Earlier this year, it was reported in the Irish Times that the Irish government may invite Prince Charles to a commemorative event in Dublin.
Now, I’d be the first to admit that this is one of the most mind-numbingly boring opening sentences in the history of hot-take journalism. However, if I added that Charles would have been attending an event on the 1916 Easter Rising, most Irish people would immediately understand the enormous symbolic and incendiary significance of this act. It is telling that this highly controversial suggestion was subsequently quietly dropped.
The Rising, however, isn’t just an “Irish thing”: British blood can still boil over the revolt as well. The Daily Mail used 1916 to publish a furious piece last year attacking the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he suggested that a memorial to a 1916 rebel Countess Markievicz should be erected, portraying the suggestion as yet more evidence of Corbyn’s alleged “sympathy” with the IRA.
Corbyn was thinking of Markievicz as the prominent feminist and socialist who was the first female MP elected to the Commons. But Markievicz, the Mail argued, was also “second in command” to “one of the bloodiest uprisings in Irish history”, the Rising, that led to the deaths of over a hundred British soldiers and police officers.
2016 is already proving to be a big year for the use and misuse of Irish history in the Republic’s political culture, with some spillover into the rest of the British Isles (or Atlantic Archipelago). So, given this, it may be useful to know what on earth 1916 was all about.
What was the Easter Rising?
Let’s start with the basics. The Rising was an attempted revolution to establish an independent Irish republic during Easter Week 1916.
On 24 April, around 1,200 members of the paramilitaries the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized a number of highly symbolic buildings in Dublin city centre. They made their headquarters the General Post Office, but occupied other buildings and areas such as the Four Courts legal buildings, Jacob’s biscuit factory, and St. Stephen’s Green. Patrick Pearse, a leader of the rebels and a prominent “advanced” Irish nationalist, read a famous proclamation of a provisional, 32 county Irish republic on the steps of the Post Office, and an Irish tricolour was raised.
This rebellion, partly because of division within the leadership of the Volunteers, did not spark a wider revolt. All in all, only about 2,500 people were “out” on 1916. As a comparison, nearly ten times as many people were involved in a bitter strike in Dublin called the Lockout three years earlier and 84 times as many fought for the Empire in World War One.
The British responded with speed and force: heavily shelling the rebels’ positions. To cut a long (and fascinating) story short, the Rising collapsed after six days. Around 318 Irish died, with around 3,000 wounded, and 116 British soldiers were killed, with 368 wounded and nine missing. The majority of the Irish casualties were civilians.
Because of its failure, it may seem strange that the rebellion occupies such an important place in Irish history. However, the British government’s subsequent crackdown was unwisely severe. 3,500 people were subsequently arrested, many of whom were moderate nationalists who had no connection with the revolt whatsoever. As well as this, 15 men were executed, including leaders Pearse and James Connolly. The reaction of the Empire led to a wave of public sympathy with the rebels and, later, helped contribute to a much wider rebellion – culminating ultimately in the establishment of the Irish Free State and the beginnings of Irish independence.
Why is it important today?
So, why does something that happened one hundred years ago matter? Why have tourist boards and the government put on endless commemoration events, and national newspapers published scores of pieces about 1916?
It goes beyond this – it has sometimes felt as if 1916 has dominated the airwaves. For example, Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ decided to broadcast a five-part “commemorative drama” on 1916 called Rebellion. Even the BBC roped in the actor from Mrs Brown’s Boys and descendant of 1916 fighters, Brendan O’Carroll, to host their own documentary. The Rising did not even leave politics untouched: the political party Sinn Féin felt it advantageous to use the Rising in some of their press releases in the lead up to the recent, indeterminate Irish election.
Those approaching 1916 need to understand its immense symbolic significance. It is not for nothing that a framed reprint of Pearse’s proclamation can still adorn the walls of many an Irish grandparent’s house.
There are fairly explicable reasons for this. Firstly, the Proclamation itself is a moving and powerful document. Its call for a free Irish Republic struck a chord with anti-imperial movements across the British Empire, and its assertion of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities” was, as Barack Obama recently recognised, ahead of its time.
Secondly, while there have been other anti-imperial revolts in Irish history, such as the 1798 United Irish rebellion, this was the first modern uprising against the British, and often marks the beginning of what is known as the “revolutionary period”. It is often argued that 1916 awoke the “national consciousness” of the island, and was a catalyst to later guerrilla resistance. Hence, for many it was the crucial watershed on the road to Irish independence.
This is why the Irish government, for instance, are putting on so many commemorations: many believe that it would not exist without 1916.
What’s the problem with that?
Now we’re getting to the messy bit.
There are other reasons why 1916 remains symbolic. Many will be aware of something euphemistically known as “The Troubles”: a vicious and protracted period of civil, sectarian strife in Northern Ireland which spilled over into England, Scotland, and the Republic. Over 3,600 people were killed between 1968 and 1998. This was a war fought (partly) over the political status of the six counties of Northern Ireland and the partition, which was established in the 1922 Treaty of Independence. Crucially, for partisans on the “republican” side of the war (Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA), the symbolism of the proclamation of a united Irish republic by a paramilitary organisation had particular significance. Unsurprisingly, those from the intransigent unionist side in Northern Ireland, including the DUP leader Arlene Foster, have in particular highlighted this tension.
Moreover, even forgetting this context, the Rising is politically problematic. You can’t escape the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the revolt – the Rising, put in unkind terms, was an act of political violence taken by a very small minority of fanatics in order to impose their worldview on the majority. The rebel leaders, particularly Pearse, were in addition motivated partly by a proto-fascistic “blood sacrifice” tradition in Irish conspiratorial nationalism. This makes many of Pearse’s speeches read very uncomfortably today.
This critical view of 1916 was famously put forward by Sean O’Casey in his excellent 1926 play The Plough and the Stars: a play which incited a riot in its first week when performed at the Abbey Theatre. This kind of impression of 1916 is still causing controversy even today. Earlier this year, prominent commentator Patsy McGarry wrote a charged piece in the Irish Times describing the Rising as “blasphemy” and fundamentally “immoral”. It provoked a whole host of replies, ranging from enthusiastic praise to outright condemnation.
To make matters even more controversial, some have argued that the constitutional campaign for Home Rule led by the Irish Parliamentary Party was not a completely spent force by the time of the Rising. This is debatable: the impact of the Great War, and the inflammatory creation of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force by Sir Edward Carson in the North to stop Home Rule, had weakened the campaign. Yet, if this counterfactual is true, then 1916 scuppered a potentially peaceful and controlled separation from the British Empire, and, along with the UVF’s creation, inaugurated a troubled twentieth century, defined by civil wars and sectarian strife.
Because of this, one positive respondent to McGarry called the state-sponsored commemorations a “legitimisation of anti-democratic activity”, and Professor Emeritus of History at University College Cork, Tom Dunne, has lamented that “our democracy” has “from the beginning” promoted an “anti-democratic message.”
Not only can the Rising be seen as fundamentally anti-democratic, but also sectarian. McGarry argued that Pearse in particular tried to impose a Catholic symbolism on the Rising: the leading rebels all took communion (even the communist James Connolly), and the Rising was deliberately held in Easter Week. According to McGarry it is no surprise that the “outcome of such ill-thought-out unilateral violence was two sectarian states on this island, a Protestant state for a Protestant people and a Catholic state for a Catholic people. Or that the twain should rarely meet.” Given that this island has been racked by sectarianism and sectarian violence for so long, this is an uncomfortable allegation. Others have challenged this interpretation – pointing out for instance that many contemporary Irish nationalists were Protestant – nevertheless the stain of sectarianism is never far away from Irish politics.
What’s its real significance?
This centenary will therefore bring the ambiguities of the rebellion into razor-sharp focus. It will unavoidably pose a number of uncomfortable questions. How legitimate is extra-parliamentary action and should we ever celebrate armed revolt? How should we approach the grubby history of the British Empire, and its aftermath?
2016 will also raise questions of identity. How do we recognise the diversity of those involved in political events? Those involved the revolt, and the Irish nationalist movement in general, included both male and female combatants, Catholics and Protestants, and figures of diverse political persuasions including minority ideologies such as socialism and feminism. How does Ireland make sure the British casualties are appropriately remembered – not to mention the civilian casualties? How do we ensure that the commemoration of one event does not completely overshadow the commemoration of another event that in many ways is just as important – the Battle of the Somme? The Somme took many Irish lives, and is a significant anniversary in the Ulster Protestant community. Ireland needs to work out how to balance commemorations in this charged year ahead, and how the historical event 1916 will fit into a world after the fragile Peace Process.
There’s one thing that is certain. For the foreseeable future, and for better or worse, the Easter Rising will continue to hold a historical, cultural and political significance for the inhabitants and diaspora of Ireland.
An earlier version of this piece was published in The Stepford Student on 26 January 2016.