The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 (Centenary Edition), by Fearghal McGarry, Oxford, RRP£20, 400 pages
The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, by Ruth Dudley Edwards, Oneworld, RRP£14.99 / RRP$24.99, 304 pages
Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power, by Ronan Fanning, Faber & Faber, RRP£20 / Harvard University Press, RRP$29.95, 320 pages
The Republic, by Seamus Murphy, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 224 pages
On Easter Sunday 1916, the Irish appeared to be as assimilated a nation within the British empire as it was possible to become, short of actually being British. Tens of thousands of Irishmen — Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists — were fighting for the king on the western front in the first world war. Home Rule, the holy grail of nationalists for half a century, was on the statute books at Westminster, surely awaiting only the end of the war to become a reality. Dubliners liked to think of their city as second only to London in the empire. A large crowd was expected the next day at the races at nearby Fairyhouse.
Within a week, this vision of Ireland’s attachment to the empire — with only the degree of that attachment in dispute — would begin to disintegrate. Just after midday on Easter Monday, April 24, a few hundred revolutionaries seized the General Post Office and other key buildings in Dublin. Under the GPO’s grand portico, their leader, Patrick Pearse, declared an Irish republic.
The British authorities, taken by surprise, launched a ferocious response, which led to the destruction of much of the city. Four hundred and eighty five people — at least half of them civilians, including 40 children — were killed in the fighting. And the trajectory of Irish history was irrevocably altered.
As Fearghal McGarry writes in his excellent and judicious account of the Easter Rising, it was the moment when the constitutional expression of Irish nationalism — as had been hitherto understood by the majority of the Irish people, and by the British — became redundant. Home Rule, with its promise of a quasi-independent Ireland owing allegiance to the crown, was no longer enough, or perhaps even possible; it was being displaced by something more radical and subversive. “It was the Easter Rising that brought republicanism from the margins to the mainstream of Irish nationalism,” writes McGarry, a historian at Queen’s University Belfast.
This occurred not because the Rising was a success. On the contrary, it was an utter military failure. But the executions of its leaders awakened a latent Irish anglophobia: a handful of men who had initially been reviled by the public as amateurs playing at soldiers became Irish republican heroes almost overnight, and Catholic republican heroes in later years. Instead of a united Ireland inside the empire, the Rising would lead, inexorably, to an Anglo-Irish war, a civil war among Irish nationalists, and the partition of Ireland into two mutually irreconcilable states. We live with its consequences to this day.
The Rising was the most violent, destructive and dramatic event ever to happen in Dublin. How and why it happened, whether it was necessary, and whether it sacrificed the seemingly attainable reality of Home Rule for the unrealisable dream of an independent all-Ireland republic, is the subject of endless debate in Ireland. There are at least 70 books about the Rising on the shelves of Dublin’s historic bookshop, Hodges Figgis. It continues to capture the imagination of the Irish, as was evident from the crowds who thronged Dublin during Easter weekend last month for a stylish and dignified commemoration of its centenary.
And as a seminal historical act in a country that is said — by foreigners in general and by the English in particular — to be divided by history, the Rising has been extolled, sanctified, reviled, revised, interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted and misrepresented.
McGarry avoids such grandstanding. His purpose in The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916 — first published in 2010 and now reissued in a handsome centenary edition — is to tell the story of the rebellion “from within and below”, to convey “what it actually felt like” to participate. Who were the rebels? Why did they fight? As he asks: “What kind of a republic were they willing to kill and die for?”
To answer these questions, he has made extensive use of the archives of the Bureau of Military History, a repository of oral testimony from veterans of Ireland’s years of revolution from 1913 to 1921. The testimonies were sealed until 2003, after the last of the protagonists had died, and only now are historians mining their riches.
This is not as straightforward as it sounds. As McGarry acknowledges, such sources can be problematic, “a heavily mediated form of oral history, recording those aspects of the past that interviewees were able or willing to recall, reflected through the lens of a state-sponsored historical project”.
Nevertheless, the account he constructs from them is rich and nuanced. The reader is struck by the extent to which, by 1916, nationalism was curdling into separatism among a cohort of Irish people who were repelled by what they saw as the anglicised and deracinated culture and society in which they lived. For them, something more than milk-and-water Home Rule was necessary to restore the dignity — indeed, the very Irishness — of Ireland. As McGarry quotes one member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood as saying, “something must be done to save the soul of the nation.”
The other striking aspect of Ireland at the time is the precarious nature of British authority in a country where it had been present in one form or another for centuries. Many Irish people — however assimilated — tolerated, rather than embraced, British rule. It relied “on the pragmatic acquiescence — rather than affection or loyalty — of much of the nationalist population”.
As the first world war dragged on, the threat of conscription was another galvanising factor. The Rising, McGarry writes, “was born out of frustration, shame, and pessimism”.
