Writing in these pages in July 1913, George Bernard Shaw noted, with some concern, that the world seemed to have made up its mind that nationalism was “a very fine thing”. “This is not a very intelligent conclusion,” he countered, for it was “nothing but a mode of self-consciousness, and a very aggressive one at that”.
Turning his eyes back to his native Ireland, Shaw expressed the hope that his countrymen – well known for the intensity of their patriotism – would one day tire of the subject, for he understood its force. With its symbolic gestures and booming rhetoric, nationalism had a strange effect on people: “like the genius of Jeremiah, a burning fire shut up in the bones . . . a morbid condition which a healthy man must shake off if he is to keep sane”.
The seven leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, the subject of Ruth Dudley Edwards’s vivid group biography, failed Shaw’s test of sanity. Their rebellion, an amateurish affair by European standards, was suppressed within a few days of fierce fighting, most of it in central Dublin. About 1,200 rebels held out from Easter Monday to the following Saturday before surrendering. Almost 500 people lost their lives, most of them civilians. To put this into perspective, there were 58,000 British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which began two months later, and 35,000 Irish volunteers died fighting for the British empire over the course of the war, many of them supporters of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
But history does not work by numbers, so much as turn on moments. It also bequeaths unquantifiable forces such as myth and memory. The British government’s decision to execute 16 of the rising’s most prominent ringleaders turned them from obscure and unrepresentative characters into national heroes. No document in Irish history is more important than the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out at the General Post Office in Dublin that Easter Monday by Patrick Pearse, who was named the president of the provisional republic. All seven of the signatories were killed by firing squad, at Kilmainham Gaol, between 3 and 12 May. One of them, James Connolly, was strapped to a chair because his ankle had been shattered by a bullet.
The seven had courted martyrdom. It was part of the strategy and, for some, fulfilled a sense of destiny. Ireland had been promised a devolved parliament in 1914 as part of the Government of Ireland Act, although this was postponed until after the Great War. For the moderate nationalists of the IPP, this represented the triumph of a struggle that went back more than a century, when Ireland had been deprived of a native parliament by the Act of Union of 1801.
For an ideologically purist rump, Ireland was not free until every connection with Britain was broken and the whole island of Ireland was united as a single republic. In an article written before the rising, Pearse even welcomed how Orangemen in the north were arming themselves against the prospect of home rule, “for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands”. For Pearse, a man who spent his adult life struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality, bloodshed was “a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood”.
The seven were an eclectic and idiosyncratic bunch. Pearse, the lyricist-in-chief of the rebellion, on whose powerful orations generations of Irish have been fed, was a case in point. He was painfully shy and prudish as an adolescent, with clammy hands and a squint, and he failed to make friendships beyond that with his brother.
James Connolly, the leader of the Irish Citizen Army and the subject of a fascinating recent book by Sean O’Callaghan, was even more atypical. In a country where the great majority of people worked on the land and were devoutly Catholic, he was a Scottish-born trade unionist and radical socialist who did not even speak with an Irish accent. He also had a propensity for factionalism and falling out with friends. On this, at least, he was in good company. Notwithstanding a sincere love of the nation in abstract, the seven all spent considerable time railing against the indolence of their fellow countrymen, as much as against perfidious Albion. Well-intentioned liberals were also given short shrift. They diagnosed violence to wake them from their slumber.
From the outset, the 1916 rebellion was doomed as a military operation. By failing to gain control of the main transport hubs, the insurgents allowed Dublin to be flooded with British troops within two days. Nonetheless, through rashness and undoubted personal bravery, the seven left a tradition of blood sacrifice that did much to shape the Irish nation in their image. Partly because of the executions and partly because of deeper long-term trends, the moderate constitutional IPP was soon eclipsed by a new political force in Ireland, Sinn Fein, founded just a decade earlier, which presented itself as the heir to the Easter proclamation. The result, to borrow the title of Dudley Edwards’s 1977 biography of Pearse, was “the triumph of failure”.
Dudley Edwards has long been searingly critical of the tradition of physical force in Irish republicanism and is a puncturer of myths about “patriot ghosts”. But her critique of these men is political rather than personal. In place of reified immortals, we get nuanced, often sympathetic portraits. One is struck by the central role of the eldest of the seven, Thomas Clarke, a felon and dynamiter whose fury against England was intensified by a spell in solitary confinement. We are reminded that even revolutionary movements need good committee men, such as the shy Éamonn Ceannt, as well as sagas, laments, perorations and poets. Much is made of family background and stunted development (literally, in the case of Seán Mac Diarmada’s polio). Pearse was smothered by his mother and Joseph Plunkett was horsewhipped by his.
As a group, the men were well read, inquisitive and non-sectarian – yet prone to self-deception and imbued with the intolerance that comes with reckless urgency.
The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic by Ruth Dudley Edwards is published by Oneworld (416pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater