Diarmaid Ferriter: 1916 celebrations must encompass all definitions of Irish freedom

The idea that there was ‘only one definition of Irish freedom’ is nonsense

In December, an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic was sold for £305,000 (€420,000) by Sotheby’s, an amount far above its £80,000-£120,000 guide. The price was an indication of the premium attached to 1916-related material as we face into an intensive period of commemoration of the Rising, which will be a dominant theme and preoccupation of this year.

There will be plenty of other opportunities for those with deep pockets to buy 1916 decorations, some sold under simplistic banners that promote the idea of a one- dimensional heroic narrative of 1916.

For example, seven bronze medals to commemorate the seven signatories of the Proclamation, taken from seven charcoal sketches by artist Robert Ballagh and housed in a wooden display case that contains a facsimile of the Proclamation, are currently for sale. The collection is limited to 2,016 sets at €499 each, available from Lee Brothers Ltd in Santry.

What is most revealing about this enterprise is the message under which the medals are being sold: “We know only one definition of Irish freedom.”


This is a slogan taken from Patrick Pearse's assertion in August 1915 as he delivered his graveside oration at the funeral of Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa: "It is Tone's definition, it is Mitchel's definition, it is Rossa's definition. Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served by giving it any other name and definition than their name and their definition."

One-dimensional rebels

It is a clarion cry that should serve as a red flag to bulls who seeks a more complicated narrative of 1916; a direct invitation to see the architects of the Rising as one-dimensional and exclude multiple narratives and ideas about 1916 as they existed at that time and as have been underlined by much research and access to many new sources in recent years.

In short, the idea that there was “only one definition of Irish freedom” in Ireland 100 years ago is nonsense.

It should not be beyond us to remember the 1916 Rising and treat its commemoration with due respect and pride while remembering those who defined freedom in a different way at the same time. In particular, it will be interesting to see how the reputation and legacy of Eoin Mac Neill will feature this year.

Mac Neill, as the man who tried to stop the Rising, has certainly not fared as well at the auction houses as the seven signatories. A copy of one of his 11-word handwritten countermand orders (“Volunteers completely deceived. All orders for tomorrow, Sunday, are completely cancelled”) sold for €30,000 – well below the guide price of €50,000 – when auctioned by Adams in Dublin in 2014. It is an important document; as a result of it, the Rising was almost entirely confined to Dublin; even there, the numbers were only about a quarter of what they might otherwise have been, had the order not been issued.

Mac Neill’s countermand was one reason why the Rising commenced in confused circumstances. Crucially, it was also a reflection of disagreement about the Rising’s validity.

Mac Neill had his own ideas about how best to achieve Irish freedom and the circumstances that might justify rebellion. As the founder of the Irish Volunteers, he was not a pacifist, but insisted in February 1916 that “what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction . . . it is our duty to get our country on side and not be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong”.

That contention went to the heart of the controversies of nationalist Ireland a century ago, and Mac Neill’s countermand and what followed need to be seen in the context of different and evolving concepts of Irish nationalism. Definitions of freedom, loyalty and legitimate violence were contested during this period of multiple allegiances, against the backdrop of the first World War.

Justification for rebellion

Mac Neill’s logic was clear; the only justification for rebellion would be “deep and widespread popular discontent”, but “no such condition exists in Ireland”. As far as he was concerned, any rebellion by the Volunteers should have been as a result of a British act of aggression or because a rebellion would have a reasonable chance of success.

This was hardly an unreasonable position to hold in 1916. The lenses through which we view Mac Neill, his decisions and dilemmas, should reflect the currents prevailing then. Of course, there was an alternative logic articulated by the organisers of the Rising, one no less sincerely held, which we also need to understand.

Mac Neill and those who shared his view ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of history. Still, it would be wise for us to do justice to the multiplicity of ideas about 1916 during this year’s commemoration, instead of being exclusive and allowing the likes of Mac Neill to remain lost or simplified.