The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, by Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards is no friend of Irish republicanism. At a recent debate about the Easter Rising of April 24, 1916, up against her caustic remarks the Irish ambassador looked as if he was chewing a wasp. Yet this book describes in fascinated, and for us fascinating, detail the lives of the seven men who led the Rising, now sometimes termed ‘the rebellion’. Sentimentality is anathema to Edwards but she has produced a delightful roller-coaster of Irish whimsy, repressed sex, back-biting, romantic nationalism, poetry and deadly politics.

Edwards’s group biography brings out the sheer unlikeliness, from a modern perspective, that at the heart of these seven terrorists were three poets, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett. Encouraged and often funded by W B Yeats, they scraped a living by teaching Irish and publishing small, failing literary magazines. In one of the acute glimpses she provides of the whole picture, Dudley Edwards shows the Modernist James Joyce sneering at their verse, calling it ‘weary and foolish’, despising their insistence on the Irish tongue.

Patrick Pearse is her pièce de résistance. It’s easy to laugh at Pearse; in fact it’s become fashionable. Bob Geldof had a pop at him in his recent TV documentary about the Rising, but whatever his failings he led a movement, perhaps unique in history, where poetry really did change history.

Despite her trenchant, no-nonsense style, Dudley Edwards does understand the romantic soul, and writes well about its complexities. She can see what people such as historian Desmond Ryan saw in Pearse: ‘In his dashing moods [he] struck you as quite insane, but . . . it was pleasanter to go mad [with him] than all the solid sensible folk in the world.’

Courageously she goes for his most difficult side, the reality underlying all Pearse’s adoration of Irish mythical heroes. Her biography of him published in 1975 was condemned in Ireland because she dared to tackle his homoerotic worship of young boys.

Educational reforms of 1907 removed all restrictions on bilingual teaching. With the help of MacDonagh he set up St Enda’s school in Dublin, named after a fifth century King of Ulster, where teachers would be a ‘wise and tolerant friend rather than a man of terror’, and children could be ‘constantly reminded of the fact that they are a separate race from England, that it is a badge of slavery for a race to use the language of any other in preference to its own’.

Through life at St Enda’s, which would have given Ofsted a few headaches, Dudley Edwards explores the growing split between the Anglo-Irish heritage of Yeats and the Young Irish/Gaelic Leaguers who wanted the main language to be Irish. She patronises them rather the way we might the gluten-free Guardianistas of today, and with rather harsh glee points out that ‘dialect wars were a feature of the Gaelic League, with speakers of Munster Irish the most venomous warriors’.

They hated men such as Eamonn Ceannt and Pearse who spent their holidays in the West, avidly trying to pick up the authentic Connacht strain. The ethos of the school was taken from what Pearse saw of rural life in the West, seen as essentially ‘pure’, and he wanted the children to be a mixture of the Irish King Cuchulainn and the young Jesus, but it also had a progressive element in its child-centred approach. Dudley Edwards writes that it ‘buzzed with excitement, enthusiasm, hope and achievement’.

There was of course what we now see as a very dark side. Pearse was fascinated by Wagner’s use of Norse mythology to link masculinity, national identity and cultural regeneration. There were tensions which could not be admitted: ‘Pearse used to kiss the young boys,’ wrote one ex-pupil in the 1940s. ‘He tried to kiss me but I wouldn’t have it.’

He once claimed in a lecture that the ‘horror of comely nakedness was a British imperial invention’, but even MacDonagh and Plunkett had to say something when he published a poem extolling a child’s soft red mouth and how he longed to kiss it. When they explained how people might take it, Pearse was mortified. Dudley Edwards is subtle in her attempt to find the truth, carefully avoiding anachronism. ‘Those were innocent times,’ she writes, ‘and Pearse was an innocent man.’

He, Mac Diarmada, Ceannt and Plunkett all had severe mother problems. Plunkett’s was perhaps the worst, a cruel domestic tyrant who kept her children short of food and clothing and killed their pets. As Plunkett had severe TB her behaviour nearly killed him. He had the best background of the conspirators: his father was director of what is now the National Museum of Ireland, a lifelong friend of Oscar Wilde. Dudley Edwards takes us into that late Victorian household of privilege based on property, where children were starved physically and emotionally.

Perhaps maternal deprivation explains how these men became subsumed by what Yeats called ‘the vertigo of self-sacrifice’. In each case Dudley Edwards carefully charts their gradual move from passive poetry to the politics of violence and the deliberate embracing of death. Sean Mac Diarmada, a polio victim, could never quite fix on which spelling of his name would give the Gaelic authenticity he craved. All these highly individuated men craved a cause that would take their whole devotion; all wanted to live out a myth and in that they were a total success.

Alongside these gay, fey, literary creatures were the more flinty types you might expect to lead a bloody insurrection: James Connolly, born into dire poverty in Scotland who rejected Church and nationalism in favour of Marx, and Tom Clarke, born on the Isle of Wight, the son of a British soldier, who plotted the overthrow of the British Empire from his tiny tobacconist’s on what is now Parnell Street. Clarke’s life story could have been written by Conrad. The author accuses him of ‘Miltonic hate’ and being ‘the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web’.

Dudley Edwards skilfully links the shifting lives of these men. ‘The Connolly family moved to Dublin. At this time, Tom Clarke was about to enter his thirteenth year in jail, Pearse was founding the National Literary Society, MacDonagh was training for the priesthood, Ceannt was studying hard for his school exams, Mac Diarmada was struggling to become an apprentice teacher and Plunkett was making the best of yet another governess.’

Her writing captures the strange texture of the past, showing how our grandparents thought and behaved; the issues, some long dead, which stirred them into courage and fanaticism. Her deep understanding of the period is obvious as she glides back and forth in time, from the Victorian era of Home Rule to Bobby Sands. She knows her subject so well that she sometimes makes little digs as if she knows the people personally, complaining for instance that Clarke went on with his revolutionary Fenianism even though Redmond, the great parliamentary Home Ruler, had been kind enough to visit him in prison. She expects her subjects to behave well or she can turn very peevish with them.

She likes some of the Seven better than others. In her school-mistressy way she calls the unhappily named Eamonn Ceannt, once plain Mr Kent, ‘the least memorable’ of the Proclamation signatories, but ‘reliable and competent’ as if he was doing the money for the local Boy Scouts. She accuses him of having ‘dull leisure pursuits’. Well, we can’t all be Wolf Tone. He is easy to mock with his temperance beliefs, ‘do not drown the shamrock’, and passion for playing the Irish pipes even unasked on railway platforms. She scoffs at his ‘constipated’ style of writing pamphlets. But her chapter on his life gives us a glimpse of how pleasant life was becoming for lower-middle-class, educated Dubliners at the time: toying with socialist ideas, founding small papers, going to new plays, exploring Irish poetry afresh. She takes us to their hearths and into their many clubs.

You can see how Dudley Edwards must often annoy Irish Catholic readers. Her bias is sometimes painful: ‘The RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] during the 1880s became reluctantly became politicised, for the Land League had exacerbated grain strife.’ Being dirt-poor is no excuse in her book. But this work is so vivid and fair that at its tragic conclusion the reader is left with something like real mourning for the men described so closely. It is also highly entertaining. Her footnotes are a joy. Who knew that ‘the dear brown white-backed cow’ was another name for Ireland? We learn that Plunkett founded the Irish Esperanto Society, and although she loathes them, Edwards seems to know all the Fenian, IRB and IRA ballads since the 1880s and who wrote them.

She has produced an intimate work of love and hate, much of it her own, as if the Seven were her family members gathered around her own tea table, and doesn’t she give everyone concerned a wigging.


  1. I find it strange that a country so keen to obtain independence was so quick to surrender that independence within a few short generations, for pieces of silver.

    • Well I think one has to struggle now to understand how poor Eire was. It is perhaps understandable that the transformation from a sort of deliberate “basics” economy which had to export its youth, to a European “tiger” now wealthier than the North is regarded still a little mystically, and the EU is mixed up with that in people’s heads.

