Did Easter 1916 have that je ne sais quoi?
HISTORY:The theory that the men of 1916 Rising were significantly influenced by French nationalism is intriguing, but there is little evidence to support it
Dublin 1916: The French Connection, By WJ McCormack, Gill & Macmillan, 248pp, €29.99
Years ago, WJ McCormack tells us, he and his editor were sitting in a Paris cafe, looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens. This had once been a haunt of JM Synge, while just down the road James Joyce “argued with all comers of all nationalities”. Contact with France changed these men, they reflected; maybe the influence extended to others too. He does not say what they were drinking, but the idea of searching for French influences on the men who declared the Irish republic in 1916 was born. The street-savvy title may very well have leaped out at them too.
The idea is indeed a novel one. The German connection with the Easter Rising is, of course, well known – almost too well, in one respect at least. The apparently ceaseless tide of investigations into the psyche of the Irish Volunteers’ chief envoy to the Second Reich, Roger Casement, may obscure the paucity of writing about the German side of the negotiation.
Still less is known about whether German political and cultural ideas influenced the thinking of the people who launched the 1916 rebellion. In part, no doubt, this is because they were not spared to write memoirs in which they could trace such influences. But, as McCormack says, Irish nationalist mythology is (like most, if not all nationalisms) innately hermetic. The separatist tradition carried into 1916 by Fenianism has usually been viewed as a purely native movement. There might even be deemed to be something un-national about finding foreign influences on it. Indeed, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, puzzled many nationalists, and annoyed quite a few, by urging them to emulate the Hungarians.
The strong impact of Friedrich List’s work on Griffith’s economic thinking is well attested, and Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of Young Italy, must have exerted at least as profound an influence on the Irish nationalists of the early 20th century. As with the 1916 leaders, Griffith’s premature death denied him the chance of writing his memoirs. But others who survived – notably Bulmer Hobson, a man whose role in the preparation of the Irish revolution was as important as any – lived to a ripe old age without acknowledging it.
Although direct evidence of influence can be hard to find, these possible connections have at least been explored by scholars. The only French connection likely to occur to most people, on the other hand, is the familiar tale of Wolfe Tone, 1798 and all that. But McCormack sets aside that “leftish” strain, stemming from the freethinking, anticlerical French republic of the 1790s and focuses instead on the right-wing, fiercely Catholic nationalism of the late 19th century. The Easter Rising, he says, “owed something to both [Georges] Sorel and [Maurice] Barrès”. This somewhat evasive formulation is typical of his method. It is in measuring that “something” that he may fail to persuade sceptical readers, sitting at home rather than conversing on a Parisian terrasse.