Whatever else the centenary of 1916 has done for Ireland, it’s been a bonanza for booksellers. Whole shop windows are devoted to books about every aspect of what was commemorated this year on Easter Sunday, even though that wasn’t actually the anniversary of the rising, insurrection, rebellion or whatever you like to call an event which involved—in a democracy—a seven-man clique within an oath-bound secret society leading around 1600 people to occupy buildings in Dublin and shoot soldiers and unarmed policemen. For some of them, like the front man, Patrick Pearse, chosen by the seven to be President of the Provisional Government, it was a form of suicide by cop.
The actual anniversary is April 24, which fell in 1916 on Easter Monday, but because it became popularly known as the Easter Rising, and because of the success of Pearse, its chief propagandist, in tying it into Catholicism, there is a tendency to mark the religious festival, rather than the actual anniversary.
A measure of home rule had been passed by the Westminster Parliament, but had been suspended for the duration of the First World War—not least because there was armed opposition to it among the (mainly Protestant) unionists in the northern part of the island. The government of the United Kingdom feared civil war. In 1916, the immediate result of the rebels’ actions was almost 500 deaths, innumerable injuries and the destruction by British artillery of important chunks of Dublin. Owing to the execution of sixteen of the rebel leaders (who included a few poets) tapping into the Irish appetite for tragic, romantic, eloquent heroes, the insurrection would go on to receive retrospective nationalist legitimisation in an election in 1918. It would help people of violence to groom generations to follow the example of the “martyred dead”.
In the north of the island, the main effect was the hardening of opposition to any form of independence. With the exacerbation of tribal hatred on the island, it would be left with two confessional and mutually hostile bourgeois states with unhappy minorities, hundreds of thousands of refugees, isolationism, poverty, bigotry and philistinism.
This essay first appeared in the May edition of Quadrant.
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These days the political establishment of the Republic of Ireland mostly retrospectively endorses political violence until 1921—the end of the so-called war of independence, which was begun by another small handful of unelected revolutionaries. A distinguished exception is the ex-Taoiseach (prime minister), John Bruton, from Fine Gael, traditionally the law-and-order party, who contends forcefully that Ireland would have been a happier place had independence been gained gradually through the peaceful route of democratic reform. For Fianna Fail (whose antecedents were on the losing side of a civil war begun in opposition to an Anglo-Irish treaty endorsed by the Irish electorate) the magic date after which violence became unacceptable was the surrender in 1923.
Sinn Fein, however, the political party that was the paramilitary wing of the Provisional IRA for three decades of what are euphemistically known as the Northern Ireland Troubles, and these days shares power in the north and is the third-largest party in the south, celebrates all violence up to 1998. That was when its leaders accepted reality and signed the Good Friday Agreement, which required them henceforward to use exclusively democratic means to achieve their political aims. They demand retrospective legitimisation for what they call the “armed struggle” and the elevation of such of their heroes as the ten men who committed suicide by hunger strike in 1981 to the republican pantheon, while they condemn as criminal the violence from the latest generation of malcontents and hardliners, dismissed as “dissidents”, who, logically enough, persist in claiming the right of apostolic succession (to use Pearsean terminology) to the men of 1916.
In 1966, the republic’s unashamedly triumphalist celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of 1916 helped ramp up in Northern Ireland republican fervour and unionist paranoia and hence contributed to the outbreak in 1969 of the Troubles. In 1991, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the rising, a nervous Irish government virtually ignored it. This time, with Sinn Fein gaining electoral ground in the republic and demanding a celebration of 1916, the government decided to remind them who was boss by holding a sombre military parade stressing Ireland’s contributions to UN peace-keeping, and marking respectfully everyone killed in 1916.
Back in 1991, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who to this day brazenly denies ever having been a member of the Irish Republican Army that he led with a tiny number of intimates for many years, defended IRA violence to a journalist: “If you in any way try to justify 1916, then you can’t say it was okay in Dublin seventy-five years ago, it was okay for your grandad, but it’s not okay in Belfast or Derry or South Armagh today. If you say today that the IRA is wrong, then they were wrong then as well.”
