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A Myth of the Irish Easter Rising: Eamon de Valera and his Persistent Misquote

On Easter Monday, 1916, a small group of Irish insurgents rose against British rule and seized control of several buildings in Dublin. The revolt was short-lived. The British responded with overwhelming force, crushing the incipient rebellion before it could really get started. The Rising is important because in its aftermath, the Irish leaders were martyred, creating an environment in which a true popular rebellion could succeed. In fact, after the British repression of the Rising, a new generation of Irish nationalists was able to bring the British to the negotiating table and gain independence.

Historians and the Easter Rising

For historians, the Easter Rising has been of considerable interest. As the Irish problem persists, historians have found a large audience for writing on the Irish martyrs. There has been a chronological evolution of thought on the rebellion. The first historians of the Rising saw the suicidal revolt as the result of Patrick Pearse’s belief in a blood sacrifice. Their successors found various other reasons. Early academic writing showed a desire to deify the insurrectionists, particularly Eamon de Valera. More recently, biographies have been written on a broader range of subjects, women’s history has inserted itself into thought on the period and focused study of local issues is just beginning to occur. Still, there are myths about the romantic Easter Rising that persist.

De Velara’s Forks and Knives

Eamon de Velara was a minor officer in the Easter Rising but he went on to become Taoiseach (Prime Minister) then President of Ireland. As a result, his role in the Rising has been closely examined. Mary C. Bromage, a 1956 American biographer of Eamon de Valera (De Valera and the March of a Nation), gave rise to one enduring myth about The Long Fellow. Bromage’s obvious admiration for de Valera and his Republican cohorts sometimes mars her interpretation of events. Bromage quotes de Valera as moaning, “If they [the Irish citizenry] had gone out with nothing but knives and forks in their hands, they could have won the country.” Did de Valera truly believe that an army of Dubliners armed with cutlery could have fought against British artillery?

This quote caused confusion among historians and it is still included in some lay histories. Bromage fails to footnote the quote, so it is impossible to trace her research back, leaving the reader to wonder if the quote was apocryphal. Despite this, other scholars have repeated the “forks and knives” quote, either by paraphrasing it into the body of their own thoughts as J. Bowyer Bell did in 1970’s The Secret Army: The IRA 1916-1979, or by quoting it directly, as Ulick O’Connor did in 1975 in Michael Collins and the Troubles.

Owen Dudley Edwards Explains it all

Finally, in 1987, Owen Dudley Edwards, author of Eamon de Valera, unraveled the mystery of the forks and knives. Edwards found that the quote was taken out of context by scholars. Edwards discovered a later interview in which de Valera insisted that he said “hay forks,” a much more believable position given that some of de Valera’s rebels were actually armed with pikes. The use of the de Valera’s misquoted “forks and knives” speech shows how misleading history can build on itself. That error stood unchallenged for over thirty years.

Even in its proper context, the quote does little to show that the revolt could have succeeded against British military strength. If anything, de Valera’s quote shows that he was far out of touch with the military realities of 1916. Sometimes history is a strange beast though. De Valera not only escaped criticism for his foolish notion, he was praised by two generations of romantic historians, whose influence is still felt today.

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