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A republican bete noire Dudley Edwards targets her pen at sacred cows of 1916

By Ivan Little

Her suffragette grandmother Bridget idolised Patrick Pearse (and later Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin), but Belfast Telegraph columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards wanted to dig more deeply into the background of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The result is her book The Seven.

The criticism is like water off a duck's back to Ruth Dudley Edwards. Sensitivity isn't in the DNA of the Dublin-born, London-based author, historian and political commentator who's become almost immune to the constant rebukes that her attacks on Ulster's terrorists have brought her.

Republicans have dismissed her as pro-unionist and she has received death threats in the past. But the latest reproaches have been for a new book, The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, a series of biographies of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during the Easter Rising in 1916.

One reviewer in an English newspaper said Dudley Edwards had shown an obvious disdain for the men - Thomas Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, Eamonn Ceannt, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and James Connolly - who were all executed for their parts in the rebellion. The review added: "She attempts to make her villains as evil and unhinged as possible."

But Dudley Edwards, who's a former civil servant, described the review as "silly", dismissing the assertions that she'd been trying to demonise the Rising leaders.

She said the negative reviews had been outnumbered by the positive ones. And she said there had been mixed ones as well.

"I'm fine about genuine opinion," said Dudley Edwards, who had an early introduction to the Easter Rising from her grandmother, who saw the leaders as saints and martyrs.

"Granny would have been a dissident these days - if she was still with us. She was obsessed with hating Britain for some odd reason, because she'd married a rather nice Englishman.

"She was a fascist as well. She had a picture of Hitler at the bottom of her bed and she'd been in love with Mussolini, and in her later years she took to Stalin.

"Virtually from the time I was born she would show me a great big picture, which was an imagined representation of the GPO in 1916, called The Last Stand. I was fascinated by it and my granny would point out what she said were these great men in the very stylised drawing of the scenes inside the GPO, and shows five of the seven signatories of the declaration.

"But although they were very familiar to me and I was told they were the greatest men in Irish history, I didn't really know who they were."

Dudley Edwards says that, as she was growing up, the story of the "dead patriots" was holy writ and the seven men were idols to thousands of people - including her grandmother. But Dudley Edwards says she was always keen to dig a little deeper into the background of the signatories, particularly Pearse.

"We were always told that Pearse was the noblest man in Irish history, yet we didn't know very much about him." Her curiosity about him eventually led to the publication of a biography in the late 1970s - Patrick Pearse: The Triumph Of Failure.

"If he wasn't the noblest man in Irish history, he was certainly one of the most interesting; a mass of contradictions and complexities and confusions, partly because his father was a free-thinking Birmingham rationalist and his mother was a completely unthinking Irish nationalist. So, it was no wonder he was rather messed up."

Dudley Edwards' decision to broaden the parameters of her historical research into all seven Proclamation signatories came about as a direct result of her extensive reading of a virtual library of new books in the last few years about 1916.

"I was reading about these men as walk-on parts in each of their biographies. I wanted to find out how they worked as a group and there'd been no real sense of that, or of what the chemistry between them was like."

Dudley Edwards says she leaned heavily on the fresh crop of books about the Rising as she sought to give shape to her biographies of the seven.

"I've been frank about it," she said. "I mostly relied on the new scholarship about the men, of which there is tons."

She says she wanted to write a book which would be accessible to the general reader, pulling together and making sense of all the research that had already been done into the leaders.

She adds that the job of sifting through so much material about so many different people was hard. "But I was very focused on the men's personalities, because there had been so little grasp of them, in a way," she explained.

Her book starts with Thomas Clarke, the first and oldest of the signatories, and who many people believe was the driving force for the Rising.

Dudley Edward says of him: "He was the son of a British Army sergeant, who was pulled around the world for the first part of his life. He ended up in a very sectarian part of Tyrone and fled to America, because he feared arrest after he'd been caught up in a riot.

"Then he was sent to London to dynamite the citizens and was captured and was sentenced to 15 years in jail, where he plotted revenge for the whole time driven by his hatred of the British.

"After his release he went back to the States before going to Dublin, where he became the centre of the intrigue and mentor to the young men within the Irish Republican Brotherhood."

Dudley Edwards' book charts the progression of how men like Mac Diarmada brought others on board for the Rising, including Thomas MacDonagh, a lecturer in English literature in University College Dublin, and James Connolly, who was "threatening to start his own revolution".

She said: "They were a very mixed match and they never had a conversation about what kind of Ireland they wanted. Tom Clarke's preference was for some sort of Fenian dictatorship, while Connolly wanted to light the spark of Marxist internationalism."

Dudley Edwards says that her biography writing was normally straight down the middle with her telling the stories of her subjects and trying to understand them.

"But with The Seven, I do pass judgment in the last chapter. I think that the men were very interesting people, who took a wrong path, and I believe the Rising was wrong. I don't think there was any justification for it and I think it contributed to 100 years of political violence, because it was legitimised retrospectively.

"And once that happened, every next crowd of lunatics that came along thought the same thing would happen with them."

Britain's response to the Rising and the execution of its leaders - particularly tying the wounded Connolly to a chair in front of a firing squad - undoubtedly turned around public opinion in Ireland.

But Dudley Edwards says: "The British were in the middle of a world war and they wanted to get the Rising sorted out and get the Army out of Dublin as fast as possible. They thought they were being lenient."

The centenary of the Rising has been marked by a series of very different events throughout Ireland and Dudley Edwards says the contrast was striking.

"The Sinn Fein exhibition in Dublin is full of all the myths and all the usual stuff and it's also full of hunger strikers, because they are trying to get the same status for them as the leaders of the Rising. They're also striving for a legitimisation of the whole Provisional IRA campaign.

"I was at a preview of the Irish Government's exhibition in the GPO, which is a very fine commemoration and not a celebration. I have to say that it skilfully looks at everyone's point of view and I think it reflects the mood in the South, where people have rediscovered all their ancestors in the British Army and the police who were written about for all those years."

But Dudley Edwards' writing about the Rising hasn't stopped with her book.

She's been commissioned by a raft of newspapers and magazines to give her observations on the events of 1916 and their legacy. She has also appeared on TV debates and given talks, too.

One of them earlier this week was staged in Trinity College Dublin and was about her aforementioned grandmother, Bridget Dudley Edwards, under the intriguing title 'How my suffragette grandmother became an enthusiast for revolutionary nationalism and other revolutionary relatives'.

After a sense of calm is restored in Ruth Dudley Edwards' life after all her writing about the Rising, she will turn her hand again to a lesser known side of her career - as a crime novelist.

She's written 12 murder mysteries in which she's been known to bump off a few of her old adversaries, thinly disguising them as fictional characters in her books.

She added: "I think I am done writing about Irish history for the moment.

"I need to get away from it for a time."

  • Ruth Dudley Edwards' The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic is published by Oneworld Publications (£18.99)

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