Few Irish nationalist commentators or politicians doubt that the insurrection of Easter 1916 was the most important event in 20th-century Irish history, marking the moment when Ireland emerged symbolically from English domination. Sinn Fein’s extraordinary tally of seats at the 1918 general election, the guerrilla war against the British forces that followed, the establishment of the Free State in 1921, and de Valera’s unilateral declaration of an Irish republic in 1948 are regarded as fulfilling the prescription issued in 1916.
Such thinking reflects the old romantic notion that in 1916 the Irish republic was ‘virtually established’ as a reality that lacked only formal structures. Ireland was literally God-given and only through independence could God’s intentions be fulfilled. Following the 1918 election, the Dail declared a republic, which gave the uprising its retrospective approval. The greatest prize was the unity of Ireland and, to borrow Wolfe Tone’s famous phrase, the substitution of ‘the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’. The Proclamation read from the steps of the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) by Patrick Pearse gave full expression to these sentiments, adumbrating a series of principles that blended romantic nationalism with the political ideals of the Enlightenment. The Proclamation is one of the finest documents of its kind. ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen,’ it opens, ‘in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.’ It later insists that ‘the Irish republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ The republic would reward its citizens by ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.
The reality was much more complicated. The Military Council did not act in the name of all the Irish. Dublin’s Catholic bourgeoisie saw the whole thing as deranged, believing that a small number of respectable citizens – schoolteachers and shopkeepers – had led impressionable acolytes to behave utterly recklessly. ‘They should all be shot,’ was the most common response. Scanty evidence suggests that those further down the social scale were more likely to sympathise with the rebels; others were steadily more impressed – if not approving – as the rebels held out over the course of the week. The majority’s loyalties remained with the Home Rule party and its leader, John Redmond. Ever since Parnell had been hailed ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’ in the 1880s, the majority of nationalists had supported the parliamentary campaign for Home Rule, hoping that Westminster could be persuaded or cajoled into devolving government. Though Gladstone’s bills of 1886 and 1893 had failed – the first provoked a split in the Liberal Party, the second was thrown out by the Lords – the Irish kept faith, buoyed up by a succession of agrarian and religious reforms that pleasingly undermined the authority of Protestant Ireland. If Home Rule remained out of reach, constitutional nationalism nevertheless seemed to be delivering on behalf of Ireland’s most crucial constituency, the Catholic farmers. In the shadows, ever ready to pour scorn on the ‘transactions’ of the Home Rule party, were the Fenians, or the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the self-appointed guardians of the separatist, republican tradition. Very much in a minority, Fenianism was nevertheless a crucial presence in Irish nationalism, representing ideals that few constitutional politicians could afford openly to ignore. Irish MPs paid homage to Fenianism’s insurrectionary hopes, tending to frame their advocacy of parliamentary action in pragmatic terms, as Fenianism by other means. Providing the British responded justly to their grievances, the Irish would stick to constitutional methods.
Defiance was an essential part of nationalist rhetoric, satisfying the emotions while keeping immediate interests firmly to the fore. Indeed, convinced Home Rulers feared that Gladstone and the constructive Unionists were right in thinking that the expeditious address of grievances would diminish nationalist passions. The same fears animated some of the rebels in 1916. They calculated that the British reaction would be sufficiently severe to make it clear that government from London was a form of imperial occupation, brought about and sustained by force.
Under Redmond the Home Rule party became dominated by a clique of imperialists who, at their most far-sighted, regarded a reconfiguration of the Union – sometimes promoted as ‘Home Rule all round’ – as presaging a wider rethinking of the empire. They hoped that the Irish and other nationalities could be reconciled to an empire reconceived as a union of interdependent nations, no longer as the possessions of a single great power. Such ruminations seemed pretty obscure to most nationalists, however, and were easily sidelined when the Lords lost their veto over legislation passed by the Commons. By weakening Home Rule’s greatest source of opposition and Unionism’s greatest source of security, the Parliament Act had transformed the political landscape.
Asquith placed a third Home Rule bill before the Commons in 1912. Backed by the Tories, Ulster Unionists pledged to resist its implementation and formed the Ulster Volunteer Force. Nationalist Ireland looked on bemused, but some were roused when partition, whether temporary or permanent, emerged as a possible means of overcoming the deadlock. In late 1913, the Irish Volunteer organisation was established, ostensibly to defend the ‘semblance of civil government’ threatened by the Ulster Unionist-Conservative nexus, but behind it there was a strong Fenian influence. Patrick Pearse, not yet a member of the Brotherhood, made a famous speech in which he said that ‘it was a goodly thing to see arms in the hands of Irishmen’. Irish Unionists had finally ceased to depend on Westminster and by their autonomous action had made the Irish Question a properly Irish problem. Agency was being restored to the Irish people, liberating them from the emasculating methods of the constitutionalists.
Yet the separatists knew that not everything was going their way, and their fears were confirmed when Redmond committed the Volunteers to the British war effort in August 1914. This precipitated a split, with a large majority, around 90 per cent, siding with the Home Ruler. Nevertheless, as Charles Townshend writes, from the start of the war a ‘mental neutrality could be sensed in the Irish public sphere, an absence of the fierce spasm of patriotism which gripped the English.’ The dissenting 10 per cent were riven by ideological differences. Some were insurrectionists, some favoured a longer-term guerrilla war against the British, while others, notably Eoin MacNeill, favoured mass mobilisation to force a transition towards independence that would be achieved primarily through the political process. Their cultural politics also varied. At one end of the spectrum was MacNeill, a leading Gaelicist; at the other was Tom Clarke, a Fenian of the old school. He passionately believed in the efficacy of insurrection, but was little affected by the extraordinary achievements of the Irish literary revival or the principles of self-help advocated by, among others, the infant Sinn Fein.
Pearse’s prominence in the years immediately before the Rising has ensured that the event has been interpreted through his speeches. As a result, the suggestion has been that it was motivated less by serious military objectives than by the doctrine of blood sacrifice, whereby Ireland might be spiritually resurrected. Pearse’s own cult of Robert Emmet, the doomed leader of the insurrection of 1803, has tended to reinforce this view. Wolfe Tone, the republican leader of the 1798 rebellion, the largest in Irish history, was the most revered of all Irish nationalists, but though Tone’s centenary attracted a great deal more attention than Emmet’s, Emmet was a more instructive model for someone attracted to the ideal of personal sacrifice.
Townshend emphasises that although many of the rebels expected to die, they did not share, in Yeats’s phrase, Pearse’s ‘vertigo of self-sacrifice’. He addresses the question of how much weight should be placed on the blood sacrifice idea partly by examining the military strategy of the rebellion. No plans have survived and some of the rebels’ actions seem bizarre. Why was Dublin Castle not taken as a priority? It was weakly defended and once captured could have been held effectively. Why were greater efforts not made to undermine British communications? Why was better provision not made to ensure the rebels were well fed? There is little evidence of any serious military thinking behind the Rising.
That said, the insurrection of Easter Monday was not the anticipated rebellion, which had been intended for the Sunday. MacNeill discovered the orders for this at the last moment and countermanded them in what remains the most controversial single act in modern Irish history. The hastily organised Monday morning muster was well below strength – messengers were sent to get volunteers out of bed. Most provincial volunteers were immobilised by indecision when news of the Dublin outbreak came through. A recent monograph by Fergus Campbell convincingly shows that MacNeill’s order prevented a more formidable rising in the West of Ireland, which, Townshend argues, would have stretched the British forces severely.But the actuality was a purportedly national insurrection that was significant only in the capital. It was, as Roy Foster provokingly but accurately described it, a putsch. A more genuinely national rebellion might have bequeathed a different legacy: a felt need to atone for inaction at Easter was one of the forces driving the subsequent guerrilla war.
Having rejected the notion that Pearse and the others were granted authority to act by ‘the dead generations’, historians have been tempted to explain their actions psychologically. Fortunately, they have been able to cite a remarkable memorandum discovered only in the early 1960s. Written some months before the Rising, it was never circulated. Its most famous lines have been much reproduced:
To my mind, those who feel impelled towards military action … are really impelled by a sense of their own feebleness or despondency or fatalism, or by an instinct of satisfying their own emotions or escaping from a difficult and complex situation … We have to remember that what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction, as some of us, perhaps all of us, in the exercise of our highly developed capacity for figurative thought, are sometimes apt to imagine … What we call our country is the Irish nation, a concrete and visible reality.
This ‘dose of professorial wisdom’, as Townshend calls it, came from MacNeill and displays a great deal of psychological insight; that ‘capacity for figurative thought’ is undoubtedly evident in the lines from the Proclamation quoted above.
It is worth asking whether MacNeill’s words, slightly amended, could be used to explain Redmondite support for the war. To take an extreme example: the former Irish MP Tom Kettle, a chronic alcoholic anxious about the state of Irish masculinity, saw the Allied cause as a moral crusade. He lost his own life in the trenches, as did Redmond’s brother, also an MP. Redmondite support for recruiting suggested that lives should be sacrificed on the Western Front to demonstrate Irish loyalty and therefore the reasonableness of Home Rule, and the leadership adopted something of the spirit of self-sacrifice that Pearse emphasised, rightly, as central to the nationalist tradition.
The second man in the party, John Dillon, made a series of extraordinary parliamentary interventions in 1916-18 which prove that there were nationalist passions of a distinctly non-Redmondite sort still to be found in the party. In a speech of 11 May 1916 he condemned the execution of the rebel leaders and the large number of often indiscriminate arrests carried out under martial law. They were damaging to British interests in Ireland: ‘If Ireland were governed by men out of Bedlam you could not pursue a more insane policy.’ The rebels should not be treated as murderers, he added. They were ‘insurgents who have fought a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided’. Infuriated by hecklers, Dillon exploded: ‘It would be a damned good thing for you if your soldiers were able to put up as good a fight as did these men in Dublin.’ He was ‘proud of their courage, and if you were not so dense and stupid, as some of you English people are, you could have had these men fighting for you’. Dillon’s professed admiration was not simply a desperate political gesture, nor was it the first time a nationalist MP had praised Irish rebels in such terms in the Commons, but he knew the party’s position had to be shored up. Dillon was watching the dissolution of the school of patriotism that had been his life’s work and his speech gave expression to a lifetime’s frustration.
Townshend suggests that ‘what may have struck Asquith most uncomfortably was Dillon’s denunciation of military rule: “You have swept away every trace of civil administration in the country.”’ Historically, Liberals had agonised over how to respond to an Irish rebellion. They recognised that Ireland’s government was incompatible with British principles but regarded the system centralised at Dublin Castle as necessary to the stability of the Union. Neither a colony nor a fully integrated part of the Union, Ireland was a standing reproach in the 19th century, a distorting mirror that presented the British with an image of themselves few could admit they recognised. Home Rule seemed a means of ending these anomalies and avoiding further ‘continental’ abuses of power.
It was the wider shifts in British government brought about by the war that allowed the rapid transfer of power from the civilian to a military regime in 1916. ‘Military logic, and military expertise, were in the ascendant, in a way unprecedented in British history.’ Townshend saves his most scathing judgments for the insensitivity of the army and its assumption that Ireland needed to be disciplined. Kitchener, whose understanding of Irish politics ‘amounted to a caricature of Tory prejudice’, is condemned for his ‘malign destructiveness’. He ‘was a military technician whose political ideas were rudimentary’. Placing him at the War Office ‘was one of the earliest signals of the war ethos that would compromise Britain’s Irish policy for the duration.’ ‘The army’s determination to crush the rebels was natural, but it also received the blessing of statesmen who had been wrestling for years’ with the Irish problem. ‘So this was to be conscious state terrorism,’ Townshend pointedly comments, ‘a dramatic divergence from the anti-militarism that had been so persistent a feature of English political culture.’ By resorting to a military regime, the British government appeared to abandon the civil processes the Home Rulers had begun to trust. The post-rebellion crackdown meant that people’s experience came into line with separatist ideologies. (The contemporary significance of all this need hardly be spelled out.)
General Maxwell complained that just as his suppression of the separatists was beginning to restore order, Dillon’s speech had an antagonising effect. Maybe so, but the general missed the point. Home Rulers experienced the internment of suspected sympathisers of the rebellion by the British military as traumatic. For many, that trauma was eased by the opportunity to vote for a Sinn Fein candidate at the 1918 general election.
