Felix M Larkin



St Kevin's Lit. Assoc.


"Francis Shaw SJ: his life, ministry and the Easter Rising"


I’ll begin on a personal note, if I may. I had an aunt, sadly recently deceased, who was a nurse in St Vincent’s hospital over sixty years ago – and, as Patrick pointed out in his paper, Fr Francis Shaw directed the sodality of the nursing staff there and my aunt, who was a pious lady, was accordingly a great friend of his. When I was born in the nearby Hatch Street Nursing Home – now gone – my aunt arranged for Fr Shaw to visit my mother, and he blessed me in my cradle. I like to think that that early encounter with Fr Shaw set me on the path to becoming the unapologetically revisionist historian that I am, and that my revisionist ethic – the imperative to question received versions of the past – is thus divinely sanctioned, if not divinely inspired.

My only other encounter with Fr Shaw was an intellectual one – reading his essay, “The Canon of Irish History – A Challenge”, when it appeared in Studies in Summer 1972. I was then completing my MA in Modern Irish History in UCD, and I can well remember the enormous public controversy which the essay generated. For many, it was (as Patrick has stated) a piece of secular blasphemy – an irreverent, irresponsible debunking of the foundation event of the Irish state, the 1916 Rising, and of a revered figure, Patrick Pearse. To evoke a contemporary parallel, it offended many in much the same way as certain cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. The difference, of course, was that Fr Shaw was already dead when his work appeared – precluding the possibility that some latter day ‘patriot’, an Irish equivalent of a Jihadist, might take a pot shot at him. Many, of course, did take metaphorical pot shots at his work – Patrick has mentioned in particular the critiques offered by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh and Professor Joe Lee – and, as Patrick has explained, the editor of Studies had self-censored it in 1966 when Fr Shaw offered it for publication in the volume of Studies which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. I had not realised, until Patrick told us this evening, that it was only when a manuscript copy of the essay was acquired by the New Ulster Movement and began to circulate informally in certain quarters that it was decided to publish it in Studies so as to assert the Jesuits’ copyright interest in the piece. It became a key text in revisionist Irish history, and we this evening are greatly indebted to Patrick Maume for again bringing it to our attention – and for doing so at this particular time when we are soon to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising.

But it is important not to overestimate the importance of Fr Shaw’s essay. The scholarly re-assessment of the Easter Rising had begun long before the publication of Fr Shaw’s essay in 1972 – and indeed some years before it was written in 1966. ‘Revisionism’ as applied to 1916 can be traced back to the publication by the Revd Professor F.X. Martin of Eoin MacNeill’s two memoranda on the Rising in Irish Historical Studies in 1961 – which publication Fr Martin himself later described as ‘the first sharp question mark against the accepted story about 1916’. The first of these memoranda, written in February 1916 (two months before the Rising), set out the case against a precipitate insurrection for the benefit of those members of the Volunteers’ headquarters staff who advocated such action – Pearse, Plunkett, Ceannt and MacDonagh. The memorandum was an eloquent plea for a more modest, realistic and practical approach to furthering the aims of the Volunteer movement. MacNeill wrote that ‘the only reason that could justify general active military measures ... would be a reasonably calculated or estimated prospect of success, in the military sense ... [and] not merely some future moral or political advantage which may be hoped for as a result of non-success’. Thus he disposed of Pearse’s idea of ‘blood sacrifice leading to national redemption’. The second memorandum was written in 1917, and gives MacNeill’s account of the events leading up to the outbreak of the Rising: his late discovery of the plans for the Rising which had been withheld from him; his discussions with Pearse and others (both those who supported the imminent insurrection and those opposed to it); and his issuing of the countermanding order which he hoped would abort the Rising. This document shows ‘that MacNeill had been deceived in particular by Pearse, MacDermott, Plunkett and MacDonagh, and that at least Pearse and Plunkett had lied to him about their intentions’. I am here quoting from Fr Martin’s commentary. The subliminal message for readers of the two MacNeill memoranda in 1961 was that there were valid narratives and interpretations of the Rising other than those that had been self-consciously fashioned by the 1916 leaders themselves and later endorsed by the Irish state through its education system and in so many other insidious ways. This was revisionism at its best!

Martin followed up his work on MacNeill by publishing a collection of fourteen letters written by the veteran county Tyrone republican, Dr Patrick McCartan, a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB, while in hiding both during and immediately after the Rising. They were addressed to his close friend and mentor, Joe McGarrity, a leader of Clan-na-Gael, the American organisation that had assisted financially and otherwise in the preparations for the Rising. McCartan – like MacNeill – had opposed the Rising, and he regarded MacNeill’s countermanding order as ‘an act of rare moral courage’: Martin explained that ‘for McCartan it was unjustifiable to lead the Irish Volunteers into an armed revolt, ill-prepared as they were in arms, training and officers’. The letters recounted the manoeuvrings within the IRB in the months preceding the Rising, and they reveal a story of insubordination and deceit on the part of the 1916 leaders that parallels almost precisely their behaviour within the Irish Volunteers. In short, ‘the powers of the Council ... [had] been usurped by a few’ – to quote McCartan. Thus, Fr Martin concluded that ‘the Rising was “a conspiracy of a conspiracy of a minority”, that is an armed rebellion, the result of an intrigue of the Military Council, operating secretly within the IRB, who in their turn were operating secretly within the Irish Volunteers, who were an acknowledged minority among Irish nationalists”.

