Who really were the men who led 1916 Easter Rising?
Ruth Dudley Edwards' alternative study of the men behind the Easter Rising restores the humanity of the fighters, bringing them back out of the shadows created by their own legend.
In this fascinating and penetrating study, Ruth Dudley Edwards offers an innovative and engaging way of involving the reader in the complexities of the Easter Rising, the issues it raised at the time and which continue to cause controversy. This she does by a series of pen portraits that trace the progress into armed action of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.
These provide a wider and more nuanced understanding of the Rising and the events that led men from disparate backgrounds to the point where they were prepared to face death in a doomed joint enterprise.
The roads of destiny are meticulously charted in each case, as is the tipping-point at which the die was cast for armed rebellion and martyrdom. The result is a compelling narrative, worthy of an O. Henry short story.
There was, however, a large element of fantasy and wishful thinking, of dissimulation and outright falsehood as the participants in turn wrestle with convention, conviction, conscience and common sense.
In portraying them as sentient, emotional human beings, torn in several different ways by competing loyalties, by self-doubt, by family circumstances, debts and domestic crises, Ruth Dudley Edwards does them a service by restoring their humanity, having chipped off the plaster-cast images in which they have been entombed in popular iconography.
The seven mini-biographies are balanced and fairly presented, largely non-judgemental. Collectively they capture the excitement and the ferment of the first years of the last century in Dublin, the cultural ferment, the little theatres, the Irish language, the women's movement, the growth of labour and trade union activity, and the near-monopoly of orthodox politics by John Redmond's party, now apparently with Home Rule almost in their grasp.
The underlying thrust of the book is that the Rising was a conspiracy engineered by a clique - the IRB - which was itself manipulated by a cabal, the arch-manipulator, the deus ex machina, being Tom Clarke, implacable in his hatred of England, scarred by years of penal servitude, described by one source, in terms appropriate to Milton's Lucifer, as "the spirit of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield".
Clarke is portrayed as a great broody spider, lurking in the shadows, progressively ensnaring those who will do his will and eliminating those who will not, a control-freak who desires no publicity for himself, working through others, principally Sean Mac Diarmada and Ceannt, infiltrating organisations like the Gaelic League and the GAA.
The early chapters on Clarke, his galloper Mac Diarmada, and Eamonn Ceannt, his willing acolyte who came to the IRB through the Gaelic league are perhaps loaded with too much IRB and Clann infighting for the ordinary reader. But the sections on Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh are much more rewarding as a portrait of the age, as well as recording the interaction of three highly sensitive and at times over emotionally charged individuals.
Pearse, as an educator, was years ahead of his time, a pioneer of child-centred education. Modern readers of the national narrative will be surprised at the degree of suspicion he was treated with by IRB elements for his moderation and his inability to manage his own affairs.
He spoke on a Home Rule platform in 1912. Eventually brought into the IRB fold for his rhetorical powers as public orator at the great piece of street theatre which was the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa, he came to believe in, and to be consumed by, his own rhetoric and eventually talked himself into martyrdom.
Of all the group, Plunkett and MacDonagh most closely personify the fated "poor mock poet" of O. Henry's story. They were much more cosmopolitan, more plugged into the wider literary and artistic scene and earned the Rising the title bestowed by Joyce Kilmer of the Poets' Revolution.
MacDonagh was the least likely revolutionary or militarist and was the most attractive character of the seven. A lover of the novels of Jane Austen, expert on Thomas Campion's metrical verse, the tipping-point for him and Plunkett appears to have been police brutality during the lock-out. An eager search for heroic meaning to their lives led to their deaths.
James Connolly, on the other hand, was not sworn into the IRB until early 1916, and then only to prevent him taking the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) off on a solo run which might pre-empt an IRB-led Rising. Never mind a willingness to die for Ireland, it seems that a priority for the IRB was a capacity to lie for Ireland, and on a heroic scale.
Clarke and Mac Diarmada were consummate liars who deceived even their closest friends and associates. Clarke was so convincing that until his own death, Denis McCullough continued to believe Clarke's assurances given in the middle of Holy Week that he knew nothing of an intended Rising.
Having traced the careers of the seven principals until the roads of destiny converge at the point of no return at the door of the GPO, the narrative follows them through the fighting, to the trials (such as they were), to the impressive nobility of their deaths.
In the aftermath, the widows of dead heroes are seen to be no less implacable, and no less human in fighting for primacy in the pantheon for their dead spouses. There is a wonderfully catty remark by the redoubtable Mrs Clarke that "the Pearses think they own 1916". On a wider front, Edwards regards the Rising as a violent attack on constitutionalism in that seven men, a clique within a minority, against the tide of public opinion and in breach of the IRB oath (which required the prior consent of a majority of the Irish people), took it upon themselves to start a war, and the subsequent glorification of their action in the foundational narrative of the state allowed successive groups of dissidents to invoke the precedent of the Rising as a licence to engage in campaigns of violence and terror.
It is, however, a measure of the growing maturity of the debate that, unlike the unfortunate Fr Shaw whose questioning of the morality of the Rising in 1966 was suppressed as a sin against the light, the present study can be welcomed as an important contribution to the discussion and a serious contribution to our understanding of an extremely complex and challenging period in modern Irish history and in which the seven signatories were prime movers. They haven't gone away, you know.
- The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards is published by Oneworld Publications, at £18.99