The Seven: Spectator review
The Easter Rising’s road to hell — paved with good intentions
In an effort to make things better, the founding fathers of the Irish Republic made things much, much worse, according to Ruth Dudley Edwards’s The Seven
Published: 9 April 2016
While reading this book in a London café, I was politely buttonholed by an Irishman: ‘Sorry to disturb you, but I saw what you were reading and wondered how far back it went.’ I answered that, as it was a group biography of the men who led the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, it began with the eldest of them, Tom Clarke, in the mid-19th century. ‘But,’ I added, ‘it goes back further, to Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone — even Cromwell is mentioned.’ ‘Sure the feud’s much older than that,’ was the gleeful reply.
If Ruth Dudley Edwards had been at the table, I imagine she would have said that that was part of the problem — the romantic, rebel, republican view of Irish history as an unbroken tradition of justified resistance. It is a view that she has spent a 40-year career trying to redress. ‘Ireland has a surfeit of idealists who in their desire to make things better made everything much, much worse.’ The Seven who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in Dublin on 24 April 1916 were no exception. In their quest to free Ireland from a foreign yoke, they made no allowances for the fact that the Irish Nationalists, holding the balance of power at Westminster, had already secured Home Rule, even if it was delayed for the duration of the Great War.
Home Rule represented that despised thing, compromise, and in any case Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Éamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett had no time for notions of democratic representation. Their authority came, in the words of the Proclamation, from ‘the name of God and the dead generations from which Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood’: in other words, the old feud.
After the Rising, and the executions of all seven men, they swiftly passed into legend. Dudley Edwards’s task is to render these sacrificial icons human again, which she does in part by placing them against the complex backdrop of their own time. Sometimes, the complexity threatens to overwhelm the reader, under the combined influence of a packed cast and a riot of abbreviations. A paragraph taken at random mentions Pearse, Plunkett, MacDonagh, Terence de Vere White, W.B. Yeats and Willie Rooney, while even the list of abbreviations at the end cannot find room to remind us that the ICA is, in this context, the Irish Citizen Army (James Connolly’s workers’ volunteers), not the Institute for Contemporary Art.
But what Dudley Edwards’s approach makes clear is that, for all the doomed glamour of a ‘revolution led by poets’ (Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett were all published), the Rising was steeped in the long history of animosity towards Britain, as well as the infighting of a fragmented movement. Six of the Seven were members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (Connolly saw Ireland’s cause in the wider context of the international workers’ struggle), but they formed a cabal even within the Brotherhood, using the formation of a defensive citizen force, the Irish Volunteers, as a way to foment armed revolution. When it came to the crucial moment, Pearse and co. simply ignored the nominal head of the Volunteers, the history professor and founder of the Gaelic League, Eoin MacNeill, who issued a countermanding order standing them down on Easter Sunday. Pearse spelled it out to the beleaguered MacNeill: ‘We have used your name and influence for what they were worth, but we have done with you now. It’s no use trying to stop us.’
The Rising itself forms only the last act of the book. Dudley Edwards dramatically rehearses the familiar, tragic tale of the stand in the General Post Office, which the Seven knew full well had no chance of success (Clarke remarked to one Volunteer: ‘Of course… we shall be wiped out’). But the real value of this book is in bringing together accounts of the men who so successfully sold the idea of freedom through violence and martyrdom to Irish (and international) posterity. And what an odd bunch they were. Tom Clarke, known to Dubliners as a quietly spoken middle-aged tobacconist, had a revolutionary past as a ‘dynamitard’ on the mainland. He hadn’t blown anything up, but was caught with enough incriminating material to be sentenced to penal servitude for life, being released after 15 years. The brutal British prison regime often broke its victims, but Clarke’s purposeful hatred was tempered in the flame, and on release he worked steadily and secretly to bring about armed revolution.
Pearse, about whom Dudley Edwards wrote a controversial biography, emerges here as a man of messianic temperament and off-the-charts inhibition. This headmaster-hero of the Republic was a ‘repressed paedophile’, if the evidence of some very suggestive verse and the allegation that he ‘kissed boys’ is to be believed. It was a joke among Pearse’s friends that he couldn’t abide women. Even in the GPO, Mac Diarmada had a laugh introducing ‘two nice girls to see you’ to the mortified new President of the Provisional Republic.
