The publication in 2009 of the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) by Cambridge University Press was a landmark event. Billed as ‘a resource for the nation’, it consists of eight million words and 9,014 entries covering 9,700 lives and was the product of over three decades of research and compilation. This book, brilliantly illustrated with atmospheric black and white drawings by David Rooney, seeks to capitalize on the approaching centenary of the 1916 Rising by showcasing forty articles from the DIB, dealing with forty-two men and women ‘whose careers, in one way or another, were deeply involved with the Easter Rising’.
The advantage of drawing on the DIB is that it facilitates a very broad and inclusive picture of 1916, and a great range of personalities and perspectives associated with the iconic moment of modern Irish republicanism. Along with documenting the lives of those who died or were executed, it is also concerned with the afterlives of those who survived; significantly, the nine women included in the book all survived. Historian Patrick Maume provides a nuanced introduction, concentrating on the historic context of 1916 and the subsequent assessments and reassessments of the Rising down to the present day.
This is a book to savour, both because of its diverse cast of characters and the quality of the contributors who provide entries that are erudite, often spiky, fresh, nuanced and skilfully composed. Many entries deal with household names, including Patrick Pearse and Constance Markievicz. Others are less well known but are now regarded as worthy of inclusion due to the extent to which the parameters of interpreting the Rising have broadened in recent years; thus there are entries for Margaret Skinnider, injured in combat, Mary Perolz, a trade unionist and one of five women internees deported to England after the Rising, and Bulmer Hobson, who was kidnapped before the Rising because of his opposition to the rebels’ plans.
The British perspective is also covered, with entries on Ivor Guest, Lord Lieutenant at the time of the rising, whose warnings about the need to clamp down on the organizers before the Rising were ignored, and Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, whose misjudgments during this period meant he had to accept political responsibility and resign after the Rising. Intense debate about the Rising continues; Joe Lee’s magisterial entry on Pearse suggests ‘the task of rescuing Pearse from the clutches of his idolaters and demonizers continues’. This book should greatly enhance and illuminate such debate.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and author of A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23, Profile Books (2015).