In early 1918, Dillon, who had become chairman of the party on Redmond’s death, led the Home Rule MPs out of the House of Commons in response to the proposed extension of the Military Service Act to Ireland. They joined protests organised by Sinn Fein, which was now dominated by men released from internment, and backed by the Catholic Church. Though not permanent, and certainly not tantamount to a military rebellion, the withdrawal reaffirmed the old claim that Irish support for constitutionalism was conditional, highlighting once again the absence of clear boundaries between constitutional and separatist nationalism. For all the talk about imperial Home Rule, most Catholics were psychological rebels; the state in Ireland faced a permanent crisis of legitimacy.
Townshend gives credit to the view that the conscription crisis would have occurred without the Rising (and possibly sooner), and thus nationalist unity might have come about peacefully. Without conscription important elements in the Church would not have come to sympathise with Sinn Fein; without the Rising the Home Rule leadership would have been better placed to lead the opposition to conscription. However, at the 1918 election the nationalist vote was more divided than it had been since the beginning of the Home Rule campaign. Sinn Fein benefited greatly from the first past the post system and, seemingly, from the new extension of the franchise. Not only were poorer Irishmen and women allowed to vote but so too was a new generation whose seminal political experiences had been the Ulster crisis, the gradual unravelling of the Home Rule party’s political authority and a wartime atmosphere characterised by talk of small nations’ right to self-determination.
On the eve of the rebellion’s 90th anniversary, the status of 1916 in the supposedly ‘post-nationalist’ Irish republic is uncertain. During the recent Fianna Fail ard fheis (‘convention’), the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, nervous about the possibility of Sinn Fein gains at the next general election, claimed that 1916 originated his brand of ‘constitutional republicanism’. Next year, he announced, the old Easter parade through Dublin city centre would be revived. During the 50th anniversary celebrations there was palpable anxiety among the revolutionary generation that they were ceding their project to one insufficiently schooled in the exalted traditions of 1916. ‘Revisionist’ historians have written savagely about the rebellion, as a proto-fascist catastrophe that left the Irish state a very difficult legacy. When Ireland fell into civil war in 1922 over whether the treaty granting the country dominion status should be accepted, the anti-treaty case was founded partly on the perception that it was a betrayal of the dead. Both the rebels of 1916 and the irregulars of 1922-23 acted on the assumption that they could defy majority opinion, which was too cowardly or too stupid to recognise Ireland’s national needs. The Provisional IRA, in part, professed to act with the same authority. Townshend’s evaluation of the morality of the Rising is at one with these ‘revisionist’ analyses, although it is a sign of the times that his opinions are expressed indirectly. He neither treats the rebels as the spotless heroes of nationalist myth nor adopts the contemptuous tone of some recent accounts. Consequently, his often seamless blending of narrative and analysis disguises opinions that are more trenchant than they at first appear. In this way, Townshend has done for the rebels of 1916 what Richard English did for the IRA in Armed Struggle (2003) – neither provides succour for the keepers of their respective flames.
In other ways, too, this history is very much of its time. It ends on a conciliatory note, comparing the battle of Dublin with the battle of the Somme. Besides reminding us that violence and sacrifice have helped define both traditions in Northern Ireland, this pairing also reflects a new aim that has become de rigueur in Irish public discourse: the extension of a ‘parity of esteem’ to the two sides. By reserving his harshest judgments for government-sanctioned misuse – if not abuse – of military power, Townshend stresses one of the most pressing issues of our time. For the really crucial question that 1916 raises is why a bloody but limited rebellion developed into the widespread insurgency of the war of 1919-21. Above all, Townshend is interested in causation, and this book traces effectively how a rebellion by a minority of a minority took on such symbolic significance. It is ironic that the most important actors in the drama were the British forces in Ireland. After 1918, with the rejection of the republic by the British government and Irish Unionists, the initiative passed to the IRA. There is a further irony: this book is beautifully written – the early chapters are superb, the later ones riveting – but those on the rebellion itself are rather bloodless.