Discuss the historical debates that have developed in relation to ‘The 1916 Rising’ and ‘Irish Neutrality’.
Over the course of this essay we will discuss and contrast the historical debates which have developed over time, relating to both the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish Neutrality. To be able to achieve this objective, it is vital to consider the changes in the way historical scholarship has developed over time and also discuss under what circumstances these refreshed historical viewpoints are taken. As well as this, an important question one must consider in a study like this is where the author is coming from, what his or her motives might be and whether or not his or her challenge to existing accepted writings is valid. We must also consider in what context certain points of view were taken and judge these views from when they were taken. “to concentrate on relating the past to the present while neglecting the task of understanding the past in its own terms is to over-simplify and, in effect, to distort the past.” Modern Irish history offers the historian a wide range of interpretation, which obviously leads to a healthy amount of debate and argument in academic circles. These debates in turn, offer the opportunity for examination on the various, differing viewpoints which are presented. The logical way to tackle these two debates is to examine them each individually, but linking them in terms of how their historiography has grown. An additional point to make here is that often when analysing important Irish historical events, one tends to think of them in Irish terms. Yet important opinions are brought forward from overseas, in relation to Ireland and these are vital to the growth of debate. The obvious example of this relates to Irish Neutrality which will be explored in more detail later. We will first examine the debate on the Easter Rising of 1916.
The 1916 Easter Rising has long sparked plenty of debate and revision on pre-existing viewpoints on its meaning and consequences. For a long time it was an area which remained unexamined by Irish historians, on the most part because it stirred up nationalistic feeling so vehemently. “Historians see their task as being not only to study the past through its surviving evidence, to interpret it and (as best they can) to breathe new life into it; they also examine, question and modify existing interpretations. It is the latter activity which has provoked a hostile reaction in some Irish circles. Historians have been criticized for subjecting aspects of the Irish past, and the Easter Rising in particular, to the same sort of scrutiny and reassessment that foreign historians devote to their own country.” This was an event which created strong opinions, which for quite a long time were sacrosanct to nationalists. The accepted view was that the Rising was Irishman bravely taking on the evil power of the British regime and this was untouchable for a long period in this country. Louis le Roux in his biography of Pearse published in 1932 described the rebels as “heroes equally chosen for a heroic task, and equal in breath of spirit, for they were not different one from the other in greatness of soul. Nature had endowed them with the candour of heroes and the sincerity which conquers every obstacle......They personified far more than their own generation, their whole race from its dim beginnings to the furthermost mists of its future.” It was difficult for Irish historians to differ from this nationalistic viewpoint. “To anyone born and reared in Ireland since 1916, analysis of the Easter Rising and its aftermath is like dissection of the Mass by a layman. Any shift in emphasis is heretical, ant criticism near blasphemy.” Many nationalist people believed and preached that the Easter Rising was the essence of the Irish rebellious image and this was something which could not be disregarded. This meant that the Rising was not seriously written about or analysed with anything other in mind, than to eulogise the people involved.
The first real challenge to these nationalistic views appeared in the volumes of the Irish Historical Studies. This was a periodical which was founded in 1936, which played a major role in how Irish historians approached subjects. It symbolised a kind of ‘revolution’, which was happening in Irish history. While it did not broach the subject of the rising until some thirty years after its inception, it was a major turning point in how history was conveyed in this country and set in motion the atmosphere in which sensitive subjects such as the rising could be re-evaluated. “IHS may have helped foster the realisation among those capable of contemplating historical truth that the Irish political experience was decidedly more complex than the traditional one-dimensional popular version allowed.” The reason why this periodical did not broach the subject for such a long time, was that in setting the professional parameters for itself, they decided that recent events would not be tackled because they required great source material to be included in the individual studies. “The concern of the founders of IHS with adequate documentation, a pre-requisite for the establishment of satisfactory scholarly standards, involved a distaste for the study of more recent subjects on which sufficient source material was deemed not to be available.” It was vital in the turning of the tide against traditional views on Irish history and challenged long standing nationalist and unionist self images.
The article ‘Eoin MacNeill on the 1916 Rising’ appeared in IHS in 1961 and was the first to really explore the rising. It gave details of the planning process and also showed the moral complexities involved leading up to its execution. This article created greater interest in the significance of the rising and what it actually meant in a wider context. People were now starting to delve further into its meaning and it posed further questions. “was it a ‘coup d’état’ or a ‘bloody protest’? Was it a rebellion aimed at provoking or inspiring a general uprising against the British, in the fashion of nineteenth-century European risings? Or was it a deliberate bid to create martyrs in order to shock the nation out of its ‘torpor’ and into a more radical nationalist mood, the blood of the martyrs acting. As it were, as the seed of the church? And what was the Ireland that the rebels hoped to serve through risking their lives?” These questions were now firmly in the minds of historians who were hungry to delve deeper.
