The many drafts of the Rising, from revisionary to realistic

There was little information on the Rising in the years that followed but that has changed

‘Ireland has too many histories; she deserves a rest.” In 1951 this was the verdict of Andy Cope, who had played an important role in Irish affairs 30 years before. In 2015, when the country is threatened with commemoration fatigue, some people might share his opinion. But it was far less appropriate to the 1950s when little had been written about most aspects of Irish history – in particular about the Easter Rising and its aftermath – and when the few “histories” of the revolutionary years were often characterised by bombast and propaganda.

An exception was James Stephens's The Insurrection in Dublin, a day-by-day diary of changing moods and circumstances during Easter Week. This book, one of the most outstanding works on the rebellion, was published within months of the events it described.

A long hiatus followed. General surveys and memoirs of varying quality were written, but not many works of value appeared before the 1960s. Little material was available; almost all government records and private papers were closed, and newspapers provided the main contemporary source that was accessible by historians.

The dearth of writing was also influenced by the important positions in Irish public life still occupied by survivors of the Rising; it remained “sensitive”. Two participants, de Valera and Lemass, held the posts of president and taoiseach half a century later. At least in those years Irish people might feel that there was some truth in William Faulkner’s pronouncement “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Since then new sources have been exploited, among them eyewitness accounts, numerous private papers, and British records such as the 1916 court-martial files. In particular, the Bureau of Military History witness statements have been released. These reminiscences of almost 1,800 people involved in the events of the revolutionary years were amassed in the 1940s and 1950s and then – in an example of obscurantism that was exceptional even by Irish standards – they remained locked up and were released only in 2003. As well as providing vivid details they reveal the wide range of people’s attitudes and motivations.

Familiar documents such as the proclamation of the Republic have also been analysed, and one important monograph places it against a background that runs from Pericles to Abraham Lincoln.

In recent decades the famine of evidence has become a feast, and the foundations (and the foundation myths) of the Irish State have been studied intensively. Historians have been joined in this task by literary scholars, political and social scientists, journalists and novelists, many of whom have added to our collective knowledge and insights.

Books and articles on the Rising vary greatly in style, approach and quality. Some of them progress daily through Easter Week while others concentrate on its background (for example, the impact of cultural nationalism as opposed to the Fenian traditions of the IRB). Some examine the intellectual circumstances and formation of the “revolutionary generation” while others emphasise the social and economic conditions of the time.

As Ireland has become less insular and more conscious of the outside world, greater attention has been paid to wider, international contexts. The Great War is seen not merely as a background to and a precondition of the Rising, but as a disaster that affected most events in the years between 1914 and 1918. The participation of Irish soldiers in the conflict is no longer ignored – although here, too, a pattern began in the 1960s. The interventions of the Irish-Americans, the rebels’ links with Germany, and French contacts with Ireland have all been investigated.

Women had few rights and little public influence in the early 20th century, but many of them participated in the Rising and the proclamation recognised their equal status with men. After independence they were marginalised once again. In 1967 Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising allocated only one of its 19 chapters to women. Elizabeth O'Farrell carried the white flag from the GPO on Easter Saturday, but in Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins she was replaced by a man.

Women's activities are now given fuller coverage and a recent volume on people who were associated with the insurrection devoted eight of its 40 chapters to women. This book, arranged alphabetically, begins with the chief secretary Augustine Birrell and ends with the trade unionist Margaret Skinnider.

The signatories and other rebel leaders have always received extensive coverage. For decades PH Pearse was identified with the Rising, even though its principal architects were Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott. Since the 1970s Pearse has been revealed as a complex, three-dimensional figure, far more interesting than the earlier object of official veneration.

In recent years Connolly, the labour movement and the Citizen Army have all received generous treatment. Bulmer Hobson, the forgotten man of 1916, has been rescued from oblivion.

By contrast Roger Casement has always attracted biographers but attempts to deny the authenticity of the "Black Diaries", once commonplace, have now become rare. Almost everyone is prepared to accept that a man can be both a great humanitarian and a homosexual and criticism is (rightly) focused on the British government's attempts to blacken Casement's reputation before his execution.

The Home Rule party was one of the rebels' main targets and victims. The Rising led to a sequence of events that destroyed what had been the dominant political force in the country since the 1880s and it deflected Irish nationalism from what had seemed to be its natural future. Recent writings on John Redmond and his party have moved them closer to the prominent position that they occupied at the time.

The significance of the Ulster unionists in facilitating the Rising was appreciated from the very beginning; without the Ulster Covenant there would have been no Easter Week proclamation. Almost 50 years ago both Edward Carson and James Craig were included among the Leaders and Men of the Rising.

Another “Ulster” aspect has been mentioned from time to time, although rarely given the attention it deserves. The proclamation promised to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”, and this referred specifically to the unionist minority (not to young people, as is often presumed). But in practice – although not of course in theory – the rebels accepted partition.

