Two’s Trouble: Double Acts in Irish History

Barring one slip up in Celtic Park, the Republic of Ireland soccer team’s latest campaign has so far seen the shrewd marshalling of limited resources by two generals rather than one. The team’s defensive and occasionally offensive strategy underpinned by a positive psychology begs the question whether O’Neill and Keane might be the latest in the long line of famous double acts in Irish history.

Only this time the focus has shifted from fighting and politicking to football and punditry. Yes I’m being serious – after all sport, especially international sport, is a modern substitute for war. A team like Ireland from a small country requires a strategy that’s essentially one of resistance – just like the resistance movements of old which often had their best success when they had a double leadership.

Irish history is peculiar in many aspects but the influence of double acts on our political life is everywhere and of some importance.

The first key partnership was Dermot McMurrough and Strongbow cemented by the Cambro-Norman earl’s marriage to Aoife, daughter of the Leinster king. This brought the Normans to Ireland and very quickly the English crown in the shape of Henry II after Dermot died. The result was not a modernized hybrid Irish kingdom but a half-conquered country under English dominion.

In the process would-be Irish kings were reduced in status and left operating in a dual system known by its mode of political succession – tanistry. Despite claims to the contrary this was not elective clan leadership in action, rather it was mostly mini-kingship with opposition.

It was all to do with military power – a strong chief could have his son as tanist or deputy and chosen successor whilst weaker ones had to put up with relatives, usually brothers, cousins or uncles, and even sons themselves growing to maturity, as rivals. This system especially when it came to actual succession to headship was a constant source of political instability and warfare.

Through fighting it out, tanistry did in the end produce strong leaders and they supported by the galloglasses, the Irish clan system’s version of feudal retainers, managed to regain large parts of Ireland for Gaeldom in the late middle ages.

But by the time of the Tudor Reconquest the system of warlordism had become a liability as the English were now able to use the intra and inter clan divisions as a means of divide and rule.

As England extended its power, legal code and capitalist landownership across the land, a new type of opposition – one which tried to stay within the new system whilst subverting it – was required. The greatest exponent of this was Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, assisted by Red Hugh O’Donnell, chief of Tyrconnell.

O’Neill resolved the traditional rivalry in the North between the O’Neills and O’Donnells in a double marriage alliance. The English tried to stop this by jailing his new son-in-law only to see O’Neill engineer the famous escape of O’Donnell from Dublin Castle.

Afterwards O’Neill began proxy wars using his brothers, sons and in-laws to fight against the crown waiting on the Spanish support Red Hugh had requested. He famously ordered O’Donnell to withdraw himself from the insurgent side at the battle of Beleek in 1593 whilst he himself ostentatiously wounded fighting as crown’s generals on the day.

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O’Neill’s anglicised signature alongside Red Hugh’s one in Gaelic script (courtesy: Archivo General de Simancas)

When negotiations began, it was the hard cop, soft cop approach. O’Donnell played the extremist and O’Neill the reluctant rebel – in fact it was a double act which attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of a weak and divided government in Dublin.

O’Neill was in fact the leader of an oath-bound Gaelic conspiracy which was spreading its authority across Ireland by continuously upping the ante by a on-off schedule of fighting and politics.

When the state finally saw through this charade in 1598 and returned to war – it got beaten very badly at the battle of Yellow Ford. O’Donnell was raiding as far south as Limerick and after the collapse of the Munster plantation O’Neill was able to extend his power as far as County Cork. The liberation of Ireland appeared at hand.

This famous double act, staying intact throughout the war in spite of strains, was continued, even after the defeat with Kinsale and Red Hugh’s death in Spain, by the latter’s younger brother, Rory.

It took nearly another three hundred years for a similar strategy – and other such potent partnerships – to emerge. The United Irishmen had incubated similar such legal/illegal partnerships between Arthur O’Connor and Theobald Wolfe Tone and subsequently between Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Napper Tandy but after 1796 the whole onus was on physical force as the government left no room for manoeuvre other than insurrection and French intervention.

This overt approach had led to destruction – O’Connell as a result tried to stay entirely within the constitutional and emerging democratic process. This achieved emancipation in 1829 but his monster-meetings failed to obtain Repeal in 1840s. Significantly many of the names of O’Connell’s lieutenant – first Sheil, Wise, Lawless and O’Gorman Mahon and later John O’Connell and O’Neill Daunt – are entirely forgotten.

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Gladstone succumbs and makes concessions faced with Irish intimidation (Courtesy: Creative Commons, Wikipedia ‘Irish Land League’)

His failure to make common cause with the more extremist Young Irelanders in the high-pressure mid-forties was surely not lost on the next uncrowned king – Charles Stuart Parnell. His alliance with the extra parliamentary activities of the Land-League headed by Michael Davitt and his exploitation of parliamentary procedure in House of Commons produced land legislation and eventually further concessions with the so-called KilmainhamTreaty.

