Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Alister Chapman

The Easter Rising

Revisiting the defining moment in Ireland's struggle for independence.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland. In April 1916, several hundred Irish nationalists seized buildings in Dublin, declared the country a republic, and fought off British troops for a week. It became the defining moment in Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain. Earlier this year, the Irish government marked the occasion with a military parade, the laying of wreaths to honor those who died, and a reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the General Post Office, where Patrick Pearse had first read it on Easter Monday 1916. The sun shone on Easter Day this year, and the commemoration of the Rising raised little controversy.

By contrast, the most important reflection on the occasion of the Rising's 50th anniversary was suppressed. In 1966, Fr. Francis Shaw, professor of early and medieval Irish at University College Dublin, wrote an article on the Rising that his editor deemed too inflammatory for publication. Shaw portrayed the Rising as an ugly page in Irish history, a time when a few extreme nationalists had chosen violence. He flayed Patrick Pearse for likening the Irish to Christ crucified and seeing the bloodshed of war as a beautiful thing. Shaw's article finally appeared in print six years later, and when it did so, he looked prophetic. 1972 turned out to be the bloodiest year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with 479 killed.

Shaw said what many already knew: that the Easter Rising was as troubling as it was heroic. Shaw blamed the Rising for the partition of Ireland into North and South, the civil war of 1922-23, and the awful belief that an unelected, armed minority could act to shape the island's story. It's easier to talk about the Rising if you don't know too much. Those who write about it must choose how much to disturb their readers. Some of the books published to mark the centenary tell readers what they want to hear. Others are much more unsettling. W. B. Yeats saw this tension soon after the Rising was crushed, as he closed his poem on it with the line, "A terrible beauty is born."

The most popular of the books published to mark the centenary is by Joe Duffy. Duffy is a radio-show host on the Irish public station, where he has won a large following by recounting the hardships of ordinary people. His Children of the Rising tells the story of the 38 children killed in the crossfire during Easter week 1916. John Foster, almost three, was shot in his pram. Bridget Stewart, aged eleven, died while out collecting coal for her family. The book personalizes the Rising and gives the reader a sense of what it's like to live in a city when life must go on as bullets fly. Duffy wants to make his readers sigh, and also to feel indignation against the British. He disagrees with Shaw—the Easter Rising was a proud moment in Ireland's history. The violence of the revolutionaries was just, the violence of the British merely the latest example of centuries of subjugation.

A similar picture emerges from The 1916 Irish Rebellion by Notre Dame professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada. The book accompanies a three-part PBS documentary narrated by Liam Neeson and is intended for Irish American coffee tables. Every page is rich with primary sources, whether photos of rebels and the city or excerpts from letters and speeches. It is especially good on the role of women in the Irish nationalist movement. The book is a perfect introduction for those who know little about the Rising. But it ends in 1916 and so does not consider that the event may have been an act in a tragedy as well as a triumph.

Those who want a more thorough exploration of the events of Easter 1916 should turn to Fearghal McGarry's book, first published in 2010 (the enterprising folk at Oxford University Press have produced a centenary edition). McGarry sets the event in the context of the Irish independence movement, acknowledging the strides that had already been made (for example, most of the farmland in Ireland was in the hands of the Irish by the 20th century) and the clear trajectory towards self-government that already existed in 1916. This raises the question of why Pearse and the other rebels decided to launch a Rising, especially given that they believed it would fail. Most nationalists were content to continue working with the British government, and even among the faction who believed that violence might be necessary, those who pressed the issue in 1916 were a small minority.

McGarry's answer has much to do with the Great War taking place at the time. Most Irish people supported the war. Thousands of Irishmen were dying in France as the Rising took place. But those who rebelled felt they had to take advantage of Britain's preoccupation with the continent and show their willingness to fight if they were to preserve the credibility of the radical separatist tradition. They were also keen to show their anti-British credentials in case Germany won the war, so as to gain a seat at the peace conference for an independent Ireland.

During Easter Week, most people in Dublin were appalled by the rebellion. Duffy blames the British for the deaths of the children, but people at the time may have been just as likely to blame the revolutionaries. After the Rising was crushed, however, Britain's decision to execute its leaders caused opinion to swing in their favor. Here, it was crucial that the dead were presented as Christian martyrs. They were aware of the symbolism of dying for Ireland at Eastertide, and even the Marxist James Connolly took Communion before he was shot. The Catholic Church, which had not advocated violent action, gave public support. Pearse's crucifix became a relic in a Dublin friary.

In the end, McGarry sees the Rising as a proud moment. The independence Ireland negotiated from Britain was more complete than it would have been without it, and on his account the partition into North and South was inevitable anyway. Republican violence has borne bitter fruit but we must remember that republicans started to arm themselves in response to the decision of pro-British Ulster unionists to do the same. The rebels were not perfect, but their dream of a better Ireland remains inspiring.

But did their dream come true? This is the question at the heart of Roy Foster's Vivid Faces, the one to read for those already familiar with the outline of Ireland's 20th century. Like McGarry and Nic Dhiarmada he provides the pre-1916 context, but unlike them he also takes the story forward. It is a chronicle of disappointment. Foster portrays the prewar world of the republican leaders as one of lively cultural experimentation. They rejected the more moderate politics of their parents' generation and adopted new attitudes on everything from sex to socialism. The Rising raised their hopes. The victory of the separatists of Sinn Féin in 73 of Ireland's 105 electoral districts in 1918 seemed to put them on the edge of the promised land. But after Britain offered the Irish a measure of limited independence in 1921, the vanguard was appalled that the majority were content to accept it. Civil war ensued and Sinn Féin lost.

Yet worse was to come. For the Ireland that emerged after the war bore little resemblance to the adventurous ideas of those who had attended Gaelic language camps before the war or of those who loaded guns in 1916. Independent Ireland was dominated by the Catholic Church. Censorship increased. Feminism was throttled. The country's conservatism was far from the vision of those who had struggled for its freedom. As one republican put it in 1956: "I cannot and will not write about the people and times when we were young for reasons that are long and complicated. Briefly the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it."

Remarkably, the man most responsible for this new Ireland was one of the revolutionaries of 1916, Éamon de Valera. The highest-ranking leader who survived the Rising, he became leader of Sinn Fé in in 1917. His refusal to sign the independence treaty of 1921 all but guaranteed civil war. He lost the war but worked his way back to become Ireland's president in 1932 and was the dominant presence in Irish politics for the next forty years. Fanning's book will have few surprises for those familiar with the literature on de Valera, but it provides an excellent introduction to a politician by turns brilliant and maddening. His refusal to sign the treaty was "petulant, inflammatory, ill judged, and profoundly undemocratic," yet he more than anyone was responsible for the establishing of a republic in Ireland wholly free of British control.

The Ireland that celebrated the Easter Rising's centenary this year has changed a lot since de Valera's death in 1975. Catholic attendance and influence is much reduced. The country has had two female presidents. Last year, the Irish legalized gay marriage in a referendum. De Valera, who spoke of Ireland as "the home of people who valued material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort," would have been frightened by the Celtic Tiger. Thousands cheered the Queen when she became the first British monarch to visit Ireland in a hundred years.

Thankfully, celebrating the Easter Rising in 2016 is much less fraught than it was when Shaw wrote his famous article in 1966. The island remains divided, but republicans today are unlikely to use the Rising to justify the undemocratic use of violence for political ends.[1] Perhaps, then, this is a time not to complain about national celebrations that fail to reveal the complexities of the past. Just this once.

Books Discussed In This Essay:

Joe Duffy, Children of the Rising: The Untold Story of the Young Lives Lost During Easter 1916 (Hachette, 2015).

Ronana Fanning, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016).

R. F. Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 (Penguin, 2014).

Fearghal McGarry, The Rising: Ireland—Easter 1916 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016 [2010]).

Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, The 1916 Irish Rebellion (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2016).

1. Britain's decision to leave the European Union, however, threatens the hard-earned open border between North and South, and is a major cause for concern in Ireland today.

Alister Chapman has an Irish mother and an English father. He teaches European history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.

Most ReadMost Shared