A Foot-soldier’s Misgivings about 1916

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Joe Good: Inside the GPO 1916:
A First Hand Account, O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2015
ISBN: 9781847177186
RRP: €12

One has to praise publishers with courage, and I suspect this book took both courage to write and to publish. It was first written in diary form in 1946 for an official commission into  the events of 1916 which focussed on the events of the Rising, and is based on diaries he wrote then, and also the transcript of interviews with him. It was edited and added to by his son, a process that is a little like what Honor O’Brolchain did with her Grandmother, Geraldine Dillon’s memoirs, All in the Blood: A Family Memoir of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence (2006, 2012). It has a very distinctive voice, and one that spoke strongly to me, one who is a pacifist to her bootstraps, perhaps even a Quaker manquée, and one who has wrestled with questions about the necessity for the Rising. If this makes me a nationalist heretic, I must wear that.

Joe Good was born (in 1896) and raised in London, and was ‘radicalised’ as we would say now by his emigré community in London, beginning with songs and stories of 1798 and the Famine, stoked by his reading of nationalist histories and its publication An Claidheamh Soluis (‘Sword of Light’), his sister’s experience of the Gaelic League in London, and by speeches in Westminster by the Irish parliamentarians. He had much time to read while spinning wheels in a weaving factory. He was later to take up work as an electrician and in a car repair workshop, skills which would come in handy when on active service during the Rising and later. Emmett and Gladstone were his heroes. His London Irish ghetto provided many foot soldiers for the Rising, including Michael Collins who enrolled as a Volunteer in a German gymnasium in London on the same day as Joe Good. They were to become firm friends and were part of a force of 2000, many  of them following Redmond to the Great War, and a smaller band of 100 who would head for Dublin. Joe makes much of the number of cockney accents who served on the insurgent side, much to the bemusement and puzzlement of the British Army. In his teenage years, ‘Direct action’ and ‘physical force’ slogans became naturalised for him; he was metamorphosed into a ‘small Guy Fawkes’.

What is so refreshing about this narrative of the Easter Rising is its clear-eyed honesty about how ill-prepared the insurgents were to take on the British. While Joe Good could never be accused of lack of commitment to his cause or steadfastness in the execution of active service from 1916 until 1920, he fits into a class that is probably small in  number: ‘Romantic Realists’. The tone of his position is captured well early in the narrative:

…for every assassin they [the British] made, we in Ireland could produce two; that the game was up, and that suppressing the national revolution would mean a reconquest of Ireland, and God knew how many hangings that might involve. When would reconquest pay a dividend? The British did not know the strength of the force they were fighting, and the Irish leaders had not the faintest idea how or when or if the end would come. They lived from day to day, and sufficient to the day was the ambush thereof. Historians no doubt will try to show the period of 1916 to 1921 as a period when there was a definite insurgent army and nation with campaigns and battles. It will be a damned lie.

Right there is the perspective that makes this work different and new. Joe Good’s nationalist commitment is tempered by hard-eyed realism and tough questions about failures of preparation, food and firearm shortages, and military amateurishness, what he at one point refers to as ‘delightful naivety’. For instance, he regards it as ‘lunacy’ that the insurgents failed to secure the Telephone Exchange.

It’s a particularly intimate view of combatants, and if he is unimpressed by those who have since acquired the patina of nationalist sainthood, he’s not afraid to say so. Mc Donagh comes in for a roasting, for example, for the injustice of lambasting non-drinkers over an empty porter bottle in a sentry-box. But he finds generous words for Connolly, Plunkett, Pearse, and Sean MacDermott, and is in no doubt about their sincerity even as he queries their military judgment. I was fascinated to learn more about the preparation of the Volunteers at the Plunkett properties in Kimmage and Larkfield, and to see it compared unfavourably to military preparation Good had observed on Salisbury Plain.

He’s a keen observer of men’s foibles, their absurdities (including his own), and has a superb eye for detail. He captures the mixed attitudes of the insurgents to the looters, and creates a telling pen-picture of a shawlie with her toque filled with useless napkin rings.

This book fell into my hands a bit accidentally (a reviewer moved house), and I’m so pleased it did as it’s a pragmatist committed to surviving who writes and he proves that one can be both a survivor and hold the dream fast.  I’m also in awe of the cross-generational generosity of Joe Good’s son, who, like his father, has listened to Irish stories  and ensured that Joe’s gritty account gets takes its place as one of many voices in the 1916 narrative.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a member of the Tinteán collective.