1916: The Easter Rising
by Tim Pat Coogan
Cassell; 192 pp. $29.95
The Easter Rising of 1916 is the central event in 20th-century Irish history. At noon on April 24 of that year, Easter Monday, a small group of violent separatists seized some key points in the city of Dublin and proclaimed a Republic independent of Britain. After a week of bitter fighting the insurrection was put down. Most of its leaders were executed following brief courts-martial. Much of the city center had been destroyed by British shelling. 450 people had been killed and 2,614 wounded.
Though a military failure, the Easter Rising — more precisely, the British reaction to it — strengthened and, in the minds of many Irishmen, legitimized what Tim Pat Coogan delicately refers to as "the physical force tradition" in Irish Republicanism. That tradition might more accurately be called Irish fascism, with the Easter Rising as its Beer Hall Putsch. The consequences of the Rising, at any rate, were wholly malign. First came the Anglo-Irish "war" of 1919-21, in which the IRA (as the violent separatists were now called), under the command of Michael Collins, a veteran of the Rising, set about systematically murdering policemen and other "collaborators." The British authorities responded with clumsiness and occasional savagery. Partition and Home Rule followed, under terms that had been available in 1914, and would have been implemented but for the outbreak of the world war. Nothing had been gained by all the carnage, except a great deal of bitterness on both sides.
Dissatisfied with those terms, a dogmatic faction of Republicans then launched a civil war that sputtered on for a year till the majority of Irish people, sick of political violence, permitted their Free State government to end it with a ferocity equal to anything the British had employed. Adherents of "the physical force tradition" — those of them who survived the Irish firing squads — fled to America, Ulster and Britain, to await better times. Those times duly arrived in the 1960s, with the Ulster "civil rights" campaign as a front for revivifying that odious tradition, and with the international terrorist movement for fellowship and support.
You might think that, having spawned so much misery and bloodshed to no good purpose, the Easter Rising would be regarded by Irish people with embarrassment or shame. Not a bit of it. The Rising was seen, even by the participants, as a grand romantic gesture, a blood sacrifice for the ancient soul of Ireland; and so it has been preserved in folk memory and the educational system of the Irish Republic. The Rising is a totem, one of the foundation myths of modern Ireland, and none may call it the poisonous folly that it undoubtedly was.
Tim Pat Coogan is certainly not about to do so. A "green diaper baby" whose father worked as an assassin under Michael Collins's command (a fact the author related with pride in his 1991 biography of Collins), Coogan has made a very nice living for himself by writing about Irish history from the Hiberno-fascist point of view. Ireland herself being a small market, he targets his books at the more gullible segments of the Irish diaspora, especially those descended from the losing side in the Irish Civil War.
Coogan's account of the Rising therefore follows a predictable line. British policy was devious and malicious. The insurrectionists were gallant and soulful. (Coogan dwells lovingly on the sinister fantasist Patrick Pearse, and even includes one of his atrocious poems.) Constitutional nationalists were naive and ineffectual. Ulster Unionists … Well, let us be thankful for small mercies: breaking ranks with Republican tradition, Coogan at least acknowledges the existence of the Ulstermen, though he shows no comprehension of their strong desire not to be ruled by people who, they know very well from historical experience, detest them. Thus we read that: "the outcome of Republicanism striving to be free and Orangeism seeking to maintain its supremacy, must inevitably be conflict." I have known many Orangemen, but I never knew one that wished for "supremacy" over anybody. Nor is it difficult to imagine just how "free" the Orangemen would have been in a Republic ruled by Connolly, Collins, Pearse and de Valera.
1916: The Easter Rising comes with an argument. The argument is that a parallel can be made between the events of 1912-16 and those of 1998-2002, approximately as follows. The 1912 Home Rule Bill = the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; the Constitutionalists of 1912 = today's Sinn Féin; the 1916 putschists = Real IRA (the terrorist splinter group who committed the Omagh atrocity of August 1998, and with whom Coogan seems to be on chummy terms). The underlying message here, delivered in the tones of sneering menace that Irish fascists have made their very own, is that unless those recalcitrant Unionists buckle under to Sinn Féin's demands p.d.q., nasty things will happen. In Coogan's own words: "The message is that those who do not learn from history really can be doomed to relive it …" Or, as they say in Belfast: We know where you live.
Tim Pat Coogan bills himself as "journalist and historian." Given that both those professions involve the accurate recording of facts, his claim to them ought to be prosecuted as false advertising. This book is riddled with errors, misprints and omissions that no conscientious journalist or historian would ever allow to pass. To take a selection at random: "Lord Grey" did not declare anything in August 1914, as Sir Edward Grey was not made a Viscount until July of 1916. "Mirabile dictu, a box containing 1000 first preference votes for McGuiness was discovered …" Mirabile indeed: elections in Ireland, as in the rest of the U.K., were decided on a first-past-the-post system in 1917, with no preferences to mark on the ballot paper. "[James] Connolly was born in County Monaghan in 1870." Er, no: he was born in Edinburgh in 1868. (And "he educated himself by reading," Coogan tells us. How else do you educate yourself?) Ireland contains no such place as "Loughall," nor Norway a "Christina," nor North America a "Fort Eerie." The photograph on page 28 "includes Arthur Griffith and John MacBride," says the caption; but there are six men in the photograph, and no indication which is which.
Possibly this steady rain of factual and typographical slovenliness is a device to distract us from Coogan's shaky grasp of English syntax. Sample: "Although numerically small, the generic title 'Sinn Fein' came to be applied to those who supported Irish independence." To be sure, eight letters and an accent (though apparently the síneadh fada is too much trouble for Coogan) is not numerically impressive, but why might this have hindered the title's application?
Some of these bloopers are the more inexcusable because they have appeared in previous books by this author: "Loughall" is practically a Coogan trademark, a standing joke in Irish literary circles. If I were Coogan's publisher, I should be much more careful than this with his material. Two years ago, Dr. Ruth Dudley Edwards, a genuine historian of Ireland, received £25,000 damages and a public apology from Random House, U.K. for libels against her in Coogan's book Wherever Green Is Worn. Ireland is blessed with many careful and literate chroniclers of her long, fascinating history. It is a pity that the name best known to the large American public in this context should be that of a propagandist for the politics of the ambush and the car bomb.