ireland
14) Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising: The Story of Sir Matthew Nathan, by Leon Ó Broin

This is a good example of how to take a rich and largely untapped vein of source material - the private papers of Sir Matthew Nathan, supplemented by the memoirs of Arthur Hamilton Norway and his wife Mary Louisa - and turn it into a good read. It's not as comprehensive - because it doesn't aim to be - as Charles Townshend's more recent book, but is way better than Brian Barton's treatment of similar documents.

Sir Matthew Nathan was the most senior civil servant in Ireland in 1916. Because the political head of government, Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, spent most of his time in London, and their nominal superior, the Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimborne, was being kept out of the loop, Nathan was effectively in day-to-day control of the whole of Ireland until events overwhelmed him on that Easter Monday. He was a dedicated documenter of his own activities, and therefore a historian's dream: and Mrs Norway published her own reminiscences of the Rising shortly afterwards, from the perspective of the woman whose husband ran the GPO. (Their son later reminisced as well.)

The first half of the book is, sensibly enough, taken up with an account of Nathan's career in Ireland and before up to Easter 1916, and how it was that the rebellion was allowed to break out. It illustrates well one of the points also made by Townshend, that the old Irish Nationalist Party had completely lost credibility by 1915. But a related point that was largely new to me was the extent to which Nathan in particular was discussing the handing over of control of the government to a Home Rule administration headed by John Redmond and John Dillon. It was an opportunity missed, in a way - if their talks had been more public, it would have been possible to construct a public narrative of an all-but-imminent handover of power (as has been done in Kosovo over the last couple of years), which would have undercut the extremists, rather than the perception of Liberal dithering and a creeping reinfiltration of Unionist influence which corroded public confidence.

The second half of the book is taken up with the Rising itself and the aftermath. Again, one of Townshend's points, that British surveillance of and intelligence on the rebels was pretty minimal, is reinforced. In fact, it seems that, thanks to the Admiralty's radio intercepts, London had better information on what was going on behind the scenes in Berlin than Dublin Castle had about Ireland. They still failed to put the pieces together - in particular, the official line on Roger Casement, that he had been sent from Germany to take charge of the Rising when in fact he had returned to Ireland to try and call it off, was supported by dodgy intelligence dossiers the like of which we have seen in other contexts more recently. I believe that some of the British official documents from 1916 are still not open to the public, and won't be until 2016; whatever can be in them, I wonder?

Ó Broin himself was actually Norway's successor - in his professional life, he was the Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and was instrumental in the creation of the T in RTÉ. The book was published in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and must surely have been a rather odd contribution to the political discourse of the time, rather a contrast to official glorification of the political heritage of the rebels by looking at it from a completely different point of view. His political credentials were impeccable, which must have given the book extra weight (he also wrote books about Charles Gavan Duffy, Augustine Birrell, the 1867 Fenian rising, Michael Collins, Joseph Brennan, Parnell, Robert Emmet, and the I.R.B.) I'd read a couple of his other books - in particular, his autobiography, ...Just Like Yesterday - and had this one on the bookshelves for years; I'm glad I finally got around to it.

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