[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Empire]: Beatty on McGarry, 'The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Oct 2 14:00:26 MDT 2016


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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Sun, Oct 2, 2016 at 3:37 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Empire]: Beatty on McGarry, 'The Rising: Ireland:
Easter 1916'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu


Fearghal McGarry.  The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916.  Centenary
Edition. New York  Oxford University Press, 2016.  400 pp.  $29.95
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-873234-1.

Reviewed by Aidan Beatty (Concordia University)
Published on H-Empire (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Stephen Jackson

In 1947, the Irish government established the Bureau of Military
History (BMH), an organization overseen by senior military figures
that brought together professional historians with former members of
the Irish Volunteers (the precursor to both the Irish army and the
Irish Republican Army [IRA]). The mission of the bureau was to
compile witness statements from those directly involved in the 1916
Easter Rising as well as the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and
civil war (1922-23). In operation for a decade, the BMH accumulated a
total of 1,773 statements running to 36,000 pages of oral
testimonies, as well as 150,000 ephemeral documents from this
formative period of modern Irish history. And then, inexplicably and
to the dismay of the historians who had collaborated with the
project, the Irish government placed the entirety of the collection
in storage in government buildings in Dublin, refusing to make the
witness statements available to either the general public or to
researchers. The eighty-three steel boxes of oral history files
remained off limits until March 2003, when the last holder of a
military service pension died (p. 5).

Fearghal McGarry's account of the Easter Rising, first released in
2010 and here republished in a special centenary edition, draws
heavily on the BMH's witness statements to craft an animated and
readable account of this rebellion at the heart of what was then one
of the major cities of the United Kingdom. Yet he does little to
unpack the nature of his source material. The Easter Rising, a
military failure in April 1916 that was condemned by almost all
mainstream Irish nationalists, soon came to be seen as a heroic deed
rather than a treacherous attack on the British state. A large dose
of mythmaking soon emerged, myths that in turn became part of the
Irish state's carefully protected nationalist narrative. The witness
statements of the BMH cannot be read as unadorned accounts of what_
really _happened in the rising. Rather, they were also partially a
product of the same processes of post-1916 mythmaking. As McGarry
points out, in some cases, the witness statements "were written by
the witnesses but, more frequently, they were formed into a coherent
statement by the investigators before being submitted to the witness
for verification and signed approval" (p. 5). Yet McGarry never
interrogates the meaning and limits of this state-curated act of oral
history collection, much less that the post-1922 Irish state had a
strong track record of both invasive censorship and zealous
protection of national mythologies.

To a large degree, these witness statements are more reflective of
the constructed memories of post-1916 Ireland than of the lived
realities of the rebellion itself. And indeed there are quite a
number of fanciful memories recounted without critical comment by
McGarry: a participant in the rebellion who claimed that "I never
slept one single hour of that week" (p. 191); a female combatant who
said that for the eleven days she was imprisoned in unhygienic
conditions in Kilmainham Gaol after the rising, "I never went to the
lavatory" (p. 261); and parents who were "prepared to sacrifice their
children for the cause" (p. 125). There are clearly some invented
memories at work here, reflecting the ways in which the rising came
to be seen as a moment of profound self-sacrifice for the cause of
the nation. Other memories are more subtly problematic. One witness
statement recalled, with an air of pride, that in the rising, "the
Irish Republican Army had taken Dublin" (p. 133), despite this
organization not formally existing until 1917. Leslie Price, a member
of the female milita, Cumann na mBan (The Women's Organization), and
later the wife of the IRA's Tom Barry, described seeing the leaders
of rebellion in a funeral a year before the rising: "When the armed
Volunteers passed I then suddenly realised that the men I had
seen--Tom Clarke, The O'Rahilly, Seán McGarry--looked as if they
meant serious business" (p. 92). The subtly prophetic tone, as if she
could tell what they were already planning for Easter 1916, points to
how much of a constructed memory this is.

McGarry does show an awareness of the problems of an empiricist
approach to historical knowledge, alluding to "the heroic narrative
that emerged" about the executed rebels, which obscured the more grim
realities of their deaths (p. 273). As he adds soon after (p. 276):
"Accounts of the executions (all at least second-hand) vary, but
emphasize the bravery of the rebels." An equally satisfying
description is McGarry's observation that one witness statement
"conveyed a resilient tone more characteristic of the prison memoir
genre" (p. 268), thus recognizing how constructed these politically
generic memories were. Yet he undercuts this by talking of the
"willingness with which the rebels embraced death," and "dying for
their cause, and increasingly confident of its vindication, some of
the leaders met their death in a near ecstatic condition" (p. 273).
How any historian could know what emotions Patrick Pearse or James
Connolly were experiencing at the moment of their execution remains
murky at best.

