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The Rising and Revisionism
Book Review by Paul O'Brien, March 2006
We should not let the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland be rewritten and repackaged by right wing historians.
Amid the carnage of the First World War Ireland struck a blow against empire. On Easter Monday 1916 about 1,600 men and women seized the centre of Dublin and declared an independent Irish Republic. A battle raged for six days, resulting in the eventual defeat of the insurgents and the destruction of substantial sections of the city. In the immediate aftermath 16 of the leaders were executed, and 3,500 people arrested and detained.
For many in the nationalist tradition, the heroic nature of the 1916 rising became part of a national self-image that justified the revolutionary means by which independence had been achieved.
More importantly, it legitimised those who wielded power in post-independence Ireland as the inheritors of that legacy. For 50 years - culminating in a great outburst of commemoration in 1966 - the Irish state presented a caricature of the reality and ideals of the rising. But anniversaries are often problematic, loaded with contradictions and ambiguities, and in a few years those celebrations would come back to haunt them.
The start of the Northern Ireland Troubles at the end of the 1960s gave rise to the Provisional IRA, which claimed, with some justification, inspiration and legitimacy from the 1916 Easter Rising. The struggle in the north was "unfinished business" - the Republicans demanded an end to partition and an independent 32-county Republic. The new united Ireland would be based on the ideals embodied in the 1916 declaration of independence, and they were prepared to use the same physical force to achieve it.
The interpretation of this key event in Irish history has prompted fractures and disputes among historians and politicians over the last three decades. The southern ruling class has long come to terms with partition and the British presence in Northern Ireland. The Easter Rising had become an event that many wanted to forget. The 75th anniversary in Dublin in 1991 was a sorry affair, as the leaders of the Irish government gathered to remember the event that led to the foundation of their state. History was being revised and repackaged to the point where it was now a matter of official embarrassment. While the government tried to ignore the event, many right wing ideologues set out to rewrite the history of the period.
The controversy over the interpretation of the rising arose principally because of the implications this might have for the continuing conflict and sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. But it was also part of a project to modernise Ireland, to reach out to the wider world of Boston and Berlin, rather than a backward, insular, rural Ireland.
Kevin Myers of the Irish Times, who viewed the rising as "unmandated violence against constitutional government", led the right wing fringe. In this project, Conor Cruise O'Brien, who eventually abandoned all pretence at historical objectivity and joined the UK Unionist Party, ably supported him. Roy Foster, in his popular history Modern Ireland 1600-1972, provided a less strident and more serious revisionist analysis. Foster's book, in time, became the standard history of modern Ireland.
Foster's main argument is that the Easter Rising was an exercise in irrationality, and its legacy is the Northern Ireland crisis today. He implies that constitutional nationalism, as espoused by the Irish Home Rule Party, would have achieved the same outcome without the divisions that ensued. Foster also conflates nationalism and Catholicism: "An intrinsic component of the insurrection (for all the pluralist window-dressing of the proclamation issued by Pearse) was the strain of mystic Catholicism identifying the Irish soul as Catholic and Gaelic".
Developing the two nation strain that is central to his historical approach, Foster also accuses Irish historians of ignoring the Ulster experience, and in particular the First World War battle of the Somme in July 1916, in which Ulster regiments suffered horrendous casualties. The sacrifice in the Somme by members of the Ulster Volunteers strengthened the sense of British identity among northern Protestants. He counterposes these two events as the key moments in the formation of the northern and southern state. As Edna Longley makes clear in Revising the Rising, "Ulster Protestants perceive their security as resting on a contract with the British crown," a contract that was written in the blood and slaughter of the Somme. The Reverend Ian Paisley reminded the British of this fact while pledging his party's support for the war during the first Gulf War debate at Westminster.
Revising history has always been contentious in Ireland. In Sean O'Casey's critique of the Easter Rising, his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars, he suggested that it was the wrong war for the tenement dwellers of Dublin and indeed for the British soldiers on the other side of the barricades. His proposal that they should put aside nationalism and religion, and unite in the class war, led to riots at the Abbey Theatre when it was first produced. In 1938 the Journal of Irish Historical Studies placed a ban on history after 1900 because they were sensitive to the imperative of Irish history as revolutionary propaganda.
The 1916 rebellion needs to be defended from the revisionist attacks. There is much that is worth celebrating, especially the sense of collective purpose and communal solidarity that was at the heart of the rising. The demand in the 1916 proclamation to cherish "all of the children of the nation equally" stands as a reproach in an Ireland that is now one of the richest but most unequal countries in the world. The socialist tradition of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, who fought alongside the Republicans, has all but disappeared from the official accounts, and a sanitised version of his politics is now presented to the public.
The apologists on the left for the neo-liberal agenda argue that we live in a post-imperialist world where events such as the 1916 Easter Rising, or the Russian Revolution of 1917, have no relevance. Such arguments deny the legitimacy of the oppressed to fight back. Freedom fighters have been transformed into terrorists. To deny the anti-imperialist content of the 1916 Rising, as the revisionists do, is to deny the progressive element of many struggles around the world - such as the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance to US and Israeli imperialism.
Neither should we be blind to the over-riding nationalist politics of the 1916 revolutionaries. As Kieran Allen makes clear in The Politics Of James Connolly, "The lesson of 1916 is an old one: the working class can only intervene in history to its advantage as a conscious political force. Every time it simply 'plays its part' or provides the 'backbone' it loses out to classes above it."
The 1916 rising may be one of the landmark events in Irish history, but few historians have devoted a major book to the topic. Most of the revisionists' output on 1916 is tucked away in general histories and academic journals. Charles Townsend's Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion is all the more welcome. He provides the most comprehensive and considered account of the rising, set in its time and place. He does not subscribe to the belief that the rising was merely "symbolic" or a "blood sacrifice".
The fundamental question is did the rising advance or hinder Irish independence? He suggests that it "quickened the pulse of the separatist movement".
The book is based on documentary evidence that has only recently been released from official sources. In the debate between the traditionalists and the revisionists he settles for the middle ground, but makes no concessions to revisionist ideology.
The revisionists are in retreat, the Good Friday agreement and the IRA ceasefire has removed the central plank of revisionism that Irish nationalism was the cause of the divisions between Protestants and Catholics. But revisionism still has currency in Irish politics. The Irish government felt it necessary to announce that it would also arrange a celebration in July 2006 to honour those who fell at the Somme.
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