The 1916 Rising Essay

This year has seen an explosion (!) of books on the 1916 Rising in advance of the centenary next year. They have included overall histories, individual accounts and coffee table books full of pictures, documents and memorabilia, four of which are reviewed on the opposite page by Maurice Hayes. Any of these would make a good Christmas present for someone with an interest in history and the foundation of the state.

  • An explosion of writing on 1916 - the Rising in words and pictures

    This year has seen an explosion (!) of books on the 1916 Rising in advance of the centenary next year. They have included overall histories, individual accounts and coffee table books full of pictures, documents and memorabilia, four of which are reviewed on the opposite page by Maurice Hayes. Any of these would make a good Christmas present for someone with an interest in history and the foundation of the state.

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The bestseller by far has been broadcaster Joe Duffy's Children of the Rising. Although this deals with a collateral aspect of the Rising - the 40 children who died in the crossfire during Easter week - it is a reminder of their tragedy, what life was like for ordinary people in the city at the time and a welcome antidote to the usual tightly-focused narratives of patriotic glory.

Frank Shouldice's Grandpa the Sniper (reviewed on page 24) is the story of what the RTÉ journalist uncovered about his grandfather Frank who, like many of those who fought, rarely spoke afterwards about the events of 1916. An account of one individual's role that brings the wider story vividly to life.

Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap does the same so effectively that it's almost like being there. This is a novelised account, but accurate in every detail, of the experiences that week of the Fairview volunteers of F Company, 2nd battalion, Dublin Brigade. So instead of this being yet another book centred on Pearse or the other leaders, it is a true story of rank and file rebels, compellingly told as only Kerrigan can.

For those who want the full life stories of the individual leaders, the O'Brien Press series of new biographies, 16 Lives, referring of course to the 16 men who were executed, adds up to a substantial body of work. Fourteen have been published so far, with the final two (Patrick Pearse and Thomas Kent) due early next year, completing what will be an impressive collection which many homes and all libraries in the country will want to have.

To Speak of Easter Week by Helene O'Keeffe is a large format book that offers more than the usual retelling of the 1916 story. Instead it gives a new perspective on the events and the aftermath (very difficult for some families) through the oral testimonies of relatives and descendants of both leaders and ordinary volunteers. One man, John O'Connor, who had been part of the Four Courts Garrison, remembered being marched from Richmond Barracks to the North Wall on the Sunday night after the surrender. He remembered the "hostile crowds around Inchicore" and being glad of the "continuous line of British soldiers who stood close together with bayonets fixed... those British soldiers saved us from our own people... getting on the ole cattle boat was quite a relief."

Trinity in War and Revolution 1912-1923 by Tomas Irish is another large format book, just published, that offers a different perspective. The idea of Trinners - where the gates were locked and potshots were taken at passing rebels from the rooftops - having much to do with the glories of the 1916 Rising may seem faintly comic. The college, already a supplier of officer material for the First World War, became a staging point for British reinforcements and artillery brought up to put down the rebellion. But of course the story is far more nuanced than is often portrayed and this book, with one chapter on the Rising, accurately places the events in the wider context of sentiment in the city in the decade after 1912.

Three history heavyweights, Tim Pat Coogan, Diarmaid Ferriter and Ronan Fanning all had new books this year. Ferriter's A Nation not a Rabble is the most substantial, setting the Rising in the wider context of the 1912-23 period and straining to show that the aftermath of 1916 was more a nation coming of political age than an accidental result of British stupidity.

Coogan's book 1916 - The Mornings After is an entertaining read, an assessment of how we developed morally as a nation in the centenary since the Rising. And Fanning's book, Éamon de Valera: A Will To Power, steers a mid-course between the earlier biographies by Coogan (negative) and Ferriter (positive) and offers new insight into the Long Fella when we thought we had heard it all. As the title suggests, Fanning highlights Dev's lust for power, calling him "the most divisive figure in the history of modern Ireland" and with good reason given his self-serving behaviour over the Treaty which Fanning says he rejected even though he knew that compromise was inevitable.

From UCD Press this autumn came Years of Turbulence, a collection of essays by historians, edited by Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan. Of interest mainly to people who already know the history of the time and want new perspectives, perhaps the standout essay is Tom Garvin's The Making of Irish Revolutionary Elites which is a portrayal of Jack (who became Seán) Lemass and his career.

One other new biography deserves a mention, Owen McGee's Arthur Griffith, who, unlike the dreamers and poets who made up much of the 1916 leadership, was a working class Dubliner (a printer) who had a more grounded view of events particularly in relation to the economic future of the country. This was in stark contrast to Dev's later vision of dancing at the crossroads and a rural people happy in their cottages with their "frugal comfort" while the reality became mass emigration.

A similar tone is evident in A Woven Silence by Felicity Hayes-McCoy which was inspired by the story of her relative Marion Stokes, one of three women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916. Using her own family history she looks at how the ideals for which Marion and her companions fought were eroded, resulting in an Ireland marked by chauvinism, isolationism and secrecy. Nothing to do with Dev, of course.

There were many other new books this year on 1916 - some bookshops have gathered them into displays that also include the earlier standard works by leading historians. Coogan's biographies of de Valera and Collins have both been reissued in paperback with new introductions for the centenary.

One that appeared this year in paperback that is particularly interesting is Inside the GPO: A First Hand Account by Joe Good, a volunteer from London who was in the GPO and became close to Collins and in 1918 was one of the handpicked team sent to London to assassinate members of the British cabinet. He died in Dublin in 1962 and wrote this journal in 1946 for his son Maurice, who edited it for publication.

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What were the circumstances which led to the 1916 Rising?

In 1912, Asquith was the liberal Prime Minister of Britain He introduced the third Home Rule Bill. This would give limited self government to Ireland. They would still be part of the empire and have to send 40 MP's to Westminster, but it recognized Ireland was different from Britain, as they would have their own parliament and because of this the nationalists were willing to accept it. John Redmond was the leader of the Home Rule party, with John Dillon as his deputy. The bill had been blocked by the Tories in the House of Lords, but the Parliament Act of 1911 stated they could only block it for two years, so Ireland was set to get home rule in 1914.

Unionists saw it as a threat to their religion, identity, and prosperity. They felt vulnerable because they were a minority, but they mainly lived in the North East so they were easy to organise. They also had great leaders in Carson and Craig. The Tories feared it as the start of the break-up of the empire. Andrew Bonar Law said he would support the Unionists even if they broke the law in opposition to Home Rule. This was treason. On 28th September 1912, over half a million unionists signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant. They were prepared to use violence against Home Rule. In January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were formed. This was Europe's first private army. This idea was later copied by Mussolini and Hitler. This was a turning point as there was now a militant tone in Ireland. This inspired southerners to form their own volunteer force. This pleased the IRB. On 25th November 1913, the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) were established in the Rotunda in Dublin. Sam McNeill, founder of the Gaelic League, was their leader. 3,000 joined on the first night, including De Valera and Pearse. The IRB infiltrated it. This was the perfect front for them. The IVF's motto was "Defense not defiance". Politics and democracy were failing to give Ireland home rule and there was now two private armies facing each other.

Redmond desperately wanted to avoid a civil war. He was prepared to consed the four counties, Derry, Antrim, Armagh and Down, which were mainly unionists. He thought it would only be temporary. He conceded the principle of partition. He should have held hi ground. He was trying too hard to avoid violence. Carson wanted Tyrone and Fermanagh as well. They were both split between unionists and nationalists. It now looked likely that if Ireland got home rule it would not be for the whole island. In March 1914, 58 officers in the British army, led by General Hubert Gough, indicated they would resign if asked to impose home rule on Ulster. This was undemocratic and it weakened Asquith as he could no longer trust the army to impose home rule in Ulster.