Fr Shaw was aware of F.X. Martin’s work – we know that because the MacNeill memoranda were cited in his Studies essay – but I have found no record of what Fr Martin felt about Shaw’s essay when it appeared in 1972. Shaw was, however, a Celtic scholar rather than a pure historian and, as Patrick has outlined, his essay involved a close textual analysis of Pearse’s writings. Most historians – ‘revisionists’ included – would be uneasy with that modus operandi and with the somewhat polemical tone of Shaw’s work. My instinct is that Fr Martin would probably have shared that unease, and he would certainly have regarded Shaw’s focus on Pearse as misplaced. In a Thomas Davis lecture given on Radio Éireann in 1966, he had argued that Pearse’s putative role in 1916 was exaggerated and that MacDermott was the real mastermind. He stated that ‘if any single person is to be given credit ... it was Sean MacDermott’– and in Michael Tierney’s biography of Eoin MacNeill, edited and published by Martin after Tierney’s death, Tierney wrote that ‘Pearse himself was merely an actor directed and stage-managed by the real chief conspirator, MacDermott’. So I think Fr Martin’s silence in this instance was significant: he would not have wanted to criticise a fellow-scholar who was determined, like himself, to change the accepted interpretation of 1916.

Before concluding, I would like to mention another priest-historian, Fr Brendan Bradshaw, whose work is out of sympathy with the revisionist impulse of Fr Shaw and Fr Martin. Bradshaw studied under F.X. Martin in UCD, but in an essay in Irish Historical Studies in 1989 he took issue with the methodology and values of revisionist historiography not just as applied to the Easter Rising, but across the full range of Irish history – and his work has had great influence on a younger generation of Irish historians who now regard themselves as ‘post-revisionists’. Indeed, Fr Bradshaw could be described as the godfather of post-revisionism, just as Fr Shaw and Fr Martin were dubbed the ‘two godfathers of revisionism’ by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh. I am tempted to regard all three as a ‘holy trinity’ of priest-historians, but Bradshaw’s conception of the role of the historian is radically different from that of the other two – and of revisionist historians in general. He seems to regard historians as having a duty to create, or at least to contribute to creating, a sense of national cohesion through the agency of the history they write, to reinforce a sense of an ‘imagined community’ (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase) – albeit without doing violence to high standards of professional accuracy. In the essay to which I refer, he wrote about the need to develop ‘a perception of Irish history as the “nation’s past”’ and he deprecated

... a perspective on Irish history that would depopulate it of heroic figures, struggling in the cause of national liberation; a perspective which would depopulate it of an immemorial native race, the cumulative record of whose achievements and sufferings constitutes such a rich treasury of culture and human experience; a perspective, indeed, from which the modern Irish community would seem as aliens in their own land – for ‘the past is a foreign country’.
This is very close to a view of history as propaganda – atavistic, even anti-intellectual. It has been characterised by Roy Foster as ‘nationalism with footnotes’. It is ‘history’ as presented in the film ‘Mise Éire’, released on the eve of the 1960s and glorifying 1916 and the War of Independence to the strains of Seán Ó Riada’s evocative music – comparable in its patriotic fervour and triumphalism with Sibelius’ symphonic poem ‘Finlandia’. In contrast, the approach that should characterise the work of historians is one of interrogating the past, questioning received orthodoxies and restoring their frail and imperfect humanity to heroes – the mindset is sceptical, almost iconoclastic. This is how advances in knowledge and understanding are made. For me, the activity of being a historian is well summed up in these words of Professor John O’Meara of UCD, one of the foremost Catholic thinkers of the mid to late twentieth century in Ireland, taken from his autobiographical volume The singing-masters:

Yet one goes on, partly perhaps for reasons of history: to make known the truth, however little more, about some important figure in the past; to remove from him the imputations, favourable or unfavourable, which successful groups in bolstering their power, in good faith or confusedly or in simple bad faith, attribute to him. This, however small an achievement in itself, participates in the transcending importance of the discovery of truth, which is ultimately one.
Fr Shaw and Fr Martin tried to remove some imputations, some illusions and some of the mythology about 1916. Hopefully we can emulate their good example, most especially in this decade of centenary commemorations when the temptation to do otherwise seems overwhelming. Patrick Maume has made a good start this evening, and I thank him for it.

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