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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 ...

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