This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 29 2016.
This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin. The Rising failed miserably so why is it still remembered? A settlement involving a good measure of Home Rule had been likely even without the Rising. The conspirators achieved their aim of reversing the movement towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation.
The British reaction to the Rising was extreme and incompetent and made martyrs of those who had previously been regarded as clowns. As WB Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter 1916”:
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn
Yeats and his friends had mocked the rebels but the Rising and the British reaction to it changed everything. Yeats had particular reason to loathe one of those executed, John MacBride – “a drunken, vainglorious lout” – who had married and mistreated the poet’s muse Maude Gonne. A “terrible beauty” was “born” during Holy Week, which marks the occasion of Christ’s sacrifice. The Easter Rising is both crucifixion and resurrection.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
In a series of courts martial beginning on 2 May, 90 people were sentenced to death. Fifteen of those were executed at Kilmainham Gaol by firing squad between 3 and 12 May. James Connolly had been seriously wounded during the fighting and was shot by firing squad while strapped to a chair. Some of those executed had not played a significant part in the violence. Not all of those executed were leaders: Willie Pearse described himself as “a personal attaché to my brother, Patrick Pearse”. John MacBride had not been aware of the Rising until it began. Thomas Kent did not even join in the Rising—he was executed for the killing of a policeman during a raid on his house the week after. Éamon de Valera, Commandant of the 3rd Battalion, escaped execution partly because of his American birth.
A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested, although most were subsequently released. 1,480 men were interned in England and Wales many of whom, like Arthur Griffith of Sinn Fein, had little or nothing to do with the Rising. Camps such as Frongoch internment camp in Wales became “Universities of Revolution” where future leaders like Michael Collins and Terence McSwiney planned the war for independence. A new revolutionary elite formed in detention and a sentimental cult of veneration for the martyrs developed outside. Throughout 1917, the Irish Volunteers invited arrest and martyrdom and tried to disrupt the prison system by hunger strikes in pursuit of “political status”.
If the situation had been handled better by the British, the Sinn Féin 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. The threat of conscription further alienated the Irish.
In the years after 1916, 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 by Michael Collins’s men of fourteen alleged spies.
Former comrades turned viciously against each other after the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty established the Irish Free State – still owing allegiance to the UK and without six counties in the north. Historian David Fitzpatrick wrote in 1989 about the civil war: “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.”
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.
I am old enough to remember the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966. The drama of the thing spread even to the UK with BBC2 screening Irish TV’s dramatization of the events. That year was a turning point however. 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 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 to mark the 95th anniversary of the Rising. Readers’ comments were instructive. “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.”
Another reader commented about Easter 1916: “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.” He continued: “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.”
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?
Charles Townshend 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”.
Revisionist historians like Ruth Dudley Edwards and Roy Foster have undermined the myths and criticized the physical force tradition. Rebel leaders like Pearse, Bobby Sands and Prabhakaran might have the right to choose martyrdom for themselves but they also kill innocents. Where do you draw the line between national consciousness and deadly myth-making, between fighting for freedom and brutal murder?