How Easter Rising showed Dublin in its true colours
In a sense, Dublin never quite seceded from the British empire, but seems to gaze forlornly across the Irish Sea, writes JOHN WATERS
WHENEVER THE events in Dublin of 95 years ago are raised, someone invariably tables a reminder that the Easter Rising had little or no support among the people of Dublin.
And indeed, while there are accounts not in accord with this version, there was undoubtedly some vociferous opposition to the Rising, mainly from the wives of men fighting in the war against Germany, and therefore dependants of the British crown. In his 1995 book, The Easter Rebellion, Max Caulfield noted that, as the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them.
In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”
Because of the odd cultural dynamics nowadays attending these discussions, such accounts are usually presented as reflecting badly on the rebels. There is another perspective: that they reflect badly on Dublin and her citizenry.
The Dublin of the time was really just another provincial city of the British empire, bought in body, mind and spirit. It was in hardly any sense a capital city, but an outpost of British colonialism, more connected through governance, economics and culture to the “mainland” than to the country at its back, and unmoored from the Irish nation by virtue of its complicity in the continuing occupation of Irish hearts, minds and territory.
With a deliberate, strategic obtuseness, our dominant conversations nowadays seek to depict the Rising as a failed attempt to take power in the capital. But in the minds of its key leaders this was simply the most literal and least potent dimension of their endeavour. The idea that there was a realistic chance of gaining power, especially following the non-arrival of promised troops and munitions from Germany, was about the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The point was to reclaim Dublin for the Irish nation by a gesture that would resonate for generations, to redeem Dublin of the sins of its acquiescence in the subjugation of Ireland.
In a letter to his mother on the eve of his execution, Pearse wrote: “We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations.”
Pearse insisted the battle they were fighting was not merely against Britain/England, but was a struggle for “the national soul”, compromised and contaminated by centuries of interference and occupation. True independence, he wrote in The Spiritual Nation, “requires spiritual and intellectual independence as its basis, or it tends to become unstable, a thing resting merely on interests which change with time and circumstances”.
This is a succinct description of what befell the business end of Ireland under British rule, and remains largely accurate of Ireland today.
It is worth recalling that just two of the signatories of the Proclamation, Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett, had been born and raised in Dublin. Thomas MacDonagh was from Tipperary, Seán MacDiarmada from Leitrim, and Éamonn Ceannt from Ballymoe, on the border between Roscommon and Galway. The other two, James Connolly and Thomas Clarke, were born outside Ireland.
It is pointless trying to arrive at a settled understanding of the Easter Rising in Irish culture unless we reflect deeply on these facts. Nowadays, we think of Dublin as entitled to speak for Ireland, as ruling over the State, albeit today in a certain quasi-democratic fashion. But Dublin is only a small part of Ireland, and by far the least representative part, an administrative capital that has hardly covered itself in glory by the quality of its administration.
It is impossible to imagine that, if the capital was Galway or Westport, this country would bear any resemblance to its present condition, which is largely a reflection of Dublin’s confusing influence and control.
Dublin may well be the “brain” of Ireland, but this entity is by no means coterminous with the Irish mind. Our Dublin-based, supposedly “national” media are not so much Dublin-centric as Anglo-centric, obsessed with exploring comparisons between Ireland and Britain and promoting British provincialism as the reality of Irish culture.
Dublin never responded to the call of the Proclamation, believing itself to have too much to lose. The result, today, is a rather strange town, lacking any significant presence of an indigenous populace or self-generated culture, inhabited and run by people from outside itself, who seem never really to settle or belong but who existentially reject and are rejected by a city with a mind of its own.
In a sense, Dublin never quite seceded from the British empire, but seems to gaze forlornly across the Irish Sea as though to a lost lover cast aside in a moment of petulance. In this sense the Easter Rising might reasonably be said to have failed to achieve its primary objective.