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21 April 2016

The fading myths of Easter 1916

The Irish public's considered commemoration of the Easter Rising reveals a country that wants to live for the future

A mural in West Belfast depicting the seven signatories of the 1916 Easter Proclamation
A mural in West Belfast depicting the seven signatories of the 1916 Easter Proclamation. L-R: Joseph Plunkett, Sean Mac Diarmada, Tom Clarke, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt and Thomas MacDonagh ©DMC Photography

Ireland being Ireland, the centenary of the Easter Rising is enveloped in romance, mythology and intellectual argument, much of which is conducted through poetry, prose, song, theatre and striking imagery. The forces behind the rising were complex. They included the 17th-century plantation of Ulster, which brought large numbers of English and Scottish Protestants to live uneasily with dispossessed native Irish Catholics; the fomenting of revolution from 3,000 miles away by an Irish-American diaspora; and, from 1914, idealism and war fever induced by what was taking place on the Continent.

One hundred years ago, 1,600 people, mainly from the nationalist Irish Volunteers, occupied some buildings in Dublin and began shooting police and soldiers. Almost 500 would die in the next few days—mostly civilians—and the executed rebels would achieve heroic status. But in Irish history, little is straightforward. Take the seven leaders of 1916, lazily considered to have been a homogenous group. The two Fenians (Tom Clarke and his young protégé Seán MacDiarmada) were violently Anglophobic and despised democracy; the Irish Irelander Eamonn Ceannt wanted an island with no outside influences other than the Vatican; the three mystical poets Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett valued European influences and toyed with having a German Catholic king. And Scots-born James Connolly, once a British soldier, wanted to light the spark that would ignite a worldwide Marxist revolution.

There are plenty of disputed issues about the violence in Dublin in Easter 1916, including whether it should be celebrated or commemorated at all—and, if so, when? The “when” is perplexing for outsiders: the insurrection, revolution, uprising—whatever you choose to call it—began on 24th April, yet while that date will be marked, the main centenary ceremony was held on Easter Sunday, 27th March. This is because in the mind of Irish Catholics, the événements quickly became entangled with Easter and concepts of sacrifice and resurrection. To confuse the issue further, the Rising actually began on Easter Monday—but the current Irish government held the formal events on Sunday so Monday could be given over to a day of culture.

In Dublin the week before Easter this year, prior to engaging in a television punch-up about whether the Rising was morally justified, I went to two exhibitions, the first sponsored by Sinn Féin and the second by the Irish government. Some of the dramatis personae featured were the same, but the differences in approach were a vivid illustration of the widening gulf between the way republicans and mainstream Irish nationalists view the past.

The Sinn Féin exhibition, held in a rundown cinema, was a trip down memory lane to my childhood in the Republic, when no deviation was permitted from the narrative imposed on us posthumously by the seven leaders of 1916. We were indoctrinated about their vision and their heroism in bravely facing the firing squads of the brutal British army. Pictures of these venerated icons appeared in most public buildings. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which they had signed, was treated as holy writ. It hung in classrooms and was read out on state occasions and in graveyard ceremonies for those regarded as Irish patriots.

The author of the Proclamation, Pearse, we were told, was the greatest and noblest man in Irish history. He was certainly, because of his extraordinary gifts as a propagandist, one of its most influential, for it was he who created a historical narrative we were all enjoined to accept—and most of us did. He had laid it all out in a series of pamphlets explaining “the body of teaching” passed on by nationalist “evangelists”: “Like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession.” It was no wonder that confused people thought Pearse a martyred saint.

“In every generation,” the Proclamation said, “the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past 300 years they have asserted it in arms.” “The rosary beads of rebellion,” was the name given by the historian Liam Kennedy to this decidedly dodgy selective approach. The pre-1916 dates to which Pearse was alluding were 1641 (a Catholic rising in support of absolutist Stuart monarchy that led to the slaughter of thousands of Protestant settlers in Ulster); 1798 (a French Revolution-inspired rebellion led by Protestants that ended in a sectarian bloodbath); 1803 (an inept Protestant-led coda to 1798 involving fewer than 100 people); 1848 (a European-inspired rebellion so badly run and supported it was a fiasco); and 1867 (a total flop led incompetently by largely Catholic Fenians). In no case, as Kennedy put it, “can it be truly said that the ‘Irish people’ were asserting national rights,” since the vast majority of them were uninvolved.

