1916 Revisited

By Robert CreminsNovember 15, 2014

1916 Revisited

AS YOU WALK around the center of Dublin, two kinds of metal plaques — of roughly similar size — may catch your eye. One set is embedded in the sidewalks and commemorates a fictitious event: Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime stroll on the 16th of June 1904. The other is attached to the walls of buildings associated with a historical event, one that took place over six days some 12 years later: the 1916 Easter Rising, or, as the plaques call it — using the Republic of Ireland’s “first official” language and underscoring the passionate attachment of rebel leaders such as Patrick Pearse to Gaelic culture — Éirí Amach na Cásca.

The explanations on the 1916 plaques are bilingual. Here is where Tom Clarke, the veteran Fenian (revolutionary nationalist) and first signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic, had his tobacco shop. There is where, a month after the outbreak of the First World War, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenians’ organization, resolved to rise against British rule. And just as you can’t help “seeing” characters from Joyce’s Ulysses in and around the surviving Bloomsday buildings (the setting of the first episode, out in Sandycove, has become known as the “Joyce Tower”), the strongholds where the 1916 rebels took up positions, especially the General Post Office, Ireland’s Alamo, become reoccupied in the imagination.

If Joyce’s novel is the city’s Odyssey, then the Easter Rising is its Iliad. Both have deeply contested meanings: are we dealing here with a modern epic played out on city streets, or a series of shabby acts covered with a noble mantle? The analogy may seem to falter because the Rising is not a book, but rather, as the grander plaque inside the GPO states, a historical act that “asserted in arms Ireland’s right to freedom” — it involved actual lives and actual deaths: of combatants on both sides, of civilians, and, ultimately, by firing squad, of the leaders themselves. But the Rising, as we will see, had a forceful aesthetic dimension.

It began on Easter Monday after a false start, due to internal divisions, on the previous (and more potently symbolic) day. The rebel force that took to the streets of the capital was comprised of fewer than 1,500 men and women, drawn from two militias, the Irish Volunteers and the much smaller Irish Citizen Army, as well as the female auxiliary organization, Cumann na mBan. The rebels knew that after enjoying the element of surprise they would almost certainly be met with an overwhelming British military response. And they were. That the British were initially caught off guard is understandable (indeed it was part of the rationale for the Rising): they were engaged at the time in a much bigger fight on their “eastern front”: in Belgium and France. In fact, it’s not possible to understand the Easter Rising without frequent reference to the Great War. They form a historical double helix.

In Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, Charles Townshend’s compelling account of the insurrection, there is an aside that is emblematic of this relationship between the Rising and the European war. Yeats “worked on [his poem “Easter, 1916”] through the [subsequent] summer at [his muse Maud Gonne’s] house on the Normandy coast (where, from time to time, he could hear the distant echoes of artillery from the Somme) [italics mine].” On that battlefield Irishmen of both Nationalist and Unionist persuasions were dying. By that stage, from the British point of view, all was quiet on the home front: Ireland had been pacified, for now. But the continuity between Flanders and the General Post Office was conspicuous. As the great short story writer Frank O’Connor recalled in his memoir An Only Child, “The daily papers showed Dublin as they showed Belgian cities destroyed by the Germans, as smoking ruins inhabited by men with rifles and machine guns.”[i] Of course, in this instance it was British artillery that had done most of the destroying. The Germans never fired a shot in Ireland, but their weapons did. The core of the Irish Volunteers’ relatively modest arsenal was the shipment of Mauser rifles that had been landed near Dublin in late July 1914.

But in running these guns, the IV was playing catch-up to its northern counterpart, the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been formed by Unionists in order to resist Home Rule; the UVF had brought in a much larger cache of German arms earlier in the year. In the summer of 1914, Ireland was on the verge of civil war, with sparks flying perilously close to the powder keg. During the long day of the southern arms landing, British soldiers shot dead several Dubliners. It looked as if (to use Shaw’s trope for Anglo-Irish relations) John Bull would be preoccupied for quite some time with his “other island.” Writing about the July crisis, Townshend makes an arresting statement:

Beyond doubt, this had been noticed in Berlin as well, where it must have encouraged the German General Staff in the course it had already adopted, of forcing a showdown with the Entente powers. By the time the troops opened fire in Bachelors Walk, the German army was assembling on the Belgium frontier.

The Irish Question was adjourned by the conflagration on the Continent; the guns of August sounded in Alsace and Lorraine, not Fermanagh and Tyrone. To the rescue of little (imperial) Belgium came the British army. In its ranks, in the course of the war, would be more than 200,000 Irishmen; some 35,000 of them were killed. Britain never introduced conscription in Ireland, though the threat of such a move hovered throughout the war years. The alarm caused by the last German offensive, in the spring of 1918, came close to making the menace a reality, but this proved to be a blundering provocation of Irish opinion on a par with the execution of the leaders of the Rising in May 1916.

