Why Ireland’s complicated history is about to make a divisive comeback

Colm Murphy
Colm Murphy  /  6 Comments

It was recently reported in the Irish Times that the Irish government may invite Prince Charles to a centenary commemoration in Dublin at some point this year.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that this is one of the most mind-numbingly boring opening sentences in the history of hot-take journalism. However, if I added that Charles would be attending an event on the 1916 Easter Rising, most Irish people would immediately understand the enormous symbolic and incendiary significance of this act. The Rising remains one of the most controversial moments in modern Irish history.

Furthermore, 1916 isn’t just an “Irish thing”: British blood can still boil over the revolt as well. The Daily Mail was furious in September when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested that a memorial to a 1916 rebel Countess Markievicz should be erected, and portrayed the suggestion as yet more evidence of Corbyn’s alleged “sympathy” with the IRA.

Corbyn was thinking of Markievicz as the prominent feminist and socialist who was the first female MP elected to the Commons. But Markievicz, the Mail argued, was also “second in command” to “one of the bloodiest uprisings in Irish history”, the 1916 Rising, that led to the deaths of over a hundred British soldiers and police officers.

2016 is going to be a big year for the use and misuse of Irish history in the Republic’s political culture – and this could easily spill over into Northern Ireland and into the UK at large. So, given this, it may be useful to know what on earth 1916 was all about.


What was the Easter Rising?                                                    

Let’s start with the basics. The Rising was an attempted revolution to establish an independent Irish republic during Easter Week 1916.

On 24 April, around 1,200 members of the guerrilla armies the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized a number of highly symbolic buildings in Dublin city centre. They made their headquarters the General Post Office, but occupied other buildings and areas such as the Four Courts legal buildings, Jacob’s biscuit factory, and St. Stephen’s Green. Patrick Pearse, a leader of the rebels and a prominent “advanced” Irish nationalist, read a famous proclamation of a provisional, 32 county Irish republic on the steps of the Post Office, and an Irish tricolour was raised.

The rebellion did not spark a wider revolt. All in all, only about 2,500 people were “out” on 1916. As a comparison, nearly ten times as many people were involved in a bitter strike in Dublin called the Lockout three years earlier and 84 times as many fought for the Empire in World War One.

The British responded with speed and force: heavily shelling the rebels’ positions. To cut a long (and fascinating) story short, the Rising collapsed after six days. Around 318 Irish died, with around 3,000 wounded, and 116 British soldiers were killed, with 368 wounded and nine missing. The majority of the Irish casualties were civilians.

Because of its failure, it may seem strange that the rebellion occupies such an important place in Irish history. However, the British government’s subsequent crackdown was unwisely severe. 3,500 people were subsequently arrested, many of whom were moderate nationalists who had no connection with the revolt whatsoever. As well as this, 15 men were executed, including leaders Pearse and James Connolly. The reaction of the Empire led to a wave of public sympathy with the rebels and, later, helped contribute to a much wider rebellion – culminating ultimately in the establishment of the Irish Free State and the beginnings of Irish independence.


Why is it important today?

So, why does something that happened one hundred years ago matter? Why has an Irish national newspaper felt the need to run a feature detailing 50 separate commemorations of 1916, and Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ decided to broadcast a five-part “commemorative drama” on 1916 called Rebellion?

Those approaching 1916 need to understand its immense symbolic significance. It is not for nothing that a framed reprint of Pearse’s proclamation can still adorn the walls of many an Irish grandparent’s house.

There are fairly explicable reasons for this. While there have been other anti-imperial revolts in Irish history, such as the 1798 United Irish rebellion, this was the first modern uprising against the British, and often marks the beginning of what is known as the “revolutionary period”. It is often argued that 1916 awoke the “national consciousness” of the island, and was a catalyst to later guerrilla resistance. Hence, for many it was the crucial watershed on the road to Irish independence.

This is why the Irish government are putting on so many commemorations: many believe it would not exist without 1916.

A04MFP Dublin Ireland Easter Uprising 1916

What’s the problem with that?

Now we’re getting to the messy bit.

There are other reasons why 1916 remains symbolic. Many will be aware of something euphemistically known as “The Troubles”: a vicious and protracted period of civil, sectarian strife in Northern Ireland which spilled over into England, Scotland, and the Republic. Over 3,600 people were killed between 1968 and 1998. This was a war fought (partly) over the political status of the six counties of Northern Ireland and the partition, which was established in the 1922 Treaty of Independence. Crucially, for partisans on the “republican” side of the war (Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA), the symbolism of the proclamation of a united Irish republic by a paramilitary organisation had particular significance. 1916 often served them well as a symbol for recruitment.

Moreover, even forgetting this context, the Rising is politically problematic. You can’t escape the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the revolt – the Rising, put in unkind terms, was an act of political violence taken by a very small minority of fanatics in order to impose their worldview on the majority. The rebel leaders, particularly Pearse, were in addition motivated partly by a proto-fascistic “blood sacrifice” tradition in Irish conspiratorial nationalism. This makes many of Pearse’s speeches read very uncomfortably today.

This critical view of 1916 was famously put forward by Sean O’Casey in his excellent 1926 play The Plough and the Stars: a play which incited a riot in its first week when performed at the Abbey Theatre. This kind of impression of 1916 is still causing controversy even today. Recently, prominent commentator Patsy McGarry wrote a charged piece in the Irish Times describing the Rising as “blasphemy” and fundamentally “immoral”. It provoked a whole host of replies, ranging from enthusiastic praise to outright condemnation.

