The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades
Gill & Macmillan 162pp £19.99
The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising is just around the corner and already a significant number of publications about the event have appeared. Organised by a small group of Republicans (led, among others, by Patrick Henry Pearce or Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais), the rebels’ intention was to thwart the political settlement of Home Rule, which was to be implemented after the First World War, and through their ‘blood sacrifice’ secure Ireland’s complete independence from Britain. The Rising began on the Easter Monday, with the rebels occupying central locations, such as the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin. There were minor outbreaks of violence around the country. The Rising lasted for six days, with the centre of Dublin being almost completely destroyed. The Rising, though a military failure, was a pivotal moment that accelerated the fight for Irish independence and changed the political landscape in Ireland.
This memoir by W.J. Brennan- Whitmore (1886-1977) is an important primary source for this event, as he was the only senior participant of the Rising to leave a memoir. Born in County Wexford, Whitmore-Brennan became a journalist, having spent some time in the British army. He served in India in the medical corps and attained the rank of sergeant by the time he left the service in 1907. The memoir is well written, exciting and insightful about the events of Easter Week. It is an important source for trying to understand the outlook of those who fought in this historic event.
Whitmore-Brennan was not a central figure in the Rising but was closely associated with that group who organised the event. He provides pen portraits of the participants of the Rising, admiring Patrick Pearce’s idealism, if not his military acumen. He found De Valera to be dour and unfriendly, and though not originally taken by Michael Collins, he later served on his intelligence staff during the War of Independence and the two became good friends. Being a conservative Catholic, he did not get on with the socialist James Connolly.
Brennan-Whitmore had been active in the Irish Volunteers in his native county. His military knowledge led to him being coopted onto the Volunteer general staff just before the Rising and he fought in Dublin. It is clear from the memoir that he had reservations about the preparations made for the Rising and advocated guerilla war in the countryside rather than a ‘blood sacrifice’ in Dublin. Given his background there are a number of comments about the military tactics of the rebels and the British army. After the Rising he was imprisoned in Frongoch in North Wales, where he was elected camp commandant.
His memoir paints a vivid and evocative picture of the events of Easter Week. In the first few hours of the Rising we see the incredulous yet curious public standing around occupied posts trying to figure out what was really going on. There are looters, residents who refuse to move out of their dwellings because they have nowhere else to go and there is the publican who offers the contents of his pub for ‘the cause’. He notes the idealism and heroism of his garrison, the deadly danger of snipers and machine-gun posts and shelling. The physical toll on the soldiers was huge and many were exhausted. Scenes of destruction were evident all around and at one stage he writes: ‘I stood on the rooftops in the gathering gloom. Dublin burning! What a sight! Gruesome, awe-inspiring.’
First published in 1996, it is good to see this memoir back in print. As a first-hand account of events during the Easter Week of 1916 in Dublin, Brennan-Whitmore’s memoir has no equal.
Maria Luddy is Professor of Modern Irish History at the University of Warwick.