Courage Boys, We Are Winning. An Illustrated History of 1916, Michael Barry, Andalus Press, 208 pp, €25, ISBN 978-0956038395
The 1916 Rising has a unique hold over the Irish imagination –no other event in Irish history seems to have the same appeal. The Government’s decision for the centenary of the Rising to be the main event in the official Decade of Centenaries programme shows this. More and more books are being published on the event: everyone from academic historians to journalists and politicians wants to have their say. Why is this? The centenary of the Home Rule crisis did not garner nearly the same popular appeal and it is hard to envisage that in 2022 the traumatic experiences of partition and civil war will receive the same level of attention.
No doubt the actions of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera will again come under scrutiny and analysis but there appears to be something instinctively celebratory about the Rising and its centenary. Indeed many feel the Government is not doing enough to celebrate the Rising. Why? Clearly the fact that it led to the creation of an independent Irish state plays no small part. Also, people of all political persuasions and none seem to like to use the event as a stick to beat the present: “What did the men of 1916 die for?” or “Surely they would be turning in their graves …” But perhaps it is simply the case that most Irish nationalists find, that unlike the civil war, there is something unifying, noble and heroic in the Rising. In fact Rising and Civil War had much in common, both involving an unrepresentative minority trying, by force of arms, to alter the direction the country was going in. The election success of Sinn Féin in 1918 and Fianna Fáil’s long-term domination of political life in the independent state, arguably vindicated both.
But The Rising, unlike the Civil war, is unifying. All political parties like to lay claim to it and indeed they have some right to. Enda Kenny, at the launch of Michael Laffan’s recent Judging Cosgrave, stressed that like his predecessors, WT Cosgrave and his son Liam, he was proud to lead a Fine Gael with roots in the independence movement and in 1916. The Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have also equally strong claims to connections with the Rising.
Beyond the unifying aspect, there is something powerful in the imagery of the Rising. The vision of Pearse reading the proclamation, of Dublin in flames and James Connolly executed while tied to a chair are all deeply stirring and emotional. Neil Jordan captured this in the opening sequence of his 1996 Michael Collins. The imposing architecture of the GPO itself seems to give the Rising an added classical dimension. Behan considered the GPO to be a “sacred place”.
Understandably, given the dramatic visual imagery, illustrated histories of the Rising and the surrounding period are in demand. The entire revolutionary period has been covered in photo histories by George Morrisson and Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc. Michael Barry’s book, which uses a variety of images to recreate the events and also provides a well-informed text, is the first such history of the Rising itself. The narrative extends from the Act of Union in 1801 to the building of the Garden of Remembrance in the 1960s and the Rising itself is covered in meticulous detail. Photographs of the areas around each garrison, from then and now, are provided, along with street maps to show the exact dispositions of the troops. together with a short text on the fighting conditions in each garrison. Barry also provides a variety of leaflets, posters and contemporary artwork, including photographs of the uniforms, weapons and flags.
Attention has largely focused on the rebel garrisons but Barry devotes equal attention to British dispositions. The presence of British snipers in Rathmines and at Christ Church cathedral, together with the chosen location of British headquarters at Trinity College conveys the extent to which the whole city was caught up in the Rising. Through images, Barry skilfully recreates the atmosphere of the Rising and gives, for instance, a detailed account of the events leading to the killing of Francis Sheehy Skeffington. The actions of lesser known or forgotten figures, such as Séan MacLoughlin, who essentially took control of the GPO garrison in the later stages of the Rising, are also highlighted. Barry offers a variety of interesting side stories, such as the assistance the Guinness company gave to the British.
Barry notes that no surviving record of the military strategy of the Rising exists but argues that the planning was sound and that the rebellion would have been more successful without the loss of the Aud and the confusion surrounding the countermanding order, resulting in there being not nearly enough Volunteers to hold Dublin. The Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army deserve credit, he argues, for their ability to occupy and fortify positions and hold off the British army for five days. Obviously the Rising did not go according to plan; Pearse reportedly did not think he was going to spend the whole week in the GPO. But even if it had gone to plan and the arms from the Aud had been distributed to units in the south and west, the strategy for Dublin would not have made any more sense.
The various Volunteer garrisons made no serious attempts at communication let alone at linking up with one another, making it only a matter of time before they were all surrounded. It has been suggested that the outlying garrisons at Boland’s Mill, the South Dublin Union and Four Courts were intended to prevent British troops from moving into the centre of the city. In this they were only partially successful. The planners of the Rising seem to have wanted to retreat from the city at some point, if the rest of the country rose up. But such a plan would have required that crucial element of co-ordination and communication that was so conspicuously absent from the whole enterprise. Sympathy for the Rising and admiration for the courage of those involved should not translate into the idea that its planners were good strategists. In fact the tactics in Dublin were anything but sound. It is hard not to believe that, even if the rebellion had been more widespread, that it was partially an exercise in self-sacrifice.
Barry provides an extensive bibliography and writes: “There is a host of textual books giving much detail, some written elegantly and well, but many others caught up in the opaqueness that can effect some academic output.” Nevertheless, an opaque but balanced history may be preferable to an overtly emotional or biased one. The past is the past, and we should not present it in a way that suits our sympathies. Barry’s belief that the military strategy of the Rising was sound is, perhaps, case in point. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and useful book put together with skill.
Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish Research Council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.