In April 1914, 25,000 weapons and 5 million rounds of ammunition were brought into Larne on the Clyde ship from Germany. This was known as Operation Lion. The RIC ignored this. On 26th July1914, 1,500 rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition arrived in Howth on the Asgard, also coming from Germany. The British army stopped them and three people were killed in the "Bachelors Walk Massacre". This showed the double standards for the unionist and nationalists. The gun was now back in Irish Politics. In Buckingham Palace a conference was held on July 20-24th 1914. This was a last effort to sort out the problem with Redmond and Carson. They both wanted Fermanagh and Tyrone but failed to reach an agreement. There were liberalists, Asquith and Lloyd George, Tories, Bonar Law and Lord Landsdowne, Unionists, Carson and Craig, and Nationalists, Redmond and Dillon, present at the conference. Politics had failed and they now faced civil war.

On August 4th, 1914, Britain joined WW1, which overtook events in Ireland. It helped to calm civil war fears. The UVF joined the British army and had their own division, the 36th Ulster Division. Home Rule had been due to come in on 18th September 1914, but it was suspended until after the war. On 20th September, Redmond made a speech at Woodenbridge, County Wicklow, urging the Irish Volunteers to join the British army. He believed the war would be over by Christmas. he used the fact that Germany had invaded Belgium, a small, neutral, catholic country, just like Ireland, to gain support. There was a split in the IVF. The 170,000 national volunteers, led by Redmond, joined the British, while the 11,000 IVF, led by Eoin McNeill, stayed at home. he IRB infiltrated the IVF. It was easier to take over and control a smaller group of 11,000. The longer the war went on the more support Redmond lost and McNeill gained. There was a lot of opposition to the war in Ireland. Aurthur Griffith and Sinn Féin, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, and McNeill and the Volunteers, all campaigned against joining the British army. This helped push events towards 1916.

In 1915a national government was formed in London. Redmond was invited to join but refused, so it was made up of liberalists, unionists, Tories and the Labour Party. Bonar Law was a minister and Carson Attorney General. Unionists now had a voice at Westminster. Home Rule became more distant as it now had no support in Westminster. If they wanted home rule now, they would have to fight for it. This was great for the IRB. In June 1915, Britain  suffered a disastrous defeat at Galipollo. England's difficultly was Ireland's opportunity. Casement went to Germany looking for guns and Irish prisoners of war. He only got 20,000 rifles. Ireland was still part of the British empire yet they had a possible ally with Germany, who were fighting against Britain in WW1 at the same time.

The IRB had no public leaders, now Pearse becomes the public pace. He was very interested in the Irish language as he believed that was what made the Irish different from Britain. He had originally supported home rule but felt it slipping away so he became a republican. He wanted full separation from Britain. He believed in blood sacrifice, that even if the rising failed, it would still be a success as it would encourage future generations to rise up. He compared it to Jesus dying on the cross and rising again. "Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations".

Within the IRB, a military council of Thomas Clarke, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas Mac Donagh, Pearse, Ceannt, Connolly and Plunkett was set up to plan the rising. They had discovered James Connolly and the ICA were planning a socialist rising so they got him in with them instead. Connolly had valuable military experience, unlike the other leaders. In order to have the rising they needed weapons and men. They wanted McNeill and the Volunteers on board. They forged the "Castle Document" and it was printed in the Sunday paper. It said British authorities were going to arrest Pearse and the Volunteers. McNeill urged them to resit arrest. Pearse then informed him on the Thursday that a rising was planned. Guns were to arrive from Germany on the "Aud" into Tralee bay, but it was spotted by the British Navy. Rather than let the British take the 20,000 guns, they deliberatly sank the ship. Casement came back and was arrested. The British now believed they had gotten the man in charge. Casement had actually been coming back to stop the rising. McNeill now wanted to cancel the rising as they did not have enough men or weapons, and he discovered the document had been forged.

It was published in the Sunday Independent on the morning the rising had been planned for saying that all maneuvers were cancelled. This caused a lot of confusion. The seven main men met in Liberty Hall on Sunday Night and decided to go ahead with only 1,500 IRB men, 200 ICA men and 1,500 guns from Howth. This was Pearse's idea of Blood Sacrifice.

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