Has the Rising of 1916 an enduring significance for Ireland, or is it simply another violent episode in the long and generally gloomy panorama of Irish history? Are we this Easter celebrating an event that is still relevant to the very different Ireland of today – and, if so, what is its relevance? It is right that we should ask these questions and not be content simply to be swept along on the tide of sentiment and patriotic piety -–or to react cynically against this tide.
The significance of 1916 will hardly be seen by the historians of the future to lie in any contribution by its leaders to our political or social thought -Connolly notwithstanding - but rather in their impact on the national ideal of freedom. The Rising of Easter Week was not an intellectual national ideal of freedom. The Rising of Easter Week was not an intellectual landmark but a political event of enormous emotional power. It was planned by men who feared that without a dramatic gesture of this kind the sense of national identity that had survived all the hazards of the centuries would flicker out ignominiously within their lifetime, leaving Ireland psychologically as well as legally, like Scotland, an integral part of the United Kingdom. They saw the Rising as a last desperate attempt to save Irish nationality from the obliteration that appeared to them to face it in the first years of the Great War. They were men who suddenly found themselves convinced of what up till then they had felt only subconsciously – that the final end of the Irish nation was at hand, unless they acted dramatically to call back the nation’s soul from the very shadow of death. For them, the alternatives were national extinction or, by a supreme effort on their part, the possibility of another lease of life for Irish nationality, out of which a free Ireland might somehow, some day, emerge.
Were they justified in their fears for the survival of Ireland’s sense of nationhood? To those of us who have known only an independent Irish State, and whose memories do not go back to the period of 1916 and beyond, these fears are likely to seem somewhat unreal. Born into an independent Irish state, in which nationalism has been dominant, this generation must find it difficult to grasp emotionally the political atmosphere of Ireland in the years before 1916. The very success of 1916 has weakened our understanding of why its leaders felt that the Rising was needed in order to revive Irish nationalism.
Army in defence of Ireland and the promise of Home Rule is something that we have read about; we know it is true, but do not understand how it could be true. It is difficult for my generation and for those younger than us to incorporate this fact into our picture of Ireland’s past: to do so requires that suspension of disbelief that we bring to a work of fiction or drama. Yet to the people of that time the political attitudes which we now accept as normal would have seemed as inconceivable as their attitudes now seem to us. There is a chasm between the Ireland of that period and the Ireland of today – and the bridge across that chasm is strewn with the bodies of those who died in Easter Week. Because the head of that Week are still all too present to our minds, we cannot yet see clearly the bridge, or the chasm it spans, or the strange Ireland that lay on the further side of it.
To illustrate this chasm one should perhaps quote from contemporary sources. I may, however, be, forgiven if I quote instead what my father wrote years afterwards, recollecting – in the relative tranquillity of middle age – the atmosphere of those years before 1916:
‘Home Rule was in the air. The overwhelming majority of the people supported Redmond. In so far as that support had waned it was due to a growing cynicism among the people. Home Rule had been promised so long and had not materialized. If it failed again there was no evidence to lead one to expect that the people would do more than shrug their shoulders and say that they expected as much. On the other hand it did really look as though some Bill would actually become law. Those of us who thought of Home Rule as something utterly inadequate were a very small minority, without influence, impotent. If we had been more critical of ourselves, we should have been reduced to utter disheartenment. We dreamed of an armed uprising. But in the circumstances of the time, in the cold light of reason, one could really have foreseen only the success of the Home Rule movement with a subordinate government established, whose restricted powers would be acclaimed as fulfilling all aspirations, or the failure of Home Rule, which would have been accepted by the majority of the people as a proof that it was too much to hope for’.
Then came the Volunteer movement – and the War.
‘I think that our first reaction was one of jubilation. England would now be beaten and a resurgent Irish nationalism would assert and make effective our claim to real autonomy……..Whatever degree of exultation possessed us soon gave way to a condition very close to despair. On the very declaration of War Mr Redmond made a statement assuring the English people that the Irish Volunteers would protect Ireland…….But more disturbing than that mere statement was the fact that it immediately became apparent that it really represented the views of the majority of the Irish people…..There were reports of the success of recruiting of Volunteer bands marching to the station to see off their comrades who had volunteered for service in the British Army. The movement on which all our dreams had centred seemed merely to have canalised the martial spirit of the Irish people for the defence of England. Our dream castles toppled about us with a crash. If Irishmen had served England in previous wars in their thousands, it was clear that in this war they would serve her in their tens of thousands. It was brought home to us that the very fever that had possessed us was due to a subconscious awareness that the final end of the Irish nation was at hand. For centuries England had held Ireland materially. But now it seemed that she held her in a new and utterly complete way. Our national identity was obliterated not only politically, but also in our own minds. The Irish people had recognized themselves as part of England’.
