FOREWORD to KERRY 1916: HISTORIES AND LEGACIES OF THE EASTER RISING – A CENTENARY RECORD by PROFESSOR JJ LEE
Perhaps the most striking thing we have learned in these last few years of greatly intensified research on the 1916 Easter Rising is how much we still have to learn, despite all the significant advances in knowledge, and even to a great extent in understanding, contributed by the research activity. The dramatic nature of the events in Dublin, culminating in the tragi-pathos of the executions, particularly when contrasted with the relative inactivity in the rest of the country, has naturally led to an overwhelming concentration on the events of Easter Week in the capital, almost to the virtual dismissal of local events outside Dublin as if they were virtually incidental side-shows of the real Rising.
This is quite understandable as things turned out. Although the Rising in Dublin was itself only a pale shadow of the intended rebellion, it produced sufficient drama to excite the public imagination, and to spark off sentiments and movements that would dominate Irish history for long to come. Ironically enough, many of the consequences, in the form of Sinn Féin election victories and IRA ambushes, would occur in rural areas that had little or no involvement in 1916 itself.
But some of those consequences could trace their origins back to before 1916, and indeed to anticipation of a different 1916 Rising, the Rising that never was. In few counties was that more the case than in Kerry, which was central to the IRB planners’ preparations for not merely the Rising—but for a very different Rising—one with potentially incalculable consequences for both Ireland and Britain, perhaps even the United States, depending on the possible severity of British repression—except it never happened. But that does not make the preparations irrelevant to our understanding of the mind-set behind the Rising that did happen—indeed we cannot properly understand the Rising itself unless we are prepared to think hard about the Rising that didn’t happen—and to which what the IRB intended to happen in Kerry was central. This book is, therefore, vital to our understanding of the Ireland of the time, of how near the original plans for the Rising came to implementation, and with all the incalculable consequences, for better or for worse, according to ideological taste, of that scenario playing itself out.
The key factor in transforming the intended Rising into an overwhelmingly Dublin event was the capture off Kerry of the Aud, the vessel carrying a substantial supply of weapons for the assumed rebel forces. It was this, too, that transformed the situation in Kerry itself, as well as in Cork and, conceivably, in the other counties reputedly designated as recipients of the Aud’s weapons—Limerick, Clare and Galway—from central to peripheral status. As the guns didn’t come, there was too little to fight effectively with. The failure of the Aud to unload its cargo can lead too easily to a distorted perspective on the entire episode at Easter. For the denouement bore little relationship to planning premised on the expectations of the Aud’s delivery of its weapons. We cannot know what would have happened had the Aud’s mission succeeded. But no Aud, no general rebellion.
But there was an Aud. And in contrast to the view that Irish rebels always struck too late, the Aud arrived too early. This is not the place to rehearse the catalogue of mischances, cumulatively fatal, that led to the failure of the Aud’s mission. But it is important for our understanding of our own history that we engage with the potential consequences. How would the British have responded? With a crushing mobilisation of force and terror, even if they had to withdraw troops from the continent and were prepared to risk possible American disapprobation? Or with some attempted political deal? Or what? How would Irish troops in the British Army, whether unionists or home rulers, have responded? The possible scenarios are legion, for better or for worse.
What does emerge clearly from this volume is that there was far more activity on the ground in Kerry—Pearse did not visit it three times in the year before the Rising just for the scenery— than appears from a retrospect devoted to the theme of all quiet on the Kingdom front. What emerges clearly, too, is the important role of the GAA in fostering a republican mentality. Of course, not all GAA members were republicans, but sufficient were to make the GAA a seed-bed for republican sympathies. It was coincidental, but not accidental, that one of the most famous mid-field partnerships in all of Gaelic football, that of Killarney’s Dick Fitzgerald and of ‘the Castlegregory aeroplane’, the soubriquet earned by Pat O’Shea in the early days of aviation for his stratospheric fielding, linked two prominent activists.
Among the multiple ironies of Easter Week was that the most successful rebel action was led by a Kerryman, Thomas Ashe—but not in Kerry. It was in north Dublin, where he worked as a teacher, and particularly at Ashbourne in Meath, that he made his military mark, displaying qualities that identified him as one of the possible leaders of a future Sinn Féin Ireland. His death from botched forced feeding following his re-arrest in1917 would result in one of the biggest of all Irish funerals, and gave significant further impetus to the growth of Sinn Féin. It is indeed likely that his death was, as Richard McElligott puts it in his fine chapter, ‘a major factor in the huge expansion’ of Sinn Féin in Kerry, while also depriving Ireland of a potentially effective and inspiring leader.
The probing contributions that Dr Mary McAuliffe and her co-editors, Bridget McAuliffe and Owen O’Shea, have assembled in this absorbing volume, including Dr McAuliffe’s own important study of Cumann na mBan, deserve to be pondered even by those whose affection for the Kingdom may be rather more finite than my own. They are not only of intense interest in themselves, but often base important original research on indispensable local knowledge. Editorially augmented by often elusive biographical information on important personalities, they further enhance this significant volume for students not only of Kerry history but of those numerous aspects of the history of Ireland which have been enriched by Kerry’s contribution.
J. Lee, Director, Glucksman Ireland House, Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies, and Professor of History, New York University