Lead book review

Pitfalls on the road to the Rising

It will be a travesty if the Easter Rising is commemorated with jolly fancy-dress parades and hagiographies of dead heroes, says Roy Foster

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923 Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile, pp.517, £30, ISBN: 9781781250419

Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918–1923 Maurice Walsh

Faber, pp.544, £16.99, ISBN: 9780571243006

As Lytton Strachey remarked of the Victorian era, writing the history of the Irish revolution is inhibited by the fact that we know too much about it. As the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, an avalanche of books, articles and television programmes is bearing inexorably down; even the re-enactments have begun, with Dublin’s city centre taken over last Easter Monday by jolly crowds in period dress, celebrating ‘the Road to the Rising’. No one got shot, no buildings were blown up, and no shops were looted, but it was the thought that counted, and everyone had a good time. As Arthur Koestler wrote long ago in a classic article on ‘The Political Libido’, commemoration is all about self-identification, and every US citizen has to feel as personally proud of the War of Independence as if he or she had fought in it.

Though today’s Irish citizens are equally proprietorial about their revolution, its history presents a less clear-cut picture. Popular support for the 1916 rebels was extremely limited at the time, especially among the populace whose sons and brothers were fighting the revolutionaries’ ‘gallant allies’ in France: the planning of the Rising was heavily contingent upon German aid, though this was strategically downplayed afterwards. So was the fate of the constitutional-nationalist Home Rule party, just as much ‘the enemy’ to the revolutionary generation as the Brits, despite the fact that the Home Rulers had got a Home Rule bill passed in 1912–14, and were desperately trying to negotiate around Ulster’s intransigent resistance.

After 1916 the rapid execution of the rebel leaders, and a number of boneheaded decisions by the British government and their military advisers, handed the advantage to the nationalists. Sinn Féin swept the polls at the 1918 election, paving the way for guerrilla warfare and a divisive treaty in 1922, setting up an Irish Free State within the Commonwealth, which later became a Republic. It also copper-fastened the partitioned province of Northern Ireland, which ironically got its own Home Rule and exploited it enthusiastically. Elsewhere the savage civil war that followed the Treaty not only split the revolutionary brotherhood and in certain areas threatened to release inter-communal violence on religious lines; it imposed a traumatic silence on national memory, and remained a subject sedulously avoided in school history curricula for decades. One wonders if its centenary will be much explored in 2023.

Meanwhile, however, we have the Rising and the War of Independence to be getting on with. Bookshops are full of popular pictorial histories and uplifting hagiographies of dead heroes, while the Irish government has appointed a high-level committee to advise on proper forms of commemoration. Quite properly, the public emphasis is to be on inclusiveness and tolerance, with the losers as well as the winner given due consideration; even the poor old Home Rulers may be picked up from the dustheap of history and given a friendly shake. But how professional historians approach the well-worn subject raises some interesting conundrums.


These are approached imaginatively, but from different directions, by Diarmaid Ferriter and Maurice Walsh. Ferriter, the youthful and formidably productive holder of a prestigious chair at University College Dublin, bases his work on intensive archival trawls, notably in recently released records such as the applications for military service pensions; he is interested above all in the sources, what is preserved and what is forgotten, and the oblique shafts of light which they cast on a disputed history. Walsh, a journalist turned academic who has previously written an excellent book on the coverage of the Anglo-Irish war by British journalists, approaches the narrative of that war and its aftermath from a number of angles, stressing not only everyday life amid the upheavals, but also the ways in which Irish experience reflected wider currents of modernity.

Ferriter’s book is constructed in short chapters, and begins where some might end — with the differing interpretations of the revolution that have emerged inside and outside academe, and the way that this has been driven (or inhibited) by the availability of archival material. His title indicates a recurring theme: the perceived dangers of Irish democracy as seen, not only by the ancien régime and the British authorities, but by the rapidly hardening successor elite created by the revolution. He is also interested in the gulf between rhetoric and reality, pointing out that while Irish nationalism has been identified as a ‘secular religion’, the same is true of Irish unionism, and in both cases pragmatic issues involving national identity have been left curiously opaque.

Some of his most revealing quotations come from very recent history indeed, as from the ineffably sanctimonous and ignorant Sinn Féin spokeswoman Mary Lou McDonald in 2012. According to her, the 1916 Rising was not about ‘physical force confrontation involving weapons’ but about ‘the men and women of Ireland, the children of Ireland, about political concepts, about good governance, about the sense of the collective, the marshalling of common resources, the distribution of wealth’. To which the historian’s answer can only be, ‘Oh, yeah?’

