The Easter Rising

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Martyrology, Martyrdom, Rebellion, Terrorism

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

From Easter 1916


By WB Yeats

“I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight”.


I was disturbed to read comments on Colombo Telegraph by someone calling himself Thanga.[i]

“The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. And liberation movements never die with their founders. As proof, books on LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the Eelam occupied an entire stall at the recent Book fare in Madurai book fair. ‘Over 25 books on Prabhakaran and the Eelam have been published in the last two years alone after the end of the Sri Lankan ethnic war. These books are attracting new readers,’ said the person manning the stall of Tholamai Veliyeedu. A 1000 page book on the life of Vellupillai Prabhakaran written by Pazha Nedumaran, an LTTE insider will be released soon. Prabhakaran is the only leader whose birthday is celebrated right around the globe in a grand scale! Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!”

As recently as May 2011, in Tamil Nadu, MDMK chief Vaiko was saying the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the  LTTE remains a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow.

Irish Religiose Masochism

A miasma of religiose masochism hangs over Irish republicanism. Staying in Ireland as a child in the 1950s, I was acutely aware of the overlapping of the decades, the way the distant past lived in the present. In the 1950s, the 1920s lived on,  as people still had pictures from that era on their walls. Shops still sold sentimental poems about the fallen. A fetid atmosphere of sanctity hung over shrines to the dead republican heroes.

A website gives a list of republicans executed, shot by the authorities  or dead of hunger strike from 1916 to 1981. Some were killed by the British, some by Irish governments. Some committed suicide by starvation. They are all classed as “martyrs”.[ii]

Irish republicanism has an air of the pornography of martyrdom, of that self-flagellating kind of religiosity redolent of Iberian as well as Irish Catholicism. Often the Catholic church condemned the rebels but that did not prevent the movement portraying their fighters as ascetic saints, and venerating their dead in holy shrines.

Martyrdom was a principle aspect of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Padraic Pearse


The leading figure in the Irish Easter rising in 1916 was Padraic Pearse. He  was a poet and playwright who founded a number of schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”; “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”.

Though not obviously a fighter, Pearse was enthused by the sight of armed Ulster loyalists and wanted to emulate them: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a messianic and sacrificial notion that his cause was, through a symbolic loss of life, comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse expressed an ecstatic view of the energising force of the sacrifice of death in the First World War. He  frequently celebrated the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.  Was there  something homo-erotic in this, reminiscent of St Sebastian (as painted by Il Sodoma) as a gay icon? Pearse’s biographer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, wrote in an article entitled “The Terrible Legacy of Padraic Pearse” [iii]: “It would be frequently remarked of Pearse that he had no understanding of the mundane day-to-day concerns that precluded others from showing the same fanatical dedication to his successive causes: he lived and died for a people that did not exist.”

Blood Sacrifice

James Connolly was a more hard-headed, practical socialist who responded thus to an article by Pearse: “We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think that anyone who does is a blithering idiot”. Connolly  was a Marxist who wrote, “I have not the slightest tincture of  [Catholic] faith left”. Nevertheless, Connolly was to write soon after: “Without the slightest trace of irreverence, but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said: ’Without the shedding of Blood there is no Redemption”.

Incredibly, the logistics of  the Easter Rising were designed to maximise “bloody sacrifice”. Buildings were chosen for occupation, not to immobilize key government institutions, but to maximise injury to persons and property. Rebel HQ was set up in the General Post Office in the middle of the main shopping area. South of the River Liffey,  parks, factories, bridges and public buildings were seized by small armed parties but with no plan of encirclement. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country limited to parading.

By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed (including 15 executed). In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. The majority of the casualties in the Easter Rising , both killed and wounded, were civilians. Both sides, British and rebel, shot civilians deliberately, on occasion, when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. The British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded.

The rising was planned as  a “blood sacrifice” for a society  that had become apathetic. There were  disagreements among the rebels. Eoin McNeill wished to proceed only on a basis of realistic hope of success rather than staking everything on a gesture of moral revivalism. He thought the blood- sacrifice option intellectually flaccid. Many, however, like 18-year-old medical student, Ernie O’Malley, who had no previous record of nationalist involvement, were strangely stirred by Pearse’s peculiar theology of insurrection. O’Malley became a key organizer and leader in the guerrilla war as well as one of its most  prominent literary chroniclers.

The Easter Rising  was not supported by public opinion in Ireland, and the immediate reaction afterwards was fury and disgust. Max Caulfield was a journalist, not an academic historian, who was born in Northern Ireland. His book on the Easter Rising was written in 1963 and he was able to interview participants in the rising, both British and Irish, and eye witnesses. The book has never been out of print. I have the paperback edition still (cover price six old pre-decimal pre-euro shilling) A revised edition was published in 1995 and reviews of that suggest it stands up well. I have re-visited my paperback version (severely nibbled by Sri Lankan ants)and it still reads well.

Max Caulfield noted that, as the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them.

