Today Ireland will remember and commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the moment when Ireland declared itself a republic. It is the effectively the Irish equivalent of “The shot heard around the world“, the spark which would begin our War of Independence, when after many, many failed attempts as a nation we would once again to seek to end 800 years of English occupation and colonial rule.
The Easter Rising was organised by a group of rebels, with the support of only a minority of the Irish population, they took over a number of promentient buildings in Dublin (today they would be called extremists). In front of the GPO (General Post Office) on O’Connell Street in Dublin Padraig Pearse read a proclamation setting out the vision for the republic, promising equal rights for all and to cherish all children of the nation. For 6 days, they would hold out against the might of the British Empire. By the time they surrended, Dublin was in flames and its buildings riddled with bullet holes, shelled by the heavy artillery of the British. 590 people had died – 116 British soldiers, 77 Irish rebels, 23 members of the police force and 374 civilians of whom nearly 40 where children. Most civilians were killed by sniper fire from both sides.
Upon their surrender the rebels were arrested along with 3,500 other people in Ireland who had not participated in the Rising but were suspected of republican activity, as Ireland was placed under martial law. The rebels were court martialed in a closed court and sentenced to death. Between 3rd May and 12th May the 7 signatories of the Proclamation along with 8 other senior figures within the rebel groups were executed by firing squad, in an act which proved fatal to the British. In the time it took to fire a gun, the rebels became martyrs, the British the devil and an Irish public which hadn’t supported the Rising suddenly became fervent republicans. There is nothing the Irish love more than the a good martyr, and out of the confusion came some truly romantic and tragic tales which angered the Irish public. Joseph Plunkett married his fiance Grace Gifford in the chapel in Kilmainham hours before his execution. James Connolly who had been seriously injured in the Rising, and likely only had a few days to live, was carried from his hospital bed and tied to a chair to be shot.
In the end Ireland wouldn’t gain independence until 1921, and then not the freedom envisaged in the Rising. Northern Ireland was ceeded to the UK, which of course has given rise to a whole host of other issues. The Ireland which emerged also fell short of that aspired to in the Proclamation. We have not lived up to that ambitious vision. Neither women nor children fared well in the new, conservative, patriarchal, catholic state which emerged, a fact we a still struggling to come to terms with and to remedy.
Events such as these force one to consider your feelings about them. I myself am torn. I abhor the use of violence to attain any goal however noble the goal may seem. I cannot condone the acts of a group of extremists which resulted in the deaths of so many civilians, all in the name of freedom. These are issues even the State has struggled with, as the legacy of the Rising has often been used to justify unjustifiable actions by various groups. It is important that everyone refers to commerating the Rising not celebrating. We do not celebrate our indendence in Ireland. We don’t have a Independence Day or Bastille Day, because our founding myth is not black and white, not good vs evil, it exists in the world of infinite shades of grey. Yet I am proud to be Irish and I know that it is unlikely the Ireland I love and call home would exist without the events of that fateful Easter Week. Perhaps Ireland would have eventually gained independence but it would be a very different Ireland from the one I know.
Yeats, a nationalist, was truly prophetic when he wrote his poem “Easter 1916” in the aftermath of the Rising;
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
P.S. This is an extremely simplistic summary of the events of Easter 1916.