The Greek Tragedy of Irish History: Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916 – The Easter Rising

Coogan_EasterRising.jpgIt’s fitting that Tim Pat Coogan’s riveting 1916: The Easter Rising draws so heavily on the past. Every country is, of course, shaped by its history, but time hardly seems to exist in Ireland in a neat past, present, and future. Centuries-, even millennia-old enmities not only inform contemporary events, but are their driving force. It’s fair to call the various uprisings, revolutions, and conflicts that have been waged on this small island merely individual battles in a long, long war that has finally (and hopefully permanently) given way to relative peace.

But, you may ask, what if I’m more into reading fiction? I usually am, too, but the bloody history of Ireland is frankly as engaging, if not more so, than any novel I’ve ever read. Ireland is a particularly literary country, too, with myths as memorable as any other nation, and a rich tradition of revolutionizing literature itself. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and W.B. Yeats are famous Irishmen but did you know Oscar Wilde was Irish, as was George Bernard Shaw, and Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula…who incidentally married Oscar Wilde’s one-time girlfriend)?

So it makes sense that Irish history should feel so literary, a kind of Irish Greek Tragedy. It also has the feel of a family drama because the conflicts are so insular. While major events were transforming the world, Ireland was often fighting the same war over and over. Coogan does show how other countries influenced Irish leaders, but still, in most cases foreign support was nominal at best.

That reminds me – one final reason you should check out Coogan’s book is that everything about the Easter Rising was tragicomic in the extreme. Everything that could possibly have gone wrong went very, very wrong. The event itself led to many deaths on both sides, and the situation becomes only more dismal and absurd when you consider that most Irish people were against those behind the Easter Rising.

So how did the Easter Rising become a turning point for Ireland? How did people the public initially hated and mocked transform into heroes (and monsters to others, but regardless, certainly not fools)?

The answer is complicated, and I’m not even sure I’ve adequately phrased the questions to my own satisfaction. To this day there is heated debate about who was right and who was wrong. But that’s all the more reason you should read this book, which despite focusing on a turning point in history, gives a compelling portrait of the past, makes the present more comprehensible, and points toward the future Ireland may be heading toward.

So go read it. Now.

(To any British or Northern Irish Unionists who are reading this blog post and feel indignant, all I can say is 1. I’ve deliberately avoided contemporary events, like the Troubles, etc., that are more likely to rankle readers, 2. If you have any book recommendations that could potentially change my mind, I’d love to read them, and 3. Thanks for checking out my blog and hope you have a great day!)


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