Books

The Easter Rising’s road to hell — paved with good intentions

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

While reading this book in a London café, I was politely buttonholed by an Irishman: ‘Sorry to disturb you, but I saw what you were reading and wondered how far back it went.’ I answered that, as it was a group biography of the men who led the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, it began with the eldest of them, Tom Clarke, in the mid-19th century. ‘But,’ I added, ‘it goes back further, to Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone — even Cromwell is mentioned.’ ‘Sure the feud’s much older than that,’ was the gleeful reply.

If Ruth Dudley Edwards had been at the table, I imagine she would have said that that was part of the problem — the romantic, rebel, republican view of Irish history as an unbroken tradition of justified resistance. It is a view that she has spent a 40-year career trying to redress. ‘Ireland has a surfeit of idealists who in their desire to make things better made everything much, much worse.’ The Seven who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in Dublin on 24 April 1916 were no exception. In their quest to free Ireland from a foreign yoke, they made no allowances for the fact that the Irish Nationalists, holding the balance of power at Westminster, had already secured Home Rule, even if it was delayed for the duration of the Great War.

Home Rule represented that despised thing, compromise, and in any case Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett had no time for notions of democratic representation. Their authority came, in the words of the Proclamation, from ‘the name of God and the dead generations from which Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood’: in other words, the old feud.


After the Rising, and the executions of all seven men, they swiftly passed into legend. Dudley Edwards’s task is to render these sacrificial icons human again, which she does in part by placing them against the complex backdrop of their own time. Sometimes, the complexity threatens to overwhelm the reader, under the combined influence of a packed cast and a riot of abbreviations. A paragraph taken at random mentions Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh, Terence de Vere White, W.B. Yeats and Willie Rooney, while even the list of abbreviations at the end cannot find room to remind us that the ICA is, in this context, the Irish Citizen Army (James Connolly’s workers’ volunteers), not the Institute for Contemporary Art.

But what Dudley Edwards’s approach makes clear is that, for all the doomed glamour of a ‘revolution led by poets’ (Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett were all published), the Rising was steeped in the long history of animosity towards Britain, as well as the infighting of a fragmented movement. Six of the Seven were members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (Connolly saw Ireland’s cause in the wider context of the international workers’ struggle), but they formed a cabal even within the Brotherhood, using the formation of a defensive citizen force, the Irish Volunteers, as a way to foment armed revolution. When it came to the crucial moment, Pearse and co. simply ignored the nominal head of the Volunteers, the history professor and founder of the Gaelic League, Eoin MacNeill, who issued a countermanding order standing them down on Easter Sunday. Pearse spelled it out to the beleaguered MacNeill: ‘We have used your name and influence for what they were worth, but we have done with you now. It’s no use trying to stop us.’

The Rising itself forms only the last act of the book. Dudley Edwards dramatically rehearses the familiar, tragic tale of the stand in the General Post Office, which the Seven knew full well had no chance of success (Clarke remarked to one Volunteer: ‘Of course… we shall be wiped out’). But the real value of this book is in bringing together accounts of the men who so successfully sold the idea of freedom through violence and martyrdom to Irish (and international) posterity. And what an odd bunch they were. Tom Clarke, known to Dubliners as a quietly spoken middle-aged tobacconist, had a revolutionary past as a ‘dynamitard’ on the mainland. He hadn’t blown anything up, but was caught with enough incriminating material to be sentenced to penal servitude for life, being released after 15 years. The brutal British prison regime often broke its victims, but Clarke’s purposeful hatred was tempered in the flame, and on release he worked steadily and secretly to bring about armed revolution.

Pearse, about whom Dudley Edwards wrote a controversial biography, emerges here as a man of messianic temperament and off-the-charts inhibition. This headmaster-hero of the Republic was a ‘repressed paedophile’, if the evidence of some very suggestive verse and the allegation that he ‘kissed boys’ is to be believed. It was a joke among Pearse’s friends that he couldn’t abide women. Even in the GPO, Mac Diarmada had a laugh introducing ‘two nice girls to see you’ to the mortified new President of the Provisional Republic.

Of the others, perhaps the most tragic is Plunkett, a wealthy consumptive with an overbearing mother. His histrionic poem ‘I See His Blood upon a Rose’ was once, Dudley Edwards tells us, learned by most Catholic schoolchildren in independent Ireland. Plunkett had to be helped out of a nursing home to join the Rising, and appeared in full dress uniform; a witness reported: ‘If ever death had laid its mark openly on a man, it was here.’

The most unintentionally comic is the often overlooked Ceannt, who took up the uilleann pipes and became so committed to the Irish language that on a visit to the Pope he refused to speak English. Ceannt designed a piper’s costume for that trip, made by his sister. Dudley Edwards does not mention it, but the outfit is now in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. Ceannt became as hard-nosed a revolutionary as any, throwing himself into learning soldiery as single-mindedly as he had into learning Ireland’s language and music. But the impression Dudley Edwards’s sorrowful, good-humoured book leaves is that a lot of blood might have been saved if Ceannt and his fellow revolutionaries had taken themselves a little less seriously.

