Revolutionary road: the 1916 leaders

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

BIOGRAPHY:Michael Mallin By Brian Hughes The O’Brien Press, 256pp €11.99. Joseph Plunkett By Honor Ó Brolcháin The O’Brien Press, 431pp €11.99. James Connolly By Lorcan Collins The O’Brien Press, 352pp €11.99.

‘BEFORE / THE SIXTEEN men were shot,” WB Yeats reflected, “we but talked at large.” The dead men laid a kind of veto on political discussion and negotiation: who now, Yeats asked, could “talk of give and take, what should be and what not?” A hundred years later, as the centenary of the Easter Rising approaches, the decisive political impact of the executions – outweighing that of the Rising itself – seems beyond debate. The idea of producing a series of biographies of all “sixteen dead men” is an appealing one, not least because they have been very unevenly treated by biographers and historians over the years. Yeats himself named only two in his eponymous poem (Pearse and MacDonagh, whom he paired with “Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone”). Even his more deliberate catalogue in Easter 1916 only ran to four (adding Connolly and MacBride). History has tended to confirm his selection, giving huge attention to Pearse and Connolly – and, of course, Casement, whom Yeats omitted – but much less to Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanrahan or Pearse’s brother Willie. This new series should at the very least enable us to decide whether the imbalance deserves to be rectified.

The first three books to be published span the range of subsequent attention. Connolly has remained a big figure, the subject of several biographies, as well as featuring in the long-running debate among political theorists, activists and commentators about the relationship between international socialism and nationalism. Some of the biographies, such as those by Desmond Greaves and Austin Morgan, have been political studies with a close focus on Connolly’s ideas, which are still significant. In the middle, Joseph Plunkett has received some serious attention, though more as a player in the Irish literary scene than as a political figure. At the other end, Michael Mallin has remained as obscure as he was in 1916.

Brian Hughes labours valiantly to recover him but often gives the impression of making bricks without straw. Mallin’s literary remains are no more than might be expected of the average soldier – he served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the North-West Frontier – and silk-worker. (Hughes, somewhat unkindly, insists on putting sic after all Mallin’s literary errors, which were quite normal for his time and place.) Connolly made Mallin chief of staff of the Irish Citizen Army to improve its discipline, and he was perhaps the inevitable choice to command the ICA garrison at St Stephen’s Green in Easter Week. But his reasons for entrenching his force rather than occupying buildings remain unclear. If, as one witness (not quoted here) said, Mallin disobeyed a direct order from Connolly to abandon the trenches, declaring “it’s my life’s ambition to defend the Green”, this only deepens the mystery.

Hughes is a trained historian: he cites his sources and includes a chapter sensibly weighing up the criticisms of Mallin’s conduct during the Rising. Plunkett’s biographer is the granddaughter of Plunkett’s sister Geraldine. No searching reappraisal is to be expected here, and her use of evidence is less systematic. She has a lot more material to play with – her book is almost twice as long as his – but presents it idiosyncratically. While she devotes several pages to listing the contents of the Irish Review, which Plunkett edited, she barely mentions the Ireland Report, the military plan he and Casement presented to the Germans. Her chapter on his trip to Germany in 1915 consists only of his own diary. Quite a lot gets lost along the way as a result, notably Plunkett’s sudden emergence as a top IRB man. For his military thinking she relies on her grandmother’s excellent memoir, All in the Blood (right down to her misspelling of Sidney Street, the anarchist siege that supposedly gave Plunkett some ideas about urban fighting).

Honor Ó Brolcháin’s filial piety may be understandable, but Lorcan Collins seems to have no such reason for treating Connolly uncritically. Of course, given the seriousness of the previous work on him, Connolly is a daunting subject to take on. Collins’s approach is simply to set aside the difficult questions. The weightiest of them, that of reconciling Connolly’s socialism with nationalism, is dismissed as an issue raised only by Seán O’Casey, with suspect motives. Connolly’s feminism is another vexed question that is left alone. Collins does not conceal Lillie Connolly’s distress at being moved around in pursuit of her husband’s revolutionary career but accepts Connolly’s view that the woman’s role was to follow obediently. Women labour activists such as Helena Molony are mere ciphers in this story. Surprisingly, where Easter week dominates Hughes’s book, it is quite cursorily treated here, and despite Connolly’s central role there is no attempt to assess his direction of the fighting.

Varied as these three mens’ lives were, they shared the same final experience: trial by British field general court martial. (As did all the 16 except Casement, who was of course not shot in Dublin but hanged in London.) There were significant differences in their conduct. None refused to acknowledge the court’s authority – this issue does not seem to have been considered by the rebellion’s planners.

Connolly cross-examined witnesses to refute the charge that he had mistreated prisoners, but he issued a declaration that the Rising proved that British rule in Ireland was “for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress”.

Plunkett, maybe reasoning that a closed tribunal was no place for ringing statements, elected rather oddly to dispute a police witness’s statement that the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic were members of the Irish Volunteers.

But Mallin, more anxious than Connolly about leaving his wife and children destitute – “my heart strings are torne to pieces when I think of you and them” – tried to get off. He gave a false account of his actions in a deliberate attempt to mislead the court, going as far as to testify that he was obeying Markievicz’s orders rather than the other way round.

Brian Hughes confronts this human frailty head-on. Dare we hope that later books in this series will be equally honest?


Charles Townshend is emeritus professor of international history at Keele University, in England. He has written Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, published by Penguin, and When God Made Hell: The British invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq 1914-1921, published by Faber