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The Easter Uprising in History

On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a thousand separatists occupied the center of Dublin to declare an Irish Republic.  Opposed by most Irish people at the time, the rebellion was a comprehensive military failure.  By the end of the week, the rebels had been overwhelmed by the British army, whose heavy machine-guns and artillery destroyed much of the centre of Dublin and accounted for many civilian deaths.  Fifteen of the most prominent rebels—an ideologically disparate alliance of Fenian conspirators, cultural intellectuals and revolutionary socialists—were court-martialled and swiftly executed, a provocative response that reflected the urgency of Britain’s struggle for survival on the Western Front.

The rest is history: zealous—and previously ridiculed—extremists were transformed into martyred patriots, a dying physical-force tradition was revived, and the marginal cause of Irish republicanism gripped nationalist Ireland.  At the British general election in 1918 the once dominant Irish Parliamentary Party—which had agitated for an Irish ‘home rule’ parliament for three decades—was swept aside by Sinn Féin whose radical demand for an independent republic led to war between the Irish Republican Army and the forces of the British Crown.  This conflict was only brought to an end by the partition of the Protestant and Unionist-dominated north of the country from the Catholic nationalist south, an Anglo-Irish Treaty which provided limited independence for the southern Irish Free State, and a bitter civil war between former republican comrades.

The Easter Rising remains one of the compelling events of twentieth-century world history.  Looking back on it, Michael Collins—whose guerrilla tactics perfected a very different form of violence during the IRA’s War of Independence – complained of “the air of a Greek tragedy” that characterized the bungling and needless death that he witnessed from the General Post Office.  But it was precisely the dramatic aspect of the Rising—which was publicly staged in the centre of Dublin by a military council of poets and playwrights—that gripped the public imagination.  No less compelling was its mythic dimension which stemmed from the powerful belief that an act of imagination by a righteous elite could transform history; as W.B. Yeats observed in his powerful and deeply ambivalent meditation on the role of sacrificial violence in creating modern Ireland, “A terrible beauty is born.”

Although dwarfed by the carnage of the Great War, Easter 1916 presaged subsequent post-war conflicts as the great imperial powers gradually lost the will to contain nationalist demands for self-determination.  Anti-colonial revolutionaries from Bengal, Palestine and Vietnam looked to the Easter Rising—and the novel combination of guerrilla war and political struggle that followed it—as one source of inspiration.  Unfortunately, the less inspiring consequences of revolutionary nationalism that characterised the Irish revolution—communal and sectarian violence, partition, paramilitarism and political instability—were replicated on a far vaster scale with the collapse of imperial power elsewhere.  Within Britain, the striking gulf between contemporary Irish attitudes to the Rising—the rebels were jeered at and spat on by Dubliners when they surrendered—and their subsequent popularity suggested lessons about state responses to extremist violence that went largely unheeded by policy-makers throughout the last century.  Since September 11, 2001, historians such as Michael Burleigh have turned to consideration of Irish political violence—particularly that of the Fenians whose methods embraced political assassination and the bombing of London Underground stations as far back as the 1880s—as part of a renewed interest in the origins of Western terrorism and state responses to it.

Within Ireland, however, it was the question of how to remember violence, rather than how to respond to it, that proved most divisive.  Like any dramatic production, 1916’s stock rose and fell over time.  The period between independence and the 1960s, when the southern Irish state was led by a succession of 1916 veterans, saw the emergence of a triumphalist narrative that emphasised the Catholic nationalist dimension of the Rising rather than its more radical aspects such as the prominence of socialists and women.  An unintended consequence of the appropriation of the Rising’s legacy by the dead hand of the state was to render one of the most exciting episodes of Irish history, divested of its drama and radicalism by pious re-enactment, unappealing to the successive generations of school children to whom it was taught as a sterile political catechism.

By the fiftieth anniversary, modernizers such as the Taoiseach Seán Lemass were attempting to fashion the legacy of 1916 into a more constructive patriotism that would emphasize the social and economic aspirations of the 1960s rather than the anti-partitionist grievances of the past.  Their efforts were derailed by the resurgence of political violence in Northern Ireland.  The three decades of sectarian conflict that followed intensified and complicated the re-evaluation of the Rising that had already begun.  Northern violence raised difficult questions about 1916, which were sharpened by the Provisional IRA’s desire to claim its legacy in order to legitimize its own struggle.  Was the use of violence by a minority which lacked a democratic mandate justifiable?  Southern politicians struggled to explain why elitist violence in pursuit of a united republic was legitimate in 1916 but immoral after 1969, and the state’s glorification of past violence was seen to conflict with the need to prevent the “Troubles” from contaminating the south.  An influential section of intellectual opinion (including some historians) resolved the dilemma by repudiating the actions of the Easter rebels.  Others responded by marking 1916 in an increasingly muted fashion.  The Irish government suspended the annual military parade on O’Connell Street in the early 1970s, while Sinn Féin’s attempt to mark the sixtieth anniversary outside the General Post Office was proscribed under the Offences against the State Act.  The Easter Rising’s stock reached a nadir on the seventy-fifth anniversary.  Against a backdrop of relentless sectarian murder, press coverage was dominated by an emotive debate as to whether the Rising should even be commemorated, the government opting to do so in a notably half-hearted fashion.

Inevitably, the faltering success of Northern Ireland’s “peace process” brought with it a gradual rehabilitation of the Rising:  the Irish government marked the eightieth anniversary with a formal ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, the between-ceasefires Provisional IRA by planting a thirty-pound bomb on Hammersmith Bridge in London.  The ninetieth commemoration witnessed the largest and most popular commemoration since 1966, its success a consequence not only of the Belfast Agreement but the confidence instilled by the prosperity of the (now-stricken) “Celtic Tiger” economy.  Despite some criticism of the reinstatement of the annual military parade, and a strained attempt by the Republic’s head of state to depict “the heroes of the Rising” as modern democrats, most observers felt that the occasion was marked by a patriotism that was conciliatory and dignified rather than narrow and triumphalist.  A no less welcome feature of the past decade has been the emergence of a willingness to commemorate publicly the 200,000 Irishmen—most of them Catholic nationalists—who fought in the Great War but were largely airbrushed from public memory after independence.  As 2016 approaches, and the political institutions of Northern Ireland continue to take root despite a growing dissident republican threat, both Irish states should be encouraged to continue to move towards a more nuanced, honest and inclusive memory of the violent conflicts that divided Ireland in 1916.