Dublin 1916

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Clair Wills, Profile Books; £15.99

At just after noon on Easter Monday 1916 Irish Republican leader Padraig Pearse stood on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin and read out a proclamation announcing the birth of the Irish Republic.

The Easter Rising would give birth to the movement that would drive Britain out of 26 counties of Ireland, and laid the basis of the modern Irish state.

It sent shock waves around the world. At the height of the First World War a rebellion had been staged in Britain's oldest colony.

Except there weren't any steps at the GPO - though countless retellings of the story mention them. The facts and interpretation of the Easter Rising are contested territory. And they were from the moment the rising happened.

In this short and lively account Clair Wills looks at the iconography of the revolt. It is not a history of the rising, but rather an essay on the GPO, its central role in the rising, and the commemoration and interpretation of the rising since.

Wills is concerned with "the symbolism of the events and their aftermath", the transformation of the GPO "from an emblem of 19th century British power and civil government to a barricade against shelling, to a national symbol".

For instance, over the years many have poured scorn on the "blood sacrifice" of the rising that could not win militarily. Wills is useful on the ways in which the far bigger "blood sacrifice" of the First World War shaped all sides of the rising.

The integration of the discussion of the poetry and dramatic works that were prompted by 1916 is impressive. Padraig Pearse is alleged to have said that, if nothing else, the rising would see the end of several bad poets. In fact, it produced an enormous amount of bad poetry and memoirs as the interpretation of the rising became a cultural battle as well as a historical or a political one.

For years political leaders in Southern Ireland vied with each other to claim to be the true inheritors of 1916. The social radicalism that inspired a section of the rebels was dumped by the new state and the religious and the pious were emphasised.

As Wills rather sharply puts it, a proposal to renovate the GPO in the 1920s and clean up the surrounding area was "rejected by the government which chose to keep both the slums and the GPO".

In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the rising, there were huge state-backed celebrations. There was even a military march past of a mock GPO in Cork - almost a commemoration of a parade rather than of the rising. But a few years later the rising was being treated almost as an embarrassing incident.

The reason was that the Northern Irish state had exploded. A state built on naked sectarianism had been met by huge resistance in the form of a civil rights movement. Out of the crisis the Provisional IRA emerged - and risings were dangerous things to celebrate. As the peace process took hold official commemorations returned - though still contested.

There are countless accounts of 1916, and not every fine detail of the politics in this book would match those of this magazine. But it says a lot that this succinct book has found new and genuinely interesting things to say on the politics of the rising.