IF EVER a year was in danger of being fast-forwarded into history, it’s this one. With the 1916 centenary commemorations becoming a dominant theme across various media, the nation is already searching its soul for the lessons of that week and the 100 years since.
Invariably, there are competing claims of ‘new perspectives’ on an event which is the alpha and omega of Ireland’s modern history. Two books — Years of Turbulence — The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath’ and The Easter Rebellion 1916 — A New Illustrated History — are among those staking a claim in what is a happily crowded field.
Both take different approaches. The Easter Rebellion by Dr Conor McNamara, scholar in residence at NUI Galway, is a compelling narrative of the events of 1916, wrapped in a handsomely illustrated hardback featuring images from the period. Years of Turbulence, edited by Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan, is a series of essays that attempt to develop new angles on a tumultuous event that, with each passing year, has gained new layers of legend.
Years of Turbulence is written in honour of UCD History lecturer Michael Laffan, a man responsible for forging a different approach to the events of 1916 over previous decades. The book is suitably scholarly, and there’s no doubting the effort taken in winkling out valuable insights from hitherto darkened corners of the period.
So, for example, we have a chapter on Irish suffragist protest in the 1911 census, when some Irish women took the brave decision to hold a boycott, and another on the rivetting life of Michael Keogh, recruiting sergeant for Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade.
Another chapter, by Paul Rouse and Ross O’Carroll, on the victory of Leix (Laois) in the 1915 All Ireland — still the county’s only senior crown — is a brilliant evocation of how sport was helping to cast a new generation of Irish men and women, as well as maybe telling us where modern day coaches got some of their ideas around training regimes.
There is some serious intellectual and historical heft in its pages, even if, at times, the writing is a little prosaic.
In terms of different perspectives, however, there are some vital contributions. Marie Coleman of Queen’s University Belfast writes of violence of all types against women in the War of Independence, while the following chapter, by Anne Dolan of Trinity College Dublin, is the pick of the bunch. It focuses on the brutal endings of spies and informers — and some who were simply accused of same. This was a campaign of terror, one that stalked the countryside as signs carrying epitaphs such as ‘Convicted spy. Tried by the IRA’ were left alongside bodies dumped in trenches and on the roadside.
There even appears to have been an element of sadism to some of these episodes. As Dolan, who writes with real verve, describes one incident: “Bridget Gilligan was held back at gunpoint and heard one man whistling as he walked away from the body of her husband left behind.”
Another man had been found “dead in a bog, his body telling he was kneeling, his clasped hands saying his prayers”.
As for Diarmaid Ferriter, arguably the country’s most high profile contemporary historian, his own chapter on the military service pensions and how they became a financial lifeline in the years and decades after the events of the War of Independence shows his acute understanding of how small details make up the larger picture.
He outlines how the famed Tom Barry, of Kilmichael fame, struggled to convince faceless bureaucrats that he was deserving of the pension, finally securing the payment in 1940. Yet many others did not — something that meant they were left with little but the grinding poverty that they hoped the money would have alleviated.
While Years of Turbulence spans many years before and after the events of Easter 1916, The Easter Rebellion focuses primarily on the key events of that year, with copious illustrations providing context for that time and the years before and after.
Some of those images are well-worn — the shot of a miffed Dev after his arrest by the military, the bombed out remnants of O’Connell St and environs following the shelling from British Forces — but others are less familiar.
According to Conor McNamara: “There is still a vast array of images that have only recently come to light thanks to the increasing digitisation of Irish archives and manuscripts. For the first time, thousand of images can be scanned and put online and instantly seen and shared thanks to the use of internet archives. We are continuing to discover material that relates to the period from private sources and family papers and these add greatly to our understanding of the period.”
Some of the images are eye-catching, not least the contemporary propaganda pamphlets from both sides. They often contrast sharply with those employed by the British, often twee illustrations of square-jawed men showing ‘pluck’, versus blunt and sometimes caustic Republican material.
McNamara says: “The revolutionaries in Ireland in the opening decades of the century were acutely conscious of power of propaganda and the use of emotive images, insult, humour, and ridicule in republican ephemera convey a profound sense of the dynamics of the Irish revolution.
“Likewise, the British military employed specific images and pastoral scenes to call into question the manliness of Irish farmers, blaming them for lacking the courage to fight in the Great War.”
Some of the images of an eviscerated Dublin city centre can still shock, such as Lord Nelson’s statue peering down on a scene of utter devastation. McNamara may well have a point when he argues that O’Connell Street “has never recovered its grandeur as the trend towards fashionable businesses opening on the Southside accelerated after the devastation”.
And while the rebels themselves were castigated by some elements of contemporary society, others “began to realise that the shelling of the city by the military was a deliberate act of contempt for the city itself”.
As McNamara puts it, and many of the photographs in the book make clear: “Any nation’s claim for a state in the opening decades of the century was measured by their willingness to fight, die and kill for their beliefs; Ireland is no exception.” He believes the decade of commemorations is “an unprecedented opportunity” to explore “difficult and awkward aspects of our modern history”, adding: “There is a slight tendency to sneer at the sheer volume of events that are being organised but this can be explained by sheer begrudgery rather than convincing argument.”
He believes there are of perspectives that need to be further explored in relation to the Rebellion.
“The attitude of Dublin’s poor and the perspectives of the looters that descended on the city centre in the early days of the Rebellion has only recently been explored,” he says.
“Most importantly the interpretation of the Rebellion across the British colonies whose own independence movements were in their infancy is a fundamental issue.”
There is also the Military Service Pensions Archive, as utilised by Ferriter in his chapter in Years of Turbulence and which, according to McNamara, will form “an unrivalled record of the revolutionary generation that will be consulted for many decades”.
“The Rebellion was a global event that turned on its head the logic of Empire and other submerged nations looked to the Irish liberation struggle for inspiration,” he says.
As both these books attest, the Rising and its reverberations are still a spark of inspiration, almost 100 years on.
edited by Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan