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In Defence of the Republic; Ireland and Easter 1916

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on March 23, 2016
This article was updated on October 31, 2017

By John Dorney

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Ruins in central Dublin after the fighting.

At the end of Easter Week 1916, Frank Robbins and his comrades, men and women of the Irish Citizen Army, were penned in the College of Surgeons in Dublin. They were part of an insurrection that had declared an Irish Republic and held most of Dublin city centre for a week. Now the city was burning, big guns bombarding its main street.

Robbins and his friends had been holed up in the College of Surgeons since early in the week, when British machine guns had made their position in adjacent Stephen’s Green park untenable.

There was no way out, but no one, apparently, thought of surrender. Then the news arrived, the rebel headquarters had been shelled into surrender. The rebels at the College of Surgeons too were ordered to give up.

Robbins recalled; ‘men and women who had then been gay and lighthearted were now crying. ‘...We were to surrender. My God! No! It couldn't be! Anything but that’.

Michael Mallin, their commander told them, ‘The most that could befall himself was to be shot by the British. This was only to be expected, and he hoped to meet it as an Irishman should.’ There followed a cascade of protest, "No! We have worked together, we have fought together and, if necessary, we will die together!" But Mallin had his orders. They took down the Republican tricolour and put up the white flag.

The rebels spent some time composing themselves before pulling themselves together enough to march out as a body and formally surrender to the surrounding British troops. Robbins thought; 

‘There was nothing to be ashamed of. A manly part had been taken for the vindication of our principles. We had failed in our object; others had failed before, and they had not been ashamed or afraid of the consequences. Why should we?’

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Irish Citizen Army insurgents.

A Sacred Event

This year, 2016, Ireland will commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising, the gallant failure of an insurrection in 1916.

Robbins’ story, told over thirty five years later to the Bureau of Military History – a state initiative to collect the testimony of veterans of the Irish struggle for independence – captures many of the elements of the Easter Rising myth; heroism, self-sacrifice, unity.

The last line above captures two things that make the Rising a sacred event in Irish nationalist history. First the idea of a line of unbroken heroism in Irish history – ‘others had failed before’ a reference to previous Irish rebellions. The Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 went out of its way to make sure to emphasize this reading of history; ‘In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to sovereignty, six times in the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms’.

The second line of Robbins' account of the surrender captures something else that is important, something intangible but vital, ‘they had not been ashamed or afraid of the consequences, why should we?’ The Easter Rising represents the purging of a sense of shame and national inadequacy. This alone gives it its unique symbolic power.

Shame is something the Irish specialise in; Shame at a history of colonisation and defeat, shame at poverty and failure, shame at the loss of native language and culture.

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The Republican flag flown in 1916.

All of these things were part of what drove the radical nationalists to organize an insurrection during the First World War in the first place. Certainly there were tactical reasons – Britain was distracted, German help was now available, Home Rule; the British proposed granting of self-government to Ireland ,had stalled – but there was also something else. During the war, moderate nationalist leader John Redmond had pledged Irish support to Britain. To many radical Irish nationalists, Irish identity itself was in its death throes.

They wanted not, “slavish grovelling at the feet of England ” – but to, “stand out before the world like men and wring full liberty from England”.

According to Sean McDermott, one of the Rising’s executed leaders, ‘The Irish patriotic spirit will die forever unless a blood sacrifice is made in the next few years. It will be necessary for some of us to offer ourselves as martyrs if nothing better can be done to preserve the national Irish spirit’. 

Another, Desmond Fitzgerald, who survived, wrote that if things continued as they were, “it would be futile to talk of ourselves other than as inhabitants of that part of England that used to be called Ireland. In that state of mind I had decided that extreme action must be taken”.

The Rising itself was quite a bloody urban battle. Most of the casualties were Dublin civilians caught in the crossfire and during the week itself, many of them cursed the insurgents as they were being marched away into captivity. Frank Robbins, who recollected the moving account of the surrender, also recalled crowds of Dubliners shouting to the British soldiers to " to "shoot the traitors" and "bayonet the bastards" as the latter escorted the insurgents into prison ships bound for England and Wales.

This however is not the point. The Rising as a symbol became more important than the actual events of Easter Week in 1916. It represented above all a renewal of national pride. The Irish nation would never die while it had heroes who would die for it. Even in the very different times of the 21st century, this sentiment retains its power to move Irish people. It is a symptom in some ways not of national confidence but of a weak and brittle identity – an idea that Irish identity is so fragile that by only uncompromising heroism can it be protected.

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Ireland commemorates the Rising in 19166.

Heroism and its discontents

However the actual history of the independent Irish state is profoundly un-heroic . The actual Irish state, for starters, covers only two thirds of the island, Northern Ireland having been sliced off in 1920. Furthermore, the southern state, for all its celebration of its revolutionary origins, actually began life by putting down Republican guerrilla fighters in the Civil War of 1922-23, in defence of a compromise with Britain – the Anglo-Irish Treaty – that not only accepted partition but also accepted the King of Great Britain as head of state.

The Irish state matured beyond this in the decades afterwards, as the losers in the Civil War came to power by political means, repudiating the link with the British monarchy in 1937, staying neutral in the Second World War and finally declaring itself a Republic in 1948. But the state never quite lost its suspicion of those who wanted to take the lessons of 1916 literally.

The truth was, Ireland remained closely economically tied to Britain. Free travel between the two countries gave Britain a supply of cheap labour for many decades while providing an outlet for all the frustrated young people dissatisfied by the under-performing Irish economy. Until 1980, the Irish currency remained tied to the British sterling.

Most importantly perhaps, on every occasion when Irish Republican paramilitaries – mainly the Irish Republican Army or IRA (descendant of the guerrillas who fought for Irish independence but also those who ended up on the losing side of the Civil War) – attempted to ‘finish the job’ started in 1916 by attacking the remaining British presence in the North, it was the Irish state that imprisoned, interned and on occasion (during the Second World War) even executed them.

This is not ancient history. The ‘Troubles’ –Northern Ireland’s internal conflict that rumbled on from 1969 to 1998, put the southern Irish state in an unenviable position – wanting to support the claims of nationalists in the North to equality while at the same time trying to subdue those Republicans in its own jurisdiction who threatened to bring it into conflict with Britain.

Sinn Fein, the party that carries the same name as that which led the early twentieth century independence movement, but which in its current incarnation emerged in 1970 as the IRA’s political wing, disdains the state's 1916 commemorations and organizes its own ‘people’s commemorations’.

Further out on the extremes, the so-called 'dissident republicans'; those who oppose the Northern Ireland peace process, are reportedly planning to kill Northern Ireland police officers to coincide with the Rising’s centenary. A Northern Ireland prison officer died from the effects of a 'Dissident' bomb last week.

For all of these reasons, a considerable school of opinion in the southern state is decidedly nervous about commemorating the 1916 Rising. The theme the official Rising Commemoration Committee was given was ‘reconciliation’ and the government had to be talked out of the idea of inviting the British Royal Family to the commemorations. 

This is probably heightened by the fact that the outgoing governing party Fine Gael – though it, like most Irish political parties, can count founders who fought in 1916 – traces its foundation back to the pro-Treaty side of the 1922-23 Civil War.

It can almost be said that the Irish state is only commemorating the Rising so that it and not potential subversives can control the ownership of such a powerful national myth.

In Defence of the Republic

In this article I have tried to explain why the Easter Rising of 1916 is a symbol of unequaled power in Irish history. I have gone into why it is a divisive as well as a unifying symbol.

What I have not done is give my own opinion. The reason for this is that like many Irish people, I am actually quite conflicted about the Rising and what it represents.

I am just about old enough to remember the Northern ‘Troubles’ where every week the radio would dully report the latest atrocity carried out in the name of Irish freedom. This makes glorifying revolutionary nationalist violence harder. 

Unlike a younger generation, I and my contemporaries remember that in the late 1980s and early 1990s hardly anyone could stomach the reality of ‘armed struggle’ when its results were bombs in pubs and bodies dumped in country ditches. No one wants a return to those days.

And yet, the Easter Rising and all it represents grips me too. It is too potent a symbol of the recovered honour of a colonised people to be disavowed completely. It taps into too primitive a stream of heroism that goes beyond contemporary politics and back to the time when each tribe had its champions who fought for their people. It represents also the pride of a small nation and the hopes for what it can be.

And so I will find it hard to suppress a surge of pride at Easter 2016 and finding myself thinking of those who died at Easter Week, in defence of the Republic.

Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com