The Rising’s leaders knew even before they launched their doomed enterprise that it would not succeed against the might of an empire fighting a life-or-death war in the trenches of the Somme. But success was not really their motivation. McGarry shows that, even among the rank and file, what mattered was to act. Acting and failing were better than not acting — better, even, than acting and winning.
Glorious failure, with its echoes of the earlier rebellions of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, would be the spark to reignite the flame of Irishness. The Rising, he writes, “represented a last throw of the dice: in a phrase used at the time, ‘the last fight’ before the extinction of Irish nationality”.
If McGarry’s book is a bottom-up account of the Rising, The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic is top-down. Ruth Dudley Edwards offers an interpretation of the Rising seen through the lives of the seven signatories of the proclamation of the republic — Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, Eamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and James Connolly — and an assessment of their legacy. Those seven were executed in the weeks after the Rising was crushed, as were eight others.
Edwards has carved a career as a polemical journalist and slayer of sacred Irish cows. She is the author of the superb biography Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, published to great acclaim in 1977. At the time, it was excoriated by the Catholic republican faithful, who did not like its illuminating yet surprisingly sympathetic profile of its tortured, repressed subject — obsessed as he was with Irishness, poetry, and masculinity. Pearse’s ideal was Cúchulainn, the boy-hero of Irish myth.
Her profile of Pearse in The Seven is brisk and informative, though marred by some laboured speculation about his sexuality. But she is terrific on the chaotic upbringing of Plunkett, another bohemian young man from a wealthy background who became an unlikely Irish martyr. She is right, too, about Clarke as “the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web” — a more important figure, along with Mac Diarmada, in organising and executing the Rising than Pearse or the militant socialist Connolly, its two most posthumously revered protagonists.
Yet her assessment of their legacy is perfunctory and hectoring. Edwards is one of the revisionists who decry the fact that the revolutionaries lacked a “democratic mandate” for their rebellion. Yet revolutions invariably acquire their legitimacy after they happen. This is what has happened in the case of the Easter Rising. There is no context to her arguments: no discussion of the development of Irish separatism, Ireland’s ambivalent place in the empire, or of the European tradition of insurrection — unjustified or otherwise — from which the Rising drew its inspiration.
Edwards also makes a facile link between the actions of the 1916 leaders and those of the murderous jihadis now wreaking destruction across the Middle East and in the capitals of Europe. That not only imposes a 21st-century sensibility on an essentially 19th-century revolution; it ducks the argument that the seven wanted to die for Ireland far more than they wanted to kill for it.
The central fact of the Easter Rising, as other historians have argued, is that it happened. As the Irish prepared for last month’s commemoration, the question hanging in the air was whether the republic in which they live today was really the one proclaimed into being by Pearse at the GPO.
The proclamation set a high standard, with its equal appeal to “Irishmen and Irishwomen” and its pledge to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” in a nation ready to “prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called”.
That ideal republic seems out of reach. The Ireland of today is not Pearse’s or Connolly’s. Instead, argues Ronan Fanning, it is the creation of Eamon de Valera, “incomparably the most eminent of Irish statesmen”. De Valera is perhaps the most divisive figure in post-independence Ireland.
In Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power, Fanning argues that although De Valera was present at the Rising his role was limited — both by his tactical ineptitude and by British military incompetence — and he was spared execution mostly through good fortune.
Yet Dev, as most Irish people used to call him, went on to become the towering figure in Irish life for much of the 20th century. Fanning shows that he loved the country he had helped to create, but also that he did not always quite understand it. However, reading these pages, it is hard to imagine any other Irish figure of the time having the subtlety and stature to face down Winston Churchill during the second world war: for Dev, Irish neutrality was the ultimate expression of the sovereignty he had fought for during those Easter days.
Fanning’s marvellous book is more a political portrait than a conventional biography. It is sympathetic but not hagiographic — he is unsparing on de Valera’s ambiguous role in the treaty negotiations with Britain after the war of independence. The book has a wonderful photograph showing de Valera on the steps of the presidential palace in Dublin alongside Charles de Gaulle. How alike the two great nationalist figures look, how comfortable in each other’s presence.
Still, the question lingers: what sort of Ireland do we live in today? If the photographs in Seamus Murphy’s new panorama, The Republic, are a true reflection of the state of the country, it would appear that we veer between the premodern and the postmodern, without ever quite achieving the modern. There seem to be more priests in his camera’s eye than corporate executives, more horses than cars, more rural than urban. And there are some lovely individual portraits. Otherwise, I found it hard to recognise the Ireland to which I myself returned two years ago after a long spell abroad.
The commemoration of the Rising this Easter was generally hailed — by the Irish themselves, anyway — as a triumph of planning, common sense and proportion. It was fun, too. Yet there was a sense that it might be the last time we do it, at least in such style.
Vincent Boland is the FT’s Ireland correspondent
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images