      • Joining the EU had some spectacular consequences. There used to be bachelor farmers – so called because their land was too poor to support a family. EU subsidies transformed them into wealthy men, often with quite hilarious results!

      • That reminds me. A common name for the Baltic states in the USSR was “the socialism display”. It was an open secret that those republics got the massive funding from the RSFSR and other Soviet republics to create an image of prosperous Soviet post-war economy and broadcast it among the Western European opinion makers.

        I wonder if this idea was ever reused by the USA or the EU. Like, maybe, in South Korea. Or in Ireland.

        • Interesting thought, but let’s take it back a generation. Sure we (the US) did – in West Germany and Japan. The Marshall plan, as good as it was for their people also served to demonstrate that our way was much better. Just how many comparisons were done (and by whom) between the DDR and the BRD, not to mention the Sov’s demonstrating it with a wall to keep their people in.

          • I don’t think that Marshal plan was to show the Soviets the superiority of the American way.

            I once read an interesting little theory, that post-war restoration was, in fact, about the State Department (populated by New Deal/Fabian types) having a carte blanche on building a society from scratch. Partly to “keep the Germans (and British; and Soviets) down”, partly to bootstrap the World economy.

            The theory went that modern Europe is more America than America – America without the GOP, the DOJ, the Red States, that drag on the way of inevitable social progress. Hence European anti-Americanism is, in fact, Ultra-Blue-Americanism, “Americans, you are not acting like True Americans should act”. Europeans are “more saint than a pope”, more progressive than a Dem party. Europe (those bits, that were “restored” by Americans) as a one giant Blue State.

            Sounds crazy? Try to compare the way they covered Obama with a way they cover Trump.

            I found the post I mentioned above:

            As for “who was actually comparing” – Western intellectuals were regular visitors to the Soviet Union from the 1920s. They were the audience – and the agents of influence – for Bolsheviks’ efforts in the West.

    • I remember visiting Dublin the year before they joined the Euro. Everybody was talking excitedly about it. The mood was that they were coming out of the dark ages and joining the modern forward-going world.

      • And that is indeed what membership of the EU has done for Ireland. I’m Irish and old enough to remember what a backward, poor, and dreary country it was before we joined the European Union. We lived for a long time with the legacy of De Valera’s isolationism. The joke used to be you knew when you crossed from the North to the South as soon as your car started to hit the pot holes in the road!

        • > I’m Irish and old enough to remember what a backward, poor, and dreary country it was before we joined the European Union.

          Do you think it’s the EU who turned Ireland around, and not the Irish?

          Also I heard this exact sentiment from the Greeks – a decade ago.

          • Of course it was. Ireland was a net beneficiary from the EU for decades. EU money for infrastructure and agricultural subsidies transformed the country.

          • Do you think the only reason for this charity is that French and Germans are generous souls? Or can’t count their money?

            I am glad for Irish, I really am – there are certain cultural similarities between Irish and Russians after all. But really – dependency is the other side of dominance. Look at what happens with Greece.

            A Russian will go an extra mile to guarantee that he doesn’t own a German (or a Chinese, for that matter) a single penny, ever.

    • I find it strange that a country that is so idealistic and romanticising about its violent republicanism and perpetuates its anti-British heritage in Northern Ireland has so many of its sons and daughters enjoying life in the UK, offering opinions on how the UK should be run and voting in UK elections.

    • The Scots Nats were ready to gain “independence” from the UK and to declare Scotland subservient to Brussels in the same breath.

  2. People forget that on the day of the Easter rising much of the population of Dublin were booing the ‘rebels’
    A month later a hard nationalist movement had formed.
    Which goes to show that is is often how the larger power reacts to terrorism, that has the more profound long term impact.

    • “is often how the larger power reacts to terrorism” How true that is. I often wonder if the long drawn out nature of “the troubles” reflected a reluctance to “get tough” or whether that would have propelled into war? I think it forgotten that the Uk Gov’s first intention was to protect the republican “civil rights” movement. And that Eire was at the time struggling out of a long period of pretty abject poverty. With Irish links I remain irritated at the “London” elite’s ignorance of this part of the UK and the curious reluctance to look at our most testing terrorist campaign (almost doing a Guy Fawkes in Brighton after all) for lessons learned.
      I remain quietly amused that the recent electoral reverse of Mrs May forces the Westminster Village to reluctantly cast their eyes north west.

      • Absolutely, I think we can all sense the discomfort of the London elite in having to deal with their country cousins with strange accents and hard edges.

      • The UK gov had nothing to do with responding to the civil rights movement. Northern Ireland had a devolved government, and the reaction came from the Unionist government, and then Prime Minster Terrence O’Neil. The stupidity and brutality of the treatment of a peaceful protest movement was so inept it lead ultimately to direct rule, which is where we are now.

        • The Wilson Goverment’s official reasoning reported at the time (yes I am that old) for sending in troops was exactly to protect what was perceived to be a peaceful civil rights protest/s, by the UK Gov. As you say Devolution didn’t mean Northern Ireland wasn’t also in the UK.

          • The civil rights movement started in the early 60s, but really got going in 1968, taking example from other student movements across the world that year. It was met with pretty harsh treatment from the RUC and B specials, which led to escalating violence. The troops were sent in after the Unionists had lost control of the situation in 1969. The army was under the political control of the Unionist government of Brian Faulkner till direct rule in 1972. Between ’69 and ’72 the Unionists managed to introduce internment without trial, which was the final spark to set our own squalid little civil war aflame. In 1968, there was no IRA, barring a few remnants from the campaigns in the 40s and 50s, who were completely marginal. By 1972 young guys were queuing up to join. All in all it was a masterclass in how to needlessly screw things up. After all what the civil rights movement was asking for really wasn’t that controversial was it – one man one vote and fair electoral boundaries?

          • Of course, your tewwowists of choice were just needlessly pwovoked. This is ridiculous. Have you ever actually read a book? I mean: one without pictures of kittens and hamsters?

          • lol I’m not sure how I managed it but you I do seem to have got to you. Actually on this one I don’t need to read a book, I was there. Also how did you know I’m a cat lover?

    • Absolutely right. It wasn’t even that the British chose to execute the leaders, but the way it was done, presumably to make an example of them, but actually turning them into martyrs and national heroes.

  3. An interesting and informative article.

    I think it is absolutely wrong to categorise the leaders of the 1916 rebellion as terrorists. They orchestrated a head on military confrontation with the British. That is not terrorism. There was a huge asymmetry in the military capabilities on either side, and although they fought bravely, the rising was always futile. Their sacrifice did however transform the mood of the country, especially in light of the crass and brutal British response to it. They were succeded by Michael Collins, who was anything but naive, understood perfectly asymetric warfare, and prosecuted a ruthless, vicious, and successful guerilla campaign againt the British. If you want to call anyone a terrorist, Collins is your man.

    • “We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but
      bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing and a nation which
      regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.”

      The Irish Republican romancing of bloodshed continues. More loyal Irish men fought and died in the trenches against the Irish republican “ally”, Germany, than participated in the Easter Rising.

      • “More loyal Irish men…”

        A lot more. Tens of thousands of men from the (by then) Irish Republic volunteered for the British armed forces between 1939 and 1945, as well.

        It’s a bit of an irony that the wartime film of “Henry V”, starring Laurence Olivier, was filmed in the Republic of Ireland and that the extras cheering for Henry’s pre-Agincourt speech were provided by the Irish Army, a formation which would have been rendered instantly redundant in the event of Britain’s defeat.

      • Those Irishmen that fought on the allied side against Hitler were excluded and ostracised when they returned to Eire in 1945 by De Valera, who had walked to the German Embassy in April 1945 to sign the book of condolences.
        A country imprisoned and consumed by hatred.

        • There was a time when Remembrance ceremonies in the Irish Republic could have an honour guard from the Irish Army, but only if no Union flags were displayed. I think that changed, fairly recently, but probably too late for any WWI veterans.

          There should be no contradiction between being a veteran of the British Army/ RN/ RAF and a loyal citizen of the Irish Republic.

    • The Easter Rising terrorists were not “military” in any conceivable sense. They had no army, represented no people and declared war on nobody’s behalf.

      Stick to physics.

          • Your ignorance really isn’t my problem. The IRV and the other groups like the ICA were not covert organisations. They wore uniforms and drilled openly. The rising was a military confrontation with the British, and was not carried out to be a futile gesture. They really thought they could win. The rising was supposed to be across the whole country, but was restricted to Dublin, largely due to the failure of Casement’s plot to import arms for the IRV. They did not target civilians, they did not carry out assassinations. The drew battle lines and directly faced the British army. They fought bravely and in the end lost, though the British had to use artillery to defeat them. The reason they lost was precisely because they were not terrorist. Michael Collins on the other hand orchestrated a campaign of assassinations of off duty British servicemen. You could call that terrorism if you like. Whatever you call it it worked. He won, and Ireland became independent.


          • A terrorist insurgency is not a military campaign. And do me a favour with the “British had to use artillery to defeat them” twaddle. The British Army had only four working artillery pieces in the whole of Ireland, you ignoramus. You’re thinking of the Irish Civil War, when Collins borrowed British guns to shell the Four Courts.

          • During the 1916 Rising ,the Irish Volunteers entrenched themselves in many buildings,the British decided to use artillery to root them out.

            From Wednesday on, Liberty Hall, the GPO and other buildings in Sackville Street came under artillery and incendiary fire, mostly from the gunboat Helga at anchor in the Liffey. The Imperial Hotel located over Clery’sdepartment store, across the street from the GPO, was one of the first buildings to be set on fire; soon most buildings between that and the Liffey were in flames. Connolly had naively believed that the British would not use artillery in city areas because as capitalists they would be reluctant to destroy property.

            Their main firepower was provided by the gunboat Helga and field artillery(namely 18 pounder artillery guns,IVCO) summoned from their garrison at Athlone which they positioned on the north side of the city at Prussia Street, Phibsborough and the Cabra road. These guns shelled large parts of the city throughout the week and burned much of it down. (The first building shelled was Liberty Hall, which ironically had been abandoned since the beginning of the Rising.) Interestingly the Helga’s guns had to stop firing as the elevation necessary to fire over the railway bridge meant that her shells were endangering the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, (Helga was later bought by the government of the Irish Free State, and was the first ship in its navy)

          • If it was a military confrontation as you say then the use of artillery was perfectly legitimate. It was street fighting so the stubbornness of the rebels in defending buildings is not especially distinctive and certainly not unique.

          • “The rising was a military confrontation with the British.”

            Many of whom were actually Irish. As were the unarmed policemen on bicycles whom the republicans murdered.

            And some of the rebels were British, or at least Anglo-Irish, like Countess Markievicz, a sort of proto-Harriet Harmon, who murdered British prisoners (of war, according to you) and whom, unsurprisingly, Theresa May wants to “honour”.

          • It was nonetheless a military confrontation, and you’re right there is a tangled history between Ireland and England. I am unaware though that Countess Markievicz murdered anyone – do you have a reference for that?

    • They were rebels rather than terrorists but the Fenian movement had a prior history of terrorism, for example the dynamite campaign of the late 19th Century and various murders.

    • Couldn’t “the crass and brutal British response” have had something to do with the fact that people do not like to be stabbed in the back in the middle of a world war?

  4. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of Ireland’s & Britain’s finest Journalists & Historians and one of the few to challenge the myths upon which the Irish nationalist mindset is built. Being Irish myself, I regularly encounter hostility when I point out to people that the 1916 rebels were similar to the terrorists of the provisional IRA in that they were opposed by the majority in Ireland. They shot dead Irish UK soldiers, police and even civilians who got in their way. At the time the majority of Ireland wanted Home Rule, slightly more autonomy than what Scotland have today but still with strong links to Britain, but it was scuppered by both the extremist nationalists & unionists both who were entrenched in uncompromising positions. The government’s response to 1916 rising was a terrible mistake. Not only were militant nationalists interned, but so were some moderate ones who opposed the rebels. In the election of 1918 if there had been proportional representation the constitutional home rule nationalists wouldn’t have lost near as much ground as they did to the militants.

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