(Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2016)
The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles; a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.
Without the Rising ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf to be worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.
It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.
Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen less pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.
Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.
The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.
In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seventeenth when the population declined from about two million to approximately five hundred thousand was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Albeit if the Crown had risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his officials treating it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.
The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English; a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.
More than James Joyce whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W.B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’
Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmuid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.
For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Padraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens.
More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity seemed applicable.
In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were fired in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.
Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of blood-minded cruelty.
But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach Eamon de Valera escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader the Countess Markievicz was spared due to her gender.
It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by firing squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Padraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Fein, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.
In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.
But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.
Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.
My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Padraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913: ‘Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.’
Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism exposes, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest flowering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.
The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood; and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound with his ideal of the nation.
A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the fight that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew.’ There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.
Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Fein’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.
I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.
Independence was important for Ireland however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.
Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds for each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-looking: a pale reflection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.
One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be profitable. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservativism of Pearse’s ideology?
It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.
The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank that has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.