The Nature of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Centennial Anniversary

by Robert Harris (April 2016)


A relatively small number of undeniably brave fighters, led by Padraig [Patrick] Pearse, took by force the possession of several landmark sites in Dublin City, as well as two other areas of Ireland: Athenry (Galway), and Enniscorthy (Wexford), on Easter Monday 1916. They also successfully fought a small battle in Ashbourne (Meath). They declared, with the reading of the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, on the steps of the GPO (General Post Office) at O’Connell Street (Dublin’s main thoroughfare), an independent Irish nation, free of the shackles of the British Empire.

Although the Rebellion would be put down within days by the British Army, the 1916 Easter Rising is seen as the most pivotal moment in the ancient quest for Irish independence, because it inspired the 1919-21 War of Independence, which would lead to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, and for this reason it is celebrated like no other event in the Republic of Ireland today.

Many modern nation-states have come into existence through violent conflict. Such facts are an inconvenience for the staunch democrat who places the uncoerced wishes of the People as sovereign, and as the only legitimate expression of power. If the State comes into existence in an undemocratic fashion, does that mean that the entire edifice of such a nation is illegitimate, as some anarcho-libertarians might suggest? Perhaps not, but the shift in status from illegitimacy to legitimacy is a difficult step which many nation-states fail to achieve successfully. If a fledging nation-state manages to become a true democracy, how can it reconcile itself with a founding all too often drenched in the blood of prospective citizens? Ireland’s path to independence presents with many of these quandaries.

What mandate did the rebels of 1916 possess?

Today a variety of Irish Nationalist/Republican groups claim a direct link with the 1916 Rising. Sein Fein/Provisional IRA have held a variety of events and rallies, both North and South, to strengthen their own legitimacy and providence, as they gain an increasingly strong electoral foothold in the Irish Republic. Dissident Republican groups similarly draw on this heritage. Journalist and Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has claimed that the rebels of 1916, which comprised of a poorly armed militia called the ‘Irish Volunteers’ had no more of a mandated legitimacy to act on the behalf of the Irish people than the radical Republican dissidents of today. At the time, Irish voters supported John Redmond’s Parnelite ‘Irish Parliamentary Party’, which had long advocated for Home Rule, where Ireland would possess some political autonomy but would remain under the British Crown.

The gradual move toward the modest self-determination of Home Rule had long been resisted by the British Parliament but was becoming a viable entity after successive efforts. The principally Protestant Unionists of Northern Ireland determined that Ulster would not be ruled by Dublin, and in 1912, 450 thousand Protestants signed a covenant, proclaiming their allegiance to the British Crown, whilst refusing to accept Home Rule, even if it was voted through the House of Commons. The Ulster Volunteer Force was established the following year, which led the Catholic Nationalist community to likewise establish the Irish Volunteers, led by moderate nationalist leader John Redmond, which would soon be infiltrated by the more radically nationalist IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood).

The British government took steps to enforce Home Rule in Northern Ireland but the Curragh Mutiny, where many British Army Officers, who held Irish unionist identities, threatened to resign rather than enforce the Home Rule Act in Ulster. The Mutiny forced the British government to accept north-south partitioning in the Home Rule Act. Partitioning was seen as a breach of faith by Home Rule supporters, who saw the British as less than impartial in their dealings with the communities. The Home Rule bill was passed but implementation was delayed due to the outbreak of World War One, and a reformulated small force of Irish Volunteers, dominated by the IRB, plotted to obtain a purer form of independence.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ claim has some justification since the push for independence clearly came from a radical political fringe, which had little electoral success. Those that support the rebels may argue that the British held Irish territory by force of arms, and so the rejection of their authority may justly come from similar methods. The British continue to hold authority in Northern Ireland so the parallel with the justifications of dissident Republicans would seem apt, to some extent at least.

The 1916 Rebels had no form of democratic mandate through electoral results. Some would argue that it is difficult to suppose that the wide support for Home Rule would have necessarily negated a favouring for stronger forms of political independence. Be that as it may, Sein Fein did not meet with electoral success in the preceding local elections so they cannot claim any kind of mandate from the people of Ireland. In the Proclamation, they resorted to claiming mandate from the 'dead generations'.

There are nonetheless some significant differences between the 1916 revolutionaries and the current batch of Republican dissident groupings, which are going against any sense of democratic mandate by fighting for a united Ireland, since the electorate in the Republic of Ireland voted in a referendum to repeal a clause in the Irish Constitution of 1937, which claims rightful title over the Unionist North.

President Higgins’ stance

This issue has troubling echoes beyond the activism of dissident groupings in Irish politics today.

President Michael D. Higgins, who led much of the 1916 Commemorations, wholly dismissed the need for a mandate from the Irish people in an RTE interview with Sharon Ní Bheoláin, on March 26th. When asked about the moral necessity of the Rising in a time of parliamentary reform, Higgins stated that while he supported parliamentary politics, it must reflect the issues of the people, and that an independent Irish state would not exist today without the 1916 Rising. This was a startling but little discussed justification of rebellion in view of his role as the guardian of the Irish Constitution.

“The issue of mandate and so forth needs to be handled with great care… I support parliamentarism but I also want it to engage with the issues of the time…. The question must be put back: do you believe that without the Rising of 1916, would I be talking to you today [as President of an independent Ireland]… I believe not.”

In a keynote Easter Monday lecture at the Mansion House, which housed the first revolutionary parliament, Higgins would go even further. He beseeched the Irish people to retrieve the idealism at the heart of 1916, and stated that there “has been a great deal of critical reassessment of aspects of the Rising, and in particular of the myths of the redemptive violence that were at the heart, not just of Irish Nationalism, but also of nationalist imperialism.” He cited the British recruitment drives of the era:

“In the context of 1916, this imperial triumphalism can, for example, be traced to the (British Army) recruitment campaigns of the time, which evoked mythology, masculinity and religion, and glorified the Irish blood as having ‘reddened the earth of every continent’.”

Higgins’ argued that the triumphalism of British imperialism during the era has not been sufficiently re-evaluated, in contrast to the critical focus on the redemptive violence of Irish Republicanism. This is quite absurd. Perhaps there is less comment today on empty imperialist sloganeering etc., because few would endorse such perspectives, whilst deep exhortations of the nationalist variety continue unabated.

The army recruitment campaigns were aimed primarily at a reluctant Catholic majority grouping of the Irish populace, after bringing conscription to Ireland was resisted. In truth however, few would have bought into any such propaganda. Most appeared to join the War due to severe economic hardship.

Higgins presents an absurd apologia, which conflates the recruitment propaganda of the British Army to challenge a war of aggression in Europe, with the long-standing cultured mythology of violence to save Ireland’s sole, imagery of which is also brought out in the Proclamation, where, for example, the “dead generations” somehow summon the Rebels to reaffirm Ireland’s spirit.

Higgins’ criticism of British imperialism fits neatly within the context of his broader perspective on world affairs. This politician possesses extremist stances, which can be categorised as an unapologetic revolutionary leftism. For example, he strongly supported oppressive terror-supporting revolutionary Daniel Ortega, shortly after 9/11 he subtly justified the attack as a reaction to US foreign policy when up to 55,000 were thought to have died, and described a speaker noting the terrorist tactics of Hamas as a “wanker”  (‘The Right Hook’, Newstalk 104, 28th May 2010). Yet his views on the Rising are far from unusual.

Indeed few object to Higgins’ near-daily breaches of strict official protocol, by continually opining on political matters firmly outside the remit of the Presidential Office’s quasi-ceremonial/diplomatic role. His interventionism reached a peak with his criticism of the Fine Gael government’s promise to repeal a punitive temporary tax in the recent general election, which may have played a role in the party’s unexpectedly poor electoral performance. Widespread tolerance of these interventions is particularly troubling, in view of the Presidential Office’s role in safeguarding the Irish Constitution and compatibility with lawmaking. 1916 still poses difficult questions for the political climate of today.

Violence committed by non-State actors

Robert Fisk suggested in Michael Portillo’s documentary ‘The Enemy Files’ that the notion of blood sacrifice, which some of the rebels endorsed, bore a strong parallel with that of Arab-Palestinian culture. A parallel with Palestinianism would suggest a form of violence that can and indeed should be regarded as terrorism but the Irish Volunteers acted with considerably more decency toward opponents.

It is common to conflate a large number of violent acts by non-state agencies, with either ‘terrorism’ or ‘resistance’, dependent on where sympathies may lie. However, it is crucial to evaluate conflict methodologies when evaluating the moral rights and wrongs of violent acts committed by non-State agencies in the name of a greater good. It is evident that the rebels of 1916 engaged in a very different kind of militarism to the Provisional IRA of the Troubles, and the dissident Republicans of today.

The conduct of combatants and their leaders conveys nobility of intent or lack thereof. Today the Third Geneva Convention affirms the status of lawful non-state combatants. Such belligerents are to be afforded protections as prisoners of war, unless they do conduct themselves as terrorists. Terrorists tend to commit atrocities, often of a more indiscriminate nature to instil widespread fear, against soft targets, attempting to extract political concessions. By contrast, lawful belligerents must properly declare themselves to be combatants to the opposing forces on the battlefield, which brings considerably greater risk, and must be mindful of the normative standards of warfare.

The Proclamation calls on its followers not to disgrace the movement with acts of criminality or inhumanity. The town of Enniscorthy was held without significant casualties for four days after meeting little resistance from the authorities. The two committed socialist leaders, James Connolly and Constance Markievicz, breached these standards – in Connolly’s case by ordering the murder of a disarmed policeman which was refused. Markievicz is perhaps the sole leader of the Rebellion to have committed an act of unwarranted murder, when she shot a young unarmed policeman St. Stephen’s Green. However, the worst of the atrocities were committed by British soldiers, which included the murder of civilians.

Although the rebels were irresponsible in conducting war in an environment with a significant civilian population, there does not appear to have been any intent to use civilians as human shields, which contrasts with normative Arab-Palestinian behaviour when engaging in violence against the State of Israel. Pearse decided to surrender when confronted with the death of large numbers of civilians.

Sein Fein/IRA engaged in some isolated terrorist acts during the 1922-23 Civil War, with the murder of several politicians at their homes, but did conduct themselves in a responsible manner during the failed Border Campaign of the late-1950s. Sein Fein/IRA would turn to hard-left politics during the 1960s, and both its Official and Provisional branches would turn to more normative terrorist strategies, before the Official IRA abandoned militarism a few years later before transforming into the Workers Party.

1916 and causation

President Michael D. Higgins, in the aforementioned 26th March interview, claimed that an independent Irish state would not exist today without the 1916 Rising. This assertion is absurd, given the protracted bouts of conflict during the preceding centuries, which would not have necessarily changed in the decades following 1916, with the weakened capacity of home rule, and harshness of British establishment policy toward their continuing dominion in Northern Ireland not altering substantively until the 1990s. Clearly there would have been continued aggravating factors.

The creation of a new Irish State acted to divide the nationalist movement. The Irish Free State in turn acted against the ambitions of Sein Fein from the 1920s to the 1940s, which greatly weakened the Nationalist agenda. Had the Rising and a forthcoming Irish State not occurred, such a strong quasi-internal countervailing force would not be envisaged within a United Kingdom Home Rule environment, where resentment of the English presence would doubtless continue, and be substantively strengthened due to the sectarian tensions in Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland, where the British Establishment looked away whilst the Catholic populace was treated in an oppressive fashion.

Such a prospect could be envisaged in later decades. Perhaps a 26 County State would have most likely emerged in the aftermath of World War II, when the British Empire began to break up with a degree of rapidity. As a consequence, it is hard to discern a strict necessity of causation, whereby only the 1916 Rising could have brought to Ireland a form of 26 County independence.

Justification

A related question arises: was the 1916 Rising justified as a necessary step toward independence? The answer may be a negative for it appears to have been an ill-judged move when viewed in its own right.

The Rising was arranged for Easter Sunday but a ship called the SS Aud, which was bringing arms from Germany, was intercepted by the British. Eoin McNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, countermanded the order for the Rising at very short notice, because it was felt that it had little hope of succeeding. However, a number of particularly staunch leaders, led principally by Pearse and Connolly, nonetheless decided to initiate the Rising a day later on Easter Monday. By holding out for as long as possible, the leaders thought the incident could pressure the British Government to grant independence.

The rebels had few arms, and approximately a third of the forces originally envisaged. If a fully fledged Irish Volunteer force faced an extremely challenging uphill struggle against what was probably the most powerful empire of the era, it was surely a hopeless exercise for the depleted groupings of Volunteers, resisting in a few isolated areas across the nation. Thomas Ashe and Richard Mulcahy led a successful clash in a surprise attack on the RIC in Ashbourne. The success was modest but helped set the template of gorilla warfare for the War of Independence. However, military failure was the rule. One may indeed wonder what a military failure would hope to achieve other than discrediting separatist Republicanism, and as a PR stunt it was also poorly received by the public at large.

It would appear that the drive toward independence was not motivated so much by the 1916 Rising itself as the British response. This may appear to be a subtle distinction because one cannot occur without the other, but it does have one profound implication: without a severe British reaction the Rising would have likely been wholly unsuccessful in lighting the spark that led to Irish independence!

The Rising was initially unpopular amongst the Irish populace but would soon change. It is now perceived wisdom that the execution of the rebels just weeks after the Rebellion turned them into martyrs in the arena of Irish public opinion, and in turn a more trenchant demand for independence became popular, leading toward electoral success for Sein Fein in the 1918 elections, and the War of Independence in 1919. Whilst true, such a view may be slightly simplistic.

James Connolly, the leading socialist revolutionary of the Rebellion, thought that the British would not destroy vital capitalist infrastructure. He was wrong. The British army used heavy armaments against the Rebels, which destroyed a large swathe of central Dublin. They imposed martial law across the nation, and conducted a campaign of mass arrest in the following months. The British would not tolerate one of the most vital cities of the Empire going into open revolt at a time of war. It might have been expected that any subject taking up arms against the British Crown would expect execution. Perhaps it might be more plausible to suggest that the wild-card in the sequence was the harsh reaction of the British Army, and a number of atrocities committed against the civilian populace, which would have stoked resentment, and constituted a reminder of the past, in which Cromwell decimated cities.

Marking the 100th Anniversary

It can be asserted with justification that 1916 Rising presents as a morally complex event, featuring actions that can be deemed rightful, and others ill-judged and unjustified. There is clearly no simple template to follow with respect to how such historic events should be remembered. Besides assessing the moral tone of such events, both treatment of history and types of endeavour, should be evaluated.

Some assert that commemorations are conducted for the benefit present generations. This is a self-evident point, but if the object of the exercise (at least nominally) is to respectfully remember past heroic deeds, and the individuals who played a role in such endeavours, then the present generations have a duty to recall such events with a reasonable level of fidelity, honesty, and a sense of decency. Yet in the case of the recent celebration of 1916, it did not seem at all a societal faux pas to take undue liberties with history, and use it to further political agendas.

The Irish State set up a committee to celebrate or commemorate the centennial events of this decade: from 1911 to 1921, when independence was finally achieved. 1916 was the principle celebration, and it seemed every option was up for consideration, even the traditional military parade for Easter Sunday!

The traditional military displays would remain, for it would be peculiar to represent the Rising as anything other than a militarist event, but in other respects the 100th anniversary did a genuine disservice to both the memory of the Rising as well as to the extant generations mark the event today. There was an opportunity like no other to engage in some degree of historically informed debate, and to query the marked charges in the direction of the Nation, particularly in recent years. Entertainment, and the regurgitating of popular liberal sentiment, would instead mark the celebrations.

RTE, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, which holds a decisive monopoly over the airwaves, featured an undue amount of quasi-artistic content to commemorate the Rising. The broadcaster was also commissioned to create further artistic content to be featured on the streets of Dublin, as well as a series of lectures, so-named ‘RTE Reflecting the Rising’, which was described as ‘the largest artistic and cultural outdoor event to take place’ in Ireland. Their public events during Easter Monday attempted to present life, fashion and the food of the era, in a family friendly fashion. Some content came across as little more than play-acting in fancy dress, a near-analogue of Dublin’s Bloom’s Day.

Some material was baffling due to a significant topical disconnect with the Rising. RTE’s principle trailer for events exemplified a strange mindset: displaying extracts of documentaries proclaiming that Ireland would not exist without the poet (Yeats chiefly), a woman in red dancing fitfully or perhaps suffering from St. Vitas Dance, expressions of the love that dare not speak its name, and doe-eyed schoolchildren dully reciting verse. Was the Rising not topically rich enough for RTE’s programmers?

The quality of debate, documentary and the representation of history, was little better. Often it seemed there were worthy people telling the Irish Nation that it had not achieved the fine goals of the Easter Proclamation, with the common assertion that the search for equality was in effect an economic issue, which contrasts with the notions of opportunity and freedom, including freedom of religion, put forward in the Proclamation, to which the British had limited Catholic Irish access to such benefits. The inherently religious-sectarian aspect to the Rising was hardly mentioned, let alone addressed.

The nuts and bolts of Irish history were largely kept in the domain of a humble late-evening TV series called ‘Nationwide’. There was a significant amount of drama and documentary on RTE that redressed the supposed “air-brushing” of women from the history of the Rising, with some rare dissent from Patsy McGarry, a religious affairs journalist, who opined that there were in fact relatively few women involved. The common claim that the contribution of women was somehow intentionally removed from the pages of history is a surprising one, in view of the pre-eminence given to a secondary leader, Countess Constance Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth), who is treated as being on a par with Pearse. In reality few of the less principle figures involved in the Rising are discussed, be they men or women.

The 1916 programme also included a week of events for schoolchildren of a surprisingly young age, and indeed young children, often of a multicultural background, were frequently presented on RTE’s news programmes, dramatising events and/or expressing sentiments that their teachers in all likelihood endowed them with. Young children reciting little-understood sentiment may have the appeal of a cute animal pulling an unexpected stunt, but the less charitable could also present such educational activity as the propagandistic inculcation of an event that many today are increasingly questioning with respect to its moral legitimacy. Such educational content ought to remain the preserve of teenage students.

One of the few positives of the commemoration was the greater acknowledgement of the deaths of civilians, British soldiers, and the policemen of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). Acting Taoiseach (prime-minister) Enda Kenny, dedicated the wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to all who had died in 1916, rather than those who had fought for Irish freedom, which led to criticism from Irish Republicans, but was welcomed for its inclusively by Teresa Villiers, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State. Regrettably, the wife of President Michael D. Higgins (Labour Party) marked in particular Constance Markievicz’s contribution, by laying a white rose at her grave.

Another positive was a renewed effort to find original accounts of the Rising, and to make archives available for future generations, such as at the Cathal Brugha Barracks. Unfortunately however the search for historical authenticity was undermined by the event being celebrated on the wrong date! The Uprising occurred on the 24th of April, the Easter Monday of 1916. The main event to commemorate the centenary was instead held on Easter Sunday, the 27th of March.

