A terrible beauty: the poetry of 1916

Mairéad Ashe FitzGerald explores the cultural legacy of the Easter Rising in the work of the rebels themselves and fellow poets Yeats, AE, James Stephens and Francis Ledwidge


Poetry had a long history of living underground in the Gaelic tradition, so it was little wonder that three young poets, Pádraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, were among those who walked out on Easter Monday morning 1916 to set their country free. It was in poetry and in song that the rebel, the subversive, the dispossessed, found expression for dreams of nationhood and freedom. Pearse’s poem The Rebel has all the power of the consummate leader who longed to see his country freed:

I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,

That have no treasure but hope,

No riches laid up but a memory

Of an Ancient glory.

They were heady days for the young and the idealistic in those early years of the twentieth century when Ireland was gearing up for nationhood. There was a prevailing atmosphere of renewal and youth, and people of vision and energy such as Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett were all part of a life-giving movement devoted to saving and promoting Irish culture. They wrote plays, founded theatres, edited papers and journals, as well as teaching and organising cultural events. The artist Sarah Purser observed that they were all like a stage army marching round and round, acting every part required of them. Furthermore, the authorities ignored or were blind to the ferment of nationalism and commitment to the cause of freedom that was building up before their eyes.

When I was invited by O’Brien Press to compile an anthology of the poetry of 1916, I thought of the poems by the young leaders of the Rising, many of them well known from our schoolbooks. Who doesn’t recall Joseph Mary Plunkett’s I See His Blood upon the Rose?

I see his blood upon the rose,

And in the stars the beauty of his eyes,

His body gleams upon eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

Or the austerely beautiful Mise Éire by Pádraic Pearse? ‘Mise Éire: Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.’ And his translation: ‘I am Ireland: / I am older than the old woman of Beare.’

Pearse’s final poem was a work of peace and beauty written as a farewell to life after the turmoil of the Rising while awaiting execution in Kilmainham Gaol:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,

This beauty that will pass;

Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy

To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,

Or a red ladybird upon a stalk …

And Thomas MacDonagh, of whom WB Yeats was to write, “He might have won fame in the end, / So sensitive his nature seemed, /So daring and sweet his thought”, was he outlining the qualities he aspired to for himself in his poignant poem to his new-born son, Donogh, Wishes for My Son?:

God to you may give the sight

And the clear undoubting strength

Wars to knit for single right,

Freedom’s war to knit at length,

And to win, through wrath and strife,

To the sequel of my life.

The Easter Rising resulted in the executions of 16 leaders, most of them young, and their burial without ceremony generated an outpouring of poetry. Written by almost every poet who took part in the literary revival, these poems gave words to the depth of pride, anger, grief and identity growing among the people.

James Stephens’s beautiful elegy, Spring – 1916, is a fine tribute to those whose lives were so abruptly ended:

Be green upon their graves, O happy Spring!

For they were young and eager who are dead!

Of all things that are young, and quivering

With eager life, be they rememberéd!

These poems must have spoken directly to the comrades of the fallen and added to the awakening sense of freedom growing among the general population. Francis Ledwidge wrote:

A noble failure is not vain,

But hath a victory its own.

A bright delectance from the slain

Is down the generations thrown.

AE, George Russell, saw the Rising as “the confluence of dreams/ That clashed together in our night”. His poem Salutation, a moving tribute, demonstrates his personal admiration for Pearse, MacDonagh and their companions despite his reservations over their actions in Easter Week 1916. AE had known them all and like Yeats and others he threaded their names through the poems he wrote in the aftermath of the Rising.

Here’s to you, Pearse, your dream not mine,

And yet the thought for this you fell

Has turned life’s waters into wine.

AE, himself a central figure in the cultural and economic life of the country, while not sharing in Pearse’s dream, was a sympathetic observer:

Their dream has left me numb and cold,

But yet my spirit rose in pride,

Refashioning in burnished gold

The images of those who died

Or were shut in the penal cell.

It is worth noting that AE did not forget those “shut in the penal cell” in the aftermath of the Rising with their leaders executed and their hopes lost. I like to think that at least some of these poems (censorship was in full force at the time) were circulated among those who were rounded up, courtmartialled in the aftermath of the Rising and held in prison in England. Francis Ledwidge, a member of the Volunteers before joining up, ill in hospital on leave from the trenches of the Great War, was devastated by news of the executions of so many he had known. His beautiful Lament for Thomas MacDonagh must have spoken directly to those comrades who had known him:

He shall not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky, where he is lain,

Nor voices of the sweeter birds

Above the wailing of the rain.

Nor shall he know when loud March blows

Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,

Blowing to flame the golden cup

Of many an upturned daffodil.

Those left behind were already gearing up for the next challenge, fighting elections from within the prison walls, struggling with the ravages of illness, working to reverse hostile public opinion. Constance Markievicz was one of these, and her sister Eva Gore-Booth, (“who did not share their strife, /And mourned that any blood was shed”) wrote a poem for her, entitled Comrades:

The peaceful night that round me flows,

Breaks through your iron prison doors,

Free through the world your spirit goes,

Forbidden hands are clasping yours.

The horror of the executions following the Rising was protracted through the long-drawn-out trial of Roger Casement and brought further time for reflection on the loss of all that youth and hope. Throughout that summer of 1916 the trial went on in London alongside a campaign for Casement’s reprieve. It came to a heartrending conclusion with his execution by hanging and burial in Pentonville Jail in August. With the death of Casement, “the last of the executions, some part of our youth died,” wrote Mary Colum, the Irish writer and critic. Her husband, the poet Padraic Colum, wrote a lament entitled The Rebel to honour him. Eva Gore-Booth, a lifelong campaigner for social justice and a poet of great sincerity wrote:

I dream of the peace in his soul,

And the early morning hush on the grave of a hero

In the desolate prison yard.

(Indeed, her words could equally apply to the fate of Thomas Kent, summarily tried, executed and buried in an unmarked grave in Cork Jail immediately after the Rising.)

Dora Sigerson Shorter, so deeply affected by grief that her friend Katharine Tynan believed it caused her early death, wrote a collection of elegies in the aftermath of the Rising, Poems of the Irish Rebellion, one for each of the executed leaders. Pearse she described as “Lover of birds and flowers, singer of gentle songs,/Dying with men of war”.

Pearse and his companions, of course, had at a stroke joined the romantic heroes of revolutions past. The American journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer, who was Joseph Plunkett’s friend, had a remarkable grasp of Irish revolutionary history and wrote an extensive article on the Rising in the magazine of The New York Times, “Poets March in the Van of Irish Revolt”. His poem, Easter Week In Memory of Joseph Mary Plunkett, places Pearse squarely in the company of the mythic heroes:

Lord Edward leaves his resting place

And Sarsfield’s face is glad and fierce,

See Emmet leap from troubled sleep

To grasp the hand of Pádraic Pearse!

For WB Yeats, now in his fifties, sceptical and distant from nationalist politics, Pearse and his young companions would have been the subject of his “mocking tale or gibe/To please a companion/ Around the fire at the club”. But by May 1916, the idea of a changing national landscape was germinating in his mind, and over the summer he worked on his long, complex poem, Easter 1916. This poem is Yeats’s great rendering of the transforming events of the Rising, and the elegiac closing passage with its incantatory undercurrent, murmuring “name upon name”, recognises the significance of the moment and shapes a vision of what was to come.

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Mairéad Ashe FitzGerald has compiled an anthology of poetry, A Terrible Beauty: Poetry of 1916, published by O’Brien Press

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