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20 March 2016

1916: Ireland’s bloody legacy

The historian Ruth Dudley Edwards shows how the seven leaders of the uprising spawned a civil war and the Troubles

The death of Adrian Ismay, bottom right, can be traced back to the 1916 uprising and the following civil war
The death of Adrian Ismay, bottom right, can be traced back to the 1916 uprising and the following civil war

On March 4, almost a century after the Easter Rising (also known as the ebellion/insurrection/revolution, depending on your politics), a tiny group calling itself the New IRA seriously injured Adrian Ismay, a 52-year-old prison officer, using a bomb placed under his van in east Belfast. The father of three died last week, 11 days after the attack.

Republican inmates at Maghaberry high-security jail near Lisburn, where Ismay trained young prison officers, were reported to have cheered, smoked cigars and mocked warders when news of his death filtered through.

This attack is significant. In the run-up to the official commemorations of the events of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, it matters to today’s killers that someone they regarded as a legitimate target in what they see as “the occupied six counties” died. They see this as keeping the flame of the 1916 revolution alive and justify it with reference to the words and actions of the seven men who mounted the uprising, now regarded as the founding fathers of the Irish Republic.A mural on a house in Catholic west Belfast depicts the Easter Rising. More than 3,500 people died in the Troubles (Getty)A mural on a house in Catholic west Belfast depicts the Easter Rising. More than 3,500 people died in the Troubles (Getty)

In this they are utterly logical, for the seven men who on Easter Monday 1916 declared themselves the provisional government had no more legitimacy than have today’s extremists. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, a democracy with elections to Westminster and to local government, and with free speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a public service open to all.

Its nationalists had a proud constitutional tradition — dominated by the parliamentary colossuses Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell — that had brought about decades of reforms such as Catholic emancipation and the transformation of land ownership from 3% of agricultural holdings being owner-occupied in 1870 to 64% in 1916.

After the previous general election, in December 1910, the Irish Parliamentary party held the balance of power and succeeded in having a home rule act passed at Westminster. Yes, it had been suspended for the duration of the Great War, but that was hardly surprising: the British government could not contemplate imposing at a time of national crisis legislation that seemed likely to spark an armed confrontation between nationalists and unionists.

Only one of the seven men had stood for election to public office: the Marxist trade union leader James Connolly had run unsuccessfully for a council seat both in his native Edinburgh and in Dublin. Highly intelligent and articulate, Connolly was a class warrior who despised democracy. So too did the key figure behind the Rising, the obsessive Tom Clarke, who had served 15 grim years in English prisons for his part in a Fenian conspiracy to blow up Londoners. Released in 1898, he spent the years to 1907 in America with zealots who would provide the money to finance the revolution he had been plotting in the enforced silence of his cell.

James Connolly, left, was executed for his role in the uprising. Daniel Breen took part in the ambush that led to the War of Independence (Corbis)
James Connolly, left, was executed for his role in the uprising. Daniel Breen took part in the ambush that led to the War of Independence (Corbis)

Young Sean Mac Diarmada, whom Clarke acquired as his lieutenant in Dublin in 1908, had become a romantic nationalist on a diet of revolutionary ballads and speeches; he recruited and subverted at Clarke’s command and shared his Anglophobia. So did Eamonn Ceannt, who had a brother in the British Army but who saw England as the enemy of Irish culture and self-sufficiency.

That was certainly not true of the poets Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, afflicted by the war fever that was sweeping the continent. MacDonagh’s thesis on Elizabethan poetry had won him a full-time academic job teaching English literature. Plunkett’s happiest time as a youth was his two years on the gentlemen philosophers course at the Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire; his intellectual hero was GK Chesterton.

Patrick Pearse, an educationalist, writer and propagandist of genius, had had a free-thinking English father whom he loved. Although he had surrendered to his mother’s myth-based Irish nationalism, he hated England but not the English, and was a troubled man with an overwhelming death wish.

These seven men made up the military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret society that had infiltrated cultural and sporting organisations as well as the Irish Volunteers, a group established in 1913 to counteract the anti-home-rule Ulster Volunteer Force.

The IRB was financed by Irish-American money, with arms promised by Germany, and its justification for taking it upon itself to start a revolution was in the opening to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic that was read out on Easter Monday after the capture of the General Post Office.

“Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”

In a gross distortion of Irish history, it claimed that “in every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty”, which was a “fundamental right”: on the basis of this they proclaimed the Irish Republic as “a sovereign independent state” that was “entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman”.

The Ulster Covenant of 1912, pledging opposition to home rule, had almost half a million signatures; by contrast, the proclamation had just seven.

There was little public sympathy for the Easter Rising at first, but that changed after the execution of 15 people, including the seven ringleaders. There had not been a political execution for almost 50 years but, from the British point of view, with men being executed on the western front for losing their nerve, it would have been impossible to let those primarily responsible for the insurrection get away with it.

