It seems impossible to escape from the Easter Rising and the wide swath of interpretations on it.
All Irish history since it happens seems to come back to it. People use the very name as some sort of political weapon, evoking the events of Easter Week 1916 as something with which to attack opponents they deem unpatriotic or failing in their national duty.
All throughout the last four years, we’ve seen this. The common thread is something along the lines of “Why did they fight for?” or “They’ve been betrayed”.
As an Irish historian, I have problems with this.
I’ve spoken about it before, but it bears repeating. This country, or at least, large parts of it, have made Gods out of the 1916 leaders, most especially those seven who were executed shortly after its conclusion. For many, they are the heroes of Irish history. For a lot of foreigners (see comments section of the above link) they are the heroes of Irish history.
We all know or have seen the thinking. The classic portrayal is that of warrior-poets, who went off to fight the Saxon foe and his tyranny with a song in their hearts and a prayer on their lips, nothing in their minds but the freedom of Ireland and the plight of the poor, abused Catholic people of the island. Off they went, bravely facing the guns of the British tyrant, knowing they were going to their deaths, safe in the knowledge that their sacrifice would not be in vain and so on and so forth.
When I was a kid, I bought into all of this, as most do. But, you know, I grew up, and studied history at school, and then at third-level. You learn inconvenient truths that way. I could go on and on, but there are just a few salient points that really do need to be remembered.
- The one I always think, which is this: the Easter Rising was an utterly botched, careless, and frankly pisspoor military operation from start to finish. From the haplessly poor communication within the Volunteers, their seizure of unimportant buildings, the lack of control over the streets, the consistent refusal to withdraw from untenable positions all the way to a surrender that was way past due, the Rising was a shambles of warfare.
- The leaders lied. They lied to Eoin MacNeill about British intentions to arrest him, they lied to the Germans about the possibility of success and they lied to soldiers under their command about the success of the Rising all the way up to the surrender. They lied and lied and lied. That last point is one that always gets passed over, the fact that Pearse told soldiers in the GPO about entire regions of the country rising in support of the Dublin operation, risings that were utter fantasy.
- Pearse had a death wish, and, in conjunction with the above, he was happy to take a lot of young men and women with him. There is a reason Michael Collins was not enamoured with Pearse like many of his compatriots. Pearse was one of the last of the Dulce et decorum est crowd, soon to die out, in many cases literally, on the fields of France and Flanders.
- Pearse and Connolly, and to a slightly lesser extent Clarke and Plunkett, have become the main figures of remembrance for the rising, largely for romantic reasons. The others, Ceannt, MacDiarmada and MacDonagh and the eight others who were shot by firing squad, have been severely neglected in post Rising history.
- On the subject of modern deference to the Rising leaders: those seven men never had to deal with law. They never had to deal with foreign relations. They never had to deal with banks, with an economy. They never had to deal with representative government. They never had to do any of the things that Ahern, Cowen, and today Kenny, deal with every day. I say this as a sort of point of order to that “betrayal” line of thinking: We have absolutely no idea how this group of men would have fared as a political authority. None. How were Pearse and others going to reconcile their more right-wing natures with Connolly and his socialist leanings?
- The Rising was not supported popularly. The most recent election result, (1911), had affirmed Irish support for the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Home Rule platform. The Rising was undertaken without anything resembling a mandate. Now, subsequent election results were significantly different, which is impossible to ignore, but one can only wonder what those election results would have been like if Maxwell had kept his blood-vengeance sentiment in check, if only for a while longer.
- In addition to the above, aimed mostly at foreign observes: Ireland, at the time, was as free as anywhere else. That is, people (men) had a vote and as much freedom of religion of speech, press and worship as the times allowed. The common view from abroad, especially America, is the rebels striking a blow against an uncompromising tyrant, who held all of the poor Irish in chains. Conditions in Ireland in 1916 were hardly utopian or fully democratic, but they were not the dictatorship they are sometimes portrayed to be.
- The roughly fifty years of glorification and beautification of the Rising and its participants was an historical travesty, one whose effects are still being felt. The pre-dominantly negative academic writing since that point can be seen as a sort of reaction to that positivity, but is really just as bad. Good history on the Easter Rising is difficult to accomplish, especially by the academic community within Ireland.
This is all in reaction to the anniversary. Every year, in late April, you get the flood of pro-Rising sentiment, that threatens to swamp any objective analysis of an event that will be a massive story in 2016.
I do seem negative here, so it is only fair that I mention the good points. I do not doubt the patriotism of those men and women who took part, and I do not question their courage. I admire their feelings towards womens suffrage and military participation. I can look with approval on their vision of a united, peaceful Ireland. I was an idealist once. And, of course, I cannot deny that subsequent events in the War of Independence were all touched off by the Rising. Our modern state does owe much to what the Rising leaders began.
But the crucial question, hitherto unmentioned, is: “Was it worth it?” Think about it. Home Rule was going to become a reality by 1919. That would have brought problems and bloodshed of its own, but I feel it is not unreasonable to assume that such difficulties would have been largely solved through the partition of Ireland, a partition that was inevitable and, frankly, right. The north, and the majority there, did not want to be part of the southern party.
With Home Rule established, presumably without the death toll that 1916-1923 offered up, what would have followed on? Is it unfair to say that Ireland was heading towards independence, much as India, large parts of Africa and other Imperial holdings were? Would Home Rule not have been compatible with Collins’ “freedom to achieve our freedom” thinking. Thinking that was shown to be correct though its creator did not live to see it? With the Statute of Westminster in 1931, would Ireland, operating under a de facto Dominion status, not have been able to break away from Britain, peacefully?
We cannot say. I am not so arrogant as to assume the British and Irish administrations would do this, that or the other. This sort of counter-factual history is impossible to accurately predict. But I do think that it is worth thinking about, and being put next to what happened in those revolutionary years and what was gained with all those lives. Is it too much to assume that a modern-day Republic of Ireland would exist in a world where the Rising never took place? Really?
Think about it. We are a nation that, today, is dedicated to the pursuit of peace and the maintenance of neutrality and non-belligerence. We should not be averse to thinking about the alternatives, negatives and falsehoods of our bloody past as well as its positives, its heroics and its romance.