The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916 Fearghal McGarry (Oxford University Press, £18.99) ISBN 9780192801869

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 18, World War I

82_small_1290262942Do we need another book on the Easter Rising? There can be no harm in a good one. And Fearghal McGarry has written a very good one indeed. What makes The Rising stand out from its competitors (at least according to the blurb) is that it uses the vast corpus of testimonies collected by the Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 1950s to illuminate the experience of the ‘rank and file’ who took part in the events of Easter week 1916. The key condition attached to the bureau’s work was that the material it collected would not be released until all of those who had contributed testimonies were dead: consequently they were not released until 2003. Many were previously utilised by Charles Townshend in his general account of the Rising, published in 2005, but McGarry’s use of them goes far beyond that of his predecessor. It is this material that gives his book its rich and fascinating texture.

McGarry’s Easter Rising is a relatively unfamilar one. This enormously engaging book is 1916 from the bottom up, as experienced by the ordinary men and women who took part in it. Take, for example, the unfortunate experience of John McGallogly, a Glaswegian volunteer who could not find the GPO, for he had never been in Dublin prior to the Rising; being detained afterwards, he was then told to shut up by an Irish soldier in British uniform because he was a ‘Scotch bastard’ who ‘only came over here to make trouble’. Such telling vignettes are scattered through The Rising, and hitherto unknown figures such as McGallogly are the ones who populate its pages, rather than icons like Pearse and Connolly. Indeed, this has interpretive implications. Pearse becomes a figure whose true significance stemmed from the conspiratorial machinations of the old Fenian Tom Clarke, one of the real driving forces behind the Rising, who knew a good public speaker when he saw one. Consequently, there is relatively little emphasis here on the notion of ‘blood sacrifice’ so often ascribed to Pearse; McGarry makes a very strong case, bolstered by a range of unfamiliar voices, that the Rising was more of an effort at maintaining the integrity of the marginalised separatist tradition than a foolhardy attempt to emulate Christ on the cross.

The accounts on which McGarry has based his book offer a remarkably complex portrait of Irish political life. The significance of the Easter Rising lies in its impact on the turbulent and recently militarised politics of Ireland in the years before and after the outbreak of the First World War. In 1912 the vast majority of Irish nationalists were prepared to countenence Ireland’s retention within the United Kingdom, albeit with the crucial caveat of power being devolved to a Home Rule parliament. By 1918 a very substantial proportion of that same nationalist electorate were demanding independence from Britain, however defined. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, the Rising was indeed the stone that troubled the living stream. The question is, in what direction was the stream flowing? The broad nationalist consensus in favour of Home Rule prior to 1914 did not equate with an ideological commitment to membership of the British Empire. McGarry’s exceptionally clear account of the pre-war contours of militant Irish nationalism is perhaps as good as we are going to get. For many, Home Rule was the pragmatic option; hence its abandonment in the years after 1916, as an alternative type of nationalist politics came to the fore. What is also obvious, however, is that alongside such militant nationalism was a very considerable degree of popular loyalism. This was by no means restricted to Protestant unionism: during the Rising the volunteers were castigated, and their British opponents applauded, in the poorest of Dublin’s slums as well as the most affluent of its suburbs. The tapestry that McGarry has woven from his material is indeed a complex one, and it defies the easy assumptions of those who would idolise or damn the Easter Rising. It is also refreshing to see that he avoids the shrillness and condescension that often mar studies of both the Rising and the revolution it was a part of. This is a fair-minded and often surprising book. It is also extremely well written and superbly readable.

Having said that, it does have some flaws. It ends somewhat abruptly: McGarry’s treatment of the aftermath and legacy of the Rising is surprisingly brief (though these have been dealt with quite recently in Claire Will’s impressive Dublin 1916). The Rising is a handsome and well-produced book, evidently aimed at a general readership; however, given the extensive localised detail that it contains, readers would have benefited from more detailed (and numerous) maps, not to mention a more varied selection of contemporary images. But such quibbles are hardly the end of the world: Fearghal McGarry has written an excellent book, and with less than six years to go to the centenary of the Rising, there is enough time for it to gain the wide readership that it richly deserves.  HI

John Gibney is History Ireland’s TV reviewer.

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