Ken Keable reviews The Impact Of The 1916 Rising: among the nations edited by Ruán O'Donnell, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2965 , £19.95/ €26.95, pbk
THE BRITISH left generally remains largely ignorant of Ireland's Easter rising of 1916 and scarcely ever celebrates or discusses it.
Yet it must surely, together with the events that it sparked, rate as the most important revolutionary episode in the modern history of the UK, with consequences that are still unfolding today. With it, Ireland became the first country in modern times to attempt to break free of the British empire - an honour that carried a high price in suffering.
This book, edited by one of Ireland's finest historians, gives a wide-ranging survey of the impact of the rising on many countries and how it was viewed at the time and since.
There are chapters on France, the USA, Australia & New Zealand, and Britain. There is also an account of the part played by people from Britain (mostly Scotland) who crossed the water to take part in the rising. The book also deepens our understanding of the rising itself.
Priscilla Metscher's chapter on James Connolly, the Easter rising and the first world war is an excellent Marxist study, showing Connolly to be in touch with European socialist thought at the time. Its survey of the nationalist and revolutionary movements worldwide in the period, including Germany, Russia and China, and the crisis in the Second International over the first world war, is well-researched and lucid. The book is worth buying for this chapter alone.
Brian P Murphy discusses Ken Loach's great film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, using it to discuss the rising in relation to the Irish revolutionary period that it began and how all this is viewed today. He makes a masterly and devastating criticism of Roy Foster, Ireland's leading anti-nationalist historian, and other critics of the film including Ruth Dudley Edwards of the Daily Mail. It is a gem.
David Granville's thoughtful chapter on The British labour and socialist movement and the 1916 rising is a much-needed piece of original research and provides a useful basis for considering present-day attitudes to Ireland, and to the national question generally, among Britain's left.
Ann Mathews analyses the issue of class in terms of the relation between the Irish Volunteers and the working-class Irish Citizen Army, also including the role of women and women's organisations in the rising.
Peter Beresford Ellis critically examines, and largely demolishes, some potent myths: that most Dublin workers opposed the rising and jeered the captured rebels; that the rising was ill-planned; that the choice of the GPO as headquarters of the rising was ill-advised; that Connolly believed the British army would never use artillery in a city because of its respect for capitalist property; and the myth of the blood sacrifice.
The text of the 1916 Proclamation is included, with its use of the term "equal opportunities" which was well ahead of its time and was due, it is generally assumed, to the influence of James Connolly.
Another welcome appendix is the full text of Desmond Greaves' 1966 pamphlet 1916 as History - the myth of the blood sacrifice.
Greaves' essay still stands as essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the rising, its historical causes and lasting significance. It demolishes the bourgeois myth (promoted by W B Yeats) that its leaders were motivated by a romantic desire for martyrdom without hope of success. This piece has a valuable introduction, and explanatory notes, by Anthony Coughlan.
For non-Irish people unfamiliar with the rising and with Ireland, a few of the chapters (especially Chapters 1 and 9) will be difficult to understand. I hope they will not be deterred. I hope that at least some people on the British left will study this book and start to overcome the blind spot which the British left has about Ireland, a country which continues to play an important part in our own struggle for democracy and socialism.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2008 Ken Keable