Opinion: Constitutional means would not have delivered self-determination in 1916

Rising was an offshoot of the Great War

Cork City after it was burnt in 1920 by the Black and Tans. “On the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously.” National Photographic Archive (Hogan Wilson Images)

Cork City after it was burnt in 1920 by the Black and Tans. “On the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously.” National Photographic Archive (Hogan Wilson Images)

 

Critics of the Easter 1916 Rising, including Patsy McGarry (Rite & Reason, January 5th), condemn the wrong conflict. It was the the Civil War, not the Rising, that was “antidemocratic and immoral”.

Long before 1916, Arthur Griffith told John O’Leary “the spirit of Fenianism will respond at the right moment”. The gun was introduced into 20th-century Irish politics when 25,000 rifles were landed for the UVF in Larne, Co Antrim, without hindrance.

The Rising was a spark from the conflagration which, Pope Benedict XV lamented (in his Christmas message 100 years ago), had “turned the world into an ossuary and a hospital”.

Patrick Pearse, the supreme communicator among the signatories, was chosen as president of the republic proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. The Proclamation was mainly Pearse’s composition, part of it being no more than war propaganda.

The opening salutation, “Irishmen and Irishwomen”, expressed Pearse’s lifelong commitment to equality for women. The commitment to “equal rights and equal opportunities” for all was influenced by the socialist, James Connolly (although Pearse had uttered similar sentiments in his last pamphlet, The Sovereign People).

Idolaters and demonisers

The task of rescuing Pearse from the clutches of his idolaters and demonisers continues, Joe Lee has remarked: “The sight of the shedding of innocent blood seems to have revolted Pearse as much as the rhetoric of blood had excited him.”

He surrendered after six days “to prevent the further slaughter of the civilian population of Dublin and to save the lives of our gallant followers”. He asked the British government “to accept my single life in forfeiture, and give a general amnesty to the brave men and boys who have fought at my bidding”.

As visionary, writer, educationalist and revolutionary, Pearse showed extraordinary creative energy during his short life. Lee suggests that in the longer run his cultural legacy may prove as significant as his political.

In the aftermath of the Rising, the Catholic bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas O’Dwyer, had no doubt as to where the balance of immorality lay. In a celebrated letter to British forces commander Gen Sir John Maxwell, he condemned the execution of the insurgent leaders “in cold blood” and the deporting of thousands without trial, and denounced Maxwell’s regime as “one of the blackest chapters in the history of the misgovernment of this country”.

Subsequently, on receiving the freedom of Limerick, the bishop said: “Ireland will never be content as a province. God made her a nation, and while grass grows and water runs there will be men in Ireland to dare and die for her.”

Elsewhere, he added that John Redmond had no authority “to pledge the lives of the young men of Ireland to a continental war” on England’s behalf; this pledge had been “the blunder of his life”.

The other question raised: would the constitutional path have led to self-determination? In the circumstances of the time it is unlikely, given the British response to the electoral endorsement of Sinn Féin. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act provided for two devolved parliaments in a partitioned country in the UK.

Inevitable struggle

In The British C ampaign in Ireland, 1919-21, Charles Townshend concluded: “On the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously.”

After the War of Independence the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret revolutionary body that had organised the Rising, accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty as a stepping stone to the republic. (Michael Collins may have been the last chairman of its supreme council.)

To blame 1916 for Éamon de Valera’s reaction is disingenuous. As Ronan Fanning demonstrates in his recent biography, Éamon de Valera: a Will to Power, de Valera opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise. His behaviour is described as “petulant, inflammatory, ill judged and profoundly undemocratic”.

But for de Valera’s decision to lend his authority as “president of the Irish republic” to those who took up arms against an Irish government, there was a chance that what turned out to be such a catastrophic split might instead have been only a splinter.

Great hatred maimed us at the start. The reason why the straitened State reduced the old-age pension in 1924 was because it had to pay for the destruction caused by the civil conflict. As Pearse’s literary executor, Desmond Ryan, ruefully observed, the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried beneath the debris of the Civil War.

Brendan Ó Cathaoir is a journalist and historian

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