In the mid-19th century, the popular Irish journalist A M Sullivan propagated the notion that England was the home of wife murderers and infant chokers. Despite the evidence of thousands of Irish emigrants to London or Birmingham who returned for the holidays morally unscathed, a powerful essence of this notion still lurked in some corner of the popular imagination in Ireland until a couple of decades ago. Its persistence was nourished by the reputation of the Black and Tans, the band of demobilised soldiers who were allowed to terrorise the country in 1920, in a failed attempt to suppress the IRA.
From many a bookshelf in rural Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s, you would have been able to take down a copy of Guerilla Days in Ireland, by the famous IRA commander Tom Barry. Between its blue covers is a photograph of four British officers at a card game (see above). A distinguished, silver-haired fellow is jauntily holding a small glass of whisky, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he gazes at his splayed hand of cards. His bald companion crouches beside him, eyes upturned towards him in a music-hall display of suspicious cunning as he clasps his cards to his chest. A third officer plays at being poker-faced, behind a bottle of Jameson placed prominently on the table. In the background, another officer, a Jack Hawkins character, is grinning over their heads at the unseen photographer. The caption reads: "Described in British officer's captured album as 'a little leisure from hunting assassins'."
The snap is clearly posed, intended in a different context to convey unruffled gaiety in the midst of disorder and outrage. But to gaze at that photograph in Barry's book was to imbibe its intended message that the card players were a frightening little group: insouciant, sinister and knavish. This was the British presence in Ireland. There was little hint that the British administration in Dublin was riven by doubt and hesitation in its response to the IRA. The diaries of Mark Sturgis, a key civil servant in Dublin Castle during the war of independence, offer a different impression. The diaries, kept at the Public Record Office in Kew, have been used as a source by researchers. But this is the first time that a version has been published, edited, annotated and formally introduced, by Michael Hopkinson, the historian of the Irish civil war.
So here, in the citadel of British power in Ireland, was an Asquithian liberal who could confide in his diary: "I don't believe you can force a country to have what's good for it" and "I think my desire for an early peace springs from an instinctive dislike of much of our method of warfare and I hate to feel that we are doing things and profiting by them to which we cannot admit". And later he wrote: "I can't help being uneasy that we are not taking a big enough view of the position - not only the future of the Irish is at stake but the future relations of two countries that must ever live side by side and there is so much talk as if we had nothing to do but beat the enemy."
While the Black and Tans were carrying out reprisals for IRA ambushes, it was Sturgis's job to try to interest the IRA in a peace deal that would keep Ireland in the Empire. Many entries in the diaries are descriptions of stop-start attempts at negotiations. In the privacy of his diary, Sturgis could dismiss the IRA volunteers as "heroes in pig dealers' hats"; but his main assets in building contacts with the enemy were his charm and affability, which made him a sort of period male version of Mo Mowlam. He possessed, according to a colleague, all the traits of an effective diplomat, including, crucially, "a complete lack of knowledge of the traditions of the country to which he was accredited".
As the war intensified, Sturgis and his colleagues were increasingly confined to Dublin Castle. When he ventured outside it was mostly in pursuit of the horses. The racehorses of Leopardstown, the Curragh, Baldoyle and Punchestown are the major features of his Irish landscape. "This going racing isn't as idle as it sounds. One feels the pulse of things on a racecourse quicker than anywhere else in Ireland and hears all the gossip in no time."
He continually lets slip the prejudices of his class: "I almost begin to believe that these mean, dishonest, insufferably conceited Irishmen are an inferior race and are only sufferable when they are whipped - like the Jews." As for the Unionists in the north: "I never regard them as Irish at all" - a comment not intended as the compliment it might seem in the context.
These complex traits are indicative of the official British relationship with Ireland for decades. Somebody with the traits of Sturgis would have been at work behind the scenes in Belfast when the seeds of the Good Friday Agreement were sown seven or eight years ago. But they would have had a freer hand. In 1920 it was constitutionally unthinkable for Ireland - or part of it - to have been allowed to leave the Empire. What was on offer was a watered-down dominion status sweetened by the argument that Ireland's status would be enhanced by membership of the imperial family. A government in Dublin did find greater status by giving up some of its sovereignty to a larger, transnational entity; but it was membership of the European Union that finally helped the Irish Republic to deal with Britain as an equal.
Maurice Walsh, a BBC journalist, is working on a study of British correspondents and the Anglo-Irish war