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  • Frank

    Possibly stems from the massive emigrations from Ireland, most of the sane and braves ones had left!!

  • MacRiada

    “the romantic, rebel, republican view of Irish history”

    Also know as…the history of Ireland.

  • MacRiada

    The Home Rule that was ‘secured’ before WWI was going to partition the country (Britain stays pretty quiet about arming Northern Unionists in 1912).

    So Britain, having breached its obligation to respect the democratic will of the Irish people (yet again) could hardly be surprised that Irish patriots rebelled.

    Their rebellion was approved by the Irish people.

    The truly sad thing about this, is not that Britain does not understand Irish history, but rather, that they do not even know their OWN history -not just the history in Northern Ireland, but whole chapters of the social history of the 20th century in Britain.

    • Slater

      The Irish are not and never were a single people hence the prolonged territorial dispute on the island which was resolved when we both entered the EU and the Republic accepted the 1921 frontiers as permanent, I think.

      • MacRiada

        “The Irish are not and never were a single people”

        Pretty hard to imagine a more homogenous group in Europe before the arrival of the English conquistadors in the 12th century.

        Ireland boasted the earliest written laws in Western Europe -which were national laws that applied across the whole island.

        It had a common language that extended, not only to every corner of Ireland -but across into Western Scotland also -a language that had a standardised literary form centuries before countries like France or Germany could boast the same.

        I could go on.

        Then the invasion.

        Then the propaganda.

    • Dacorum

      You can always trust an Irish nationalist to be just like David Cameron and to lie and/or misrepresent the truth.

      Home rule was suspended, not repealed by war with Germany in 1914 and it is ridiculous to say as a fact that ” The Home Rule that was ‘secured’ before WWI was going to partition the country”. By Easter 1916, the relationship between the leaders Carson for the Unionists and Redmond for the Home Rulers had vastly improved so it would be far more honest to say that had the Easter Rising not taken place, Home Rule would have been enacted peacefully for the whole of Ireland after 1918 because the Unionists and Home Rulers had fought on the same side and for the same cause.

      The lasting effect of the Easter Rising has been (a) to ensure that Ireland was partitioned in 1922 and remained so and (b) to ensure the eternal and continuing division between the Nationalists and the Unionists on mainly religious lines.

      The rebellion was not approved by the Irish people – the rebels were jeered by the people of Dublin as they were led off after they surrendered – but the aftermath was very badly mismanaged by the authorities when the leaders were executed after very quick court martials. The subsequent rise of Sinn Fein and the collapse of support for the Home Rulers absolutely guaranteed that the British government would agree to the division of Ireland in 1922.

      We do understand Irish history – we know all about “the romantic, rebel, republican view of Irish history as an unbroken tradition of justified resistance” that distorts the truth, which ensures that wounds are never healed and that the island of Ireland will remain forever divided as a result.

      • MacRiada

        Not to be unkind but, If you think that ‘Home Rule’ (which didn’t really bring home any rule) was going to be accepted because unionists and nationalists fought for Britain in WW I you are delusional. The unionists went to war to strengthen their hand vis-à-vís the amending Bill of 1914 re. the exclusion of Ulster counties -which you have casually ignored, and to which I am referring when I say partition was going to happen.

        Britain had armed the unionists of Ulster in 1912 for a reason.

        You say the ‘rebellion was not approved by the Irish people’ but why then did the Republicans sweep to power in the election of 1918?

        It wasn’t the ‘aftermath’ per se that was badly managed -the British like to forget the fact that they used heavy artillery to obliterate an Irish city -people weren’t happy being reminded about Britain’s ease at using obscene levels of violence in ireland without fear of reproach.

        • Dacorum

          What you forgot to mention was that very large numbers of loyal Irish Catholics also volunteered and went to war to fight their country of Great Britain and Ireland. And of course the rebellion wasn’t approved by the Irish people because there was no support elsewhere in Ireland for what was a small bunch of rebels. They were booed and jeered by the people of Dublin after they surrendered because they blamed them for all the deaths and the damage to their city.

          You claimed that “Britain had armed the unionists of Ulster in 1912 for a reason” but how can this be when (a) it was the British Government that passed the Home Rule Act and (b) several previous attempts by the UVF to obtain guns had been thwarted by the authorities before they managed to obtain them from Germany?

          As for why Sinn Fein went from nowhere to winning the vast majority of seats in Ireland in 1918, the mood began to switch with the executions. The men who had in the eyes of some Irishmen betrayed the empire and those on the frontline, soon became martyrs with open air masses being attended by thousands. The manner in which the British executed the leaders in secret and without notice, caused a wave of public revulsion and helped turn the tide towards Sinn Fein. The Home Rulers were poorly organised – they were not use to fighting contested elections – and many leaders were at the front. In addition the British government did nothing to support them in order to counter the rise of Sinn Fein and a campaign for independence soon began to trump the campaign for Home Rule.

          The irony is that whilst Home Rule was opposed by Unionists before 1914, the Easter Rising and the rise of Sinn Fein and their tactics after 1918 of murder and intimidation absolutely guaranteed that Ireland changed from being united to being forever divided. The rise and victory of Sinn Fein in the South turned out to be a victory for the Unionists in Ulster as that enabled them to have their own “home rule” at Stormont within the nation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Protestant and Unionist Northern Ireland even became the safe refuge for RIC Catholics who then continued their careers in the RUC.

  • And now for the history with the facts…

    The Marxist inspired/British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) mounted and controlled ‘Easter Rebellion’ operation* was met with indifference and disdain by the general Irish population of the day. The operation a failure, Parliament stepped up the pressure to weaken the British Empire by passing the Military Service Act of 1918 which imposed conscription on the Irish. This blatantly self-destructive law made Irish irate, galvanizing “…support for political parties which advocated Irish separatism and influenced events in the lead-up to the Irish War of Independence.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1918

    It would be another nine months after Parliament’s second attempt at agitation to bring about rebellion in Ireland that the Irish War for Independence took place…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_War_of_Independence

    …ending in 1921 with a negotiated settlement, but thereafter weakening the British Empire by denying the empire its Catholic Irish regiments.

    For more on this topic of the Marxist co-option of the West, see the article, “The Marxist Co-Option Of History And The Use Of The Scissors Strategy To Manipulate History Towards The Goal Of Marxist Liberation” …

    https://sites.google.com/site/deanjackson60/the-marxist-co-option-of-history-and-the-use-of-the-scissors-strategy-to-manipulate-history-towards-the-goal-of-marxist-liberation
    ——————————-
    * Thanks to the Allies’ failure to immediately mount an invasion of Petrograd to bring Russia back into World War I, Russia’s participation in the war being a key stratagem for the Allies’ victory over the Central Powers, we know (1) that the political establishments of the West were already co-opted by Marxists; and (2) that World War I was a Marxist operation mounted to (i) weaken the West and its resolve to make the world follow Western democratic values; and (ii) bring into existence the first Marxist nation, thereby allowing that nation, the USSR, to expand the Marxist ‘struggle’.

  • thomas_paine2

    England is England, Ireland is Ireland, ne’er the twain.

    • “England is England, Ireland is Ireland, ne’er the twain.”

      How come the Irish get to colonize northern Britain and have the land named after a particular Irish tribe*–Scotland? At least the English didn’t re-name Éire ‘England Minor’! Or even worse-Hibernia!**
      —————————-
      * The dreaded Scoti raiders/colonizers of Ireland…

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaels

      ** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hibernia

      • Paul Wonnacott

        Ethnologically based on recent DNA surveys, only 1% of the UKs white british population are descendants of the the true native population, the Mesolithic hunter gatherer, in that they carry a majority of those genes, Eastern Scotland, the Picts., and most likely to have red hair green eyes and freckles.
        The biggest Ethnic group of ALL the British Isles, are descended from the Mediterranean Neolithic farmers that built Newgrange, crossbred with the Bronze Age Beaker people whose combined cultures built Stonehenge. Mostly Black/brown hair, Brown/Hazel eyes and slight Latino look, nothing to do with the Romans or Armada shipwreck survivors as some Irish think.
        When the Teuto Celtic Indo Europeans arrived, as well as lots of blonde hair and blue eyes, they also brought some Red hair and green eyes too, as the native tribes of Northern Europe that the IEs passed through had a common genetic heritage to our mesolthic hunter gatheres who were all the same people in 10k BCE.. This is why Red hair is more common in Norway than other Scandinavian countries, they are the true ethnic natives of that whole region.
        Most of us after a couple of millenia of living together and moving around the Islands, are an even split between Neolthic, Beaker, Indo European, with a bit of Mesolthic Hunter gatherer thrown in.

  • Sunset66

    Nothing like Brits lecturing the Irish or the Indians or anyone else and how their nationalism is a very bad thing and of course British nationalism doesn’t exist and the empire was really put in place for the sole benefit of the natives.

    You get the usual one that the UK was on the cusp of granting home rule but somehow that didn’t stop them unleashing three years of war culminating in those liberal softies the Black and Tans . It didn’t stop them turning a blind eye to Protestant insurrection in the north and the running of guns into the North .

    Goodness knows what stops Brits accepting that sometimes they did the wrong thing. Ireland is a prime example. Old Paddy Ashdown said that when he visited in the early sixties he was shocked at the discrimination against the catholic population and knew it would end in trouble.
    That was when as part of the UK sectarian bigots were allowed to discriminate against fellow UK citizens.

    All you have to do is accept UK policy in Ireland has been a disaster and both sides have much to answer for

    That’s all

    • “Nothing like Brits lecturing the Irish…”

      Since Marxists eschew nationality, then there hasn’t been a ‘British’ ruling political establishment for well over 100 years, as my comments below illustrate…

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