A History of the Easter Rising in 50 Objects. By John Gibney historian.
Some if not most readers may be familiar with Ireland in 100 Objects, a wide ranging history-through artifact book helmed by Fintan O’Tooole. Here in A History of the Easter Rising in 50 Objects, historian John Gibney (who I know, formerly as a lecturer, latterly as an occasional colleague) takes a similar, equally fruitful approach. He applies it, with great deftness and clarity to the smaller, symbolically epic, yet more defined canvas of the Easter Rising. It works.
The book begins with Tom Clarke’s Certificate of American Naturalization from 1905. This is a quiet masterstroke in itself. The curatorial decision to put Clarke first puts his figure back from the shadows back where he belongs, at the centre of the Easter 1916 Rising. He was its main planner, over many long, focused, single minded determined years. As Gibney tells us the rebellion might well have occurred, in some form or shape without Pearce, arguably even without Connolly. The same is not true of Clarke. No Clarke: no 1916.
Even more sharply, putting Clarke and his certificate first reminds us of the vital American link, without which the Rising might simply never have happened. The particular ambiance of the American-Irish Republicans in exile, with their smoldering resentment of the old enemy and oppressor England, was a thing unto itself. The moral support, the large amounts of money, (gathered by John Devoy and other leading Fenians in America) which sustained the Rebellion in Ireland in its early and middle planning phase. and the sheer sense of drive, purpose, even impatience for action, all coming from America, were crucial. So the course of Irish history was undoubtedly influenced by it. Decisively influenced? That is food for thought.
Gibney has the art of telling history through objects, with an eye for the crucial point, and the short yet telling aside. He is consistently excellent at looking beyond the myth, across the mire of cliché. .
Some of the objects you’d expect to appear, like one of those tangled masses of melted glass and rubble (from the charred ruins of the GPO); or the Plough and Stars flag of the Irish Citizen Army, do indeed appear. All used to great narrative effect. Other artifacts are more surprising, but equally effective. Curatorial choices are first class. Each item serves a vital function, achieving great depth of context, yet in just 50 pithy, entertaining 2-page mini-essays. The overall effect is superb.
Two of the consecutive short sections feature contrasting Irish militia uniforms from the era, one Irish Volunteers; the other from the Irish National Volunteers. These are used to succinctly sketch the political climate of Ireland prior to the First World War, before the Volenteer movement split, before the First Word War, when “England’s difficulty” (World War with Germany) became “Ireland’s Opportunity”. The Home Rule crisis, when an Irish civil war loomed, between Unionist determined to resist Home Rule, and Nationalists who felt they’d waited long enough. As the vast European War broke out, it averted a civil war in Ireland, but forced a split in the Volunteers, between those who were prepared fight for Britain before the promise of Home Rule was ever delivered or implemented, taking it on trust, as it were, despite the looming, albeit deferred, Unionist threat of violence, and Tory-backed, army mutinies (at the very least, the Curragh mutiny had the tacit support or smirk of approval from English Unionists like Randolph Churchill)
For the other, more radical and impatient nationalist wing, fighting for Britain once Home Rule was passed into law, but before it was even delivered on the ground, despite the decades of waiting and frustration, was now a concession too far.
The split in the Volunteer Movement thus divided and defined Nationalists politically. With the war now in train, and “Ireland’s opportunity” in play, it provided an impetus for the insurrection, secretly planned by a tiny steely splinter within the minority side. A splinter group off a splinter group in fact.
Overall this book was an exercise in humility for me. Frankly, I thought I’d be more familiar with more of the objects. Instead I found a work full of insight and discovery. Those who follow the wonderful blog (published on WordPress from the National Museum Collins Barracks) called “the Cricket Bat that died for Ireland” will know for example of the badge in Pearse’s hat he gave to English officer John Loder (in thanks for a small but welcome act of sensitivity and tact by Loder, while in a car on the way to prison, immediately after Pearce’s surrender). If you don’t know it it’s a beautiful story. It was related by Loder himself, in old archive interview footage, in that excellent recent PBS/RTE 1916 documentary, so more people may know the tale by now. The only point is, objects such as these, with all their accretions of personal meaning and value, can give us extraordinary insight. But only in the right hands.
The eponymous cricket bat, if not the badge, features here in Gibney’s book. The bat caught a bullet while it was being looted from the old Elvery’s Sports Shop, once on Sackville Street. The bat stopped a bullet so probably saved a child’s life. But Gibney is too good a historian, and too humane, to just leave it there. The object also makes a vital point about Dublin’s dreadful inner city poverty. Most children who looted shops in Dublin’s city centre during Easter week were from circumstances of desperate poverty and had never previously owned a toy in their lives. Some of them were shot dead for trying to acquire one. Shot dead by both sides.
That’s some gain in understanding, in just one of these 50 short, crisply written vignettes. Every short chapter has a point, and each hits home. Séan MacDiarmida’s Hurley (the stick he used to play Hurling, for our overseas readers) is employed, brilliantly, to talk about the entire IRB very clever and subtle recruitment strategy. And as for Thomas McDonagh’s play-writing, represented by an old playbill programme from the Abbey. Well. I’ll let you read what John Gibney has to say about Thomas McDonagh’s play-writing. And there are dozens more short sections to enjoy.
Go and buy and read this clever, visual, digestible, enjoyable, even inspirational book. You’ll be doing all the winning.
A History of the Rising – in 50 Objects. John Gibney. Published Mercier Press.