The first to face the firing squad was Patrick Pearse. He was prepared; his had been a life of preparation. “For Pearse,” Townshend observes, “gesture was all; the only question was how to make the gesture sufficiently striking.” He had been directing dress rehearsals of the dramatic gesture for several years before 1916. “This man kept a school,” Yeats tells us in “Easter, 1916,” and the school was the bilingual and progressive St. Enda’s — progressive (in terms of the curriculum), but also saturated with the past. The very setting of the school, in the Hermitage, Rathfarnham, was a nod to Republican tradition, because of the estate’s associations with Robert Emmet, whose brief Dublin uprising of 1803 Pearse hoped both to emulate and transcend. Emmet was but one person in Pearse’s trinity of sacrificial heroes, the others being Christ and Cúchulainn, the Gaelic Achilles. The imaginative influence of Cúchulainn was a moveable feast. In her insightful 2004 book Pearse’s Patriots: St Enda’s and the Cult of Boyhood, Elaine Sisson recounts the aftermath of a performance of The Boy Deeds of Cúchulainn at a cultural festival:

The boys […] marched home from the train station. […] Some of the students were still in costume and carried battleaxes and ‘tall gilded spears which glinted like polished bronze in the lamp-lit streets’ [an alumnus recalled]. A number of people gathered, curious at the sight of such a throng of boys, and soon the rapidly swelling crowd began to sing a popular ballad about the 1798 Rising as they followed the parade along the road. Thomas MacDonagh [Pearse’s “helper and friend,” according to Yeats, and another one of the leaders who would be executed after the 1916 Rising] was “delighted at the commotion we had raised” as “the crowd swelled to the dimensions of a riot.” “Perhaps they expect us to lead them against the Castle,” he proclaimed.

In fact, the real rebels’ failure on the first day of the Easter Rising to take an ill-defended Dublin Castle, seat of British power in Ireland, would turn out to be one of the great lost opportunities of the insurrection. (The biggest was probably the debacle in County Kerry that resulted in a missed rendezvous with a large German shipment of arms and ammunition; the Proclamation’s reference to support from “gallant allies in Europe” was more than an oratorical flourish.) The chief military strategist of the Rising was Joseph Plunkett, the third minor poet, along with Pearse and MacDonagh, among the seven signatories of the Proclamation. His plan, which the rebels broadly put into action, involved not only the Emmet-like bold stroke of a rising in the capital, but also the garrisoning of prominent buildings; this loose ring of strongholds would, apparently, have to withstand the British counterstroke until relief came from the rest of the country. (It never arrived.) Not everyone within the IV agreed with the strategy of taking on the British army in battle; it went against the grain of the typical Irish hit-and-run tactics against the old enemy. Townshend is at his analytical best when writing about the sidelining of this “hedge-fighting” school within the Volunteers and the subsequent opportunity cost of Plunkett’s commitment to immobility. “There can be little doubt,” he comments, “that the rebels could, if they had not concentrated their forces as they did, have created an extremely difficult military situation.”

Townshend’s accounts of two forays into guerilla fighting, as the week of rebellion unfolded, throw this point into sharp relief. The first resulted in the only clear-cut Republican military success: the defeat and surrender of a column of RIC men (the Royal Irish Constabulary being the gendarmerie that policed provincial Ireland) in Ashbourne, County Meath, about 12 miles north of Dublin. The second occurred around Mount Street Bridge, an otherwise dull hump over the Grand Canal, where a small detachment of men from Eamon De Valera’s Third Battalion inflicted huge casualties on a regiment of Sherwood Foresters, freshly landed at the port of Kingstown (today Dún Laoghaire). Many Tommies — many of them Irishmen in British uniforms — were traumatized by the home-front plunge into urban warfare that was their Easter Week. “To be in some parts of Dublin then,” Townshend quotes one British officer as saying, “was in many ways a worse experience than being in France or Flanders.”

But even if the IRB had been able to exploit this difficult military situation with better planning (and better luck), the rebellion was unlikely to have lasted more than a few weeks. The gesture, however, Pearse and the other members of the IRB military council deployed with almost perfect effect. There is a remarkable quote from Pearse that does not appear in Townshend’s book. Depending on one’s view of the Rising, it’s either admirable or chilling (or, if one cannot escape that Yeatsian terrible-beauty ambivalence, both). Pearse is writing in The Irish Volunteer newspaper a year before the Rising, but he could be speaking from the GPO:

We have no misgivings, no self-questionings. While others have been doubting, timorous, ill at ease, we have been serenely at peace with our consciences. The recent time of soul-searching had no terrors for us. We saw our path with absolute clearness; we took it with absolute deliberateness. We could no other. […] [W]e go on in the calm certitude of having done the clear, clean, sheer thing.

