Rebels: Voices From The Easter Rising (Fearghal McGarry)

McGarry, author of an excellent biography of Eoin O’Duffy, has brought together a wide variety of recollections and memories from those who lived through the early years of the Irish revolutionary period, culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and its immediate aftermath.

McGarry’s part in the project is limited to a conservative introduction that serves mostly to offer a warning against trusting everything that those who fill the pages of Rebels have to say, due to bias, selective memory and possible outright fabrications and then offers only brief interludes between the reams of firsthand accounts in order to set the scene for the next bunch. These are the voices of the Easter Rising, and McGarry is good enough to let them talk, be they well spoken, from the lower class, socialist, conservative, Irish or English.

So, with little of the authors own commentary to offer critique on, I thought I would just more forward and discuss some of the points that came to mind through reading the plethora of primary accounts that McGarry has brought together.

The accounts advance in a chronological fashion, starting with the earliest formation of nationalist/gaelic organisations.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was heading towards an ignominious extinction before the intervention of Tom Clarke, being divided by internal discord and a lack of youth. The IRB was, pre-Clarke, a part-time secret society with a very poor grasp of what it wanted to accomplish and how to accomplish it. The Gaelic League and the GAA really were just as important to the formation of the Irish Volunteers and the rise of Sinn Fein as the IRB. On Sinn Fein themselves, the early years of the party and mergers with other organisations are indicative of a national movement that was fractious and ill-prepared to really do anything meaningful to accomplish its goals. Given that, it is less and less surprising that the British administration never saw what would happen coming. The sense from the recollections is certainly of aimlessness, of societies that were not up to doing anything to really get their stated objective.

Fianna Eireann, a precursor of the Irish Volunteers proper, seemed to teach boys a lot about military life, except actually fighting. Their activities matches the trend throughout Europe in the early years of the 20th century for indoctrinating the young to a jingoistic and militarised way of thinking.

The original founders of the Fianna Eireann soon lost all control they had over its direction. Any Irish/Gaelic organisation created at the time soon had secret IRB influences almost as a matter of course, including the GAA and the Gaelic League. From there, the radical elements were able to start teaching a more separatist ideology.  It seems clear, reading the accounts of the immediate pre-WW1 era of Irish nationalism that few, especially the “rank and file” had any real idea about what they were getting themselves into. For them it wasn’t even about preparing for a very real fight that would take place in the near future, just a declaration of their political allegiance and engaging in romantic notions of fighting for Ireland.

While it grew to be centred on Dublin, the movement was a general thing throughout the country. Recruitment to the Irish Volunteers spiked at its formation in 1913 but fell away over the following months as enthusiasm waned though lack of action and momentum. The actual reasons for joining varied, defined largely as a divide between those who saw the British as the enemy, and those who saw the Ulster Volunteers as the enemy. Within a few months of its founding, branches of the Volunteers in some areas were either non-existent or so poorly organised as to be non-existent.

As with every other organisation, the IRB infiltrated the Volunteers fast, so fast as to dominate its workings from very soon after its founding. This sometimes resulted, in the eye of the beholder of course, in promotion by merit being ignored in favour of those who were members of the secret society, to the possible detriment of the organisation as a whole.

The importance of music as a creator of morale and a feeling of national identity cannot be understated in the IV. Nearly every person, when asked about their early lives and reasons for joining, mentions music at some point.

The accounts from the Cumann na mBan are fascinating in terms of reasons for joining. That divide can be seen as between those who counted themselves as nationalist feminists, those who wanted to just support “the men” and saw their role as nothing more than that and those looking for husbands and adventure, swept up in the romantic side of the whole endeavor.

In terms of responses to the Volunteers from the British, the evidence is mixed. The RIC and DMP were at worst annoying hindrances to the activities of the Volunteers, and at best, open sympathisers to their cause, aiding and abetting them in small ways. Further up the line, the idea that the Volunteers was allowed its activities because the British viewed it as a potential recruiting ground in the future is one that bears further examination. I certainly wouldn’t put it past the likes of Lloyd George, who is on record as thinking that the 1918 conscription attempt in Ireland would serve a dual purpose of eradicating nationalist sentiment.

Redmond’s “takeover” of the Volunteers was really just in name only, a sop to the main political grouping of the nationalist movement. However, the disillusionment with Bulmer Hobson and his turn away from the advancement of more radical action, started there. The IPP’s involvement in the Volunteers and the Howth gun running show clearly that a split between moderate and radical elements in the Volunteers was already evident years before it became manifest in the immediate run-up to the Easter Rising.

World War One really would have destroyed the Irish Volunteers, but for the real hardcore nationalist element. It solidified the IRB’s control, and insured a military rising would occur. The early Irish support for the war effort is critically understated in Irish history, an embarrassment that the national ethos refused to contemplate in later years. The Volunteers were left in a very bad state in 1914 and the image of Eamon De Valera drilling the only seven men left in his Volunteer “company” is one that will stick in the mind.

Late 1915 was the turning point. The Volunteers and also the Irish Citizen Army became a very substantial movement again after/around that point as enthusiasm for the war began to wane. The gun running efforts of the Volunteers were a very notable success for them around this point – thought the tangible effects were suspect – but huge questions remain as to why it was never stopped by British forces.

The radical element of the IRB was intent upon a Rising years before it happened. Moreover, many of the higher ups in that faction knew it would be defeated far earlier then you might think, several years before the event, but committed to the “blood-sacrifice” idea.

It cannot be understated how crazy and suicidal the plans for the Easter Rising were, even in the best case scenario. Even anyone with a basic understanding of military tactics and strategy could see that it was a doomed undertaking. This causes me some confusion, reading the accounts of other people who truly believed that the plan could succeed, beyond all sense. Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeill were the voices of reason in a sea of insanity. The negative portrayal Irish history gives them sometimes is an absolute crime in my opinion, because all they wanted to do was save lives in preparation for a more opportune time. It is a horrible irony, given what could be described as his airbrushing from history, that Hobson’s long term strategy of guerrilla warfare is what actually worked.

Plenty of “rank-and-file” IV members knew what was coming within a year of the Rising. The divide between those who fully expected death and went gladly towards it, and those who bought wholesale into the fiction Clarke and the others were advocating is interesting to read.

The signatories certainly misled many people about their intentions or about their chances of success. This is forgotten about or dismissed far too much in historical remembrance of the Easter Rising in my opinion. The ends justifying the means is a common refrain from those who defend various aspects of the Rising, but it does betray some honourable failings that make for uncomfortable reading.

The signatories displayed a brand of arrogance, single-mindedness, and obsession with striking any sort of blow, even a half-witted one, which is startling. They could have called it off and waited another week or two to get full strength, but were simply not interested in survival a few days before the Rising. I belabour that point just to try and make clear how negative a thing that really is. Even if they were totally committed to a Rising attempt in that general time period, they did so at a moment when better options were still available to them.

If General Maxwell had held off on his badly timed and rushed executions, I am convinced from these accounts that the Easter Risers would be confined to a remembrance based around “brave but foolish”. It really was a huge turning point in Irish history.

On to the actual Rising itself: The first few days were quiet, which killed rebel morale through nerve filled boredom. The ICA had some scores to settle with the DMP and RIC over the 1913 lockout, whether they were unarmed or not, and both sides were guilty of what we would call “war crimes” today. Unarmed civilians were shot, under orders, by the rebels, according to these accounts, though both sides shot civilians.

Two big reality checks occurred to the rebels in the first few days: The lack of civilian support for their cause was the first, the surprise expressed by some accounts being somewhat, well, surprising considering the state of Ireland at the time. The second was the looting that took place during Easter week, which the rebels had no idea how to handle. They seem to have expected some great populist uprising and endless support, but that did not happen.

Pearse was good at talking during Easter week, and not so good at doing anything else. Connolly was the military leader, but he wasn’t the great tactician like he is sometimes made out to be. Plunkett had a death wish, wanting a glorious end since he was dying anyway. Clarke had a death wish, because he simply wanted, in the twilight of his life, to make some meaningful impact on the nationalist movement.

The idea that a violent uprising had to be made simply to keep up Ireland’s record of “once a generation”, as put forward by numerous rebels in the latter part of this book as a justification for their actions is startling to read.

Pearse was certainly no revolutionary when it came to the role of women is such a situation, suggesting to some who didn’t want to be relegated solely to dispatch duty that they could work in the kitchens.

The shelling of rebel positions was the turning point, both in terms of the battle and IV/ICA pretensions of success. Being under such fire changed many perspectives. The burning of Sackville Street was a sight that was, if you’ll excuse the use of the word, seared into many memories and must have been quite the conflagration.

The continued resistance of the rebels throughout the week was admirable from a morale standpoint, a result of the strong nationalist feeling in the ranks. It is interesting to see the point at which individuals quoted realised they could not win and how nearly all kept fighting afterward. That being said, the rebel leadership didn’t know when to call it quits. It took the exposure to the civilian dead on Moore Street, after the GPO was evacuated, for Pearse to realise a fight to the death would be immoral, both for his own men and the Dubliners who would die as a result. The desperate bayonet charge to be launched from Moore Street, cancelled at the last moment, might well be the very final gasp of Volunteer tactics and bravado before such ideas were swept away post 1916, replaced by the new way of the IRA.

The gigantic disconnect between the Dublin and rural branches of the Irish Volunteers is not too surprising given my study into the similar divide between the Dublin and rural branches of the IRA later in that decade. Revolutionary organisations in Ireland suffered from that lack of centralisation and an effective chain of command. The Dublin Volunteers were certainly more dedicated to their cause then other branches in 1916.

Thomas McCurtain just did not want to go out on Easter week, and I’m unsure whether it was a stance of practicality, cowardice, or a mixture of both. Just as well really, because the Cork Volunteers would have been slaughtered. How many of those men would go on to fight in the War of Independence? That, and they could hardly be expected to do much fighting with the existence of such varying orders from Volunteer leadership.

Public opinion of the rebels, in Dublin, was mostly negative. That being said, it is easy to detect a certain hysteria in the reaction, which should not be taken to mean a pro-British sentiment. British soldiers, many of them Irish, treated the rebels in different ways. Nothing recorded is really that surprising, both positive and negative accounts.

The quick and ruthless way that the executions were carried out was a major part of the change in public opinion, but the romanticised way the whole sorry thing unfolded – the marriages, the return of Connolly to the faith, etc – also helped. They were show trials, and they were one of the big “what if?” moments of this islands history. Like, what if they had just waited a while? Those who went to the firing squads did so with bravery, many of them happily. That at least seems to be no nationalist exaggeration.

Briefer thoughts:

The Mount Street Bridge fighting is a classic example of a small number of well-prepared troops making use of urban terrain in good positions to exact a terrible price on their enemies. It was a British disaster.

The rebels took good care of prisoners, something that is overlooked in history I think.

De Valera was not a good military commander, but any claims on his mental well being during the week remains inconclusive.

The Ashbourne fighting was a credit to the Volunteers there, and Richard Mulcahy, but it should be remembered they were fighting police, not soldiers.

The British were frightfully ignorant of the role women played in the Rising, and would go on to play later.

The guns from the Howth gun running were antiquated and a liability throughout the Rising, despite the trumpeting of that episode as a Volunteer success story.

In conclusion, in regards the lessons and ideas I took from the whole book:

-The Rising was a doomed endeavour from the start of its planning.

-Its leaders had plenty of moral flaws that have gone under-reported in history. The rebel leadership lied wholesale to the rank-and-file during the planning, about the success of the Rising, and the situation in the rest of the country. Simple as.

-The Rising succeeded in inflaming nationalist feeling in a way nothing else could. In that regard, the Volunteers achieved its primary aim of existence.

The Rising is our fateful moment in history. Rebels is an invaluable collection of first hand information about that moment, the turning point of our independence struggle, so for that alone I would recommend it.

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1 Response to Rebels: Voices From The Easter Rising (Fearghal McGarry)

  1. Indeed a compelling perspective. I found a used copy at B&N which I will surely get into as soon as it arrives. Trying to absorb the many characters and events in “Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story” (Anvil Books) I found it a bit much for this novice. Maybe McGarry’s take on it will be a bit more clearer.

    “Thomas McCurtain just did not want to go out on Easter week, and I’m unsure whether it was a stance of practicality, cowardice, or a mixture of both. Just as well really, because the Cork Volunteers would have been slaughtered. How many of those men would go on to fight in the War of Independence? That, and they could hardly be expected to do much fighting with the existence of such varying orders from Volunteer leadership.”

    Your observation is well taken, they lived to fight another day.

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