VIVID FACES: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923. By R.F. Foster. Norton. 332 pages. $29.95.
Ireland is a country to whose history the word “tragic” is often appended, and perhaps with good reason. The famine, the diaspora, the sectarian violence and, beneath it all, the constant, centuries long, maddeningly complex struggle with Britain.
Thus, it is fitting that, despite its title, most of R.F. Foster’s book is taken up with an investigation of the people who experienced, directly or indirectly, Dublin’s Easter Rising of 1916, a pivotal event of modern Irish history. What followed, up to the establishment of the Free State in 1922 and beyond, is also given a thorough treatment, but with a clear implication that the Rising was the political, historical, cultural and, perhaps most importantly, emotional center of Irish national consciousness.
Foster breaks his study down into a series of themes (e.g., learning, writing, arming) that move his story along chronologically. He uses this framework to build one of his key arguments: that many who were part of the revolutionary generation differed from their predecessors primarily in their gradual loss of confidence in the usefulness of constitutional nationalism and Home Rule.
The author examines what will be for many a daunting number of individuals, some of whom have both English and Irish names. Interwoven in their stories are the backgrounds of the groups and movements that influenced their beliefs, perhaps most prominently the Gaelic League, the Christian Brothers religious order, Dublin’s vibrant theater and newspaper scenes and the European socialist and labor activities of the period.
The Rising itself has been written about at length, and it is possible that Foster’s more subtle points will linger longest in the reader’s mind. First, if the Rising is sometimes considered quixotic, it might be because “the inequities of the Irish land system had already been addressed” and, as author Sean O’Faolain pointed out, “the panoply of Irish historical grievances used as the rationalization for armed resistance had (in 1916) become purely emotional impulses.”
These assertions dovetail with Foster’s contention that the speeches of those about to be executed for treason following the Rising (for some, more memorable than the revolt itself), enshrined the “national martyrology endorsed by Catholic traditions of holy dying and sacrificial blood.”
Finally, to darken the picture a bit more, Foster devotes a good deal of space to a discussion of Ireland’s “cult of guns” that developed in the early 20th century, arguing that as many as 250,000 men were enrolled in paramilitary organizations prior to World War I, and stating bluntly that it is unlikely that armed rebellion would have taken place without “the spectacular commitment to military posturing which existed in radical Irish circles.”
If the nature of a revolution is determined by the national character of the people who produce it, then it is tempting to question whether the Easter Rising reflected a peculiarly Irish way of waging war.
Of course, the story of the Rising and the people who lived through it runs much deeper and wider than what has been discussed here. Foster is a major scholar, the author of “Modern Ireland,” considered by some to be the standard history. He has constructed his book upon a rich trove of primary sources, including the rather recently (2003) opened Irish Bureau of Military History. What makes “Vivid Faces” particularly Irish, however, is Foster’s ability to communicate dry historical details in an accessible, conversational tone. In short, not only does the book educate, it also makes the reader want to invite the author into the parlor for a pint and plate of soda bread.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.