Of course those who found themselves thinking in this way were a small minority of the Irish nation, as they themselves so clearly realized. The majority included, as well as many people who thought little of such matters, nationalists of another tradition and another point of view who saw themselves as fighting for Ireland in Flanders, and believed that the reward for their courage against the enemies of small nations would be the granting of Home Rule at the end of the War – leading perhaps to greater independence at a later stage.
That this was the attitude of the vast majority of the Irish people is something that tends to be passed over in a misguided effort to develop the patriotism of our children. In an attempt to portray an unbroken Irish tradition of armed resistance to British rule, history – as it is taught – diminishes and renders meaningless the Rising of 1916. For the necessity of the Rising arose, in the minds of its originators, from the need to re-awaken a spirit of nationalism which seemed to them to have died in the hearts of the great majority of our people.
Misunderstandings as to the significance of 1916 have been further aggravated by well meaning attempts to elevate into political dogma incidental sayings and writings of the leaders of the Rising during the years immediately before 1916. This almost mediaeval respect for the letter of what had been written or spoken between 1913 and 1916 by the leaders of the Rising is misconceived. Even if these men had been political or social thinkers of world standing, their thoughts on the Ireland they knew could not have stood up to such prolonged and unthinking veneration, but they did not regard themselves – nor were they in fact – great thinkers.
In the harsh light of today, seen with the hindsight of a much more sophisticated generation, what was written and said by them conveys few clear-cut ideas of political or social philosophy. Some would argue that they were inhibited by the fact that they were not agreed on a political philosophy beyond the wish to secure freedom, and that they preferred to avoid the dangerous ground of social philosophy less their fundamental differences of view on these matters should be exposed. This may be true up to a point – for the memories of deep differences during the 1913 strike must have been vivid in the minds of Connolly and Pearse. But we may make too much of this, for we nowadays think in more ideological terms than former generations, seeking always to segregate left from right in public affairs. There is not much evidence that the leaders of 1916 had thought deeply about political and social philosophies, or that the rift between some of them and James Connolly was intellectually profound. It seems rather that for most of them political freedom was an end in itself, and their supreme concern taking precedence over all other considerations, was the desperate need to make a gesture to keep alive the national spirit without which true freedom might never be attained. It would be patently absurd to expect that men faced with this demand upon their emotions, their imagination and their courage should have thought in terms of social programmes or political philosophies. To have debated such matters instead of hastening on with their military preparations would undoubtedly have seemed to them an appalling blasphemy against their faith in value of Irish nationalism and their duty to win for it at any cost a last minute reprieve.
To treat the Proclamation of 1916 as a great source of political or social doctrines is to misunderstand its purpose and its meaning for those who wrote it. That document contained noble ideals, expressed in enduring language. Granted that there were naïvetés, that few of the sentiments were profound, nevertheless all the Proclamation was couched in proud words, written by men stepped in their county’s history. In writing it they sought to pass on to generations then unborn the enduring belief in Irish freedom which, even in times of squalor and ignominy for our people, had never quite flickered out.
The political and social ideas of the leaders of the Rising were, however, fairly limited and naïve, even by the standards of that time. Few of these ideas, even those of Connolly, could stand the test of fifty years. To ask ourselves how they would have judged our progress since, had they lived, or how they would react to the Ireland of today, is to attribute to them a standing as political and social thinkers which they would never have claimed. Their views on modern Ireland would be no more valuable than those of many of their colleagues still alive, and probably less valuable than those of many of our contemporaries. The truth is that what mattered about the men of 1916 was not their ideas, but their ideals. If their ideas had been more advanced, their ideals might have been less clear and compelling. Men will follow into battle a leader who calls them to fight for freedom, but may not be inspired to do so by the author of a political philosophy, a social manifesto or an economic theory, even though he be of the calibre of Rousseau or Marx or Keynes.
