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Response to Review of The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916

I am grateful to Dr John Borgonovo for his thoughtful engagement with my work. There is little that I would take issue with in his comprehensive review, including his principal critique that the book is over-reliant on the Bureau of Military History. I would like to take this opportunity to address some of his points, and to reflect more broadly on how my use of this increasingly influential archive shaped The Rising.

 

My original intention was to write an account of the Easter Rising drawing on, among other sources, the Bureau of Military History’s witness statements, a vast body of testimony on the struggle for Irish independence (which was recorded by revolutionary veterans during the 1940s and 1950s but only released in 2003).(1a) After reading through many of its 36,000 (then un-digitised) pages of statements – among the richest collections of testimony for any modern revolution – I made a decision to base my book on this archive. I decided also to focus primarily on those subjects and themes that the witnesses had felt it most important to record, while occasionally drawing attention to omissions, and to divergences from current historiography.

 

Many of the strengths and weaknesses of The Rising result from this attempt to consider the Rising from the perspective of the rebels’ own (highly mediated) voices. The structure of the book followed the pattern of the witness statements, tracing the journey of a ‘revolutionary generation’ from politicisation, to radicalisation and, ultimately, participation in violence. I gave less weight to aspects of the insurrection that were poorly represented in the archive, such as the perspectives of the British authorities, Crown Forces, and moderate nationalists. In doing so, I was conscious that previous accounts, most notably Charles Townshend’s authoritative 2005 study, had successfully considered the rebellion within this wider context.(2a)

 

My decision to focus on testimony is the main reason why incidents that were not witnessed by rebels (such as the North King Street killings, mentioned by Dr Borgonovo) receive little attention. I also focus more on republican than British army violence for the same reason, although I do suggest ‘that most civilian casualties were caused by the British army, not only due to its inability to discern rebels from civilians but also as a result of the difficulties of street fighting and its use of artillery, incendiary shells, and heavy machine guns’ (p. 184). I agree with Dr Borgonovo’s broader observation about the inadequate analysis of state violence by many historians of the Irish Revolution, and have noted elsewhere how republican violence is often analysed in near forensic detail, while much less attention is devoted to that of the Crown forces.(3a) Although partly due to the availability of sources, and the greater contemporary resonance of disputes about republican violence, this tendency also reflects the previously dominant revisionist critique of traditional nationalist historiography.

 

My focus on the archive allowed for detailed exploration of particular themes such as popular nationalist ‘mentalities’ and the human dimension of the rebellion. The view ‘from below’ also differed in some respects from the better-known vantage point of leaders such as Patrick Pearse. Ordinary rebels, for example, knew little about the rationale for the rebellion, or the assumptions that shaped its military strategy, and they were less aware of the likelihood of defeat (aspects of the rebellion which have preoccupied many historians). Although the Rising is now most remembered for the proclamation of the Irish Republic, many rebels were as oblivious to this symbolic moment as they were to the broader ideological aspirations of the Irish Republican Brotherhood military council organisers. I suggest that tensions between the egalitarian and secular outlook of the military council and the more socially conservative nationalism of ‘ordinary’ rebels can be discerned from the treatment of female combatants and displays of religiosity within rebel garrisons. The independent state that subsequently emerged from the Revolution was led by politicians such as W. T. Cosgrave and √Čamon de Valera whose Catholic nationalist outlook was more in tune with that of the rank and file, and Irish society more broadly, than the Rising’s revolutionary inner circle.

 

The impression of a fragmented and discordant separatist movement gleaned from the Bureau of Military History also influenced interpretations. I argue, for example, that rather than the much-noted interception of the Aud, with its cargo of rifles, and the capture of Roger Casement, the chaotic level of confusion, misunderstanding, and disagreement within the separatist movement did more to prevent a nationwide Rising. The polyvocal nature of the archive may, in part, account for Dr Borgonovo’s criticism that readers cannot always discern my position on certain issues. However, mHy approach here was also influenced by the contentious nature of the historiography. From the 1970s to the 1990s (the overlap between the ‘history wars’ and the Northern Irish Troubles is not coincidental), much writing on the Rising centred on the legitimacy and morality of republican violence. Given the contested nature of debates on the motives and rationale behind an unprovoked rebellion, its potential for military or political success, and its justification, it seemed more useful to draw on the Bureau to reconstruct contemporary attitudes on these questions than to return to well-worn historiographical disputes.

 

Dr Borgonovo’s point on the need for critical evaluation of the witness statements is an important one. It is clearer to me now that my decision to try to distil this vast archive into an accessible narrative involved compromises. It left little space for evaluating the evidence of the Bureau in relation to other sources; for contextualising the individual (often unidentified) voices quoted in the text; and for explicit interrogation of how the constructed nature of this state-curated ‘memory’ may have shaped the evidence, shortcomings identified by several reviewers. The Bureau’s witness statements were produced by a generation of activists looking back – often with ambivalence – on a formative period, both for themselves and their nation; as such, they were subject to a wide range of influences, not least the divisive impact of the 1922–3 Irish Civil War, and the radically different climate that prevailed in 1950s Ireland. While the welcome deluge of archived ‘memory’ resulting from commemorative state initiatives such as the Military Service Pensions collection is transforming the historiography of the Irish Revolution, use of these sources requires close attention to the pressures that shaped them. In time, they may prove as valuable a source for analysing the narrativisation, memory and legacy of the Revolution as for the historical events they record.(4a)

Notes

  1. See <http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/> [accessed 23 June 2017].Back to (1a)
  2. Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2005).Back to (2a)
  3. Fearghal McGarry, ‘Violence and the Easter Rising’, in Terror in Ireland 1916–1923, ed. David Fitzpatrick (Dublin, 2012), p. 53.Back to (3a)
  4. For an example of this approach, focusing on the memory of seven individuals, see Fearghal McGarry, ‘Hard Service: remembering the Abbey Theatre’s rebels’, in Remembering 1916. The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, ed. Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (Oxford, 2016).Back to (4a)