Patrick Pearse and the Easter Rebellion in the Context of World War I
The recall of insurrection in songs, olden memories and in various kinds of entertainment, in some instances, became a call to further Rebellion.
Thomas Dwyer of Enniscorthy joined Na Fianna at thirteen years of age; he recollected forty years later:--
“This club [at Mary Street, Enniscorthy] was the breeding ground of rebellion, for here was installed into our youthful minds the hatred of the Sassenach, and there grew in us a burning desire to see our country freed from the chains of bondage. We were told how other Irishmen down through the centuries had fought against overwhelming odds and died in a glorious attempt to rid Irish soil of a foreign foe. We learned of the rebellions of Owen Roe, or Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, of Rossa and the Fenians and we longed for the day when we too might join in the fight against our common enemy.”
Sean Whelan of St Senan’s recalled, also, many years later:--
“Thanks to my mother’s great fund of Irish songs and ballads, I was familiar with Ireland’s struggle for independence long before I could read or write.”
The Ballymitty Mummers in January 1913 gave an exhibition at Duncormack; the report stated:--“The Ballymitty boys are the pioneers of the Irish style of mumming in this district and much credit is due to them for their efforts in trying to make our rural amusements truly Irish. It was the first time that we heard the Irish rhymes in this locality and the history of our country, even in rhyme, seemed to reach the hearts of the listeners. But, alas! how many there are who do not even know the history of their country….” The mummers acted out a panorama of demi-divine figures, and veritable giants, all alike and of an identical lineage:--St Columbkille, Brian Boru, Art Mc Murrough, Owen Roe O’Neill, Patrick Sarsfield, Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, John Kelly of Killanne, Michael Dwyer, Robert Emmet, and Father John Murphy of Boolavogue. The short and simply written histories published by the Young Ireland movement, circa 1850, led to a steady increase in those who knew the history of their country: history then was meant, exclusively, as an inspiration to Ireland’s struggle to be free.
Patrick Pearse wrote that the object of Na Fianna, founded by Countess Marchievz and others in 1909, was “to train boys to fight Ireland’s battle when they are men.” The name recalls ancient Irish mythology of Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill—but Pearse affected to regard these semi-divine figures as literally true. He, at the end of the list of the military and related skills taught to the boys of Na Fianna, added—“and opportunity is given to the older boys for bayonet and rifle practice.” His ideal of perfect education was that of a master taking young boys into fosterage (as in ancient Gaelic Ireland) with him and inspiring them into selfless devotion to Ireland; he wrote: “To the old Irish the teacher was aite, “fosterer”, the pupil was dalta “foster-child” the system was aiteachas “fosterage”…” He returned repeatedly to ideals of intense male bonding and camaraderie, appropriate to groups at war; Cuchulainn epitomized to him the perfect paradigm of the boy warrior. His paradigm of education was of the teacher as inspiring the pupils to learn: but I concur with Francis Mac Manus, the novelist, that a child’s mind is fickle, confounding and elusive in response to adult logic.
The Catholic variant of the Temperance movement, in confluence with the 100th anniversary commemoration of 1798 in 1898, placed a new stress on the 1798 Rebellion; its heroes and priest leaders in resistance to satanic oppression of the Catholic people were presented as examples to inspire the men and women of that time, to abstain from alcohol. The ballads of P. J. Mc Caul were apt concert items. Nobody envisaged that the gothic horrors of 1798 could be enacted anew—a correct calculation, as the later events from 1916 to 1923 were minimal in comparison to 1798: thus the license to fantasise, exaggerate and eschew tedious and contradicting details was in free rein.
It is a mix of history, mythology, folk lore and memories, in a time when people perceived an interplay of earthly figures and heavenly phenomena. The heroes could not agree if they all met in heaven: for example Hugh O’Neill and Owen Ruadh O’Neill fought to regain their Gaelic Kingship; Wolfe Tone (as I read Kevin Whelan) was informed by French revolutionary ideals of excising all tradition and replacing it with a system based on reason and inherently secular, and the latter Irish revolutionaries were influenced by democracy and social ideals.
Patrick Pearse heard of such lore from his great aunt Margaret. His father was an English man, a sculptor of merit, and on his second marriage; his mother was a Brady from Co. Meath, a family with connections to the rebels of 1798.
The history of that era over estimated English malevolence and by this unfair simplification contributed to creating rebellion. The consensus on the causation of the 1798 Rebellion was expressed by Fr Cowman O. S. A. at Bree in 1910:--
“The Rebellion was a piece of English statesmanship to bring about the Act of Union. It was provoked by England in order to frighten the landed gentry that they could only be safe under English protection.” Robert Brennan wrote: -- “This rebellion was….deliberately fomented by the British authorities who hoped to crush it easily and thus pave the way for the destruction of the semi-independent Irish Parliament.”
The objective truth is that Lord Cornwallis on coming to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant in the summer of 1798 insisted that the Orange Order had too much influence in the Dublin administration and were largely culpable for the Insurrection of 1798. Lord Castlereagh sought to terminate the Irish Parliament as he regarded it as a basis for Protestant oppression of the Catholic community: union with Britain would ensure that the Catholic people of Ireland would be afforded the same rights as British citizens. Ted Heath’s introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland is a parallel to Castlereagh’s Act of Union. British policy as the nineteenth century advanced was to gradually whittle away the residual Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.
