Fifty years ago, Father Francis Shaw, a professor of history at University College, Dublin, was asked to contribute an essay to the spring 1966 issue of Studies, an Irish Jesuit journal. The edition was being put together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. His article, ‘Cast a Cold Eye: Prelude to a Commemoration of 1916’, was turned down by the editor, though it was published later, in 1972, under the title ‘The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge’. It was, in essence, a rejection of the pre-emptive justification of the Easter Rising produced by Patrick Pearse. Ireland in 1916 was not, according to Shaw, groaning under British tyranny and in need of redemption through the shedding of blood in an armed insurrection. The Irish constitutionalist leader John Redmond had brought Ireland to the verge of Home Rule and the British administration in Dublin Castle was actively preparing its implementation.
Fifty years later, Diarmaid Ferriter, another professor of history at University College, addresses the same issue. He acknowledges the hard work of the revisionists. But it is not an approach that he is prepared to endorse in his well-researched and serious book. Ferriter offers a qualified rebuttal of ‘Redmondism’. The Irish revolution, he insists, was propelled not by anarchic blackguardism, as Redmond claimed, but by much thoughtful idealism and courage – though he does acknowledge the ‘messy’ brutality that came about as a result of competing impulses. The argument is sustained by prodigious research. Yet Ferriter never fully engages with the Redmondite case: the