Book Review: Rebels – Voices from the Easter Rising

Rebels – Voices from the Easter Rising

 By Fearghal McGarry,

 Penguin Ireland, 2011.

 Reviewer: John Dorney


There is and always has been, something strangely mythic about the Easter Rising.


Perhaps this is simply a result of the event having been mythologised in Irish nationalist discourse for nearly 100 years now. Or perhaps it is a reflection of how the insurrectionists themselves managed to stage the rebellion; as a noble minority taking on a far stronger enemy and nobly going to their deaths to resurrect Irish nationality.


Calculated or not though, the story of the Easter Rising is the material from which legends can be made. Even for the most cynical of readers, or those least disposed to celebrating the Rising, there is something genuinely affecting about the tale of a few hundred people who stood by their ideals, fought bravely and openly, who went to their deaths without renouncing their principles and who did indeed dramatically change the course of Irish history.


A bottom-up history


The real story of the event is of course far more complicated than this. Fearghal McGarry’s new book ‘Rebels’ is an attempt to tell it from the bottom up, through the testimony given by veterans of the Rising to the Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 50s. Unlike his previous book, The Rising (Oxford, 2010), which is also based on BMH sources, McGarry’s own voice is largely silent here. Rather, Rebels stitches together the narrative of the rebellion directly through the words of the ordinary participants.


The result is a picture of the Rising quite different from that of traditional accounts. Leaders such as Pearse, Connolly, McDermott and Clarke are all here, but seen second hand, through the eyes of their subordinates.


The average Volunteer was often cold, hungry, frightened and confused during Easter week

So what do these ‘voices from the Easter Rising’ tell us? For one thing, they tell us that the average Volunteer was often cold, hungry, frightened and confused during Easter week. Some saw intense and bloody combat, but many others (especially outside of Dublin) sat around trying to decipher contradictory orders from the Volunteer and IRB leadership until persuaded to surrender.


The divisions within the Volunteer and IRB leaderships prior to the rebellion are well brought out and the testimony of Bulmer Hobson, the IRB leader who opposed the Rising, is particularly scathing of what he deemed a self-destructive, poorly planned shambles of a rebellion.


Some of the testimony presented is funny, some farcial – the Volunteers from Kimmage for instance, dutifully lined up to pay their tram fare into Dublin city centre on the first day of the Rising and were waved at by good-natured policemen.


It is only when the voices start to speak of the actual fighting in Dublin that the book becomes truly harrowing. In particular, the last stand of the GPO garrison atMoore Street appears to have been a scene out of hell, with the bodies of civilians who had tried to flee the area littered around the streets, many Volunteers shooting themselves and each other in panic as they escaped from the burning GPO and ever-nearer British barricades closing in.


A radical sub-culture


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book, however, is the window it gives into the sub-culture of radical Irish nationalism in the early 20th century. The men and women who made the Rising were a small and isolated minority in Ireland and they knew it.


Voice after voice in Rebels talks about the general populace’s lack of backbone, their being easily swayed by pro-British politicians, their support for Britain in the First World War. Says one Volunteer, ‘one of the sickening things was the inconstancy of the ordinary people’.


The ‘advanced nationalists’ were an isolated minority before the Risng and they knew it

During the Rising, the insurgents were brought face to face in the Dublin streets with these people, in the rebels’ terms ‘slum-dwellers, British soldiers and their women’, who insulted them, mocked them and, according to some accounts had to be prevented by armed British troops from lynching them after the surrender. Volunteers in Rebels are quite frank that they shot these people during the Rising on numerous occassions where they thought it was necessary.


Recent historical work (and some accounts in Rebels itself) shows that there was also support for the Volunteers’ action in Dublin, but it is clear that the hostility of the general populace to them made a profound impact on the Rising veterans.


But in spite of being esentially a ‘lunatic fringe’ pre-1916, the ‘advanced nationalists’ in the Volunteers, the Fianna, Cumman na mBan and the IRB, mainly by the specatacle of the Rising and the resulting British repression, really did change Irish history and put mainstream Irish nationalism onto a collision course with the British state – the echoes of which are with us still.


So what did they believe and what was the new Ireland that they aspired to? The impression Rebels gives us is that they were a quite eclectic bunch. Some were drawn into separatist politics by family tradition, some by conflict with the police over land issues, others by cultural nationalism and some, particularly in the Citizen Army, through social radicalism.


In many ways, the impression given is that culturally and socially they were very much within the Irish Catholic mainstream. While there were some Protestant activists, barely a page of Rebels is complete without an account of the rosary being said or sympathetic priests hearing confessions. Much is often made of the IRB’s supposed anti-clericalism, but the story the veterans themselves tell here is that it was much more a case of the Catholic Church (with some exceptions) being anti-IRB – a fact which rankled with the generally pious activists.


The Irish Citizen Army was born out of the Lockout in 1913 and thought of themselves as a workers’ army but this seems mainly to have increased their animosity towards the police rather than given any socialistic tinge to the Rising.


Similarly, the women’s group Cumman na mBan, while in one way a novel vehicle for nationalist women to play a part in political life, do not seem to have concerned themselves at all with things like votes for women and certainly not with taboo subjects like divorce or contraception. One wonders at times, reading Rebels, if the insurgents of Easter week were radicals in any other terms than those of militant Irish nationalism.


The power of legends


And yet, despite all of these factors which tend to corrode the legend of 1916, Rebels cannot escape the enduring power of the Easter Rising myth. The book closes abruptly with the accounts of the unrepentant rebel leaders facing execution, ‘they died like lions’ one eyewitness tell us.


The roots of the word ‘martyr’ come from the Greek word for ‘witness’ – those who willingly die for their belief somehow prove it to be true in the eyes of others. Those who fought and were executed in 1916 took on this status in Irish nationalist conciousness and ensured that the Easter Rising will never be remembered simply as a bloody fiasco but, as the organisers had hoped, as a legend.


Rebels gives a very interesting flavour of the Rising and early 20th century Ireland

Rebels is not a reference work on the Rising – McGarry has already done that with The Rising – it does not cover every facet of the event – the Rising in county Wexford for instance is absent – and by the nature of its sources it is largely confined to the point of view of the separatists, the voices of unionists, rival nationalists and the British are mostly absent.


But it is a very interesting read for anyone who wants a flavour of early 20th century Ireland and what it might have been like to live through the most recalled and commemorated event in modern Irish history.

To listen to Fearghal McGarry talk about Rebels, click on the link below.

Fearghal McGarry on ‘Rebels’

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