limited and localised pattern(s) of violence”, Kelly traces violence in early Troubles Belfast on an almost street by street level. His conclusions challenge both nationalist and unionist assumptions about the break down in trust between republican communities and the security forces. Kelly sees extremely localised conditions as playing a pivotal part. Thus the police reaction to a large pub fight (pub fights as a source of explanation for some riots is a running motif across the essays in the book) in one area could mean the locals on that street maintain a decisively different relationship with the security forces, to those of a few streets away.

“It has been easy when exploring the long history of communal rioting, intimidation and violence in Belfast to analyse events somewhat too deterministically identifying and rarefying a number of casual factors. By looking at these events through the prism of multiple local narratives (each instructive in its own way) we can start to gain a fuller understanding of the nature of communal violence- and communal non violence- in Northern Ireland’s largest city.” (Page 241)

Undoubtedly interesting and well researched, although one was reminded of the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in ‘Synecdoche, New York’ relentlessly recreating reality in its minutest detail. At what point does the boring down into detail end, and the analyses and creation of some historical narrative begin?

The books final essay by Ealair Ni Dhorchaigh and Laurence Cox, will probably be of most interest to those who have spent any time on the streets over the past decade. Entitled “When is an assembly riotous and who decides? – The success and failure of police attempts to criminalise protest” –  it bluntly states “an assembly is riotous when the authorities say that it is” (Page 245). Focusing on the alter-globalisation protests in Ireland over the past decade, the protest in Shannon and (to a lesser extent) the protests in Rossport, the authors analyses the shifting strategies of the police and protestors.  They also investigate the changing reactions of the general public, and the influence of media- making the important point that most reporters assigned to covering protests “were still crime reporters, reliant on the police for information”. (page 257). This continuing tradition of news desks delegating such work to crime rather than political reporters is a significant structural defect in Irish media, meaning that “security” concerns is the overwhelming theme in the coverage of any street protest.

The authors conclude;

“As in the past, the right to protest-and, when institutions block effective democratic control of decisions, the attempt to disrupt their normal functioning- remains an inherently contested area. What stands out most obviously from this Irish experience is that the result is not a foregone conclusion, but depends on the attitude of other social groups- themselves internally divided- and the learning processes of both police and protestors.” (Page 262)

An important essay, especially for those readers whose conception of ‘active citizenship’ goes a little bit beyond voting once every five years and listening to Liveline.

Not a conclusive study of riots in Irish history (little mention of the recent ‘Love Ulster’ riots, or other street disturbances  in the south connected with the northern ‘Troubles’ for example) but this book contains much of interest, and with “riotous assemblies” spreading from Cairo to Catalonia, much that may be of contemporary relevance as well.

David Lynch is an award winning journalist and author. His most recent book is ‘A Divided Paradise: An Irishman in the Holy Land’ (New Island).  See

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2 Responses

  1. B. Rand

    June 3, 2011 1:46 am

    Presumably this interesting book devotes some pages to the phenomenon of faction fighting that afflicted several parts of Ireland, especially market towns, during the 19th century? Townland tribalism against a background of land agitation (the ribbonmen, for example) and social depression was partly the cause of deadly street skirmishing involving the use of sharp farm implements, clubs and walking sticks. Apparently the GAA after its foundation in 1884 helped to channel tribalist aggression into more regulated parish- and county-based ‘contests of athletic youth’ as de Valera termed them in his often misquoted and decontxtualised 1943 radio broadcast.