1916 as virtual history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 14

If only Ulster unionists had accepted Home Rule; if only Home Rulers had accepted partition in 1912 before the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed; if only the Curragh Mutiny hadn’t happened; if only Britain had not declared war on Germany in August 1914; if only the war had finished as early as widely expected, with the ‘right’ result (according to taste); if only Redmond had accepted Asquith’s offer of a place in the coalition cabinet of May 1915; if only the Aud had landed its cargo of guns; if only Nathan hadn’t waited for Birrell’s authorisation to act on intelligence of an impending rising; if only Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order had not been issued; if only there had been no executions—or mass executions—etc., etc.
Virtual history is a pervasive and potentially illuminating form of historical methodology, when done properly. But it is professionally improper for historians to manipulate virtual history to get the present they want, as if somehow all the intervening variables can be frozen to satisfy a current wish-list. That is why it is so crucial to reconstruct Easter 1916 in historical rather than propagandistic terms. Three topics in particular require further research: blood sacrifice, public opinion and Patrick Pearse.
It was the British decision to declare war on Germany that allowed the Irish Republican Brotherhood to think seriously in terms of a rising by getting enough guns to challenge superior British firepower. This would have been irrelevant if the sole purpose of the Rising was simply a blood sacrifice. That was a purpose of the Rising for several of the leaders, but it was not the sole purpose for any one of them. Such a rising would not have required the elaborate planning necessary to get enough guns to give it military credibility. And the planners wanted their effort to have an impact. Their main reason for dissuading Connolly with his tiny Citizen Army from rising in January 1916 was precisely because it was pure blood sacrifice. The fact that the Rising of Easter Monday was a blood sacrifice, in the sense that it had no hope of changing the military power balance in Ireland, has hugely influenced the historiography. For it becomes so easy to forget that it was a rising no one planned. All the previous planning had never envisaged an Easter Monday situation whose planning stretched back no more than 24 hours. Interpreting everything said and done over several years through the distorting prism of Easter Monday exposes the danger of reading the pre-Rising backwards, the negation of thinking historically.
We assumed for so long that we knew all about public opinion that we pronounced on it rather than studied it. It took a long time for it to be asked not only what did the public actually know but also what could it have known about the Rising at the time. Not until Owen Dudley Edwards pioneered the actual study of Dublin newspaper reporting of the time did one begin to realise how little the public, even in Dublin, could have known on the basis of the main immediate source of information, the newspapers. In reconstructing public opinion about the Rising, we have to ask which rising? For the image of the Rising may have changed dramatically over a matter of days. If the image had remained frozen between the outbreak and the executions, would there have been the same revulsion at the executions? Did public attitudes change to the extent they did despite a static image of the Rising or because their image of the Rising itself changed?
If one assumes opinion to have been driven by the media it is surprising that there should have been any sympathy at all, in view of the Home Rule dominance of the press and the hostile reporting by the papers with much the biggest mass circulation, the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal. Far more research is required into the media’s role, the calibre and character of the journalists involved, the impact of government censorship, and the extent to which the press led or followed opinion. For a country in which the press was deemed highly influential, it is important to explore the directions of influence in the response to the Rising with an open mind on issues long deemed closed. Otherwise we will continue to ignore the issue posed by John Dillon’s comment on the Home Rule party in September 1916 that ‘the fact is that ever since the formation of the coalition in June 1915 we had been steadily and rather rapidly losing our hold on the people, and the rebellion and the negotiations only brought out in an aggravated form what had been beneath the surface for a year’.
May there not be a problem too about the impact of the executions? In the context of the value system of the Great Powers the killing of a handful of rebels was nothing. Millions of unfortunates would be sent to their death in the First World War. Maybe about 20,000 Irish nationalists would be among them. If the sixteen dead men could stir the boiling pot, why was the pot boiling? Why was it not cold stew?
Pearse remains a supreme challenge for the historian. It may be timely to remind ourselves of the judgement of a major scholar of unimpeachable professionalism and integrity. F. S. L. Lyons wrote extensively on Pearse, the image of Pearse the dreamer and the mystic touched by blood lust, brilliantly crystallised in Culture and anarchy in Ireland. But Lyons then underwent a challenging experience after Culture and anarchy when composing the Foreword to Séamas Ó Buachalla’s indispensable edition of Pearse’s Letters, published in 1980. They showed a very different Pearse from the one Lyons had depicted. His response does him immense credit. Rather than attempting, like lesser creatures, to slither around the problem the letters posed for him, he faced it forthrightly, warning how much we still had to learn:

‘Here it is enough to point to their most outstanding feature . . . the rigorous exclusion of the poet and dreamer from a scene dominated by the able organizer . . . future biographers will have to weigh this pragmatic correspondence against the flamboyance, sometimes even the barely suppressed hysteria of Pearse’s published writings from 1914 onwards. In doing so, perhaps they will come at last to a balanced view . . .’

Lyons, sadly, is dead more than twenty years. It would be nice to think that the discussion on the ninetieth anniversary would lead to ‘a balanced view’ on 1916. If not, while our musings may be of great interest to historians in the future, it is likely to be the students of the Ireland of 2006 rather than of 1916 who will find them most revealing.

J. J. Lee is Professor of History and Director of Glucksman Ireland House, New York University.


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