Review of Kenneth Shonk’s Ireland’s New Traditionalists: Fianna Fáil republicanism and gender, 1926-1938 by Dr Tim Ellis-Dale

Review of Kenneth Shonk, Ireland’s New Traditionalists: Fianna Fáil republicanism and gender, 1926-1938 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2021) by Dr Tim Ellis-Dale

The transformation of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin into Fianna Fáil, one of the most successful political parties in twentieth-century Europe, was a fascinating process. It was also a markedly gendered one. As Ken Shonk argues in Ireland’s New Traditionalists, Fianna Fáil, between 1926-1938, offered ‘an aspirational vision of a traditional and modern Ireland built upon an ideal – and idealised – femininity and masculinity’ (p. 4). 

As recent works by writers such as Aidan Beatty demonstrate, there is much value in utilising gender as an analytical lens to explore the dynamics of political life in modern Irish history.  Shonk builds upon this scholarship, but rather than just focussing on masculinity (as Beatty does) or treating ‘gender’ merely as a synonym for women, Shonk adopts a very holistic view of gender in this stimulating account of the birth, growth and transformation of Fianna Fáil. The rhetoric of transformation is key to understanding Shonk’s approach. For Fianna Fáil, a particular gendered order was vital to the transformation and rebirth of Ireland. 

Somewhat daringly, Shonk utilises the theoretical lens of transformation and rebirth (palingenesis), that scholars of fascism have also utilised in their work.  The adoption of this lens is not unjustified; Shonk is at pains to emphasise that he is not arguing that Fianna Fáil was or is a fascist party, rather, this theoretical framework is deployed ‘as an entry point to understanding Fianna Fáil’ as a product of the interwar era (p. 20). The fact that Shonk is willing to analyse Fianna Fáil in the wider context of interwar Europe, as well as theoretical insights from scholars of gender theory, is a real strength of this work. 

Chapter 1 explores the process by which Fianna Fáil, in its first years (1926-31), sought to distinguish itself as a masculine alternative to both Cumann na nGaedheal and the rump Sinn Féin which it split away from. It is good to see a focus on the later 1920s here, as Mel Farrell notes, accounts of this period have tended to present a picture of ‘inertia and suggest an air of inevitability about Éamon de Valera’s ascent to power in 1932.’  There was nothing inevitable about Fianna Fáil’s ascendancy. Cumann na nGaedheal depicted its opponent in election material ‘along gendered lines as irrational, emotional, militant, and thus feminised agents of disorder’ (p. 49). Consequently, the party had to actively work to present an alternative vision of republicanism. This may be best seen in a document, authored by Frank Gallagher (Editor of the Irish Press),Fianna Fáil Pamphlet #2 that expressed Fianna Fáil’s vision of republicanism as a continuation of a broader European Enlightenment tradition. This expression of republicanism moved away from the ‘feminine’ values of ‘irrationality and violence’, and was instead anchored in a republicanism which embraced the ‘masculine’ values of ‘reason and logic’ (p. 39). 

Chapter 2 examines the party’s vision of the place of women in the new Ireland it would create. Shonk argues that while Fianna Fáil’s vision of women was primarily a domestic one, it was nonetheless ‘a particularly nuanced and relatively modern version of Irish domesticity and public life’ (p. 73). The position of women as consumers was important to party policy during the Economic War. Indeed de Valera himself made a ‘special appeal’ to Irish women to buy articles ‘of home manufacture’ (p. 99). Nor were women silent in de Valera’s Fianna Fáil; Sighle Ní Chinnéide wrote in the pages of the Irish Press, arguing that Irish women needed to work as a result of the socioeconomic realities that Ireland faced in the 1930s. 

This focus on the Economic War continues into the following chapter which explores Fianna Fáil’s ‘aesthetic masculinity.’ In this aesthetic the ordinary working Irish-man would contribute to a decidedly modern Ireland in which ‘industrial labour and output, agricultural production, global trade’ would represent a victory ‘of the Irish over the non-Irish; the victory of the active masculine over the passive and effeminate’ (p. 117). Political cartoons in the Irish Press, produced by Victor Brown, depicted muscular Irish men, throwing off the feminising impact of unemployment and of British rule, while working to modernise and develop Ireland economically. 

As previously noted, this analysis of gender in Fianna Fáil is a holistic one;: not only are femininity and masculinity considered, but due consideration is also given in the fourth chapter to the ‘queer’ in the party’s aesthetic. As Shonk notes, ‘Fianna Fáil established a gendered binary, where its opposition is not so much female, as “not masculine”’ (p. 128). This may be seen in Victor Brown’s cartoons in the Irish Press, which depicted W. T. Cosgrave as effeminate, childish and subservient to Britain. In one cartoon, Cosgrave appears ‘willing to accept a beating from Britain … as an immature and impotent entity; a dandy, dressed in British parliamentarian drag’ (p. 171). 

Shonk concludes that in Fianna Fáil’s vision, Ireland was constructed ‘along gendered lines, an appealingly aspirational vision of a peaceful and prosperous Ireland where primordialism and an imagined Irish futurism were reconciled’ (p. 184). Fianna Fáil presented itself as upholding the proper gendered order, while depicting its opponents as ungendered (neither appropriately feminine nor masculine) and therefore subverting the correct Irish order of things. 

There are some areas where the insights of this study could be taken further. It would have been interesting to hear more about how individual women contributed to the party’s complex vision of women. Five women were elected to Dáil Éireann as Fianna Fáil deputies between 1926-38; there was no doubt a complex negotiation here between their role in public life with the domestic role that the party assigned to Irish women. Nonetheless, this is a well-rounded, nuanced and insightful account of the relationship between gender and politics during a pivotal period in the history of the Irish State. It should be highly recommended reading for those with an interest in the history of gender in Ireland, the history of Fianna Fáil and the politics of the interwar period more generally. 

Dr Tim Ellis-Dale is a Lecturer in History at Teesside University. His research focuses on visual culture and masculinity in early independent Ireland. He recently completed a PhD in visual culture and visuality in the politics of the Irish Free State, and he has also had work published in Éire-Ireland.