• Kathryn Cammell

‘Militarily and Diplomatically a Total Failure’: The 1916 Easter Rising in Irish History

The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland was, in the words of Owen Dudley Edwards and Fergus Pyle, ‘militarily and diplomatically a total failure’ [1]. After less than one week of armed conflict, the nationalist rebels had surrendered unconditionally to the British forces, and the uprising was repressed through the execution of its major leaders. Despite the failure of the uprising to fulfil its revolutionary ideals, the Easter Rising has occupied a central place within histories of modern Ireland and is a fundamental part of the Irish nationalist canon. Approaches to writing the history of the Rising have changed over time according to evolving political contexts, periodic political violence and new historiographical methodologies.

One of the first major works produced on the Easter Rising was Patrick H. Pearse, a biography of Patrick Pearse’s life authored by the Breton nationalist Louis N. Le Roux in 1932. Le Roux’s biographical approach to studying the Rising led him to celebrate the leaders of the insurrection as ‘heroes’ and martyrs for the cause of Irish nationalism [2]. In particular, Le Roux proclaimed his respect for Pearse, whom he described as a ‘virtuous man’ who ‘possessed all the qualities which go to the making of a saint’ [3]. Le Roux’s saintly depiction of Pearse had the effect of deferring any attempts to revaluate Pearse until the 1970s [4]. Furthermore, by defining the success of the Rising in terms of its impact on the popularity of Irish nationalism, Le Roux was able to celebrate the Rising as a revolutionary moment despite its military failures.

According to Ruth Taillon, much of the historical analysis of the Rising has consisted of a ‘sterile debate’ between those like Le Roux who have raised the leaders of the Rising to a heroic status, and the “revisionists” who have utilised historical discourse as an opportunity to challenge republicanism in present day Ireland [5]. The historical revisionist movement in Ireland was introduced by a generation of students mainly trained in British universities. Revisionists emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and tried to produce ‘value-free’ histories of the past. In particular, these revisionist historians exercised ‘ultra-scepticism, even cynicism’ of the nationalist tradition and the ‘official history’ of the Irish national state in which the Rising was seen as the culmination of the Irish nationalist endeavour [6]. The relatively relaxed political circumstances of the 1960s in Ireland allowed revisionist historians to produce more detached and critical histories of the Rising, such as F.X Martin’s publication of Eoin MacNeill’s memoranda that MacNeill wrote in 1916 and 1917.

F.X. Martin’s article was the first attempt by a historian to examine the background, events and consequences of the Rising with rigour [7]. The publication was significant because it raised important questions about the morality and legitimacy of the Rising. For instance, in a memorandum from February 1916, MacNeill considered the possibility of ‘a reasonably calculated or estimated prospect of success, in the military sense’, arguing that ‘without that prospect, military action…would in the first place be morally wrong – and that consideration to my mind is final and decisive’ [8]. Martin’s article represented the first time that these kinds of questions were brought to the forefront of histories of the Rising. Consequently, both historians and the general public began to develop a greater understanding of the multifaceted nature of the Rising and the issues that it raised, particularly regarding the wider context of World War I and Ireland’s role in it.

The nature of Irish historiography soon changed with the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland emerged as a distinct political entity from the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and emphasised its continued association with the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the Irish Free State asserted its commitment to enhancing its control over its affairs and further distanced itself from the United Kingdom. The establishment of the Irish Free State had the effect of stalling any re-evaluations of the Rising for many years [9]. The Troubles in Northern Ireland began in the late 1960s and persisted until 1998, and this conflict rendered the challenge of re-examining the Easter Rising more difficult and controversial. Historians have been aware of the potential ramifications of their work on the continuing violent conflict and communal division [10]. The context of emerging political violence in Ireland in the late 1960s helps to explain why revisionist histories of the Rising of the type produced by F.X. Martin peaked in the jubilee commemorations of the Rising in 1966.

In 2003, new primary source information that had been restricted became available for historians to research. These primary sources came from the Bureau of Military History in Ireland that was established in 1947, and for a decade conducted interviews with surviving participants of the Irish Revolution [11]. In his book The Rising: Ireland – Easter 1916, Fearghal McGarry extensively utilised the witness statements generated by the Bureau of Military History. McGarry applied cultural history methodologies by bringing in accounts ‘from within and below, describing the events of this period from the perspective of those who lived through it, particularly the men and women from ordinary backgrounds who have remained unknown figures’ [12]. In particular, McGarry studied the events of the Rising from the perspective of the contemporary participants, including rebels and observers. By drawing upon the accounts made available from the Bureau of Military History, McGarry personalised the Rising and brought in a new understanding of the experiences of ordinary men and women involved in the insurgency. The effect of this was to shift attention away from the military aspects of the history and the ‘high politics’ that have previously dominated histories of the Rising, and instead focus on the volunteers and civilians who have been traditionally neglected in these histories.

In Taillon’s book When History Was Made: The Women of 1916, Taillon aimed to fill a gap that she identified in the Irish and feminist historiography by detailing the involvement of women in the Rising. Taillon extensively quoted primary sources to allow the women who were involved to ‘interpret these experiences through their own words’, and in so doing, produce a more complete and detailed narrative of the Rising [13]. Moreover, at the beginning of the book, Taillon included a full list of names of the known women who were involved in the Rising. The list of names reflects Taillon’s strong effort to bring these marginalised women back into the historical narrative, and ensure that their names and voices were recognised.

Over the twentieth century, the historiography of the Rising has moved from a biography-focused approach that revolves around the heroism of the rebel leaders, to a more balanced but politically-focused narrative that still focused on the insurgency leaders. The emergence of cultural history methodologies in the late twentieth century changed the way that historians thought about and approached the Rising in their histories. A more bottom-up approach started to be adopted, and historians such as McGarry and Taillon began to work more with primary source material produced by ordinary people. This history-from-below approach introduced a new layer of nuance into the histories of the Rising, as the experiences of ordinary men and women were brought into the narrative. Using cultural history methodologies, historians have created a broader, more detailed picture of what occurred and how it impacted people in Dublin both at the time and afterwards.


Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Owen Dudley Edwards & Fergus Pyle, eds., 1916: The Easter Rising, London, 1968, p.11.

[2] Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, London, 2005, p.346.

[3] Louis N. Le Roux, translated by Desmond Ryan, Patrick H. Pearse, Dublin, 1932, p.x.

[4] Townshend, p.346.

[5] Ruth Taillon, When History Was Made: The Women of 1916, Belfast, 1996, pp.xiii-xiv.

[6] D. George Boyce & Alan O’Day, eds., The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, Florence, 1996, p.6; M.A.G Ó Tuathaigh, ‘Irish Historical “Revisionism”: State of the Art or Ideological Project?’, in Ciaran Brady, ed., Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, 1938-1994, Dublin, 1994, p.310.

[7] Michael Laffan, ‘Easter Week and the Historians’, in Mary E. Daly & Margaret O’Callaghan, eds., 1916 in 1966: Commemorating the Easter Rising, Dublin, 2014, p.344.

[8] F.X. Martin & Eoin MacNeill, ‘Eoin MacNeill on the 1916 Rising’, Irish Historical Studies, 12, 47, 1961, p.234.

[9] Townshend, p.347.

[10] Ó Tuathaigh, p.306.

[11] Laffan, p.328.

[12] Fearghal McGarry, The Rising: Ireland – Easter 1916, New York, 2010, p.4.

[13] Taillon, p.xvi.

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