Witnesses inside the Easter Rising

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

Witnesses inside the Easter Rising 1Witnesses inside the Easter Rising
Annie Ryan
(Liberties Press, ?12.95)
0954533550In 1947, as the generation that had lived through the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence entered their fifties and sixties, the Fianna Fáil government set up the Bureau of Military History to record the memories of those who were involved in these events. To avoid the controversial area of the Civil War, people were only asked about the period from the formation of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 to the Truce in July 1921 and, to encourage people to speak freely, those who participated were promised that the archive would be sealed up until the last of them was dead. By 1959, when the archive was finally sealed, 1,770 separate statements had been recorded. They remained out of the reach of historians until they were finally opened in 2003.
Annie Ryan is one of the first to make use of these hidden records. She has chosen to use them to construct a narrative of the background to the Easter Rising and to tell in greater detail the events of that extraordinary week and its immediate aftermath. The main interest of her story is that, while some of the big names are here, most of those whose words she uses are unfamiliar—the ordinary men and women who did the fighting but who are not usually mentioned in the history books. She quotes extensively from their testimonies, letting her ‘witnesses’ tell much of the story for themselves, and this gives a wonderful immediacy to the accounts.
In the first three chapters she records how they became involved through the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteers or the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The importance of two organisations, the Gaelic League and the IRB, come through again and again. Ernest Blythe, son of a Protestant farmer from Antrim, arrived in Dublin as a ‘boy clerk’ in the civil service. He recalled (p. 38) how

‘within about an hour of coming to town I heard three people speaking Irish outside the Gaelic League bookshop . . . I went in and bought the first book of O’Growney’s Easy Lessons . . . For several months I was afraid to join . . . because I believed that if it were discovered that I was a Protestant I should be put out.’

However, after learning that Douglas Hyde was a Protestant, he plucked up the courage to join:

‘After I had been four or five months in the branch, carefully keeping myself to myself, I began to talk to George Irvine and he told me about Griffith’s paper… I became converted to Sinn Féin on the night I sat up reading my first copy of the United Irishman.’

Later Seán O’Casey swore him into the IRB.
Ryan then deals with the events leading to the Rising—the planning and especially the confusion caused by MacNeill’s cancellation. This episode was a confusing one, and the author sticks too closely to her sources to clarify it. Many of the witnesses were the men and women who acted as couriers, carrying messages from the plotters to Volunteer commanders around the country. Very few were then in the inner circle of the IRB/Volunteers. Each recounts his or her own role but adds little to our knowledge of the bigger picture and the author does little to enlighten us. Moreover, by the time these testimonies were recorded, many events had occurred which had shaped the way they looked back on this episode. Ryan does very little to tease these out or to analyse how these later prejudices influenced the narratives of her witnesses. The result is a confusing series of accounts of people going here and there and back again. There is no attempt to explain why MacNeill acted as he did or to set out his reasons for cancelling.
About half of the book is taken up with detailed descriptions of the fighting during Easter Week. What comes through overwhelmingly is that for many of the participants this was one of the great moments of their lives. Inevitably, given the source of the narratives, most of those speaking were young—in their teens or early twenties—and they experienced the fighting as a time of intense emotion. They can recall in minute detail what they saw, what they did and what they felt. In Naas, Co. Kildare, Tom Harris read MacNeill’s cancellation in the Sunday paper, but ‘at 4 o’clock Dick Stokes came along on a motor cycle . . . and said he had a dispatch from Pearse that it was at 12 o’clock the next day the rising would take place’. Harris and one or two others tried and failed to rouse more Volunteers, so they set off for Dublin themselves. They joined others and marched into the GPO on Tuesday:

‘Every place was quiet at that period. Numbers of people were on the street looking at us. We had tea and eggs and cigars. I thought we should have got a rest. Connolly paraded us and said “it didn’t matter a damn if we were wiped out now as we had justified ourselves”. I thought it a bit rugged.’

Inevitably the sources dictate much of the story. For example, in the account of the fighting, one episode—the ‘battle of Marrowbone Lane distillery’, in which a section of Eamonn Ceannt’s South Dublin Union garrison was involved—gets eleven pages largely, it seems, because one participant, Robert Holland, had almost total recall of the events and left an extensive witness statement. On the other hand, there is almost nothing about the fighting in St Stephen’s Green or Boland’s Mills, presumably because of a lack of witnesses.
The author’s attempt to construct a coherent story of the events of Easter Week are defeated by the episodic nature of the fighting and the diversity of the witness statements. While individual episodes are dealt with well, the narrative often jumps abruptly from one place to another, leaving the reader struggling to keep up. Nor are there many attempts to compare narratives or to reconcile differences.
The final section deals with the executions and comes mainly from those who visited the condemned men in their cells. There is also a brief report of a witness statement from Captain E. Gerard of the British army, who was on leave in Dublin during the Rising, and a final and rather out-of-place chapter about the attitude of Catholic priests and bishops to the IRB and the Rising.
The sources used by the author give this book an unusual interest and add a great vitality to the narrative, but there are also serious shortcomings. Ryan is too prepared to take the statements of her witnesses at face value, failing to subject them to cross-examination or analysis. She has neither footnotes nor a bibliography, so it is impossible to know how deeply she researched the background to the Rising. As far as one can judge from internal evidence, her knowledge of the work of other historians is limited. In dealing with issues like the role of the IRB, the split in the Volunteers in 1914 or MacNeill’s cancellation of the Rising, her grasp of the wider picture seems limited and, as a result, her narrative becomes confused. Most problematic of all, there is no index, which makes it impossible to follow any individual’s narrative through the book.
Altogether, then, this is an entertaining book that gives us an insight into the way some of the ordinary people involved in the Easter Rising recalled that experience 40 years later. Their voices come through with a lively immediacy that is very attractive. However, this is only the first scratching on the surface of the Military History Archive. Future scholars will undoubtedly analyse these eyewitness accounts in much greater depth and produce a more considered story.
E. M. Collins


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