1916: The Long Revolution

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews 1916 - The Long Revolution by G. Doherty & D. Keogh (eds), Mercier Press ISBN 978-1-85635-545-2, €19.99

1916: The Long Revolution

ANYONE WITH a passing interest in Irish history should find this work inspiring. It is a tour de force of scholarship and organization. My only criticism is one of design - the footnotes are unnecessarily awkward to access.

A most satisfying feature of the work is the diversity of perspectives on one historic event. This variety can be a significant source of dialectic and further research. Inevitably there is some overlap, and anomalies. It lends support to Crowley's (2008) diktat: "simplified versions [of history] are misleading and therefore dangerous".

The editors have engaged a remarkable array of experts, including a former taoiseach (now Chancellor of the NUI), a Supreme Court Judge and the president of Ireland. There are almost twenty contributors, all of whom deserve detailed consideration here, but space and time disallow this. Authors ensconced in ivory towers all performed superbly as one has every right to expect.

The Supreme Court Judge is an accomplished historian, who presents the executions of the 1916 leaders from a legal perspective. He enriches his contribution from a "remarkable source" - a personal memoir of W E Wylie K.C., who prosecuted at many of the secret courts-martial. His use of plain language is refreshing.

For example, when defining martial law, the author opts for the vernacular of Arthur Wellesley rather that of the more circumspect language of the Manual of Military Law, which was issued to all officers and plainly failed to get its message across.

Even the asides are fascinating. For example, J H M Campbell, KC, MP, was attorney general for Ireland, and drew up the 'Proclamation of Martial Law'. He avidly pursued potential victims. He and his leader Edward Carson, KC, MP, and their collaborator, F E Smith, KC, MP, were complicit in gun-running, sedition, treason felony, setting up a rebel government etc.

All achieved high judicial appointments; Carson actually prosecuted Roger Casement. While Carson had moved to Sussex and, later to Kent, Campbell as 'Lord Glenavy' stayed to become chairman of the Free State Senate. W.S. Gilbert could not have imagined it!

In the chapter "Easter in Cork 1916", Gerry White and Brendan O'Shea brilliantly describe Cork's best-kept secret - the Volunteers' mobilization and their officers' frustration at the orders, counter-orders and confusion of the Easter weekend. They also give well-deserved attention to the Kent brothers' stand at Castlelyons and to the execution of Thomas. Their conclusions are sound and expressed emphatically - in Cork tradition.

In the longest contribution, Dermot Keogh deftly describes the role of the Catholic Church leading to and following the rising. He recounts George Plunkett's mysterious mission to the Pope and the ensuing controversies. The centrepiece must be the machinations to "Catholicise" the rising, which resulted in Irish republicanism being hijacked by the bishops.

Fr Michael Curran's evidence to the Bureau of Military History lacks other contributors' literary flair. Nonetheless, it tells a poignant tale of the exploits of a dedicated and courageous priest, ministering to both sides, while remaining mindful of the security of his bicycle.

Despite the title "Constance Markievicz's 'Three Great Movements' and the 1916 Rising", the rebel 'countess' is not the central character in Mary Cullen Owens' trenchant essay.

The 'Three Great Movements' were national, industrial and women's freedom. The national movement had priority and, deliberate or not, impeded the cause of women. The state, trade unions and the Catholic Church formed a male phalanx against women to the extent that the International Labour Organization black-listed the Free State. The women's case (and that of workers) was founded on natural justice, implicit in the 1916 Proclamation of Independence. Both campaigns were vigorously supported by James Connolly.

I found "Easter Ethics" by Rev. Dr Seamus Murphy SJ, contentious. It appears to follow the pattern of "Hume's Guillotine" - from teaching to preaching. The former is masterly, particularly the thesis that "the term 'just war' is a misnomer". The supporting analogy of police arresting a violent criminal fails to clarify the moral status of the respective parties in war. There was a time when police were not required to kill alleged criminals.

No doubt, Dr Murphy's technical arguments are valid, but I take issue with some of his supporting evidence particularly in questions of context. The events in the north-east and mass character assassination within the 'Irish Party' after Parnell's 'fall from grace', do not receive sufficient attention. One example, chosen by Dr Murphy, has to suffice here:

"To pick one contextual factor at random: consider the extreme reaction of the Conservative (sic) party to the removal of the Lords' veto in 1911 and the home rule bill of 1912. Its relevance to ethical analysis (as distinct from historical explanation) of the Easter Rising is not about whether it excuses the Rising, but about the degree to which the leaders of the Rising properly grasped its political significance and acted accordingly."

It took great courage (and six years) for Lord Denbigh to admit:

"I realise now that the gun-running and arming of Ulster was the most fatal error that we could have made and immediately set an example of armed and organised opposition to the British Government in the rest of Ireland". (The Times 27 July 1920.)

Earlier in the book Michael Wheatley's essay affirmed that ordinary people were aware of events in Ireland including, the proliferation of private armies. On 27 July 1912, Andrew Bonar Law told Unionists:

"We regard them (H.M. Government) as a revolutionary committee, which has seized upon despotic power by fraud. … I say now, with a full sense of the responsibility which attaches to my position, that if the attempt be made under present conditions, I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them, and in which they will not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people". [e.g. The Times, 29 July 1912: Nicolson (1952): Ryan (1956)]

The man in the bóithrín was quite capable of calculating that with 100,000 well-armed loyalists, an army declining to disarm them and a government too weak to discipline its army, the majority was just about defenceless. The Great War provided an opportunity of addressing this.

These events and more recent history do not support Dr Murphy's thesis that "Politics is about talking and negotiating" or his commendation of "ethical framework of liberal democracy", "concerned with representative democracy, human rights, and the rule of law".

Dicey (1886: 1912: 1915) held that "The King/Queen-in-Parliament" (i.e. Parliament) is supreme - not "the electorate", and certainly not "the people". Lord Hailsham, twice Lord Chancellor and editor of Halsbury's Laws of England, described the British system as an "elective dictatorship" and asserted

"There is nothing legally (Parliament) cannot do and practically nothing which, at one time or another, it has not done. … It has taken away the lives and liberties of its fellow citizens without the semblance of a fair trial. ….". (Hailsham 1979)

I am unclear if he included those whom he called 'The Bog Irish'.

On 29 June 1914, The Times published a letter from a courageous member of the hierarchy of the established Church in which it was argued:

"and still we close our eyes that real representation does not exist: … we are not a democracy. We - the people - do not govern."

In the concluding essay, the co-editor, Gabriel Doherty cites "the anguish - indeed the shame - of many regarding the violence" in the six counties. Had democracy been on offer in 1914, or in 1920 perhaps, there would have been no "Provisional IRA's armed campaign" and 'our' discomfiture would have been avoided.

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