The next step in the historiography of the Rising arrived with its Fiftieth anniversary, which brings up an interesting phenomenon that leads itself to various events throughout Irish history. This is the link which is made in relation to how anniversaries and commemorative events have become important as a force in the creation of history and the revising of history by historians. “What is so striking about the Irish case is not simply the tendency for present conflicts to express themselves through the personalities of the past, but the way in which commemorative rituals have become historical forces in their own right.” Irish history is littered with examples of commemorations affecting the climate of the day. The 1898 centenary commemoration of the United Irish rebellion helped further establish Wolfe Tone as a symbol of resistance against British rule, and also accelerated the radicalisation of Irish nationalism at this time. This can also be linked to the Irish historians who on numerous occasions commemorate the anniversary of a seminal Irish historical event, by looking to review and question old views and re-examine the meaning of a life or event. This is apparent not only in regards the rising, but also Irish Neutrality, which will be examined in more detail later. Many contend that the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising helped spawn a new generation of republicans in Northern Ireland. “What the celebrations did was to sensitive the Irish public and allow for a greater uncritical receptivity to the message of physical force nationalism. While the reminder of events such the rising can lead to issues such as this, the aspect of this phenomenon, which needs to be examined, is the creation of greater interest in the appraisal of these events in historical circles. “The celebrations in 1966 of the fiftieth anniversary of the rising encouraged a closer examination of these and related questions- a nice example of a political event that stimulated not polemic, but a genuine interest in recovering a past that was not necessarily the past that politicians and public were commemorating.”
The 1960’s were an important time in the re-appraisal of the rising, with many books and articles written about the rising, trying to understand it in a broader scope. Books such as Desmond Williams ‘The Irish Struggle, 1916-1926’ and F.X. Martin’s ‘Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising’, viewed the rising not only from the Irish point of view, but also examining it from a British and Ulster perspective. Also aspects of the motives and hopes of the rebels are tackled in studies carried out around this time. However these works were not necessarily a full departure from the older traditional views held on the rising. An example of this can be found in the writing of M. O Dudhghaill in his book ‘Insurrection Fires at Eastertide’. “once again spend these last hours in their goodly company- as an act of reverence and remembrance of their heroic contributions to the cause of Irish Freedom!” Many Irish historians were not fully satisfied with these revisions. Conor Cruise O’ Brien noted about how 1966 “witnessed an explosion of nationalist sentiment, which produced the greatest orgy ever in the cult of the Rising.”
It is important to put this new scholarship in context of the time. Ireland under Lamass was a very different country to what it was in the aftermath of the Easter rebellion and the 1920’s. The country was becoming more prosperous and joined with that was a membership with the United Nations. People were becoming less defensive and more proud to be considered Irish. Ireland was beginning to feel like a fully fledged nation, one that was escaping from the shadow of Britain. This new since of freedom and independence meant that historian were more free themselves to delve deeper into old history, aware that more critical research was not going receive as critical an audience as it might have done a few years earlier. This also coincided with a greater amount of material being made available. British archives became available around 1967, and very importantly so did secret Dail debates.
One final important article which deserves mentioning from this time is Father Francis Shaw’s ‘The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge’. It was originally written in 1966, but was not published in IHS until 1972. This was because as Father Shaw stated himself, “It was judged, very understandably, that a critical study of this kind might be thought to be untimely and even inappropriate in what was in effect a commemorative issue.” In it Father Shaw launches an attack on Patrick Pearse, which criticised his glorification of violence and questioned his reasoning that the rebellion was the right course of action for the country. “During Easter Week 1916, Pearse spoke of the Rising as something which ‘had saved Ireland’s honour’; but to me it is in no wise obvious that Ireland’s honour had ever been compromised. Pearse was thinking of his own and the preceding generation.” This sort of criticism, whether valid or not, really showed that the traditional, untouchable reputation of the ‘heroes’ of 1916, was now open to debate.
Again it was an anniversary which threw up the next chapter in the historiography of the rising. The Seventy-Fifty anniversary sparked vigorous debate amongst academics which pertained to the so call ‘revisionist’ historical writing. Dissenting voices, most notably Brendan Bradshaw, questioned the “rights and wrongs of so-called revisionist historical writing on Irish history.” He attacked these ‘revisionist’ historians as being anti-nationalist and being unfairly critical of these events and people. Whether these claims have merit is open for debate, however it would be very probable that when historians move away from a traditionalist view on a historical event, that some might lean too much on the harsh side of criticism. It must be stated that these Irish ‘revisionists’ were far from being any different from historians throughout the world and most would contend that they were, in fact, slow to start taking this revisionist stance. “In adopting such approaches, in looking critically at the past, in stressing complexity and ambivalence, in moving the emphasis from martyrs and heroes (and villains) to moods, vested interests and consequences, Irish historians have done nothing remarkable by the standards of their profession. They have simply applied, in the Irish context, the same approaches and methods as are taken for granted by their counterparts in other countries.”
