The Easter Rising of 1916 - A Terrible Beauty Is Born

13/04/2012 13:03 BST | Updated 12/06/2012 10:12 BST

William Butler Yeats' epic poem on the Easter Rising of 1916 has immortalised an event which possesses all the elements of a Greek tragedy and which ninety-six years later is still capable of stirring strong emotions.

The audacity and bravery, bordering on insanity, of just over 1200 combined Irish Republican Brotherhood Volunteers, led by Patrick Pearse, and Irish Citizen Army Volunteers, led by James Connolly, which on Easter Monday 1916 merged to form the Irish Republican Army, unleashing an armed rising in Dublin against the British state has rarely been equalled. Making the event even more astounding is the fact that at the time Britain controlled an empire covering a quarter of the globe and had a million men under arms.

The First World War was in the process of destroying an entire generation of Europe's working class, including 30,000 Irishmen out of the 200,000 who'd enlisted to fight under British arms, many of those Catholics and members of the nationalist Irish Volunteers from the south of the country, where constitutional nationalism had succeeded in gaining popular support.

Led by John Redmond, the constitutional wing of Irish Nationalism had won a pledge from the British government that the Home Rule Act (1914), granting Ireland self government within the UK, would be implemented at war's end. The act had already passed through the British Parliament, only to be suspended by the government at the outset of hostilities in a move which angered many Irish Nationalists.

The Redmonite wing of Irish Nationalism derived its legitimacy from the constitutional path previously laid out by Charles Parnell, one of the most powerful and effective parliamentarians ever to sit in the House of Commons. By virtue of his strong personality, unwavering commitment to his objective and political acumen, Parnell succeeded in enlisting the support of Liberal leader and prime minister, William Gladstone, for the concept of Irish Home Rule in the face of strong opposition from the Tories and their unionist allies in the six counties. However, a split within the Liberals, in which a large section of the party shifted its support behind unionist and Tory opposition to Irish Home Rule, saw Parnell's First Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 defeated in the Commons by a slim majority.

Parnell was an enigmatic character. He was closer to the Conservatives in his political instincts, yet able and willing to work in tandem with the Liberals in order to advance the cause of Irish Home Rule that was closest to his heart. While committed to the constitutional path, he was also sympathetic to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the radical wing of Irish Nationalism, having worked with them on issues of land reform and tenant's rights in and around the Irish National Land League. There is some evidence that Parnell may even have taken an oath of allegiance to the IRB around this period, but on his historians remain divided.

Despite John Redmond's support for the war, and the enlistment of thousands of Irish Volunteers (formed as a mass organisation and supported by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in response to the emergence of Edward Carson's Ulster Volunteers in the North in 1912 in opposition to Home Rule) to fight in the British Army, a sizeable minority within the organisation were against taking Britain's side. It resulted in a split within the organisation, with a minority holding to the position of neutrality. The IRB, within this minority, were not just content with staying out of the war, however. Instead they viewed it as an opportunity to strike for Ireland's independence. The most prominent advocate of this position was Patrick Pearse, who sat on the leadership of both the Volunteers and the IRB.

Pearse was a teacher, poet, barrister, writer, and champion of native Irish language and culture. From a very early age he had been committed to the cause of Ireland's freedom, with a romantic attachment to Irish history, both real and mythological, which combined to imbue him with the belief in the need for a 'blood sacrifice' in order to awaken the Irish people to action.

The leader of this minority faction of the Irish Volunteers was Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was resolutely against attempting an armed rising against British rule, viewing any such undertaking as doomed to certain disaster. However, he did support the use of force in the event that the British attempted to suppress and disarm the Volunteers, implement conscription in Ireland, and/or arrest the leadership. In this regard he was tricked by the IRB, who produced a forged official British document, known as the Castle Document, stating that MacNeill and other prominent leaders of the Volunteers were to be arrested.

It was now that MacNeill was told about the plan for the Rising and the imminent arrival of German arms. Believing now that the British were about to move against the Volunteers, he reluctantly agreed to give his support. The IRB knew it would be vital in ensuring a national mobilisation the national Irish Volunteers, which after the split stood at just over 13,000.

However, when he learned of the arrest of Roger Casement, the man charged with organising the German arms shipment, and the interception of the ship transporting them three days prior to the start of the Rising on Easter Sunday, MacNeill changed his mind and countermanded the orders he'd originally supported mobilising the Volunteers for Easter Sunday. This resulted in confusion and a drastic reduction in the number of men who came out, which ultimately led to the Rising only taking place in Dublin, where it had to be delayed by one day, taking place on Easter Monday instead of Sunday as originally planned.

The leaders of the Rising in Dublin, chief among them Pearse and Connolly, were under no illusion as to their chances of success when news arrived of the loss of the German arms shipment and MacNeill's counter orders preventing a national mobilisation from taking place.

Pearse, as stated, was a romantic and an idealist, consumed with the desire to make what he described as a 'blood sacrifice' in the cause of Irish freedom. He desired martyrdom, believing it would inspire future generations to take up the cause. Connolly on the other hand was a committed trade unionist, socialist, and Marxist, whose being was consumed with the objective of winning the Irish working class to the cause of mass revolutionary struggle.

Born in Edinburgh to Irish parents, Connolly early on developed a devotion to Ireland. He'd led an active life, during which he he'd served in the British Army, lying about his age in order to enlist. Serving in Ireland for a period he met his future wife Lillie. He also experienced the first stirrings of the class consciousness and devotion to the cause of the oppressed that would dominate his life from then on in. The role of the British troops in supporting the landlords in reducing the lives of poor tenant farmers to abject misery, and the racist attitude to the Irish in general, lit a fire that never went out to the day he died.

