by Michael Patrick O'Leary
April 24 2016
There has been a great deal written about the centenary of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916. Many events commemorated the Rising on Easter Monday March 27 2016. However, because Easter is a moveable feast, the insurrection actually took place on April 24 1916. I am going to use that as an excuse to draw together some of my thoughts about the Rising.
The aim of the 1916 Rising was to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was occupied with World War I. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Joseph Plunkett travelled to Germany in April 1915 to join Roger Casement to seek help from the German government. They also met the German Ambassador in Washington to seek German support for Irish independence. Plunkett and Casement presented a plan which involved a German expeditionary force landing on the west coast of Ireland. That plan did not work out, although Casement brought guns into Ireland from Germany.
The Rising had no popular support. 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. Many of these were “separation women” – recipients of separation allowance as wives of Irishmen serving in the British Army.
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’.”
The Rising began on Easter Monday, 1916, and lasted for six days. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country mainly limited to parading. There were isolated actions in other parts of Ireland, but the orders for a general uprising were countermanded by Eoin McNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. He had no role in the planning of the Rising, which was carried out by IRB infiltrators. When McNeill found out that Patrick Pearse had duped him he placed a last minute news advertisement advising Volunteers not to take part. McNeill was supported by Bulmer Hobson and The O’Rahilly but O’Rahilly joined in the rebellion and was killed in action.
Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has a new book just out – The Seven. This refers to the seven men who made up the Military Council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, whose purpose was to resist Home Rule for Ireland, by force if necessary, the IRB were behind the initiative which eventually led to the inauguration of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. The IRB intended to use the Volunteers to seek a republic, recruiting high-ranking Volunteers into the IRB, such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Thomas MacDonagh. These men, together with veteran Fenian Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Eamonn Ceannt and James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army, constituted the Military Committee. It was just these seven who decided to wage war on the British Empire. On the morning of Easter Sunday 1916, they met in Dublin’s Liberty Hall. By noon, they had printed and issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which they declared themselves to be the provisional government of an entity that claimed the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman, even though the people had not been consulted.
Patrick Pearse was a poet and playwright who founded schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn and to learn the Irish language: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”. Pearse developed an unhealthy obsession with blood sacrifice. “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. Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote: ““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.”
James Connolly was more hard-headed, a socialist and trade unionist 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”.
Nevertheless, Connolly did sacrifice himself. 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 later guerrilla war as well as one of its most prominent literary chroniclers.
Martyrdom and Separatism
Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews, a Sri Lankan website, in which I explored the theme of martyrdom in the militant separatism of Irish rebels at the beginning of the 20th century and of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from the 1970s.
The article got 5,000 hits and 115 comments. There was a heated debate, some comments were stimulating, others silly.
I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. One commenter on Facebook said that she could not see the point of the article. I told her that it had been addressed to a Sri Lankan audience and was warning of the dangers of Sri Lankan Tamils elevating Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran to the status of a martyr for the cause of Tami nationalism. She responded that my article was “intellectually flawed” because it did not deal with the “800 years of oppression” that preceded the 1916 Rising.
She presumed to know that her long-dead Irish grandfather would take pity on me for my lack of respect for those who “Fought against subjugation of brutal British rule for centuries”. Professor Liam Kennedy has coined an acronym to cover this kind of thinking – MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever).
My critic chastised me for not mentioning Cromwell, the Famine and Irish slaves in the West Indies. I have written on all of those subjects elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that Irishmen were also slave traders and overseers. The Scots were the main force in turning Ceylon into a tea monoculture but Irishmen played a role too, backed up by Irish nuns and priest. Thousands of Irish men were loyal servants of the army of the British Empire.
How oppressed was Ireland in 1916? The leader of the Home Rule party in the Westminster parliament, John Redmond, in a speech of 1915, claimed that by 1900 the struggle over land was effectively won. Many historians since have claimed conditions were improving in Ireland by 1916. The writer Sean O’Faolain (born John Whelan, his father served the Empire as a policeman), who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.
Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, states: “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.
As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.
Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth and funded by the British goverment. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.
The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.
Another economist, David McWilliams, wrote recently, “sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state”. McWilliams claims that in 1913, Ireland was one of the richest countries in Europe, with income per head matching that of Sweden, Norway and Finland. 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. McWilliams asserts: “The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together”. During the Famine, Irish carpenters and fitters earned about 90% of what their English counterparts did. In the decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. Wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers rose rapidly after the Famine. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. The Irish stock market doubled in the late Victorian era. Large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir.
Although it was a hotbed of rebel activity, Cork did well out of the British Empire. I spent many happy childhood times in Cobh, County Cork. I walked through a public park called The Battery to get to a beach. In 1962, I sat reading Ulysses at White Point and looked across the bay to see imposing 18th century buildings. Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was a major British naval base and defence against Napoleon. Cork exported salted beef, pork and butter to the West Indies and fed the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and, later, during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.
On the 96th anniversary of the Rising someone commented in the Irish Times: “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. “
By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed. In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. After the Easter Rising, the British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. The Volunteers and ICA recorded 64 killed in action, but otherwise Irish casualties were not divided into rebels and civilians. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were civilians. Details of the 30 children who were killed can be found here:
British and rebels shot civilians deliberately on occasion when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. There were at least two instances of British troops killing civilians out of revenge or frustration, at Portobello Barracks, where six were shot and North King Street, where 15 were killed. Most of the civilians killed were victims of indirect fire from artillery, heavy machine guns and incendiary shells. The British seem to have caused most non-combatant deaths. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, “They regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved”.
One young Sri Lankan who commented on my Groundviews article confidently stated that all the Irish hated the English. Because of the close proximity of the two countries, because their histories are intertwined, because most Irish people have family living in England, the relationship is bound to be more complex than that. John Horgan noted that “the Irish mass audience for TV has never found it difficult to combine a deeply rooted and at times visceral republicanism with a deep fascination with the activities of the House of Windsor”. The residents of the Irish Republic are avid followers of Coronation Street and East Enders and readers of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.
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.
Rosamond Jacob visited England on many occasions and wrote contemptuously about everything from the landscape to the faces of people on the street. Desmond Coffey told his girlfriend Cesca Trench that the revolution was necessary so that it would be possible “to hate the English comfortably from a position in which they can’t look d-d superior and smile”. Mabel Fitzgerald wrote to her former employer, George Bernard Shaw that she was bringing up her son to speak Irish and to adopt “the sound traditional hatred of England and all her ways”. Shaw responded: “You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of”. He said she should be telling her son “that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past. Shaw scoffed at the fantasy of seeking “authenticity in rural life and hoping that the uncorrupted values of the Irish peasantry would rub off on them”. He warned Mabel that her son would probably rebel against her: “Nothing educates a man like the desire to free himself by proving that everything his parents say is wrong”.
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 was born in Scotland and spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh. He served in the British Army.
Liam Mellows was born in Lancashire.
Margaret Skinnider was a sniper and the only woman 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.
Many of those involved in the Rising did indeed revel in hatred of the English and of the British Empire. Many of them hated the English because they were English themselves and Anglophobia was part of a romantic rebellion against their own privileged backgrounds, against families which had long been pillars of the British Empire.
Robert Erskine Childers, son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers, was born in Mayfair, London. He 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, whose distinguished alumni include prime minister Clement Attlee and the bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. Childers was quite well known in England after his success with a spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which showed the Royal Navy in a good light, Erskine was initially a steadfast believer in the British Empire and fought in the Boer War but later came to identify himself closely with the country of Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Childers 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”. Childers was executed by his former comrades in 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. 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. 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.”
Yeats’s muse, Maud Gonne, was a fervent Irish nationalist despite being born near Farnham in Surrey, England, the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the17th Lancers, whose own ancestors hailed from Caithness in Scotland.
Cesca Chenevix Trench was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant Unionist family and grew up in a vicarage in Kent. The family contributed much service to the British Empire and Anthony Chenevix-Trent was headmaster of Eton in the 1960s. Cesca changed her name to Sadhbh Trinseach.