The Irish people had no say in 1916 either since the rebels, who had sought arms from Germany—described in the Proclamation as “our gallant allies in Europe”—had the support of fewer than 2,000 at a time when 250,000 Irishmen were in the British army. Yet “the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood” were cited as the justification by these seven conspirators—who had no electoral mandate whatsoever—to set themselves up as the provisional government and demand the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. These, in their view, included the half a million Protestants who had signed a covenant to resist home rule.

Yet the Rising was a brilliant piece of theatre. Pearse’s rhetoric was seductive and his essentially blasphemous use of the language of Christian sacrifice to condone killing (“Ireland will not find Christ’s peace until she has taken Christ’s sword”) helped to encourage the Catholic hierarchy to give it retrospective blessing. Catholicism and 1916 became intertwined: 50 years after the Rising, the image of the risen Christ in Galway Cathedral was flanked by mosaic representations of Pearse and John F Kennedy at prayer. Schools taught the received orthodoxy; pubs resounded with patriotic ballads extolling the deeds of one “patriot” or another, adding stars of 1916, the War of Independence, the civil war and various bursts of Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence deplored by the Irish Free State (from 1937 the Irish Republic), such as the bombings in England in 1939 and attacks on border police stations between 1956 and 1962.

Then came the anniversary celebrations of 1966 and a great outpouring of emotion that would scare unionists and embolden republicans. Seán Lemass, then Taoiseach, was anxious that there should be no dangerous glorification of violence, but the messages were too nuanced and the damage was done. The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 would lead some to question discreetly why we had embraced the Easter Rising lock, stock and barrel, and why we sang songs praising people who killed in its name.

Sinn Féin’s “Revolution 1916: The Original and Authentic Exhibition” is designed to reinforce the Pearsean vision of Irish history, the heroes-and-villains take on 1916 with politically-correct revisions, and to give a fillip to the continuous campaign of the Provisional movement to win retrospective justification for their role in putting Northern Ireland through almost 30 years of hell. It’s not easy riding all their political and historical horses. Sinn Féin, which disapproved of violence and wanted a dual monarchy, had nothing to do with 1916, but was the name used by separatist nationalists in the 1918 election. After various political upheavals, it would become the exclusive property of the political wing of the Provisional IRA, but now that the IRA is largely out of business (though senior members dominate the republican movement both openly and covertly and freelancers are engaged in criminality), in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin shares power with the right of centre Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In parliamentary opposition in the Republic, its policies are poised precariously between the centre-left Labour Party and the far-left Trotskyites.

Above the exhibition entrance are portraits of the seven signatories, and on the left a quote from Pearse: “If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.”

This is dangerous territory, since the supporters of the New IRA, who rejoiced over the recent murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay, use messages like that as a thumbs-up to carrying on with the war. They haven’t forgotten that the Provisionals claimed to be fighting for a United Ireland until they could fight no more, when they changed tack and made the preposterous claim that their aim had been equality with the Northern Irish majority (in jobs, housing and so on), something achieved by 1972.

Obsessed with the trappings of political correctness, Sinn Féin’s 1916 is exaggerating the role of women in the Rising. It requires creativity, for although women were accepted in the tiny Irish Citizen Army, the paramilitary wing of James Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, very few wielded a gun. They were banned from the nationalist Irish Volunteers, who made up the majority of the insurgents and had nothing to do with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and although their separate organisation, Cumann na mBan (an Irish Republican women’s paramilitary organisation), was tolerated, its members were largely confined to nursing, catering and carrying messages. You would not have known that from the atrocious mural in the exhibition’s entrance hall: based on The Last Stand (later renamed The Birth of the Irish Republic), a watercolour produced by the indifferent London illustrator Walter Paget with the help of photographs, it showed Pearse and four of the other signatories in the General Post Office—rebel headquarters.

“The Irish are curious about what happened in 1916 and are now aware that good Irishmen were killed in British uniforms”

Martial-looking women had been superimposed on it, in addition to a large image (reminiscent of the French Marianne) of a flag-waving Maureen O’Hara look-alike. She turned out to be Molly O’Reilly, a teenager in the Irish Citizen Army, a messenger during Easter 1916 and subsequently an uncompromising Republican, whose claim to fame was that she had been asked by Connolly to raise a green and gold flag on his headquarters. She ticked the boxes of being female, working class and a lifelong supporter of the IRA. Elsewhere in the exhibition there were portraits of women associated with 1916, as well as unknowns apparently supposed to represent today’s immigrants.