In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens (poet, novelist and short story writer) wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”

Afterward, general incompetence on the part of the British government, and the arrests of thousands of men, some of whom  were taken to England and Wales to be interned, only served to arouse hatred for the English among the population and to support the rebels’ propaganda.

The men who were executed were regarded as martyrs.  The dead were prayed toas well as for. If the situation had been handled better by the British, the Sinn Fein movement could have received a severe setback.   As an aftermath of the rising, about 50,000 British soldiers were stationed in Ireland which deprived England of  much-needed men and equipment.  Recruitment for the First World War in Ireland practically stopped, making a net loss to the firing line of 100,000 men. The threat of conscription further alienated the Irish.

A new revolutionary elite formed in detention and “a sentimental cult of veneration for the martyrs developed outside, as after previous failed risings. A settlement involving a good measure of Home rule had been  likely even without the rising. The conspirators thus achieved their aim of reversing the movement towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation”[iv]. Throughout 1917,  the Irish volunteers invited  arrest and martyrdom and tried to disrupt the prison system by hunger strikes in pursuit of “political status”.

Terrorism was slow to develop and was mainly precipitated by brutal British methods of repression which forced Volunteers to band together for protection. There were no more than 4,000  armed activists and they had no hope of military success. Internment was introduced in 1920. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were also sent into Ireland in  that year. Their reprisals included beatings and killings; they destroyed 53 creameries and ransacked many towns; in December 1920 they set fire to the centre of Cork City; on November 21, twelve football supporters were slaughtered at Croke Park in revenge for the assassination of fourteen spies.

The idea of the Rising being carried out by martyrs and saints was furthered by literature until the 1960s. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, a flood of books were released, and for the first time voices of dissent and revision were heard. The violence in Northern Ireland and the Provisional IRA claiming to be the ideological sons of the Easter Rising also contributed to a change in public opinion.

John Waters wrote an article in the Irish Times last year to mark the 95th anniversary of the Rising. Here is a selection of comments:

Patrick Hennessey

“Dublin is a poxy little city of about a million people sitting on a small island which happens to have one of the worst climates on the planet, and is now broke. Nearly 100 years ago a bunch of boys with more imagination than common sense fought for its independence. 100 years later it speaks English , shares common laws and rules with most of Europe and the same money.”


“Although it’s quite difficult to establish how many Dubliners supported the Rising, those who rejected it did so for a variety of reasons. Apart from family involvement in the British army and the wanton destruction of buildings and killing of civilians (far more in fact than Volunteers and soldiers), the expectation that Home Rule would be granted following the end of the war must also have been a factor. In addition, however, many ordinary Dubliners went about their daily business without ever thinking about ‘striking a blow against England’. Not every part of the country was riven by violence during the 1919-1921 period and that many Irish people tried as best they could to lead normal lives while at the same time abhorring the violence being perpetrated by both sides.”

Michael O’Byrne

“The rejection by Dubliners of the Easter Rising was the right reaction, although perhaps for the wrong reasons with some. This tragic and misguided terrorist action started off with the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed policeman. No amount of rationalization can transform that first murder into an act of heroism and the misleading euphemism of the War of Independence for the subsequent terrorist campaign is dishonest and a travesty of the reality of those years. The warped so-called principles embraced by the terrorists of those times continue to be adhered to by the likes of the Real IRA. As a Christian I abhor all violence – that includes a rejection of all military actions whether they are by the state or those who dissent from and try to overthrow the status quo.
Dishonour was the hallmark of the Easter Rising and the consequences emanating from that appalling action. The murder machine was well and truly set in motion from that point onwards and the IRA became the role model for terrorists on a worldwide scale. Has any statistician calculated the total number of men, women and children murdered and maimed from that point of time until the present day? The initial rejection by the citizens of Dublin of this bloody folly was right, although their abuse of the criminals and demand for their murder through execution was totally wrong – as the carrying through of the inhumane vengeance by the British, an example of crass stupidity and lack of wisdom.”

Jim McGowan

“I don’t think we would be better off inside the Commonwealth; I’m proud we’re independent and not part of Great Britain. The 1916 rising was not democratic, they did not have a mandate; and ad hoc military activity like this is not good; in fact it has blighted our country’s history for decades.”

Michael Collins and Éamon De Valera

Two of the Easter rebels escaped the firing squad and continued to polarise Irish politics for decades. Éamon de Valera, “The Long Fellow”, had been born in New York and had a Cuban father of Spanish descent so the British did not feel inclined to execute him as a traitor to the Empire.

Michael Collins, “The Big Fellow”,  was not regarded by the British as important and he was despatched to Stafford prison and then on to Frongoch internment camp. He was back in Dublin by Christmas 1916. The  guerrilla methods he soon developed were thought to have influenced Che Guevara (who, incidentally, had an Irish grandmother) and the Viet Cong.

When the British offered to negotiate a Treaty in 1921,  De Valera engineered that Collins would lead for the Irish side. De Valera’s  opponents claimed that he had refused to join the negotiations because he knew the outcome would be a partitioned Ireland and did not wish to receive the blame. Collins himself protested  that he was not a skilled negotiator and that being seen in public would reduce his effectiveness as a guerrilla leader should hostilities resume. Reluctantly, Collins accepted the role of lead negotiator and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty which set up an Irish Free State of 26 counties with dominion status within the commonwealth. The six counties of the north east remained in the United Kingdom. While it fell short of the republic that he’d originally fought to create, Collins concluded that the Treaty offered Ireland “the freedom to achieve freedom.” A little now, more later. Nonetheless, he knew that partition, would not be popular in Ireland. Upon signing the treaty, he remarked “I have signed my own death warrant.”

De Valera was unhappy that Collins had signed any deal without his  authorisation. A civil war was fought on the basis that Collins had sacrificed a united Ireland. Though nominally head of the anti-Treatyites, de Valera does not seem to have been involved in any fighting and had little or no influence with the military republican leadership. Collins was secretly planning to launch a clandestine guerrilla war against the Northern State, while De Valera, in his own long years in power, accepted the status quo with Britain and executed and interned IRA die-hards who continued to fight for a united Ireland.

De Valera sent a personal note of congratulations to Subash Chandra Bose upon his declaration of the Free India government in 1943, although Ireland did not extend diplomatic recognition to it. Against the advice of some advisers, de Valera formally offered his condolences on the death of Hitler.

Éamon de Valera led his party, Fianna Fáil, to adopt conservative social policies, since he believed devoutly that the Catholic church and the family were central to Irish identity. De Valera died in 1975, a blind 93-year-old. One biographer, Tim Pat Coogan, sees his time in power as being characterised by economic and cultural stagnation. A younger historian, Diarmaid Ferriter,  argues that the stereotype of De Valera as an austere, cold and even backward figure was largely manufactured in the 1960s and is misguided.

Collins died in 1922 at the age of only 31, in an ambush at Béal na mBláth (the Mouth of Flowers) near his home town of Clonakilty in West Cork. He was older than Jim Morrison but younger than Elvis. Collins’s memory lives on but can he be regarded as a martyr when he was killed, not by the British, but by his fellow Corkonians? He is certainly marketed to tourists as a “Lost Leader”.


Kitty Kiernan

Collins was big and handsome and charismatic. There were rumours of lovers including Dame Edith Vane-Tempest, Lady Londonderry, a famous political hostess.

Lady Londonderry

According to the memoirs of Derek Patmore, a writer and artist who was a close friend of Hazel Lavery, wife of the portrait painter Sir John Lavery, Collins was “the great love in her life”. A personification of Ireland modelled on Lady Lavery and painted by her husband was reproduced on Irish banknotes from 1928 until the 1970s. Sir John painted a portrait of Collins in full military uniform in his coffin draped in the Irish tri-colour.


Hazel Lavery

Frank O’Connor, in his 1937 biography of Collins[v], paints a picture of a larger-than-life character, hot-tempered, violent, sentimental, respectful of elders, well-read, intelligent, and, despite his volatility, calculating and efficient. O’Connor was a distinguished writer of fiction, so one cannot tell how “creative” his picture is. The book is sympathetic to Collins which might be surprising as O’Connor (real name Michael O’Donovan) fought on the opposite side and was one of twelve thousand Anti-Treaty combatants who were interned by the government.

“The bulk of Collins’s time was not spent in action scenes. It was spent as a manager and administrator, whether as Minister of Finance or Director of Intelligence”.[vi] He was conscious of the advantage of maintaining a public image of a uniformed general commanding the national army but he was irritated at the mystical and neurotic worship of the republic.

O’Connor describes Collins thus: “This energetic man, who kept a file for every transaction, who insisted on supervising every detail and went nowhere without his secretary, bore very little resemblance to the Collins of legend and none at all to the revolutionary of fiction. Beside him, Lenin, with his theories, feuds and excommunications, seems a child, and not a particularly intelligent one. He ran the whole Revolution as if it were a great business concern, ignoring all the rules”.

Even in March 2012, the rivalry between Collins and De Valera lives on. In the Irish Senate, Fine Gael Senator Tom Sheahan recently asked, “Is it not ironic the way history repeats itself?” said, pausing for effect before adding: “Deputy Micheál Martin is not the first Corkman to be shot in the back by a de Valera.” The Senator’s mock concern for Fianna Fail leader  Martin, who forced his deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuív – a grandson of de Valera – to resign because of his defiance on the party’s support for the fiscal treaty referendum, had the desired effect. Having got everybody into a state of high excitement, Mr Sheahan remarked mildly: “I will withdraw the comment which appears to have caused upset.”[vii]

That the question of who shot Michael Collins still has the ability to provoke a political row 90 years after the event is a testament to the significance of an event that played such an important role in the first year of the State’s existence.

Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins implied that de Valera had a direct role in the shooting. Collins was portrayed as warm-hearted and passionate by the expansive Liam Neeson (love interest supplied by Julia Roberts as fiancée Kitty Kiernan) while De Valera was played slyly by that master of sinister, Alan Rickman.

Civil War

Most people, except the Northern Ireland protestants, were content enough with the Treaty. In the 26 counties,  a few Republican intransigents like De Valera did not recognise its legality and provoked de-stabilisation by classifying  MPs and judges, and even journalists,  as legitimate targets for assassination. Far more people, including civilians, were killed in the civil war than were in the war for independence. David Fitzpatrick[viii] wrote in 1989: “ The violent challenge to the state then degenerated into a dolorous sequence of murders, robberies, burnings and kidnappings which has not yet ceased. So the state survived its painful baptism into a faith whose first article was the consolidation of state authority rather than the welfare of the nation. “

The Free State government responded with draconian measures such as summary execution without trial. Ex-comrades carried out seventy-seven such executions adding to “the litany of republican martyrs, and thousands of imprisonments created abiding bitterness”.[ix]

Three years after the end of the Sri Lankan conflict, there are still disputes about the number of dead. Ninety years after the end of the Irish Civil War, figures are still uncertain. The figures used by historians in the 1980s are now considered to be greatly exaggerated.  A figure of over 4,000 does not tally with recent research which gives national army deaths at around 800.The Registrar General’s office estimates that in 1922 and 1923 there were 1,150 deaths  classified as homicides, executions or shootings.

Hunger Strikes

I was amused at the usage in Sri Lanka (and Tamil Nadu) of the expression “fast unto death”. Generally, it is no more than a fast from breakfast unto lunchtime. In the Irish republican tradition, the term “hunger strike” is used and it often does end in a  martyr’s death. Some scholars trace the Irish tradition of hunger striking back to Asian roots. The tactic was fully incorporated into the ancient Brehon legal system. Fasting in order to bring attention to an injustice was a common feature of early Irish society.

According to Roy Foster[x]: “Sinn Fein rhetoric capitalised on the drama of high-profile tactics such as [Thomas]Ashe’s hunger strike in 1917; significantly, a member of the [Catholic] hierarchy officiated at his funeral.” Like later Provisional IRA hunger strikers, Ashe was demanding special status as a prisoner of war. At the inquest, the jury  condemned the staff at the prison for the “inhuman and dangerous operation [force feeding] performed on the prisoner, and other acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct”

In October 1920, eleven republican prisoners in Cork Jail went on hunger strike at the same time. The Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney , died on hunger strike in Brixton prison. Attempts at force-feeding MacSwiney were undertaken in the final days. On 20 October, he fell into a coma and died five days later after 74 days on hunger strike. His body lay in Southwark Cathedral in London where 30,000 people filed past it. MacSwiney’s life and work had a particular impact in India. Nehru took inspiration from MacSwiney’s example and writings, and Gandhi counted him among his influences. Indian revolutionary  Bhagat Singh, on hunger strike before his execution, quoted Terence MacSwiney and said “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release”.  Ho Chi Minh, who was working in London at the time of MacSwiney’s death, said of him, “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender”. MacSwiney himself wrote: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will prevail.”

The Provisionals’ leader in the 1970s, Sean Mac Stíofáin (who was baptized John Stephenson in Leytonstone, England, as a Catholic, despite the fact that neither of his parents was Catholic) announced melodramatically at his trial that he would be “dead within six days”.  After four days, however, – amid rumours that he had been paying frequent visits to the prison showers – he agreed to take liquids (including soup and sweet tea). His hunger strike led to tumultuous scenes in Dublin and protests outside the Mater Hospital where he was visited by the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan, and his predecessor, Dr John Charles McQuaid. He was ordered off his hunger strike by the Army council after 53 days and was never to regain his influence.

Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands was the first of ten Provisional IRA  prisoners to die during a  hunger strike in 1981. The ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days, taking only water and salt, before succumbing. Sands’s death resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism. Sands wrote a book on the subject, One Day in My Life and was the subject of a film, Hunger.

The Physical Force Tradition

Charles Townshend[xi] wrote that the Easter Rising was: “A manifestation of violence as politics. It was not the prelude to a democratic national movement which led in turn to the establishment of a ‘normal’ constitutional national polity. It was, rather, a form of politics which may be called ‘demonstration politics’, the armed propaganda of  a self-selected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will. Cathartic action was substituted for methodological debate; ideal types replaced reality; symbols took on real power. The Irish Republic, ‘virtually established’, would not now go away, yet it could never exist- not, at any rate, as the ‘noble house’ of Pearse’s thought”.

Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out 30 years ago that Pearse and his colleagues believed they were entitled , although they were but a small unelected  group of conspirators  in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in 1916 in which many innocent people were killed –  entitled  because their judgement was superior to that of the population at large. For generations afterward, the IRA used the same argument, seeing themselves as the heirs of Pearse. Why was it right for the 1916 martyrs, O’Brien asked , yet wrong for the Officials, the Provisionals and now the Continuity and Real IRA to emulate them?

Former Provo, Danny Morrison,  explained in a Pearse documentary Fanatic Heart, that Pearse’s rhetoric was useful to the Provos when they were making war, but is inconvenient when they are trying to make peace. Did  the 1916 Rising set an unfortunate and tragic precedent?