Robert Brennan correctly acknowledges the great achievement of the Irish Parliamentary Party in having ownership of the land transferred to the farmers by 1903 plus but is mistaken, as he writes of the tenant farmer:--
“His occupation of the land depended entirely on the goodwill of the landlord. He could be thrown out at any time. The rent he paid could be raised every year and he had no redress or court of appeal.” Except for tenants at will, this is all untrue and unfair. The tenant held his farm under a lease at an agreed rent for a period of a number of years or and for a life or lives; he could only be evicted if in arrears of rent; then a court would have to grant the landlord a decree to evict. Later, The Land Commision Courts fixed judicial rents well below what the landlord might want.
The Rev. James Gordon, Rector of Killegney parish, wrote of his parish in 1814:--
“The poorer classes are industrious and quiet in general, not however, averse to Rebellion if opportunity should occur; they are in extreme subjection to the priests and go to chapel in all kinds of weather.” The Irish while disposed to experience Rebellion vicariously in pageant, song, populist and magical history, folk memories, and mumming rhymes were essentially passive—as Rev. Gordon so deftly pointed out—in their espousal of revolt: most would go along with Rebellion, if started, but few would psyche themselves to initiate Rebellion. Peadar Kearney told of Patrick Pearse asserting to a meeting in Dublin on March 2nd 1912 that “a rifle should be made as familiar to the hands of an Irishman as a hurley”. Mr Kearney (the author of the Irish National Anthem) wrote that those present were growing uneasy as the evening advanced when it dawned on them that Pearse was determined to carry out his policy.”
Eamonn de Valera wrote, in a letter, of his misgivings about joining the Volunteers as he was a married man; he knew that his decision meant certain participation in war, with the risk of death. Captain Sean Sinnott speaking in July 1915 at Wexford outlined the mindset of the Volunteers:--
“if it was necessary they would give their lives in proof of the faith that was in them (applause). The road they were on led to honour and everything that made a man. As a great contemporary Irishman had said before the goal was reached many would have fallen….but if they were craven enough to let that thought deter them they would be unworthy of their glorious ancestors who had battled so bravely for the race and the sod.”
Young Sinnott was in phlegmatic acceptance of the high risk of death but not purposely seeking it. Patrick Pearse by contrast, sought martyrdom as a mystical imperative on him: he wrote poetically of setting his face to the road before him, to the deed he must do— and the death he must die. He did not anticipate martyrdom by random chance but as the outcome of a deliberate plan on his part. In his writings, he focuses on the image of one man alone by his martyrdom redeeming the Irish nation; he expressly compared that sacrifice to that of Calvary. Pearse’s alter ego, Mac Dara, in the drama The “Singer” proclaims:--“I will take no pike. I will go into the battle with bare hands. I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on the tree.” In 1915 he wrote:--“like divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of Catholicity, of apostolic succession.” According to the old style catechism, the true Church was one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. At Enniscorthy on March 9th 1916, Pearse spoke of nationality as more ancient than any empire and will outlast all empires; he spoke of valley periods in our nationality as when “some good man redeems us by sacrifice”. The stress is on a single man. Robert Emmett was one of the “martyrs” whose “Christ like death” redeemed Ireland” post 1800. He nominated Republican separatists Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, John Mitchell and James Fintan Lalor as the “four great minds” and “Apostles of Irish Nationhood”. In another context he described them as the four evangelists of Irish Nationality. Pearse conceptualised Irish Nationality as a replication of the Catholic faith and sought to identify a perfect symmetry between both. He did not address the pedantic but contradicting detail that Wolfe Tone sought the replacement of religion with a secular identity. The Volunteers and indeed the I. R. B. men were fervently Catholic as evidenced by the urgency with which they sought confession before military engagement but I do not think that they would have defined their faith in the grandiose model of Pearse. Close to Easter 1916 Pearse wrote of having to appease the ghosts of Irish nationality, the long dead heroes and martyrs calling on him “to do a big thing”. The ambiguity here is whether this is a manner of speaking or a sense of genuine psychic intrusion of extra-temporal messages. Pearse wrote that John Mitchell “did really hold converse with God.”
Anglophobia or visceral hatred of England, the English, the Gall, the Sassenach was a deep emotion in early twentieth century society. On the last Sunday night of February 1913, the local school-master Mr J. Breen N. T. lectured to the Bree Branch of the Gaelic League, at St Aidan’ Hall on Red Hugh O’Donnell. The report of it includes this astounding narrative:--
“The lecturer explained how when O’Donnell went down to drive the English out of Connaught the means he had of distinguishing the Irish from the English was by the Irish language. All who could not speak the Irish language he put to death.”
I hope that the famous patriot did not carry out such a massacre.
The comparatively moderate Peter Ffrench M. P. for south Co. Wexford, in June 1906 recorded 1798 in terms of persecution and vengeance by the Gael:--
“The pitch-cap, the triangle, the lash, and other unheard of cruelties were requisitioned and at last the people of Wexford, like all other Celts—because when you tread on the Celt he is likely to take a terrible vengeance—after their submission to such cruelties and indignities rushed to arms.” Earlier in his speech Mr Ffrench exulted in the image of “the charge of pikemen with England’s scarlet soldiers running before them”.
The persecutions of the Reformation and the related Penal Laws in Ireland were a gothic remembrance of the demonic character of England:--Fr Kelly, a young professor at St Peter’s College, preached in Ferns in February 1907:--
“The early Christians of Rome suffered untold things at the hands of the Pagan emperors but I believe in my heart that their sufferings for the Faith were not to be compared with those endured by the Irish people at the hands of England in those dreadful years”. He added:--
“Vinegar Hill beyond there in the distance is a silent witness to the eyes of that vain, hopeless struggle of the weak against the strong.”