When considering the concept of Irish neutrality, one’s mind immediately goes the Second World War. However the debate on Irish neutrality begins with the questioning of when or if their actually was a history of Irish neutrality. Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith broached the subject during the Treaty negotiations, by stating that should Britain go to war, Ireland would have the option of remaining neutral. However de Valera “in his famed Document No. 2, offered a guarantee that Irish forces would join to repel any threat to British security.” In 1922, with the formation of the Irish state, the issue of neutrality was very unclear and would remain a side issue for Irish governments over the next fifteen years. De Valera, when he came into power in 1932, was more concerned with rewriting other aspects of the Treaty, rather than dealing with Articles 6 and 7. In these articles it stated that in times of war, Britain could gain control of Irish ports and other facilities. It was the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1938, which granted control of these ports back to the Irish, thus taking away the possibility of Ireland being involved in a war it wanted no part in. There are plenty of critics who claim that Ireland has in fact no real history of neutrality, and point to the fact that it was not until one year before the war broke out that Ireland could even begin to claim she was neutral. In opposition to this was the viewpoint that Ireland had a clear history of neutrality, pointing to instances such as Collins and Griffiths during the Treaty negotiations.
This leads us up to the outbreak of the Second World War, and when Britain entered the war, de Valera immediately declared Ireland neutral. This declaration “shifted Irish policy formulation from the hypothetical and speculative to the actual and concrete.” Where the debate starts to really take off, stems from the harsh criticism Ireland suffered during and immediately after the war, from British and American sources. Many dissenting voices echoed out from across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic ocean. The narrative was that Ireland was somehow missing out on a great moral fight by choosing to be neutral, or even worse there were some accusations of secret Irish allegiances to Germany. “This characterisation has its principle roots in Allied propaganda that politicised cultural stereotypes of Irish eccentricity and mischievousness. British and American newspaper readers were frequently regaled with fabricated tales of German sailors toasting the downfall of John Bull in Kerry pubs, and U-boats commanders collecting cabbages from friendly locals in remote fishing villages and being refuelled in Irish ports.” As well as the Allies claiming shameful behaviour on Ireland during the war years, historians were lining up to ‘put the boot in’. F.S.L. Lyons used the metaphor of Plato’s cave to describe Ireland during the war years. “It was as if an entire people had been condemned to live in Plato’s cave, backs to the fire of life.....When after six years they emerged, dazzled, from the cave into the light of day, it was to a new and vastly different world.”
There was little to be said during the war due to censorship, however these claims have been thoroughly rejected and proven to be false in the aftermath of the war. R.M. Smyllie wrote an article in American journal ‘Foreign Affairs’, which totally refuted American notions that Ireland was absolutely neutral or indeed helping the Germans in any way. He made a strong case which showed Ireland favouring the Allies during the war with either the 150,000-180,000 Irishman who joined to fight with the British or the 170,000 workers who went to Britain to help with the war effort. He also showed the Irish people were firmly on the side of the Allies.“Government and people alike realized from the start that the country's fate was linked up inextricably with that of Great Britain, and the number of Irishmen who would have acclaimed a German victory could have been counted on the fingers of a hand.” A final interesting point which is raised in this article was the idea that Ireland was of more use to the Allies as a technically neutral nation, than if it had been directly involved. “For if Eire had been in the war, the Germans almost certainly would have tried to invade the island; indeed, in 1940 and there abouts there was little to prevent them. If they had succeeded, not only would Britain have had an enemy on her western flank, but the Americans never would have been able to send their vast forces to Europe.”
The real historiography on Irish neutrality began in the 1970’s. The task of writing fully on Irish neutrality was only made possible by the newly released British, American and European archives. Much like, in 1967, when the British and Dail archives were made accessible to historians re-assessing the Easter Rising, the release of these archives opened up a vast new scope of research. These archives allowed for fully formed and deeper accounts of Irish neutrality during the war, with ‘Ireland in the War Years’, by Joseph Carroll, being the first full account of the whole period. Work such as Ronan Fanning’s ‘Irish Neutrality’ makes full use of these released documents, noting that the US should not have been so vocal in her criticisms of Ireland. “the OSS, the American intelligence service which predated the CIA, noted that their chief agent in Ireland had established ‘official liaison’ with the Irish government and that ‘his liaison with the Irish secret police and foreign services produced substantial results in intelligence; they were also satisfied that they had enjoyed what they called the Irish government’s ‘clear co-operation’.”
