A nation once again: Easter and the 1916 Rising

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A sovereign nation: leaders of the Easter Rising 1916

Easter Sunday is one of the most potent days in the Christian calendar, and for someone brought up as a Catholic in Ireland it assumes an even greater significance. In a nation where, for so long, Church and State walked hand in hand, the religious symbolism of the day was amplified by its association with an insurrection that is seen as the foundation stone of Irish independence.

Politics is dangerous when placed in the hands of poets, and the Easter Rising was shaped by people with a deep understanding of symbolism and its potency. That is one of the reasons why its memory has endured.

Resurrection

The Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One one level the rising itself was an abject failure. The British mobilised, and within a week it was quashed. Pearse surrendered, and his men followed suit. In a grim yard in Kilmainham prison, he and his fellow leaders were executed by firing squad. Soldiers shot by soldiers.

But Pearse forged a narrative that became the foundation story of the Irish State, a narrative that (for all the revisionism of recent years) persists – as we have seen in the commemorations in Dublin this week. And it is a myth from which successive generations have drawn sustenance. Irish paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists – call them what you will – justify their deeds because of what happened in 1916.

We will never know what went through the minds of the 1916 leaders in their final hours – though we do know what they wanted us to think.

It’s there in Pearse’s final letter to his mother. This a document every bit as considered as the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read on the steps of the General Post Office.

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own,” he wrote. “Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.”

The dignity he displayed in the face of death must be seen as evidence of his conviction that he had struck a mortal wound at the heart of the Union; that he was right and would be vindicated.

Remembered by posterity, he and his fellow leaders have been.

Quite what Pearse would have made of the Ireland which emerged is anyone’s guess. The political class that took power after the War of Independence and the civil war was not up to the task. Generations of Irishmen and women were failed by them – betrayed it could be said. The Church, pernicious and conservative, held the forces of progress at bay. It controlled education, health and social policy. The Archbishop of Dublin was a de facto member of the cabinet.

Poverty and discrimination was fine as long as it was Irish poverty and discrimination, not British.

And worse, the Republic turned its back on the north.

There is a passage in the Proclamation – redolent of the American Declaration of Independence – which says: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Republic’s failure (and the failure of republicans) to come to terms with the realities of Ulster Unionism, and to demonstrate religious and civil liberty in action, became a mirror image of unionist isolationism. Both – unionists and republican – fostered the conditions for the appalling violence that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late sixties, and which was ‘settled’ only after some 30 years on another Easter – Good Friday 1998.

History is full of what ifs – what if the first world war hadn’t happened, what if the British had not reneged on home rule, what if the rising had happened as planned on Easter Sunday, what if the British had not responded in such an insensitive way… but we only have the history we have. Brutal, messy, contradictory history. A history where fact and fiction are intertwined, and where the heart can often rule the head.

Emotionally it relatively easy for someone from my background and upbringing to see the Easter Rising as a noble act, and to be seduced by the poetry of the revolt. ” I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge/My two strong sons that I have seen go out/To break their strength and die, they and a few,/In bloody protest for a glorious thing.” And I feel the tug.

But in my head I know that – like most conflicts – the pain is more often borne by the innocent. The majority of those who died in Dublin that fateful week were civilians. I remain convinced that there are better ways of effecting political change.

And somewhere, in the mind of someone who finds it difficult to come to terms with the human notion of god, the Catholic in me is conscious that Easter Sunday marks the day when a good man – a revolutionary in his own way – demonstrated that life can transcend death. Blessed be the peacemakers.

 

 

Rebels without applause: unionism and 1916

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Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed

It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.

Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.

Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.

It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.

England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.

Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”

‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.

Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.

It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.

Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.

“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”

One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.

For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.

The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.

It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.

If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.

  • This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015