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.

His argument does not rest on what those of an empirical disposition would recognise as evidence. McCormack has not, say, found new source material showing the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s military committee discussing Sorel’s idea of the myth of the general strike. His puckish, challengingly allusive writing (calling for readers with a daunting frame of literary reference) works on a different level. “One has to accept,” he writes, “that a degree of unconscious absorption of contemporary political thought” affected even “the highly tradition-conscious IRB”. Quite so, but unconscious processes pose a problem for analysis. They can be intuited but not demonstrated. Here we are shown not direct influences as much as echoes, assonances or affinities. Thus, for instance, he points out that the ruralism of Barrès resembles the antimodernism of the Gaelic revival. Affinities are never less than interesting, and sometimes significant, but they are not, as McCormack suggests, merely a “dilution” of influence. They are quite different.

An example is his hint of a connection between Peadar Kearney and Paul Déroulède. The former, of course, wrote the words of A Soldier’s Song, while the latter wrote Chants du Soldat some 40 years earlier. McCormack tells us confidently that Kearney “found models” for his verse in Déroulède, but though he provides a footnote for this, it is merely a biographical note on Déroulède. Indeed, characteristically, he tells us quite a lot about Déroulède and virtually nothing about Kearney.Kearney actually left a memoir, though McCormack does not mention it.

Scintillating essays

So we have some suggestive facts. Pearse studied French at the Royal University; Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh published several essays on French culture in their Irish Review. In 1911, Plunkett “began to read” Henri Bergson’s Time and Will; we don’t know if he finished it. Plunkett, in fact, went to Paris – on his way to Algiers – and walked down the Boulevard St Michel to the Luxembourg. (Given his fondness for coincidences, it comes as something of a surprise that McCormack does not mention this.) But on the other hand, James Connolly made no reference in the Review to Sorel, to France or, more surprisingly, to syndicalism.

If there was, as McCormack suggests, “an affinity, to say the least”, between the “underlying beliefs” of Pearse and Plunkett and those of the French Catholic poets Francis Jammes and Charles Péguy, this falls well short of an influence that would be politically significant. And if, as he argues, Pearse’s rhetoric of blood sacrifice “is far closer in every respect” to Barrès, Péguy and Sorel than it is to Tone, Davis or Mitchel, does that really help our understanding of 1916? Aside from Pearse himself, not many rebels went out with the deliberate intention of getting killed. Connolly accepted that it was, in the circumstances, practically inevitable, but his last-minute conversion to the doctrine of “redemption” through blood still seems aberrant. And in view of McCormack’s insistence that Pearse and the other “minor poets” were merely following the path determined by the “IRB hard-men”, the real movers of 1916, it is disappointing that he does not attempt to evaluate the French influences on Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott. They remain in the background (“not intellectuals,” he notes); Casement makes more appearances here than either.

McCormack’s opening analysis of the 1916 Proclamation and his account of the sanctification of the rebel leaders by the Catholic Bulletin are scintillating essays, even if their French connections are loose. He accepts that the 1916 Proclamation “serenely ignored” many of the issues raised in the pages of the Irish Review. After that, France fades out of view, and the last half of his book turns to Germany (more than half, perhaps, since even his discussion of the Irish Review contains a whole page on “one detail from Parsifal”); not German influences on 1916 but German reactions to it.

“The inclusion of German right-radical thought may seem odd,” he notes, and it does. Carl Schmitt was one of the century’s most influential jurists, but his only reference to Ireland was of limited accuracy. It is a wonder, McCormack suggests, that Schmitt did not find a greater take-up in Ireland; at the same time he points out that Irish conditions did not call for a development of radical-right ideas along the lines of Schmitt’s.

Even McCormack seems to strain a little in arguing that Schmitt’s theory of the exception is “not wholly unconnected” with claims made in the 1916 Proclamation. Schmitt had a relationship with an Irish-Australian woman that resulted in his excommunication. This, a personal story like so many that McCormack presents, perhaps forms the real connection, and is the most convincing reason to follow him on his idiosyncratic path.