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Slouching Towards Brutality

On Easter Monday in 1916, a tiny army of Irish separatists seized several buildings of middling significance in central Dublin, neglecting to take Dublin Castle, the seat of British power in the country, and ignoring communications outposts essential to any insurrection. With little popular support and no electoral mandate, they issued a proclamation declaring a republic, hunkered down in structures surrounded by densely populated slums, and waited for the inevitable British onslaught.

The hope was that the Irish people, inspired by their heroic action, would rise up with them, and that the Germans, who were fighting their common enemy in World War I, would be moved to send something more than a boatload of arms. If nothing else, the Rising’s leaders—if not every one of the 1,600 participants (including two hundred women)—were content to join the long list of Irish martyrs who had sacrificed themselves to their British overlords over the centuries. They would die to redeem the Irish national spirit and inspire her slumbering masses. It was not a coincidence that they chose Easter Week.

But things did not start well. The Dublin poor were curiously unmoved by their sacrificial zeal. They looted. “I fired my first shot for Ireland,” said a rebel, “to disperse daring looters up the street.” They jeered. “Go out and fight the Germans,” was one of the milder slogans. And they attacked. At Church Street Bridge, local women were driven away before they could dismantle a barricade. In another location, insurgents fixed bayonets to repel a mob that included “a very fat dame in spotless white apron and voluminous shawl.” One woman was shot (murdered?) as she was preparing to assault a fighter, perhaps with nails flashing. “I just remember seeing her face and head disappear as she went down like a sack,” remembered one of the killer’s shocked fellows. “That was my baptism of fire and I remember my knees going out from under me.”

These details come from eyewitness statements collected by the Irish government’s Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 1950s, which were not opened to scholarly inspection until March 2003. In his new book, Fearghal McGarry makes judicious use of hundreds of testimonies, creating an absorbing, grunt’s-eye-view of a seminal episode in modern Irish history—Éire’s version of the storming of the Bastille. In this telling, Patrick Pearse, the dreamy poet and schoolmaster who believed that “bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing,” is no less important than a woman named Eily O’Reilly, who once delivered him a message. When she asked him whether he comprehended it, “He said ‘yes’ in a vague tone, as if he were up in the clouds, so I went to O’Rahilly and repeated the message to him, so as to be sure the grenades would be sent.” It is perhaps inevitable that we learn “the headquarters people were not doing any fighting in the GPO [General Post Office],” according to one grunt. “They were watching things.”

McGarry is not out to debunk or to demystify. He admits the “witness statements do not, for the most part, fundamentally alter our knowledge of what occurred.” He neither condemns the Rising outright—the Irish journalist-provocateur Kevin Myers has called it little more than a war crime—nor celebrates it in the manner of what he calls “Faith and Fatherland” studies. His opinion exists somewhere in the in the middle, or muddle, as the case may be. At one point he calls the Rising “one of the most exciting episodes of Irish history,” full of “drama and radicalism” insufficiently communicated to generations of Irish schoolchildren. At another he concedes that Osama Bin Laden might doff his head-covering to “another conspiratorial minority willing to sacrifice their lives in a spectacular act of symbolic violence against a superpower in a fanatical attempt to awaken the apathetic masses.”

As George W. Bush might put it, the Easter Rising was a catastrophic success. (Yeats, of course, saw “terrible beauty.”) The British Army moved in and crushed the rebellion within a week. Of the 450 people killed, half were civilians. But the London government’s subsequent repression—including the execution of all the leaders—would turn the public toward the Republican party, Sinn Féin, which won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in Westminster in the elections of December, 1918. What followed was the creation of a revolutionary parliament; a guerilla War of Independence that killed more than two thousand combatants and civilians; a treaty, in 1921, creating a dominion-status Irish Free State that excluded the six counties of Northern Ireland; and a year long Civil War over the agreement that did nothing to change it. In 1949, Ireland finally became a republic but, without the contested counties of Ulster, it was not exactly what the Easter rebels had in mind. In 1966, a seventeen-year-old named Gerry Adams commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising with ten thousand others in Belfast. His IRA was pledged to complete the mission of Easter Week. You know the rest.

In telling the story of the Irish men and women who did not go to the Grand National horse race that holiday Monday—many would-be heroes did—McGarry is not writing a cautionary tale about the dangers of violent extremism. He lauds “integrity and idealism.” But it is not hard to turn the book upside down and see something darker. The rebel band saw their mission as holy (and profoundly Catholic). “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms…” reads the Proclamation. Fighters were urged to confess their sins. In the GPO, a priest set up a confessional next to an ammunition dump to accommodate the lines.

They were starry-eyed with militarism. In the pre-Rising months, nothing thrilled them more than attractive uniforms, public drills and marches, and the erotic feel of weaponry. One said of his Lee Enfield rifle, “I brought the prize home and fondled and caressed it, as a lover would his bride.” But they were foolishly ignorant of military tactics. A city park, St. Stephen’s Green, was occupied—curious in itself—but the buildings that loomed over it were not. Two weeks before the revolt, Thomas O’Donoghue was prowling the stacks of the National Library, looking for books on how the Russians sought to repel Napoleon’s troops on the streets of Moscow.

But what really galls is the disdain for human life—their own and others. The first death of the Rising was an unarmed member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police named James O’Brien, a martyr to the cause of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The rebels did more than locate the insurrection close to the civilian population. They ensconced themselves within the civilian population in the manner of the most hideous of terrorists. (We now call this “asymmetrical warfare.”) The simple fact that they set up a garrison at the South Dublin Union workhouse, which housed more than three thousand of the sick and destitute, is enough in itself to discredit the entire undertaking.

The rebels were prepared to strike for Irish freedom even if it meant starving out the locals—a grotesque fact when you consider the shadow that hunger casts over Irish history. The insurgents not only brandished their Lee Enfields at British soldiers, but also raised “their guns to repel ‘a mob of some hundreds’ clamouring for bread,” McGarry tells us. The north Dublin suburbs, wrote one newspaper, were experiencing “something approaching a food famine” by late in the week. Dubliners were killed in the crossfire as they went searching for food. On page 201, he writes the words that should shame anyone who celebrates the glories of the Easter Rising: “The threat of starvation was alleviated by the military authorities who commandeered food stores and warehouses on Thursday, distributing food to those in distress.” By “military authorities,” he means the British.

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.