The Easter Rising

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

The Easter Rising
Michael Foy and Brian Barton
(Sutton Publishing, £14.99)
ISBN 0750926163

Considering its importance in modern Irish history, remarkably few scholarly books have been written on the Easter Rising. Michael Foy and Brian Barton’s welcome book, The Easter Rising, is the first in over a generation and meets a long overdue demand by providing a thoroughly researched and well-detailed account of the events of Easter week. It opens with a succinct description of the planning of the insurrection and the tensions between its various organisers. The members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) military council are described harshly, although perhaps not unfairly, as sharing a ‘fanatical commitment to the separatist ideal’ and ‘a blinkered belief in the righteousness of their cause and actions which banished all self-doubt’. It was their ‘powers of deception and manipulation, resilience, supreme indifference to their own lives and, in their own different ways, daring imagination’ which enabled them to change the course of history. The authors’ examination of the Ireland Report, a detailed memorandum presented to the German government by Roger Casement and Joseph Plunkett in 1915, lead them to argue that, as far as most of the military council was concerned, the rising was initially intended to succeed rather than merely facilitate a blood sacrifice. This is a welcome corrective to excessive concentration on the influence of Patrick Pearse, a relative latecomer to what was essentially an IRB-planned operation. As the authors note, the revolutionary enterprise was driven by Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDermott, ‘very practical and down-to-earth men’, while those most obsessed with the religious symbolism and blood sacrifice now associated with the Rising—Pearse, Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh—worked ‘under the disciplines of an organisation in which rank and position were all-important and the commands of superiors were to be respected’.
The treatment of individual leading figures on both sides is generally sympathetic. The nationalist perception of General Maxwell as a Cromwellian unionist bigot is convincingly challenged. Maxwell, like Clarke (who never spoke of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) without ‘rubbing his hands with glee’), attributed the radicalisation of Ireland to unionist resistance to Home Rule. The bravery, even panache, of James Connolly, The O’Rahilly and John McBride is acknowledged as is the sheer determination of figures like Éamon Ceannt, Cathal Brugha and many of the rank-and-file rebels in battle. However, the shortcomings of MacDonagh, Éamon de Valera and other combatants on both sides who cracked under the enormous stress of continual fighting, sleep deprivation and hunger are also documented. Interestingly, Casement, the recipient of much recent attention, is dismissed as ‘highly strung, temperamentally unstable, naïve and completely lacking in political judgement’. The contrasting responses of the rebellion’s leaders to the court martial proceedings are also assessed in an interesting concluding chapter. Some, like Ceannt, fought hard for release on technical grounds. MacDermott, Plunkett and Clarke (who denounced the trials as a ‘farce’) put up no defence while Connolly and Pearse impressed the military authorities with their stoicism. In contrast, Michael Mallin who commanded the rebels in St Stephen’s Green, claimed to have been a mere foot-soldier under (his second-in-command) Countess Markievicz, who in turn appalled her judges by crying throughout her trial and declaring, ‘I am only a woman and you cannot shoot a woman, you must not shoot a woman’.
Much of the book is concerned with providing a chronological account of the fighting in each of the rebel outposts. An impressive range of mostly unpublished memoirs by combatants and other observers is drawn on to recreate the fighting, and the military strategies behind it, in extensive detail. The experiences of both sides are described sympathetically but, although Foy and Barton are commendably keen to avoid judgemental or sensational claims, the approach is sometimes too even-handed. For example, they seem unable to decide whether the shooting of unarmed members of the Dublin Veterans’ Corps (the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’) or the British army’s killing of residents on North King Street should be described as atrocities. In contrast to recent revisionist historiography, the rebellion is viewed as a generally chivalrous affair and the debate about the morality of staging a rising in the city centre (ensuring that more civilians than combatants would die) is largely avoided. However, they detail numerous incidents which speak for themselves, such as the decision to use the South Dublin Union, home of 3,000 destitute, infirm and insane inmates, as a rebel garrison.
The impact of the Rising on civilian Dublin is described in a particularly interesting chapter which considers the response of priests, ambulance-drivers, business-owners, looters and ordinary people who suddenly found themselves living in a war zone without access to essential supplies and services. Perhaps most surprising were the moments of normality. Many locals gathered daily to watch the unfolding battle at Mount Street where some of the most serious fighting took place: ‘Whole families: Father, Mother, swarms of kids, pram with the baby and dog with a string which was a common sight’. Unionist Dublin displayed something of the British stiff upper lip. The Spring Show—taking place at the Royal Dublin Society within strolling distance of the carnage on Mount Street—continued until Easter Wednesday, as did publication of The Irish Times, which allocated most of its coverage to the show. Displaying rather less of this spirit, Lieutenant Luce, an army officer stationed outside his alma mater, declined an invitation by a Trinity lecturer to conduct a viva voce in logic. On the other end of the social spectrum, the authors intriguingly suggest a link between the widespread looting and public resentment at the 1913 lock-out.
That perhaps the most interesting chapter was the one which stepped outside the military narrative highlights the main weakness of this book. While many readers will be intrigued by the blow-by-blow account of the fighting in Dublin, others will view the narrow focus on military history as a weakness. The traditional narrative structure allows for little analysis of social or political factors. The content of the Proclamation receives no more attention than the architecture of the GPO. There is little analysis of the mentality of the rebels, their social composition or the reasons for the fragility of British authority by 1916. There is, however, a wealth of fascinating details contained within the narrative for those interested in such issues. Michael Foy and Brian Barton have succeeded in writing a comprehensive and reliable account which must be considered the standard work on the events of Easter week.

Fearghal McGarry

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