To make matters even more controversial, some have argued that the constitutional campaign for Home Rule led by the Irish Parliamentary Party was not a completely spent force by the time of the Rising. The implication of this is that 1916 scuppered a potentially peaceful and controlled separation from the British Empire, and inaugurated a troubled twentieth century, defined by civil wars and sectarian strife.

Because of this, one positive respondent to McGarry calls the state-sponsored commemorations a “legitimisation of anti-democratic activity”, and Professor Emeritus of History at University College Cork, Tom Dunne, has lamented that “our democracy” has “from the beginning” promoted an “anti-democratic message.”

Not only can the Rising be seen as fundamentally anti-democratic, but also sectarian. McGarry argued that Pearse in particular tried to impose a Catholic symbolism on the Rising: the leading rebels all took communion (even the communist James Connolly), and the Rising was deliberately held in Easter Week. According to McGarry it is no surprise that the “outcome of such ill-thought-out unilateral violence was two sectarian states on this island, a Protestant state for a Protestant people and a Catholic state for a Catholic people. Or that the twain should rarely meet.” Given that this island has been racked by sectarianism and sectarian violence for so long, this is an uncomfortable allegation. Others have challenged this interpretation – pointing out for instance that many contemporary Irish nationalists were Protestant – nevertheless the stain of sectarianism is never far away from Irish politics.


What’s its real significance?

The centenary will therefore bring the ambiguities of the rebellion into razor-sharp focus. It will unavoidably pose a number of uncomfortable questions. How legitimate is extra-parliamentary action and should we ever celebrate armed revolt? How should we approach the grubby history of the British Empire, and its aftermath?

2016 will also raise questions of identity. How do we recognise the diversity of those involved in political events? Those involved the revolt, and the Irish nationalist movement in general, included both male and female combatants, Catholics and Protestants, and figures of diverse political persuasions including minority ideologies such as socialism and feminism. How does Ireland make sure the British casualties are appropriately remembered – not to mention the civilian casualties? How do we ensure that the commemoration of one event does not completely overshadow the commemoration of another event that in many ways is just as important – the Battle of the Somme? The Somme took many Irish lives, and is a significant anniversary in the Ulster Protestant community. Ireland needs to work out how to balance commemorations in this charged year ahead, and how the historical event 1916 will fit into a world after the fragile Peace Process.

Finally, there is the open question of how the year of commemorations will play out in the upcoming Irish general election. The political party Sinn Féin are already trying to use the Rising to garner political support today, and it remains to be seen whether the ambivalent legacy of the 1916 rebels will remain untouched by Ireland’s modern politicians.

There’s one thing that is certain. 2016 is the year that Irish history will become, once again, very important indeed for contemporary politics and public debate.

  • Pembroke student

    This was really great. As someone who regularly visits Ireland but has never had time to read long histories of the independence movement it’s just the sort of balanced introduction I’ve wanted. It’s helped me understand a lot of the references I often hear in Cork. Thanks Colm

  • Hmmmmmmm

    Not convinced.
    You seem to seek to draw these really false equivalences between the IRA of 1916 and the Provisional IRA of the troubles- Weird to mention Jeremy Corbyn, his issue of past support is for the Provos and not the IRA that won independence. In fact the two really have nothing to do with each other beyond a taking of name to draw some legitimacy. Totally wrong to think there is some continuity between them.
    Not sure you can criticise the leaders of the Easter rebellion from taking Communion, they were about to be executed and were religious men? Would you rather they renounced their religion to make you feel more comfortable?
    No we shouldn’t commentate the occupying British soldiers killed in the rising, would you ask other formal colonial states to do so? Fine remember the civilians and the Somme, but I don’t think that remembering one event means that we can’t another.
    Bizarrely you seem to act as if the events of 1916 and the overt catholicism of its leaders led to the sectarianism that strifed Ireland, ignoring the fact, for instance, that one man one vote did not come into force until the 1970s and the events of Bloody Sunday.
    Weird to challenge the Rising in the grounds of being an undemocratic action- do you similarly accuse the French Revolution or movements for Colonial Independence seen around the world under the Brits of promoting “legitimising of anti-democratic activity”?

    • Colm

      I think the point of this article may have sailed over your head.

      Some of your points I would accept (e.g communion. I was paraphrasing McGarry’s argument.). Some I wouldn’t (the popular valorisation of armed revolt in Irish history definitely helped the PIRA, however necessary you think that historical violence was).

      But that completely misses the point. This was an article highlighting the relevance of the centenary to today’s politics (hence highlighting the Mail’s partisan swipe at Corbyn), and outlining the various ambiguities and debates.

      Anit colonial violence is not black and white - even of you think it was justified - especially in a divided country. The fact you’ve taken a highlighting of this fact to be a one-sided attack on 1916 reveals to me that you haven’t quite grasped the truth of the matter.

      Colm (author).

      • Hmmmm

        Fair enough, my comment could have done with some nuance, thanks for the response!

        • Colm

          No worries, thanks for reading!

  • Jugurtha

    “Those involved the revolt, and the Irish nationalist movement in general, included both male and female combatants, Catholics and Protestants, and figures of diverse political persuasions including minority ideologies such as socialism and feminism”

    Jesus. Another racist TERF oppressor writing the contribution of LGBTQAIFRWTs and POCs right out of history. I demand a fuckin safe space right here right now. That post office was bunged with trans freedom fighters from floor to ceiling and at least half the boyos and girlos and non binaryos were non white. Stop your oppression you white patriarch privilege bucket.

    Other than that…nice balanced piece devoid of the usual adolescent virtue posturing you tend to get in these parts.