On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, thirty revolutionary socialists raided the heart of British imperialism, Dublin Castle. Seán Connolly, an amateur actor and a clerk over at City Hall, shot James O’Brien, unarmed and the only officer on duty, at point-blank range after O’Brien had held up his hand to stop the rebels from their first advance. Once inside the fortress manned by sentries without weapons, the insurgents wondered what to do next. Lacking clear plans, they were startled by the bang of a closed door.
They could have captured the headquarters of the Crown administration; instead, their heroic or tragicomic gestures came to naught, symbolizing the confusion of a subsequent six-day uprising that failed to take over the capital city during the Great War, capitalizing on “England’s difficulty.”
Professor McGarry, in his fourth book about Irish republicanism, uses recently released interviews with nearly 1,800 participants and eyewitnesses made by the Irish government’s Bureau of Military History in the 1950s. While acknowledging the risks of oral histories given the passage of time and the nature of their biases, McGarry succeeds in exposing what few histories of the Rising have done: how the ordinary men and women felt as their city fell around them, bursting into flame and assaulted by rebels and the counterattacks by British troops rushed in to crush the latest in a series of seemingly futile uprisings.
The first third of this readable study analyzes questions still debated almost a century later. How likely was victory? Did leaders act out of blood sacrifice and a desperate martyrdom—as has been alleged for Patrick Pearse? Or did those socialists in the Irish Citizen Army headed by James Connolly, the Marxist theorist, move the secretive cabal who directed the rebellion toward political radicalism in an early example of modern urban insurrection? How likely was a progressive Irish Republic, once proclaimed that Monday, to have been formed? And how did everyday Irish citizens, caught in the crossfire as their homes and workplaces exploded, react to the mobilization of their fellow Irishmen, both on the sides of the rebels and among those many soldiers who served in Irish regiments for Britain?
McGarry notes the common appeal of militarism. Within the Fenian tradition, a rebellion had to be made to save face every generation; its failure mattered less than its attempt. The civilian, nationalist Irish Volunteers—who regrouped after most of their ranks had joined the British call to fight in France—became hardened, vowing to resist imperial conscription. They radicalized, belatedly, a generation raised on demanding Home Rule for Ireland. This delayed success, McGarry argues, offsets the defeat of the actual Rising, for it led to guerrilla war that would soon bring to most of Ireland partial independence—and for the rest of the island a partition that already was a given by British geopolitics.
Rumors of German arms shipments and troops sent to Ireland recall the 1798 failure of the French to oust the British on behalf of Ireland. Before Easter Sunday, the arms had been intercepted and eight times the orders for the Volunteers to rise up were countermanded. Most, therefore, never responded to the call when the leaders summoned them that Monday to attempt the latest uprising. About two thousand took up arms in the city and another thousand elsewhere (far less studied and more rarely provoking fire), fought against the British. They hoped to gain some advantage to distract British forces from the European fronts, to demonstrate to Kaiser their desire to distract the King, and to perhaps even earn a seat at postwar peace talks for reparations. Their plans were confused and grand.
While secular and anticlerical critics of the Church numbered three on the Army Council that called for war, the spiritual posture of most rebels, overwhelmingly Catholic, colored memories and tinted propaganda, as the oral testimony shows. The radical nature of earlier republican ideology ebbed as the starving rebels were depicted as heroic martyrs. McGarry skillfully and fairly documents the range of actions witnessed that attest to the responses of clerics, which were as varied as those of the laity who watched as their streets were taken over first by a ragtag crew of their neighbors and then assaulted by another faction of their neighbors, mobilized in police and army uniforms and backed by naval artillery.
The ambiguous reactions to the Irish rebellion echo for a hundred years. Fear and ambivalence weakened many in the constabulary called out to fight against the rebels. This uneasy relationship would soon, after the Rising, work to the advantage of public opinion. The British, who relied more on a cowed populace than a willing one in Ireland, retreated themselves despite their military triumph, into a barricaded, defensive stance that the next republican army could manipulate, undermine, and dominate. Thus, as McGarry shows, the course of contemporary Irish history flowed from these attitudes formed during the spring of 1916. Families continued to divide over loyalty and defiance, stability or dissension, and the republican movement itself evolved with similar ambiguities as it first came to power and then was thrown from power by its own former neighbors and comrades.
Caused by a failed coup-d’état or a pious sacrifice, a stymied revolution or street theater, the effects conjured up by its enactors stun. Looting, summary executions, acts of mercy, terrified civilians, brave priests, jittery doctors, angry “separation women” enraged at the rebels who tore up their city while the women’s kin fought as Tommies overseas—all these everyday people are given a voice by Professor McGarry.
Its failure, the execution of its leaders, the shifts from outrage—by those who the rebels sought to inspire to fight alongside them—to gradual sympathy for the campaign for Irish independence: it is all here. This fluid narrative, footnoted and with a reading list that draws from trusted sources, should become the one volume any reader determined to figure out the events from those caught up in them rather than directing them, will learn from. The claims of insurgents, ideologies, and insurrection, as our headlines attest, reverberate and confound us too, in today’s cities and nations.
(Oxford UP, 2010: Reviewed for The New York Journal of Books, April 26, 2010. My short summary-- not excerpted from the above or the NYJB-- filed at Amazon US 4-27-10)