A review of The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote this in a newspaper article some years ago: “With another generation of intransigents murdering in our name, isn’t it time we contemplated the heresy that the 1916 rebellion was misconceived and without justification, and that the physical force tradition in the 20th century has been an unmitigated disaster?”

Reading previous works by this author has changed my thinking about the Irish fight for independence in general. I have picked up on her regular theme and am broadly in agreement with it, although I do not agree with everything she writes in her newspaper columns.

In her introduction to The Seven, she reiterates that theme: “I was fascinated by the nationalist preoccupation with a seamless lineage of heroes and martyrs, particularly over the last two centuries, who have been used to inspire generation after generation to kill and die for Ireland without any regard for the wishes of the people”.

The Easter Rising happened because seven men decided and lied to their friends about their intentions. The plan was never put to a vote. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s approach in this book is to examine the lives of the seven members of the IRB Military Council and  to ask “why and how such an apparently ill-matched group should have teamed up and done what they did, what the chemistry was like between them, and who led whom and how”.

This concentration on the seven is an effective organising principle and the author manages successfully to work into the seven basic essays a great deal of material about other personalities in the longer story of Irish revolution. Also within those seven essays we can identify some common themes even when the individual personalities seem very different. For example, Thomas Clarke and James Connolly were both supremely indifferent to the suffering they inflicted on their families. They were both racial bigots as were other heroes outside the Seven, such as John Mitchel, O’Donovan Rossa and The O’Rahilly. Dudley Edwards writes that songs and stories helped “to feed a sense of racial superiority and Irish exceptionalism and feed a myth-laden grievance culture”.

Patrick Pearse’s weird obsession with blood sacrifice contrasts starkly with Daniel O’Connell’s declaration that freedom was not worth a drop of blood.  In their machinations against Bulmer Hobson and Eoin McNeill, in their lying and dishonourable subterfuge, the Seven clearly showed that, no matter how diverse their personalities, they were united in their arrogant contempt for the will of the people or for the opinions of anyone who disagreed with them.

As soon as I learnt that this book had been published, I placed an order. I tried to avoid reading other reviews so that I could approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, I could not avoid tripping over some discussion of the book on Facebook. The view of 1916 argued in this book has become mainstream rather than controversial. One would not think so reading the comments of some people on Facebook. One man condemned the book without seeing it. One woman gave it anticipatory praise even though she had called me “intellectually weak” and “unintelligent” for expressing identical views to those of Ruth Dudley Edwards.

The critic’s comments about a book he had not read essentially turned into a review of a review of the book by historian Diarmaid Ferriter. I was led to believe that Ferriter had condemned the book as unprofessional, unoriginal and falling short of expected academic ethics. I found Ferriter’s review much more nuanced than that. He praised Dudley Edwards’s 1977 biography of Pearse and described the current book as “ambitious”. Ferriter did have qualms about her use of sources and found the book unoriginal. The author maintains that this was intended as a work for the general reader rather than an attempt to examine new primary sources and break new ground. Colm Tóibín is quoted on the cover of The Seven : “A superb introduction to this period of momentous change in Irish history”. My Facebook critic who had not read The Seven before he pontificated about it thought Tóibín’s opinion was worthless because he is a writer of fiction rather than an historian. I was amused to note that my copy of Ferriter’s excellent book The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 bears a prominent quotation from Tóibín: “A landmark book”.

“Her crass assumptions about and character assassinations of the seven reveal the fiction writer. She attempts to make her villains as evil and unhinged as possible.” Kevin Lynch wrote in the UK Independent.

There was a very peculiar review on Amazon: “This is badly written base spew. It should carry a caveat emptor from Amazon as poisen pen potraits written by a seemingly self hating Irish woman. It pounds and pounds its anti-Irish message so repetively that initial gasps of incredulity at such base bias by a suppoused Historian gives way to eventual boredom. Unable to finish it.” Someone else presuming to judge a book she had not read, someone with only a fleeting acquaintance with literacy.

I did not notice any deficiencies in the citations. The bibliography, notes and index cover 32 pages. That is good enough for me. The proof reading and copy editing is a little slack in places. On page 129 there is a reference to the “Boar War”. There are a few sentences that have to be read more than once before they shed their ambiguity.

I was surprised to be told that Connolly and Constance Markievicz had been lovers. A citation to back that up would have been handy. I was not surprised to read that Pearse “was under a cloud because it was known that he used to kiss boys in his school”. I can understand why people who need heroes might be offended at Dudley Edwards quoting St John Ervine’s assessment of Pearse: “I thought Pearse a degenerate, witless man with an over-emotionalised nature who really ought to have been certified in his youth”.

I have read a good deal about this subject over the past fifty years or so but did not find my intelligence insulted by this new book. I was still able to learn new things. The world cannot be told often enough about the key theme of this book, which also has a resonance today in my adopted home of Sri Lanka: “The desire to be posthumously famous was regarded as a perfectly good reason to be a revolutionary rather than as dangerous egocentricity and narcissism”.

I used to think of the rebels of 1916 as heroes. Now I agree with Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that has need of heroes”.