The Hon Albinia Lucy Brodrick came from an English Protestant aristocratic family which had been at the forefront of British rule in Ireland since the 17th century and were pillars of the British Empire worldwide. The family colonised the part of Ireland in which I lived. Albinia’s brother, St John Brodrick, 1st Earl of Midleton was, in the words of one biographer, “consistent in his low opinion of the Irish [and] he held imperialist views that warmly embraced much of the jingoism associated with social Darwinism”. Albinia initially shared these views but following regular visits to her father’s estate in County Cork, she began to educate herself about Ireland and developed an interest in the Gaelic Revival. She was a staunch supporter of the Rising and joined both Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. She changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair.
Percy Frederick Beazley at the age 23 in Bootle wrote in his diary: “Shall I be despised? Shall I live a poor weak puny life- I who have the strength and will and a fire within me which will not rest”. He fervently idealised Ireland as a result his childhood holidays. “I shall wake up the Gael, appeal to him, trust in him”. He changed his name to Piaras Béaslaí.
Roger Casement was born in Dublin but served the British Empire as a consul in its diplomatic service and received a knighthood. His father, Captain Roger Casement, served in the (The King’s Own) Regiment of Dragoons. The family lived in England in genteel poverty. Roger’s mother died when he was nine. They returned to Ireland to County Antrim to live near paternal relatives. When Casement was 13 years old his father died, having ended his days in Ballymena dependent on the charity of relatives.
Cathal Brugha (Charles Burgess) was born in Ireland but the family came from Yorkshire. Patrick Pearse’s father was born in Birmingham.
Michael Collins’s chief intelligence officer, W J Brennan-Whitmore, was born in Wexford but his name worked against him. Tom Clarke despised Brennan-Whitmore, saying “never trust a hyphenated Irishman”. 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. 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 press.
The Provisional IRA 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). His Irish was spoken with a Cockney accent. The leader of the Official IRA, Cathal Goulding, 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. “
A Motley Crew
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.
A middle class background is often glossed over. Sighle Humphreys and her O’Rahilly cousins went to exclusive private schools, lived in huge houses with servants and fleets of cars. The Plunketts moved between a series of large houses with many servants and were wealthy from rental income. MacSwiney’s wife Muriel was a Murphy and wealthy from the family’s brewing of the nectar that is Murphy’s stout.
Many of the revolutionaries came, like Bulmer Hobson and Ernest Blythe, from wealthy Ulster unionist families. The Gifford sisters came from a strict unionist background from Dublin’s upper middle class. Grace married Joseph Plunkett, Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh. Both men were executed for their part in the Rising. Kevin O’Shiel and Eimar O’Duffy were brought up in wealthy Catholic homes and were radicalised at exclusive boarding schools in England as were Mary MacSwiney, Maire Comerford and Muriel Murphy. These people reacted against their privileged backgrounds and seized on advanced nationalism and Irish-Ireland values as Roy Foster puts it, “part of general rebellion, partly fuelled by a sense of guilt and compensation”.
Many of those involved in the Easter Rising had advanced views. People ran away together to found communist communes in Donegal. The lesbianism of many key figures went unconcealed. Roger Casement was a homosexual as was Eoin O’Duffy, who went on to lead the fascist Blueshirts. Rosamond Jacob (Róisín Nic Sheamuis) was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Although many of these middle class revolutionaries were bent on self-transformation, the Irish revolution moved from artistic, social and sexual experimentation to repressive conservatism.
Theatre of War
The Rising had been called a revolution of poets but playwrights and actors were more prominent. Even James Connolly had written plays about the 1867 Fenian Rising for the drama group of the Irish Citizen Army. The theatre was an influence on developing nationalism. Martin Esslin wrote that the theatre is where a nation “thinks in front of itself”. Yeats stated that in the theatre the mob becomes the people”. The Abbey Theatre with Yeats and Lady Gregory put on plays about Ireland’s mythical past and allegorical plays which carried a contemporary message about English domination corrupting Ireland. Arthur Griffith was put off by Lady Gregory’s Ascendancy hauteur (her husband was Governor of Ceylon) but recognised that these plays chimed with Sinn Fein’s call for psychological as well as political autonomy. Roy Foster describes the Abbey Theatre as the “Established Church” with networks of overlapping little theatre companies making up “dissident congregations”. One of these groups was the Theatre of Ireland – its best playwright was Padraic Colum. Patrick Pearse’s brother Willie started the Leinster Stage Society. Their productions did not impress the critic from the Irish Times. He noted that the plays tended to concern “our old friends the fairies, who seem to have fallen on evil days since the introduction of railway trains”. Foster describes the atmosphere of the theatrical world of Dublin as “incestuous and mutually critical”.
More than one commentator has noted that the Easter Rising seemed choreographed as if theatre had taken to the streets. When the insurrection broke out several people mistook it for street theatre. Constance Markievicz was asked by passers-by at Liberty Hall if she was rehearsing a play for children.
Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?
Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.
However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.
There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916 (as there were in England). Horace Plunkett of the Cooperative movement produced statistics to show the extent of urban poverty. The death rate for Ireland in 1917 was 16.8 per 1,000 of the population compared to 14.4 for England and Wales. In Ireland there were 2.2 deaths per 1,000 from TB; in England and Wales it was 1.62.Todd Andrews, veteran Irish republican born in 1901, wrote in his autobiography Dublin Made Me about the bleak existence of those at the “bottom of the heap”. “Even those who had regular work were seldom above the poverty line and very many were below it…when I was child, every mother of young children lived in constant dread and sometimes real terror of sickness”.
I remember when Cork was dirt poor. Ancient black-shawled women, like one might see in Greece, Sicily or Portugal, moved like shadows in the warrens of alleyways that climbed the steep streets. Beggars sat on St Patrick’s Bridge. However, this was long after the Imperial oppressor had been ejected.
Apart from those around James Connolly, not many of those who fomented the 1916 Rising were much concerned about social conditions. The writings of Pearse are concerned with a more spiritual Ireland. Likewise, Standish O’Grady used the legendary figure of Cuchulainn “to galvanise the weakened generations of Ireland into an awareness of their heroic masculinity”.
My father, Jeremiah O’Leary, was still in the womb of Hannah Noonan O’Leary when the rebels took over the GPO. He was born on 29 June 1916, two months after the Rising. Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when he was in his twenties. His younger brother joined him. My father joined the British Army when the Second World War broke out. Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from Ireland. In the 1950s, 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. The Irish-born population there peaked at over 700,000 in 1971.
Pensions Fit for Heroes?
In his book A Nation not a Rabble Diarmaid Ferriter has unearthed some interesting material from what does not seem an exciting source – MSPC (Military Service Pensions Collection). “The archive reveals so much about the revolution’s afterlife”. Ferriter notes that there is a huge gulf between the numbers of applications and awards made. Those affected by the events of Easter Week were in drastic financial circumstances and “it is clear that civil war politics intruded in some of the decisions that were made”. One cannot but suspect that simple bureaucratic bloody-mindedness and parsimonious penny-pinching were behind the obstructive behavior of the assessors. Even James Connolly’s family and Joseph Plunkett’s widow were subjected to delays and humiliations.
There was no doubt about the bravery of Margaret Skinnider or of the seriousness of her wounds. She was wounded while she was in command of a squad of five men trying to cut British lines in Harcourt Street. She suffered a bullet wound near the spine and another in her right arm where a bullet had ploughed through the flesh upwards and had blown away the flesh connecting the arm and shoulder. None of this mattered to the Board which adjudicated that Skinnider was ineligible simply because she was a woman. Her wound was not a wound because she was a woman. “It would be illogical… to include female sex under ‘wounded members’…Section 3, which applies to this case, uses the words ‘any person’ as referable only to the male sex…The definition of ‘wound’ in Section16 only contemplates the masculine gender”. Skinnider was informed that her claim was not admissible because the Army Pensions Act “is only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense”. She appealed but had to wait 13 years before she got a wound pension.
William Maher’s file covers twenty years of frustration and no pension at the end of it. Ferriter comments: “The reason for the department’s stalling was an obvious desire to prevent payment of money legitimately due to pensioners”. The Army Finance Officer was given a definite steer which Ferriter interprets as “a cynical move that sought to make savings from the hoped-for ignorance of those affected, and the probability that many of them would not have the means to pursue legal action”.
Kevin O’Higgins asserted in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. De Valera wrote to Mary MacSwiney: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, or even a bishop, rather than the leader of a revolution”. John Banville described de Valera’s Ireland as “a demilitarized totalitarian state in which the lives of its citizens were to be controlled not by a system of coercive force and secret policing but by a kind of applied spiritual paralysis maintained by an unofficial federation between, the Catholic clergy, the judiciary, the civil service and politicians”.
Countess Markievicz boldly stated “the Catholic church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world” and found it “incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic”. In spite of this, her revolution established a state which was dominated by the regressive and reactionary ideas of the Irish Catholic church. The economy was ruined and the state even begrudged paying pensions to those who were wounded in the fight for freedom. Some met a worse fate and were executed by former comrades. The material questions around which republicans had organised, including trade union militancy, land seizures and the establishment of soviets, became embarrassing for the national leadership. As historian Tom Garvin put it: “whenever social protest began seriously to threaten the interest of men of substance, republicanism ostentatiously dissociated itself from agitation”.
Diarmaid Ferriter wrote: “The revolution did ‘change the relationship between one class of Irishman and another’, not through the creation of a new socialist regime, but through the existence of a hierarchy of benefit”. He quotes Francis Stuart, “we fought to stop Ireland falling into the hands of publicans and shopkeepers”. That seems to be a fail.
Declan Kiberd suggested that the work of Samuel Beckett reflected the failure of the revolution; its rhetoric had been merely aspirational without a grand inclusive programme for Irish development. Beckett saw Irish society as pastiche with no overall purpose and responded by putting futility and despair on stage for people to laugh at.
The Rising Today
The Rising failed and was followed by a war of independence and a bitter civil war. Although de Valera fought against the treaty partly because of partition, 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.
The Republic of Ireland had a general election on February 26 2016 in which the two parties which developed out of the civil war reached a stalemate and Sinn Fein increased its seats. 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. Ireland is still divided and its freedom of action is restricted by the European Central Bank.
As I write, (24 April 2016, one hundred years to the day after the Easter Rising) the Republic of Ireland is without a government.
Someone commented on my Groundviews article: “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.”
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.”
He continued: “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 which had no foundation in historical fact. 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.
The Easter Rising of 1916 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 100 years ago but has resonance today because a small band of people 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 continue to be killed.
Seamus Heaney wrote:
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
Enough of martyrs. Enough of revenge. Let us hope a further shore is reachable, in Sri Lanka and Ireland.
I consulted the following books for this essay.
The Big Fellow Frank O’Connor 1937
Michael Collins Rex Taylor 1958
The Black and Tans Richard Bennett 1959
The Easter Rebellion Max Caulfield 1963
Ireland’s Civil War Calton Younger 1968
The Secret Army J Bowyer Bell 1970
Roger Casement Brian Inglis 1973
Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure Ruth Dudley Edwards 1977
Modern Ireland 1600-1972 RF Foster 1988
Paddy and Mr Punch RF Foster 1993
The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 Diarmaid Ferriter 2004
Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion Charles Townshend 2005
Terror in Ireland 1916-1923 David Fitzpatrick (Ed) 2012
Rebels: Voices from the Easter Rising Fearghal McGarry 2012
Myth and the Irish State John Regan 2013
The Seven Ruth Dudley Edwards 2016
Unhappy the Land Liam Kennedy 2016
A Nation and not a Rabble Diarmaid Ferriter 2016
Churchill and Ireland Paul Bew 2016
Vivid Faces RF Foster 2016
James Connolly Sean O’Callaghan 2016