Terrible Beauties

Book cover
The Risingby By Fearghal McGarryOxford Univ. Press. 304p $29.95

Among the many indicators that spring has arrived is the publication of the latest book on Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. What new insights can any new book contribute amid the steady accumulation of memoirs, novels, biographies, documentary collections and political and cultural histories? We know so much about the Rising.

On Easter Monday, 1916, a handful of separatist Irish Volunteers and members of James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army occupied several sites in Dublin in defiance of British control of Ireland. They were determined to make the British misfortune in waging the First World War Ireland’s opportunity to resurrect the republican ideal that had stamped a determined minority within almost every generation since 1798. Headquarters was the General Post Office, and there Patrick Pearse read the famous proclamation justifying the rebellion and calling for an independent republic.


The rebels heroically held out for about a week, waiting in vain for the Irish countryside to rise. Confronted with ferocious British counterinsurgency tactics, the rebels surrendered, enduring the ignominious taunts and abuse of Dublin citizens enraged at the destruction surrounding them and the apparent betrayal of the tens of thousands of Irishmen then serving in the British Army. But public opinion soon turned in favor of the rebels, initially admiring their courage and idealism, eventually embracing their cause. In 1914 Irish men and women had been solidly behind a constitutional nationalism that aspired to home rule, a limited measure of self-government within the British state. But by 1919 the country was waging a war in the name of an independent Irish republic.

The controversial questions at the time of the rising remain the controversial questions of today. “Was it needless death after all?” William Butler Yeats had asked in his famously ambivalent poem, “Easter 1916,” a futile romantic gesture by self-immolating fanatics bewildered by “excess of love” for an imagined Irish nation. Or was it more pragmatic, the vanguard of an Irish Revolution that culminated in self-government in 1921?

Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising touches on these and other interpretive positions, but the novelty of the book lies in its perspective. McGarry, who is senior lecturer in history at Queens University, Belfast, gives us a view of the rising from below, not from the leaders or the government, not from the memoirist or the poet, but from many of the rank-and-file who placed their lives at the service of the variously understood Irish nation during that Easter week.

McGarry’s study is built upon 1,773 witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History that were unavailable for historical review until the last witness died in 2003. The sample is hardly scientific, as McGarry acknowledges. Many veterans, like Eamon de Valera, refused to participate, and women and constitutional nationalists were mostly excluded. The statements were taken decades after the Rising. But the testimony provided offers a layer of suggestive yet hardly conclusive evidence supporting the aims and understanding of many activists.

Irish republicanism had long been a minority faith. Failed risings in 1798, 1848 and 1867 had demonstrated that sheer force could not dislodge British rule in Ireland. McGarry first asks what was it about that generation of 1916 that led them to risk themselves for the cause of the nation? They were first the beneficiaries of an expanded school system, for the most part left in the hands of the Catholic clergy. The Christian Brothers are particularly singled out for inculcating the young with a romanticized vision of Ireland’s past.

In the 1880s and 1890s cultural nationalist movements like the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association nurtured “the rising generation” and provided rich recruiting grounds for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, itself shaken out of years of ineffectual lethargy by these inspired and impatient youths. The advanced nationalist movement even had its own version of the Boy Scouts in the Fianna éireann, a paramilitary organization founded by Countess Markiewicz in 1909. A heightened sense of historical injustice to Ireland and the valor of those who had served her cause combined with the opportunity provided by Britain’s distraction during World War I accelerated the conflagration of 1916.

McGarry finds no consistent reason for rising, no ideological uniformity except for passionate national feeling, no strategic imperative among these witnesses. But the middle chapters of the book bring us close to the terrifying and exhilarating experience that was 1916. The first few days were spent mostly surviving boredom as the British collected their forces. The last few days, by contrast, were full of artillery and fire raining down on their heads. Rumors were rife, but the countryside generally failed to mobilize on behalf of the rebels. That was one disappointment. More demoralizing was the hostile reaction of the Dublin crowd, especially working-class women whose relatives were fighting in France.

McGarry’s prose throughout does justice to the very dramatic story he tells. He seamlessly weaves together these richly evocative witnesses with current historiography and narrative, making this book both a major addition to what has already been done, but also an excellent introduction for the general reader to the Rising of 1916. The rebels may not have transformed Ireland as utterly as Yeats suggested; British blunders during and after the Rising and the faltering of constitutional politics certainly had their effect as well. But Easter 1916 and the “rising generation” went far to assure that Irish nationalism would finally take a republican form.

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