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Holding the Fort

Gerard Horn

Defending Trinity College Dublin, Easter 1916: Anzacs and the Rising, by Rory Sweetman, Four Courts Press, 176 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1846827846

DH Akenson’s observation that Ireland had a far greater influence on New Zealand’s history than vice versa is a truism widely accepted by those interested in the historical relationship between the two places. In raw demographic terms this was certainly the case. The Irish element constituted between 15% and 20% of New Zealand’s nineteenth century Pākehā population, while that country was never more than a minor recipient of the nation-defining outflow of emigrants from Ireland during the period. If anything, this one-sidedness has been compounded by how the history of the relationship has been written. Since Hugh Laracy and Richard Davis’s pioneering work of the 1960s and 70s, Ireland’s impact on New Zealand has become the subject of considerable academic and genealogical interest. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of New Zealand’s effect on Ireland.

In his latest book, Dr Rory Sweetman marches into this void along with the motley collection of colonial troops who found themselves defending Trinity College from insurgents during the early days of the 1916 rising. Sweetman is one of the leading historians of the Irish in New Zealand and, understandably, his main interest is in the six Anzacs, including five New Zealanders, who he suggests were central to Trinity’s defence. Unlike Trinity’s Officers Training Corps (OTC), and the eight recently arrived South African and Canadian soldiers, four of the six Anzacs had served in the Dardanelles. Sweetman convincingly argues that their experience, professionalism, and particularly their accurate return fire, allowed them to create the illusion that Trinity was well-defended and that, in doing so, they prevented the rebel forces from pressing home their concerted attack on the university.

In some ways Sweetman’s research is a work of archaeology, unearthing a group previously obscured from historical understandings of the rising. This obscurity was partly due to the predictable enthusiasm with which Trinity’s home-grown defenders celebrated their efforts in preventing the capture of the college. Flushed with success, the college’s newspaper and authorities emphasised the OTC’s contribution to military actions. If this triumphalism contributed partially to the early obscurity of the Anzacs, Sweetman detects a desire by subsequent Trinity historians to distance themselves from the college’s image as a bastion of Southern unionism. He suggests that this has contributed to a tendency to underestimate the strategic importance of Trinity and, by extension, the role of the colonial troops defending it.

Sweetman critiques the view of Trinity as being strategically unimportant across several chapters. He argues that its central location, defensible exterior, poorly-defended armoury and symbolism as an institution with “unionist, Protestant and imperial allegiances” all made it an attractive target for rebels during Easter week, albeit one that was abandoned as the rising played out. There is more to Sweetman’s arguments though than deductive reasoning and readers who are particularly interested the military aspect of 1916 will find a meticulous interrogation of sources from Bureau of Military History Witness Statements which show the extent to which the college featured in rebel plans. The penultimate chapter extends this analysis by presenting a counter-factual history where an undefended Trinity is overrun by rebel troops. Without the prospect of heavy civilian casualties persuading Pearse to surrender, Sweetman suggests an alternative history where the rising ends on the college’s grounds with heavy shelling from crown forces destroying many of the institution’s buildings and cultural treasures. One does not need to be convinced by counter-factual histories to accept the author’s basic point – the defence of the college, orchestrated by the Anzacs, was critically important in determining the shape of events during the rising and, in this regard, the impact of this group of New Zealanders on Irish history was far from minimal.

For all that it is important, there is more to this book than charting the impact of a handful of New Zealanders at a pivotal moment in Irish history. In the most substantial chapter of the work, Sweetman develops a prosopography of Trinity’s colonial defenders, especially the Kiwis. This turns the focus of the investigation from Ireland to New Zealand, inviting the reader to consider very different sensibilities which shaped how both countries experienced the identity-defining years before and during the First World War.

As pre-war adolescents, Trinity’s New Zealand Anzacs were exposed to a suite of ideas and institutions that shaped their attitudes to empire, war and nationalism. Since the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, if not before, New Zealand had become the most effusively loyal of Britain’s dominions, reflecting its heavy economic dependence on Britain during the period. Moreover, in the same way institutions like Na Fianna Éireann and St Enda’s School prepared boys to fight on behalf an independent Irish-Ireland, New Zealand youths were shaped by their membership of the cadets, where from the age of eight they received physical training with occasional access to firearms. Loyalty to Britain and the empire had become a touchstone of many New Zealanders’ identity and Sweetman notes that the outbreak of the First World War was met with enthusiasm by a cross-section of New Zealand’s politicians, priests and public. The point holds for Trinity’s Kiwis, all of whom volunteered for war service. In other words, this is a book about how individual and national identities were formed in the early twentieth century, not in an abstract sociological sense, but in concrete historical settings.

One of the many strengths of this book is that it illustrates that these national identities, and the way that they interacted with individual actions and outlooks, were varied and complex. At one end of the spectrum we are presented with the bombastic letters to Auckland of JG Garland, where the author seeks to present his role in the rising as a story of derring-do; while at the other we are invited to speculate on the feelings of Frederick Nevin and Michael McHugh, both children of Irish Catholic emigrants, who remained relatively silent on their role in events. This silence shows how the effects of Easter 1916 rippled out from Dublin and impacted on people far beyond Ireland’s shores. Many of New Zealand’s Irish Catholics, or their sons, fought in the First World War. The rising provoked fissures within the community between those who remained loyal to the idea of an independent Irish dominion within the British empire and those who favoured the new militant orthodoxy. It also contributed to a heightened sectarian atmosphere in a country that was already given to outbursts of anti-Catholicism. It would be fair to say that the rising, and the years that followed, put New Zealand’s Irish Catholics in an invidious position, one which people negotiated in different and complicated ways.

Recent months have witnessed the spectacle of Irish history returning to a simplistic comic book interpretation of the past. Based on thorough archival research, Dr Sweetman’s work pursues a balanced, unemotive approach that is an important corrective to that type of thinking. Trinity’s Anzac defenders are not presented as either heroes or villains, rather complex actors dealing with a city and world at war. They probably weren’t the only ones.

1/6/2020

Gerard Horn is a graduate of the National University of Ireland and Victoria University Wellington. His PhD was a fine-grained study of Wellington's nineteenth-century Irish community. 

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