A CENTENARY CELEBRATED
“Glorious Madness” The O’Rahilly called it. In military terms the Easter Rising was objectively doomed from the start. Even had the Volunteers risen throughout Ireland – which they didn’t – for how long could a semi-trained militia have held out against a determined professional army, superior in men and armaments?
A hundred years ago this month fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed soon after surrender ( The O’Rahilly died in the fighting). General Maxwell, the buffoon who organised the “field general” court martials, i.e. trials without defence, jury, qualified judges or public access, thought a short sharp shock was required. 183 civilians were put on trial, of whom ninety were sentenced to death. The executions were only stopped by the hasty intervention of the British Prime Minister , Asquith, after he arrived in Dublin on May 12. By then the damage had been done and the slow fuse of a sea-change in Irish public opinion, very much mixed beforehand, lit.
The Centenary of the Rising was celebrated (early) this Easter. The major commemorative events, including solemn ceremonies honouring the leaders and the others who fell, as well as the largest military parade ever staged in Dublin, were sober and dignified and with an evident sense of national pride. Events were well attended and blessed with good weather.
The Celebrations were more restrained and less gung-ho than in 1966, the last landmark anniversary. The country has moved on in so many ways in half a century – and it shows. In 1966 Ireland was a different country, economically, socially, culturally and in the national mind-set. Many survivors of 1916 were still around fifty years later. The last surviving 1916 Commander, De Valera, was Irish President, while Taoiseach Sean Lemass had fought in the GPO aged 16. Memories of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were still fresh. The country was just emerging from a lengthy period of national stagnation in which the chief political obsessions were Partition and relations with Britain.
THAT Ireland also had been at peace since 1923, had avoided the Second World War – unthinkable without the national independence which had its gestation in the events of 1916 – and had no recent experience of what bloodshed and armed conflict entailed. Fifty years on Ireland has fresh and ghastly memories of a generation of violence in the North that claimed close to four thousand lives and injured many more, and has overwhelmingly embraced a peace that promises reconciliation. This has led to a more mature and realistic appraisal of 1916.
The Rising changed matters – utterly – setting in train a chain of events that led to an independent Irish state. It’s worth noting that the recent celebrations took place against a background of political wrangling here over how and by whom the next sovereign ( I emphasize sovereign) Irish government will be formed following February’s inconclusive general election.
Would that be the case had there been no Easter Rising? Would we be like Scotland today – or, indeed, Northern Ireland? And what else would/could have happened in the interim? “ What –Ifs?” are fascinating – for example, would Britain have faced down the Ulster Unionists had there been no Rising? – but ultimately just speculation. Whatever else one can say, as an end result of the process that began in 1916 we Irish are now masters of our own destiny and the issues with which we are seized, like health, housing, welfare and water, are First World Issues which we brought about and on ourselves.
How different to that Easter a century ago and to the setting – a somewhat backwater city, impoverished, riven by class and privilege and teeming with some of Europe’s worst slums. Politically the cauldron was simmering , with every week bringing a roll call of dead and injured from the charnel house of the Great War, where as many as one thousand Irishmen of every hue died in each month of the conflict. Gallipoli had been a few short months before. And indeed, in the week of the Rising, which saw a total of 485 fatalities, 532 Irishmen were slaughtered in three days in the Hulloch gas attacks near Loos. There was crossover in death. Dublin Fusilier Private John Naylor died on April 29, the same day his wife Margaret was shot in Dublin crossing a bridge to buy bread for her children; she died two days later.
Until quite recently the Irish in the First World War were treated as invisible, official policy being to ignore or discount the huge numbers of Irish who had fought and died. The recognition of the sacrifice of those many thousands has been one of the signal achievements of reconciliation of the last decades. The dead Irish of the War certainly informed the Centenary celebrations as never before, reflecting the more thoughtful and inclusive approach of the present day. There is greater appreciation of the circumstances of the Volunteer split in 1914, with the majority following Redmond to enlist in what nobody thought would be a lengthy carnage, in the expectation that Britain would deliver Home Rule at war’s end, while the minority set about organising a Rising.
Today’s more inclusive approach generated a focus on attendant aspects of the Rising heretofore somewhat overlooked. Tom Clarke has now emerged from the shadows to vie with Pearse and Connolly as leaders. The 40 dead children of Easter Week – among the “collateral damage” of the 260 civilian dead ( 54% of the total casualties) – received much attention and were the subject of a best-selling book written by popular Irish broadcaster Joe Duffy. So also the nature and scale of the civilian casualties and destruction of central Dublin during Easter Week.
The role of women has now been accorded appropriate recognition. Some fought; others nursed the wounded, or cooked for and tended to the insurgents. Some brave women acted as despatch couriers. After the surrender 77 women were among those imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. To the well acknowledged role of Countess Markievicz has been added, among others, Connolly’s political secretary Winifred Carney, couriers Julia Grenan and Leslie Price, sniper Margaret Skinnider and Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who accompanied Pearse when he surrendered, and who was for long airbrushed out of the famous surrender photo. Some thought was even given to the “other side,” i.e. British soldiers and RIC casualties, who have been included ( not without controversy)in a Remembrance Wall listing all the victims of 1916 and unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery.
The motives and aims of those who fought varied. There was a general sense of idealism and patriotism and an undoubted hope that the Rising in Dublin would inspire a general revolt. This happened eventually – and decisively. Out of defeat came ultimate victory. In his superb “Easter 1916” Yeats asked of the Rising “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith.” That England already HAD was the judgement of the Irish people. Not by granting Home Rule but rather by executing the 1916 Leaders, thus keeping faith with its long and bloody involvement in Ireland. As a nation today “we are where we are.” But we ARE a nation – thanks to the men and women of 1916.