Whose Rising Was It Anyway?
Historian Brian Hanley critically appraises the 1916 Rising and argues that it should be remembered for what it was, not what we might wish it to have been.
The 1916 Easter Rising was a justified response to Britain’s denial of Irish self-determination and to the horrific waste of Irish life during the First World War. The revolt inspired movements against imperialism across the world. Those who were prepared to take on the might of the British Empire in Easter Week deserve our admiration; they were brave and in many cases remarkable individuals.
And we should certainly celebrate the socialists, feminists and radicals who took part. But they were in a minority and their politics never dominated the independence movement that developed afterwards. The Irish state that emerged after independence cannot simply be dismissed as a betrayal of the ideals of the men and women of 1916.
The context of an Ireland dominated by British imperialism is obviously crucial to understanding the Rising.
The context of an Ireland dominated by British imperialism is obviously crucial to understanding the Rising. But it is important to recognize that Ireland in 1916 was a country that was acutely and minutely aware of class. As the republican activist Ernie O’Malley put it ‘in the towns tuppence-ha’penny looked down on tuppence, and throughout the country the grades in social difference were as numerous as the layers of an onion.’ Those class distinctions remained key both during and after the Rising.
Many tend to assume Easter Week was a natural follow-on from the 1913 Lockout (as in the song, ‘Dublin city in 1913’). But there were fundamental differences between the two events. The Lockout involved over 20,000 workers and their families. In contrast, about 1,800 people were ‘out’ in Dublin during 1916. The Rising was the produce of a conspiracy within a conspiracy. It was only a small number of members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were involved in its planning. The mass of the Dublin working class could only observe the events, not take part in them. Some Dublin workers did support the Rising while others (and not just those with relatives in the British Army) were violently hostile to it, But the unskilled working class (and their counterparts in the provincial towns) were under-represented among both those who took part in the insurrection and in the republican movement afterwards, despite their huge numbers in the society of the time. 1916 was not a rising of the poor and, if anything, it was the middle class who were over-represented among the rebels.
But, many will respond, what about the central involvement of socialist leader James Connolly and the trade union members who constituted the Irish Citizen Army?
The majority of the Citizen Army were drawn from Dublin’s unskilled and most of them were veterans of the Lockout. But they were a far smaller organisation than they had been in 1914 and entered the Rising without any distinct socialist agenda. The Glasgow woman Margaret Skinnider, who fought courageously as a member of the ICA, remembered how “all were united, rich and poor, dockworker, school teachers, poets, and bartenders. They were working together; I believed they would stand and fight together. And I was right.” This was true, but it should give socialists pause for thought. The ICA came from different backgrounds to most of the Volunteers, but their politics in 1916 were little different.
James Connolly was an outstanding thinker, as well as an activist, but by 1916 he was explaining the need for action in semi-religious terms claiming that “No agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect … we recognise that of us as of mankind before Calvary it may truly be said: ‘Without the Shedding of Blood there is no Redemption’.” Connolly’s despair at the collapse of European socialism into support for the World War and his desire to strike a blow at all costs meant he played down his own politics in the run up to the Rising.
It was perfectly possible to agree with the principle of armed resistance to British rule without thinking that the Rising was the only way to go about it. Those who planned the Rising aimed not just to fool the authorities but also to deceive large sections of the Volunteers and the IRB, many of whose members did not agree with what they saw as a purely sacrificial insurrection. Those who suggested mobilizing larger numbers or attempting to build larger numbers or attempting to build popular support were simply lied to by a group who had decided on insurrection, no matter what. And the acceptance that lying in a good cause is justifiable continues to plague progressive politics in Ireland.
If the Rising had taken place as planned on Easter Sunday, the majority of those who mobilised would have had no idea that they were going out to fight and perhaps die. The countermanding order and nationwide confusion that did take place within the Volunteers were the inevitable outcome of conspiratorial politics. Ironically it was the tactics that those who opposed insurrection proposed, such as boycotting, civil resistance and guerrilla war that actually broke British rule between 1919-21.
It would also be useful too if in commemorating the Rising we could avoid trying to place the men and woman involved in the ranks of whatever cause we are currently espousing. It is valid to oppose austerity or defend neutrality without enlisting Pearse and Connolly to make it more legitimate. Indeed, I would have more confidence in those who proclaim that they know exactly where ‘Connolly would have stood today’ if they showed any signs of understanding where he actually stood in 1916. The Proclamation’s lines about ‘gallant allies in Europe’ for example, are often dismissed as unimportant. Yet the Rising was taking place because it had been guaranteed aid from Britain’s enemies; and in return for that aid, Imperial Germany (or the ‘race at the head of Christian civilization’ as Connolly described it) wanted favours in return. The Rising’s leaders were pragmatic enough to know this and offered the Germans military bases in Ireland. Ironically while the IRB tended to see this alliance in purely tactical terms, it was Connolly who wrote effusively on the progressive nature of the German state.
The Proclamation is in many ways a progressive document but it is less radical than a previous declaration of a republic, the IRB Proclamation of 1867.
We might also actually start to discuss what the Proclamation meant, instead of seeing it as a sacred document offering us readymade solutions to our contemporary ills. Seven men wrote the Proclamation. It was never discussed by the IRB, the Volunteers, the Citizen Army or any other group, and the first that most of those who took part in the Rising knew about it was when it was presented to them on Easter Monday. The Proclamation is in many ways a progressive document, (particularly in how it includes women as part of the nation) but it is less radical than a previous declaration of a republic, the IRB Proclamation of 1867. That manifesto promised a republic with “absolute liberty of conscience, and the complete separation of Church and State.” This reflected a secular ethos that was often absent among republicans of the 1916 era, many of whom embraced Catholicism as part of their national identity. Roger Casement and Countess Markievicz were among a number of activists from Protestant backgrounds who converted to Catholicism. Markievicz claimed that she was inspired to do so by the nightly rosaries in the College of Surgeons during the fighting and asserted that “it was Michael Mallin and Councillor Partridge (of the Citizen Army) made me a Catholic”. Mallin, the ICA’s Chief of Staff, asserted before his execution that “Ireland will come out greater and grander but she must not forget she is Catholic, she must keep her faith.” This not to judge people’s choices from our vantage point but to realise that the majority of those involved in the revolt did not see their republicanism as being in any way secular. That is surely relevant to the type of society that developed after independence.
Republican ideology was not static and the IRB of the 1860s was not the same as the IRB of 1916. The IRB founder, James Stephens, could assert that “were England a republic battling for human freedom (and) Ireland leagued with despots … I should, unhesitatingly, take up arms against my native land.” Yet during the Lockout, Seán Mac Diarmada would worry about the “dangerous” influence that support from British trade unionists was having on Dublin’s workers and contend that “socialism
and the sympathetic strike are dangerous ruinous weapons in Ireland at the present time”. Mac Diarmada did not support the employers of course; like most radical nationalists he was hostile to their leader, William Martin Murphy. But class struggle was seen as divisive and foreign and something that would die out in independent Ireland.
A reappraisal of how Easter Week fits into the broader independence struggle is overdue. Why is the Rising given far greater prominence than the general strike against conscription of 1918 or that year’s general election? Both of those events mobilised far more people, and undermined British rule in ways that the Rising did not. Many republicans recognized this at the time. Bridget Foley of Cumann na mBan asserted that “it was really the anti-conscription movement that revived national feeling in the country and made the subsequent fight in ’19, ‘20, and ’21 possible. This solidarity brought about by the threat of conscription, to my mind, led to the success of the general election at the end of the year.” But nothing, not even any engagement of the War of Independence, has attained anything near the glamour of Easter Week.
An uncritical celebration of 1916 can lend itself to an elitist view of history, in which visionaries got the ball rolling and the masses, cowed and passive until that point, eventually awoke and fell in behind them. The reality was more complicated. The reason the Rising quickly gained retrospective endorsement was not because of the execution of 16 men but because the British state had very little legitimacy in nationalist Ireland anyway. Discontent with the war and frustration at the delay in granting Home Rule had alienated large swathes of Irish opinion.
Moving from the Home Rule party to Sinn Féin was not a huge step for many of them.
Since the end of the Famine, a seismic shift in power had taken place. During the late 1800s the large farmers and provincial shopkeepers replaced the landlords as the most wealthy and politically influential class in Irish society. The thousands of provincial merchants, small businessmen and large farmers were the most powerful section of Irish society by 1914. These men and women ran local government and together with the Catholic Church effectively dominated political, economic and cultural life in much of Ireland. But they did not control the top echelons of the state, big business or the professions which remained in the hands of Protestants and unionists. The Catholic bourgeoisie would have settled for Home Rule in 1912 but the Unionist revolt in Ulster and British Conservative support for it, the carnage of the World War and the suspicion that self-government would never come was radicalising them. They may not have thought rebellion either practical or desirable but they shared much of the core beliefs of those who rebelled in Easter Week. Moving from the Home Rule party to Sinn Féin was not a huge step for many of them.
One incident during the Rising illustrates this. The Dublin policeman Eamon Broy remembered while confined to barracks “several loyal citizens of the old Unionist type called to enquire why the British Army and the police had not already ejected the Sinn Féiners from the occupied buildings. Whilst a number of that type were present a big uniformed
D.M.P. man, a Clare man, came in. He told us of having gone to his home in Donnybrook to assure himself of the safety of his family. He saw the British Army column which had landed at Kingstown marching through Donnybrook. “They were singing”, he said, “but the soldiers that came in by Ballsbridge didn’t do much singing. They ran into a few Irishmen who soon took the singing out of them”. We laughed at the loud way he said it and the effect on the loyalists present.” These policemen were nationalists and like most nationalists resented British rule and how it affected their prospects for advancement. But they were also the same men who batoned strikers in 1913.
J.J. Walsh, a young postal clerk from Cork, took part in the Rising as a member of the Hibernian Rifles. Walsh was elected a Sinn Féin TD in 1918 and served several prison sentences under harsh conditions. By 1922 he was Postmaster General in the Free State. When postal workers struck, Walsh deployed the army against them and denounced the workers for having taken action against an Irish government. Walsh would never have become Postmaster General under British rule, but the revolution opened up huge possibilities for him and others like him. And Walsh was not the only person who could fight bravely in the Rising and impose austerity (and worse) during the 1920s.
What do we know about the views of most of those who were ‘out’ in Easter Week? The majority of them were not poets or playwrights and left no manifestos outlining the type of society they envisaged. They were a diverse group who agreed only on the need to fight to gain Irish freedom. Significant numbers of 1916 veterans later supported either Cumann na nGaedheal or Fianna Fáil in independent Ireland. The two men who shaped the Free State in its first decades, W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera, were both ‘1916 men’. Many veterans were disappointed by partition or by the failure to revive the Irish language but less so with the conservatism of the new state. This is not to downplay their achievement in 1916. The Rising should be remembered with pride and celebrated as a blow against the most powerful Empire in the world. But a century later we should surely be able to dispassionately discuss the event without it being an exercise in wish fulfillment.