Martyrs With Guns and the Easter Rising

He was very old, in his 90s, but looking sturdy, like the truck driver he once was. He was a distant cousin by marriage, on the branch of the family that had stayed in Ireland. When I visited him there last summer, in a nursing home in Kilrush, County Clare, I was not sure he knew who I was, but we connected over an old rebel song we both remembered.

“You’ve read in history’s pages the heroes of great fame,” he sang, in a breathy brogue.

The deeds they’d done, the battles won,
and how they made their name.
But the boys who made the history
for the orange, white and green
were the boys who died in Dublin town in 1916.

I grew up in Hawaii, two oceans and two generations removed from Ireland, so most of what I knew of the Easter Rising came from listening to a record album of my father’s: “The Irish Uprising,” released by CBS in 1966, with sonorous narration by Charles Kuralt and peppy songs by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

To me it was a thrilling tale of doomed courage. A handful of rebels rose up in arms to demand independence while Britain was distracted by the Great War. Though the rebellion was swiftly crushed and its leaders executed, it catalyzed Ireland’s transformation from oppressed colony to independent republic. How this happened, exactly, was unclear to me. But like anyone raised Roman Catholic, I understood triumph in humiliation, the worship of sacrificial death.

The part that seems odd now, but did not then: martyrs with guns.

Ireland is marking the centenary of the Rising this year with programs and parades the island over. It does so gingerly, knowing that its path from 1916 to the present day is strewn with agonies: years of civil war and terrorist bloodshed. And though there has been courageous peacemaking, sectarian hatreds still smolder, buried, like a coal-seam fire.

The awkwardness is evident in the official program of events, many of which are strenuously forward-looking and upbeat. The government produced a widely mocked video with pop music playing over images of Irish heroes like Samuel Beckett and Bob Geldof, plus Queen Elizabeth II and David Cameron, and many smiling Irish, but no mention of anyone involved in the rebellion, no explanation of what the nation was commemorating, or why.

Leave it to Sinn Fein, the political party closely associated with the Irish Republican Army, to bring things back to bombs and bullets. One of its videos about the Rising has a soundtrack of gunshots. Another opens with — what else — a bomb blast, a ball of orange flames caressing the date, “1916” — followed by the faces of Padraig Pearse, Tom Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh and the other rebel leaders, and their dates of execution.

A republican guard of honor with the Irish flag during commemorations in 2000 of the Easter Uprising of 1916. Credit Reuters
A republican guard of honor with the Irish flag during commemorations in 2000 of the Easter Uprising of 1916. Credit Reuters

“They delivered a blow to Britain’s global domination from which it never recovered,” a title card reads.

The wisdom of that blow was debatable then, and is debated still. So, too, is the Irish republic’s inability to disentangle itself from political violence. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has warned against a “false glorification” of the Rising and urged that the commemoration’s main focus be on its victims, and on the “terrible loss of human life.”

The Rev. Seamus Murphy, a Jesuit who teaches philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, wrote in January in The Irish Times that he found the commemoration “deeply disturbing.” While it’s fair to acknowledge the “bravery and discipline” of the Rising’s rank-and-file volunteers, he said, we should also admit their leaders’ “irresponsibility” in knowingly provoking the slaughter of innocents.

As for the belief that the Rising was a brutal necessity, Father Murphy rejects that claim utterly. And besides, he said, it is a terrible template for a true democracy. Consider its hallowed document — the independence proclamation, read aloud outside rebel headquarters in Dublin’s General Post Office, commonly called the G.P.O., that Monday. It claimed its authority not from any living Irish men or women, but from the dead generations, who could not demur.

“A group of unrepresentative gunmen,” Father Murphy wrote, “can only create a pretend-republic.”

Ireland eventually became a real republic, of course, after first gaining independence in 1921. But I side with Father Murphy.

Bells on Easter Sunday tolled the risen Christ. On Monday the shooting began. The doomed volunteers brought many in Dublin down with them. To watch old footage of the shattered city of 1916 is to be thrown, inescapably, into the present day, when martyr-armies, bombed rubble and bystander corpses are sickeningly abundant. Every new attack — every Paris, Istanbul, Brussels — makes it harder to feel anything but remorse about urban holy warfare.

