Stories, Research & Projects
A bit of context...
Historian Fearghal McGarry has written that many of the rebels in 1916 fought not for a republic, but for the cause of Irish freedom. When talking about 1916, I therefore find it integral to first identify the meaning of Irish freedom. I think it's a useful exercise to look at how the art of the revolution influenced this definition, for better or for worse. Looking at some of the famous poems and songs associated with the 1916 Easter Rising, I'll present some of the interpretations of Irish republicanism. But it's up to the reader to draw her/his own conclusions. Moreover, the text of the 1916 Proclamation is revolutionary in itself and merits discussion - and more importantly, analysis - in Ireland today.
Presumably, the dream of Irish freedom relied on a version of self-governance whereby the Irish were governed of the Irish, by the Irish, for the Irish (to paraphrase US President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 19 November 1863). But who exactly were “the Irish”? Which citizens would this new definition of “the Irish” comprise? Whose interests would be served?
At the Sinn Féin conference of 1917, Éamon de Valera apparently justified the adoption of a commitment to the Republic as “a monument to the brave dead”, according to McGarry. So was de Valera’s Republic the very same republic that the brave dead died for? This is unlikely. These deaths – the martyrs – were appropriated by de Valera and by a new political elite upon the foundation of the brand-new Irish state in 1922. Patrick Pearse’s “blood sacrifice” was a strong rallying call in the years leading to the War of Independence. Subsequently, of course, this same sentiment was invoked by thousands of Irish citizens as justification for decades of conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998.
As is well-known, support for militant Irish republicanism in 1916 was not widespread.
Interestingly, republicanism had been regarded as out-of-fashion: “every sizeable town possessed a tiny sprinkling of diehard separatists… they were respected as idealists, living in a world and an age to which they did not belong” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 1770 (Kevin O’Shiel)]. Further, “a republic did not appeal to the masses, as they considered its attainment impossible… Outside the IRB, there were few republicans… we were mere propagandists and we realised it.” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 99 (Patrick McCartan)].
Indeed, McGarry posits that “cultural nationalism, Catholicism and militarism were more influential than republican ideology”. In 2016, we should ask whether any of these elements is a strong enough banner under which to unite as a democratic state. Cultural nationalism, as defined by a 19th century Gaelic Revivalist will be very different to the conception of Irishness of a pro-EU student living in the technological, internet hub that is Dublin today. Many young Irish citizens might very well identify with US culture more than with traditional modes of Irish life. This is not a facetious point and shouldn’t be dismissed in any discussion of Irish folk culture.
According to Michael Wheatley, the prevailing discourse of the Irish nationalism during the second decade of the 20th century was one of “Catholicity, sense of victimhood, glorification of struggle, identification of enemies, and antipathy to England.” McGarry argues that “the patriarchal, clericalist and conservative state that emerged from Ireland’s revolution was perhaps less a betrayal of the Proclamation than a consequence of the fact that its ideals were never deeply rooted within the nationalist movement that won independence.” Its legacy, however, is indistinguishable from independent Irish statehood. This can be seen in the momentous heritage of the MacBridge/Gonn family.
John MacBride (married to the infamous Maud Gonne) was executed by British soldiers in Kilmainham jail on 5 May 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising as second-in-command at the Jacob’s biscuit factory. His son, Seán MacBride, became an international advocate for human rights throughout the 20th century in a remarkable and fascinating career. He acted as Chief of Staff of the IRA (1936), but was called to the Irish Bar a year later and soon resigned from the IRA. He went on to chair the Amnesty International Executive from 1961-75 and chaired the Special Committee of International NGOs on Human Rights (Geneva) from 1968-74. In 1974, MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize, won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1976 and was awarded the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980. I recommend Elizabeth Keane's fantastic biography of Seán MacBridge if you're even slightly interested in this towering figure of foundational Irish statehood.
This single life brings many of the contradictions of the modern Irish nation to bear. As Halbwachs has said: “Commemoration, after all, is shaped by how those in the present choose to remember their history rather than the atavistic passions of the past.”
Speaking Truth to Power
Back to 2016 and we could legitimately argue that the idealism in the Proclamation remains unfulfilled. This leads us back to our definition of Irish freedom. US agitator Saul Alinsky believed that freedom is synonymous with participation in power. He believed that democracy must attempt to facilitate the actions of as many citizens as possible within the realm of governance. Here's an interesting point on the consequences of marginalisation:
...the powerless will remain powerless, and therefore exploited, discriminated against, marginalized, and otherwise taken advantage of, as long as they remain isolated and divided. They don’t get involved because their past experience proves the adage: "You can’t fight city hall.” And their socialization in a mass, consumer, media-driven society tells them that they need some hero, advocate, charismatic leader to speak for them. [Miller, 2010].
This participation in power comes from community organisation. Alinsky himself argued that so-called "middle-class hygiene" had made terms like ‘conflict’ and ‘controversy’ dirty words. However, in a healthy democracy, it is broadly supported that conflict, dialogue and debate are tolerable and should be promoted to sustain political and cultural exchange between communities.
The democratic promise of equity, inclusion, and accountability requires an organized citizenry with the power to articulate and assert its interests effectively. [Marshall, 2014]
Song & Poetry of the Rising
The influence of art on society can be seen if we use the 1916 Rising as an example, given largely to the fact that the volunteers were perceived to be ‘poets and idealists’. This seems to have been an extra weapon in the fight against British imperialism - certainly in hindsight! It's valuable to witness the greater Irish public’s appropriation of literature and music in the century since the Rising. It has become a form of participation in Irish society; so-called Irish rebel songs became an uncompromising show of national identity on both sides of the border. The poetry and songs surrounding Easter 1916 have influenced Irish republicanism over the past 100 years.
