Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Romancing Rebellion

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Romancing Rebellion

Article excerpt

Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland (1890-1923)

R F Foster

Allen Lane, 496pp, 20 [pounds sterling]

For many historians, the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion in Ireland has been intriguing, a puzzle. The events are well known: on 24 April 1916, a volunteer army occupied Dublin's General Post Office and read a proclamation of the republic declaring the end of British rule. After six days of fighting with British troops, who employed heavy artillery and incendiary shells, the rebels surrendered. The Easter Rising ended with the execution of the leaders and the arrest of thousands of Irish militants and civilians.

Is it possible that the rebellion led to a radical change of opinion in Ireland, enough to make British rule in the southern part of the country impossible thereafter? Was it simply the "terrible beauty" of the rebellion, in W B Yeats's phrase, the sheer foolhardy idealism of it and the execution of the leaders that led to the landslide victory for Sinn Fein, which won 73 seats out of 105 in Ireland in the December 1918 general election? Or was the country moving in that direction in any case? Or was the early release of prisoners by a wavering British government an important factor in setting the scene for what became known as the war of independence?

Or was the feeling that southern Ireland would have to separate from the empire fomented more by the threat of conscription in the last years of the First World War, with the increasing knowledge of the waste of life in the conflict, including more than 30,000 Irish dead? Did it matter that the leaders of the rebellion died as good Catholics and the news of their bravery and religiosity and patriotism was spread throughout the country by a brilliant publicity machine?

Lady Gregory, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, was at her house in the west of Ireland when the rebellion in Dublin broke out. Her only son was in the British army. Her letters are an interesting example of how quickly public opinion changed in Ireland, how swiftly people moved from being shocked by the rising, or being openly opposed to it, to feeling a strange sympathy with its leaders. Just after the rebellion, she wrote to Yeats: "It is terrible to think of the executions or killings that are sure to come--yet it must be so--we had been at the mercy of a rabble for a long time both here and in Dublin, with no apparent policy." But after the execution of the leaders, including Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, both of whom she had known, her attitude changed. Within a few weeks, she wrote to Yeats again: "My mind is filled with sorrow at the Dublin tragedy, the death of Pearse and MacDonagh ... It seems as if the leaders were what is wanted in Ireland and will be even more wanted in the future."

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It took another six years and a long guerrilla war (from 1919-21) before the Irish Free State was established in 1922. The compromises involved led to a civil war (1922-23) between those willing to settle for the dominion status (with the British monarch as head of state) granted by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and those who saw it as a betrayal of the Irish republic proclaimed in 1916.

Sources for the military aspects of the rebellion and its aftermath are elaborate, almost too plentiful. This is due to the Bureau of Military History, which was set up by the Irish government in 1947 and took 1,773 witness statements from participants in the rebellion and the war of independence, with the agreement that the archive would be closed until all those involved in its making had died. It was not opened until 2003.

That this treasure trove changed the way the rebellion could be analysed can be seen in works such as Charles Townshend's Easter 1916: the Irish Rebellion (2005) and The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-23 (2013). Since the publication of these two books, a further valuable archive about the period of 1916-23 has been made public: the Military Service Pensions Collection, which includes applications for pensions, with much corroborated detail on military activity, by those who took part in the fighting on the Irish side. …

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