Rite&Reason: The ‘altruistic evil’ of 1916 Rising

Retrospective public consent in 1918 election provides only limited justification

Fr FX Martin argued in 1966 that “the traditional conditions required for lawful revolt seem at first sight, and even at second, to be absent in 1916”. Photograph: Peter Thursfield.

Fr FX Martin argued in 1966 that “the traditional conditions required for lawful revolt seem at first sight, and even at second, to be absent in 1916”. Photograph: Peter Thursfield.

 

In his recent book Not in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, developed the useful concept of “altruistic evil” – by which he means evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals. It is a concept that has some relevance in considering whether the Easter Rising was morally justified.

The leaders of the Rising were certainly persons of high ideals. However, as Prof FX Martin pointed out in a Thomas Davis lecture on Radio Éireann in 1966, “the traditional conditions required for lawful revolt seem at first sight, and even at second, to be absent in 1916”.

These conditions were listed by him as follows: “firstly, the government must be a tyranny, that is without a legitimate title to rule the country; and there are four further conditions – the impossibility of removing the tyranny except by armed force; a proportion between the evil caused and that to be removed by the revolt; serious probability of success; and finally the approval of the community as a whole”.

It is doubtful whether even one of these conditions was met when the Rising began on Easter Monday 1916.

But Martin was scrupulously fair in his 1966 lecture. He put the case for the other side as well, and he called on the work of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain to buttress the argument in favour of 1916.

National slumber

Maritain also comments that the only way to decide whether a shock-minority was justified in taking on itself to act in the name of the people was the free approval of the people, given as soon as the people could express their will. In the general election of December 1918, the Irish people gave its approval in retrospect to the Easter Rising. This provided a plausible vindication for the Rising – perhaps in deference to the golden jubilee then being celebrated.

FX Martin’s doubts about its validity are, however, clear. In a later essay published in Studia Hibernica in 1967 he reiterated that “the theologian may question the means they [the 1916 leaders] used”.

Though the “retrospective endorsement” of the Rising by the people of Ireland in 1918 is now the standard defence of the Rising, it does bring us into dangerous territory.

Retrospective vindication

Martin’s authority to expound on the moral justification of the Rising derived not only from his métier as historian, but also from the fact that he was an Augustinian priest who had undergone theological training as part of his priestly formation.

In addition, he had an impeccable republican background – so he was writing against the grain of what one might have expected from him, and he could not be accused of settling old family scores (a charge that would be levied against Conor Cruise O’Brien, the grandson of an Irish Parliamentary Party MP, when he wrote critically about the Rising).

It might, of course, be argued that, as Martin himself wrote, “in planning a revolution you take as your textbook not Thomas Aquinas but Machiavelli”.

Nevertheless, when we are called upon to commemorate – or to celebrate – any historical event, it is important that we should recognise the true character of that event and frame our commemoration accordingly.

In this context, we must face up to the awkward reality that “altruistic evil” may be an apt description of the Easter Rising.

Felix M Larkin, historian and retired public servant, will speak on FX Martin and the 1916 Rising in St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, on Thursday at 7pm

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