March 29, 2017

America and the Easter Rising

Mirian Nyhan Grey (ed), Ireland’s Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising (UCD Press, 2016, 400 pp, €40 HB, ISBN 978-1-91082-013-1)

In the opening paragraph of his foreword to this lavishly produced volume, Professor J.J. Lee ponders how historians should approach the Easter Rising of 1916. He proffers an answer by way of asking another simple question: ‘why do I think what I think about this?’ What Professor Lee is asking is for rudimentary critical reflection on why particular narratives dominate and how have they been constructed over the years. Why do we think of 1916 in the way that we do and how has the commemorative extravaganza of 2016 reshaped what we know and what has been remembered/forgotten, emphasised/ignored or refashioned/distorted at both official and unofficial levels. Professor Lee’s challenge is one that historians too easily avoid. (Remember that quip: History doesn’t repeat itself, historians repeat one another). At a moment when both public and disciplinary certainties of ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ are under threat, then deeper interrogation of the structure of what, how and why we think about what actually happened is urgent. So, as I read through the twenty four essays comprising this book, I upheld this question as a kind of critical touchstone.

Considered in its entirety this collection has plenty of coherency with each chapter linking to the previous one to create a sense of collegiality and common purpose. Some fine contributions by emerging scholars lead us into some entangled corridors of the era. To its detriment there are occasions when contributors reproduce deeply contested narrative conventions that permeate and manage revolutionary historiography. But what is perhaps most engaging about the essays in their totality is how they make us think and rethink Ireland’s relationship to America: indeed, the claim on the dust jacket (again a quote from Professor Lee) – ‘No America, no New York, no Easter Rising’ – might be a little too reductive, but it is hard to deny.

Few would dispute that, for too long, understanding 1916 has in many ways been defined by the ‘Great Man theory’ of the past: A roll of honour of specific individuals, who worked tirelessly and conspired deeply for Irish freedom. In homage to that tradition, this volume opens with an essay on the arch anti-imperialist John Devoy and is followed by valuable sketches of Joe McGarrity, Tom Clarke, John Quinn and Patrick Pearse. There is also work on lesser known figures such as Victor Herbert, Judge Daniel Cohalan, William Bourke Cockran and Cardinal John Farley. Few could doubt that such men did play their part, but it is refreshing (and perhaps something of a cliché to highlight) to find the voice of women emerge into the limelight. There are perceptive essays on the patriotic energy and decisive contribution of Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa and the physician and suffragist, Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly, founder of the first New York branch of Cumann na mBan and one of those formidable figures who juggled political activism with a professional career inside a patriarchal system.

Several chapters provide some useful context to the wider political crisis. Francis M. Carroll’s analysis of the demise of the United Irish League of America shows how the centre advocating Home Rule did not hold in the wake of rebellion. Essays on the Irish and Irish-American Suffragists and the Irish Relief Fund Bazaar link the nationalist agenda to both the global movement for female emancipation and internationalism. A final essay on anticolonial nationalists seeks to look at the ‘contact zone’ that deepened links between revolutionary Ireland, India and Pan-Africanism. But much valuable, recent work written on that zone is overlooked. How did 1916 fit into broader traditions of the revolutionary Atlantic? Are the great links and synergies that bound Ireland across time and space to issues such as antislavery activism deserving of some consideration? 1916 was as much a stand for a new republic as it was a stand against the systems of exploitation, inequality and social injustice underscoring the first phase of globalisation.

A more general criticism of edited collections is whether they become more than the sum of their parts of whether their scope is limited to the singular interests of disparate contributors. In this instance, the wider political context is often hard to extract. What was happening to nationalist Ireland both at home and abroad in the face of the British Empire’s own shifting relationship with America? Analysis of the triangulated tensions between Britain, Ireland and the US in the face of not merely the constitutional crisis of Home Rule but the shifting sands of international relations both before and after 1916 is missing. For example, surely it is significant that Britain’s successive ambassadors in Washington before and during the war were both identifiably Irish. The Belfast-born historian and Liberal Imperialist statesman, James Bryce, a key architect of the First Home Rule Bill, had operated since the 1880s at the very heart of constitutional matters and was briefly chief secretary in Ireland. Bryce’s two volume oeuvre The American Commonwealth (1888) became a cornerstone of a new departure in US-British understanding. He was succeeded in Washington by Cecil Spring Rice from an old Anglo-Irish family from west Limerick. Both appointments demonstrated the priority and political sensitivity afforded the handling of Irish affairs in the new century within the changing field of Anglo-American relations.

Although some Irish nationalist intellectuals of the period argued that Britain was largely to blame for bringing on the war, such a position has been knowingly phased out of mainstream studies of the causes of the conflict in subsequent decades. Any eventual study on Irish opposition to the First World War might help elucidate the complexities of anti-war movements that were a significant component of US-Irish relations of this period. Similarly the alliance between Ireland and Germany is too often read through the prism of later events, but it really was the case that the U.S. was uncommitted in its support for either side at the start of the war. The letter sent to the Kaiser and signed by the executive council of the IRB articulated quite a widely held view:

‘Hoping as we do that Germany will win this war so unrighteously forced upon her by a combination of assailants, each lacking the courage to act alone, we earnestly commend to Your Majesty’s attention this fundamental fact that to restore the equilibrium of sea power so grievously injured by Great Britain, to the detriment of the whole world since the Napoleonic wars, Ireland must be freed from British control.’

Roger Casement’s collection of essays, published under various titles but most often referred to as The Crime against Europe articulated the view, in no uncertain terms, that the war was principally of Britain’s making. Irish independence, he argued, held the key not merely to the future of Ireland within an independent Europe, but would lead to the dismantling of the British Empire, which he had lost all faith in. He formulated his essays to appeal above all to an informed American audience. His was one brief volley in what would prove to be a deeply hostile exchange. His cries from the wilderness are now a faint echo in the enduring battle to preserve a narrative intended to justify the worthless slaughter of the First World War rather than elucidate the dynamics of secret diplomacy, political ineptitude and reactionary interests that pushed humanity into the abyss.

From August 1914, Britain’s imperial war machine sponsored a very close public relations exercise by expanding its various secret agencies of state to manage public understanding in both the US and Britain. Significant amounts of energy were directed towards persuading the Irish both at home and abroad of the righteousness of the war. Britain – the traditional foe of the US since 1776 – had to carefully manufacture a popular perception of America as its natural and unchallenged ally. This recalibration of the Anglo-American alliance had been undergoing a significant modification since the dawn of the century and is evident, for example, in the signing of the Taft Arbitration Treaties of 1911. This paradigm shift was critical to the subsequent forging of the ‘special relationship’. Within that reconfiguration of US-British relations, Ireland was both a major irritant and thorny diplomatic factor. In 1917, when the US finally broke its pledge of neutrality and entered the war on the side of the British, many Irish nationalists of moderate persuasion saw this as a great betrayal. The turnabout was achieved through a long and often quite unscrupulous propaganda war and one that in different ways would significantly temper how the war was remembered. While some essays touch on this, none capture the magnitude of Britain’s victory in the bitter battle for hearts and minds.

Propaganda and the role of the print media are given informative coverage in several chapters. Robert Schmuhl explains aspects of news management and the drip-feeding of both truth and confusion. R. Bryan Willits, in a useful essay mapping links between German and Irish propaganda, reminds us of such figures as James McGuire, an influential newspaper proprietor, who was paid by the German Information Service in the US to disseminate copy about the German-Irish alliance. But much of this circuitry of anti-British sentiment and activism is unreferenced. There is no mention of George Freeman, editor of the Gaelic American, and an extremely busy agitator. And what about moving pictures? The recovery of a segment of film by the American documentary film-maker Alfred K. Dawson of Roger Casement in Berlin was viewed by an audience of millions in the US in the immediate aftermath of his execution. What evidence do we have from newsreel footage of how Easter 1916 was packaged for popular consumption?

The editor of this volume, Miriam Nyham Grey, is right to point out we should not over-generalise how we see Irish-America; and a further strength of the book is how it examines different layers and contexts of Irish national identity. Some of this complexity becomes apparent through insights into the social networks that were so critical to fund-raising and helped to build solidarities of resistance within the diasporic space. An essay on the Irish language community in New York provides one such fascinating insight. Although organisations such as Friends of Irish Freedom and Clan na Gael might be better understood through scrutiny of their membership networks and grassroots effectiveness rather than merely the figureheads who controlled them at an executive level.

