Speaking recently to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic Brian Cowen invoked ‘the spirit of 1916’, urging businessmen to help the country through the present economic gloom. The ‘spirit of 1916’ – being the founding myth of the Irish state – is often invoked in Ireland to prompt sacrifice, patriotism and an idealistic attitude of putting country and nation before one’s own selfish wants. Founding national myths, however, are deconstructed, revised and reconstructed over time, and 1916 has been through much questioning and revisionism in my own lifetime. For the fiftieth anniversary in 1966, the Easter Rising was celebrated with passionate and unambivalent patriotism – fierce nationalism, indeed. I still possess some memorabilia from that year and it is almost guileless in its adulation of the 1916 leaders, the poets, mystics and dreamers who believed that they were going straight to heaven after their executions. If there are some uncomfortable parallels with al-Qaeda today, Fearghal McGarry does not fail to note them in this remarkably diligent, fair and engrossing new history. Yet the parallel is limited: Patrick Pearse and his fellow insurrectionists became troubled about the loss of innocent life and called a halt to hostilities for that very reason.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Irish people had become more uncertain about the message of the Rising: had its uncompromising view of Irish separatism sown the seeds of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the odious and distressing terrorist bombings both in Ireland and in Britain? A Jesuit priest, Father Francis Shaw, had attacked the moral basis of 1916 in a coruscating essay published in the early 1970s, and the question was subsequently amplified by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Yet 1916 endures in the public’s mind as an essentially idealistic event in the birth of a nation, even if, as the Communists used to say, ‘mistakes were made’, or, as Patrick Pearse himself suggested, the wrong people may sometimes have been liquidated.
McGarry, Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University Belfast, opens his survey of the Rising with the first casualty: the unarmed Constable James O’Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police – an Irishman and very likely a Catholic – on duty at Dublin Castle. O’Brien was shot at point-blank range by a raiding party making a symbolic onslaught on the bastion of British administration in Ireland. O’Brien’s death was even more symbolic: it emblemised the chaos and muddle of the whole event.
McGarry makes use of much new material. He looks at the Easter Rising ‘from within and below’, drawing copiously on witness statements that were – to the dismay of previous historians – locked away until 2003. The witness statements, comprising 36,000 pages of evidence, were in themselves selective: many veterans of the Rising (including De Valera) refused to give their recollections, and very few statements were taken from more hostile witnesses, such as the Southern Unionists and the many ordinary Home-Rule Redmondite nationalists.
Nevertheless, the stories often have the flavour of the freshly recalled memory. McGarry has reported and weighed all this evidence with great care and attention to context, and the complexity and contradictions have the ring of authenticity. For example, a large number of the ardent nationalists actually admired the British Army for its professionalism. Many young men and women joined the Irish Volunteers – with whom they would become the insurrectionists – because the nationalist movements that nourished them, including the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, offered fraternal associations and, indeed, urged general good conduct on young people. (My own grandmother joined Sinn Féin early on, in 1905, because its first slogan was ‘Ireland Sober is Ireland Free!’) Women were active in all these nationalist movements, often adopting feminist positions (though nationalism usually took precedence over feminism). They were not exactly equal – in the Rising itself, McGarry suggests they often played Mrs Doyle to Father Ted, making tea and sandwiches – but all the same, one suspects they had a terrifically exciting and thrilling time. While there were high-minded prohibitions on sexual activity, there was still some rather rapturous romance.
Although it is the fashion in Ireland today to aspire to a secular and ‘inclusive’ Republic, on the French model, it is impossible to disentangle the 1916 Rising from a deep-seated, even mystical, Catholic culture. Priests ministered to the wounded and dying (as did Vincent de Paul nuns, so fetching in their butterfly wimples), and there was much emphasis on confession before battle, and the last rites at death. The rosary was told continually through the melée of insurrection – even a passing Finnish sailor who joined in with the rebellion ended up reciting it in Irish. (Michael Collins, still in his anti-clerical phase, was an exception: ‘Are you fucking praying too?’, he asked a comrade on his knees.)
There were also visions, miraculous occurrences, and conversions to the faith. And, at a human level, there were acts of chivalry between British and Irish during street fighting, moments of compassion, and assistance for the fallen and even the drunk.
McGarry locates 1916, rightly of course, as part of the Zeitgeist of the First World War; and yet it was, at the same time, uniquely Irish. The sacrificial element made it inevitable that the jusqu’au-boutiste republicans would never accept the more moderate Free State on offer. The subsequent Civil War was inescapable. This is an absorbing study and a rich contribution to the research, development and legacy of Irish contemporary history.