Their planned insurrection would involve only the three southern provinces; above all else, it must not be sullied by sectarian conflict. Ulster’s military role was confined to Volunteers who would – somehow – march peacefully through unionist-controlled territory to Belcoo, near Enniskillen, and would then “hold the line of the Shannon”. The insurgents were amateur strategists.

Much research has been devoted to British policy before, during and after the Rising. Initially there was widespread surprise at the revelation of the Admiralty’s advance knowledge that a rebellion would take place at Easter, that Casement was en route for Ireland and that German guns were to be landed.

For good reasons it chose not to intervene, but its inaction provided yet further evidence (embarrassing to some people) that the Rising need not – and from the British point of view, should not – have happened. Far from being inevitable, or even natural, it was in many respects a freakish accident – and yet simply by taking place it conditioned much of subsequent Irish history.

In some quarters the British response to the insurrection is still dismissed, simplistically, as brutal and draconian. In the chaotic circumstances of the time it was understandably inefficient; minor figures were among the first to be executed, while Connolly and MacDermott were the last to be shot. But by international standards the scale of the executions and arrests was moderate and restrained.

Several writers have assessed the influence of the Catholic Church – which was more complex and nuanced than might have been expected. In particular, only seven of 31 bishops and their auxiliaries condemned the Rising unreservedly; some of the others displayed understanding and even guarded sympathy.

Until recently only rebels were acknowledged as “victims” of the Rising – even though a greater number of soldiers and policemen (many of them Irish) were also killed. And over half of those who lost their lives were civilians. These groups now receive belated recognition.

The range of books continues to expand, and publications have been devoted to subjects such as the GPO and other buildings associated with Easter Week, the material and visual culture of the Rising, and the trials and imprisonments that followed its suppression

Since the 1970s research and writings on 1916 have become embroiled in the “revisionism” debate. Most Irish historians have attempted to treat the rebels with the same degree of detachment (and on occasion, criticism) as is normally applied to other historical groups or individuals. Revisionism was always a question of standards, not beliefs.

This approach was resented in some quarters and “revisionists” were attacked as national apostates or covert unionists. (A handful of them were or became unionists, but even this should have been permissible.) Nowadays many of those writers who gloat about the “defeat” of revisionism apply the international methods of those whom they denounce. Most historians discover – and therefore reveal – complexity rather than simplicity, and their views have influenced many (but not all) of those who write general or popular books.

Battles have taken place to control what has been called the “ownership” of the Rising and, by extension, of the nationalist tradition that contributed to it. The insurrection had a dual legacy, leading on the one hand towards a democratic republic and on the other towards minority groups committed to violence. Each of these elements or traditions claims rights of succession to the image of 1916.

Even nowadays it is easy to find hagiographical accounts glorifying rebels and vilifying their opponents. Another, opposing tendency has been to lessen the prominence given to violence in the past and to avoid the embarrassing fact that those who used force often triumphed.

Some of those who write about the Easter Rising are deeply critical of what they see as its anti-democratic nature and the unnecessary bloodshed it caused. Recently a former taoiseach has been outspoken in his belief that the Rising was a mistake; Home Rule would have led to independence; Ireland would have been a better place and there would have been no Stormont parliament if it had not happened; and the violence that began in 1916 led to the civil war.

The insurrection has been denounced by a prominent journalist as a “calamity” that resulted in a toxic synthesis of murder and historical falsehood; it “corrupted and diminished the cultural power of the Irish nation”. Such views are intended to be controversial, but it is a sign of national maturity that they are no longer generally viewed as heretical.

The Irish revolution is sufficiently robust to endure the sorts of criticism that have for long been directed at its American, French and Russian counterparts. Many (most?) people believe that such diversity and iconoclasm is to be welcomed, even if they might disagree with the critics in points of detail.

To an extent the State has acted to protect the image and legacy of the Easter Rising from being appropriated by extremists, some of who are – at best – recent converts to democracy.

Governments intervene by providing funds for commemorative purposes and normally they do so in a benign fashion – even though historians and others should always be wary of such largesse.

Fifty years ago the RTÉ authority laid down that 1916 should be portrayed as nationalist but not socialist, and that the overall approach in covering the 50th anniversary commemorations should be idealistic and emotional rather than interpretative and analytical.

Matters have improved since then. And nowadays commemoration itself has become the subject of research and writings, with particular emphasis being placed on the 50th anniversary celebrations of 1966 and their far more muted successor in 1991.

The approaching centenary commemorations have already provoked another cycle of publications. Nearly 65 years after Andy Cope deplored the excess of Irish histories he would doubtless be appalled by the quantity of books and articles that have been written on the Irish Revolution; the shelves of bookshops now sag under their weight. But at least in many cases he would be gratified by their quality.

Michael Laffan is an emeritus professor in History in UCD. His most recent publication is Judging WT Cosgrave