a muddled, even a botched, affair

John Banville takes refuge from the speculation over the Booker Prize and returns to his other job, of critic, to review Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend, in today’s Guardian – read the rest here.

The author has devoted his life to the study of Irish history and this huge work is the pinnacle of his labours. He maintains a studied coolness of approach, offers few judgments, and is fair to all sides. While he is unsparing in his descriptions of the muddle, indecision and plain deceit in the preparation and conduct of the rising, he does communicate something of the small-scale grandeur of it all.

  • Richard Dowling

    Looks like a good read. To quote “… the Rising was a Catholic
    affair, from top to bottom, and as such was UNIQUE in the
    annals of Irish Revolution”

    Pearse would certainly have had no time for the Presbyterian
    credentials of many of the ‘Fenian dead’ he was so fond of
    eulogizing. And around whom previous rebellions had tended to
    congregate. Nor had he any time for the social ( not to mention
    socialist) credentials of James Connolly who, like W B Yeats,
    initially fell under the spell of this ‘terrible beauty’, which turned
    out to be a disastrous exercise in pious fundamentalist blood
    lust — still echoing today on the ‘streets of Belfast’.

    When the British executed 16 of the leaders, they guaranteed
    the immortalisation of 1916 in Irish folklore.

  • Brian Boru

    Richard I don’t think your criticism is fair. The South still have been in the UK but for 1916. Are you saying you wish this were still the case?

  • Robert Keogh

    About 4 years ago I thought the 1916 rising would make for a great boardgame based on Mark Herman’s “We the People” system. I added another 20 odd books on the rising to my collection and devoured them all. Unfortunatley (for me) it turned out that there was absolutely no way the Rising could have been anymore successful than it was. The only thing different would have been if the arms had been landed AND the entire country had risen and seized enough of the barracks outside of Dublin. Even then the British would still have defeated the Rising it would just have taken a few weeks longer.

    As it was in Dublin the Rising shouldn’t have lasted more than two days. The british officers on the ground insisted on frontal assualts of practically every strong point held by the rebels. In houses where there were three or four guys and outflanking was trivially easy the idiot captains and colonels ordered assault after assault for hours on end, resulting in the needless deaths of soldiers. The gross incompetantcy of the british officer cadre during the Rising is breathtaking in it’s scope.

    Given the starting forces the British had in Dublin on sunday and the forces that rapidly poured in through the port there is no way anyone replaying the Rising could better the efforts of the Rebels. Which made it absolutely pointless to make a game – what is the point when you can’t even do a third as well as the historical event?

    Unionists love to have a go at the Rising for being terrorist and all that palaver. It was the spark that ignited a fire that was not put out. We were the first to throw off the shackles of british hegemony and they will never forgive us for it.

  • Richard Dowling


    You left out the most important word of your first sentence. The
    inflection which would have further modified the verb >> as in
    “The South (COULD, WOULD or MIGHT) still have been in the
    UK”. Was that on purpose? Was it a grammatical mistake?
    Was it a typing error? Was it a freudian slip?

    Whatever. As Charles Townshend’s book (according to
    Banville’s review) makes clear. The Rising, coming
    opportunistically in the middle of World War I, turned out to be
    uniquely for an Irish Rebellion “an entirely Catholic affair”.
    Tragically, it was also led by the (partly psychotic) religious
    figure of Patrick Pearse, who imagined that the carnage in
    Europe was necessary to regenerate the religious heart and
    warm the soil with the blood of human sacrifice.

    As Yeats had warned for quite some time …”Pearse is a man
    made dangerous by the vertigo of self-sacrifice”. Now, we will
    never know if the Rising was a premature ‘ejaculation’ (even in
    its religious sense). Or the tragic fracturing of Ireland’s quest
    for self-determination into its contrary (and sectarian) religious
    and political constituents. To me, at least, it seems the 1916
    Rising was the first fusillade of shots on the road to partition.
    The modern IRA and Loyalist campaigns only copperfastened
    the differences.

  • southern observer

    ”Pearse would certainly have had no time for the Presbyterian
    credentials of many of the ‘Fenian dead’ he was so fond of eulogizing.”

    Not so.He described Wolfe Tone’s grave as ‘the holiest spot in Ireland’.

  • jg

    A lot of guff has been talked and evidently still is being talked about Pearse and lust for blood. Read some Rupert Brooke for goodness sake – the times that were in it saw blood spilling for ideals of whatever type as an all round good thing.

  • Richard Dowling

    That’s all right, then…..!

  • Richard Dowling

    That’s all right, then…..!

  • Richard Dowling

    “To Borrow Blake’s contrast : ‘(Rupert) Brooke wrote Songs of
    Innocence (if not naivete), while Owen and Sassoon wrote
    Songs of Experience”‘.

    I presume he was referring to Siegfried rather than Vidal
    Sassoon. And I’m hoping that you’ve also read a bit of Sassoon
    and Owen, Ig, as well as Brooke — or Pearse.

  • SeamusG

    “We were the first to throw off the shackles of british hegemony and they will never forgive us for it.”
    Robert, if you believe that then you are still caught up in the romanticism of Irish/British relations which has so poisoned them. The British don’t give a toss about 1916 – in fact, I imagine that less than one in ten people under the age of 50 would even know what “1916” was.
    The only “British” who might know/care about it are actually Irish and live in the six counties.

  • Martin

    Robert, I think the Americans would have something to say about the “first” claim, and in any event as a product of the British School system myself I would say you would be hard pressed to find an averagely educated Englishman who has any idea what the Easter Rising was. Mention 1916 to most people here and the only historical event that would come to mind would be the Somme – an event with a far more profound effect on the collective conciousness. When I came over to Dublin for the rugby in ’03 with some English friends I had to explain the whole thing to them. I would say 1 out of the 5 had any pre-existing knowledge about the event itself and none had any idea about what actually happened.

  • Greg

    Martin and Seamus, in defence of Robert, his point – rightly or wrongly – was that Unionists will never forgive Irish Republicans for being ‘the first to throw off the shackles of British hegemony’. He never said anything about the British in general.

    As for Pearse opining that Tone’s grave was ‘the holiest spot in Ireland’ – this had purely for his nationalist martyrdom, not for religious reasons. For what’s worth Tone was an Anglican rather than a Presbyterian. Plenty of Irish rebels in 1798 were Presbyterian, but Tone wasn’t one of them.

    Richard, whatever about the Rising being the first ‘all-Catholic rebellion’ in Irish history (barring 1315, 1536, 1569, 1579, 1594, and 1641, I presume), it seems unfair to characterise it as ‘the first fusillade of shots on the road to partition’.

    Perhaps you’re right, but the foundations of that road were dug when Randolph Churchill deliberately played the Orange Card in 1886, declaring ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right’, throwing the might of the Conservative Party behind the Irish opponents of a devolved Irish government. I suspect that he calculated that Ireland’s nationalists would rather the country were kept intact but in someone else’s possession than a divided land, part of it controlling its own destiny.

    Sadly, he was no Solomon, and that attempt to play one group of Irishmen off against another turned dangerous in 1912. It wasn’t just that that Ulster’s Unionists – with the active support of numerous prominent British politicians – built their own private army, but they imported guns from Germany and threatened to use that army against their nationalist brethren and the forces of the crown.

    1916 might – just about – have been the first fusillade of shots on the road to partition, but the insurgents weren’t responsible for either laying the foundations of the road or bringing guns onto it in the first place.

  • ulsterman

    I think you lot need to examine your history. 1916 like everything associated with SF was an absolute farce. A few idiots reading drivel outside the GPO in Dublin while bemused bystanders looked on.

    I doubt very much many of the southern irish are interested in 2016. As for SF wish for a United Ireland by 2016. Well they can dream but it aint going to happen.

  • Richard Dowling

    I was fascinated to read Michael McDowell’s republican lineage
    and pedigree in today’s Sunday Independent.

    As a matter of interest, was his maternal grandfather, Eoin Mac
    Neill, the same Eoin MacNeill who countermanded the orders
    being pushed through by Pearse against the cannier instincts
    of the Northern rebel when the expected shipments of arms
    failed to arrive in time for Easter, 1916?

  • Richard Dowling


    I only expressed the opinion that the Easter Rising was the first
    fusillade of shots on the road to partition, not necessarily
    the road to perdition — which we all know is a lot broader, and
    ‘many there are who take it’. In other words, parttition (after the
    Rebellion) might have been almost inevitable– for better or for
    worse. Who’s to judge?

  • objectivist

    ”small-scale grandeur of it all.”
    It wasn’t ‘small scale’.It was Wagnerian.

  • jen

    Hello –

    I’m doing a research project on the troubles and I have had quite a bit of anecdotal information indicating that the RUC/Brits succeeded in intercepting major bombing attempts by extracting info from provo/loyalist suspects in custody who knew about the bomb’s whereabouts – sometimes with only hours to spare. Civilians were cleared from these areas prior to these explosions.

    If you know of 2 to 3 such incidents, would you be good enough to tell me where they happened and a rough date, so that I can cross-reference on Google and obtain more in-depth info.

    Thanks very much!

  • Richard Dowling

    As Townshend suggests, Greg, revolutionary Presbyterianism
    was a driving force for Irish independence ‘for centuries’ before
    the Easter Rising. But, you can hardly blame them for not
    participating in the Rebellion of 1315 — for the same reason
    that the Rolling Stones didn’t play Carnegie Hall in 1917 —
    they just weren’t around back then.

    Ireland, as a whole, wasn’t even brought under total English
    control until 1653. And the Silken Thomas rebellion took place
    only a year after Henry VIII (who was Fidei Defensor — ie, the
    defender of the Cathoic faith) broke with Rome in 1536.

    However, I get your point. After the Act of Union (1803), and the
    failure of the Rebellion of 1798, Britain realised that the
    Protestant Ascendancy had to be secured with the help of the
    Presbyterian (as well as the established Church) and worked
    assiduously to give them land (and voting rights), still denied to
    Catholics. It wasn’t for nothing that Daniel O Connell had to
    work tirelessly and eloquently (but never violently) for Catholic
    emancipation. It’s a lasting shame that the IRA didn’t have the
    gumption to follow his example.