Book Review: Vivid Faces - The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923

It doesn’t seem that long ago. April 1966. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rebellion and ceremonies were being held at my school. The clergy were in attendance — no surprise there; the school was a Franciscan college. But as I recall there was at least one high-ranking bishop. And there was a troop of veterans from the conflict itself; men that looked very old to me at fifteen, but who were probably in their mid-70s. My honor was to play the salute to the flag as it was raised in ceremony. My trumpet was well-shone and the rendition note-perfect. About this time next year the celebrations for the one-hundredth anniversary will be winding up in earnest and I have no doubt that the whole endeavor will come under much more scrutiny than it did those fifty years ago. 
Just in time for the anniversary and the the ensuing debates is a fascinating book by R.F. Foster, whose book Modern Ireland is regarded by many as the definitive history of Ireland since 1600. The  new book, Vivid Faces - The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923, gets its title from the iconic poem by Yeats, Easter 1916:



        I have met them at close of day

        Coming with vivid faces

        From counter or desk among grey   

        Eighteenth-century houses.

        I have passed with a nod of the head   

        Or polite meaningless words,   

        Or have lingered awhile and said

        Polite meaningless words,

        And thought before I had done

        Of a mocking tale or a gibe

        To please a companion

        Around the fire at the club,   

        Being certain that they and I

        But lived where motley is worn: … 


My first understanding of the Easter Uprising (as it’s most commonly known) was pretty much the standard hagiographies of the executed leaders (with somewhat scanter attention paid to Connolly) and a romantic story that these poets (which many were) sacrificed themselves in order to shake the Irish people out of their slumber and to instigate a rebellion that would eventually lead to Irish freedom. Over the years I’ve learned that it was much more complicated than that at a political level but Foster’s book explains how much more complicated it was on a human level. The cultural and social forces at work were many and sometimes contradictory. There were those who looked to an idealized past of heroes and noble thoughts and deeds. There were women struggling for suffrage who believed that a revolution would clear the decks of all the old hide-bound ways and that a new beginning would come about. There were Northern Unionists from well-to-do families who were in revolt against their history and their class. There were socialists who wanted to establish a new order and level social inequities. There were Catholic mystics with yearning for blood sacrifice … 

Though all this, however, was the fact the a bill of Home Rule, granting autonomy to Ireland but keeping it as part of the United Kingdom, had already been signed by the British Parliament but was suspended due to the First World War. Unionist factions in the North of Ireland — those who supported union with Great Britain and were thus against Home Rule — had started arming to stave off any implementation and the Irish Volunteers (a paramilitary group in the Southern part of the country) also started arming in response. All of this was done more or less openly in front of the English authorities. In fact, it’s quite astonishing how much rebellious oratory, writing, performing, drilling and training was done right under the noses of said authorities. They were either reluctant to deal with the issue — other than the fact that some of the rebels were intent on securing help from Germany — or they didn’t believe that what was being so openly threatened was anything more than bravado. 

Based on diaries, personal letters and interviews in the Archives of Military History of Ireland, the book is at once an engrossing read and a thicket of information. It’s immaculately researched with reams of notes. many of the names were familiar to me but for someone coming to the story with only a passing knowledge it could be a bit impenetrable. Foster also takes various observation points, looking at the actors from different angles and, while this helps to build a more three-dimensional portrait of the subjects, it can also get confusing. 

Still, this is a hugely worthwhile book and a great addition to the literature on the subject. 


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