After more than fifty years of technological advancements and increasing industrialisation, Britain experienced a series of defiantly backward-looking backlashes at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, though these new Luddites were a good deal more creative than their machine-smashing, albeit pioneering, technophobe ancestors. Most devoted their energies to recreating an ideal of Britain that had supposedly been lost in the white heat of industrial revolution. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement had already delved into medieval mysticism, but they were followed by the likes of musicologist Cecil Sharp roaming the countryside collecting folk songs and the formation of various pseudo-Masonic societies harking back to an imagined idyll of Albion in which druids held the key to the ancient spiritual soul of the nation.
Parallel events across the Irish Sea celebrated a romantic notion of a pure Gaelic Ireland unsullied by its absorption into the British Empire, though the perpetrators of this thinking were viewed by many as a fringe element on the periphery of the long-running saga of Home Rule. However, with a Liberal Government at Westminster, the concept of an Ireland running itself within the secure Imperial embrace was revived, something that struck fear in the heart of Ulstermen who valued their place at the table of the planet’s greatest superpower. At Belfast City Hall in 1912, the opening salvo of something that would eventually climax with the partition of the nation was fired by leading Northern Irish politician and barrister Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant. This call-to-arms document sent a message to Downing Street that handing control of the country to the Catholic stronghold of Dublin would threaten not only Protestant dominance in the North, but Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.
With clandestine Conservative support on the mainland, the signing of the Covenant by 237,368 Ulstermen was followed by the establishment of a Unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, who armed themselves courtesy of 25,000 smuggled rifles. Catholic Nationalists who feared Home Rule would be defeated by paramilitary means responded in kind as the various disparate Rebel factions such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood came together as the Irish Volunteers, an organisation that morphed into the Irish Republican Army. Although the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 focused attention elsewhere, those who didn’t sign-up to the British war effort remained determined to declare an Irish Republic rather than merely oppose the aims of the UVF; and in April 1916, this small group severed their links with Home Rule moderates and went for it.
Led by Patrick Pearse, a scholastic Anglo-Irish member of the IRB Military Council, a coordinated attack on various strategic positions in Dublin by over a thousand volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army began on Easter Monday 1916 while most of Britain was distracted by events on the Western Front. As news of the insurrection spread, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared martial law and regiments of the British Army that weren’t already engaged on the continent were deployed to end the rebellion, many of them being Irish regiments, including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. One-by-one, the locations seized by the Rebels were recaptured over several days and the last stand took place at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. A fierce siege developed that saw the prominent Dublin civic landmark bombarded by shells as Irishman killed Irishman.
Most of the lives lost during the Easter Rising were civilian, and when the Rebels finally surrendered on Saturday 29 April the prisoners led from the GPO were jeered by bystanders, particularly the wives of men who were away fighting the Great War. Outside of the more fanatical elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Rebels were not regarded as heroes by the vast majority of the Catholic community, and the ruin of Sackville Street was something for which they, and not the British Army, were held responsible. Had the Rebels simply been handed long prison sentences by the authorities, chances are Irish history could have taken a radically different turn. Would Church and State have been so fatally incestuous in the South? Would the Troubles have even broken out in the North, let alone spanned thirty bloody years? But, at a moment when Britain was involved in a serious military conflict, clemency was in short supply and the guilty men were all sentenced to death.
Considering the bigger picture, the decision to execute the ringleaders of the Easter Rising was an unsurprising response to an act of treason at a time of war; but what happened next was predicted by the poet WB Yeats when he wrote ‘a terrible beauty is born’. Public opinion was not on the side of the Rebels as they surrendered, but when fourteen men faced a firing squad in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, opinion turned in their favour and all Irish Nationalists suddenly saw them as that most potent symbol of Nationalism, the martyr, something they have remained in romantic Republican mythology ever since.
Oral history is always tailored to suit the agenda of the storyteller, and the Easter Rising of 1916 is no different. The compromise of the Irish Free State, the assassination of Michael Collins, the War of Independence and Partition are all viewed as direct consequences of the crushing of the Easter Rising. In retrospect, the executions of the ringleaders and subsequent round-up and imprisonment of other suspects can be regarded as a cataclysmic blunder by the British, even if it all happened a hundred years ago now. Lest we forget, the fact that events that took place as far back as 1690 are still celebrated by Protestant Northern Ireland serves as a reminder of how the Irish have extremely long memories indeed. The passing of a mere century between 1916 and 2016 is therefore no time at all, as resurgent dissidents eager to mark the occasion with renewed bloodshed will testify. The Celtic Tiger has not lost all its teeth yet.
© The Editor