What really happened in Dublin at Easter 1916

Speaking recently to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, Mr Brian Cowen, invoked “the spirit of 1916” to urge businessmen to bring 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, as we feel that the leaders of the Easter Rising did.

            Founding national myths, however, are deconstructed, revised and reconstructed over time, and 1916 has been through a series of questioning and revisionism in my own lifetime. For the 50th 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 Queda today, Fearghal McGarry does not fail to notice them, in this remarkably diligent, fair and engrossing new history. Yet the parallel is limited: Patrick Pearse, and his fellow-insurrectionists, became troubled in their conscience 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 episodes of terrorist bombings both in Ireland and in Britain? A Jesuit priest, Father Francis Shaw, had questioned the moral basis of 1916 in a coruscating  essay published in the early 1970s, and the question was amplified subsequently by Conor Cruise O’Brien in many texts.

            Yet 1916 endures, 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. Constable O’Brien was shot at point-blank range by a raiding party making a symbolic onslaught on the bastion of British administration in Ireland. Even more symbolic, in a way, was O’Brien’s death: it emblemised the chaos and muddle which characterised the whole 1916 event.

            McGarry’s approach brings much new material to the period. He is looking at the Easter Rising “from within and below”, drawing copiously on witness statements which 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 many ordinary Home Rule Redmondite nationalists.

             Nevertheless, the stories often have the flavour of the immediate, the freshly recalled memory, the vignette which remains an enduring image of a transformative event. McGarry has reported and weighed all this evidence with great care, and with attention to context, and the complexity and contradictions have the ring of authenticity. For example, many of the strong Nationalists actually admired the British Army for its professionalism. Many young men and women joined the Irish Volunteers – who would become the insurrectionists – because the nationalist movements which 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 early Sinn Fein, in 1905, because its first slogan was “Ireland Sober is Ireland Free!”) Women were active in all these nationalist movements, often as feminists: though nationalism usually took precedence over feminism. They were not exactly equal – and in the Rising itself, McGarry suggests they often played Mrs Doyle to Father Ted, making tea and sandwiches – but all the same, one suspects it was all terrifically exciting and thrilling. While there were  high-minded prohibitions on sexual activity, as such, 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 (or European Union) 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, by the way, 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 said continually through the melee of insurrection – even a passing Finnish sailor who joined in with the rebellion ended up reciting the Rosary, 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 as between British and Irish in 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’boutiste republicans would never accept the more moderate Free State on offer, and that the subsequent Civil War was inescapable . An absorbing study and a rich contribution to the research, development and legacy of Irish contemporary history. ENDS.

Review of  THE RISING. Ireland: Easter 1916. By Fearghal McGarry. Published in the Literary Review, March 2010.