Ten years later, Rory Dougan, a spokesman for the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the political wing of the Real IRA, a Provisional splinter group which loathes its old comrades for selling out, said apropos Sinn Fein’s condemnations of post-Agreement killings: “If we were wrong now, then they were wrong for all them years: and if we are right now then they are wrong.”
The problem for those who wish to use an à la carte menu for political violence is that the words of the men of 1916 can be used to give unequivocal support to the dissidents. Take Patrick Pearse’s contention that “any undertaking made in the name of Ireland to accept in full satisfaction of Ireland’s claim anything less than the generations of Ireland have stood for is null and void, binding on Ireland neither by the law of God nor by the law of the nations”.
Then there’s James Connolly, the Marxist caught up in a nationalist revolution he had hoped would light the revolutionary spark across Europe, whose name still resonates with republicans and the Left: Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other of the British Labour Party’s new hard-Left rulers are long-time supporters of various Connolly Associations. At his court-martial, Connolly declared that the British “never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland. The presence in any one generation of even a respectable minority of Irishmen ready to die to affirm that truth makes that Government for ever an usurpation, and a crime against human progress.”
No longer trammelled by dogmatic religion and nationalism, Irish people these days are increasingly sophisticated and questioning about their history, and the mood has been reflecting the inclusivity of the state commemoration. Gone are the days when no 1916 deaths mattered unless they were executions. Around 500 books have been published on the rising, and significantly, the biggest seller was broadcaster Joe Duffy’s Children of the Rising: The Untold Story of the Young Lives Lost During Easter 1916. People who had been vaguely aware only of Pearse, Connolly and the other five men who signed the ubiquitous Proclamation of the Irish Republic, discovered that a lot of people had died and that most of the dead 488 were civilians, of whom forty were under seventeen. Neil Richardson’s According to Their Lights: Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916, brought home to many that a large number of the 107 soldiers killed in British uniform were Irish. In 1916: Portraits and Lives, lavishly illustrated with original engravings, the Royal Irish Academy published from its splendid Dictionary of Irish Biography forty biographies of influential people who included British and Irish constitutional politicians and the Jesuit priest Francis Shaw. In 1966 Father Shaw provided the Jesuit journal Studies with a brutally frank criticism of what he saw as the immorality of the rising, which the Jesuits were too scared to publish until 1974. “Irishmen of today,” he thundered, “must despise as unmanly those of their own country who preferred to solve problems, if possible, by peaceful rather than by violent means.”
Sinn Fein dismiss any departure from the old familiar myths as “revisionism”, and there’s plenty about to disgruntle them. Among the new books that no publisher would have touched until recently is Sean O’Callaghan’s James Connolly: My Search for the Man, the Myth and His Legacy. Inspired by Connolly’s fusion of Marxism and nationalism, O’Callaghan joined the IRA in 1969 at the age of fifteen under the impression that the IRA was a resistance movement. Later, revolted by his own crimes as well as those of his colleagues, he would become an (unpaid) police informer. In this very critical look at Connolly, he considers the malign politics of violent extremism and the way in which ordinary people are sucked into becoming True Believers.
Then there’s Professor Liam Kennedy, who put into Irish discourse the acronym MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) to describe the traditional nationalist interpretation of Irish history, who has taken an axe to several sacred cows, including the rising, in a startling book of essays, Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?
I’ve been amazed by the largely positive reaction to my own book on the period, The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, which like those of O’Callaghan and Kennedy concludes that the rising had a toxic effect on the island. Many more people have broken cover, including another Jesuit, the philosopher Seamus Murphy, who wrote an article in the Irish Times claiming that the rebellion met none of the criteria for a just war. And Sir Bob Geldof made a two-part documentary about W.B. Yeats which savaged the rising and its legacy.
The romantic image of political violence has been damaged by the horrors in Northern Ireland and lethal feuds in the republic between gangs with republican paramilitary connections. There is a widespread thirst for learning the truth about the past rather than regurgitating old propaganda. Close to 10,000 have been killed in Ireland in the last century because of political violence, tens of thousands have been injured and hundreds of thousands bereaved or traumatised. Irish nationalists still honour their “patriot dead”, but the legacy is no longer sacrosanct. The country is growing up.
Ruth Dudley Edwards is an Irish historian, crime novelist and broadcaster. She has a website at