Outside the GPO, at midday on Easter Monday, Pearse read out the Proclamation he had penned: “Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” The coup was spectacular as well as military. Tim Pat Coogan’s heavily pictorial 2001 history of the rebellion, 1916: The Easter Rising, can’t compete with Townshend’s scholarship, but it does open with an intriguing fact: “The play scheduled for the Abbey Theatre that night was Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan.” In other words, Ireland’s burgeoning national theater was putting on a revival of a patriotic play Yeats had co-authored back in 1902, when he was a lot keener on both Maud Gonne — who in playing the title role in the original production personified Ireland on stage — and her fiery nationalism. “Did that play of mine send out,” Yeats brooded in his very late poem “Man and the Echo,” “Certain men the English shot?”

It may have played its part, but what is for sure (returning to Elaine Sisson’s work) is that three of those men the English shot — Pearse, his brother Willie, and MacDonagh — themselves appeared on the Abbey stage a few years earlier in a production with a large supporting cast of St. Enda’s boys, “arranged, written and directed by their headmaster Patrick Pearse.” The spectacle? An Irish-language passion play. It’s little wonder then that, as Coogan reports, five Aprils later “the stage drama had to be postponed because the street theatre outside took over.” The pillared GPO was that theater’s skene. Its seizure, according to literary critic Declan Kiberd (quoted by Townshend), “as an act of dramatic symbolism […] was an inspired choice, since it cut across the main street of the capital city, paralyzing communications and forcing everyone to take notice.”

Pearse’s rebellion was not only presented dramatically, but also received in those terms by its supporters, old and new. Townshend mentions that “Yeats was struck by Maud Gonne’s reaction: ‘tragic dignity had returned to Ireland’” (and would in “Easter, 1916” include her estranged “vainglorious lout” of a husband, John MacBride, in the dramatis personae “changed, changed utterly” by the firing squads at Kilmainham Gaol). Pearse would have been gratified by Gonne’s characterization of the Rising, but would have surely felt a more profound sense of vindication if he had read of another woman’s reaction, given more play by Townshend than Gonne’s. The summer after the rebellion, The New York Times interviewed a young Cumann na mBan member named Moira Regan. She said: “I felt that evening when I saw the Irish flag floating over the Post Office, that this was a thing worth living and dying for. I was absolutely intoxicated.”

In the years that followed the Rising that intoxication cooled to a cannier strategic mindset. If 1916 was the battle of the day then the 1919–’21 War of Independence was the battle of the night. The hedge-fighting school reasserted itself. Richard Mulcahy, instrumental in the victory at Ashbourne, became the Volunteers’ Chief-of-Staff. Michael Collins, Plunkett’s adjutant, took over his poet-superior’s role and fought a campaign based on intelligence-gathering, stealth, and propaganda. Eamon De Valera, the only battalion commandant to be spared the firing squad, possessed both Pearse’s gravitas and Collins’s painstaking attention to detail.

De Valera, popularly known as “Dev,” became the political leader of the Republican opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty that Collins helped negotiate; this agreement granted a partitioned Ireland Canadian-style dominion status. Those in favor of the Treaty regarded it as a “stepping stone” to full independence; those against, as a betrayal of the Republic declared by Pearse.

The split over the Treaty led to a brief, vicious civil war. Dev was on the losing side, but — ever the survivor — he bounced back to dominate the (duller) Irish political landscape for the next half century. Whereas Pearse and Collins, both dead in their thirties, seemed to me growing up in the 1970s and ’80s as distant, semi-mythic beings, De Valera was the old man whose televised funeral I could remember, the ancient statesman in the framed color photo in my friend’s house; his family was Republican royalty, and there was my pal as a little fella sitting on Dev’s knee.

In 1935, just a few years after De Valera (democratically) took the reins of power from his pro-Treaty opponents, a quintessentially Pearsean commemoration of 1916 was installed in the GPO: a statue by Oliver Sheppard of Cúchulainn in death. Paradoxically, the work of art itself was created (like the passion play) some five years before the Rising, during the flood-tide of the Celtic Revival, but it speaks eloquently to the theme of moral victory cherished by the rebellion’s actors and adherents: the hero, a one-man army, has lashed himself to a stone pillar to prolong his last stand; a raven has just alighted on his shoulder, proof positive of his demise — giving the vast throng of his enemies, finally, the gumption to approach him.

Just three years later, in 1938, a youngish Samuel Beckett would publish his debut novel, Murphy. In an early chapter, he treats the sculpture and its setting with … something less than reverence. One of Beckett’s oddballs, Neary, is seen by “a former pupil called Wylie, in the General Post Office, contemplating from behind the statue of Cuchulain. Neary had bared his head, as though the holy ground meant something to him.” It meant very little to Beckett. For someone like him — Protestant, cosmopolitan, skeptical — the Irish Free State, which emerged out of the ruins of the GPO, was a cold house dominated by the Catholic hierarchy; after a sojourn in London, Beckett found something approximating a home in this world in Paris.

