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Sunday 27 March 2016


What sort of an Ireland did the Rising's leaders want?

Beyond getting rid of the British, there was little agreement on what they would do next

'Connolly, of course, wanted to spark the flame of international socialism and had told his men to hold on to their guns as they would be needed for the next phase'
'Connolly, of course, wanted to spark the flame of international socialism and had told his men to hold on to their guns as they would be needed for the next phase'

I try to avoid speculation, a great time-waster. You'll never find me poring over pages of what to expect in the budget and I stay well away from conversations on the 'what-ifs' of history. But I admit to a weakness when it comes to a bit of what-might-have-been about the Easter Rising, which has fascinated me since childhood.

Writing Patrick Pearse's biography increased my curiosity about his six companions in arms, which is why I ended up writing a book about them all many years later. How little most of them knew of each other, I found. The tobacconist, Tom Clarke, the arch-conspirator who made the Rising happen, was an intimate friend only of his lieutenant and protege, the IRB's agent Sean Mac Diarmada.

The mystical poets, academic Thomas MacDonagh and consumptive polymath Joe Plunkett, were best friends, but though MacDonagh was fond of the headmaster and writer Pearse, he knew that only Willie Pearse was close to this mysterious, gifted, cripplingly shy and tortured man.

None of them really knew the reserved, efficient accountancy clerk Eamonn Ceannt, who couldn't stand what he privately called Pearse's green-flaggery.

They all admired to varying degrees, but from a distance, the brilliant, articulate and domineering James Connolly - who had a track record of falling out with almost all his socialist and trade union colleagues - and had been co-opted to the IRB Military Council because they feared he would start his own revolution and wreck theirs.

Had they been spared, could this curious collection of people with different aspirations conceivably have worked together successfully to create a new Ireland?

Revolutionaries almost always turn on each other: who, I find myself wondering, would have shot whom?

What these people had most in common were early problems of identity, loss or displacement. Tom Clarke's mother was Catholic and his father was a Protestant soldier in the British army. As a child, he lived in England and then South Africa, before moving to Dungannon, a hotbed of sectarianism. At 21, he fled to the embrace of Irish-American Fenianism. Dispatched to London to murder civilians, he would spend 15 bitter years in solitude in grim English jails.

Mac Diarmada's mother was ill for years and died when he was only nine. He spent several teenage years failing to pass the exams to qualify as a teacher, had menial jobs in Edinburgh and Belfast, before being rapidly converted from parliamentary nationalism to radical republicanism.

Eamonn Ceannt's mother died suddenly when he was 13 and though his father was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, he was sent to an intensely nationalistic school.

Thomas MacDonagh's half-English mother was an enthusiastic convert from unitarianism; he had a profound crisis of faith in his early 20s and had to leave his seminary. Joe Plunkett had appalling health, a crazy mother and a consistently disrupted childhood.

From the time Connolly went to Ireland in 1896, he felt obliged to conceal his country of origin, his seven years in the British Army and his atheism.

And then there was Pearse, the son of a well-read, free-thinking, rationalist Englishman and an emotional, unthinking, Catholic Irish nationalist, who was an emotionally stunted, tormented, repressed paedophile.

They seem never to have talked as a group about the kind of Ireland they wanted. Clarke and the charming Mac Diarmada were ruthless Anglophobes who despised democracy; Ceannt was a fanatical cultural nationalist; Pearse wanted a return to Celtic society, though in conversations with Plunkett in the GPO, he was sympathetic to his view that it might be good to set up a monarchy under a Catholic German prince.

And Connolly, of course, wanted to spark the flame of international socialism and had told his men to hold on to their guns as they would be needed for the next phase.

All that would certainly have taken some sorting out.

Clarke, the acknowledged leader, told his wife shortly before the Rising that if they succeeded, he (at 59) would be too old to do the necessary job of guiding the younger men, who would need "a man of iron, someone with a touch of Cromwell in him for the first five years".

His nominee was the 73-year-old John Devoy, the implacable old Fenian pulling the strings from New York.

It is constantly suggested that if the British had had the sense to imprison the leaders, rather than executing them, they would never have become martyrs.

We could also speculate on how the Irish fighting in horrendous conditions in the Great War and seeing men shot for losing their nerve would have felt if those back home who had been the cause of more than 400 deaths and the destruction of Dublin been let off.

What I am sure of is that neither Tom Clarke nor Patrick Pearse, with his compelling death wish, could have endured prison. Both I could see seeking and finding some way of provoking someone in uniform to kill them.

But back to facts. I've been reading Gerry Adams's blog on 1916 and have been struck how vague and ill-informed he seems to be.

I wasn't surprised by his mad proposition that the British deliberately executed "the main thinkers and writers of the period" - rather than, as we simpletons assume, the people who led the revolution. (Does he think they thought Con Colbert, farmer Thomas Kent and Willie Pearse were philosophers?)

In his blog, he quotes from Thomas MacDonagh's words at his court martial, and very fine defiant words they are. Unfortunately, they are inventions. It's about 50 years since MacDonagh's son Donagh accepted that the document from which Adams quotes was a forgery.

Mr Adams, as the uncle in at At Swim Two Birds used to ask: "Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?"

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards