Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916

By Peter de Rosa
Ballantine Books, 1990
James M. Gallen, Reviewer

Proclamation of the Irish Republic

The Great War story is not exclusively found on the Western and Eastern Fronts or on pitched battlefields across the globe. It is also found in the latent social movements that sprouted in the swirling currents it created. Rebels is one of those stories.

As was long the saying, "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity." The Irish quest for freedom and independence, though often quenched, always smoldered, awaiting turbulent breezes wafting across the Irish Sea to fan it into a raging flame. The Great War unleashed such breezes. The Easter Rising of 1916 is often depicted as a Quixotic failure that succeeded only through the backlash of opinion against the British suppression that followed. While there is truth in that, the Rising was much more complex and was intertwined within the Great War.

Rebels Fighting During the Uprising

The characters are many and well developed. Sir Roger Casement was both unique and typical of the Irish Rebel. A son of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, this humanitarian advocate for the downtrodden natives of the Belgian Congo and the Putamayo region of Brazil worked the halls of wartime Berlin seeking the aid that would make the Irish rebels a legitimate fighting force. It was he who convinced the Germans to send 20,000 captured Russians rifles on a German ship flying under a Norwegian flag until it was scuttled after being found by a Royal Navy vessel.

The ridicule that met Casement's appeals to Irishmen held in prisoner of war camps demonstrated the division in Irish opinion. While proclaiming no treason to his country, he would suffer the fate of other Rising leaders: execution at the hands of his British captors. Patrick Pearse, the headmaster of St. Enda's Irish-speaking school, thought Ireland's freedom could only be won through a blood sacrifice. Joseph Plunkett, the tubercular poet who left his sick bed to answer the call to General Post Office, died by firing squad, but only after marrying his fiancée, Grace Gifford, in Kilmainham Gaol the night before his execution. James Connolly, the Marxist trade unionist, saw all capitalists as enemies but especially those of the British empire who had enslaved Ireland. Tom Clarke, the tobacconist, had been a member of the underground Irish Republican Brotherhood since 1878.

Eamon deValera, the New York born mathematics teacher, would escape execution, probably because of his U.S. citizenship. Countess Markievicz, the upper class convert to socialism, Irish nationalism and Catholicism took her place at St. Stephen's Green but was denied her chance to die for Ireland due to her gender and social standing. Their tales are tragically brutal and comically civilized. Among the latter are the Volunteers who commandeered a tram at gun-point, and then paid their fare to Dublin and a truce to permit the superintendent of St. Stephen's Green to feed the ducks. The persuasiveness of religious fervor among the rebels is a devotion not ordinarily associated with revolutionaries. Students of The Great War will be interested in the interplay between German conspirators and Irish rebels attracted to each other by their common enemy, Britain.

Dublin After the Uprising; 450 Died

The Germans were looking for any disruption that would distract the British and depress the combat effectiveness of the thousands of Irish fighting in British uniforms on the Western Front. The Irish rebels, who cared nothing for Germany, sought weapons and ammunition from the Germans and volunteers from among the Irish POWs. Just as the Germans hoped that Irish troops on the Western Front would lay down their arms in sympathy with the rebels on their home island, the Irish rebels relied on German pressure to prevent the British from withdrawing troops from the Western Front to fight in Ireland. The POWs did not respond, the weapons were lost, and the rising was a disorganized failure limited to Dublin.

The rebels had plans to seize positions in Dublin while other units took over key cities across Ireland to prevent British reinforcements and solidify their positions to the point that the British would have no choice but to grant independence.

As this work demonstrates, the Dublin rising was only a fraction of what had been planned. It amazes me to realize that the Irish had thousands of troops throughout Ireland, many in uniform, ready to spark risings across the isle. The loss of the German rifles and ammunition caused the rising to be delayed a day, then canceled, and finally restarted by a fragment of the leadership with a remnant of those who got the call and reported to their stations. These stations included the General Post Office (GPO), the communications center of Dublin, and St. Stephen's Green which controlled several routes into the city. These groups lasted only until the hopelessness of their plight forced their surrender.

Rebels is a well written tragedy that seizes the reader's attention and holds it from page to page. It presents the rising not as an unsullied heroic national movement but, as it was, an idealistic coalition of nationalists, socialists, intellectuals, and other discontents who united in one cause for Irish independence immersed in the milieu of the Great War. It is supplemented by maps that help position the battle scenes in the Dublin landscape. Rebels is an essential read for any interested in this side segment of the Great War.

James M. Gallen

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