Easter 1916 the Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend. Published in 2015 by Penguin
I’m going to start this review with a warning: Charles Townshend is one of my favorite historians. I have read few historians who can take complicated messes and break them down into short, easy to understand chapters within a chapter, while also providing keen analysis and insight in a mostly unbiased way. Additionally, his book, the Rising, may or may not have saved my ass when writing my graduate paper.
Easter 1916 is just another example of Townshend taking what can often come across as a muddled mess and breaking it into easy, analytic bits. Townshend works off the assumption that almost anyone who picks this book up is familiar with the Rising and the key players and that can make it hard for someone who is new to this period of Irish history. He throws names like MacNeill and Hobson fast and furiously and it can be disconcerting for someone who has never heard of Pearse before, let alone Hobson. He provides quick biographical introductions when he introduces a new person, but again, the information is minimum, and a knowledgeable reader can fill in the gaps whereas a new reader may be left desiring a fuller picture.
Part of this, I believe, comes from Townshend’s keen attempt to provide the facts only. The issue anyone runs into when writing about the Rising is that for so long it was more mythos then history and providing details on men like Pearse, Connelly, and Clarke can solidify myths as much as it can separate fact from fiction. Townshend is aware of this and wakes the tight rope between offering a factual, analytical narrative, clarifying moments that have been enshrined in legend, and avoid being bogged down into the long historical arguments that have occurred about the Rising. His tone is very fair and analytical. He sacrifices the stuff of legend (Pearse’s reading of the declaration, The Plunkett Wedding mere hours before Plunkett’s execution, and Skeehy-Skeffington’s execution) for a detached narrative. This is definitely preferable from a historian’s perspective, but it can prove disappointing for people who are familiar with the story and were expecting the familiar narrative beats.
The best part of this book is the historical context Townshend provides. He starts the book in the early 1900s, taking time to explain the failure of Home Rule and the impact WWI had on Ireland and on the thinking of the Rising’s leaders. While Pearse’s sacrificial mindset is well known, Townshend’s contextual narrative turns Pearse from having a suicidal complex to a sensitive man who was partially pressured by the times and the sacrifices that were being made on the front. The maps provided help the reader quickly see how abysmal the planning was, but also impresses that reader that the Rising survived for longer than a few hours.
Townshend’s greatest contribution to the discussion about the Rising is highlighting the British’s utter mishandling of Ireland pre-1916 and of the affair itself. Many histories I have read focus on the Irish thinking and actions, but Townshend’s account is the first book that gave me a clear view of British policy and thinking. I am afraid that General Maxwell has been preserved as a disconnected boor and Townshend does a lot of work to provide a method because his actions and redeems his character somewhat. Townshend also offers a wonderful analysis on why the Rising was more successful after its failure then during the rising itself. It is a cruel conclusion, but it seems that the Rising’s ineptitude and the ineptitude of the British government find a solution to the Irish problem was the reason it was so successful (which can be a dangerous lesson for future revolutionaries)
Townshend’s second contribution is to provide a whole chapter dedicated to the actions of the rebels outside of Dublin. The units outside of Dublin are often ignored by historians because MacNeil’s counter-order neutralized and confused a lot of forces, however Townshend provides a stirring account of Mulcahy’s and Ashe’s actions during the Battle of Ashbourne. This battle is the only time during the rising that the guerrilla fighting preached by MacNeil and Hobson was used and it was a precursor to the tactics the IRA would use during the Anglo-Irish War. It is also tempting to think that DeValera’s distaste for guerrilla warfare sprang out of his own experience from Easter Rising (where his stand made him a hero) and Mulcahy’s and Collin’s faith in guerrilla warfare sprang from their own experiences (Collins was disgusted with the waste of Easter Rising and Mulcahy led one of the only units to defeat the British forces in combat).
This is a fair and balanced analysis of Easter Rising, providing a much-needed context as to British thinking before, during, and after the Rising while providing a needed spotlight on the units outside of Dublin. The best chapters are about the Rising itself and British and Irish reaction and responses to the Rising.
Townshend assumes that the reader is already familiar with the Rising and its leaders and this can make it a hard book for a novice.