Iris Murdoch, Eoin MacNeill and the Rising


Oddly, the original paperback had a picture of a young woman who looked like a glamorous 1960s model and which had nothing whatever to do with the content of the novel

A few weeks back I was going through a load of old books I have packed away, looking for some novels to lend to a friend.  I came across an old Iris Murdoch novel, set in the week leading up to the Rising, that I’d bought and read several decades ago.  I couldn’t remember any of it, so decided to read it again, especially as I was going to a tiny town at, literally, the end of the world for a break from care-giving.  The novel is The Red and the Green and it was published in 1965.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag as a novel.  There’s middle-aged Aunt Millie, who wants to bonk all her nephews (well, it is Iris Murdoch!) and most of the characters seem rather self-obsessed (well, again, it is Iris Murdoch); however it is quite sympathetic to the Rising.  Most of the characters either take part in it or become sympathetic to it later (as revealed in the brief postscript set in 1938).[1]

Anyway, one of the characters is called Pat Dumay and, although he admires Connolly most, he’s a young officer in the Irish Volunteers.  His younger brother, 14-year-old Cathal, is not very impressed with the Volunteers and, instead, hangs out at Liberty Hall with the ICA.

Pat is determined Cathal won’t take part in the Rising because he’s too young.  But Cathal is determined to take part, steal’s a rifle from Pat and heads down to Liberty Hall on the Saturday night.  At this point the Rising is still set for Sunday.  Pat goes down to Liberty Hall, finds Cathal outside with his rifle, grabs back the weapon and starts dragging Cathal home.  However a group of Volunteers and ICAers, with Connolly at the front, are just returning to Liberty Hall and Connolly is looking very pissed off.  Other Volunteer officers tell Pat he should come back into Liberty Hall to hear what has happened.  The novel then picks up after this meeting at Liberty Hall and has this to say:

What had happened in the last two days in Dublin Pat had by now largely discovered.  On Tuesday a rumour had reached Bulmer Hobson that an armed rising was planned for Easter Sunday.  He went at once to MacNeill, who was still of course the nominal head of the Volunteers, and in the early hours of Good Friday morning he and MacNeill visited Pearse, who had admitted to them that the rumour was true.  MacNeill said, ’I will do everything I can to stop it, except ringing up Dublin Castle.’  There was a violent and inconclusive dispute after which MacNeill went home.  A little later Pearse went with MacDermott and MacDonagh to MacNeill’s house to argue with him again.  MacNeill refused to see Pearse and MacDonagh, but allowed MacNeill to come in.  MacDermott tld MacNeill that the rising was now unavoidable and that the real command was no longer in MacNeill’s hands.  He also told him of the German arms which were about to be landed in Kerry, and pointed out that after the arrival of the arms the British were certain to attempt to disarm the Volunteers, and this would mean a fight anyway.  So it was better to strike first.  MacNeill gave in and agreed to sanction the rising.

On Saturday morning came the news of the catastrophe to the German arms ship.  MacNeill began to waver.  He was visited by The O’Rahilly and other officers who were opposed to the rising.  At last he went to Saint Enda’s to see Pearse and there was a bitter argument.  After that MacNeill went home and wrote out the countermanding orders which were dispatched with couriers to the Volunteer organization throughout the country.  He prepared a statement, cancelling all manoeuvres’, which was to be published in the Sunday Independent next day and cycled personally to the office to deliver it.  Finally, he ordered MacDonagh, as commandant of the Dublin Brigade, to inform all his men officially of the cancellation.  MacDonagh, who judged that by now the plan was irrevocably spoilt, agreed, and sent out a Brigade order over his own signature and that of his adjutant de Valera.  It was the end of the enterprise.

‘If we don’t fight now, all we have left to hope and pray for is that an earthquake will come and swallow Ireland up and our shame.’  These words of James Connolly expressed what Pat felt, what they all felt, in those amazed and disappointed hours.  Pat went back to Blessington Street.  He sent Cathal on ahead to tell his mother.  He could not have endured her happy relieved face.  He climbed to his own room and shut the door and fell face downwards on his bed.

It seemed life was over.  He had only, ever, had but one purpose and now that had been quite suddenly twisted away from him.  It was snatched, gone, quickly, meanly, quietly, and without remedy.  Pat knew that what was lost here could not be retrieved.  If they did not act at once they could not act at all.  The impetus would be spent, the movement discredited, the moment missed.  There was to have been martyred blood, but now everything would collapse into absurdity and those who had called them shirkers and dreamers would have been proved right.  The English would disarm them.  Pat, who had felt that he would surrender his weapon with his life, now felt that it no longer mattered whether he kept his gun or not.  Everything had been betrayed.

He cursed the leaders, he cursed Pearse.  He grieved unutterably for Casement.  MacNeill ought to have been arrested days ago.  Why could the Irish get nothing right?  Such dunces deserved their slavery.

Obviously, I disagree with the bit about the blood sacrifice (for more on this, see here), but Murdoch’s character is dead right about how MacNeill (and Hobson, in my view) should have been arrested because they would clearly sabotage the plans for the Rising and the bit about dunces deserving slavery is very Connollyesque![2]

More importantly, however, the debacle of the countermanding orders, and the damage this did to the Rising – basically, ensuring it would be defeated – were products of everything that was wrong about the IRB and its method of organising.  The failure of the IRB to break with MacNeill and throw in their lot entirely with Connolly and the ICA fatally not only undermined any chance for a successful rising but had appalling effects later on too.  And, in the end of course, it was in the IRB leadership that support for the 1921 Treaty (and thus partition) turned out to be strongest in terms of the wider republican family.  Supposedly the most militant republicans of all, the IRB of the post-Rising era, turned out to be a major force for counter-revolution.

MacNeill, of course, went on after 1916 to new crimes against Irish freedom.  He voted for the Treaty, seconded the motion in the Free State government for the execution of Mellows, O’Connor, Bartlett, XXX and then served on the Boundary Commission, giving way to all the demands of the Unionists/Brits, and then slinking away out of politics and back into the academic world he should never have slithered out of in the first place.

However, people like MacNeill can’t play the role they do without enablers.  Sadly, his chief enablers were the IRB, a sharp lesson in how secret ostensibly revolutionary organisations in situations that don’t require them only too often end up playing the opposite role.

[1] One writer thinks The Red and the Green “may be one of the most profound and provocative attacks on English policy towards Ireland that has ever been written and, by extension, it may also be one of the most penetrating attacks against English imperialism in the contemporary British novel” (Louise A. DeSalvo, “‘This Should Not Be’: Iris Murdoch’s Critique of English Policy Towards Ireland in The Red and the Green”, Colby Library Quarterly, Volume 19, no.3, September 1983, p.113-124).  It was a huge exaggeration, even 30 years ago, to say the novel might be “one of the most penetrating attacks on English policy towards Ireland”, but it is certainly true that the novel’s hostility to British rule in Ireland is fairly rare in English fiction.

[2] For someone who is so well-informed about the events leading up to the Rising, and for someone from Dublin (although she lived the vast majority of her life in Britain), Murdoch makes a peculiar error in the postscript, which is set in 1938.  In the postscript you find out what happened to the characters.  Pat, for instance, was killed during the Rising.  Cathal, however, she has die in 1921 in the Irish Civil War, fighting on the anti-Treaty side and killed in his bed by a Black and Tan!!!  It seems very odd that she gets the date of the civil war wrong and mixes up the Tans with the Free Staters (although, of course, the tactics were alike).


Posted on January 17, 2013, in British state repression (general), Civil War period, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, James Connolly, Padraic Pearse, Republicanism post-1900, Reviews - books, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Iris Murdoch, Eoin MacNeill and the Rising.

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