For sure, McGarry makes a strong use of the BMH witness statements to
convey some of the realities faced by the rebels barricaded into
prominent buildings in Dublin. There is a richly layered feel to how
he recounts the bloodshed, the looting, or the massive fires that
erupted as the British army shelled the center of the city from gun
ships docked in the Liffey River. But in taking such a conventional,
almost novelistic narrative approach, he ends up quietly perpetuating
a number of nationalist tropes about the events of 1916, rather than
thinking about the construction and nature of these tropes.

The rebels in 1916 were keen to portray their insurrection as part of
a longer tradition of nationalist resistance to British rule in
Ireland. Their famous Proclamation spoke of how "in every generation
the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and
sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have
asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again
asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the
Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State." The roots of the
rising obviously predate the events of 1916. McGarry thus
appropriately starts his narrative in the later nineteenth century,
and centers his discussion on the claim that radical nationalism was
a fringe movement at the turn of the century. Many of the quotes
McGarry marshals from BMH statements seem to bear out the notion that
radical separatism was moribund before 1916. He quotes one
interviewee's memory that after 1914, "the country generally had lost
its old national spirit. We were sinking very low nationally" (p.
83). But this is where a fuller consideration of state-backed
memories would have been helpful. Is this an "accurate" recollection?
Or is the claim of denationalization followed by the resurrection of
Easter 1916 an ideological reconstruction of the past that buttresses
a whole host of nationalist political claims? Similarly, Denis
McCullough, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood's (IRB)
Supreme Council on the eve of 1916, recalled that a large amount of
IRB members were "mostly effete and many of them addicted to drink"
(p. 22). Again, this seems to be a narrative of decadence that fits
with the narrative of revival, of social decay followed by rapid
change. This is a very nationalist narrative of rupture and
revolution, one that is carried over uncritically by many Irish
historians. Moreover, McGarry's presentation of radical separatism as
a spent force by the early twentieth century ignores how seemingly
nonpolitical forces, such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic
Athletic Association, acted as vehicles for separatist ideas. He
seems to understand "politics" in overly conventional terms, rather
than investigating how "culture" was saturated with political
concerns.

Analyses of political ideology are a major weak point of this book.
McGarry notes that talk of "class conflict" is "generally absent"
from the witness statements (p. 38). But he never considers that the
absence of considerations of class is itself the product of an
ideological imperative. He states that "separatist organizations like
the IRB were reluctant to get drawn into socially divisive questions,
while all the nationalist parties, including Sinn Féin, prioritized
national over sectional causes (as was demonstrated by Arthur
Griffith's opposition to the workers during the 1913 Lockout). The
Catholic Church, the most important social and cultural force in
Ireland, was explicitly opposed to class politics" (p. 38). "Class
politics" for McGarry, as for most Irish historians, seems to have
the conventional meaning of socialism and other leftisms. This stance
elides the fact that middle-class politics and capitalist nationalism
also represent a form of "class politics," one that has had a far
greater determining impact on the thought and praxis of Irish
nationalism than Connolly's socialist republicanism. McGarry's claim
that "there is remarkably little discussion of ideology" in the
witness statements is itself a deeply ideological statement (p. 41),
one that assumes that only radical ideas like socialism count as
_ideology_, whilst capitalism or bourgeois respectability are _just
the way things are_. McGarry uncovers fascinating evidence about how
the rebels were shocked by the looting during the rising, which he
ascribes to a respect for private property and a sense of disgust at
"this assault on private property." As he notes, "both rebels and
British soldiers fired on looters, killing some, with little effect"
(pp. 144-145). In other words, the rebels had a clearly middle-class
ideology that privileged the sanctity of private property, even if
McGarry does not label it as such. Indeed, class ideology was clearly
on display in Mary MacSwiney's disgust that the Volunteers, "a fine
body of men," were "being dragged at the tail of a rabble like the
Citizen Army" (p. 224), Connolly's socialist militia. As with his
discussions of class, when McGarry talks of "gender" (p. 165), he
means the experiences of women, in other words, those who have a
"gender," rather than analyzing the gendered ideological assumptions
(assumptions about both femininity _and _masculinity) at the heart of
Irish nationalist politics. Thus, what he engages in is more of a
counting exercise than an analytic one.

This is an opportune time for a thorough revision of some of the
conventional assumptions of Irish history writing; the economic
crisis of 2008 seriously undermined establishment truths and the
Decade of Commemorations have brought the events of 1912-23 into the
center of popular debate in Ireland. There is a vacuum here, waiting
to be filled by new and radically innovative ways of thinking about
the Irish past. McGarry's book makes large promises about asking new
questions about the Easter Rising. It is a shame, then, that the
answers he provides are so conventional in their approach to history
writing.

Citation: Aidan Beatty. Review of McGarry, Fearghal, _The Rising:
Ireland: Easter 1916_. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46695

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

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-- 
Best regards,

Andrew Stewart



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