Were the leaders of 1916 right in their belief that without a gesture such as the Rising the spirit of Irish nationality and the sense of national identity would flicker out? Certainly by their action they revived a national consciousness that was then at a low ebb. It is possible, however, to take the view that the gains thus secured were offset by losses, then and since. Thus there are many who feel that if 1916 had not happened, and Home Rule had been secured peacefully, we should have evolved towards an independence that would have been at least as satisfactory when achieved as what we in fact secured in 1922. Those who hold this view argue that such an evolution could have been arranged to involve North as well as South. They claim that the independent Ireland which could thus have emerged would have been more mature, and less divided politically than the one that has actually emerged.
This is an attractive thesis, and even though one may question whether it is psychologically sound, one can readily understand that it commands a good deal of support. First of all it would appear a priori more logical to have given the maintenance of national unity priority over the speedy attainment of independence. Once the political unity of Ireland was broken, it was bound to be very difficult to restore it, and the postponement of full independence for a few years, or even for a couple of decades, would have been a small price to have paid to avoid Partition. It is true that this was not obvious to everyone at the time: in an Ireland that had been geographically united for centuries, it was difficult to contemplate seriously a permanent or even long lasting Partition. The Northern Unionist leaders themselves do not seem to have believed fully in the possibility of a permanent division, and the predominant attitude of people in the rest of the country was demonstrated very clearly by the subsequent Treaty debate. In that debate neither side took Partition seriously enough to regard it as a major issue; instead attention was concentrated on the issue of the Oath. But in retrospect it is clear that Partition, once it had been allowed to become effective, was going to become very difficult indeed to remove; in Ireland, as in other partitioned countries, the political division all too quickly creates its own vested interests, and its own dynamic.
Because Partition can be seen to have created its own dynamic, and consequently to be so difficult to reverse, the argument for having sought a gradual achievement of independence for the whole country rather than a rapid freeing of part of it appears in retrospect a powerful one. To it can be added, by critics of 1916 and of the physical force movement, the evil effects of violent nationalism as we have seen them during the past half century. Bred in arms, the Irish Free State nearly succumbed to armed anarchy at its birth. Violence once unleashed was difficult to chain again. Young men who had been taught to glorify violence against Britain found it hard to eschew violence against a native regime which they regarded as a British puppet government. Thus the achievement of Irish freedom which should have been a glorious event, degenerated with frightening speed into a squalid war of assassination, arson, executions, reprisals and atrocities. And even when the Civil War had petered out, the tradition of violence still lived on; a Minister of State, policemen and detectives, jurymen doing their duty, landlords, innocent bystanders and many members of the I.R.A. died violently throughout the first thirty five years of Irish independence.
Apart from the death and destruction thus wrought in the new State, as part of its inheritance of violence, there was the demoralization that followed these political divisions, and the perpetuation of out worn hatreds. The inferiority complex, the xenophobia, the inverted snobbery that were inevitable legacies of British rule were kept alive for decades after they should have disappeared because of the circumstances in which the new State came into being.
The case against the physical violence movement and against the Rising of 1916 that launched it is thus seen to be a strong one. So it is not surprising that, as reaction has set in with the passing of time, public attitudes to 1916 have become more critical. This trend has been intensified by the growing abhorrence of violence which marks the advanced cultures of the world, our own included. At the same time the spurious claims made by propagandists for extreme nationalism have alienated the sympathies of many younger people and have contributed to a growing cynicism about the national movement of 1916 and the years that followed.
The case for 1916 has in recent years been allowed to go by default; little that has been written about the Rising in recent months has helped to place it in perspective. There has been an easy assumption by many speakers and writers that the 1916 tradition is shared by everyone and that it requires no explanation or justification. This is far from being so, more specially because the myth laden treatment of pre-1916 Irish history in the schools, and the silence with which most of the events of the past half century are passed over, have prevented young people from understanding why the gesture of the Rising was judged necessary by its leaders.
To appreciate the significance of the Rising one has to make an effort to visualize how Ireland might have developed if the Rising had not taken place. Without the revival of national consciousness which the dramatic failure of 1916 evoked, Ireland would have moved towards Home Rule before or after the end of the Great War. Led by the Parliamentary Party the Irish people would have secured at some stage from Britain the measure of autonomy that Home Rule implied, possibly with some provision for separate treatment of the North, for a time at least. Defence, Foreign Affairs, and much of Finance would have remained an imperial responsibility, and Ireland would still have been represented at Westminster.