In contrast to this self-serving guff, Ferriter’s method follows an injunction by the Irish writer Seán Ó’Fáolain to disinter ‘bits of individual veracity hidden amidst the dustheaps of convention and tradition’. He does this from a wide and sometimes bewildering range of sources, taking in archival compilations, official correspondences, death-or-glory memoirs and police records. After surveying the way that the historiography has developed and shifted, often in response to the politics of the day, his study proceeds to the events of the revolutionary decade 1913–23, paying more attention to social factors and the underlying social conservatism of the revolutionaries than has often been the case. (It was a revolutionary leader and future Taoiseach, W.T. Cosgrave, who instructed a colleague in May 1921 that people reared in workhouses ‘are no great acquisition to the community’, have no idea of civic responsibility other than living off the ratepayers, and should be made to emigrate ‘and work whether they like it or not’.)

Ferriter’s book also deals with legacy and commemoration, looking inter alia at the often forgotten fate of Irishmen who had served in the British forces and returned to try to find a place in the new state. He also makes fascinating use of the applications for military service pensions from old revolutionaries, both in the way they framed their claims and in the often flinty reactions of the new bureaucratic class. Here as elsewhere, elements of the British state clearly left their ghosts sitting crowned upon the regime’s supposed grave.

Maurice Walsh’s invigorating account of the revolution and its immediate aftermath starts after the Rising, and firmly locates the Irish crisis in the postwar Europe described by Thomas Masaryk as ‘a laboratory atop a vast graveyard’. Vivid and incisive, his approach highlights discontinuities and contradictions among the revolutionaries: the IRA leader (and future hunger-striker) Terence MacSwiney’s injunction to agricultural labourers threatening a strike, that ‘no man had a right to advocate force on the part of one body of Irishmen against another’, is worthy of Mary Lou McDonald.

Walsh profiles the lives of republican activists ‘on the run’, including the phenomenon of trench-coat chic, and the intense choreography of Éamon de Valera’s American tours (where his endorsement by the black leader Marcus Garvey did not go down well in certain Irish-American circles). But he also sharply sketches the lives of ordinary filmgoers in a city raked by sniper fire, the way policemen were turned into pariahs in their localities, and the mentality of the increasingly bewildered securocrats in Dublin Castle as state authority crumbled around them. The wider international background is always present, as it was to contemporaries — including W.B. Yeats, who charted the temper of these years in ‘The Second Coming’.

Something was certainly slouching towards Bethlehem. But Walsh’s narrative closes by showing how the diverse themes of modernity — jazz, sychoanalysis, feminism, experimental cinema — just emerging at the time of Ireland’s independence were confronted and dispatched by the distinctively Catholic conservatism of the new state. Like Ferriter, he ends on a sombre and reflective note. Both accounts give as much space to disappointments and paradoxes as to revolutionary achievements, and both are notably lacking in triumphalism. In this, they reflect the temper of Irish intellectual life, rather than that of the consumers of popular history-lite out on the streets last Easter Monday.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

'A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923', £22.50 and 'Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918–1923', £14.49 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Roy Foster’s many books include Modern Ireland 1600–1972, Charles Stewart Parnell and Luck and the Irish.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • SNP UPRISING

    1916 was a vivid example of why Britain should hang its head in shame for all the evil atrocities that it inflicted on the people of Ireland.

    I am proud that so many Scots, the foremost being James Connolly, bravely fought and gave their lives whilst helping to free the people of Ireland from British oppression in the Easter Rising.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      In aid of men like Connolly, Barney an McCann
      To fight and die until they drive the British from our lands
      Young and old side by side fighting day by day
      They are the Army of the People – the Official IRA

    • new_number_2

      Ireland wasn’t freed from the British in the Easter Rising. The rising was brutally crushed and its leaders executed. Eamon de Valera was only spared because he was half American.
      It was the War of Independence that followed led by the likes of Michael Collins that actually liberated the twenty six counties, with the Black and Tans notoriously carrying out numerous atrocities such as the looting and burning Cork. The conflict ended with the controversial partition of Ireland which led to the civil war.

