Few events in modern Irish history are as pivotal as the “Easter Rising”, the dramatic seizure of the General Post Office and other parts of Dublin that marked the declaration of the Irish Republic. Yet for decades the event has never received the thorough examination it deserves, due in part, as Charles Townshend observes in his preface to this fine book, to the long-standing reticence to release the oral histories of the event contained within the archives of the Bureau of Military History. Their release in 2003 provides the best opportunity yet to study the uprising, and Townshend has risen to the challenge by providing a penetrating examination of the origins and the impact of the Rising.
Townshend traces the origins of the Rising to the development and definition of Irish identity in the late nineteenth century. Here the breadth of his examination is immediately apparent, as he moves beyond the political to study the role that the cultural movement known as the Celtic rising played in inspiring Irish nationalists to challenge British rule. A key figure bridging between the cultural and the political was Patrick Pearse, the president of the provisional republic claimed in the aftermath of the seizure of the General Post Office. By delving into Pearse’s past as a nationalist consumed with freeing Ireland not only from British political domination but its cultural domination as well, he illustrates just how important the cultural component was in inspiring the nationalists and driving them towards action.
Yet Irish politics in those years was dominated not by nationalism but the issue of Home Rule. Here Townshend focuses on the reaction to the Home Rule measure in Ireland, which catalyzed Unionist resistance in the north to the devolution of Irish government. The formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in turn, inspired southern nationalists to form their own armed group, the Irish Volunteers, a movement quickly subsumed by the Irish Parliamentary Party into their organization. Yet the outbreak of the First World War and the decision by Irish parliamentary leader John Redmond to support the war split the Irish Volunteers and came to undermine his standing.
The nationalist Irish Volunteers that broke away from main group were themselves divided over the next step, however. As they gained in standing with the growing unpopularity of Redmond’s decision, Pearse and other members sought to take advantage of Britain’s difficulty to throw off her rule of Ireland. Given the attitudes of the Volunteer leadership, such planning had to take place in secrecy, and one of the great strengths of this book is Townshend’s laudable effort to wade into the confused jumble of half-hidden events to detail the evolution of the Rising. What was initially envisioned as a nationwide rebellion quickly became a Dublin-centric event that would take advantage of a planned Easter Sunday mobilization to strike against British rule. The last-minute efforts by the nationalist Volunteer leadership to head off the rebellion, though, resulted in a confused and only partial assemblage of Volunteers on the following day.
The three chapters on the Rising itself form the heart of Townshend’s book, and they recount an event characterized by confusion on both sides. The poor preparations and questionable decisions by the rebels were equaled only by those of the British authorities, whose overreaction in the aftermath of the rebels’ inevitable defeat turned them from extremists into heroes. Townshend concludes the book by looking at the belated efforts by the British in the aftermath of the Rising to craft a settlement in response to the growing nationalist challenge to their control over Ireland – a challenge that in the end they failed to avert.
With its clear prose and painstaking reconstruction of the tangled events of the Easter Rising, Townshend’s book is a masterpiece of the historical craft. The thorough research and judicious analysis contained within its pages is unlikely to be bettered as a guide to the complicated and confused developments that led to this dramatic and exciting event. For anyone seeking a study that will help them understand the Easter Rising, its background, and its consequences, this is the one to read.