While reading this book in a London café, I was politely buttonholed by an Irishman: ‘Sorry to disturb you, but I saw what you were reading and wondered how far back it went.’ I answered that, as it was a group biography of the men who led the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, it began with the eldest of them, Tom Clarke, in the mid-19th century. ‘But,’ I added, ‘it goes back further, to Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone — even Cromwell is mentioned.’ ‘Sure the feud’s much older than that,’ was the gleeful reply.
If Ruth Dudley Edwards had been at the table, I imagine she would have said that that was part of the problem — the romantic, rebel, republican view of Irish history as an unbroken tradition of justified resistance. It is a view that she has spent a 40-year career trying to redress. ‘Ireland has a surfeit of idealists who in their desire to make things better made everything much, much worse.’ The Seven who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in Dublin on 24 April 1916 were no exception. In their quest to free Ireland from a foreign yoke, they made no allowances for the fact that the Irish Nationalists, holding the balance of power at Westminster, had already secured Home Rule, even if it was delayed for the duration of the Great War.
Home Rule represented that despised thing, compromise, and in any case Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett had no time for notions of democratic representation. Their authority came, in the words of the Proclamation, from ‘the name of God and the dead generations from which Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood’: in other words, the old feud.
After the Rising, and the executions of all seven men, they swiftly passed into legend. Dudley Edwards’s task is to render these sacrificial icons human again, which she does in part by placing them against the complex backdrop of their own time. Sometimes, the complexity threatens to overwhelm the reader, under the combined influence of a packed cast and a riot of abbreviations. A paragraph taken at random mentions Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh, Terence de Vere White, W.B. Yeats and Willie Rooney, while even the list of abbreviations at the end cannot find room to remind us that the ICA is, in this context, the Irish Citizen Army (James Connolly’s workers’ volunteers), not the Institute for Contemporary Art.
But what Dudley Edwards’s approach makes clear is that, for all the doomed glamour of a ‘revolution led by poets’ (Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett were all published), the Rising was steeped in the long history of animosity towards Britain, as well as the infighting of a fragmented movement. Six of the Seven were members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (Connolly saw Ireland’s cause in the wider context of the international workers’ struggle), but they formed a cabal even within the Brotherhood, using the formation of a defensive citizen force, the Irish Volunteers, as a way to foment armed revolution. When it came to the crucial moment, Pearse and co. simply ignored the nominal head of the Volunteers, the history professor and founder of the Gaelic League, Eoin MacNeill, who issued a countermanding order standing them down on Easter Sunday. Pearse spelled it out to the beleaguered MacNeill: ‘We have used your name and influence for what they were worth, but we have done with you now. It’s no use trying to stop us.’
The Rising itself forms only the last act of the book. Dudley Edwards dramatically rehearses the familiar, tragic tale of the stand in the General Post Office, which the Seven knew full well had no chance of success (Clarke remarked to one Volunteer: ‘Of course… we shall be wiped out’). But the real value of this book is in bringing together accounts of the men who so successfully sold the idea of freedom through violence and martyrdom to Irish (and international) posterity. And what an odd bunch they were. Tom Clarke, known to Dubliners as a quietly spoken middle-aged tobacconist, had a revolutionary past as a ‘dynamitard’ on the mainland. He hadn’t blown anything up, but was caught with enough incriminating material to be sentenced to penal servitude for life, being released after 15 years. The brutal British prison regime often broke its victims, but Clarke’s purposeful hatred was tempered in the flame, and on release he worked steadily and secretly to bring about armed revolution.
Pearse, about whom Dudley Edwards wrote a controversial biography, emerges here as a man of messianic temperament and off-the-charts inhibition. This headmaster-hero of the Republic was a ‘repressed paedophile’, if the evidence of some very suggestive verse and the allegation that he ‘kissed boys’ is to be believed. It was a joke among Pearse’s friends that he couldn’t abide women. Even in the GPO, Mac Diarmada had a laugh introducing ‘two nice girls to see you’ to the mortified new President of the Provisional Republic.
Of the others, perhaps the most tragic is Plunkett, a wealthy consumptive with an overbearing mother. His histrionic poem ‘I See His Blood upon a Rose’ was once, Dudley Edwards tells us, learned by most Catholic schoolchildren in independent Ireland. Plunkett had to be helped out of a nursing home to join the Rising, and appeared in full dress uniform; a witness reported: ‘If ever death had laid its mark openly on a man, it was here.’
The most unintentionally comic is the often overlooked Ceannt, who took up the uilleann pipes and became so committed to the Irish language that on a visit to the Pope he refused to speak English. Ceannt designed a piper’s costume for that trip, made by his sister. Dudley Edwards does not mention it, but the outfit is now in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. Ceannt became as hard-nosed a revolutionary as any, throwing himself into learning soldiery as single-mindedly as he had into learning Ireland’s language and music. But the impression Dudley Edwards’s sorrowful, good-humoured book leaves is that a lot of blood might have been saved if Ceannt and his fellow revolutionaries had taken themselves a little less seriously.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18.99 Tel: 08430 600033