Mystic and Revolutionary

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

W. J. Mc Cormack: Enigmas of Sacrifice: A Critique of Joseph M. Plunkett and the Dublin Insurrection of 1916, East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2016.
ISBN: 978161186191
RRP: US$29.95 (or ebook US$23.95).

In 2014, in a review in Tinteán, I lamented that Honor O’Brolchain’s intriguing biography of her great uncle, Joseph Mary Plunkett, in the O’Brien Press 16 Lives series, did not help me to understand the thinking of Commandant General of the Rising.  What puzzled me then is how the effête man of letters of 1913, writing poems desultorily, and penning impressionistic literature-focussed diary entries, became the man of action and dying revolutionary of 1916, and also, by the way, how he could treat the loving Grace so cavalierly.  Plunkett remained a conundrum for me: it was a hard transformation to fathom. I had hoped to learn from the family’s historians: Honor O’Brolchain had edited her much-loved grandmother’s memoirs of 1916, All in the Blood (2012), and gone on to write her own biography of JMP for the 16 Lives series. Geraldine (née Plunkett) Dillon had been Plunkett’s sister, nurse and aide-de-camp in 1916 (she married another revolutionary).

This book attempts to fill the gap I identified in 2014 in O’Brolchain’s biography, and Mc Cormack brings to the job the skills of the literary critic and historian of ideas. Unconstrained by nationalist protocols attaching to republican orthodoxy, Mc Cormack washes the family linen, questions the hagiographies, and finds the linen spotty. That he does so is a credit to both the family historian and himself, as some difficult material, not friendly to the patriotic account, emerges.

Enigmas of Sacrifice is a strange hybrid beast, a biography that is also a history of ideas, and in smaller part, a contribution to forensic historical study, very heavily inflected by a literary studies methodology. It is not a simple matter to recuperate the minds of men committed to sacrifice in an age which is profoundly out of sympathy with it, but that is Mc Cormack’s project, and it is done via the lens of the Commandant-General of the Rising, Joseph Mary Plunkett.

He is less successful (though still often nuanced and forensic), in the roles of historian and biographer, partly because he finds the avenues of history of ideas so seductive. And he reads the biography not only through the lens of what was available to the revolutionary generation, but also dons the spectacles of the modern reader using more modern sources of a philosophical nature as well. It’s a difficult and very ambitious juggle.

The context in which the book is published is itself interesting: it’s part of a series, Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture, which brings together disciplines often kept disparate in self-contained silos – literature, history of ideas, anthropology, religion. The series focuses  on violence of many kinds. Mc Cormack’s book attempts to fathom the mind of a revolutionary with a strong thanatic drive (who would have in any case have died in weeks from glandular tuberculosis and perhaps cancer), who is also and originally a man of letters, indeed a dilettante. Mc Cormack draws heavily on Plunkett’s reading and writing, and the fragmentary impressionistic journals, deploying mainly a literary critical methodology.  He is not distracted by the sentimental story of the last-minute marriage, and he offers critical perspectives on that too. He brings refreshingly new perspectives to both the family history and asks some challenging questions of nationalist historians.

Joseph Mary Plunkett

Plunkett was, of course, no philosopher, nor even a great intellect (Mc Cormack often, quite accurately, describes him as unfocused, and he was clearly a dilettante), and his poetic output is small, conventional, backward-looking, and mostly undistinguished (despite the iconic status of ‘I See His Blood upon the Rose’). In his defence, it is easy to forget how young he was at the time he was executed because the photos, and perhaps his illness, make him look much older than his 28 years. How he may have matured if he’d lived longer is anyone’s guess.

One doesn’t have to agree with every (appropriately tentative) conclusion that Mc Cormack makes to find fascinating his account of the intellectual ferment  happening in Dublin in the period before 1916. Roy Foster has given a superb account of the modernising liberated younger generation of 1895-1916 in Vivid Faces (2014), but Mc Cormack’s biography takes a different tack in exposing the intellectual ideas, beyond the narrowly nationalist, which were shaping the men of 1916 (unhappily the women are almost eclipsed in this study, except for Plunkett’s love interests, Grace Gifford and Columba O’Carroll, and the redoubtable sister, Geraldine).