The motifs of vengeance and armed and holy resistance, albeit ineffectual, are present in both Mr Ffrench’s and Fr Kelly’s words; but I opine that their words were not a prescription for renewed war. Patrick Pearse in hyperbolic enlargement of this populist hatred of England transformed it to apocalypse, holy war, and metaphysical excitement:--
“Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years…When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God….Ireland will not find Christ’s peace until she has taken Christ’s sword….Christ’s peace is lovely in its coming….But it is heralded by terrific messengers; seraphim and cherubim blow trumpets of war before it.”
On January 6th 1910, (Twelfth Night) Fr Cowman O. S. A. Dungarvan delivered a lecture at Bree Hall on the 1798 Rebellion: the introduction by Bree Parish Priest Fr Patrick Sheil was, ironically, much more interesting than the lecture:--
“That night he [Fr Cowman] was to speak on a subject which he [Fr Sheil] was sure they would be all delighted to hear—the ’98 movement (hear, hear). They all recollected the magnificent manner in which Fr Cowman had dealt with the ’48 movement and when he (Rev. Chairman) recollected that lecture he felt inclined to hope that the audience would not become intoxicated with Father Cowman’s eloquence when dealing with the ’98 movement. It might be too dangerous added the Canon, with a funny twinkle in his eyes, and perhaps after hearing Father Cowman’s eloquence some of you will imagine that you are back in the old days when our grandfathers took the field in defence of Faith and Fatherland. We are all proud of the men of ’98 (cheers); we are proud of our ancestors who had the courage to come into the field and stand up as courageous men against oppression and tyranny (hear, hear). …The men of today are carrying on the same fight but by different methods. We are not called on to take the field and, indeed, considering our position, it would not be wise to do so, especially, considering our unarmed condition. We would not have any chance in an armed conflict. At present, however, we have what we know as constitutional agitation….”
Fr Sheil’s analogy of intoxication is intriguingly similar to that of Patrick Pearse who wrote that planning an insurrection was better than a draught of wine! Significantly, Fr Sheil in his advocacy of the Irish Party policy of Home Rule had to stress their inability to win by force of arms.
The classic theory of nationalism postulated that each nation had a special purpose: the implication is that Providence (or God) created each nation. A passionate Republican asserted in the summer of 1915 that—“God had given Ireland a clearly marked frontier, girded by the ocean and He has never ordained that the people of this island should be a subject race (applause).” Irish Catholicism at that time was fixated on a vision of Ireland as divinely purposed to become a spiritual empire, engaged in mega missionary campaigns to propagate the Catholic faith across the globe. Canon Michael Murphy Parish Priest of Cloughbawn recalled that at least twelve of the priests of the diocese of Ferns—himself included—were supportive of the Easter Rebellion of 1916; Fr Murphy provided his car for gun running a few weeks before the Rebellion. Priests like Fr Martin Ryan of Tomcoole were excited by the new nationalism anticipating that an independent Ireland would seal off Anglicisation—the code for sexual license and bestiality, urban and industrial mores, religious indifference, alcoholism, modernism and evil literature etc et al: Patrick Pearse wrote that his school struck at the roots of Anglicisation.
At a meeting to further the project of erecting a memorial to the men of 1798, Peter Ffrench M. P. for south Co. Wexford and a naïve of Bannow—where the Normans first came—addressed the issue of the nature of the Gaelic race, albeit with a local reference:--
“Now my friends, said Mr Ffrench, you have often heard that the people of Wexford are not of the Celtic race. They say we are Normans, or French, or Anglo-Saxon—anything but Celtic. A strong race like the Celts never loses its individuality by mingling with other races (cheers). Those who have studied the racial problem say that mongrels all die out and after a few generations the strong race is just as pure as it was at first.” Mr Ffrench then outlined a truly bizarre and vague proof that the Irish people remained a Celtic race, in essence:--“And the conduct of the men of ’98 is proof of the theory, for characteristic of the Celt is patience, sincerity and an excessive love of justice and that love of justice sometimes leads him to an amount of submission that almost appears to be slavishness....”He outlined his imagined scenario of 1798 to obligingly prove that they responded and fought as Celts—even if they had Norman blood!
The history of ancient Ireland is less mystic than simply misty, unclear, the details remotely inaccessible. There may have been several other migrations to Ireland apart from the coming of the Celtic or Gaelic races; but the Gaelic language seems to have been preponderant. The Celts could have killed off previous settlers. I think that the Normans liquidated most of the native inhabitants in the baronies of Forth and Bargy. The Statutes of Kilkenny and the Statutes of Galway were enacted to deter the Normans or new English from adopting the Gaelic language, customs and culture. The situation of the Normans or old English was inverted by the Reformation, when England broke with the Church of Rome. The Normans in Ireland clung tenaciously to the Catholic faith. The wars of the Reformation were catastrophic for them; after Cromwell’s invasion their entire lands were confiscated and new proprietors—Puritan and Protestant—acquired them. These men were termed the new English. Afterwards the old English and the Gaelic peoples in Ireland became coalesced into the one entity, perceived as Irish and Catholic. One may deduce that the old English became Gaelic but the counter-argument is that the eventual emergence of English as the vernacular in this country is a possible index to the endurance of the Norman or old English culture.
The analogy of an archaeological dig is most apt to describe the endeavours of a host of radical organisations in late nineteenth century Ireland to retrieve the mystical essence of an ancient Gaelic civilisation. The Gaelic language was conceptualised as divinely inspired, and, at least, as the mind of Ireland and its people, probably its soul. Fr Patrick Kavanagh O. S. F., the famous historian of 1798, in Wexford town in late 1903, spoke of the Gaelic League:--
“The mind of a nation followed the language and it the latter [were] lost the National mind could not long survive….So it was, too, with the Irish language, the tongue of Ireland’s ancient kings, its bards and brehons. The language of ancient Ireland was written on the face of nature, itself; it was written on our hills and dales, in the names of our townlands and parishes. If the very soil of our country is thus eloquent of our language and our past, how can we be silent and forgetful of the tongue in which our story is enshrined?....If we are to think with Irish minds, why should we not speak with Irish tongues?”
In late October 1914, Padraig Kehoe of Enniscorthy, in a lecture on Thomas Davis, quoted the oft quoted imperative of his subject:--
“A people without a language of its own is only half a nation. A nation should guard its language more than its territories—tis a sure barrier and more important than frontier, fortress or river.”
In his blazing oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral on August 1st 1915, Pearse defined the Gaelic issue as a red line one: not merely Gaelic but free as well; not merely free but Gaelic as well. Pearse, to the chagrin of the more extreme Republicans and Gaelic League exponents had given a tepid support, in 1912 to John Redmond’s Home Rule project: his reasoning was that with Home Rule the Board of National Education would be swept away and Gaeilge would be systematically taught in the national schools. His fellow signatory of the Easter Rebellion Proclamation, Thomas Mc Donagh—and one time teacher at Pearse’s schools—maybe as befitted a Professor of English Literature disagreed with the conventional thinking that Irish people could only properly express themselves in the Gaelic tongue, as they had done for aeons. Mc Donagh insisted that as English had become the vernacular, it was now natural for them to speak in the English language. He had inadvertently anticipated the stubborn inertia of generations of children in twentieth century Ireland towards the Gaelic language. A speaker at a meeting in New Ross in June 1906 depicted a historic proximity to a fully Gaelic society:--“They had it on the authority of a Potter—an Englishman—….that at the Enniscorthy fair of 1814, the transactions were conducted almost entirely in the native tongue.” As time moved onwards, the inertia towards Gaelige increased. There may have been a disconnection between the high aspirations of the Gaelic revival and quotidian Irish society.
The focus was excitedly back in time: Pearse waxed lyrical of finding in mediaeval civilisation some “rich and beautiful organisations with an art and a culture and a religion in every man’s house, though for such a thing we have to search out some sequestered people living by a desolate sea-shore or in a high forgotten valley among lonely hills—a hamlet of Iar Connacht…” Mr de Valera’s derided radio broadcast in circa 1943 about the comely maidens dancing at the cross-roads is resonant with this social vision of Pearse.
Mazzini, the Italian nationalist ideologue, opined that a nation is formed of those who will it to be a nation; not necessarily of a single race. The Ulster Protestants not only did not will to participate in the Irish nation but on the contrary, in January 1913, Sir Edward Carson and James Craig set up the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend Ulster against Home Rule, as nearly won by John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party. The implication was that Home Rule could be imposed only by a military crushing of Ulster’s armed dissent; something any British government would find an unpalatable task. In response, in November 1913, the Irish Volunteers were founded, in Dublin “to secure the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.” Young nationalist men poured with gusto into the Volunteers; they were almost invariably of a radical mind-set, certainly at variance with Mr Redmond’s imperial philosophy. In effect, the Volunteers were set up by the I. R. B. who sought to present the movement as something wider: hence they imposed as its commander Eoin Mac Neill, a northern who was a Professor of Early Irish history in Dublin, essentially a moderate and inoffensive man. In late 1913, the obvious purpose of the Volunteers was to protect a Home Rule settlement from the Ulster Volunteer Force. Nationalists, of all hues, engaged in circumlocutions and rhetorical sleights of hand to avoid directly addressing the Ulster question: the sheer intractability of it may have psychologically disposed them to avoid seeing this elephant in the room. In July 1914, John Redmond wrote a euphemistic letter to the Dublin Corporation:--
“I would…. regard it as a great calamity if the coercion of any section of the Irish people were to accompany the inauguration of a free Parliament in Ireland and, while I….never shall advise the Irish people to be consenting parties to any settlement involving the permanent division of Ireland I…am ready to make large concessions to win the hearty assent of all sections of Irishmen to a settlement which will bring liberty to all.” Mr Redmond, most absurdly, did not despair of a settlement by the general assent of all Irishmen!
Patrick Pearse’s response was a deliberate misinterpretation of the Ulster Volunteers as a prelude to express his total theory of war:--
“A thing that stands demonstrable is that Nationhood is not achieved otherwise than in arms….I am glad that the North has “begun”. I am glad that the Orangemen have armed for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands. I should like to see the A. O. H. armed. I should like to see the Transport workers armed. I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed and slavery is one of them.”
One afternoon in the old university, Dr Liam de Paor, in reply to my query, meant to provoke him, replied politely that Pearse was greatly influenced by the English romantics; recent research confirms that Pearse’s writings are resonant with themes and phrases from the English Romantics. These writers glorified the experience of war, as both a defiance of society’s conventions and verities and a masculine vindication of one’s aspirations.
They were part of a zeitgeist that prevailed across the Europe of that era. I am unsure if Pearse was influenced by them or if he was seeking in their theories arguments to psyche both himself and others to Rebellion in Ireland.
The obvious riposte to John Burton’s argument of Redmond’s Home Rule as not involving bloodshed is that the latter directed young Irish men to, in his rhetoric, sacrifice themselves in the war against Germany, “wherever the firing line extended”. Pearse’s reaction to the Great War, as expressed at Christmas 1915 was astonishing:--
“The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth…. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.”
James Connolly, unaware of the identity of the author, rejoined that only a blithering idiot could believe such things. One scholar suggests that the phrase, “red wine of the battlefield” is re-working of another in a poem written by Rupert Brooke, one of the Romantics, who died in May 1915, a war victim. The two lines in question read:--
“But dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold. These laid the
World away: poured out the red Sweet wine of youth….”
Recent research suggests a touch of Darwinian Theory that darkens the effect of Pearse’s writings. Yeats’s reference to a terrible beauty evokes the Romantic canon.
These theories may have dovetailed with the traditional I. R. B. and separatist nationalist conviction that tiny groups if sufficiently motivated were morally entitled—perhaps obliged—to enter into Rebellion. While Ireland was suffused with a culture of Rebellion, which the multitudes wished to encounter in a vicarious manner, only tiny groups were able to psyche themselves to embark on actual Rebellion. Requirements of majority approval were of necessity eschewed.
A tribute to Captain Sean Sinnott in Wexford town in July 1915 was informative on these issues:--“The captain headed a section of what had been called a discontented minority….The Fenians had been no doubt a minority…There would be always discontented minorities until Ireland was free, and as long as the discontented minorities had men like Captain Sean Sinnott to lead them the cause of Ireland was safe; beaten they might be, they could never be dishonoured.” The rationale of a failed Rebellion as justified if it merely kept faith with Ireland’s insurrectionary tradition is there.
The Fenian uprising of 1867 was planned by the Irish Republican Brotherhood; the acronym is I. R. B., a secret organisation, fixated on ending the English presence in Ireland. They may, possibly, have continuity with the White Feet and White Boys.
In the summer of 1914, John Redmond demanded to nominate 25 members of the Volunteer executive, effectively a majority; the movement caved in to his demand. In August 1914, in Mr Grey’s memorable phrase the lights went out all over Europe as the Great War broke out.
Henry Kissinger wrote that that Germany was so strong that the other European countries had to combine in resistance to it. On September 20th 1914 John Redmond at Woodenbridge, Co. Wicklow pledged the Volunteers to participate in the Imperial forces. Amidst an angry controversy, most of the Volunteers seceded and formed the pro-Redmond National Volunteers; the residue, about 10 per cent of the estimated 181,000, remained under Mac Neill, retaining the name Irish Volunteers. I believe that the main motivation for those who enlisted was the prospect that their sacrifice would both guarantee an All Ireland Home rule settlement and demonstrate that an independent Ireland would support Britain, in all eventualities: the rhetoric was an evocation of Ireland’s history, an appeal to heroism and idealisation of war. The suspension of Home Rule, at the outset of the war, in the context of the grinding and futile horror of the war quickly extinguished this enthusiasm. The plight of Belgium, as the Germans devastated it, attracted little interest in the Irish Catholic community; the community of Belgian nuns at Merton, Bree was proof of horror in Belgium; this report from the Echo July 24 1915 indicates minimal Irish Catholic attention:--
“The Rev. Gaston Brohee of Thurin who is in this country….to raise funds for the destitute Belgians, gave two most interesting lectures on the 16th inst. in Killegney parish, one in the afternoon in the Killegney School, the other at 8pm in the Clonroche Hall, kindly placed at his disposal by Mr and Mrs Mullany. The attendance was large and there was a liberal response. Father Brohee was the guest of the Rector, Rev. Canon Macbeth.”
The Hall referred to was the shop owned by Pat Mullany, ex member of the R. I. C. Catholic Belgium was, ironically, the concern of the Protestant clergy and former policemen.
In late September 1914, the Supreme Council of the I. R. B. decided that before the World War ended that it should take armed action. I. R. B. men were at the commanding positions of the Irish Volunteers with a few exceptions and one most important one:--Eoin Mac Neill remained as Chief of Staff. 1916.
Tom Clarke enjoined absolute secrecy about the having of the Rebellion on Easter Sunday. Joseph Plunkett and Sean Mac Diarmuida forged a document supposedly from Dublin Castle revealing a plan to arrest all the leaders of the Volunteers. Late in Holy Week Mac Neill was told that it was a forgery and had an angry encounter on Holy Thursday night with Pearse—Mrs Pearse was alarmed by the shouting of both men at each other. On Good Friday Pearse, Mac Diarmuida and Plunkett convinced Mac Neill that Casement and the Germans were to land at Kerry, with a massive quantity of arms and guns; therefore a Rebellion was inevitable. The English who had deciphered the German radio code knew of the intended landing; on Saturday, Mac Neill was informed of Casement’s arrest; late on the Saturday night he put advertisements in the Sunday Independent cancelling all manoeuvres on that day. These parades were intended as a cover for the Rebellion. Mac Neill, in words indicative of his attitude to Rebellion, told Pearse that he would do as his conscience and common sense bade him. In March 1916, Eoin Mac Neill prepared a memorandum to charge Pearse with having surreal mystical concepts of Ireland but at the meeting of the Volunteers he lost his nerve and did not present it. In it he wrote:--
“our country is not poetical abstraction as some of us….in the exercise of our highly developed capacity for figurative thoughts, are sometimes apt to imagine—with the help of our patriotic literature. There is no such person as Kathleen Ni Uaillachain or Roisin Dubh or the Sean Bhean Bhocht who is calling upon us to serve her. What we call our country is the Irish nation which is a concrete and visible reality.”
Mac Neill focussed on the obvious dilemma of aspirant Rebels: the absence of “deep and widespread discontent. We have only to look around us in the streets to realise that no such condition at present exists in Ireland. A few of us, a small proportion, who think about the evils of English government in Ireland, are always discontented.” The fiasco of the commands and counter-commands before Easter Monday and, indeed, the later tragic splits arose from this disagreement about the existence of Kathleen Ni Uaillachain.
The military committee, an elite within the I. R. B., forced through the Rebellion by gulling Mac Neill; some of the Volunteers thought they were on parade but the news that were in a Rebellion, at last, would have elated them!
In the Proclamation “Ireland” is presented in figurative mode as a mother, a divinity; her tradition of nationhood comes from God and she summons “her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” The word “children” is used in metaphorical mode: Ireland would surely not call school-children to arms, as the late Justice Adrian Hardiman attested. The Proclamation addresses “Irish men and Irish women” rather than using the generic “Irish men”: I opine that this was a gesture tilted at Cumann Na mBan, the organisation established by Countess Marchievz of young women to aid the Volunteers, and who were in the G. P. O. It places the Easter Rebellion in a direct continuum with six previous revolts in the past three hundred years, a Rebellion in every generation; making it a nationalist document, in purpose.
It is comparatively radical in its guarantee of equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens plus religious and civil liberty. Connolly may have influenced these promises but my understanding is that Connolly believed that this nationalist Rebellion might be followed by a socialist or Marxian revolution. Marxist theory anticipated a series of revolutions, with a final workers revolt leading to a workers state. On January 19, 1916, Pearse, Joe Plunkett and Sean Mac Diarmuida took Connolly away and over three days persuaded him not to proceed with the Citizen’s Army into an absurd and miniscule Rebellion: his decision to join the Citizen’s Army with the Volunteers in the Easter Rebellion incurred the envenomed castigation of Sean O’Casey, who felt it should be used only in a Marxist Revolution, such as that of Lenin in Russia in 1917. O’Casey wrote a series of dramas pouring vitriol on Connolly in the G. P. O.: neither the rural dramatic groups who staged these plays nor their audiences ever understood the bitter anti-Easter 1916 message in them.
The phrase “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” is wrongly parsed. The word “children” is not to be taken literally; the next phrase adjoining it “and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government which have divided a minority from the majority in the past” is code for the interminable nationalist charge that the religious and sectarian conflicts in Ireland were an artificial contrivance of British policy. “Children” in this context denoted the rival denominations of Catholic and Protestant in Ireland who are metaphorical children of Ireland, a divine mother. In effect this is Pearse’s invitation to the Ulster Protestants to join the Republic: it is disingenuous and is, certainly, hyper optimism! The Ulster problem bewildered both John Redmond and Patrick Pearse.
This figurative speech is resonant with common usage of that time. At a Home Rule demonstration in Enniscorthy in May 1914, Fr Robert Fitzhenry Adm., declared:--
“The day had come, he hoped, when the doctrine of hate and strife, too long preached and published by those who would keep Ireland divided would no longer be listened to in Ireland (applause)….the day had come when Ireland and her dear children would unite together in brotherly love to work for the greatness and grandeur of their beloved motherland.”
The past is a foreign country: the men and women of Easter 1916 could not imagine let alone contemplate the mega productive capacity of modern states and related vast public expenditure on public services, the libertarianism and ever expanding agendas of latter times. The Pearse brothers rode on bicycles to the G. P. O.
The final reference to the august destiny to which the Irish nation is called explicitly assumes a divine patent in the creation of the Irish nation. Speaking in Enniscorthy on March 9th 1916 Pearse castigated those unable to discern “in the nation the image and likeness of God.”
Pearse tended to invert or at least amend the tilt of comparatively small events into proofs of a vast abstract theory. Emmet’s Revolt and the Fenian rising of 1867 were very limited escapades; and the 1848 Rebellion involved the eccentric William Smith O’Brien’s affray in the Widow Mc Cormack’s cabbage patch in Ballinagarry, Co. Tipperary. The Irish Citizen Army was composed of poor labouring men, some of whom were malnourished, some unable to afford a uniform and a few of them armed with pikes. Sean Sinnott was forging pikes in Wexford pre-Easter 1916. The grandiose allusion to “gallant allies in Europe” may have strengthened the case of conspiracy with the Germans, supposedly required under the Defence of the Realm Act to condemn the leaders of the Rebellion to death subsequently. On a point of fact, Roger Casement came back on Good Friday to persuade the I.R. B. to call off the Rebellion as he was convinced that the Germans had no serious interest in an Irish involvement.
Conversely one may regard this tendency of Pearse to inflate the narrative of abject scenarios as his peculiar genius: his rhetorical power and superb facility of expression induced Tom Clarke to promote him as the leader of the coming Rebellion. Michael Collins was of an opposite opinion: he wrote of the communiqués of Pearse as semi-poetic statements and the G. P. O. as like a Greek tragedy. My caveat here is that Collins, while most affable, tended to criticism of colleagues and later bombarded Mr de Valera with complaints about shortcomings of other ministers in the First Dail Government.
The Proclamation asserted that Ireland “now strikes in full confidence of victory.” The consensus of all historians is that the Easter Rebellion could not have succeeded militarily. Many years ago I sought to explicate with Professor Pat O’Farrell why the Bolsheviks, a tiny group of terrorists, hiving off from another tiny group, seized and held power in Russia in 1917. The outright collapse of the Russian army in the ongoing World War certainly facilitated this extraordinary revolution. My contention is that if the British army were either defeated or like the Russian one simply disintegrated then the I. R. B. Rebellion might have succeeded.
Patrick Pearse, and others like Tom Clarke and Sean Mac Diarmuida, would have regarded the fact of making a Rebellion a triumph in itself: Pearse saw an imperative of each generation rising in national revolt. Life, he wrote, battens on death and the blood of the killed and martyred insurgents would serve as mystical nourishment to a coming generation to fight anew. Tom Clarke was exultant all through Easter Week. At Rossa’s funeral in August 1915 Pearse proclaimed that while Ireland held the graves of the Fenian dead Ireland un-free would never be at peace; he spoke of his own generation as baptized anew in the Fenian faith.
During the World War I and later in World War II, the British shelled ahead of their soldiers, presumably to conserve the lives of their soldiers. Brigadier General William Lowe, as—initially—Commander of the British forces deployed from the Curragh, used artillery against the rebel strongholds and simultaneously, destroyed connections between them. The inferno in the G. P. O. was fearful and on the Saturday night as the surrendered rebels squatted on the green area in front of the Rotunda Hospital, Sean Mac Diarmuida kept shouting in his sleep, “the fire, the fire”.
James Connolly lectured his Citizen Army on street fighting tactics and theorised that urban warfare could enable a rebel force to defy a conventional, bigger and better armed army. I opine that both Connolly and Pearse did not sufficiently ponder on the certainty that urban warfare would involve injury and death to innocent civilians. For some obscure reason of honour, the men of Easter Week did not seek to escape as the Rebellion ended.
The courtesy of Brigadier Lowe to the rebel leaders was extraordinary. When Patrick Pearse petulantly charged him not to accuse him of telling a lie, General Lowe immediately apologised. Lowe exchanged military salutes with Tom Mc Donagh. The two men sat in Lowe’s car for an hour, as the Brigadier persuaded him to surrender. Lowe apologised to Nurse Elizabeth Farrell, who liaised with the rival forces at the surrender, for his soldiers strip-searching her and had money confiscated from her returned to her. She was with Pearse as he surrendered to Lowe. He may have seen the rebels as genuine idealists.
The execution of Mac Diarmuida and death of Tom Ashe in 1917 left Mick Collins in control of the I. R. B. who became the bulk of the army of the First Dail from 1919 onwards. They depended mainly on financial support from the Irish Diaspora in America. Mick Collins never believed that these freedom fighters could defeat the British army and later wrote that the Republican army was never able to drive the British forces out of any part of Ireland and that in many parts the Republican army had no presence at all. His calculation was that the Volunteer military actions would induce the British Government to negotiate with Sinn Fein. Dr Ronan Fanning wrote recently that the ambush at Kilmichael, Co. Cork had a searing effect on the British cabinet; Dr Fanning argues that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was an enormous advance on the provisions of the Home Rule Bill offered to John Redmond. Collins felt that he had, also, signed his death warrant in signing this Treaty. I believe that the Anglo Irish Treaty facilitated the entry into the political limelight of the representatives of a historically submerged and hidden mass of people: maybe the Sinn Fein struggle was a contention within Irish society? To the revolutionary mind-set, independence achieved by political negotiation would be prosaic; that achieved by armed revolt was poetic—the craved for apotheosis to centuries of struggle.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was therefore a compromise from the absolute demands and mystical aspirations of Easter 1916: the present Irish State was legally established by that Treaty. Those who, like Pearse, believed that the Irish nation was of divine patent could not accept the oath to the British Monarch but their armed defiance of the Free State administration was ill-fated and doomed: Ireland was fatigued with war, revolts, private armies and public ones, killings and destruction. When Mick Collins was assassinated at Beal Na mBlath in his native Co. Cork in August 1922, the Republican prisoners at Mountjoy fell on their knees and recited the Rosary: it was sure testimony to the insanity of the Civil War. Dr Fanning has written that Mr de Valera’s rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty was a serious blemish on an otherwise proud record of public service. Mr de Valera’s entry to the Dail in 1927 represented his succumbing to compromise, maybe nigh to Mac Neill’s common sense!
Major General John Grenfell Maxwell was given “plenary power to proclaim martial law over the whole of the country.” It does seem that Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith intended, that with respect for probity and legality, that Maxwell should have “a pretty free hand to deal with the insurgents.” The executions haunted Maxwell for the rest of his life, the latter part spent of it spent doing charity work. He wrote to his wife that he was detested in Ireland. He charged that Mr Asquith had hung him out to dry. I think that he was not really fit to be at large! One authority writes: “A pit lined with quicklime had been commissioned by General Maxwell immediately following his arrival from London” on Thursday, the 27th of April. Three of those executed were in immediate proximity to death anyway: James Connolly was dying from gangrene in the wounded leg; Joseph Mary Plunkett was dying of tuberculosis and Tom Clarke appeared beset by terminal illness. Willie Pearse, while he had inherited his father’s talent as a sculptor was—in my opinion—mentally challenged and harmless. The executions of all four were equally obscene and unnecessary. Maxwell rejected a request by Pearse that he accept his admission of full responsibility for the Rising in lieu of executing his men. The deceased Justice Adrian Hardiman has asserted that under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA to use the acronym), there was no evidence of collusion with the Germans, as required, to bring in death sentences. That may be legal pedantry: courts Martials are never strictly legal and, besides, the allusion to the gallant German allies in the Proclamation probably prompted Maxwell to rely on DORA. Pearse, in a post script, in a letter to his mother referred to German support.
On Easter Monday evening on his return to 10 Downing Street, Mr Asquith was told of a Rebellion in Dublin; as he ascended the stairs he sarcastically remarked—“That is something”. As Irish and international anger (especially that of America) mounted and as John Redmond and John Dillon—the latter making a ferocious speech against the executions in the House of Commons—protested, Mr Asquith became alarmed and tried to persuade Maxwell to act more leniently, without success. Britain was eager to persuade America to join with them in the Great War—the executions did not help that purpose. Maxwell was fixed on executing the entire leadership echelon of Sinn Fein, perhaps over 60 executions. Some days later, Mr Asquith came to Dublin and ordered Maxwell to halt the executions and even then he persisted in executing James Connolly and Sean Mac Diarmuida. The loss of the lives of British soldiers in the Rebellion may have weighed on his mind, leaving him with a sense of obligation to avenge them. The soldiers who comprised the firing squads—some possibly teenagers—were traumatised by the task and the guns in their shaking arms waved like fields of corn in the wind. Maxwell was, undoubtedly, mindful that England was fighting for its own survival, at that time preparing for the hellish Battle of the Somme.
The transformed public feeling after Easter 1916 has been universally ascribed to repulsion at Maxwell’s executions; conversely one may argue that this transformation is proof of Professor Pat O’Farrell’s thesis that any Rebellion in Ireland would be approved. Professor O’Farrell argued that the contemptuous allusion by Trinity College Provost Mahaffy to “a man named Pearse” shortly before the Rebellion was an objective measure of his status then: martyrdom elevated him into the Pantheon of Irish heroes—with a guarantee of acclaim both from contemporary society and (as he wrote to his mother), also from posterity. Rebellion, if actually entered on, was a certain road to celebrity, to use a latter day parlance. He told his pupils of the words ascribed to the ancient Gaelic hero, Cuchulainn—“I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and deeds live after me.” This may be a parallel immortality to that of the religious promise of eternal life. The erection of statutes with a sculpted likeness of the celebrated hero—a phenomenon of that era—served as constant reminders of demised heroes—a metaphorical life after death.
The Easter Rebellion was described by the media and the British authorities as the Sinn Fein Rebellion—even if it was, in fact, an I. R. B. rebellion. The mistake is more apparent than real: the Sinn Fein movement, initiated by the diminutive and solemn journalist Arthur Griffith while professing the founder’s eccentric principles of a dual monarchy and abstention from Westminster, was at the level of local units, replete with young men of belligerent and insurrectionary intent, most of them I. R. B. or tilting that way. The I. R. B. was a secret organisation but Sinn Fein was lawful and public; so bellicose young people could associate openly in it. As the commandment at Mount Street bridge where the massacre of the Sherwood Foresters occurred, and as one who would have been executed if Mr Asquith had not arrived in time to prevent any more executions, Eamonn de Valera, in the aftermath of the Rebellion became iconic and in the populist superstition, arrayed in the aura of semi-divinity.[his actual name was Edward, later changed to Eamonn] He became President of a re-organised Sinn Fein, as Mr Griffith ceded the Presidency of Sinn Fein to him. Patrick Pearse wrote that the old Fenian O’Donovan Rossa “was incapable of compromise”; in Pearse’s mind that was the acid test of a revolutionary—that he should not compromise.
Eamonn de Valera was, by his admission, neither a doctrinaire Republican nor a revolutionary. A mathematician and of masterly political calculation, he placed Sinn Fein in the post Rebellion period in discrete compromise from the absolutist aspirations of the Proclamation and, indeed, from Pearse’s more extreme prescriptions. When Eoin Mac Neill was brought into the prison where other Sinn Fein prisoners were, De Valera instantly commanded all his fellow inmates to give Mac Neill a military salute: in part de Valera was maintaining strict military etiquette (soldiers saluting their commander-in-chief); in another sense, he was seeking via total inclusiveness, a broad national unity. There would have to an implication of compromise in his gesture to Mac Neill. (Michael Collins, like another I. R. B. leader the executed Sean Mac Diarmuida, resented the re-integration of Mac Neill). The post Rebellion Sinn Fein did not morph into a violent revolutionary movement, in terms of its basic principles: Griffith’s old prescription that the elected members for the Irish constituencies, in the election for the Westminster Parliament, should instead establish a native Dail in Dublin, was applied after Sinn Fein won a majority of the seats in the December 1918 election. Eamonn de Valera headed a new government elected by Dail Eireann, as much theoretical as real. Much was made of sending representatives to the post war international peace conference in Paris in 1919, to plead the case for Irish freedom. The pitch of the Sinn Fein campaign in the 1918 election was suffused with ambiguity: there was an atmosphere of war but Sinn Fein did not ask for specific retrospective approval of Easter 1916—maybe that was implied—and did not seek a mandate to enter on a war with the British authorities. Arthur Griffith did not approve of military action; even during the war of Independence, when he was a minister in de Valera’s Government he opposed these hostilities. Mr de Valera conceptualised the struggle as essentially political and even metaphysical: he sounded as uncoiled from a design in the Book of Kells, often obfuscating even to himself. He invariably outlined seven centuries of Irish oppression in formal discussions; during the truce negations in 1921, Mr Lloyd George, the Prime Minister told his secretary Tom Jones, that after two days they were making progress as they had now reached the Norman invasion.
From 1919 onwards local units of the Volunteers—mainly the I. R. B.—uneasy at the excessive political direction, as they saw it, of the Sinn Fein movement, took the initiative in terrorist actions. Collins’s control of them was never total; besides Cathal Brugha, as minister for defence, sought, with little success, to have all Volunteers take an oath of loyalty to him as members of the Irish Republican army, to stress the control of the Dail. The I. R. B. out of loyalty to Collins took the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War: their ferocious fighting instincts are one explanation of the ruthless Free State campaign. Ironically Mick Collins was faintly squeamish about taking human life: he prevaricated about having British spies shot, sending them repeated warnings to clear out. Once he went to London in late 1921, he was set on a settlement, with little relish for committing the Volunteers to more war and killings. Mr de Valera may have seen the rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty as involving a resumption of the struggle on a political and metaphysical level—an obfuscation of the ugly, blood spilling nature of war.