Beckett’s fellow Protestant Dubliner, W. B. Yeats, also grew frustrated with the narrowing ethos of early independent Ireland. (The pluralism of the Proclamation, “cherishing all the children of the nation equally,” was in abeyance.) Nevertheless, it was the frustration of an insider, a disenchantment he could express from the floor of the new Free State senate. And his dignified equivocation on the subject of the Rising, the centerpiece of the new civic religion, was far more acceptable than Beckett’s irreverence. Yeats wrote “Easter, 1916” the summer after the rebellion, as we have seen, but he did not publish it until 1921, the year of the Anglo-Irish Truce and Treaty. Townshend points out something important about its influence: the “final stanza gave expression to what may be called the ‘revisionist’ view: ‘Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith …’ — in other words, concede Home Rule.”

To riff on a declaration by historian Roy Foster, we are all revisionists of the Rising now — because of this poem. A critical commonplace about “Easter, 1916” is that Yeats plays the role of Chorus, the meditative intermediary between history’s actors and posterity’s audience. This is certainly true, but Yeats is more than the chorus; he is also the tragedian, taking imaginative possession of the Rising and restaging it in print. I suspect my experience of learning about 1916 in the Irish educational system of the 1980s was not uncommon. I barely remember what was said about it in history class, but in English, reading Yeats, the Rising and its cast came alive. In fact, for a long time “Easter, 1916” effectively was the Rising for me. The poem’s indelible mark might be analogous to younger Americans encountering the Vietnam War through the potent sounds and images of Apocalypse Now.

Revisionism, it must be said, was not on display in 1966 during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising, which was marked with pageantry and unabashed pride. The 75th anniversary in 1991, however, was a more muted affair; after decades of “needless death” in Northern Ireland, the Irish state did not have much of a stomach for military display.

The general success of the peace process in the North, and the fillip it has given to Anglo-Irish relations, has allowed for a more mature consideration of 1916. In recent years, the military parade has been revived, but there is greater sensitivity in Ireland now to the British and more blended identities on the island; for them, the Easter Rising was not a beginning but an eclipse. (The ascendance of the Catholic Church and what Frank O’Connor saw as an exhausted post-Revolutionary surrender to mediocrity meant that heterodox voices were greeted with incomprehension, censorship, or simple indifference. A revolution of poets had resulted in a country governed by pieties.) The 100th anniversary, now less than two years away, is going to be a big event, and the challenge for the Irish government and its Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations is to strike a balance between being unapologetic and also inclusive.

One does not have to wait until April 2016, though, for high-profile reconsideration of the Rising. My day begins with a look at The Irish Times online, which means that many mornings I am reading a story connected to the rebellion. In Ireland, 1916 is the news that has stayed news. The most recent debate in the paper was sparked by political developments on the other side of the Irish Sea. The Scots held their referendum on independence, coincidentally, on the exact centenary of the enactment — and immediate wartime suspension — of Irish Home Rule. The Scottish vote was offered by John Bruton, a former Taoiseach (prime minister) firmly in the revisionist camp, as proof that the Easter Rising was a rash act. In the Bruton scenario, England would have kept sufficient faith to follow through on Home Rule for Ireland, with the exception of a number of Unionist-dominated northern counties; and this would have been the “peaceful stepping stone”[ii] to true independence.

The response to the Bruton view, both in print and in a television debate, was robust. University College Dublin history professor Diarmaid Ferriter took him to task for “bulldoz[ing] through historical context.” For Ferriter, an important part of that context is “the militancy and militarisation of the era.”[iii] And the consummation of those tendencies was, of course, the Great War.

Ireland was part of that war, and not just in the technical sense of being part of the United Kingdom. The struggle to separate from the UK (or in the case of the Northern Unionists, to preserve the link) turned, as we have seen, certain Irish minds toward the Continent. But Ireland imported more than guns from Europe; it also breathed in the zeitgeist. Assertion in arms was the order of the day; mythologies had been weaponized; and Europe’s set-text was the Iliad. (Declan Kiberd has made a moving case for Ulysses, which Joyce wrote during these years of strife, as an antidote to war.[iv]) Perhaps those 1916 plaques should also have explanations in German, French, and Greek.


[i] A presentation by Nicholas Allen, Franklin Professor of English at the University of Georgia, at a conference organized by New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, first alerted me to this theme in the journalism of the period. He has also made some illuminating points in subsequence correspondence.

[ii] A phrase Mr. Bruton used in slightly earlier remarks on the issue of Home Rule and the Easter Rising.

[iii] Op-ed article in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 27, 2014.

[iv] See page 6 of Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (2009).


Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils.

LARB Contributor

Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils. Recent fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review. He teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.


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