The tragic world is a world of action and action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they intended; it is terribly unlike it. [Bradley, 1904]
A.C. Bradley's quotation refers to Shakespeare but it could be applied to any process of tragic martyrdom. As Fearghal McGarry says, “the Rising became burdened by the weight of its own myth.” By analysing some of the lore connected to the Rising, we can see how the fighter’s sacrifice was considered in retrospect to be something almost inevitable, almost divine. The use of poetry to explain and define what happened during the Rising lifts it above mere reportage and manages to create something aesthetically beautiful. To this dead, the importance of poetry and song to Irish republicanism cannot be understated.
“‘mid the leaden rain, seven tongues of flame did shine o’er the lines of steel [guns]…
Their names we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew”
“In prison ground they’ve laid him, far from his native land /
Now the wild waves sing his Requiem on lonely Banna Strand”
" The night was dark, and the fight was ended,
The moon shone down O’Connell Street,
I stood alone, where brave men perished
Those men have gone, their God to meet.”
The imagery of these songs conjures pictures deliberately timeless. References to the natural world alongside catholic sentiment tailors it particularly to a 20th century Irish establishment audience, so accustomed to natural references in ancient and traditional (particularly Irish language) texts.
‘Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming
on strong manly forms and on eyes with hope gleaming,
I see them again, sure, through all my day deaming,
Glory o’, glory o’, to the bold Fenian men!
Apparently, the old woman in Kearney's song is a representation of Ireland who longs for renewed efforts in the search for Irish self-governance. It is basically a call to arms. The melody of Down by the Glenside is particularly strong, and I have to admit it is probably my favourite of the melodies associated with 1916. Peadar Kearney was well aware that a strong message coupled with a strong melody could stand the test of time, even where some in the audience might oppose the its message.
Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be of you.
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.
The poignancy of this story, relating to the execution of Joseph Plunkett on 4 May 1916, is more powerful than any historical statistic fact about the revolution. The emotional narrative – a universal bond of love and the tragedy of an ill-fated marriage – is so cleverly devised in its lyrical form that it's sure to last for years.
“out of the depths of misery,
we march with hearts aflame,
with wrath against the ruler’s false,
who wreck our manhood’s name”
This masculine, military language seems typical of its time. Ideas of flawless manhood and courage might pall with some of us a century on. Connolly’s own daughter recalled on national television in 1966 how he had told his wife not to cry at his hospital bed for fear that she would “unman” him before his imminent execution. This sentiment can be seen also in Pearse’s poem, “The Mother”, which excuses what his family went through by usurping his own mother’s voice: “I do not grudge them, Lord... My sons were faithful, and they fought.”
This culture of stoicism surrounding the 1916 Rising is perhaps one of the things that may jar with today’s citizens. 20th century film and photography has surely dispelled the romantic mythology of war and conflict, where bravery is rewarded neatly with martyrdom. To forbid family members from grieving publicly at the imminent loss of a loved one might seem, for families in 2016, more of a restraint on their freedom than something worth celebrating. Sean O'Casey devastatingly portrayed this facet of the female experience of the Rising in "The Plough and the Stars", when Nora Clitheroe is treated with disdain for her public reaction to her husband's part in the conflict.
In the military psyche, this may well be a usual tactic in order to reduce the appearance of weakness. Of course, this stoicism can’t but resonate in our recollections of the 1981 IRA hunger strike, when some pleading mothers were coerced into silence in the cause of Irish freedom.
We must also consult the Proclamation itself to understand with more clarity the mythology of the Rising:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.
This last line is a reference to Wolfe Tone’s third submission in 1791 prior to the foundation of the Society of United Irishmen, seeking to attain political rights for catholics and “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen”. Of course, this followed hot on the heels of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary publication The Rights of Man (1791). In it, Paine defended the motto of the French revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Indeed, we see too in the 1916 Poblacht na hÉireann echoes of the US Declaration of Independence of 1776: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Any commemoration/remembering of the poetry, songs and ideas of 1916 cannot be limited to reverence. These words ought to be challenged according to our present values. The words are there to be contested, to be debated, so that the ideas behind them may be strengthened through practice and experience; not just to criticise or to ridicule. These words can also guide us back on course towards the ideals of a democratic republic. Otherwise, these words remain static, mere relics of a moment in time.
As citizens today, we can (and should) write our own words, imagine our own world. This way, we can help the rights-based liberal philosophy of the 18th century to evolve so that a contemporary citizenry may exist in an equal and peaceful society. It seems appropriate here to quote the current Head of State, President Michael D Higgins, who made these remarks the day before this blog was published:
"All of us are invited, then, in this year of 2016, to reach for the ideals and hopes that animated so many of the men and women of 1916 in their struggle for freedom, equality and social justice.
Fearghal McGarry, “1916 and Irish Republicanism: between Myth and History" in John Horne and Edward Madigan (eds) Towards Commmemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2013)
Michael Wheatley, Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland 1910-1916 (Oxford, 2005), p. 266
Maurice Halbwachs, “On collective memory” (Chicago, 1992)
Miller, Mike (2010), "Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing. Dissent. Winter, 57, 1, Research Library, p. 45. Read the full article.
Ganz, Marshall (2004). "Organizing." In George R. Goethals, Georgia J. Sorenson, and James MacGregor Burns, eds. Encyclopedia of Leadership. Vol. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
A.C. Bradley, Shakespearian tragedy  (New York, 1968, p. 28-29
Keane, Elizabeth (2006). An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: The Nationalist and Internationalist Politics of Seán MacBride. Tauris