While the organisers were no doubt cognisant of the actual date of the Rising, and likely decided to sum the celebrations to Easter 2016, it remains that ninety-nine years and eleven months do not constitute a centenary. If the wish to tie commemoration to Easter was to be presented with some consistency, then the major march of Easter Sunday, which included a reading of the Proclamation at the General Post Office, should have instead taken place on Easter Monday to note commencement of the Rising with the taking of the GPO, and the original reading of the Proclamation by Padraig Pearse.

Onward to 2116

The celebrations undeniably placed a premium on what might be termed ‘feel-good factor’, whilst the effort to inform and foster a substantive public discussion was tokenistic at best. There were efforts to present the Proclamation as some sort of Magna Carta, as if it was somehow truer in aspiration and vision than the actual Constitution, which is framed in supposedly staid old Catholic Ireland. It would seem the intent was to justify the Rising as somehow relevant to the Ireland of today and the future.

Some have claimed that the vision of Ireland set out in the Proclamation has not been achieved. These cries came chiefly from the left, including the Sein Fein party of today, and have been motivated by political agendas. Michael D. Higgins claimed in a speech, at Liberty Hall on the 29th March, that it is the socialist/egalitarian ideas behind the Proclamation that are of most interest to the Irish people today, and he roundly lambasted the normatively conservative and religious consensus of old Republicanism. He similarly dismissed the newly established Irish Free State as a great disappointment to the ideals set out in the Proclamation, during the aforementioned 26th March interview.

At the same event, Jack O’Connor, president of workers union SIPTU, proclaimed very bluntly how the objectives of “cherishing the children equally” could be achieved in six years hence, with the commemoration of the foundation of the Irish Free State. Clearly the commemoration has been used to enhance political capital, and to attempt to shape Ireland’s future. Meanwhile, SIPTU, and its sister unions, are economically blackmailing Ireland with immense pay demands for public transport drivers. SIPTU long-demanded increases of up to 53%, leading to transport strikes during the Easter Weekend.

Socialist revolutionaries were among the rebel leadership, and James Connolly’s ‘Irish Citizen Army’ played an important role, constituting about a third of the Rising’s depleted troops in Dublin. However, it cannot be a coincidence that the newly established Ireland of yesteryear was staunchly conservative from the outset, and would continue to be so until recent times. The normative values of the generation that led the country to independence were very different. This fact has been rather conveniently forgotten by the political and media classes leading the celebrations, and presents as the greatest disservice to history and to the many of those that died.

Clearly the aspirations of the Proclamation have largely been achieved, even to a significant extent in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic and Protestant communities have taken great strides toward reconciliation. Who in Ireland today is fearful that their religious identity will lead them to significant disadvantage? Who truly believes that they live in an unfree society? There are indeed a worrying number of families living in homeless accommodation, such as hotels, in the aftermath of a major economic crisis, so we may say the children are not cherished equally as the Proclamation so powerfully commands, but is it not fair to point out that the present would surely compare very well with living in a constant state of semi-starvation in a poor house, having no opportunity for education, or dying en masse of illnesses both slight and severe, in the early the 20th Century?

Should the commemorations attempt to mark the sacrifice of those who fought and died, with an appreciation of the fact that the aspirations of the Proclamation largely belong to a different era, because most of the goals of the revolutionaries have been achieved, and, as such, that the sacrifice of the Irish Volunteers contributed not only to achieving an independent state but helped bring about a realisation of the opportunity for the Irish nation to better itself in the generations following 1916?

Reportedly, Richard Mulcahy refused to attend a celebration of his victory over the RIC at Ashbourne, in which nine members of the police force were killed. Perhaps there will be a time when the current political elites will mark the 1916 Rising with a similar degree of decency and sensitivity, without allowing it to be turned into a white-wash of the identity of old Irish Republicanism, without belittling the efforts of successive generations as somehow being inauthentic to the ideals of the Proclamation, or into an apologetic retrospective legitimisation that does not freely and fully acknowledge the moral complexities of the event itself.

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Robert Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He also blogs at eirael.blogspot.com and lives in Ireland.



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