April 25, 2017

Voices from the Easter Rising

Ruán O’Donnell & Mícheál Ó hAodha (eds), Voices from the Easter Rising (Merrion Press, 2016, 202 pp, €14.99 PB, ISBN 978-1-78537-066-3)

Just prior to the marathon centenary year of 2016, the manager of Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin estimated that there were 500 Easter Rising related books either in print or due to be published in 2016. Historian Mick O’Farrell stated at the same time that he had over 800 publications (magazines, periodicals, supplements, and books) in his possession. The scale of the growing corpus ensures deep and wide coverage of all facets of the events but also inevitably leads to a widely varying level of quality and relevance.

Authors can take two approaches to stand out in such an over populated field of study. Firstly, any ground breaking analysis of the Rising as a whole will rise to the top of the pile, but given the quality of what has already been produced, we are unlikely to see a glut of such books in the coming years. Most academic writers approaching the topic have recognised this and taken to analysing individual themes and strands, such as the American influence or the contribution of those associated with the Abbey Theatre. Non academic writers have taken similar approaches, notably Joe Duffy’s work on the child victims during Easter Week. Such analyses contribute more thoroughly to our understanding of the events of Easter 1916 that a multiple of narrative treatments ever could.

Another way to stand out from the crowd is to offer a new approach. The ready availability of the Bureau of Military Witness Statements online, has led to innovation on the part of authors and a reassessment of public appetites by publishers. Gene Kerrigan’s creative use of the witness statements in The Scrap resulted in that book having a well deserved impact in the (probably temporarily) expanded modern Irish history book market.

Kerrigan’s use of first hand testimony to write an exciting narrative account can be contrasted with Ruan O’Donnell and Michael O hAodha’s collection of statements, diaries, and other testimonial sources that are allowed to tell the story of the Rising unimpeded by an authorial voice. The Merrion published Voices from the Easter Rising is aimed at a popular market and it does manage to stand out from the crowd due to the novelty of exhibiting written primary sources in an inexpensive paperback. The editors’ efforts seem to have mainly been directed at sourcing and selecting the testimonies and they are presented here in raw form without commentary, contextualisation or clarification. This gives the book a freshness that has both positive and negative consequences.

The editors’ short introduction sets out the background to the Rising in simple terms. This avoids the trap of getting bogged down in debate about motivations and morality. Such debate is obviously important, but it does not necessarily have to form a major part of all publications relating to the Rising. Voices from the Easter Rising provides exactly what its title suggests, which makes it a quick and enjoyable read that stimulates the mind on the subjectivities of history writing as much as, if not more than, a historiographical commentary or deeply analytical treatment of the events.

The ‘voices’ themselves come from Volunteers, clerics, British Army, civilians, civil servants, and others. The BMH statements form the majority of the archival sources, but testimony has also been pulled from other printed sources, giving a colourful picture of the events and how they were witnessed and interpreted, both at the time and in subsequent years and decades. The first account, by an anonymous source, shows that there was significant support for the Volunteers’ actions, contrary to the broad sweep view that ordinary Dubliners stood around in confusion at the outset and later went looting before jeering the rebels in defeat. The latter obviously happened too, but it is important to note the nucleus of support for rebel actions that would soon grow into a national uprising.

The account of Capuchin priest, Fr Aloysius, highlights the experiences of children, international links, and the conduct of the British military. On the latter, he notes that the British did not recognise pleas to protect hospital buildings and that they were very much in the frame of mind that they were there to put down a rebellion, rather than engage in war. J.J. Scollan’s account highlights the often forgotten role of the Hibernian Rifles in the fighting and instils wonder about the other smaller organisations that played a role in the events.

Some of the accounts highlight the care and skepticism needed when consulting eye-witness testimony of significant events. For example, Elsie Henry, writing in her diary at home in Ranelagh, states that the flag flying atop the GPO was red, white and green and had the words ‘German and American Allies Help’ printed on it.

The editors’ light touch is slightly frustrating when one is reading through the accounts. There is no indication whether the spelling mistakes in some of the accounts are extant in the original manuscript sources, or if there were errors in transcription. This problem is particularly noticeably in the BMH witness statements. However, in accounts taken from previously published sources, mistakes are noted with in-text square brackets. This leads one to assume that all of the accounts were transferred directly from the source material without much thought as to how they might be edited uniformly. The book would certainly have benefitted from having an agreed copy editing policy and a note on editorial conventions at the outset. This could have addressed the problem of inconsistency without adding an unnecessary layer of interpretation in a collection that stands out as a package of raw materials.

The book is an entertaining read and will appeal to a general readership as well as students of modern Irish history and historiography. It has the added benefit of making clear, without actually stating it, that there is great danger in relying on a single source for historical information. If this is the message that casual readers of the book take away, then it certainly falls into the category of worthwhile publications on the Easter Rising in 2016.

Adrian Grant is the editor of Irish History Review.