Yet the 1916 Rising has been retroactively sanctified, for many in Ireland and in Irish America anyway — squeezed into a tidy narrative to fit a tidy, lovable nation. Sometimes the reverent nostalgia bleeds into kitsch. Irish television recently aired a reality show in which the grooms in a 1916-themed gay wedding dressed in khaki and drove to the reception in a jeep. Organizers of this month’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York took special note of the 1916 anniversary with the usual mix of revelry and kitsch.

The real event was a calamity. More than 1,200 took part in the Rising, mostly in Dublin. Britain flooded the city with troops and artillery. After six days of bombardment, about 450 were dead and 2,500 wounded. The bulk of the casualties were civilians.

But if the public did not support the Rising at the beginning, the merciless British reaction, including the executions of rebel leaders, quickly fixed that. Irish yearning coalesced in Dublin’s rubble; all changed utterly; the martyrs won.

The aftermath of the Easter uprising, April 1, 1916.Credit Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
The aftermath of the Easter uprising, April 1, 1916.Credit Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter, in a newspaper column last December, listed the 50 things Ireland needed in the new year. No. 8 was “a narrative of 1916 that is honest, evidence-based and complicated.”

An honest account would begin with the recognition that the Rising was, militarily, a fiasco — a lot of confusion followed by vast destruction and unconditional surrender. A nationwide rebellion that had been called for Easter Sunday was called off, but not everybody got or heeded the message. Witness statements in the military archives capture the chaos:

Beresford Place was full of Citizen Army men and women. Everything was bustle and excitement. We formed up in front of and our backs to Liberty Hall, and Margaret Skinnider, whom I knew, rushed over to me and said, “It’s on.” I asked, “What’s on?” She said, “The rebellion, of course.” This was the first positive information I had that action was to be taken that morning.

Seoirse gave his company the order to left turn, charge, and as some of the men could not believe their ears, he had to say, “Take the G.P.O.” One of them gave such a whoop of delight that something was actually going to happen that threatened to disorganize the whole plan. Some thought it was a joke.

The long, brutal British suppression of the Irish people was no joke, of course. The 1916 proclamation is eloquent on this point. But whether the poet-soldiers behind it were suicidal, deluded or brilliant is much-discussed in the extensive literature of the Rising. Professor Ferriter quotes another historian, F. X. Martin, explaining the rebellion this way: “It was imaginatively planned with artistic vision and with exceptional military incompetence. The revolt was staged consciously as a drama by its principal actors.”

In that theatrical spirit, Sinn Fein was planning this year to project a sound-and-light show on the Post Office exterior, to carry out a virtual Rising, in the middle of Dublin, seemingly for the morbid thrill of it.

“With this technology we’ll be able to bring the G.P.O. back under shellfire,” a Sinn Fein spokesman, Bartle D’Arcy, told the press. “You’ll see rebels arrive at the G.P.O. and break the windows.”

The government, thankfully, withheld permission.

Father Murphy, at Loyola, told me that he wished that those commemorating this anniversary were as eager to honor leaders, like the 19th-century member of Parliament Daniel O’Connell, who “worked for Irish freedom but didn’t shoot anybody.”

“In many ways 1916 has a grip, I call it a spiritual grip, on us,” Father Murphy said. He likened its organizers to “dramatists, poets, almost like priests of a certain cult.” He sees their successors in Sinn Fein politicians today: “When you ask, ‘What do you think about national debt or housing policy?’ they have a strange glazed look in their eyes,” he said. “They’re not really interested in that stuff at all.”

To Father Murphy, the pivotal year in 20th-century Irish political history is not 1916 but 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement put North and South on a path to reconciliation and power sharing. “That should be the agenda we’re pushing,” he said: “Democracy, pluralism, tolerance, the rule of law.”

“Don’t be thinking through the wild romantic dreams. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Behind them all is a lot of terror and blood.”

Lawrence Downes is a member of The New York Times Editorial Board.

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