Yet this played into the nationalist tradition of hero worship of men who died for Ireland. About 1,800 were interned for a few months — mainly in Wales — and emerged ready to be part of an Irish Republican Army.

Latent Anglophobia was enhanced by propaganda in Ireland that represented the executed men as devout martyred Catholics, with much being made of Easter as a time of resurrection; every possible drop of horror and compassion was wrung out of events such as Plunkett’s marriage in his prison cell, the injured Connolly being taken from hospital by stretcher to be shot and the execution of the two Pearse brothers.

There were innumerable poems about the dead, including the famous work by WB Yeats that ended with the lines: “Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

The casualties of 1916 amounted to 485, of whom the majority were civilians; many of the dead soldiers and police officers were Irish. But only the executed men mattered. The 250,000 or so Irish fighting in the war, and the 30,000 who died, were airbrushed out of the national narrative.

Those considering themselves the heirs to 1916 adopted the banner of the Sinn Fein party, which had nothing to do with the Easter Rising but defeated the Irish Parliamentary party in the 1918 general election. This was taken to confer retrospective legitimacy on the men of 1916.

Although Sinn Fein had been employing peaceful means to set up a parallel government and there had been no commitment to war, in January 1919 a handful of IRA men were impatient to foment trouble. As one explained later: “The only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces.”

The ensuing ambush, at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, in which two policemen were killed, achieved their aim. The guerrilla tactics of the IRA were matched in brutality by the notorious temporary police, known as the Black and Tans. What became known as the War of Independence ended in a truce in July 1921. About 1,400 people were killed, of whom about 550 were rebels: the IRA’s main targets were police (mostly Catholic) and Protestants thought to be unionists and therefore traitors.

The Dail, the independent parliament set up by Sinn Fein, voted for a treaty with the British government that gave 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland dominion status in the empire and gave home rule to that part of Ireland — the north — that had been prepared to fight to resist it but, after seeing the carnage in the south, now accepted this deal as a lesser evil.

Although the 1921 treaty was ratified by a majority of the electorate, its uncompromising opponents instigated a civil war mainly on the issue of the oath of allegiance. “The people had no right to do wrong,” said Eamon de Valera, then a Sinn Fein leader — and later taoiseach and president of Ireland.

This was an even more brutal war, with casualties of between 1,500 and 2,000, terrible atrocities on both sides and 77 anti-treaty prisoners executed by the Free State government, which achieved victory in May 1923. Protestants were a big target: apart from those killed, about 50,000 were driven out of the Irish Free State or elected to drift away in the early 1920s.

Die-hard members of the IRA would continue to indulge in sporadic violence south and north, as well as conducting a bombing campaign in England in 1939 and 1940; de Valera’s government in Dublin executed six IRA men and allowed three to die on hunger strike during the Second World War — known as the Emergency in neutral Ireland. After the war, the IRA confined its attentions to Northern Ireland; there were 18 deaths in the futile Border Campaign of 1956-62.

Then came the civil war euphemistically known as “the Troubles”, with more than 3,500 dead, of whom many were civilians. For almost 30 years, the Provisional IRA groomed young people for violent jihad.

ALMOST all Irish politicians regard nationalist violence between 1916 and 1921 as legitimate. Fianna Fail, the party founded by de Valera and opponents of the treaty, extends that to 1923. Sinn Fein, which had been the Provisionals’ political wing, stretches it to 1998, the year when — knowing the Provisionals were beaten — it reluctantly went along with the Good Friday agreement.

At present Sinn Fein is waging a propaganda war to have some of its best-known heroes, including the hunger strikers who killed themselves in 1981, most notably Bobby Sands, put on the same pedestal as the seven signatories. Former leaders of the Provisional IRA routinely condemn violence committed since then by various other IRAs (the Continuity, Real and now the New IRA), but as one of those keeping the flame alive said of the Provisionals to a journalist: “If we are wrong now, then they were wrong for all them years: and if we are right now then they are wrong.”

In logic the same applies to the men of 1916. If they were right to start a revolution because they wanted to, why can their successors as men of violence not expect to see the same legitimacy conferred on them? Did Patrick Pearse not write that any settlement short of a united free Ireland was null and void? As a distressed Yeats put it in old age: “And yet who knows what’s yet to come? / For Patrick Pearse had said / That in every generation / Must Ireland’s blood be shed.”

The former taoiseach John Bruton is the only leading politician prepared to make the case that Ireland would have been better settling for home rule. For those like me who agree with him, it is irrelevant that this might have delayed independence.

Among the terrible effects on Ireland of the introduction of the toxin of legitimised violence was a century of death and devastation, an intensifying of tribal hatreds and the spawning of two mutually hostile bourgeois states marked for many, many years by isolationism, poverty, bigotry and philistinism.

And as the poor, bereaved family of the prison officer Adrian Ismay knows all too well, the violence is not over yet.

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