The 1916 Irish Rebellion
Briona Nic Dhiarmada
Foreword by Mary McAleese
Notre Dame (Indiana): University Press, 2016
Hardcover. vii+206 p. ISBN: 978-0268-036140. $45
Reviewed by Christophe Gillissen
Université de Caen Normandie
This book is the companion to the three-part documentary series produced by the University of Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute, which won several awards in 2016: the “Best Documentary Series” of the Irish Film and Television Award ceremony, the “Silver Saber Award” of the Warsaw International Historical and Military Film Festival, and American Public Television’s “Programming Excellence Award”.
During the research carried out over several years for the documentary, a trove of valuable sources was uncovered, a rich selection of which is reproduced in the book. Over 200 photographs, drawings, posters, mass cards and paintings, as well as many contemporary texts – letters, ballads, eyewitness accounts, press reports, prisoners’ statements, etc. – accompany the narrative, allowing the reader to gain a feel for the events as they were experienced in 1916. French historian Jules Michelet considered that great history must be a resurrection of the flesh, and this book certainly approaches that objective thanks to all those documents.
The historical narrative is organised in three parts, which correspond to the structure of the documentary series, also written (and produced) by Bríona Nic Dhiarmada. The first chapter, “Awakening”, deals with Ireland’s place within the British Empire and its links with the British Crown, thus providing the reader with the context in which the Easter Rising took place. Various historical episodes, like Irish participation in the Boer War, are developed, helping to better understand the origins of the Rising: Irishmen fought on both sides during that conflict – about 30,000 in the British Army and some 500 with the Boers – while at home the Irish Transvaal Committee trained in the arts of political agitation many of those who would be at the forefront of the Easter Rising . When the Fusiliers’ Arch was erected in Dublin to welcome back Irish troops, the committee soon imposed its own appellation for the monument, “Traitors’ Gate”. In the same way, the links between nationalist Ireland and nationalist India are emphasised, to illustrate the Imperial dimension of the Rising.
The book also stresses its transatlantic aspect, with the significant contribution of Irish America to Irish nationalist movements, notably at the time of Home Rule, as well as in relation to the growing influence of clandestine groups like the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Home Rule crises of 1886, 1893 and 1912 led to the organisation of Irish unionism, with the creation of the Ulster Unionist Council and its paramilitary wing, the Ulster Volunteer Force. The intense political agitation of the time was closely connected to cultural and industrial activity: the Gaelic League, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and the Irish Citizen Army combined to train a cadre of activists, among whom the leaders of the 1916 Rising.
The second chapter, entitled “Insurrection”, focuses in minute detail on the days between the 23rd of April, the eve of the Rising, and the 1st of May, when all the main rebel garrisons in Dublin had surrendered. The events and actors of those days are illustrated with a great wealth of photographs and contemporary accounts, such as some of the coverage of the New York Times, which devoted its first page to the Rising between 25 April and 8 May, relegating the First World War to inside pages.
The third part of the book – “When Myth and History Rhyme” – studies the aftermath of the Rising, from the execution of the leaders, which turned Irish public opinion against British rule, to the General Election of 1918, which saw a large victory for Sinn Féin, and beyond, stressing once again the Imperial and transatlantic dimensions of the Irish crisis. Thus Eamon de Valera, one of the 1916 leaders, gave a speech in New York in 1920 to the Friends of Freedom for India Society , while Bengali radicals organised an uprising in Chittagong on Easter 1930, in a direct and explicit echo to the Dublin rising.
A vast quantity of books was published to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, covering many aspects of a decisive turning-point in Irish and British history, from military history to social and local history. Amidst that extensive historiographical production, this book manages to offer an original approach to the Rising, which is both accessible to the general reader and interesting for the specialist thanks among others to its focus on Imperial and transatlantic history and to the variety of first-hand sources on the Rising. Its presentation is worthy of a coffee-table book: the large format, the numerous illustrations, and the foreword by Mary McAleese – a former President of Ireland, who in 2011 welcomed the first visit to Ireland by a British monarch since 1911  – all combine to make it a valuable contribution to the history of a major event that was by no means limited to Ireland: its impact on Imperial history in particular should not be underestimated, as the case is persuasively made in these handsomely decorated pages.
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