Ruth Dudley Edwards: “With another generation of intransigents murdering in our name, isn’t it time we contemplated the heresy that the 1916 rebellion was misconceived and without justification, and that the physical force tradition in the 20th century has been an unmitigated disaster?”

False Analogies

My main theme in the article is the damaging effects of myths and martyrdom.

The road to hell is paved with false analogies. However noble his intentions, Martin McGuinness was mistaken when he thought the LTTE were in the market for negotiation in the same way as the Provisional IRA. The political will did arrive eventually in Northern Ireland, but even today I am reading of bombs being discovered all over Ireland. However strong the desire for peace among most people a small handful of diehards can continue to maim and kill. Who else wants that.

I don’t want to get into comparative horrors. I agree that there is a great deal of difference between Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka but if you read the article again you will see that I am not only writing about Northern Ireland.

I accept that the horrors of recent times have been worse in Sri Lanka than in Ireland, but Irish nationalists have long memories going back 800 years. Two events that stand out have been classified as genocide.

Cromwell held all Irish Catholics responsible for the rebellion of 1641. The New Model Army 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population ( possibly 40%). Irishmen were sent to the West Indies to work as slaves on the sugar plantations.

Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on “popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution’ on the Jews”. Ireland’s population fell by between 20 and 25%. One million people died of starvation and typhus. A million more emigrated. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died. The 1911 Census showed that the island of Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels. The famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes and British government policies based on voodoo economics.

Foreign Intervention

Look at the backgrounds of some who have claimed to speak for the Irish to the extent that they thought they had the right to kill the Irish for their own good.

Many of the most active Republicans were born outside Ireland. Tom Clarke was born in the Isle of Wight and spent his childhood in South Africa where his father was a British soldier. James Connolly spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh. Jim Larkin grew up in Liverpool. Eamon de Valera was born in Manhattan and had a Cuban father (Edgar Hoover described him as a ‘Portuguese Jew’). Liam Mellows was born in Lancashire. Mary MacSwiney was born and educated in London and Cambridge. Sean MacBride, (Maude Gonne’s son – Maude herself, a fervent Irish nationalist and muse of WB Yeats, was born near Farnham in Surrey, England, the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the17th Lancers, whose own ancestors hailed from Caithness in Scotland.) the IRA chief of staff and future founder of Amnesty International, was born in France where he was brought up speaking French.

Volunteers from London, Liverpool and Glasgow fought during the 1916 Rising, and this was the first time many of them had actually been to Ireland. There were also reports of people from Poland, Finland and Sweden fighting alongside the insurgents.

Padraic Pearse’s father was from Cornwall. Pearse died for Ireland.

Robert Erskine Childers, son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers, was born in Mayfair, London. “grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism.” He was educated at Haileybury, the elite public school for future army officers and colonial administrators. He was a steadfast believer in the British Empire and fought in the Boer War. He became disillusioned with the Empire and became converted to the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. He was parliamentary Liberal candidate for the naval town of Devonport. He was quite well known in England after his success with a spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which painted the Royal Navy in a good light, and was expected to win the election. When the Liberal Party dropped its intention to implement self-government in Ireland in response to threats from the Northern Ireland Unionists of a civil war. Childers abandoned his candidacy and left the party. He did some gun running for the rebels on his yacht the Asgard. He became a nationalist so intemperate and fanatically obsessed that his opposition to compromise is sometimes blamed for bringing about the Irish Civil War. He survived the Easter Rising because he was in London. Childers was later secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty but was vehemently opposed to the final agreement. He fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The author Frank O’Connor was involved with Childers and wrote that he was ostracised by the anti-treaty forces and referred to as “That bloody Englishman”. He was executed by the Free State government. Churchill said of Childers: “No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, activated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.” Childers shook the hand of every man in the firing squad and asked his 16-year-old son to seek out everyone who had signed his death warrant and to shake them by the hand. I met that son, Erskine Hamilton Childers in 1974 when he was visiting Cobh as President of Ireland. He had also been born and educated in England and had a distinctive upper class English accent.

Countess Markievicz was a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London and married a Polish count. She joined Sinn Fein and the Irish Citizen Army and fought in the Easter Rising. During the Rising, Lieutenant Markievicz supervised the setting-up of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen’s Green, wounding a British sniper. When the defeated rebels were taken to Kilmainham Jail they were jeered by the crowds as they walked through the streets of Dublin. In prison, she was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex.” It was widely reported that she told the court, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. The prosecuting counsel, William Wylie, later to be appointed a High Court judge in 1924, wrote to his daughter and alleged that she said “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman” and that she had “never stopped moaning the whole time she was in court”. She was released in 1918 and later joined the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. She died of TB in 1927.

Cathal Brugha was born Charles Burgess. His father was from Yorkshire. He was known for his bitter enmity towards Michael Collins. During the Easter Rising, he was severely wounded by a hand grenade, as well as by multiple gunshot wounds, and was initially not considered likely to survive. He recovered over the next year, but was left with a permanent limp. He died from a bullet wound in the leg 11 days before his 48th birthday when approaching the Free State troops brandishing a revolver in 1922.

W J Brennan-Whitmore was Michael Collins’s chief intelligence officer after being interned with him at Frongoch. He joined Sinn Fein in 1910 was active in the Irish Volunteers in North Wexford and fought at North Earl Street in the 1916 Rising. In the early 70s, Lyn Ebenezer met Joe Clarke, another republican internee at Frongoch. Clarke despised Brennan-Whitmore, saying “never trust a hyphenated Irishman”. Ebenezer also met Brennan-Whitmore himself when he was 85. He has been written out of Irish history possibly because he contributed to several ultra nationalist anti-Semitic journals. He was a prolific correspondent writing regular diatribes against the European Union in the Irish Catholic.

Margaret Skinnider was a sniper and the only female wounded in the action at Easter 1916. She was mentioned three times for bravery in the dispatches sent to the Dublin GPO. She was born in Coatbridge, Scotland.

Mango has already mentioned Sean Mac Stíofáin. Jack makes the ludicrous comment: “One can only speculate whether such (a political settlement) would have been possible without people like Sean Mac Stíofáin and William Wallace.”

The political settlement was necessary because of actions of people like Mac Stíofáin. He was born John Stephenson in Leytonstone. He spoke fluent Irish but with a cockney accent. His father was an English Tory alcoholic wife-beater. His mother, who died when John was ten, was born in Bethnal Green. He was a virulent anti-communist and a lifelong devoted Roman Catholic. Cathal Goulding, who served six years in prison with Mac Stíofáin in the 1950s, and who later became his bitter enemy as chief of staff of the rival Official IRA, was particularly scathing about “that English Irishman”. “Sean’s problem is that he spends all his time going around trying to prove to everybody that he’s as Irish as they are, and in the IRA he had to show that he was more violent than the rest. He’s too narrow, doesn’t understand politics as such, and believes physical force is the only answer.” Mac Stíofáin was nicknamed “Mac the Knife”, and personally developed the strategy of random car-bombings which paralysed town centres across the North on a daily basis in the early Seventies. He disclaimed responsibility for the innocent civilian casualties by simply declaring: “It’s a war”. Directly involved in authorising the Bloody Friday bombings of July 1972, when nine people were killed and around 130 injured, he claimed that the authorities had not acted promptly on warnings given by the IRA.

One of the key operators during the bombing campaign in England in the mid-1970s was Liam Quinn. He was one of the Balcombe Street Gang and shot dead an unarmed, off-duty policeman, Stephen Tibble. Born in San Francisco from a Mexican mother and a third generation Irish American father, he once said: “I guess that nice American boy wasn’t happy with the television culture and the Disneyland world. I guess he was looking for a new identity and better sense of values and just happened to find a worthy cause to be devoted to.”

As far back as 1920, Scottish communists John McLean and Willie Gallagher were involved in gunrunning for the IRA.

At least three members of the English group Red Action were convicted of IRA and INLA activity during the 1990s. Rudolf Raab and Hans Joachim Stemler, were Germans actively involved in the INLA.

Second generation Irish people were sometimes among the victims of IRA operations in England. For example, among those killed in the 1974 Birmingham bombs, three were of Irish descent, as were 35 of the 200 injured. IRA bombs left Irish people open to suspicion and hostility.

Proportionality and Presumption: “a self-selected vanguard which claimed the power to interpret the general will”.

In the 1960s in Northern Ireland there was a legitimate, non-violent, civil rights movement dedicated to addressing the grievances of the Catholic population. The movement was hijacked by the hard men of the Provisional IRA. Although they assumed for themselves the role of protectors of the Catholic population, their agenda was to emulate the republican martyrs of yesteryear and to fight for a united Ireland. This degenerated into atrocity and criminality[xii]. Despite the undoubted success of the Good Friday Agreement[xiii] a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland .

Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in movies. He noted that one of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. The answer for some filmmakers (presumably it makes money)  seems to be to return harm to those who harmed. Such movies seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence.


LTTE Exploitation of Death

“The LTTE capitalised on the emotional force of death and its commemoration to arouse support for the cause of Eelam and the LTTE. From the very outset in 1983 they exploited the death of their fighters in action by organising funeral processions, even clandestine ones, to incite people against the enemy and to draw them to the LTTE cause. Then, circa 1989 they even took the radical step of claiming the primary rights over the corpses of all their fighters; and decreeing that even those of Saivite faith should be buried not cremated… The institutionalisation of commemoration was gradually expanded over the years that followed and rendered as evocative as it was systematic. This event was augmented by a series of other rites of homage recognising key Tiger heroes and heroines, in effect generating a ritual calendar of ten ceremonies every year”.[xiv]

The LTTE were noted for inventing suicide bombing. Black Tigers could have a noble death sacrificing themselves for the cause. They carried cyanide capsules around the neck so they would not be captured alive. It has been noted by many that Prabhakaran did not take this route himself. One recent comment on Groundviews by someone critical of the GOSL: “When the moment came he did not have the guts to commit suicide even though he recommended it heartily to his underage combatants.”

Choosing Martyrdom

Armchair warriors and conflict junkies get some satisfaction from  keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie, the pain of the wounded and incarcerated a matter relevant to their own egos. Some warriors use real, deadly bombs. The Real IRA as of June 2005, was believed to have a maximum of about 150 members. One of the organisation’s founders, the sister of Bobby Sands, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, said: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

I was in a bar in Cork city centre when news of the Omagh bombing was on the TV. Everyone in the bar wept unashamedly. Only a tiny minority wants such brutality. On Saturday 15 August 1998, 29 people died and approximately 220 were injured as a result of a car bombing carried out by the Real IRA in the town of Omagh, in County Tyrone. The victims included people from many different backgrounds. Among them were Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon, nine children, a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists and other tourists on a day trip from across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Bobby may have made a conscious decision to “die for Ireland”. The victims of Omagh did not.

No-one has been successfully criminally convicted of the bombing but a retrial of a civil case brought by relatives of some of the victims against Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly has been set for October 3 2012. In June 2009 Michael McKevitt, a convicted Real IRA leader serving a 20-year jail sentence,  and Liam Campbell were found liable for the bombing in a civil ruling. Mr Justice Morgan, now Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, ordered them to pay £1.6m in compensation.

As I write this I am reading reports of IED bombs being disabled in Cork, Belfast and Dublin in the past week. The Army Bomb disposal Squad have had five call-outs in a week. Action and reaction – will the circle be unbroken?

Revolutionary leaders presume a lot. Pearse might nobly say: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. Thanga might say: “Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!” Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom,  a focus group?

In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, my friend Harold Good, who played an important role in the Northern Ireland peace process, quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.” Harold told me recently that he follows events in Sri Lanka with great interest and concern.

Read the comments on the Channel 4 website. My feeling is that most of the hatred is coming from people who do not live in Sri Lanka. Is this hatred and lust for revenge healthy or productive?

Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted or endured.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.

Seamus Heaney The Cure at Troy

The Legacy of the Martyrs

The two major political parties in Ireland today developed from the opposing sides in the Civil War. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) was the anti-treaty party of De Valera. Fine Gael was the pro-treaty party of Cosgrave, Collins and the Free State government. De Valera fought against the treaty because it left Ireland divided, part of the Commonwealth and owing allegiance to the Crown. Despite being on the losing side in the civil war, Fianna Fáil and De Valera dominated Irish politics for most of the state’s existence. Since the formation of the first Fianna Fáil government on 9 March 1932, the party has been in power for 61 of the last 79 years. Its longest continuous period in office was 15 years and 11 months (March 1932–February 1948). Its single longest period out of office, in that time, has been 4 years and 4 months (March 1973–July 1977. Although De Valera fought the treaty because it divided Ireland, anyone fighting for a united Ireland during De Valera’s long reign was likely to be interned or executed.

A republic was not declared until 1949. Ireland is still divided. One might ask whether the violence and suffering of the war of independence and the civil war were worth it.

Fianna Fáil were practically wiped out at the last general election because of the public perception that corrupt and incompetent politicians had ruined the country’s economy.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has proposed that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern be expelled from the party, saying he “betrayed the trust” of the country and the political organisation. Martin said the Mahon tribunal’s  final report, which found Mr Ahern failed to “truthfully account” for the source of bank account lodgements, confirmed the former Fianna Fáil leader’s personal behaviour had fallen short of the standard expected of holders of high office.

The report referred to was Tribunal of Inquiry Into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, commonly known as the Mahon Tribunal, The report accused Ahern of untruthfulness. It found former European commissioner Pádraig Flynn behaved corruptly, and said another former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had abused his power.

“Corruption in Irish political life was both endemic and systemic. It affected every level of government, from some holders of top ministerial offices to some local councillors, and its existence was widely known and widely tolerated,” said the report.

Here is another quotation from that man Yeats.

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Enough Martyrs

Someone commented on Groundviews: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had. People, be they majorities or minorities will rise up when they can no longer put up with the oppression that they have to face. The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were inevitable due to the oppression that people had to face.”

My response was: “What do you mean by “people”? Looking at the specific case of the 1916 Rising – there is no disagreement among Irish historians on this point and never has been; the rising had little or no popular support and the leaders were regarded with derision. The situation in Northern Ireland at the time of Bobby Sands’s martyrdom was that Catholics were suffering severe discrimination. Bobby Sands was not fighting for an end to discrimination as such. He was fighting for a united Ireland. What peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland has come because both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both members of the EU and much of the Good Friday agreement was about setting up institutions which covered All Ireland. Although most Irish people are grateful for peace Bobby Sands’s sister and her husband feel they have the right to interpret his ‘legacy’ by killing innocent people. Some freedom fighters!”

The same commenter wrote about “the struggle for freedom – to preserve one’s culture at any cost… There is such a thing as a ‘national consciousness’ in which the abuses of the past are not forgotten but remain vibrant and alive in the form of a collective memory. It is to this category that the ‘martyrs’ belong. They are not remembered for going on hunger strikes or surrendering at the very end – which your article makes a mockery of – but for the stand they take against injustice. Many of them are revolutionaries. None are afraid to die, which is where the hero-worship comes into play. Whether or not you agree with their cause is irrelevant; the mark that they leave on the collective consciousness of a people or nation is indelible.”

One comment was: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In this world that we live in, there are many who are willing to live on their knees, but then there are the few who would rather die on their feet then live on their knees be it for a united Ireland or for a separate state called Tamil Eelam…don’t forget that William Wallace or Prabhakaran did not wake up one fine day and decide that they must fight the British or the Sinhala armed forces. It was the many years of oppression that their people had to undergo which made them take up arms against their oppressors.

We need to unpack lethal clichés like these. Where do you draw the line between national consciousness and delusional, dangerous myth-making? The commenter’s knowledge about William Wallace seems to rely solely on Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart. According to Wikipedia: “Not much is known about him beyond his military campaign of 1297–98, and the last few weeks of his life in 1305. Even in recent years, his birthplace and his father’s name have been disputed.”

“Some accounts have uncritically copied elements from the epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, written around 1470 by Blind Harry the minstrel. Harry wrote from oral tradition describing events 170 years earlier, and is not in any sense an authoritative descriptor of Wallace’s exploits. Much of the poem is clearly at variance with known historical facts and records of the period and is either fabricated using traditional chivalric motifs or ‘borrowed’ from the exploits of others and attributed to Wallace.”

The script for Gibson’s film was written by Randall Wallace and was largely based on Blind Harry’s account.

In defending his script against criticism, Randall Wallace has said, “Is Blind Harry true? I don’t know. I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart.” However some important aspects of the plot, e.g. his affair with Princess Isabella, are based neither on history nor Blind Harry.

Print the legend!

Is it a good thing to keep alive the abuses of the past in order to continue the bloodshed? Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.

Just looking at Northern Ireland from the late 60s: there was undoubtedly discrimination against Catholics and civil rights groups protested against that. The Provos latched onto the civil rights movement and the bloodshed started.

The Provos were not fighting for civil rights or “freedom”. They were fighting for a united Ireland. Most people in the whole of Ireland then and now could not give a toss about a united Ireland and certainly would not want to die for it.

I am not saying that violence is never necessary, I am saying that rebel leaders like Pearse, Sands and Prabhakaran might have the right to choose martyrdom for themselves but those Spanish tourists and the pregnant woman in Omagh did not choose to be blown to giblets.

The best resources the Real IRA have are about 150 volunteers and bombs with which to kill tourists and pregnant women.

Another wrote: “Martyrdom is a well-known phenomenon in human history. Especially, when a minority fights against a majority oppression that is how they try to award the people who sacrifice their lives to their cause. That is one of promises, if not the only promise,, which they offer to the young recruit if they die during the battle against the oppressors because they do not have anything else to offer. This is common to Irish Republicans, Tamil Tigers, Palestinian militants, Taliban fighters, Kashmir insurgents, etc. The majority can pay their soldiers and supporters by other means such as money, government contracts, positions in the government, ministerial posts, diplomatic postings, etc. Most of them, if not all, fight for the majority cause for their personal benefit. That is why they do not and cannot talk about martyrdom”.

The Easter Rising of 1916. This was not a simple case of a minority being oppressed by a majority. The rebels were ethnically and religiously part of the majority population. The enemy was the imperial power which had colonised Ireland for 800 years. The rebels were a minority in that they had no popular support. I am asking if it was legitimate for them to take it upon themselves to opt for violence in the name of the Irish people as a whole when the Irish people as a whole took no interest in the matter. This happened 96 years ago but has resonance today because a small band of people called the Real IRA are still engaged in a bombing campaign with no mandate from the Irish people for a cause that hardly anyone cares about. Innocent people will be killed..

In every generation some Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty. What does that mean? How many of them would be willing to die for it? How many would agree with Bernadette Sands McKevitt that it would be worth dying to object to the arrangements making up the good Friday Agreement which brought a measure of peace which most of “the people” so deeply craved?

Declan Kiberd in his great book on the forging of an Irish national identity Inventing Ireland, wrote that the Irish literary renaissance, which contributed to the attempt to forge an Irish identity, happened simply because a small group of people lived near each other and cordially hated one another. There was a great deal of cordial hating among different rebel factions also.

Enough of martyrs. Enough of revenge. Let us hope a further shore is reachable, in Sri Lanka and Ireland.

[iv] Fitzpatrick op cit.

[v] The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution

[vi] Historian John Regan in Cork Examiner 26 February 1997

[viii] Fitzpatrick op cit.

[ix]  Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Foster, RF, Allen Lane, 1988

[x]  Foster, op cit

[xi] Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance since 1848, Townshend, Charles, Oxford 1983.

[xiii] The Collins Press; New Upd edition (1 Mar 2008)

[xiv] Michael Roberts