The historiography of any period is never complete. For young historians, the period known commonly as the ‘Irish revolutionary period’ can appear one with little room for new writers, with so much written on the pivotal events and personas.
Thankfully, recent years have seen historians engage with the ‘Irish revolution’ in new and exciting ways, moving beyond the macro and looking at individual events and themes in greater detail. A particular effort of note would be Mercier’s top class ‘Military History of the Irish Civil War’ series, but in the field of biography O’Brien’s new ‘Sixteen Lives’ series will see first biographies of some of the executed leaders of 1916 published. New Island books have launched ‘1916 In Focus’, with Paul O’Brien’s study of the Four Courts garrison during Easter Week the first work in the series.
O’Brien’s last effort, ‘Uncommon Valour’, which looked at the South Dublin Union, was reviewed here on the blog in February 2010. Looking at key battles and events in Easter 1916, O’Brien has managed to turn events that take up a few paragraphs in broad-histories into full works, which gives you an in-depth look at some characters who somehow often manage to escape from the narrative of other works.
The Four Courts is more so associated with the Civil War in the popular memory of Dubliners, but some of the bloodiest events of the Rising occurred in the area around the courts. The area which saw heavy fighting during the Rising between the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers and British Military Forces was an area home to some of the poorest Dubliners in tenement dwellings, not far for example from the buildings which had collapsed on Church Street in 1913, killing seven. Edward Daly commanded the forces which occupied the Four Courts and surrounding areas. He would later be executed for his role in the week.
It was the 1st Battalion who were to signal the start of the rebellion by an explosion at the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. A 30-strong unit, under the leadership of Paddy Daly, were given this task. While this story is always mentioned in histories of the Rising, O’Brien goes into it in wonderful detail, telling us for example that:
Six months previously Daly had been employed by Shorthall’s Building Contractors. This company was engaged in carrying out works on the complex and Daly had gained detailed knowledge of the layout of the fort and the garrison’s roster. In order to move close to the fort without alarming the guard, the Volunteers began a football match near the complex.
There’s some great humour in the book, as there has been in the others O’Brien has produced, for example when Lord Dunsany, a noted playwright and an officer with the Inniskilling Fusillers, was captured by the Volunteers. A Volunteer joked that Dunsany was in no danger of ‘entering The Glistening Gates just yet’, alluding to his play which had been performed at the Abbey. O’Brien notes that Dunsany would later ‘congratulate himself’ on being captured by literary men!
Civilian casualties in the Easter Rising have sometimes been used as a political football in a contemporary sense, but O’Brien has always been able to look at events rationally and acknowledge when British or Irish forces were in the wrong morally. The North King Street killings, where a number of Dubliners were killed following the cessation of hostilities, feature here. O’Brien goes into detail on the victims of the killings, civilians murdered by the 2/6th South Staffordshire regiment, and quotes General Maxwell as stating:
Possibly unfortunate incidents, which we should regret now, may have occurred. It did not, perhaps, always follow that shots were fired from a particular house the inmates were always necessarily aware of it or guilty, but how were the soldiers to discriminate? They saw their comrades killed beside them by hidden and treacherous assailants, and it is even possible that under the horrors of this particular attack some of them ‘saw red’.
O’Brien has developed a great understanding of military history which will appeal to many, but for me its the insight into the personal backgrounds of both Irish Volunteers and British forces which has drawn me to his work, coupled with the little stories that emerge involving civilians and the city. The next book in the series, also from O’Brien, will look at the Battle of Ashbourne, which saw a major showdown between the Royal Irish Constabulary and the 5th Battalion of the Volunteers. I look forward to it.