Despite the self-confident tone of many of these contributions one wonders how far the hallowed space of history-writing in the twenty-first century can really connect with the reality of mistrust, anticipation, subversion and enthusiasm constraining Ireland’s transatlantic revolutionary underground. This polished tome – a co-production between Glucksman Ireland House and UCD and launched by Taoiseach Enda Kenny – will stand as one of the most well-appointed productions of 2016. But in assessing the different strands of inquiry is there too much polish and not enough spit?

Roger Casement (l) and John Devoy (r)

While there is something thrilling about writing about insurgency history, there are endless obstacles obstructing the path to a clearer understanding of what actually happened and to the significance of the deed thereafter. Perhaps the first thing to recognise is that the spirit of revolutionary resistance is a remarkably difficult synergy to capture. If revolution emerges from a zeitgeist of bold resistance and creative force, it frequently retreats into arenas that are conspiratorial and apt to paranoia. Most readers of this review will know only too well the bitter divisions that resulted from decisions taken at the time that carried through into the remembering and interpretation afterwards. When violence is added into the revolutionary mix, analysis becomes a nasty, partisan business. Plans are made in the dark. Papers are destroyed. False trails are created through deliberate acts of deception and forgery.

Recent releases of files at the National Archives (UK) compiled by various tentacles of Britain’s secret state show the emerging agencies ruthlessly protecting imperial hegemony. The leaders of 1916 were closely pursued by the authorities – in some cases beyond the grave. And in the aftermath, corrupt traditions of interpretation were strategically produced, and some persist. Despite all these challenges, many of those who end up writing about revolutionary history are secure academics. Often they occupy the political middle ground and have been educated in conservative institutions of higher education promoting arcane and archaic forms of thinking. Historians are still not automatically skilled in reading meaning into archival silences and deciphering dubious and entangled narratives.

In that respect, one missing dimension to this book was the lack of any general overview of how1916 has been interpreted by different traditions in the US over the last one hundred years. An examination of US historiography on the Easter Rising might have helped to broaden understanding of the procedures that underscore how revolution is allowed to be discussed in different contexts. Such an essay might have served to scaffold a more reflective critique of the special challenges faced in the writing of narratives of insurgency. How has the interpretation of 1916 in the US impacted the writing of the history of that moment in other locations and traditions?

Inquiry into the hermeneutics might have segued into some critical contemplation of the construction of the revolutionary archive upon which so many of these essays are based. Well in advance of the propaganda of the deed, Ireland was challenging the narrative conventions of the age and defining a new sense of self-worth and independent value. The Abbey Theatre’s recent Handbook of the Irish Revival has helped to capture in an accessible way many of those creative and imaginative strands. Historians are still processing a trail of papers, correspondences, diaries, ephemera, memoirs and statements explaining, justifying and clarifying for future generations what could not be openly clarified at the time. In that sense, the justification of 1916 and what it stood for is still a work in progress. This was a revolutionary intervention founded upon intellectual endeavour and creative audacity that was then fused to subaltern influences: it was very much the coming of age of an imagined community.

The other aspect of 1916 that remains vital to understanding the inner history of the revolutionary momentum and Ireland’s relationship with the US is secrecy. For so long a taboo for historians, secrecy has emerged as a crucial concern in contemporary America. But the very dimension of secrecy is missing here. It would have been interesting to learn about how that dynamic operated amongst insurgents themselves. Mary Colum’s beautiful memoire Life and the Dream captures well an alternative clandestine reality underlying the atmosphere of suspicion extending from a movement that is under surveillance and threatened by infiltration. We now know that the interception of a message from John Devoy by Room 40 allowed British security services to get warning of the insurrection several months in advance of Easter Monday. But when did this become common knowledge among historians? An essay specifically on the spectre of intelligence and secrecy might have given this collection a more contemporary feel and crucially elaborated an issue that should concern us all.

In the end, this collection is a worthy effort to explain Ireland’s gallant allies in America. Doubtless it will be consulted for years to come by undergraduates drawn to the aura that surrounds Ireland’s romantic revolutionary tradition. It should prove attractive to a mainstream audience seeking an informed view of a defining moment of modern Irish history. Ultimately, it is a work that feels conventional, restrained and in vital respects unchallenging. Much of the analysis lacks any profound engagement with the meta-historical issues to do with networks, historiography, archives and the stresses and strains implicit in the writing of insurgency. Those in search of an answer to Professor Lee’s question – ‘why do I think what I think about this?’ – might search elsewhere.

Angus Mitchell is the author of 16 Lives: Roger Casement and the editor of One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916, which was reviewed on this site in October 2016.