Monday, June 4, 2018

The Easter Rebellion 1916 A New Illustrated History By Conor McNamara, Published by The Collins Press, Cork 2015

With the centenary of the Easter Rising approaching, the rush to bring out new books on the insurrection in Dublin in 1916 is reaching fever pitch.

This book, a new illustrated history of the Rising, is mainly a photographic history of the event, with accompanying text providing an overview of the events leading up to the Rising – the Home Rule Crisis, the First World War, the formation of the Volunteers both in Ulster and in the south – and of the Rising itself.

There is nothing especially new in the text, and as general histories of the Rising go, I would recommend readers first consult Charles Townsend’s Easter 1916, or Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising.

The text has some research of interest on casualties but the main attraction are the illustrations.

The research is diligent, but to the initiated fairly familiar. Perhaps limited space does not allow for detailed exposition of important points, for instance, the author remarks that ‘the prisoners were subjected to abuse by citizens of all social classes’ and leaves it at that. I would suggest that in fact the most violent verbal and physical attacks on the defeated insurgents were made by a very specific class – the poor of inner city Dublin, particularly the women, and of those the most virulent were ‘Separation women’ who had loved ones serving with the British forces in the Great War.

There is some interesting research on casualties – indicating that civilian casualties may be far higher than we had previously thought – Glasnevin Cemetery, McNamara reports, buried 485 people, most of them civilians, as a result of the week’s fighting and dozens more were also buried in Deans Grange, Mount Jerome. So when the 63 insurgents who were killed (and another 15 executed) and 130 military and police deaths are counted we may be looking at death toll in Dublin city from the six days of fighting of over 700, not below 500 as has usually been stated.

Here too though, the author approaches but then backs away from the really hard hitting conclusions. He mentions a case of Volunteers shooting hostile civilians on the first day of the Rising, but there are in fact many such cases. Similarly he alludes to the civilian casualties caused by the South Staffordshire regiment on North King Street, but does not explicitly explain that they, under orders from General Lowe to take no prisoners, took 15 men and boys out of houses on North King Street, shot them and hid their bodies in cellars.

The reader will not be misled by this book and it is fine as an introduction but there are probably more detailed guides to the Rising out there that flesh out these questions further.

All that said, the point of this volume is to provide a photographic history and at this it excels. The images throughout are jaw dropping; from incredibly well defined photos of the Pearse boys as children, to the tightly packed streets of Dublin on the day of the Volunteers’ show of strength in 1915, to the boldly colourful British recruitment poster for the Great War to the savagely satirical anti-recruitment rejoinders from the separatists.

The reader will find action shots of the Volunteers smuggling guns away from Howth in 1914 and a splendidly clear and well defined double page shot of the Grave side of O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse made his famous speech that ‘Ireland Unfree Shall Never be at Peace’.

What will really stick in the mind, however are the photos of the combat and its aftermath in Dublin city. McNamara has obtained a photograph of the unfortunate Sherwood Foresters at Mount Street with dead and wounded strewn all over the road.

We can see a burnt out tram used as an inner city barricade and the improvised armoured cars British troops used in the fighting. Hungry inner city boys queue up to be fed by nuns, dejected Dubliners walk through the ruins.

It is the ruins themselves, the result both of the British artillery bombardment, looting and the great fire the two caused, that provide the most striking imagery. Views of Henry Street and O’Connell Street in ruins (in images this reviewer has not seen before) are both shocking and awe inspiring. A photograph taken from Nelson’s Pillar, where the Spire is today, shows the extent of material destruction on both sides of Dublin’s main street.

Pages of pictures of burnt out and bombed building put this reviewer in mind of Syria and terrible death and destruction visited on cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Kobane in the past four years. It was a mercy after all that the fighting in Dublin in 1916 was over in one week.

In short, this book’s text is not a bad general history of the Rising but it is well worth buying for its illustrations alone.

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