In our final round up of histories of the nations that make up the British Isles – or, if you prefer, the Atlantic Archipelago – Maria Luddy examines an event which shaped 20th-century Ireland, the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising.
While we still have no definitive history of the 1916 Rising, the release in March 2003 of the papers gathered by Ireland’s Bureau of Military History is already changing our understanding of this pivotal moment in modern Irish history. Organised by a small group of Republicans, it was always likely that the Rising would fail militarily. 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 Easter Monday bank holiday with the rebels occupying central locations, such as Dublin’s General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). It lasted for six days from April 24th to 29th, when the rebels surrendered, though there was some sporadic shooting on the 30th. The centre of Dublin was almost completely destroyed and there was some minor activity around the country. Sixty-two rebels died, 16 more were subsequently executed and of the 20,000 British troops who fought against the rebels 106 were killed and 334 wounded. Civilians caught in the crossfire added a further 256 to the list of casualties, with thousands more injured. Initially the Rising was regarded with outrage and incredulity by the Irish public, to whom it was completely unexpected, and appeared as an assault on democracy. Likewise the British administration in Ireland believed that the execution of the leaders of the Rising would bring the episode to a close, but this response was completely misjudged. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read from the steps of the GPO by Padraig Pearse, declared the existence of an Irish Republic, which then became sanctified in the blood of those signatories to the Proclamation subsequently executed for their role in the Rising. The declaration of martial law, the internment of large numbers of men and women in the aftermath of the Rising and the attempt by the British government to introduce conscription to assist the war effort radicalised the population and led to growing public support for a reorganised Sinn Fein, which the British administration in Ireland mistakenly believed had organised the uprising. Sinn Fein, a minor political party until 1916, benefited from this mistake, winning support from the general public after the executions. Sinn Fein was quickly taken over by the more radical nationalist elements now seeking freedom from Britain by any means. The Rising, though a military failure, was thus the pivotal moment that accelerated the fight for Irish independence and changed the political landscape in Ireland. From a failed Rising, through a war of independence, Ireland, or at least 26 of the 32 counties, had by 1922 its own government, then about to be engulfed in a civil war.
The Bureau of Military History was established by the Irish government in 1947: its function was to collect detailed statements from those men and women who had participated in events during the revolutionary period between 1913 and 1921, with the Easter Rising marking the most pivotal of them. The material, which includes 1,773 written testimonies, contemporary documents, photographs and voice recordings, was collected between 1947 and 1959 and finally made available for study in 2003, when the last of the interviewees had died. The written witness statements offer the most comprehensive collection of individual accounts by Republicans active during the fight for independence and the majority are from the ordinary men and women involved. As with all historical sources there are some problems: statements were taken some 30-odd years after the events occurred and, for a variety of reasons, a number of individuals refused to provide statements. Alice Lyons, for instance, who had been secretary to Michael Collins during the war of independence, declared she could not get involved as she had worked in confidence with Collins and to give a statement would be a ‘betrayal of his trust in her’. Nor would the poet and writer Brian O’Higgins, for example, ‘have anything to do with anything set up by the government’. Others were equally suspicious of the intentions of the project.
Substantial studies of the 1916 Rising and its impact and legacies are already appearing ahead of the centenary in 2016. Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2005) provides a comprehensive study of the event, while Clair Will’s Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO (Profile, 2009) details the ‘drama’ of the Rising and the ways in which the symbols of 1916, particularly the iconic General Post Office, have been transformed and mythologised through various cultural forms over the last century. The playwright Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, staged in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1926, satirised the Rising, causing protests among its audiences. This, Wills claims, marks the beginning of the debate between those who had taken part in the Rising and those who sought to interpret it in fictional forms: a dispute between idealists and realists. Directories and guides offering day-by-day accounts of events during the Rising, short biographies of those involved and chronological details of the events leading to the establishment of the Irish Free State have also appeared, such as Joseph E.A. Connell, Jr’s Dublin in Rebellion: A Directory 1913-1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006) and Shane Hegarty and Fintan O’Toole’s The Irish Times Book of the 1916 Rising (Gill and Macmillan, 2006).
The general confusion among the Irish Volunteers (a breakaway group from the militarised Volunteers formed in 1914, who supported the fight for Irish independence) about the nature and timing of the Rising is evident from the witness statements. It is also clear that there was considerable disagreement within the more radical elements of Irish nationalism about the actual need for a Rising. Such evidence explodes the myth of the Rising as a carefully planned and orchestrated event. One witness, James O’Connor, for instance, recalled: ‘On Easter Monday I got up and went to the races at Fairyhouse. While at the Races I heard that the Rising had started in Dublin. It was the general talk at the Races that evening. I came home on Tuesday, bringing my shotgun and cartridges, I joined the Battn.’
Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford University Press, 2010) and his more recent Rebels: Voices from the Easter Rising (Penguin Ireland, 2011) has made the most extensive use of these statements so far. Generally women’s roles were defined by their gender and many ended up working in the kitchens. At the rebel post in Marrowbone Lane Lily Cooney recalled: ‘Our main activity was preparing food and generally looking after the welfare of the men.’ Many women were frustrated at the lack of opportunity they had to engage in actual fighting: 146 witness statements were taken from women and many also provided collections of original documents and photographs.
Some statements also describe what it was like to witness the destruction of central Dublin. The decision to surrender after a week of fighting to prevent more deaths and destruction was not welcomed by all Volunteers. At the College of Surgeons Frank Robbins claimed that: ‘The act of surrender was to each a greater calamity than death itself at that moment’. On being marched away as prisoners the rebels were jeered at by the crowds. Another witness, Joe Good, recalled: ‘Crowds of women were in the side streets and they shouted “Bayonet them”.’
Historians now have the opportunity to interrogate, among other things: why people joined nationalist organisations; what were their expectations of change in Ireland; the place of class in the nationalist movement; the relationship between leaders and activists; and how the war of independence was played out in different parts of Ireland. The availability of this recently released material is already having a significant impact on how the history of Ireland in the 20th century is being written – and there is still much work to be done before the picture is complete.
The Bureau of Military History collection is held in the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin. Duplicate copies of the Witness Statements are available in the National Archives in Bishop Street, Dublin. The Witness Statements have been available online through the website of the National Archives, Dublin since March 2012.
Maria Luddy is head of the History Department at the University of Warwick and author of Matters of Deceit: Breach of Promise to Marry Cases in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Limerick (Four Courst Press, 2011).
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