Was 1916 Rising ‘immoral and anti-democratic’?

Sir, – Congratulations to Patsy McGarry for laying bare the ethical and political wasteland of 1916 ("Pádraig Pearse's overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic", Rite & Reason, January 7th).

We need to be led away from the poisonous ideologies of Pearse, Connolly, Markievicz and Michael Collins, the last mentioned being a hero of the Taoiseach. The Rising copper-fastened partition, encouraged sectarianism, led to economic impoverishment and a major exodus of southern Protestants from 1920 to 1926.

The Government’s Easter Rising year-long programme emphasises “reconciliation”, not a legitimisation of anti-democratic behaviour. Our leaders are arguably endangering the lives of their people by their support of self-appointed extremists who had no support. We have an admirable democratic system through which our politicians were elected to promote peaceful changes by constitutional, democratic means. Surely they owe it to us to set an example by getting on and doing so? – Yours, etc,



Killiney, Co Dublin.

A chara, – Patsy McGarry does Pádraig Pearse an injustice. He correctly quotes from Ghosts by Pearse that "like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession". He incorrectly sees this as "the confluence of Pearse's thinking with Catholic thought", and he uses this to buttress his allegation about "the Catholic nature of the rebellion."

If Patsy McGarry read to just the next sentence in Pearse’s writing, he would see how Pearse explained his use of the word “catholic”: “of catholicity, for it embraces all the men and women of the nation”. Pearse explicitly uses the word “catholic” (small “c”) in its original meaning of universal, all-embracing.

Pearse certainly has a spiritual motivation, and writes of the “untruth” of those who “have conceived of nationality as a material thing, whereas it is a spiritual thing”. Underlining that Pearse was not using his words in any sectarian sense, in the next paragraph Pearse emphasises his agreement with Theobald Wolfe Tone on the centrality of freedom, and later he quotes Parnell.

Patsy McGarry is clearly incorrect when he writes, “None of these [leaders of the Rising] had shown any understanding of, or consideration for, the fate of approximately 25 per cent of Ireland’s population then who were not of ‘the nation’ and not Roman Catholic, in a state where ‘marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession’ was to be the predominant ethos.” Those words “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” are used in the creed shared by Catholic, Church of Ireland and other reform traditions, as also with the creed in the Orthodox Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. – Is mise,


Sandyford, Dublin 16.

Sir, – I agree with Patsy McGarry's courageous and well-argued contention that the 1916 Rising "was an immoral and anti-democratic act", and with Felix Larkin (January 4th) that the Irish State should date its origins not to the Rising but to the 1918 general election and the first meeting of the democratically elected Dáil in 1919 – "orderly political events, not wanton violence".

Its continued failure to do so can be traced back to the fact that while they won the parliamentary vote on the Treaty, and the subsequent election (defending that mandate in the Civil War), the democratic parties nevertheless ceded the rhetorical high ground to their opponents, and were determined to prove themselves to be equally “nationalist” and “republican”, and to be the true heirs of the Rising, in which, of course, many of them had participated.

Thus, sadly, from the beginning our democracy has continued to promote an anti-democratic message, and continues to do so despite the clear lessons of “republican”violence in recent decades in Northern Ireland. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus

of History,

University College Cork.

Sir, – Patsy McGarry assumes that Pádraig Pearse’s view of the Rising was widespread among the other leaders involved. It wasn’t. Even the seven signatories were a broader church of “anti-Catholic” Fenians, anti-religion socialists, moderates and nationalists.

Among the leaders of the Volunteer movement in general, who had armed and trained themselves and others, and who fought in Easter Week, were progressives, liberals and feminists, many of whom played leading roles in Cumann na mBan. And, of course, many were Protestant liberals. Among those who supported the rebellion, but not the timing of it, was a Quaker, Bulmer Hobson, a man who did more than most to arm the Volunteers. Those leaders simply did not have the “messianic views” Patsy attributes to them.

They did not chose to take up arms because they read Pearse’s poetry, they did so because the democratic wish for even moderate separation was being prevented by military means – the arming of the Ulster Volunteers was allowed by a unionist-minded government in London; British army officers who said they would refuse to prevent Ulster unionists imposing their will on the majority by military means were condoned; and, as we know from the reaction to 1916 and the War of Independence, the British Empire was run by men who happily imposed their will by military means.

Pearse's poetry and his use of Christian blood sacrifice imagery is certainly startling to readers today but it fits neatly with the sense of sacrifice that prevailed across Europe at the time. Yeats has a good take on it in  An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – "A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds."

John Redmond had accepted, in fact had happily proposed, that a condition of home rule should be that young Irishmen would be sent to die for the British Empire. With little employment on offer and enhanced pay for soldiers and their wives, Dublin was practically a cannon-fodder economy.

So the culture of the time was steeped in violence, militarism and even ideas of blood sacrifice in the name of empires. The Volunteers, driven by their morality and democratic ideals, were opposed to this; the home rulers, for political reasons, supported it. Moreover, the Proclamation was also pro-democratic and progressive. In fact, its only power today and to generations since the Rising has been its moral force. It was aspirational. Sadly, it still is, but they are worthy aspirations. The home rule movement, on the other hand, was largely middle class, socially and economically conservative, male-dominated, acquiescent to many of the racist traits of the British Empire and was supported by sinister sectarian groups such as the Hibernians. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 22.

Sir, – Patsy McGarry sounds a note that badly needs to be heard; most notably, his comment that marking the event at Easter is a concession to a “quasi-blasphemous religious stance”.

Year after year, this State has seen fit to mark Easter Day – the central day in the whole Christian calendar – with, of all things, a military parade. The insurrection/rebellion/rising of 100 years ago started on a Monday – April 24th, 1916. Remembrance of this event needs to be uncoupled from the celebration of Easter. To change the State’s remembrance to a fixed date would be a step in the right direction, and could, I suggest, make a long-term contribution to promoting peace and reconciliation on this island. – Yours, etc,


Clonskeagh, Dublin 14.

Sir, – The Proclamation is replete with liberal and egalitarian rhetoric, offering a strikingly inclusive vision of nationhood. Overall, it owes more to Jacobinism than Catholicism, and its invocation of God is hardly a sectarian confession.

There was a time when reference was made to the divine in order to communicate a certain depth of feeling and commitment. This was natural in an age of somewhat greater metaphysical awareness, before reductionist materialism came into vogue. Moreover, while there were Catholic undertones to the Rising, it is not entirely clear why we should accept these as proof of its “immorality”. Military leaders of all types have called on the heavens in moments of trial, though few took the time to write poems to comfort their mothers in bereavement. – Yours, etc,


Newbridge, Co Kildare.

Sir, – Donal Murphy (January 6th) says of the 1916 leaders, "Patsy McGarry charges them with with immorality and blasphemy, which is rather odd as I seem to recall him only a few months back arguing that the law on blasphemy should be abolished." Mr Murphy's recall is incorrect. I have never put such an argument. – Yours, etc,


Tara Street, Dublin 2.