Historical Notes: Challenging evidence on the Easter Rising

TO COINCIDE with its 50th anniversary, in 1966, there was a spate of books and articles about the Easter Rising. Until now, no work of synthesis has been attempted since. Yet, in the meantime, an immense volume and variety of relevant primary material has accumulated or come to light.

An analysis of the full range of sources challenges some strongly held "myths" about the rising. One casualty is the "blood sacrifice" interpretation of its origins; the view that its leaders from its inception regarded it as a doomed military enterprise and accepted or even sought martyrdom in order to regenerate Irish nationalism, in conscious emulation of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, "proving" through their own sacrifice Ireland's moral right to independence.

It is now clear that this view was misleading because it focused too much on the attitudes of secondary figures - romantic nationalists, particularly Patrick Pearse. The driving force, above all others, behind the insurrection, was the veteran Tom Clarke, aided by the younger Sean MacDermott. Both were archetypal republicans, earthy realists committed to the use of force to eradicate British rule in Ireland and establish a fully independent republic.

Furthermore, the detailed plans submitted to the German High Command on behalf of the rebel leadership in the spring of 1915 were clearly devised with absolute victory in mind. This was to be achieved through an insurrection by the rebels in Dublin, massively supported by German troops. British forces would be crushed and the rebel-led government established in Dublin would ally Ireland with Germany in the Great War. Though these plans were later modified, the essential ingredients remained the same - a rising in Dublin, German troops and arms to rouse, lead and arm the west, a submarine to block the arrival of British reinforcements and the hope of victory.

During Easter week, of course, German aid failed to reach the rebels, the west did not rise, and British reinforcements poured freely into Dublin. The evidence now available strongly suggests that it was when the rebel leaders at the GPO were facing inevitable defeat and surrender that they agreed collectively to attempt to strike a practical deal with the British authorities - namely, that they (the leaders) should be executed and that their sacrifice should enable the rank and file to go free and hopefully fight another day.

The rising was also a less "clean" fight than it has often been depicted, a fact partially reflected in the 250 civilian deaths during the insurrection. The civilian population of Dublin was not as unanimously hostile to the rebels as is usually asserted, and public sympathy for the insurgents increased through the course of the fighting. Nor was General John Maxwell a heartlessly repressive, pro-Unionist "butcher". Indeed, he regarded the Liberal government's softness towards the Ulster Unionists between 1912 and 1914 as a root cause of the insurrection. Though he was convinced that the leaders of the rising should be executed, from his private papers it seems highly unlikely that he would have executed more of them, even without Asquith's attempts at intervention. He confided to his wife that he had never at any stage intended to "overdo" the death sentences.

Finally, the court-martial records give an indispensable insight into the mind of the rebel leaders at the time of their trial. Though several in their evidence distorted the truth in a bid to escape the firing squad, all but one of the seven men who signed the Proclamation approached death without remorse, convinced of the legitimacy of their actions. Eamonn Ceannt is the exception. He bitterly regretted the rebels' act of surrender and was convinced that they should have fought to the end.

Brian Barton and Michael Foy are the authors of `The Easter Rising' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 19.99)