Enigmas of sacrifice: a critique of Joseph M. Plunkett and the Dublin insurrection of 1916

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

W.J. McCORMACK
Michigan State University Press
$29.95
ISBN 9781611861914

Reviewed by: Eoin Dillon

mccormack_enigmassacrifice_After reading W.J. (Bill) McCormack’s account of intellectual life in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and Britain, the 1916 Rising in Ireland and the role of the Plunkett family, particularly that of George Noble Plunkett and his better-known son, Joseph, military planner of the Rising and signatory of the Proclamation, many readers will have some difficulty ever believing that the Plunketts could be described as typical. Yet they are very typical of anti-colonial nationalism throughout the non-metropolitan world.

The Plunketts had come in to Dublin from Meath in the second half of the nineteenth century, and became part of the rising Catholic middle class that was then expanding into the new suburbs of Donnybrook and Rathmines, significant amounts of which the Plunketts built. With money came gentility. George Noble Plunkett (b. 1851), independently (very) wealthy, qualifies as a barrister from Trinity College, marries the daughter of another significant property-developing family, Josephine Cranny, becomes a papal count by making a generous donation to a nascent religious order, becomes interested in art history, seems to have become fluent in three European languages, and seems set for a life as a well-off, high-minded Irish Catholic who can hold his own with the best of them.

The best of them in this particular case were the British ruling class, who don’t quite see it that way. When Count Plunkett makes overtures for high office, he is rebuffed, and similarly when he seeks formal recognition for his title, which apparently he rarely used. In this Plunkett suffers the same fate as many other wealthy British provincial families who sought advancement from a London élite firmly wedded to finance rather than manufacturing. In the Irish case, the patronising behaviour came with the added barb of religious bigotry. Count Plunkett had sided with Parnell; his son is a part of the 1916 Rising. Like so many nationalists everywhere, goaded by the continuous inadequacy of the metropolitan response, they move to a more radical position.

But Bill McCormack has no interest in such mundane explanations of nationalism. His laudable purpose is to locate Irish nationalism, and in some ways Irish life, using Joseph Plunkett as a vector, within more general intellectual currents. At its most admirable, that involves disinterring a very small subterranean world of Dublin neo-Kantians who could exist by keeping out of sight of the moral guardians of intellectual probity, most notably the Catholic Church. McCormack, I suspect, likes these people and possibly even identifies with them in a real way.

McCormack doesn’t find much of this in Irish Catholic nationalism. Rather, he detects undercurrents of French Catholic nineteenth-century revivalist thought, which feeds into other areas of scholarly and aesthetic work. As it proceeds in France, this thinking deeply imbues a very nasty Right, most notably Action Française. In parallel in Ireland, a disillusion with parliamentary democracy and corruption leads to reaction and irrationalism ‘acquiring an aura of dignity’. The ultimate expression of this is pro-Nazi elements in the IRA working against Britain in the 1930s.

There is some truth to this. But the point is that it is very marginal to most of what happened. And it leads McCormack to a serious misreading of Irish history. Ireland may have had some connection to French right-wing thought, but first, and far more importantly, it fits into a broad pattern of European engagement with empire at the time. All empires sought to stir ethnic revolt within their enemies’ territories. The British did it in the Middle East and the Hapsburg lands. The Germans did it in Russia and the Ukraine, and so on. The Irish took the Germans at their word and did something about it.

So, to the Rising and the Proclamation. Joe Plunkett, apparently, through common purpose, was responsible for the termination of 1,000 lives. The accepted figure of the Rising’s dead is 500+. This is important: by getting your facts right you get a sense of proportion of what you are dealing with. With Joe Plunkett, McCormack never gets a sense of proportion. He was a terminally ill man, cramming a lot into life, not least self-education, and by the age of 28 has started getting a grasp on some of the basics. McCormack wants to burden him with an intellectual and personal depth and responsibility that he cannot carry. The more he fails him in this purpose, the more McCormack flails him. McCormack berates Plunkett for a lengthy and unrequited infatuation with the daughter of family friends. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, at a chapter’s end, Plunkett is revealed, on the basis of the most marginal evidence, as being possibly homosexual. Next, there is his covert work: getting his father to go to Rome to acquaint the pope with what’s coming, and ‘sexing up’ (forging, I tell you!) a document detailing British measures for repressing Volunteers in Dublin—acts, says a fulminating McCormack, of ‘sublimely ruthless duplicity’. Doing his job, more like.
McCormack’s reading of the Proclamation is bizarre. Rather than mildly liberal-radical, it is French right wing and Irish Catholic, denying civil and religious liberties while systemically anti-democratic. Maybe he should read it. Maybe he should look more carefully at the resulting settlement of 1921–3. There are many good things in this book, not least badly needed intellectual history. But McCormack would have been better writing two books, or not using as his centre-piece a family he neither likes (allowable) nor understands (not).

Eoin Dillon is a scholar of twentieth-century African history.

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