Rising to the Challenge

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Review of 'Easter 1916', Charles Townshend, Penguin £20

Ever since Easter Monday 1916, when James Connolly gave the order to 'wheel left' and rebel units occupied Dublin's General Post Office, there has been a constant debate about the Easter Rising.

Famously Lenin had to defend the rising from critics in the Bolshevik Party who simply saw it through the prism of its leaders' statements and beliefs, rounding on those who labelled it a 'putsch'.

In the 1980s and 1990s a flood of 'revisionist' historians took up the idea that this was a 'blood sacrifice', a hopeless, narrow, Nationalist outburst which cemented the division into two Irelands - one Catholic and Nationalist, the other Protestant and Unionist. The man proclaimed president of the newborn Irish republic that Easter, Padraig Pearse, was presented as a forerunner of Osama Bin Laden. In the other corner Republicans all too often made a virtue of the lack of numbers involved as justification for their substitutionism.

Now Charles Townshend, the foremost historian of Britain's military campaign of 1919-21 against Irish independence, has produced a history of the Easter Rising. It is a book which should be heartily welcomed.

What he shows is that the rioting was a serious but flawed attempt to end British colonial rule. Further, the dynamic of the situation was flowing the way of the Republicans. So the forces that rose were a minority but had sympathy, particularly among the working class and lower middle class.

The failure of the pre-war Liberal government to deliver on its promise of Irish Home Rule had eroded support for the moderate Irish National Party. That speeded up after its leader committed the party to support Britain's war effort when the First World War broke out in August 1914.

The formation in the north east of Ireland of Unionist militias committed to resist Home Rule by civil war, enjoying Tory funding and military expertise, had radicalised Ireland. In response the Irish Volunteers had been formed, and had begun arming by the time war broke out.

Their performance in taking on the empire that Easter Week, and the executions and repression which followed, turned sympathy into support, and a military defeat for the Republicans into a political success.

Townshend describes the dynamic well. He also provides a good analysis of the actual fighting. The mobilisation depended on the Republican minority of the Irish Volunteer leadership hoodwinking their fellow members into calling a rebellion by revealing plans for mass arrests by the British.

The orders for a mobilisation for Easter Sunday went out, but were cancelled when the truth was revealed. The Republicans then got a second mobilisation under way for Easter Monday, but the turnout was badly down. Outside Dublin, with the exception of North Dublin County, there was no serious rising. In some places Volunteers gathered but failed to act.

The second flaw was to simply occupy and hold a series of buildings in Dublin, some of which had little strategic importance. No sustained effort was made to disrupt telecommunications or rail links, or to hold strategic positions like the bridges on the canal network encircling the city. The British were caught by surprise, but were able to bring in troops relatively unimpeded.

The rebels expected a full frontal infantry attack which never came. Instead the British began shelling the city centre, which soon caught fire.

The Irish Republican Army, as it was now known did, however, inflict real damage on British forces. This was particularly the case when the British used Somme-like infantry attacks on fixed, defensible positions, as at Mount Street bridge in south Dublin, or (with implications for what was to come) when the IRA used guerrilla ambushes in North Dublin County.

But what made the Easter Rising the seminal moment in modern Irish history were the actions of a feeble Liberal government in London, egged on by their Unionist and Tory coalition partners, and the reactionaries of British high command.

A new generation of Republican leaders drew crucial lessons that Easter. Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and others would forge a powerful guerrilla force which, enjoying popular support, the empire could not defeat.

That is jumping ahead, but this book deserves to be read widely.