As mentioned earlier, anniversaries play an important part in the questioning of historical issue. This was the case in 1994, when ‘The Irish Times’ posed the question to its readership, on whether Ireland was justified in staying neutral during the war. “nine respondents, including several prominent historians.....said it was either right, necessary or unavoidable in the circumstances of the time.”
Ireland is a nation where sometimes political and cultural circumstance, offers steep hurls for historians to overcome, in achieving a deep and meaningful understanding of our history. These various obstacles can be found both in an unreceptive audience, or sometimes they are found within the historians psyche. This is evident when considering the long paths to reach a level of balance on numerous Irish historical events. In particular the Easter Rising was a very divisive subject to write objectively about. A point of view could be taken which contends that earlier writers on the rising were too busy writing nationalistic propaganda to consider a more balanced, wider objective view. This of course is an easy conclusion to arrive at in the year 2013, when so much has changed in the country. However it is vital in a study of historiography to consider the context in which some history is written. It is also important to note that the journey with which our study of our own history has gone through, is in some ways as rich a part of our history as the subjects themselves. How we wrote our history for many years could be linked to actual Irish history, in the since that it was not truly free and could not be fully explored or expressed. Like the nation itself it took a ‘revolution’ of sorts to be able break from the dark past and begin to explore its newfound freedom. The rewriting of history will continue to grow, simply because as time goes by and society changes, different questions will be asked. Ireland has changed to allow new questions to be asked, and will continue to change and ask new questions in the future.
Bew, Paul, The Easter Rising-Lost Leaders and Lost Opportunities, The Irish Review, No. 11 (Winter 1991-1992), pp. 9-13.
Bew, Paul, Moderate Nationalism and the Irish Revolution, 1916-1923, The Historical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Sept., 1999), pp. 729-749.
Boyce, George & O’ Day, Alan, The Making of Modern Irish History, London; New York: Routledge, 1996.
Brady, Ciaran, Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994.
Coogan, Tim Pat, Ireland Since the Rising, Westport, Conn. Greenwood, 1966.
Doherty, Gabriel & Keogh, Dermot, 1916: The Long Revolution, Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2007.
Ellis, Steven G., “Historiographical Debate: Representations of the Past in Ireland: Whose Past and Whose Present”, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 27, No. 108, (Nov., 1991), pp. 289-308.
Fanning, Ronan, ‘Irish Neutrality: An Historical Review’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3, (1982), pp. 27-38.
Foster, Robert Fitzroy, Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London: Allen Lane, 1988.
Girvin, Brian & Geoffrey, Roberts, Ireland and the Second World War: Politics, Society and Remembrance, Dublin; Portland; or Four Courts Press, 2000.
Hachey, Thomas E., The Rhetoric and Reality of Irish Neutrality, New Hibernia Review, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer 2002), pp.26-43.
Keogh, Dermot, Twentieth Century Ireland: Revolution and State Building, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
Le Roux, Louis N., Patrick H. Pearse, Dublin, Talbot, 1932.
Lee, Joseph, Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Martin, F. X., Eoin Macneill on the 1916 Rising, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 12, No. 47 (Mar., 1961), pp. 226-271.
McBride, Ian, History and Memory in Modern Ireland, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Ni Dhonnchadha, Mairin & Dorgan, Theo, Revising the Rising, Derry: Field Day, 1991.
O’ Brien, Conor Cruise, The Embers of Easter, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Autumn 1966), pp. 621-637.
O’ Drisceoil, Donal, Neither Friend nor Foe? Irish Neutrality in the Second World War, Contemporary European History, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2006, pp. 245-253.
O’ Dubhghaill, M., Insurrection Fires at Easterside: A Golden Jubilee Anthology of the Easter Rising, Cork, Mercier, 1966.
Ryan, Desmond, The Rising: The Complete Story of Easter Week, Dublin: Golden Eagle, 1966.
Shaw, Francis, The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 61, No. 242 (Summer, 1972), pp. 113-153.
Smyllie, R.M., ‘Unneutral Neutral Ireland’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jan., 1946), pp. 317-326.
Townshend, Charles, “The Worst Event in Twentieth-Century Irish History? 1916 in Perspective”, The Ireland Institute, April 22, 2006, Web, January 12, 2013.
Article name: Discuss the historical debates that have developed in relation to ‘The 1916 Rising’ and ‘Irish Neutrality’. essay, research paper, dissertation