In problematising the religious rhetoric of the Rising and its sacramental idioms, Mc Cormack asks big questions about the morality of the leadership embracing death, of knowingly sending men into battle  under-resourced, and leading others to the same fate, who may or may not have voluntarily elected martyrdom. This issue  troubled literary writers of the period: Yeats was famously equivocal, but O’Casey and Joyce, and, closer to our own time, Roddy Doyle, were/are trenchant critics of the Rising rhetoric of blood-sacrifice.

Mc Cormack does not content himself with the rhetoric of sacrifice as clamorous in the zeitgeist (an easy argument to make in the context of world war), but attempts to plot a genealogy in rather more specific terms. How well he’s done this will in time be decided by experts in that field. He sees Ireland as a country that had largely escaped  ‘the Victorian crisis of belief’, and  adduces as evidence the revolution in devotional practices that was so much a feature of Catholic culture in the nineteenth century, both in Ireland and France. He further claims that both French traditionalist and radical thinking remained strong in Ireland before and after Catholic Emancipation. Mc Cormack finds other more secular affinities too, in, for example, J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and its analysis of notions like ritual sacrifice and resurrection, which find echoes in the language of Pearse’s Christology, and in particular the notion of re-baptism. In his analysis, some of Pearse’s most inflammatory rhetoric (one thinks of his theatrics at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa), especially that relating to slave and slavery and the virtues of bloodshed and sacrifice, entail  exaggeration and category errors. He is interested to chart how words like sacrifice were released from exclusively religious contexts into political domains, and changed in meaning from the 1890s, entering the essays and writings of  Pearse especially and even, less prominently, Connolly.  It is a strange and unexpected confluence of modern and traditional thinking.

Mc Cormack attempts to have the Rising read not just within the confines of insular Irish nationalism but within European currents of influence more broadly.  He is especially detailed on the influence of Kant (whose ideas were debated by a (doomed)  ‘Kantian school’ in Dublin in the years leading up to the Rising which included the lawyer and Irish Volunteer J. C. Meredith and classicist Mahaffy), and of Henri Bergson, Barrès and de Maistre.  Mc Cormack sees Kant’s thinking as critical to thinking about Ireland’s position on neutrality in WWI and as antidote to church ultramontanism. He makes much of Kantian scholar Meredith’s influence on Irish Volunteer committees and to thinking about forms of proportional representation  in countries around the world (including Australia) and his legal advice contributed to the constitution adopted in October 1914.   Mc Cormack stresses that the Francophone contribution to the debate offered both radical and conservative strands, and identifies  the more confident Catholicism of the French (which Irish nationalist thinkers valued as a useful point of difference from the established church), and French traditions of republicanism and armed uprising.

He provides two very useful appendices as evidence of JMP’s reading: one of his bibliographical notebooks from 1909 – 1916, isolating too in a separate list his books and pamphlets on military tactics, firearms and explosives; the second is a table of contents of The Irish Review (1911-1914), the premier journal (one among many such publications) for nationalists before the Rising. Both appendices are mined for what they reveal of JMP’s intellectual leanings and what was readily available to the revolutionary generation, and these claims are always appropriately hedged with qualifications.

Educated by the Lancashire Jesuits at Stonyhurst, Plunkett was a reader of Kipling, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells (Little Wars ignited his interest in military strategy and underwrote articles on the subject) and Chesterton (a special favourite, he read The Man who was Thursday, a novel about anarchism, four times). He ignored the great phalanx of Irish writers whose fiction one might have expected to be important to a son raised on the nationalist story by his father who had been visited at birth (nationalist myth-making that the family retails with gusto) by two drummer boys from the 1798 campaign. This of course makes his transformation into the committed nationalist even more intriguing.

One other fascinating section of this work which I found better explained in this book than elsewhere is  Mac Cormack’s forensic analysis of the set of events that led to Joe installing his father, the (Papal) Count as a member of the secret IRB, and commissioning him to seek the Pope’s endorsement of the Rising. In Mc Cormack’s analysis, duplicity and lies were involved.

This is a difficult read, but a fascinating one. In my judgment, it perhaps flies too many kites and might usefully have been two different books: one on the exchange of ideas between Ireland and Europe that helped create the momentous event of 1916, and one about the strange phenomenon that was Joseph Mary Plunkett – invalid, victim of bohemian parents, fey man of letters, theatrical spy, bookish military strategist, unrequited lover, very public lover, and ultimately executed revolutionary.


Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective.