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 build-up. 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. But in A Nation and Not a Rabble (Profile Books) he powerfully shows how the mythology has taken shape, digging in the first part through the sedimentary layers of history-writing, and tracing how patterns of commemoration have shifted over time in the third. The middle section, drawing on the rich documentation newly come to light, offers a 200-page analytical narrative entitled “Revolutionary Ireland, 1913-23”.
The title of that section has been chosen with care. Ferriter wants us to appreciate how the conventional nationalist narrative has concealed the pressures for social and economic change pulsating through Ireland in the 1910s. He deliberately begins not with the 1916 rising, nor even in 1914 when the Great War began and Westminster conceded the principle of Irish home rule. Instead his starting point is the Dublin general strike of 1913, the city’s celebrated “lockout”. Ferriter pays particular attention to James Connolly, a nationalist hero today because he was executed by the British in May 1916, sitting, tied to a chair, unable to stand after near-fatal wounds. Yet Connolly was not only a nationalist but a Marxist, one of the leaders of the 1913 lockout; he brought his Irish Citizen Army (ICA) into the rising only late in the day because he believed the rebel leaders were woefully indifferent to the class struggle.
Ferriter’s socio-economic take on 1916 is hardly novel: Sean O’Casey, one of Connolly’s aides, developed it in his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars – the Plough constellation being the symbol on the ICA’s banner. But Ferriter makes the experience of workers, and also women, central to his account of a period in which revolution and not just nationalism was in the air. Less than a year after the Easter Rising, the tsarist regime in Russia – Europe’s most brutal autocracy – collapsed in a couple of weeks and by the end of 1917 the Bolsheviks had seized power, inspiring leftist movements across the globe.
Drawing on the BMH and a rich variety of other archives, Ferriter explores the grass-roots experience of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. The “land war” in the spring of 1920, for instance, was the worst such agitation against big landlords since the 1880s, spreading from the west across 16 counties. For impoverished tenants, economic rights were as important as national liberation, yet that whole issue has been downplayed in conventional nationalist accounts.
Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom (Faber & Faber) concentrates on 1918-23, the period from Sinn Fein’s election victory to the end of the civil war. A journalist by training, Walsh is less interested than Ferriter in historiography and memory. He does not dissect the sources but uses them to compose a vivid narrative with a reporter’s ear and eye for a telling anecdote or revealing vignette. He offers, for instance, a chilling impression of how law and order progressively broke down. In the 1900s local members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) functioned, rather banally, as “a one-man government agency” – making sure the pubs closed on time, collecting statistics about animal disease, registering new owners of horses and cars, and so on. Although an Irish policeman, unlike a British “bobby”, was trained to use firearms, he rarely had to deal with actual violence apart from bar-room brawls. Historically most officers in the RIC had been Protestant and most constables Catholic, but by the 1900s many Catholics had been promoted from the ranks, while men with strong sectarian views from either side of the religious divide were excluded.
Yet the Easter Rising exposed a fundamental tension between the RIC’s ingrained local familiarity and its basic loyalty to the crown: after 1916 it became progressively harder to be “Irish” and also “royal”. First came local ostracism, as members of the RIC were barred from social events and sports teams or shunned as dates. By 1919 they had become the targets of threatening letters or occasional shootings. Isolated rural police stations were closed and constables moved into fortified barracks in larger towns. Whereas in 1914 there had been roughly 1,400 police stations dotted around Ireland, by the mid-1920 almost a third lay abandoned and burned.
As British rule crumbled, an alternative government took shape. In the UK general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the House of Commons but, honouring the party manifesto pledge, the MPs did not take up their seats in Westminster, convening instead at the Mansion House in Dublin as the Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland). Even after being declared illegal by the British in September 1919, the Dail continued to develop as what Walsh terms “a virtual republic”, gradually taking over the functions of government.
Nowhere was this process more evident than in the success of the Dail’s network of courts. These started out as local arbitration hearings about land disputes or sheep rustling, held in schoolrooms, farmhouses and even barns. They soon developed into a rival system of justice, from a high court downwards, with the full apparatus of judges and clerks, summonses and arrest warrants. Banned by the British, the Dail courts had to operate in secret, their functionaries often on the run. One leading figure, the barrister Kevin O’Shiel, travelled the country posing as a quack salesman for a heat-rub ointment. The underground courts were popular – dispensing prompt, simple justice free from legal gobbledegook and archaic procedure –
and their reach spread during 1920 as intimidation and violence gradually closed down the British courts system. Republican justice proved a sharp riposte to London’s claims that Sinn Fein was merely a bunch of thugs and gunmen. As the Daily Mail put it in July 1920, “the futility of trying to govern a people against its will is demonstrated by what happens at the Sinn Fein courts”.
In line with other recent books on the 1916 era, Walsh moves beyond ingrained Irish exceptionalism to set the story in an international context. At the start he summons up the ubiquity of Bolshevist revolution, quoting Mussolini (“The whole earth trembles”), but he is more interested in the global appeal of the then US president, Woodrow Wilson. Walsh is surely right to situate Ireland’s struggle for independence within the larger nationalist moment of 1918-20, when protest against imperial rule spread across Europe and beyond, and the Paris Peace Conference became the global forum for nationalist leaders to plead their cause. As Walsh notes, Wilson was their hero because he voiced the imprecise but inspiring slogan of “self-determination”. Here, Walsh says, we can see “the beginnings of the Americanisation of the whole world”.
I think Walsh, like other latter-day historians, exaggerates what has been called “the Wilsonian moment”. The president failed to deliver on the hopes he had aroused, and nationalist dreams soon evaporated, from Egypt to India. But, in the Irish case, Walsh’s allusions to the global tide of Americanisation highlight the limits of freedom in “a flawed revolution”, because modernity seemed to pass Ireland by until at least the 1960s. This was a theme developed eloquently last year by Roy Foster in his book Vivid Faces, about the rise and decline of the “revolutionary generation” of 1916 – the ’68ers of their day. One of them lamented four decades later how “the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it”. The authoritarian Ireland that emerged from the civil war was a far cry from their youthful dreams: politically conservative, sexually repressed, in thrall to the Catholic priesthood.
Yet, Walsh notes, the post-independence order “was not merely imposed on an unwilling population. It suited many people that the country should be run this way.” After years of anarchy, they were ready to pay a high price for order. As Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter, 1916”, “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.”
Thinking of Ireland comparatively, the country was distinctive among national revolutions of the era in at least three important respects. First, a serious national rising took place during the war – in fact, right in the middle – rather than at the end, amid the turmoil of 1918. The latter was the pattern across central and eastern Europe, resulting in new states such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Second, Ireland’s war of independence was waged successfully against a victor power, not – as in the Balkans or the Baltic states – against one of the defeated empires. This was part of the global appeal of the Irish struggle, not least in the United States, where it could easily be enfolded into the American saga of 1776 and all that. And yet, third, the victor imperial power hung on in the north-east of the country – not just for a few years but right up to the present day. Hence, for hardline republican nationalists, then and now, the continuing affront of an unfinished revolution.
Of course, there have been huge changes within Ulster and in British-Irish relations since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 helped end thirty years of “the Troubles”. But the peace process remains fragile. Poking around in the embers of history could easily rekindle old flames. The island of Ireland will mark two contrasting centenaries in 2016. One is the Easter Rising on 24 April, the other the first day of the Somme on 1 July – a sacred day in the calendar of Ulster Unionists. On that dreadful morning in 1916 the 36th (Ulster) Division went “over the top” near Thiepval, penetrating further than any other unit in the British army, but then was forced back. It suffered over 5,000 casualties – a third of the division’s strength. For decades, fervent unionists commemorated Ulster’s “blood sacrifice” in the struggle for peace and freedom against the Hun, in contrast to the treacherous “stab in the back” inflicted at Easter in Dublin. The Thiepval story is still depicted today on murals in east Belfast and around the Shankill Road. Marking the First Day of the Somme remains largely a sectarian act of memory: Protestant Ulster’s counterblast to the Irish republican 1916.
At the time of the 50th anniversary, in 1966, only loyalists commemorated the first day of the Somme, while nationalists remembered the Easter Rising. Their rival versions of history played a part in fuelling the Troubles. Yet, as Diarmaid Ferriter reminds us, some 200,000 Irishmen, Catholic as well as Protestant, from all over the island, fought in the British army during the First World War. Since 1998 the idea that 1914-18 was “our war” has gained currency south of the border and has been acknowledged by British and Irish leaders through various joint ceremonies in London, Dublin and on the Western Front.
Perhaps in 2016, a century on, the history wars will have abated and Ireland’s two centenaries can be commemorated in tandem and without pain. Might it now be enough, as Yeats mused about the men of 1916, simply “To know they dreamed and are dead”, consigning them reverently to history? Or perhaps the embers of the past will be rekindled again? After the election last month of Dublin’s first ever Sinn Fein lord mayor, the centenary celebrations will be under republican control: their plans, announced in 2014, include 3D projections on to the rebuilt General Post Office: “Watch as the GPO comes under shell fire and catches fire, see the rebels escape and their last stand. Witness the trials and experience the executions . . .”
A general election must take place in the Republic of Ireland by 9 April 2016. It may prove irresistible to play politics with history, as Sinn Fein goads its rivals to flaunt their nationalist credentials and show that Easter is still Rising. In that case, to borrow once more from Yeats, the “terrible beauty” of 1916 will continue to define the political landscape and haunt our contemporary imagination.
David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)
David Reynolds and Ronan Fanning adiscuss 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