So much is clear enough. As to what might have followed thereafter, one can only speculate. But if one starts not from the Ireland that we know today, but from the viewpoints of the Ireland of 1915, it is far from clear that Home Rule Ireland would necessarily have evolved much further, or that it would as a matter of course have taken its place eventually among the independent nations of the world. Would the people whose menfolk rushed to join the British Army in such numbers in 1914 have wanted a national army in the 1920’s and the 1930’s? Without the national revival brought about by 1916 would a people whose more brilliant men found ample opportunities for their talents in the Imperial civil service have wanted an Irish Department of External Affairs, or sought to make Ireland’s as distinct from the United Kingdom’s, voice heard in the councils of Europe, or at the United Nations? Would a people for so long orientated towards London, and content that Dublin should be a provincial centre within the British Isles, have suddenly become ambitious for it to secure the status of a capital city? Without the national revival of 1916-1921, would Ireland ever have become a largely self-reliant country, seeking to run its own affairs in its own way, or would it have shrunk like Northern Ireland into dependent provincialism, too concerned about its share of British agricultural subsidies and social welfare re-insurance provisions to want ever to become a sovereign state?
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England exploited Ireland. In the nineteenth she neglected Ireland. But in the twentieth century she would surely have subsidized Ireland, as she does the North today and could Ireland’s sense of nationhood which by 1915 was already so weakened, have withstood for long this most insidious of colonial treatments?
Our best clue as to what a Home Rule Ireland would have been like, is that provided by Northern Ireland which has had Home Rule for forty five years. A Home Rule Ireland might well have been very similar to Northern Ireland today, with the single exception of the government, which would have been Nationalist with a Unionist opposition. Perhaps because the area governed would have been larger, it might have been fractionally less provincial than the North. But otherwise it might not have been very different, except for the switch between Orange and Green conservatives. There might well have been the same stifling one party rule, kept in office by an intransigent opposition, closely linked with the neighbouring country. There might have been the same hopelessness as regards social or political change, and the same orientation towards London, as the ultimate source of political power, and the ever present source of financial subsidies. The Irish party, already largely a London-orientated sub-establishment by 1916 would have taken over the reins of self government smoothly enough, without the injection of new men, which was one of the great, if once-and-for-all, benefits of independence in 1922. The political establishment, as well as the social establishment, might thereafter have aspired to an English education for their children, thus copper-fastening the Anglo-Irish connection for future generations. The Class structure would have remained little changed, free from the upset of 1922 when a large part of the old ascendancy left, and an entirely new group took over the leadership of the community.
Is this an exaggerated picture? Perhaps it is, but it at least makes the point that when we come to evaluate 1916 we have an obligation to make an attempt to imagine what the alternative would have been – instead of assuming, as most critics of the Rising seem to assume, that without 1916 Ireland’s future history would have had all the good features of the Ireland of the last half century, with all the evil features automatically expunged. Life is not so simple; a Home Rule Ireland could not have been merely a peaceful and more cultured version of the Irish Free State; it would almost certainly have been very different, and in some ways at least very unattractive.
It is never easy to prove a negative, and hypothetical history is always dangerously speculative. But the belief that we would have secured a genuinely independent Irish state with or without 1916 involved a hypothesis just as speculative, though less explicit. The truth is that we do not know and cannot know with certainty, what might have happened. But those who believed fifty years ago that without the gesture made in Easter Week Irish nationality would peter out, may well have been right. Nothing that has happened since that time has proved, or even given strong grounds for believing, that they were wrong. And if they were right, then anyone who believes that Ireland as an independent national entity has something to offer to the world, and that the Irish people can do more for themselves and for their neighbours by self reliant control of their own affairs, within whatever international framework may emerge in this increasingly inter-dependent world, must acknowledge a debt to the leaders of 1916.
Their actions had evil consequences as well as good ones. The evil effects were the first to be felt and some were long in fading away. But in the fuller perspective of history these evil consequences may in time seem minor and transitory beside the advantage gained by Ireland and the world from the eventual revival of a mature Irish nation.
How will it all seem to historians a century hence? Will they, living perhaps in a peaceful world where the rule of law applies between nations and violence is no longer a political weapon, puzzle over the concept of the blood sacrifice? Or will they see 1916 as a necessary element in securing the psychological basis for a self-confident Irish nation, able to enter a united Europe with some pride in its contribution to the European super-State? The perspective of history is unpredictable and we cannot know how it will all appear to men in the future.