Book Review ~ The Rising, Ireland, Easter 1916 ~ Fearghal McGarry

Title: The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-19280-186-9

REVIEWER: John Dorney

You can listen to Fearghal talk about his book here.

Historian Peter Hart, quoted in Fearghal McGarry’s new book on the Easter Rising, describes the insurrection as, “performance art”. As an attempt to seize power it was woefully unsuccessful, incompetent even. But as a symbol – a resurrection of the idea of a defiant “Ireland”, fighting “England”, the historical oppressor – it was, and remains, stunningly successful.

Part of this may be down to the potent imagery it left us. The green-uniformed Volunteers, huddled inside the burning GPO, fighting off the massed forces of Empire outside. The battle at Mount Street, where 12 Volunteers held off a regiment. The gruesome execution of James Connolly, tied to a chair to face the firing squad. These images helped to build a revolutionary separatist movement in the years after the Rising and to propel nationalist Ireland into armed confrontation with the British state in 1919-1921. Even now, the idea of heroic but failed struggle in 1916 touches something powerful in the Irish nationalist psyche.

If its symbols are well known, however, some of the less heroic aspects of the Rising are less well remembered. Who remembers, for example, that the rebels had to club (and sometimes shoot) their way through irate Dublin civilians during the first days of the Rising to take up their positions? Yet these less-than-inspiring details are also part of the Rebellion’s story as re-told here by McGarry.

More importantly, the question that has always puzzled historians and commentators is why the Volunteers and Citizen Army took up arms in the first place. Home Rule was imminent, after all, why the recourse to violent revolution? Equally puzzlingly, why did this action, by what at the time was a group very much on fringe of Irish nationalism, manage to have such a dramatic effect on public opinion?

More importantly, the question that has always puzzled historians and commentators is why the Volunteers and Citizen Army took up arms in the first place.

Was it an irrational “blood sacrifice” that founded a republican, “cult of violence” as some have claimed? Or was it a genuine military attempt to end British rule in Ireland as others now argue?

In The Rising, Fearghal McGarry tries to answer some of these questions by going back to the testimony of those who took part in the rebellion. This was collected back in the 1940s by the Military History Bureau with the proviso that it would not be released to the public until the last surviving deponent had died. McGarry’s book is the second work, after Anne Ryan’s fascinating Witnesses, to be based on thorough use of the Military History Archive, but the first to do so in a way that analyses as well as re-tells the story of the 1916 from the ground up.

On why people in the Volunteers and the Citizen Army took up arms on Easter Monday, McGarry finds that the idea of armed struggle was central to separatists’ vision of Ireland and their movement in particular. As such, the First World War was both a challenge and an opportunity.

A challenge because the involvement of Irish soldiers, in hundreds of thousands, in the British war effort appeared to be the death knell of the idea of an Ireland freed from British influence. Irish people appeared to have accepted that their “patriotic duty” was to “King and Country”. In this respect, the Rising was an act of desperation, by elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Volunteers to rescue their movement from irrelevance. Only by bold, armed action could their understanding of “Irish Freedom” be resurrected.

The First World War was also an opportunity, because it offered the prospect of German military aid.

McGarry does not accept either the idea of a “blood sacrifice”, which, he argues relies too heavily on the writings of Patrick Pearse, or the idea that the Rising had a real chance of military victory – the arms were too few, the planning too shoddy. Rather, he writes, it was a kind of armed propaganda and in this respect, it worked.

On other facets of the rebels’ motivations, McGarry records little that we would not expect. The ordinary Volunteers felt they were going to “strike a blow for the freedom of Ireland” and thought little beyond that. Ideologies such as socialism, he writes, despite the participation of James Connolly’s Citizen Army, were not prominent in the inspiration or radicalization of the rank and file. Similarly, the ideology of Republicanism was established only after the Rising as the goal of Irish separatism.

The First World War was also an opportunity, because it offered the prospect of German military aid.

We find little enough heroism in McGarry’s narrative of the Rising. Most of the insurgents saw little fighting – being cooped up inside various public buildings, where their nerves were stretched to breaking point.

McGarry is critical of the rebels’ choosing to fight in densely populated city centre, where civilians would inevitably bear the brunt of the casualties. He is, however, equally critical of the British Army, who had orders to treat all civilians as potential rebels, and who, he concludes were probably responsible for the bulk of the civilians dead and wounded.

One interesting, and novel, aspect of McGarry’s book is his look at the Rising outside of Dublin. In particular, he highlights the significance of events in Enniscorthy, where Volunteers took over the town for the week. Little blood was shed there, but the symbolic value was huge. Symbolism, always symbolism.

Weak identities and strong ones

It is gratifying for this author to find that Fearghal McGarry, (author of a series of distinguished works on modern Irish history), reached many of the same conclusions that I did in my account of the Rising (located elsewhere on this site and written, unfortunately, before the publication of McGarry’s book). See review here.

One aspect, however, I felt he could have looked into further was why the Rising had such an emotional charge. Why did the separatists of 1916 feel such desperate action was needed? Writing of the contemporary Basque Country, Irish author Paddy Woodworth has written that the need for nationalist violence comes not from strong, confident identities, but from weak ones.

For both the ETA of the 1960s and the Irish insurgents of 1916, it was a fear of cultural obliteration by the forces of the metropolis that drove people into rebellion. Only by creating a new national identity through armed confrontation could the sense of shame created by the collapse of indigenous culture be erased. The foundation of this idea of “Irishness” is perhaps the enduring legacy of the Rising.

The foundation of this idea of “Irishness” is perhaps the enduring legacy of the Rising.

Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising is well written, clear and full of new ideas. People coming at the subject for the first time should perhaps look at a general history before coming to this work, but for anyone with a knowledge of Irish history, this book will be an invaluable advance in their understanding of the subject.

The Rising and many other books on the Easter Rising can be purchased through The Irish Story’s dedicated 1916 Amazon A Store.

John Dorney is the author of The Story Of The Easter Rising, 1916. Read a longer biography here.

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