March Books 10) Easter 1916

10) Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, by Charles Townshend

Saw this reviewed in the Guardian last year, and then saw it excoriated on a couple of Republican websites, and thought it would probably be an interesting read.

And it is. I guess most people reading this will at least be aware of what I was brought up to call the Easter Rising (Townshend prefers “rebellion”, for reasons which are well argued), most memorably portrayed in the opening section of Neil Jordan’s film about Michael Collins (where you may remember that Dev has mysteriously been transported to the GPO from the other side of the river, and the building appears to face south rather than east). A few hundred rebels seized control of central Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916, and eventually were shelled out by the British as they retook the city; while most of the leaders were shot by firing squad, the survivors became the nucleus of the political movement that fought for and then ruled the independent Irish state that emerged in 1921. It is generally regarded as one of the turning points in Irish history; and while Townshend tries to cast some doubt on that assessment, he doesn’t really succeed, carried away as he is by the drama of the topic. There’s lots of detail here, and some very interesting analysis as well.

The most extraordinary finding for me was the true extent of British repression in the run-up to 1916: specifically, that there was so little of it. MI5 employed 1453 people as postal censors in England, Scotland and Wales by the end of 1915. In Ireland there were precisely ten people doing the job, five in Belfast and five in Dublin. Of course, the Post Office, as it turns out, was pretty heavily infiltrated by militant nationalists anyway, so it might not have done any good; but they simply were not trying. (The fact that the GPO was the headquarters at Easter 1916 is not especially relevant here.) The government had no intelligence capability – or rather, there were a number of intelligence-gathering agencies, but they don’t seem to have been reporting to anyone, and no effort appears to have been made to find out who exactly was in control of the various armed militias parading around the place, let alone what their political agenda and concrete plans might be. Even the Pope had been told that an Easter rebellion was planned, but the British were caught completely by surprise. The authorities had given up trying to enforce even the limited extra wartime repressive measures offered by the Defence of the Realm Act within six months of the war breaking out. No wonder that they were caught napping (or, to be more accurate, out at the races) when the rebellion began on Easter Monday. Townshend feels that the liberal character of British legal culture, even in its weaker Irish reflection, was too heavily engrained; I’m inclined to just put it down to sheer incompetence.

The legal theme continues through and after the rebellion. The Lord Lieutenant, desperately swigging brandy (like his first cousin Winston Churchill), declared martial law on the Monday, without any clear idea of what this would mean. This was then the justification for the most memorable and transformational episode of the entire affair – the execution in Dublin after secret court-martial of 14 of the rebels, including almost all the leadership. While this was by far the most drastic measure taken by the British state to defend itself, there were others, combining over-zealous repression with legal tail-spin: the internment without trial, on dubious grounds, of 1600 Irish prisoners (over a thousand of whom were then released because, essentially, there was no evidence against them); the authorities’ refusal to publish the official records of the courts-martial at which prisoners had been condemned to death; the cabinet’s repeated discussions of Roger Casement’s pending execution – Townshend quotes Roy Jenkins, “There can be few other examples of a Cabinet devoting large parts of four separate meetings to considering an individual sentence – and then arriving at the wrong decision.” (Townshend then notes that Jenkins was wrong – the Cabinet discussed the matter at least five times.)

Turning to the other side of the story, I also found very impressive Townshend’s reconstruction, practically from the historiographical equivalent of trace fossils, of why Easter 1916 was planned as it was. Since all the people who actually knew what was going on had been executed within a few days of the end of the rebellion, and almost all the documentation, if it ever existed, had been lost, this was not an easy task. But he does a good job – significantly, many of the survivors among the rebels had been (or at least later claimed to have been) proponents of the guerilla warfare model that indeed was successful between 1919 and 1921, rather than the urban seizure which Pearse, fascinated as he was by Robert Emmett’s 1803 adventure, had fixated on early in his career. Emmett, of course, didn’t even manage to lead his rebels to the end of Thomas Street; but for Pearse, and for Joseph Mary Plunkett, who actually wrote the plan for 1916 (such as it was), that was hardly the point. William Irwin Thompson’s The Imagination of an Insurrection argues that the entire Rising makes sense considered as a work of heroic literature to waken the country rather than as a military act, and if considered in those terms it must be considered a success. There is a certain desperate poetry in the only document of Plunkett’s relating to the Rising that does survive, a notebook found lying in the street after it was all over, which ends with the scribbled notes:

Food to Arnotts
Order to remain all posts unless surrounded
Barricades in front
Henry St

He’s also very good on the actual events leading up to and surrounding the outbreak of the rebellion. There had been a scare from a leaked Dublin Castle document apparently planning for repressive measures to be taken in the event of introducing conscription. This led to the ramping up of tension and expectation, and seemed to offer an excuse to start the rebellion on Easter Sunday. Eoin MacNeill, of course, countermanded the orders; but as things turned out, he was not fully in control, and the rebellion went ahead, though on a smaller scale, on Easter Monday instead. A strength of the book is his description of what happened outside Dublin – more than is usually recounted, including relatively successful operations in Louth and Meath, and a dignified surrender with no lives (or even weapons) lost in Cork, for which both the British forces and the Cork rebels were duly chastised by their colleagues.

One of Townshend’s more irritating habits is to describe the various military tactics pursued by the 1916 rebels, point out why they were flawed on any serious military analysis, and then wonder aloud why the rebels took this course. OK, so some decisions were indeed blindingly stupid – why the GPO, for heaven’s sake (whatever Peter Berresford Ellis may say), rather than Dublin Castle, or the actual phone exchanges in Crown Alley and Store Street? Why St Stephen’s Green, surrounded by tall buildings, rather than the citadel of Trinity College? Above all, why was no provision made for, well, provisions, so that by the end of the week the surviving rebels surrendered as much due to starvation as due to military defeat? But the answer, to me anyway, is pretty obvious: military victory was not, in fact, their chief goal. They did have a vague hope that they might hold out until the Germans came to rescue them, but no real evidence for this – indeed, Roger Casement was actually arrested on his way to tell the leadership explicitly that no German help would be forthcoming. (It’s not entirely clear why the socialist radical James Connolly chose to unite his Irish Citizens Army with the larger nationalist – but not socialist group. He obviously wanted an armed revolution himself; did he imagine that a) the rebellion would succeed, and b) he would gain control of a post-revolutionary government? But of course he was also deluded enough to believe that the capitalists would not use heavy artillery against commercial property.)

Moving back a bit, I was very interested in the argument in an early chapter that Redmond and the Irish Party had irretrievably lost their credibility as early as 1915. Redmond, as leader of the Irish Nationalists, had taken a huge gamble by committing them to the service of the British during the first world war. He was comprehensively screwed over by two factors. First, the British army (Lord Kitchener in particular) decided not to incorporate the existing Irish Nationalist paramilitary structures into the army, with symbols and regimental identity etc, as was done for the Ulster Volunteers. The Commander of the 10th Division (in which my own grandfather fought) was “described in the divisional history as ‘an Irishman without politics’, but of course this meant he was a Protestant and an unthinking, not to say pig-headed conservative.” Second, the war lasted a lot longer than people expected, which meant that Home Rule was now put off for far longer than the few months originally anticipated and that Redmond’s main political role collapsed into being a British recruiting sergeant. Meanwhile the war was not going well. The only news most people were getting from the Western front was the telegram telling them their sons were dead. And while wages were frozen but prices rising all over the United Kingdom, it was in Ireland that wages were lowest and fewest jobs were created on foot of the war effort. In November 1915, Redmond was condemned in unprecedented terms by a Catholic bishop, who declared of the potential Irish recruits heading to America to escape any potential conscription, “Their blood is not stirred by memories of Kossovo, and they have no burning desire to die for Serbia.”

It’s an interesting and even slightly attractive argument, which goes completely against the orthodoxy that British repression following Easter 1916 turned Sinn Fein into a more credible political force than the tired Redmondites, but that up until then the older political party’s position might have been salvageable. Rather to my surprise, after outlining his (to me) revolutionary and innovative analysis of the 1914-16 period, Townshend appears to retreat back into that orthodoxy in later chapters dealing with the 1916-18 period, which made me wonder if he really believed his own argument. He returns to it to speculate that, had there been no rebellion, there would have been a fatal crisis in 1918 anyway over conscription, leading to a political victory for more extreme nationalist forces, as Alvin Jackson seems to suggest in one of those alternate history books. Hmm.

A few other historiographical points. Townshend clearly sees himself as in the “revisionist” camp of Irish history, and will no doubt have been duly delighted by the republican rants against his book that I mentioned earlier. It’s all a load of nonsense. Anyone interested in Irish history, of whatever political views, should be grateful to him for pulling this material together and in particular for the wealth of detail about the precise military facts of what happened. Havig said that, I was a bit unsatisfied on a couple of historical points. I was left unclear as to why Townshend believes that Bulmer Hobson was written out of the history of the Rising, in that he doesn’t give examples of earlier accounts which omit or minimise him, and my own reading has tended to be from the more recent end of things anyway which counts him in. Likewise I was a little baffled by his defensiveness of the heads of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, W.V. Harrel and Sir John Ross of Bladensburgh (whose botanical correspondence I once riffled through, in a different life), who on any reasonable reading of the facts bore at least some responsibility for the Bachelor’s Walk shootings in July 1914.

Three other peculiar little things noted here for completeness. Sean T. O’Kelly believed he had been appointed “Civil Administrator of the Government of the Republic”. Almost thirty years later, he was elected President of the real thing. De Valera’s surrender in Jacob’s biscuit factory – Owen Dudley Edwards suggested that Dev was in the end over-ruled by his officers, but Townshend has him in control right the way through. And he quotes from an account of the defence of Trinity College, published anonymously, though I happen to know that the author was the TCD physicist John Joly.

Anyway, an excellent book. Though I would like to know more about the revolutionary implications of the bicycle.

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