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Liam O’Flaherty: Insurrection

Another novel by O’Flaherty set against the background of Irish history, this one, of course could be about one of several Irish insurrections but is, in fact, about perhaps the most famous Irish insurrection – The Easter Rising of 1916. This was a complete failure but a spectacular failure and one that had a profound influence on Ireland and Anglo-Irish history. Yeats famously said of it a terrible beauty is born. However, there is no doubt that it was badly handled by the Irish from the military point of view and by the British from the political point of view. From the Irish point of view it was badly planned but, more particularly, badly executed. Large numbers of the men expected to participate simply failed to turn up. Those that did were ill prepared as regards training and as regards weapons to fight a sophisticated army. The expected uprisings in the provinces never materialised. It was a day of horse races and while this initially seemed to be advantageous to the Irish cause, as many of the British officers attended the races, many of the Irish, including many of those that should have been involved in the uprising, also attended. The Irish assumed that the British would not use artillery as it would risk damaging the houses of the rich. They were wrong. All of these issues are raised by O’Flaherty in this book who certainly does not sugar-coat or over-mythologise the rising.

O’Flaherty tells the story of the rising from the perspective of small group of participants. Bartly Madden is from Connemara but he has just spent who years in England working. He has saved £150, which will enable him to buy a farm back in Connemara and get married. Unfortunately, on returning to Dublin, he got drunk and all his money has been stolen. He is understandably very miserable as he stands outside the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916. He sees a group of Irish Volunteers approaching in military formation. One man, Tommy Colgan (who is, in fact, only sixteen) is being pestered by his mother, who is trying to give him a package. Tommy is trying to ignore her. The troop halts, turns and then charges the post office, seizing it. Everyone is naturally surprised. Soon, there is a crowd and Mrs Colgan is jostled but clings to Madden, who protects her. Eventually, the Lancers arrive but, to their surprise, the rebels in the post office fire at them, killing several men. One collapses and dies just by the doorway in which Madden and Mrs Colgan are sheltering. Madden grabs his brand new rifle but is then unsure what to do with it. Mrs. Colgan hides it in her dress and takes Madden to her house, where he declines her offer of food but sleeps. Once he has slept, he is reluctantly dragged off to the post office where he is persuaded by her to join the rebels and urged to protect her son.

Once involved, Madden is very enthusiastic. His troop is sent to occupy a building which guards the Dublin-Dun Laoghaire road, where the troop reinforcements for the British will come from. They have very few men but the unit, under the command of a teacher called Michael Kinsella, accounts well for itself. Much of the story is an account of the action when the British troops arrive and what happens afterwards. We get to see the leaders of the rising at the end as they confer before the final surrender and the novel ends with the surrender. Many of Kinsella’s unit are killed; the remainder march off into captivity. O’Flaherty tells a good story of the action as seen from the perspective of small group of people, although we obviously know the outcome of the rising in advance. In particular, he points out the futility of the action, at least from a military point of view, while admiring the bravery of many of the men, though not ignoring the cowardice of others. 450 people died and another 2614 were injured, while fifteen of the leaders were executed after a court martial. This novel does make any judgement as to whether it was worth it.

Publishing history

First published 1950 by Victor Gollancz