Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO

Liam Kennedy is impressed by a work that looks at the myth as much as the reality of this defining event in Irish nationalism

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Reviewed by: Liam Kennedy
Author: Clair Wills
Publisher: Profile Books
Price (RRP): £15.99

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The Easter Rising of 1916 is the defining event of modern Irish nationalism. It laid the foundations for an independent Irish state. Indirectly it fed into communal conflict in the North of Ireland, not only in the 1920s but in the 1970s as well. At a cultural level, it consolidated a Catholic nationalist ethos that permeated Irish society at all levels for a half century or more after the short-lived insurrection.

Its mythic power derives not from its scale – in military terms it was little more than a detail in the vast carnage of the First World War – but from a Semtex-like blend of blood sacrifice, romantic nationalism and Catholic imagery. The principal site of the rising was the General Post Office. On Easter Monday several hundred volunteer soldiers crowded into this massive civic building in the centre of the capital, proclaimed an Irish Republic (much to the bewilderment of passers-by), and held out for six days against the might of the British state.

Clair Wills takes us inside the building during that momentous week. One can almost feel the hunger of the rebels marooned on the great roof or the acrid smell of burning beams and plasterwork. Shells crash into the great edifice; men scurry to escape the fires devouring the building; exhausted, the insurgents surrender, because they have no other options and possibly also to avoid further civilian casualties. Several hundred innocents are already dead or dying but these are soon forgotten as the national consciousness focuses on the ‘martyrdom’ of the 15 executed leaders of the rebellion.

Much of Dublin 1916 is devoted to the iconic significance of the Easter Rising for the succeeding generations. In the end it seems the burning GPO fires off more rounds of text than bullets. The politics of commemoration, re-enactment and remembrance just go on rolling. Clair Wills guides us expertly from one commemorative stepping stone to another, charting the shifting meanings of the rising and the GPO in response to the exigencies of the present.

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The 20th anniversary of the rising saw a reorientation of emphasis away from sacrifice towards the sovereignty of the nation. By the 1960s the rising
had also taken on an economic dimension – the need to “consolidate the economic foundations which support our political institutions”. In the 1970s, as the Northern ‘Troubles’ cast a long shadow over the whole island, the Easter commemoration at the GPO was discontinued, only to be reinstated in the wake of the Peace Process. The subtext of this fine study might be: history is much too important to be left to the historians.