Former UCC professor: 1916 could of been much more

Our efforts to understand the 1916 Rising and its leaders should focus on their expectations of what would happen and not just what transpired, according to one of the country’s leading historians.

By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner

Joe Lee, Glucksman chair of Irish History at New York University, said we need to look closely at what was happening on the ground in April 1916 “as distinct from the way things are romanticised retrospectively”. At University College Cork, where he was a professor from 1974 to 2002, he said we must try to reconstruct the leaders’ thinking before they knew what was going to happen.

“That is, to me, one of the big question marks over how historians approach what actually happened, knowing only what the signatories [to the Proclamation of Independence] and others knew at the time they were making decisions,” Prof Lee said in the UCC history school’s Diarmuid Whelan Memorial Lecture.

He said most of what has been said in the public space has reflected on the consequences of what would have happened if certain things had not happened.

“Going on the basis of what was actually said and what actually happened, they ‘know’ exactly what would have happened if what hadn’t happened happened”, he said, to laughter from a public audience of over 200.   “The things that didn’t happen [but] that were meant to happen are things that historians tend to overlook,” he said.

Prof Lee said a little-discussed explanation of how Pádraig Pearse was nominated as president of the Republic and commander-in-chief rather than the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) veteran Tom Clarke — may be in the fact that the Rising did not begin until Easter Monday.

“I’m trying to position myself in that room in Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday 1916, where news [arrives] of the sinking of the Aud and loss of the expected guns, where there’s not now going to be a Rising as planned,” he said.   “The Easter Sunday rising was intended to be on a much more ambitious scale… The Easter Monday Rising is not Easter Sunday postponed by one day. It’s simply a different rising,” he continued.

The countermanding order of Irish Volunteers chief Eoin MacNeill, who learned very late of the IRB-planned rebellion, had reached most parts of the country on Easter Sunday morning. The German-supplied guns aboard the Aud — detained by the British navy off the Kerry coast on Good Friday and sunk by its captain entering Cork harbour — were to have supplied Irish Volunteers from the Cork-Kerry border up to Athlone in order to slow the reinforcement of British troops in Dublin.   

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Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív launches the party’s programme of events to mark the centenary of the Rising. Picture: Conor McCabe

Had the planned rising worked out, Prof Lee said, the leaders would have been working on the assumption of being able to last a lot longer than the six days the rising continued in the capital.

“They’d have been able to see themselves lasting long enough to get messages out to the country and the wider world. And that’s when they’d need an outstanding communicator, and their outstanding communicator is Pearse.”

This, he believes, was a reason Clarke brought Pearse into the IRB and allowed him take such a strong planning role despite the likely distrust of others, who would have seen Pearse as little more than a literary man who had made some fiery speeches but was too prone to compromise. Prof Lee suggested Pearse’s decision to surrender, rather than Tom Clarke’s preference to fight on, was based on a calculation that the Rising had been a public-relations exercise from the beginning and on how to optimise the impact; but also that he might have saved the life of his brother Willie and others.

“If they had fought on, pretty certainly the big majority would have been killed… that could have meant that the GPO garrison as a whole would have been wiped out, including Michael Collins. It could have meant that [Eamon] de Valera would have been killed in action,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s a lot of myths which seem to be attaching to what happened in a very short period that the historiography has not yet tried to address.”

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