Thursday 23 November 2017

Anti-semites, royalists and the insane - the other side of the Rising

Tom Clarke
Tom Clarke

One phrase we will hear repeatedly over the coming year is "the ideals of the men of 1916", as if the participants were a homogeneous group sharing a common set of beliefs.

Likewise, the document most likely to be quoted - as if it was a statement into which those men and women had some input - is the proclamation that Pearse largely wrote and which most rebels had no time to read, let alone agree or disagree with.

This is not to doubt the genuine courage of those involved in the Rising. It is merely to state that they were such a disparate and contrasting cross section of nationalists that it does them a disservice to lump them together.

The more complex truth is that they were not any cohesive group and they did not share a fixed vision of the Ireland they wanted to create.

James Connolly and Michael Mallin were committed socialists and former British soldiers. Mallin was also a committed Catholic, who hoped his younger children would enter religious life.

They may have fought alongside Commandant W.J. Brennan-Whitmore, who showed courage as the officer commanding the Volunteers in North Earl Street. But Brennan-Whitmore became an ardent anti-Semitic and active Nazi supporter who held white supremacist views.

Therefore he would have shared none of the ideals of Connolly and Mallin, some of whose Citizen Army volunteers he commanded.

Similarly nobody doubts the patriotism of Joseph Mary Plunkett. But people can doubt his pragmatism.

Veterans of the Rising, like Desmond Fitzgerald and Earnest Blythe, recall this poet talking about how, if they could achieve victory alongside the Germans, the Irish public would happily accept a German Catholic prince as their new king, especially because a German would favour ruling in the Irish language.

Realists like Michael Collins and Sean Lemass paid lip-service to Plunkett's memory but had no interest in building a free nation that would be ruled over by a German prince.

Even the seven men who signed the Proclamation held divergent opinions.

Tom Clarke's widow recalled how one conservative leader was so horrified by Pearse's wish to grant equal rights to women that it took intense persuasion before he reluctantly agreed to sign this liberal document.


History is complicated and multi-faceted but gets reduced down to a few cliched facts that represent the event in the public imagination.

But what is fascinating about the Easter Rising is how every side was crammed with complex characters thrown together at random.

While the insurrection was carefully planned, a combination of orders, counter-orders, poor communications, deceptions and the sinking of a German ship due to deliver 20,000 rifles, meant that the actual Rising that occurred was not the Rising that anyone had planned.

Therefore the events - both heroic and non-heroic - that occurred were hugely influenced by the characters who shared this chaotic week.

These included truly idealistic men like Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who suffered an appalling summary execution, despite having no actual involvement in the Rising.

They also included genuinely evil men like John Bowen-Colthurst, the Cork-born British Army officer who murdered Sheehy-Skeffington and four other innocent men.

The British authorities found him to be clinically insane and briefly held him in Broadmoor before allowing him to slip away to Canada.

Described by Irish poet Monk Gibbon as "a sadistic maniac", Colthurst lived on happily until 1965.

A fascinating new book, 1916: Portraits and Lives, from the Royal Irish Academy, hones in on 42 people connected with the Rising to give an overview of the totality of the lives caught up in that week.

It uses entries from the RIA's Dictionary of Irish Biography to unearth often hidden lives, so we glimpse the range of viewpoints involved.

We get the executed leaders, but also a sense of the many women involved (who were written out of the narrative), of nationalist leaders who opposed the Rising, and of senior British figures like Sir John Maxwell who oversaw the catastrophic executions.

Every life throws fascinating light on the week. We have John Bulmer Hobson, the revolutionary who tried to stop the Rising after German arms failed to arrive and was later vilified.


But also Michael O'Rahilly, who called himself The O'Rahilly and agreed with Bulmer Hobson. Having tried to call off the Rising, he arrived to take part - and be killed - declaring "I helped to wind the clock, so I might as well hear it strike".

De Valera banned all women from his garrison. How he would have hated Margaret Skinnider - the teacher and trade unionist - who fought with the Citizen's Army in Stephen's Green. She donned women's clothing to cycle around as a courier, then changed into breeches for sniper duty.

When Michael Mallin refused her permission to cycle past the Shelburne dressed as a woman and hurl a bomb in the window, she was indignant, arguing that as women now had equal rights, they had the equal right to risk their lives.

Along with others whose lives were forgotten, her story is told in this fascinating volume which allows the supporting cast on all sides to finally take centre stage.

1916: Portraits and Lives is available now, priced €30.It features the illustrations above by David Rooney

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