The Long Sacrifice: As the Centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising Approaches, Will Poking around in the Embers of Irish History Rekindle Old Flames?

By Reynolds, David | New Statesman (1996), July 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Long Sacrifice: As the Centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising Approaches, Will Poking around in the Embers of Irish History Rekindle Old Flames?


Reynolds, David, New Statesman (1996)


The creeping barrage of First World War centenaries moves inexorably on. Gallipoli 2015 is now behind us. In 2016 the French will turn their sights on Verdun while the British target the Somme. In both cases the commemorations will tell us as much about the present as the past, exposing divergent national attitudes on either side of the Channel towards European reconciliation and integration. But the most present-centred anniversaries in 2016 will take place in Ireland. Here, history remains particularly raw.

The Easter Rising of 1916 has become the foundational myth of the modern Irish state. The revolt itself was a quixotic act, involving no more than 1,500 people, and the whole thing was crushed within a week at the cost of 450 lives, more than half of them civilians. But the crass brutality of the British military afterwards, including several thousand arrests and 16 executions, helped turn the "rainbow chasers" into national martyrs. The ruined General Post Office on Sackville Street in Dublin, the rebels' short-lived headquarters, became the iconic symbol of the rising.

For Irish nationalists Easter 1916 signalled the rebirth of the nation--a stepping stone to Sinn Fein's landslide victory in the 1918 election, the war of independence against Britain from 1919 to 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State. The Easter Rising seemed all the more attractive as a dramatic symbol because the larger story of national liberation was complex and messy. The independence achieved was incomplete, since Ireland was denied both sovereignty and unity. Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 Eire remained part of the British Commonwealth, owing ultimate allegiance to the Crown, while the six largely Protestant counties of the north-east stayed within the United Kingdom as the statelet of Northern Ireland.

The treaty was therefore completely unacceptable to hardline republicans and nationalists. Their opposition sparked a vicious civil war in 1922-23 between former comrades-in-arms, the death toll from which exceeded that of the war of independence against Britain. In this struggle, the iconic equivalent of the GPO of 1916 was the Four Courts, a neoclassical complex on Dublin's waterfront where the anti-treaty forces had been headquartered. The building was shelled into ruins by government troops using artillery loaned by the British. Although the pro-treaty forces were victorious in 1923, Irish politics for much of the 20th century remained polarised between political parties rooted in the opposing sides during the civil war.

Clinging tight to Easter 1916--told as a heroic saga of national resurrection, of good v evil--has therefore been a convenient, even necessary, narrative in Ireland. But this will be much harder to sustain a century on, as is clear from two recent books by Maurice Walsh and Diarmaid Ferriter, and from others in the pre-centenary literary buildup. For one thing, rich new sources have become available in the past decade or so. In 2003 the Irish government finally opened the records of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), including over 1,700 statements taken in the 1940s and 1950s from veterans of the rising and the war of independence. And in 2014 it started to make available online the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), nearly 300,000 files from veterans of 1916-23 who set down detailed accounts of their service to the state in order to secure pensions or compensation.

These new materials have to be read with care because their authors had every incentive to exaggerate their own importance to make their name or make money. Nevertheless, the BMH and MSPC archives allow historians to construct accounts of the period that move away from a few embalmed leaders and a few streets in Dublin to offer broader social histories of the era, ranging right across the country and highlighting the diversity of individual experience.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an academic historian, sticks close to the sources, at times offering perhaps too much detail. …

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