Romancing rebellion: the culture that spawned the Irish rebels of Easter 1916

Despite the wealth of sources on this subject, a puzzle remains: not only about the effect of the rebellion but about what caused it to take place.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland (1890-1923) 
R F Foster
Allen Lane, 496pp, £20

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.”

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.

Thus the military aspect of the struggle for independence in Ireland has entered the realm of a “known” known. Although the historians of the future may differ about details or points of emphasis, they will use the material from the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions Collection as their main sources for the study of what happened from the Irish perspective.

The puzzle remains, however, not only about the effect of the rebellion but about what caused it to take place at all. Was it merely a breakaway group of diehard poets and intellectuals, with a small following, who saw England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity and went to their own death, causing mayhem all around them for the sake of a half-thought-out notion of Irish freedom? Where did they come from, these people? Where did they get their ideas?

Answering these questions requires a great deal of subtlety and care and a study of sources way beyond the new material about military activity in Ireland during the period. R F Foster’s Modern Ireland (1988) set a template for how Irish historians could look at the strange mixtures of alarming discontinuity and periods of odd under­lying stability in the country between 1600 and 1972. Foster dismissed the easy Irish story of conquest and then a slow, persistent quest to win freedom from conquest. He took local studies and examined variations within the pattern to create pattern of uncertainty, making a nuanced narrative that required constant qualification. He allowed himself, having considered the source material, to be unsure, to deconstruct myth, to raise questions rather than produce easy interpretations.

With his two-volume biography of W B Yeats, published in 1997 and 2003, he took this idea further, making judgements even more subtle and careful. Foster’s Yeats was not a single personality who could be simply understood. His mind was in constant flux and his loyalties, too. Indeed, in any given day, Yeats could be four or five different people. Out of this battle within the self came the poetry. Foster wrote superbly not only about these private battles but also about the very public battles that seemed to give Yeats such energy.

In essays written during this period, Foster seemed particularly interested in other figures who had moved both easily and uneasily between Ireland and England, reinventing themselves on the journey, including writers such as Trollope, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bowen. He was also fascinated by the connections he could find between the 19th and the 20th centuries, always looking for areas of continuity and influence rather than single moments in which everything became new, in which ideas or movements seemed, on first glance, to have risen without trace.

His latest work, Vivid Faces: the Revo­lutionary Generation in Ireland (1890-1923), puts forward a most interesting explanation for the power and influence of the 1916 Rebellion. Indeed, his book, filled with nuanced interpretation, is likely to change the way we view the rebellion and the period before and after.

His thesis is that the revolutionary period was created not by a group of diehards but by a generation. Instead of looking at accounts of the events offered years later, he has studied contemporary diaries and letters, including love letters, and has examined an intricate network of personal and family relationships.

Chapter one begins: “The men and women who made the Irish revolution knew that they were different from their parents.” They wanted, according to Foster, not only to create a new country but to create a new way of living. In their love lives, in their relationship to art and literature and theatre, a new politics emerged.

While this new politics was not easily apparent in the days of the rebellion itself and indeed became submerged in the public life of the new Irish state, it provided the essential impetus for the movement that led to independence. The work of this generation that Foster identifies also shows that the rebellion was not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of much intense social and literary and also sexual activity.

These people who wanted to make a new Ireland had deep roots in middle-class society, especially in the cities. Thus the rebellion could not be easily quelled; shooting the leaders and pacifying the city would not end the trouble because the trouble began as a powerful and protean energy, rather than a set of dull aims. A group of intelligent people set about re-creating the world in their own glittering image. Because of their remarkable talent and optimism, the world could never be returned to the way it was.

“The changes that convulse society do not appear from nowhere,” Foster writes. “They happen first in people’s minds, and through the construction of a shared culture, which can be the culture of a minority, rather than a majority.” What mattered in Ireland came later to be seen as narrow nationalism but in the 15 years before the rebellion it took many other guises. A study of personal papers, Foster writes, indicates “a slate of ideological preoccupations which extend beyond 1848-style romantic nation­alism, powerful though that impulse is. Secularism, socialism, feminism, suffragism, vegetarianism [and] anti-vivisectionism pulse through the bohemian circles of Dublin, and even Waterford and Cork, in the decade before 1916.”

Foster is prepared to entertain new ideas about what happens in the making of a revolutionary generation. Given that Irish historians are, in general, a staid bunch, content writing narrative history or using the standard archival material, this book stands out. (I await, for example, A History of  Dullness in Ireland, or A Brief History of Irish Foolishness, or even an Irish historian working on a history of colour, as Michel Pastoureau has so brilliantly done in France.) Foster allows the revolutionary generation to dream themselves into existence; his job is to interpret their dreams using the clues they left.

His title Vivid Faces comes from Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”, a poem full of self-interrogation and ambiguity that includes these lines about the leaders:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

In a later poem, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, Yeats further questions what became of the vivid faces:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare . . .

Foster is ready to look at love and dreams, fantasy and bewilderment, as he charts the imaginative lives of the generation that was the first to cause the British to “clear out”, as Yeats beautifully put it. He entertains the idea that those whose lives he describes were nourished by “a fantasy of reordering the family one inherits and replacing it with a new, liberated entity”. He quotes Lynn Hunt’s The Family Romance of the French Revolution on the idea of a revolution that reflects “creative efforts to reimagine the political world, to imagine a polity unhinged from patriarchal authority”.

This means we can read Patrick Pearse’s erotic poems and Roger Casement’s diaries of his sexual exploits not as aberrations but as essential to their revolutionary spirit as they sought to liberate themselves from traditional ideas of sexuality. In chapters with titles such as “Playing”, “Loving” and “Reckoning”, Foster writes with intriguing detail about the MacSwineys in Cork (Terence, as lord mayor, was to die on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920), the Sheehy-Skeffingtons in Dublin (Francis, a pacifist, was to be shot by a mad British officer during the 1916 Rebellion), the Ryans from Wexford (Jim, a medical student, was in the General Post Office in 1916 and later became finance minister; four of his sisters married Irish revolutionaries) and the Gifford sisters (two of whom married leaders who were shot after the rising).

Foster takes it that we know about their military exploits; what he writes about here is their work as writers and actors and artists, their love lives, their passionate involvement in the world that they wished to re-create. Their dreams led, of course, to bloodshed, to the heart grown brutal, and were dampened in the disillusion of the Irish Free State.

However, in the years described here, their faces remained vivid because they had a vision of the world that they hoped would come. In writing about them, Foster has managed to produce the most complete and plausible exploration of the roots of the 1916 Rebellion and the power it subsequently exerted over the public imagination. As the centenary approaches, his book will be essential reading for anyone who wishes to follow the argument about the Irish revolutionary generation. 

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, “Nora Webster”, is published by Viking

The historians Ronan Fanning and David Reynolds discuss the Easter Rising with the New Statesman assistant editor Michael Prodger at Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 9 April 2016 at 7:30pm

Sebastian Barry returns to his Man Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, set during the 1916 Rising, in a conversation with New Statesman culture editor Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 5:30pm

Easter 1916: From the New Statesman Archive, an anthology of archive pieces about the events of Easter 1916, is out now. Get your copy now, priced only £0.99.

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris