'Scotland and the Easter Rising, Fresh Perspectives on 1916', edited by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley (Luath Press)
This is a ragbag of a book made up of fiction, poetry, memoir, and broadly historical essays. In their introduction, 'Remembering the Rising’, the editors suggest that the story of the Easter Rising 'is still being told, and in these pages the reader will find much to ponder, much to discuss, and much to disagree with'. This is certainly true. But just exactly what it is that we are invited to ponder, discuss and disagree with is much more difficult to define.
The book’s title suggests that its focus is on the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. But this turns out to be hardly the case. Instead the book is made up of 26 contributions, most of them quite short, in which a range of authors including such familiar names as Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Billy Kay and the late Ian Bell, offer commentaries or meditations or narratives loosely related to the Easter Rising often in the context of the Scottish-Irish relationship in general.
How central the actual history of the Rising is in individual contributions varies greatly. In quite a number the link is tenuous indeed. (Irvine Welsh’s contribution turns out to be three paragraphs from a story in which a character discourses on Celtic football club, Hibernians, and James Connolly.) In other words if a reader comes to this book expecting to find an historically-documented account of Scottish involvement in what went on in Dublin in the 1916 Rising, he or she will be disappointed. The book’s subtitle talks of 'fresh perspectives’ – but if there are any here, they are not strictly historical, though perhaps exception should be made for the revelation that those engaged in the fighting in the Dublin Post Office included a young Scottish woman called Margaret Skinnider. (Perhaps unsurprisingly her story and connection with the better-known Constance Markievicz is told more than once here.)
Given the large number of contributions, and their variety, I sense that the editors did not find it easy to decide how to arrange the material they had collected into any kind of coherent or structured book. And given that in the end they decided to order the contributions solely on the basis of the alphabetical sequence of the authors’ names, one might conclude that they effectively gave up. However one can discern at least two unifying themes, emerging from this body of widely divergent material, which lend the book at least some degree of coherence.
The first is simply the existence of James Connolly. In fact had not Connolly chanced to have been born in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, it’s hard to believe that this book could have ever been written and published. Of all those who fought in the Dublin Post Office in May 1916, and were subsequently executed by the British government, it is James Connolly who is most revered. A committed socialist long before becoming an Irish nationalist, Connolly is celebrated today as easily the most visionary and progressive figure among those who fought and died in the Rising. The fact that this Irish hero was born, bred and educated in Scotland provides easily the most persuasive evidence that there was a Scottish dimension to the Easter Rising. Connolly is the outstanding figure who provides a bridge between Scotland and the various political and cultural movements that finally led to the violence of 1916. Every contributor here is aware of this, and as a result Connolly is the figure who dominates the book.
How important was his Scottish background in determining James Connolly’s eventual beliefs and actions? There seems to be little to suggest that his early life in Scotland had much to do with his eventual embrace of Irish nationalism. His commitment to a broadly Marxist socialism is another matter. The poverty and deprivation endured by those living in the Cowgate in which he grew up he later found all too characteristic of the back streets of Belfast and Dublin. That a Marxist ideology provided the answer to the poverty and injustices suffered by the working class, Connolly learned initially from such early Scottish socialists as John Leslie and J C Matheson.
It is clear then that it is perfectly fair to see Connolly as part of the tradition of Scottish socialism represented by such famous figures as Keir Hardie and Tom Johnston. Of course international socialism has often been seen as unsympathetic to the ideology of nationalism. Connolly was well aware of this and in his writings sees the need to find a way of reconciling the two. But for him the movement that led to the Easter Rising was always about much more than Irish national independence. The rising itself would be a strike against imperialism everywhere: small in scale, it could even be the beginning of the end of the bloody, capitalist war that was raging in Europe. Ironically it was perhaps his Scottish-based, revolutionary socialism that led for so long to the ignoring or even denying of his Scottish past.
As he explains in his contribution here, Ian Bell’s grandmother was a cousin of James Connolly’s daughter Nora. After the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, the two women met regularly. Before then, Bell’s granny had never mentioned James Connolly – as he puts it, 'granny had spent her life saying nothing about James Connolly; Nora talked of little else'. But when it came to Connolly’s Scottish origins, Nora would have none of it – she 'hated to admit that her father had been born in Edinburgh’. In fact, 'given half a chance, she preferred the old myth of a birthplace on a Monaghan farm'.
The second theme that provides 'Scotland and the Easter Rising’ with a degree of coherence concerns the notion of possible parallels between Irish and Scottish nationalisms in a variety of ways. Irish nationalism followed the route of revolutionary violence, whereas Scottish nationalism has largely eschewed violence, seeking instead to achieve Scottish independence through parliamentary democracy. The contributors recognise this – though not all of them are prepared to explicitly endorse or admire Scotland’s choice. In any event, most choose to see the Scottish movement as having lessons to learn from Irish success. To those of us wholly outside the SNP camp (and we’re not in evidence in these pages), there are indeed parallels between the two movements – and perhaps Scotland does have something to learn from the Irish experience.
James Connolly and his supporters in the Dublin Post Office represented only a section of those who had taken up arms to fight for Irish independence. There were others for whom revolutionary socialism was not the issue. Patrick Pearse and his Irish Volunteers were fighting for something very different: an independent Gaelic Ireland that would replace an anglicised society and culture with a return to an older, traditional Irish culture of its own. To my mind something like this division is replicated in the SNP and its supporters today.
To many of its younger supporters, Scottish independence is above all about the creation of a new, broadly socialist, country. An independent Scotland will be a haven of social justice and equality – a world in which the divide between rich and poor will be reduced, the suffering of the dispossessed and marginalised alleviated, the rights of women and minorities of every kind upheld, and capitalist economics curtailed. For other SNP voters, however, nationalism means something very different. For them what counts is identity politics: independence will mean that everything that is British/English will be replaced with what is exclusively Scottish. 'Standing up for Scotland’ will mean that Scottish history, Scottish art, Scottish literature, Scottish language (of course including Gaelic) – Scottish culture in all its forms – alongside Scottish political control of the country’s economic life – will be restored to the commanding heights of Scottish society.
The contributors to this book agree that the failure of the Easter Rising, and more explicitly the hasty and ill-judged execution of its leaders, did become the launching pad for an independent Ireland. However the question of whether today’s Ireland’s in any way embodies the aims or dreams of either James Connolly or Patrick Pearse is nowhere fully explored. At the time of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, Conor Cruise O’Brien confronted this issue. His essay, 'The Embers of Easter 1916-1966’, is a long, heartfelt, detailed account of Ireland’s total failure to be the country that the doomed revolutionaries in Dublin’s Post Office hoped to create. The 'terrible beauty’ of their fate may have been immortalised in Yeats’s wonderful poetry, but in 1966 O’Brien could see no beauty in the Ireland that had actually come into being.
Given the range of material that 'Scotland and the Easter Rising’ actually includes, it would not have been inappropriate for a contributor to take up the O’Brien challenge and consider how far, in the second 50 years of the Rising’s centenary, independent Ireland reflects the dreams of 1916. Ironically the book does contain one author ideally equipped to take on such a task: the Dublin-born and educated Owen Dudley Edwards, distinguished scion of a distinguished Irish family of writers and historians. What he provides is an afterword – 'Scotland 2015 and Ireland 2016’ – that turns out to be the longest, and in my view, easily the most impressive piece of writing in the entire work. The editors would have been well advised to make his essay not an afterword but a foreword.
In the book’s opening pages, and prior to the editorial Introduction, the reader is provided with what is called a 'timeline’: a list of dates beginning with Thomas Muir in1792 and ending with the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising and Glasgow City’s Council planning of a memorial to the Irish famine. In between what are seen as relevant events in specific years are described in a sentence or two. I see the timeline as an admission by the editors that the general reader may need some kind of informed historical background in order to appreciate the coming individual contributions. But particularly for the crucial years immediately before and after 1916, the timeline is just not good enough: the material provided needs its own explanatory context.
In the 'Ireland 2016’ dimension of his afterword, Owen Dudley Edwards provides that context beautifully. He writes authoritatively and in vivid and learned detail about these crucial years in Irish history. The 1916 Rising is shown to have a UK, German, and US context as well as its local Irish one. Its literary and cultural impact is fully explored. His knowledge of the lives and passionate beliefs of all the major players who died as a result of their participation in the Rising is detailed and exemplary. But most importantly of all, Dudley Edwards writes with the detachment of a true historian. Thus he explores all the contradictions and ambiguities that surround the 1916 Rising. He remembers, for example, the 450 Irish non-combatant civilians who died, and the 2,000 who were wounded, as a result of the armed struggle.
When the Great War broke out, few people wrote so brilliantly and accurately about the magnitude of the disaster that would ensue as James Connolly: he denounced the war 'as the most fearful crime of the centuries’. In 1952 Tom Johnston expressed his puzzlement over how Connolly, the 'cool, level-headed analyst, precise, careful, and accustomed to weighing evidence and words' ever became involved in an armed insurrection which had so little prospect of success. I guess Owen Dudley Edwards shares something of this puzzlement, just as he is reluctant to sympathise with the posthumous cult of the leaders of the Rising as mythic, Christ-like figures of self-sacrifice.
In his prize-winning book, 'Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923’, Roy Foster, Yeats’s biographer and professor of Irish history at Oxford University, writes of the widely-ranging idealism of that generation – its secularism, its socialism, its feminism, even its vegetarianism and anti-vivisectionism and its rejection of the patriarchal family. But with the outbreak of the armed struggle all this changed and changed utterly. There was what Foster calls a 'revolution within the revolution’ and when the shooting started the hard men of violence soon took over.
I suspect Dudley Edwards of sharing this analysis – which is why the final note of his admirable contribution is a cautionary one: 'the Irish past summons us provided we keep it as tutor not as jailer. The Scottish future can remain one of ideals provided we blunt their agency for hurt'.