1916 Rising and ‘just war’

Sir, – Conn Mac Gabhann's use of the so-called just war principles to legitimise the Easter Rising is tendentious in the extreme, no more so than in his omission of the most important principle – the principle of last resort, the absence of alternatives to military action ("Did the 1916 Rising meet the requirements for a 'just war'?", Opinion & Analysis, January 16th).

The alternative to a violent uprising in 1916 was the strategy that had been pursued by generations of constitutional nationalists – the peaceful and democratic struggle for Irish independence.

That strategy had been prolonged but highly successful and culminated with the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914, which meant there would be an independent Ireland after the first World War.

As former taoiseach John Bruton has argued on many occasions, the violence of the Rising and the War of Independence was not necessary to achieve Irish independence. There was a non-violent alternative and thousands of lives would have been saved by sticking to constitutional politics. It is unlikely that the sectarian division of Ireland would have been averted but it could have been ameliorated and the path to Irish unity opened decades ago.


The only justification for war is necessity and the Easter Rising fails that test. – Yours, etc,



School of History,

University College Cork.

Sir, – Dr Conn Mac Gabhann’s half-hearted apologia for the Rising as a “just war” really won’t wash. A cabal of secret, oath-bound IRB men can hardly be described as “proper authority” – indeed, if there was such it resided in Eoin MacNeill’s Volunteers, whose orders to cancel the rebellion Pearse & Co deliberately flouted.

Might a rebellion have been proportionate to the wrong suffered? Describing the system of government in Ireland in 1916 as “colonial” (and by implication burdensome and odious) is simplistic in the extreme. Ireland, by the standards of the time, was extremely democratic, with nationalists involved in, and in many instances controlling, layers of government and administration. It was not a simple story of Britain getting out and frustrating the will of the Irish people — the bloc of unionists in the northeast of the island was the complicating factor, for Home Rulers as well as Britain.

To dismiss the deaths and injuries of non-combatants by reference to other “wrongs” is a logical fallacy – two wrongs do not make a right.

The rebels started a revolution in a crowded inner city, knowing that civilian casualties would be inevitable, thus exacerbating the conditions there. To suggest that the Rising had a reasonable chance of success against the might of the British Empire is risible – the rebels did not even have a proper military strategy, neglecting to take Trinity College or Amiens Street railway station, for instance, and digging trenches in St Stephen’s Green!

It might be argued (though Dr MacGabhann doesn’t) that the “standard of proof” for a just war is lower for revolutions than for wars between states. Except that this ignores the fact that the rebels, in their Proclamation, explicitly enunciated their acting on behalf of a proto-state – the Irish Republic. But even if it was not a “war between states”, the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse maintained that revolutions were only justified if they represented a gain in freedom and in liberty and if the changes proposed had a reasonable chance of effecting and maintaining the changes in society and politics that the revolutionaries aimed for.

Both of these propositions are arguable in the context of the State that finally emerged in 1922.

All in all, it is not possible to escape from the fact that the Rising was an unmandated conspiracy of violence by a small, unrepresentative, self-selected group, destructive of life and property, and whose actions were only validated after the event. The Rising as exemplar was – and is – dangerous, because it is open to any group to claim that ex post facto legitimacy for murderous acts. – Yours, etc,



Co Kildare.