However what appeared to be the consummate alliance between constitutional and physical force nationalism was quickly undone by the Phoenix Park murders. Parnell and Davitt had broken the landlords but not the Union.

This was a lesson well learned by Unionists. The threat of violence, or the fear it engendered about releasing even more atavistic traumas, was used against the British state by their most famous partnership and perhaps the most famous one of all – Edward Carson and James Craig.

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The most successful Irish resistance partnership were the Unionists Carson and Craig (Courtesy: MultiText UCC)

The forensic lawyer and mighty orator from Dublin combined brilliantly with the well-organised and media savvy Northern businessman between 1910 and 1914 to hold up Home Rule.

Not only did they manage to establish a large and well-armed volunteer army and to administer an oath to a whole population, they also subverted the Tory party and brought the upper echelons of the British Army to the point of mutiny. Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson in the recent Troubles offered a similar partnership.

This tied the fiery orator with the cool organizer, both of them from time to time courting and riding the tiger of paramilitarism lurking in the hillsides and back-streets. Their Democratic Unionist oppositionalism eventually succeeded not by subverting the British establishment but this time by doing a deal with another powerful partnership – the Sinn Fein one of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

It is hard to fathom this double act – Adams has always claimed to have been uninvolved in paramilitarism, yet has been not only a self-proclaimed fellow-traveller but also the stand-out leader of the movement. He obviously plays the role of O’Neill to McGuinness’s O’Donnell.

With inspiration from John Hume, Adams at last got his opportunity when he persuaded the oath-bound organization with the perverse idea that the war could be won by declaring peace at the same time as having the international power of the day formally admitted as power broker.

His importance to Sinn Fein was palpable during his recent arrest when the rest started to run around like headless chickens. The brief Mandela moment this event supplied may have been undone by Mairia Cahill’s sudden appearance and all the succeeding ramifications out of the Republican heartland of West Belfast.

Whether this proves a strangely inverted version of the Kitty O’Shea scandal out of the party’s own gene pool only time will tell.

Ironically the current state of Irish politics has given us double acts all round. The Northern settlement – if that is what is – has enshined a double leadership with First Minster and Deputy First Minister.

These arrangements so far have supplied little by way of legislation or government, apart from parcelling dollops of money to tribal fiefdoms in a statelet with a very large public sector by twenty-first century norms. In the relationships there to date it is the DUP men, who appear to have played the role of the alpha male.

Whilst this is an enforced coalition, in the South the PR electoral system has forced the creation of voluntary coalitions in recent years – the tanaiste’s office, being usually the leader of the minor government partners, is now a key post. I wonder though will any of these deputy prime ministers actually be remembered in the heel of the hunt.

Perhaps Dick Spring for scuppering Reynolds’ government and king-making Bruton’s Rainbow Coalition without a general election but the rest seem entirely forgettable and will pale in significance in relation to the Taoisigh they’ve served with. These dual leadership types North and South seem more like a throwback to the Middle Ages than a recipe for future success.

That’s perhaps why football management has I suppose by default become so much more interesting. Let’s hope then that in 2015 and on into 2016 the famous defensive/offensive strategy of alpha male paired with thinker, which proved such a potent phenomenon in Irish historical struggles, is transferred permanently to the international soccer field.

This scenario is of course tempered by a final delicious irony. Away from the media hype the Northern Ireland team, with fewer resources, is doing better under the singular leadership of Michael O’Neill!

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  • “The team’s defensive and occasionally offensive strategy underpinned by a positive psychology begs the question whether O’Neill and Keane might be the latest in the long line of famous double acts in Irish history.”

    It’s far too early to tell.

    As for the rest… a lot of over-reaching and retrospective analysis. Political necessity might cover most of those ‘double-acts’. And there are some ‘odd’ notes.

    As for “These dual leadership types North and South seem more like a throwback to the Middle Ages than a recipe for future success.”
    There’s a huge difference between any supposed ‘dual leadership’ within a party/movement and a coalition between separate parties in government as a result of an election. Never mind a mandatory coalition.
    Apart from that, a centuries long history lesson focussed on individuals [in Ireland] seems somewhat lacking…

  • tmitch57

    You failed to mention the most important pair in recent Irish history: Taioseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major. This was the pair that really kicked off the Northern Ireland peace process in 1993.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    What an extraordinarily fine article from one of our most industrious and perspicacious Irish historians, more please, Mick!

  • Abucs

    All that’s missing then are the dedicated folk ballads? 🙂