British and Irish political relations during the Irish Rebellions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Nathalie du Rivage, class of 2010

During the summer of 2009, I traveled to Ireland and England to research British and Irish political relations during the Irish Rebellions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These uprisings, by small groups of nationalists, sought to establish a free Irish Republic independent of Britain. The British, who feared creating martyrs out of the nationalist leaders, put the rebellions of the nineteenth century down quietly. Few were punished and prison terms and executions were limited only to the top leaders. The leniency shown by the British insured that the rebels did not gather any momentum for the nationalist movement, as most Irishmen favored Home Rule for Ireland rather than outright independence. However, the Easter Rising of 1916 elicited a much different response from the British. Sixteen leaders were executed, thousands were arrested and deported without trial and all of Ireland was placed under military law. My research seeks to go beyond traditional British and Irish narratives of these rebellions and understand the roles transnationalism and racism played in the change in Britain’s political response to the Irish Rebellion at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I began my research trip at Kilmainham Goal a beautiful Victorian prison, which gained fame for the Irish political prisoners that were held there. It was there, in the Stone Breakers Yard, that fifteen of the sixteen rebels of the Easter Rising were executed. The tour guide told us of Joseph M. Plunkett, one of the rebels, and Grace Gifford. Their story was critical in fostering sympathy for the rebels. Joseph and Grace were engaged to be married on Easter Sunday. However, they had to postpone the marriage because of the rebellion. Joseph was arrested and he did everything he could to be able to marry Grace. Finally, they were granted permission. The couple was married in the chapel of the prison, and they were allowed ten supervised minutes together, the prison guard with watch in hand. Then Grace was asked to leave and Joseph was executed the next morning. In the also gift shop I purchased a book Last Words, which is a compilation of letters from the rebel final days. I was able to see original copies of some of these documents later in my trip.

The first archive I visited was the Archive of the Archdiocese of Dublin. Here I was able to access the papers of Cardinal Cullen. The Cardinal was instrumental in convincing the British not to martyr the rebels of the 1867 rebellion. Unfortunately, the archive had recently moved to a new building and was in the process of reorganizing. They misplaced the box of documents pertaining to Irish Fienans, a blanket term that was applied to all Irishmen in favor of an independent Ireland. I was able however to find some pertinent documents in a miscellaneous box.

My second archive was the Special Collections of Trinity College. This collection contained the papers and correspondence of John Dillon an Irish nationalist and Member of Parliament who gave a number of impassioned speeches in the House of Commons condemning the British response to the Easter Rising.

The final stop in Ireland was the National Library. In the main collection, I accessed the digital archive of The Irish Times looking at the changing popular opinion of the rebellion from the first incident to the results of the British reaction. I was surprised at the lack of coverage of the executions of the prisoners. Later in my trip, I learned that the British were censoring The Irish Times. I also was able to access the special collections of the National Library. There I looked at the papers and correspondence of the key players of the Irish rebellion of 1916, including a transcription of Jack Plunkett, the brother of Joseph M. Plunkett, recollections of the events of the rising.

I then traveled to England where the majority of my three-day stay was spent in the Special Collections of Oxford University. The H.H. Asquith Papers contained a large collection of documents regarding the British political and military response to the Easter Rising. This was probably the most interesting and pertinent to my research. The role of the Irish collaboration with the Germans was discussed in many of the documents and the underlying racism that influenced British policy was also apparent in many of these documents.

In addition to providing me with ample primary source material for my thesis, the trip also exposed me to the many challenges and rewards of archival research. From the deciphering handwriting that was more akin to hieroglyphs than English to the reading of the last words of a doomed rebel to his beloved, this fellowship was an invaluable opportunity that I would recommend to any aspiring historian.