Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion traces the events of 1916 from their roots in the home rule crisis before the First World War, to their aftermath in the War of Independence.
There is a careful examination of the confused days leading up to the rebellion, when Eoin MacNeill, chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers, countermanded the order for mobilization on Easter Sunday. The Rising nevertheless went ahead a day later. MacNeill’s authority was over-ridden by Pearse, Connolly and the other members of the military committee of the IRB, the secret revolutionary organisation which had been the hidden hand behind the creation of the volunteers in the first place.
Townshend argues that the secretiveness of the IRB was one reason why for the relative failure of the rising in rural Ireland, which he deals with in a single chapter.
The core of the book is a blow by blow account of the fighting in Dublin. Townshend details the positions occupied by each of the volunteer detachments in what was essentially a defensive stance, and relates the progress of the British counter-attack.
He argues that in purely military terms the British authorities were able to deal with the rising quite efficiently. However, the volunteers’ ability to hold out for five days had a significant political effect. Indeed, most of the volunteer garrisons had yet to be seriously attacked when they were ordered to surrender by Patrick Pearse to save further bloodshed. Their position would have been even stronger if they had taken Dublin Castle when it practically fell into their hands on Easter Monday.
Townshend’s political assessment of the Rising is more positive than
the military one. In response to Michael Collins’ criticism that it was
‘a Greek tragedy’, he argues that this was in a sense the point.
Townshend rejects the argument that the Rising was anti-democratic. He is more inclined to accept that it helped to copper-fasten partition, but correctly notes that constitutional nationalists had no solution to the Northern problem either.
However, the main value of this book is not so much in its
evaluations, as in its provision of a clear narrative account. A good
starting point for anyone who wants to understand the who, what , when,
where and why of 1916.