He began to devour socialist and Marxist theory and returning to Scotland threw himself into activism. He stood as a socialist candidate in municipal elections, then moved to Dublin to take up a paid position as secretary of a fledgling socialist organisation, later helping to form the Irish Socialist Republican Party. In 1903 he emigrated to the United States and became a full time organizer with the Wobblies. Seven years later he returned to Ireland to join the Socialist Party of Ireland as its national organiser, moving to Belfast where he attempted to organise the working class across the sectarian divide. In 1913 he returned to Dublin and was heavily involved in the infamous lockout, when the Dublin bosses grouped together to lock out thousands of workers in an attempt to break the growing influence of the Irish Transport and General Trade Workers Union (ITGWU), led at the time by James Larkin. Connolly spent a brief period in prison as a result of this struggle. He emerged even more determined to immerse himself in the class struggle, and as a result of his experience of police brutality he'd become an eager advocate of the concept of a workers' militia to defend workers against police violence during protest meetings and strikes. The Irish Citizens' Army was born.

As well as a brilliant organiser and natural leader, Connolly was also a major thinker and theorist, his work around the National Question in particular a significant contribution to the Marxist canon. His theoretical work combined with his experience in the struggle to leave him in no doubt that when it came to Ireland 'The struggle for socialism and national liberation cannot and must not be separated.'

Regardless, it seems strange that a man committed to mass action of the Irish and international working class as the agency of revolutionary change should embrace the desperate tactic of an armed uprising by a tiny minority against the British state. The reason can be found in his devastation at the sight of thousands of Irish working class men enlisting to fight in an imperialist war under British arms, the same British arms that were holding his beloved Ireland in colonial subjugation.

"This war appears to me as the most fearful crime of the centuries. In it the working class are to be sacrificed so that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth. Nations are to be obliterated, progress stopped, and international hatreds erected into deities to be worshipped."

It was this which decided him on the desperate course of an armed rising by a committed minority, hoping it would raise the consciousness of the Irish working class to follow their example and struggle against the British state. This turn to action preceding consciousness on Connolly's part dovetailed with Pearse's commitment to a 'blood sacrifice' in Ireland's cause, responsible for two of the most unlikely of allies joining forces to make history.

That said, Connolly was never under any illusion about the deep political differences that existed between his conception of a future Ireland and the one held by the ultra nationalists of the IRB. He knew that the plight of the Irish working class would not be improved one inch by replacing the Union Jack over Dublin Castle with the Irish tricolour. It is why he urged his volunteers to keep hold of their weapons in the unlikely event of a victorious outcome to the Rising, as they would need them to carry out the next stage of their struggle to turn a political revolution into a social one against their erstwhile allies.

But, as mentioned, by the morning of the Rising on Easter Monday 1916, Connolly knew that he and his men were about to embark on a disastrous course. As they formed up outside their Liberty Hall HQ, he turned to a trusted aide and said

"We're going out to be slaughtered."

What followed was a story of courage and sacrifice that has elevated the Easter Rising to the status of legend throughout the world. The romantic symbolism of the reading out of the Irish Proclamation to bemused passersby outside the GPO in the middle of O'Connell Street, was matched by the rebels' naivete in taking up fixed positions throughout the city, trusting that the British would be reluctant to bring artillery to bear on Dublin, the closest city within the British Empire to London, to force them out. The forlorn hope that events in Dublin would inspire the remaining Volunteers around the country to mobilise despite MacNeill's orders to the contrary never came to pass either. Initially taken by surprise, the British responded with overwhelming force, bringing thousands of reinforcements and artillery into Dublin from the mainland to batter the rebels into submission after six days of heavy fighting, when Pearse finally gave the order to surrender on Saturday April 29th.

The aftermath proved as dramatic as the Rising itself. The rebels were initially vilified by their fellow Dubliners, who blamed them for causing the destruction of large parts of the city. As they were marched off to confinement by British troops they were harangued and pelted, especially by women whose husbands and sons were at that moment fighting in the trenches. But public and popular sentiment soon fell in behind them as the leaders were executed one after the other without trial or due process apart from military courts martial.

Here the British government made a catastrophic error in handing responsibility for the fate of those who'd surrendered to the British military authority in Dublin. In the end fifteen were executed by firing squad, including the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation - Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas J Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. Another name that can be added to the aforementioned list is that of Roger Casement, who was later hanged in Pentonville Prison for his role in attempting to organise the shipment of German arms.

Casement was a colourful character who despite enjoying the benefits of a privileged background devoted his life to ending the cruel treatment suffered by the victims of colonialism in Africa and the Americas.

Some of the most moving testimonies ever given by condemned men were made by the leaders of the rising in the hours and days before their execution. James Connolly said during the court martial held in his prison cell prior to being shot that

"Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, read to die to affirm that truth, makes the Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress".

Patrick Pearse testified that

"You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed."

Pearse was proved right. His sacrifice and that of the others who were executed lit the flame of Irish resistance to British rule, which ended with the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 after a bitter guerrilla war lasting three years, followed by a brief civil war between former comrades over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty enshrining the partition of six counties in the North, which remained British.

As Yeats wrote in his poem, with the Easter Rising of 1916 a terrible beauty had been born. Ireland would never be the same.