Title: Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916
Author: Peter de Rosa
Length: 536 pages (includes image plates, notes, bibliography, and index)
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Ireland’s history is something the English should remember and the Irish should forget.
A monumental undertaking, Rebels attempts to tell the story of nearly every major player (and some minor ones) involved in the Easter Rising of 1916, in which a few thousand men took up arms in Dublin and declared Ireland to be a republic independent of the British Empire. It begins at the end–readers know going in that the rebel leaders’ ultimate fate is a tragic one–and circles back around, starting two years before the Rising when it was little more than a pipe dream and following the planning process to its dramatic and disastrous conclusion.
This book’s high Goodreads rating made me select it as the Easter Rising account I would read to mark the hundredth anniversary of the rising itself (April 24-29). Alas, I think I would do a bit more digging if I could choose again. I’m not as critical as this New York Times review, but I see where they were coming from.
Peter de Rosa is an academic, but not a historian; perhaps for that reason, his book reads like a novel, with lots of dialogue–most of which, I must assume, is fictitious; educated guesses regarding of what was actually said (and felt…and thought) by the principal actors in this drama. That was the book’s supreme downfall. I don’t necessarily want something dry and dull, but instead of being readable like a novel, Rebels was shot through with so many characters, so many events, so much everything–I got bogged down (rather than caught up) in all of it.
I started this book on St. Patrick’s Day, thinking that would give me plenty of time to finish it by the 100th anniversary. It did, but only just. Dear God, is it ever slow, slow, slow. I crawled through it, in part because I read other things in the meantime and in part because of the bogging down I mentioned earlier. Only skimming and force of will carried me through the last half of Rebels in a week.
The Easter Rising is a compelling tale, and I can hardly blame de Rosa for making characters out of the likes of Patrick Pearse, the dreamy, idealistic schoolmaster whose brainchild the Rising was, or of James Connolly, the rough-and-tumble socialist warrior. The problem was, he made characters out of all of them, introducing even the most minor figure in great detail, even if that person was rarely to be mentioned again. There were so many names that I stopped bothering to go back and double-check who they were, choosing to simply glean what I could from any given passage and keep reading instead.
The sections about the Rising itself and the aftermath of it were the tightest, most focused, and therefore the most effective parts of the book. Prior to that, I also thought de Rosa did a good job telling the story of the Aud, the disguised German steamer that carried arms to Ireland–only to be discovered by the British, further dooming the out-manned, outgunned rebels. And I did very much care for the leaders and their families by the end–for the Pearse bothers, for Connolly and his army of children; for the sickly Joe Plunkett, married in prison to his sweetheart Grace mere hours before his execution; for all the recklessly, selflessly brave men and women who rose up against impossible odds to end centuries of oppressive foreign rule.
I only wish the author had taken a few steps back reconsidered his approach before he began writing.
From a history book like this, dealing with a topic about which I have little background knowledge, I want a clear, concise narrative. I want facts and analysis, not guessed-at feelings and dialogue. However, I do feel like I understand the Easter Rising better after having read this, though it took a long time and a lot of effort and a lot of reading in between the lines. And though I don’t care for de Rosa’s style, he clearly did a great deal of research and felt that he came to know these people as people. (This is, of course, a detriment to his actual writing, since he makes a lot of assumptions and judgments in the narrative.) There’s a lot of heart in this book. So for those two reasons, I’m giving Rebels three and a half stars.
For all the troubles and bloodshed in Ireland since the Rising happened a century ago, I do hope that Pearse and the rest, wherever they are, know that their dream of an independent Irish Republic did, eventually, become a reality. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty, and it’s still not perfect–but it’s real. In that way, I suppose their story–tragic as it is–has a happy ending after all.