A Christ-like Bobby Sands had been added to the mural as well, and the figure of a young man in jeans bound to a rock like Prometheus turned out to be Francis Hughes, the bravest, most effective and most vicious of the IRA terrorists who starved themselves to death in 1981. So it was no surprise to find an entire room devoted to portraits of dead hunger strikers, whom Sinn Féin make explicit should join the official pantheon of 20th-century Irish heroes along with the seven of 1916.

I wasn’t surprised the exhibition was geared to suit the Sinn Féin agenda, but I was initially baffled as to why it was so poor in design and execution. There were huge slabs of text on the walls, the video was short and dull and recreated holy spots such as the execution yard at Kilmainham Jail didn’t hold one’s attention long: the only time the bored children seemed enthused was by the noisy simulation of machine guns and artillery. Sinn Féin is the richest Irish political party: it gets large sums from Irish-Americans, seems to require its political representatives to hand over part of their salaries to the party and has supporters in the wider republican movement. That wider movement includes elements who have raised tens of millions from less orthodox enterprises (not condoned by Sinn Féin), which include smuggling, fraud and the Northern Bank robbery of 2004. But because Sinn Féin is trying hard to represent itself as the party of the disadvantaged, it has to present an image of poverty.

I went then to the opening of “Witness History,” a brilliantly-designed permanent interpretive centre located in the General Post Office, which has cost the state several million euros. There is an agenda here as well, with the government reflecting the present mood of a mature society sick of violence. Sinn Féin finds it hard to understand how much people in the Republic are repelled by the intensity of Northern Irish Republicans—whom they refer to disparagingly as Nordies. Every time Gerry Adams or one of his colleagues bang the drum about a United Ireland they lose more votes. When it was announced in 2011 that the Queen would make a state visit to Ireland, Sinn Féin misread the mood of the southern Irish and announced the visit was premature. They were left like children with their noses to a sweet shop window when she charmed the Irish public.

Political violence is a turn off, not least because there’s a lethal gang war going on in Dublin among people with connections to various IRA splinter groups, including Continuity, Real and New, whose brutality and easy access to arms rattle the public. So while the General Post Office exhibition was greenish, it was a commemoration, not a celebration, and with ingenious and imaginative use of film and interactive graphics it told the story from the point of view of police, soldiers, civilians as well as the rebels; it conveyed superbly the sense of a city at war. There were lurking screens with talking heads of historians (including me) exploring the events as objectively as we could manage. Commemorative stamps include an unarmed Irish Catholic policeman, the first man to die, and the rebel who shot him, the second. Republicans have been furious at the even-handedness.

Sinn Féin is a cult in which there is no dissent and everyone speaks with one voice. Their parading of old grievances is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s brutal description of his country as one in which “history’s ancient faeces… are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession.”

Unlike cults, the Irish these days are no longer insular. The young travel widely, work abroad for substantial periods and despise sectarianism almost as much as racism. Sure, the country has gone through a bad patch, as hubris and greed killed the Celtic Tiger, and has seen its economic sovereignty eroded by the European Central Bank. There is still a great deal of anger about the seeming invulnerability of bankers. But things are getting better and the Irish are fundamentally cheerful and tend to respond to misfortune with mordant wit and stoicism. They’re no longer inclined towards blind loyalty to the dead of 1916, not least because they see from the evidence of Islamic State, that merely being prepared to give your life for your ideals doesn’t make you right.

JonesyAt their most optimistic Sinn Féin had hoped that by 2016 they would be in government north and south, with Martin McGuinness as President and Adams as Taoiseach on the stand reviewing the troops. It hasn’t happened, and the 1916 commemoration will not increase Sinn Féin’s popularity. The Irish are too sophisticated these days to accept inherited myths uncritically. They’re curious about what happened in 1916 and are now aware that good Irishmen were killed in British uniforms: one bestselling book has been about the 40 children killed during the Rising.

Dying for Ireland is out of fashion. The young want to live for it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards