“We have used you and your name and influence for what it is worth. You can issue what orders you like now, our men won’t obey you.”
Those words were recorded and remembered by Colm O’Lochlainn, a little noted member of the Irish Volunteer Executive in 1916, more famous for his music career after the Irish revolutionary period then his activities during it. They can be found in the Bureau of Military History, and I read them recently in Ferghal McGarry’s collection Rebels: Voices of the Easter Rising, a pretty interesting book.
It might surprise people to learn just who said those words above and to whom they were said, though those who are familiar with the nuances of the period would be less surprised. There is something about the way they are phrased, the brashness, the arrogance, the smirk we can imagine that was on the face of the man who said it. There is a hidden viciousness in those two sentences.
The speaker was Padraig Pearse. The recipient of his words was Eoin MacNeill and the conversation took place a few days before the Easter Rising began. MacNeill had finally come to the realisation that the radical element of the Irish Volunteers had been deceiving him about British plans to shut down the organisation. When confronted, according to O’Lochlainn, Pearse answered thusly.
Pearse is a venerated man, which is why the quotation can be viewed as an unsettling part of his personality brought to light, which is why I draw attention to it here. It is important to offer a fully three-dimensional view of historical figures, in order to deflect polarisation of their memory and remembrance.
The amount of study of the Easter Rising and those that carried it out over the last century has been enormous, to the extent that I would merely be repeating what most people should already know when it comes to criticism of the signatories, especially Pearse. I’ve outlined them before. Reading the sections of Rebels that dealt with the immediate run-up to the Easter Rising brought it all back up to me. It made me angry, and that quotation above, the sheer arrogance of it, did irritate me. It doesn’t really help that Pearse was wrong in his conviction that “our men won’t obey you” – plenty of them did obey MacNeill’s countermanding orders and probably had their lives saved because of it.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was erring. Not in my convictions regarding the negatives of 1916 – that is based off cold-hard evidence – but in my own personal approach to the subject.
A historian must be impartial, must do everything in his/her power to view the subject of study in as unbiased a light as is absolutely possible. Emotion has no place in pure historical study, that part of the discipline that has the discovery of truth as its primary objective.
So, as an exercise in order to help myself, I thought I’d discuss the positives of the Easter Rising and its organisers. Because they do exist.
– No one can really doubt the bravery of the men and women involved. Motivations and aims are one thing, but courage is another. No one in the GPO or elsewhere had to be there.
– They were patriots. I can question their planning, organisation and tactics, but their vision of a free united Ireland was not an unjust one, or one to be criticised. Methods differ, but the common cause of the nationalist movement remained the same.
– The Easter Rising was an armed affair where women played a very crucial role, often overlooked. The Irish revolutionary period was an affair of men and women, and this aspect was an important part of the era as a whole. The progress of women in politics has stalled somewhat today in Ireland, in marked contrast to the speed with which they were getting involved, relatively speaking in the 1910’s.
– The blood-sacrifice aspect of the Rising is all encompassing, but it did work, that is undeniable. I’m sure it did not turn out quite the way that the signatories intended – they knew they were going to die once they started, but the exact manner and speed of that once the Rising was finished was a surprise. It was also a mistake. May of the rebels went happily to their deaths believing that they were inspiring future movements. In that, they were right. I maintain my own belief that it didn’t have to be that way, but it is impossible to deny that the events after 1919 all the way up to the declaration of a republic in 1948, would not have occurred without the Easter Rising happening.
– In that respect, in what is an odd positive, the very failure of the Easter Rising allowed the final breakaway from the old tactics and the turning to something else that would be far more effective. The idealistic streak that ran through the nationalist movement was destroyed, allowing a more pragmatic and practical military mindset to take over. That is a positive, in its own strange way.
– The Easter Rising did put Ireland and its situation on the map, in terms of international attention, in a way that decades of Home Rule and IPP politicking had been unable to do. The foreign pressure that was brought to bear on the British during the rest of the revolutionary period would not have happened but for that first violent spark and the bloody reaction from the British.
I suppose, in an attempt to round this off, it is easy to look back with hindsight and list out the positives and negatives of 1916, what was borne, what was prevented, how things turned out. While it can be an interesting aspect, it is not the job of the historian to really posit too much how things could have turned out differently far into the future. It is important to try and maintain decorum, a lack of bias, and a neutral attitude towards everything that took place, free from any modern prejudices or moral values.
I can criticise the Easter Rising and its organisers for their poor military tactics, organisations, methods and behaviour in the build-up, basing my findings and assertions on facts or well reasoned analysis. But I cannot allow myself to become too swept up by my own positive or negative emotions. Anger has no place in the study of events 100 years ago. The same goes for anyone else looking into Irish history.