The long revolution: the 1916 rising in context

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

It is certainly rare (and possibly fortunate!) that words spoken at an academic history conference find their way onto the front pages of leading newspapers and, by degrees, into most of the state’s principal media outlets. Such was the case with this conference to mark the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The principal cause of the attention was the opening address by President Mary McAleese. Her address—‘1916: a view from 2006’ (www.ucc.ie/academic/history/
pages/Welcome/1916+McAleese
+Speech)—touched on most of the Rising’s controverted historiographical themes. The speech has already defined the parameters for popular discussion of the Rising in the run-up to the anniversary in April and has acted as a spur for academics working in the field to produce high-calibre original research to meet the enhanced public interest.
Much of this original work was in evidence during the remainder of the proceedings. The honour of following the President fell to Keith Jeffery. In a virtuoso display, which incorporated seamlessly his own scripted thoughts and a response to several of the points raised by the President, Professor Jeffery explored the ‘Great War’ context, which, he argued, was one (arguably the most important) of those within which the events of April 1916 must be appraised. Echoing the President’s reference to the protean nature of historical memory of the Rising, he illustrated the theme with examples drawn from north and south of the border.
A number of recurring themes cropped up during the six remaining papers. One of the most compelling was the confusion caused, during the build-up to and the events and aftermath of the Rising, by competing concepts of loyalty and legality. The former cropped up repeatedly during the discussion of the evolution of the Volunteer movement in Cork from 1913 to 1916, delivered by local military historians Brendan O’Shea and Gerry Whyte—most notably in their sympathetic assessment of the performance of Tomás MacCurtain as commander of the Cork Volunteers during Easter Week. The considered view of Justice Adrian Hardiman was that the British authorities had (to their subsequent regret and disadvantage) purposefully blurred the distinctions between ordinary, emergency and martial law in pursuit of their post-Rising coercive strategy.
A second motif was an exploration of the concept of the ‘long revolution’ that provided the subtitle of the conference. Two different approaches were evident: that of Owen McGee, who suggested that the ideological outlook of the IRB echelon that planned the Rising could only be truly understood with reference to that organisation’s nineteenth-century origins, and that of Rosemary Cullen Owens, who argued that, for women, the revolutionary concepts embodied in the rhetoric of the Rising were only beginning to be fully realised in the 1970s, which was precisely when its lustre in the eyes of the state began rapidly to tarnish.
A third area of common concern was manifest in the papers by Jerome Aan de Wiel (University of Rheims) and Brian P. Murphy (Glenstal Abbey). While their subject-matter differed in obvious respects (the former examining the interest taken in the ‘Irish problem’ by the continental European powers since the turn of the nineteenth century, the latter focusing on the application of the machinery of wartime censorship by the British administration to the situation created by the Rising), both highlighted, with reference to their chosen fields, the cool, self-serving calculus of ‘the official mind’ (Continental and British) when it came to the formulation of policy towards Ireland.
Each speaker put forward a range of additional arguments for consideration by the audience and it is anticipated that these will be refined, in response to the exchanges during the question-and-answer sessions, prior to the publication of the conference proceedings later this year.

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