Easter Rising books reviewed: the rebels who launched 1,000 volumes
There are dozens of new Rising titles, but quantity has meant no diminution in quality
No event in Irish history has generated more books than the Easter Rising. The National Library of Ireland lists 974 on the subject. By the time the Rising centenary is over that figure will surely have surpassed 1,000.
The centenary has seen a large number of new titles on the market. There is clearly a taste for such books. The top-selling nonfiction title in Ireland last year was the broadcaster Joe Duffy’s Children of the Rising, which sold more than 25,000 copies.
Quantity has meant no diminution in quality. What has distinguished most new books about the Easter Rising has been the high standard of both writing and production, although few contain truly original material.
A good primer is the historian Turtle Bunbury’s Easter Dawn (Mercier Press, €26.99). Bunbury’s book consists of a series of pithy chapters detailing the lives of the rebellion’s leaders, the fighting and the aftermath. It is also lavishly illustrated.
Courage Boys, We Are Winning (Andalus Press, €24.95) is one of a number of illustrated histories of the Rising. Written by Michael Barry, it contains a helpful timetable and a thorough foreword. This beautifully illustrated book shows battlefield sites then and now, and also comes with useful maps. It would be an ideal companion for a walking tour of Easter Rising Dublin.
The Easter Rebellion 1916: A New Illustrated History (Collins Press, €19.99) is by Dr Conor McNamara, the 1916 scholar in residence at the National University of Ireland, Galway. It is not only replete with wonderful illustrations but is a meaty read. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the book is the space devoted to photographs of the shocking destruction of Dublin after the Rising.
A lot is known about the leaders of the Rising, but what of their descendants? To Speak of Easter Week: Family Memories of the Irish Revolution, by Dr Hélène O’Keeffe (Mercier Press €22.50), is based on a collection of oral history recordings by her father, Maurice O’Keeffe, the man behind the Irish Life and Lore project. It features 25 interviews with the descendants of those who fought during Easter week, one of the most revealing of which is with Fr Joseph Mallin, the only surviving child of an executed leader of the 1916 Rising.
Mallin takes an unsentimental approach to the execution of his father, Comdt Michael Mallin, remembering how his mother struggled to raise five children afterwards. She had not expected her husband to be executed. “We learned to live poorly with not much, but it was hard on her, I know,” says her son.
When the Clock Struck in 1916: Close-Quarter Combat in the Easter Rising (Collins Press €14.39), by Derek Molyneux and Darren Kelly, is a superb account of the fighting that went on in Easter week.
Based on first-hand accounts, mostly from the Bureau of Military History, it reads like a gripping novel and is one of the standout recent books on the Rising.
A chapter is devoted to each of the battles in the conflict. The authors’ ambitions are to “place the reader in the midst of the cauldron that was central Dublin during Easter week 1916” and to “do justice to the memories of those who found themselves there, whether by choice or otherwise”.
Grandpa the Sniper: the Remarkable Story of a 1916 Volunteer (The Liffey Press €17.95) is a personal account of Volunteer Frank Shouldice by his grandson and namesake. Like so many others involved in the events of the time, the older Shouldice never spoke about the Rising, so his grandson has reconstructed his experiences from personal letters, diaries and police files.
Author and historian Neil Richardson has specialised in writing about Irishmen in the British army. According to their Lights: Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916 (Collins Press €15.99) can be seen as a follow-up to his earlier book, A Coward If I Return, about Irishmen in the British army during the first World War.
Richardson’s book reminds us sharply that more than a third (41 out of 117) of the British military deaths during the Rising were Irishmen fighting in British uniforms and that the leaders of the Rising had strong links to the British army. James Connolly served in it, Thomas Clarke’s father had fought in the Crimean War, Thomas MacDonagh had been in the officers’ training corps at Stonyhurst College, and Éamonn Ceannt had a brother in the British army who died fighting on the Western Front.
Richardson also tells the story of the Neilan brothers, Gerald and Arthur, from Co Roscommon, who fought on different sides during the Rising. Lieut Gerald Neilan became the first British army fatality of the conflict when he was shot on Usher’s Quay. His brother Arthur served in the first battalion of the Irish Volunteers in the Four Courts.
How many rebels were in the GPO in 1916? According to the Military Pensions Archive, the answer to that hoary old question is 508, but author Jimmy Wren, whose own father was in the GPO during Easter week, reckons a better estimate is 578, and now he has written biographies of all of them.
The GPO Garrison, Easter Week 1916: A Biographical Dictionary (Geography Publications, €29.95) chronicles the lives of all those involved, what organisations they were in before the Rising and what their lives were like afterwards. It is a labour of love which has taken him 30 years to complete.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. His book, Wherever the Firing Line Extends: An Irish Journey Along the Western Front, will be published in April