BOOK REVIEW by Georgina FitzPatrick
Ruán O’Donnell and Mícheál Ó hAodha, eds, Voices from the Easter Rising, Merrion Press, 2016
Thirty-two eye-witness accounts of the Easter Rising have been collected in this volume from a wide range of participants. Ordinary members of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan such as Dick Humphreys (72-82) and Maeve McGarry (125-129) are given a voice. Loyalists are also represented by, among others, Captain Harry de Courcy-Wheeler (16-26), Mrs Louisa Hamilton Norway (99-105) and Elsie Henry (42-49), who served in a Voluntary Aid Detachment. The reports of two Capuchin priests who tended to the insurgents are also included in the mix.
The extracts have been well-chosen for movement and colour and immediacy of voice. Of the 32, however, the account that really engaged my attention was that by Áine Ceannt, wife of Eamonn, one of the sixteen executed after the Rising. Although the substantial extract (pp.83-98) provides detail on the planning of the Rising from a wife’s perspective and her experiences during Easter Week, it stops abruptly just before a section in the original Witness Statement which recounts her efforts to see her husband before his execution. I would have added another page or so on this poignant situation. However, it would not have mattered so much had the editors given more guidance on the original sources to enable further exploration.
All but eight of the extracts are taken from the 1,773 Witness Statements held in the Bureau of Military History Archive, now digitised and easily accessible online at http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/index.html . Although each extract from the Witness Statements is footnoted by the editors with the relevant number – in the case of Áine Ceannt, as ‘BMH, WS 264’ – neither in the ‘Preface’ by Mícheál Ó hAodha nor in the brief ‘Introduction’ by Ruán O’Donnell is any mention made of the Bureau, much less any explanation. There should have been a brief paragraph up front outlining how and when these Witness Statements were collected in the late 1940s and early 1950s and then suppressed until 2003. To find out what BMH in the footnote stands for (WS is never explained), the reader has to turn to a List of Sources (201-202) where the same footnote citations are badly listed. It has to be deduced from the heading that they come from something called the Bureau of Military History Archive. There is no indication even there that fuller extracts (and more extracts) can be viewed by downloading PDFs in the comfort of one’s home.
The remaining eight extracts are even more problematic about their source. No footnote is given for these. The reader has to do some detective work to connect an extract to one of the four publications in the List of Sources. While Elsie Henry is mentioned in the title of a diary edited by Clara Cullen in 2012 and Louisa Hamilton Norway (mother of Nevil Shute) is likewise mentioned in the title of a collection edited by the late Keith Jeffery in 1999, the source of the account by de Courcy-Wheeler had me stumped for a while. All the reader was told in the list of publications was: ‘De Courcy-Wheeler: Permission to reproduce courtesy of Alex Findlater and A & A Farmar Publishers.’ This is not the way to cite a book and seems to have wandered out of an abandoned list of acknowledgements of copyright permissions. It turns out (thanks Mr Google) that Alex Findlater is the grandson of Captain Harry de Courcy-Wheeler, famous for receiving the revolver of Countess Markiewicz on her surrender outside the College of Surgeons; a scene depicted in the iconic painting, The Arrest by Kathleen Fox. Findlater included a transcript of his grandfather’s notes in chapter 9 of his history, Findlaters: The Story of a Dublin Merchant Family, A & A Farmar Publishers, 2001, together with the photographs mentioned by his grandfather in the extract. Should this not have been explained both in the list of sources and in a footnote for the extract?
The source for the other extracts, by process of elimination, must be the fourth and final publication listed: Keith Jeffery, The GPO and the Easter Rising, Irish Academic Press, 2006. This is likely the case for Dick Humphreys who was in the GPO with Pearse. However I think the Humphreys’ account comes initially from the National Library of Ireland. Extracts were to be heard at a listening post as part of the current exhibition, Rising, at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, Dublin (until 31 October 2016). Readers, however, should not have to guess the sources or rely on the happenstance of a recent Dublin visit to 1916 exhibitions. It is a basic task of editors to give proper references and even better to provide information about each extract, including the date it was written.
All Witness Statements online at the Bureau of Military Archive give the date when each statement was taken. It would have been so easy for the editors to add this to each footnote. Readers should have been alerted to the fact that these statements were given at least thirty years after the event, because, as any history student knows, memory is fickle and the lapse of time needs to be taken into account.
Leaving aside the patently false claim by the blurb writer that these extracts were ‘previously unpublished’, the general reader will find these accounts lively as stories ‘from below’ and especially as they include the rather neglected voices of women. However, they are accounts of confusion and of the chaos of armed conflict. Unless a reader has a good grasp of the specific geography of the Rising, the major characters and the timeline, this volume with its minimal editing would not enlighten. It is best read in conjunction with some of the excellent studies of 1916 by such authors as Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Allen Lane, 2005 and Fearghal McGarry, The Rising. Ireland. Easter 1916, Oxford University Press, 2010.
Author of Trinity College and Irish Society 1914-1922 and St Andrew’s College 1894-1994, commissioned during the 20 years she spent in Ireland, Georgina has retained an interest in Irish history since her return to Australia. She is currently preparing a review article about several 1916 exhibitions she visited during her recent trip to Dublin.