Of the others, perhaps the most tragic is Plunkett, a wealthy consumptive with an overbearing mother. His histrionic poem ‘I See His Blood upon a Rose’ was once, Dudley Edwards tells us, learned by most Catholic schoolchildren in independent Ireland. Plunkett had to be helped out of a nursing home to join the Rising, and appeared in full dress uniform; a witness reported: ‘If ever death had laid its mark openly on a man, it was here.’
The most unintentionally comic is the often overlooked Ceannt, who took up the uilleann pipes and became so committed to the Irish language that on a visit to the Pope he refused to speak English. Ceannt designed a piper’s costume for that trip, made by his sister. Dudley Edwards does not mention it, but the outfit is now in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. Ceannt became as hard-nosed a revolutionary as any, throwing himself into learning soldiery as single-mindedly as he had into learning Ireland’s language and music. But the impression Dudley Edwards’s sorrowful, good-humoured book leaves is that a lot of blood might have been saved if Ceannt and his fellow revolutionaries had taken themselves a little less seriously.
Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven offers astute pen portraits of the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion. Her analysis of how these complex men, idealistic but also uncompromising, led a rebellion is a superb introduction to this period of momentous change in Irish history.
A fine, well-researched and beautifully-written ground-breaking book by a leader in her field.
…a probing and detached appraisal of the seven revolutionaries who placed Ireland on a fateful course in 1916. It seeks to explore and explain rather than condemn or disparage. Connolly, Pearse, Clarke and the others obtain more sympathetic treatment from Ruth Dudley Edwards than many of their hagiographers are likely to provide.
Ruth Dudley Edwards brings a unique perspective to bear on the leaders of the Easter Rising: empathetic, interrogative, and highly conscious of the questions raised and left unanswered by their sacrificial gesture of rebellion. With this book she completes the analysis begun with her path-breaking study of Patrick Pearse nearly forty years ago, providing a group biography of the disparate revolutionary leaders and a clear-eyed consideration of the legacy they left. It should be required reading.
In telling the stories of perhaps the most influential of all Irish national heroes…Ruth Dudley Edwards has written a fascinating, balanced and highly readable book based on thorough research.
With its sharp observations…as well as its demystifying impulse and wry alertness to every nuance of 1916-symbolism, The Seven is an important book. It disentangles the strands of motivation and aspiration which previous generations had tended to lump together.
Highly entertaining and engagingly irreverent.
A first rate read. Moving the narrative along with colour, verve, pace and attitude.
A provocative, personal, fascinating, and utterly readable contribution to a hugely important debate.
No one has done more to reinvigorate debate about the 1916 Rising than Ruth Dudley Edwards.
The folly, the courage and the tragedy of the Easter Rebellion have never before been presented with such clarity and brilliance. At times, it reads like the work of fiction that it is not, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, with a novelist’s unerring narrative skill, interweaves the lives of the seven signatories of the Proclamation from their disparate beginnings to their common end. To have brought such dazzling freshness to a very familiar story is an extraordinary achievement. Nothing less than a masterpiece
The leaders of the 1916 Rising are generally regarded by Irish nationalists as heroes and they are honoured as the founding fathers of the Irish Republic. A minority take the view that the Rising was unnecessary and undemocratic. In a timely re-assessment, the respected historian Ruth Dudley Edwards looks at the legacy of seven leaders of the Rising, including the legacy of violence which has blighted Ireland in the century since. Her book deserves a wide readership both by traditional nationalists and by those who believe it is time to reassess the legacy of the Rising.
Fascinating and penetrating…innovative and engaging…can be welcomed as an important contribution to the discussion and a serious contribution to our understanding of an extremely complex and challenging period in modern Irish history.
‘Dudley Edwards…clearly knows how to entertain as well as inform. This book feels like the result of a lifetime’s research, neatly condensed into a colourful narrative that readers of all political persuasions should be able to enjoy.
If the Easter Rising was a passion play in which real gore was spilt, Dudley Edwards represents its leading actors as terrorists rather than freedom fighters. But she brings them to life with empathy and zest