      • SNP UPRISING

        The sacrifices of those involved in the Easter Rising were fundamental to Ireland subsequently achieving its independence.

    • Hamburger

      Good for you, however I think that you are more influenced by hagiography than facts.

  • NMS

    Apologies, but is “sanctimonous” not “sanctimonious”? Otherwise, great piece. I particularly like the description of Deputy McDonald, the gangsters’ moll to Adams et al.

  • mikewaller

    What always amazes me is the failure of so many Irish people to realise the depth of hatred engender in many British hearts by what my father’s generation routinely called “the stab in the back”. With its own “brightest and best” (which included many Irish) dying at the rate of about 4,000 a week in resisting the German domination of Europe, a German-funded rising in Dublin was always going to be viewed as unforgivable. Such feelings were exacerbated by the denial of the treaty ports in WW2 – they had already been looted – and then the IRA’s murderous efforts after 1969. The last of these was all the more contemptible because Ghandi and Martin Luther King had already shown the right way to do these things. Of course, none of this excuses British treatment of Ireland over the centuries, but attempts to dress Irish Nationalism as something of unalloyed virtue is nauseous at best.

    • Tom M

      Good afternoon Mike.
      I too have a story on similar lines of the depth of hatered felt by British people to Ireland.
      A good friend of my mother’s was an actuary in what was the TSB at the time. A group of nuns came into the bank with collection boxes. My mother’s friend leapt out of her office chair and ran into the bank shouting at the nuns to get out. When asked she explained her father had been torpedoed by a German U-boat during the war and she claimed the Irish had been refuelling U-boats during the war for the Germans.
      Now because they were nuns didn’t mean they were Irish but with them being catholic she had made the connection nevertheless and whether Ireland ever refuelled U-boats I don’t know but that was her long held opinion of Ireland.

      • jim

        Don’t be stupid.U-boats were not re-fueled in Ireland. Irish authorities co-operated with UK authorities during WW2 but it had to be on the QT because there was so much anti-English sentiment in the country at the time. It is true deValera offered his condolences to the German’s on VE Day to Ireland’s eternal embarrassment .As for 1916 being a “stab in the back”, well isn’t a German dominated Europe the natural order of things?.Whether the UK is in the EU or out of it,that’s the way it’s going to be.Two world wars didn’t stop ’em.With Sinn Fein doing so well in the polls I could happily skip this century’s commemoration festivities but it doesn’t look like that’s an option.
        “…………..the ineffably sanctimonous and ignorant Sinn Féin spokeswoman Mary Lou McDonald…..”
        Couldn’t agree more.She is a horror.

        • Tom M

          First of all it is not a question of my intellect, I was recounting something somebody else thought strongly about however irrational that may have been. As I also said in my post I was personally doubtful of the oft referred to re-fuelling of U-boats in Ireland during WW2.
          That said there most definitely were U-boats visiting Ireland during WW2 for the purposes of depositing and collecting agents sympathetic to the Nazi cause. That is a matter of pubic record. Whether they re-fuelled or not is another matter.

          • jim

            You could say there were U-Boats depositing agents off the UK coast as well.You don’t have the courage to state your smear directly so you parrot it third hand and then disingenuously claim to be “personally doubtful” when it comes to the veracity of the smear.I called you stupid and that was wrong.What you are is a snake without the guts to make a clean strike. If the Irish had refueled U-Boats the UKUS would have bombed them and rightly so.It wasn’t just Churchill who was angered by Irish neutrality.The Americans were making threats too.

          • Tom M

            What a silly way to conduct a discussion.

          • jim

            Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

          • Tom M

            It just means that your use of terms such as “smears”, “silly” or “parrot” don’t really figure in an adult discussion so don’t be surprised if nobody takes you seriously. I don’t.

          • jim

            What it means is that the Irish did not refuel U-Boats and you probably know that but enjoyed the opportunity to throw a little mud.You understand now ,don’t you? I knew you would as soon as I explained it to you.Was there anything else?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    With the advantage of hindsight, the pragmatic approach would surely have been to grant the Republic of Ireland independence back in the early 20th century. Now with so much blood and treasure expended particularly on the British side, that suggestion would doubtless call forth the response, “So what was it all for?”

    • Well, you probably can’t, because you are obviously not of sound mind!

      You obviously hate to have to live in Ireland, immensely, yet you want an Irish naturalisation certificate and the right to apply for an Irish passport … how does that work?!

Close