"The belief that the 1916 insurrection was in resistance to British oppression is completely inaccurate."
By Kevin Myers
THE IRISH REPUBLIC commemorated in 2016 the centenary of the armed rebellion in Dublin by insurgents whose express intention was to establish a united Irish Republic free of British rule. The rising soon failed but was followed by a guerrilla war involving the irregular forces known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against Crown forces, which resulted in the formation of an independent entity known as the Irish Free State. This latter evolved into what is now the Irish Republic.
All is clear, yes? Alas, no. The republican insurrection in Dublin did not occur on March 23, but April 24 — so why did the Irish Republic commemorate it a month early, on March 23, 2016? In part, because the insurrection occurred on Easter Monday, and thus the moveable feast of Easter has traditionally been recognised as the appropriate time to commemorate the rising, rather than the calendar date. But even then, the day on which the insurrection occurred, Easter Monday, is not being used for the centenary, but Easter Sunday instead.
Why? In order to achieve a synchronous commemoration: just as Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, Ireland rose from oppression on Easter Sunday in 1916. But there are many problems about appropriating a particular feast-day to commemorate a violent uprising that — no matter how you look at it — did not occur on that day. The most obvious is accuracy. Easter Monday was the actual day when (by the ecclesiastical measure) the rising occurred, not Easter Sunday. The second is one of ethical theology. It is surely blasphemy to associate the days of Easter — which commemorate the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the subsequent torture and murder of Jesus Christ at Golgotha — with an unprovoked violent rising in which hundreds of innocent people were killed. The underlying sacrilege is made more exquisite by the words uttered by Jesus before he was led away from Gethsemane to his doom: “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”
It should not need a sophist to grasp this argument. Only a complete ignorance of the Christian meaning of Easter, or a studied refutation of it, would permit a fusion of this message with an explosion of murderous violence. However, such a re-ordering of moral and factual realities has been a central part of how Ireland has usually celebrated the 1916 Rising. The belief that the April insurrection was in resistance to British oppression is still widespread. It is completely inaccurate.
For Ireland in 1916 was not remotely living in a state of slavery. In September 1914, the Irish Parliamentary Party in the British House of Commons had successfully negotiated the passage of a Home Rule Bill that would mean once the war was over, most of Ireland would enjoy limited self-government. The IPP intended that self-government to be a stepping stone to the dominion status as enjoyed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa. However, the threat of armed resistance to this from the predominantly Protestant northern province of Ulster by 1915 — with the constitutionally-questionable backing of the British Tories under the Canadian-born Bonar Law — meant that most of the province would not be included in that area of self-government. Nonetheless, the achievement in the Irish Parliamentary Party in putting a legal chisel to the political bonds that bound the United Kingdom was considerable, and historic. What Ireland had done one day, India could do another.
Its second great achievement was to negotiate an exemption for Ireland from the conscription that Britain introduced in 1915. Ireland was thus the only belligerent country from the Pacific coast of imperial Russia to the Atlantic coast of the United Kingdom that would be spared the martial slavery of enforced military service. Moreover, Ireland was prospering hugely from satisfying Britain’s war-needs. The condition of the country could only be described as oppressive through a grave terminological inexactitude — or rhetorical opportunism.
THE INSURRECTION proved to be a highly effective exercise in branding. It was originally called “the rebellion,” but very rapidly the term “The Rising,” complete with capital letters, became the accepted term within the political lexicon of Ireland, and with it came the entire vocabulary of Christ’s martyrdom. This was made easier by the executions of the leaders in the days after the rebellion was put down. The many murderous deeds of the first day of the rebellion were rapidly forgotten as the historical memory of nationalist Ireland managed to synthesize the executions after the rebellion along with Christ’s death on Calvary.
The seven signatories to the Proclamation were almost all “zealous” Roman Catholics. Yet their leader, Patrick Pearse, was a schoolteacher whose attitude towards his charges is perhaps best encapsulated in his poem, “Little lad of the tricks”:
Hardly the sort of fellow to whom most parents would choose to entrust their 13-year-old boy. Not content with having such delightful musings about pre-pubescent teens, he was also a blood-and-soil nationalist, who exulted in the carnage of the Great War. “The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields,” he rejoiced in 1915. “Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of their country.”
The other great figurehead of the April insurrection was James Connolly, a Scots-born Marxist whose thick Edinburgh accent was incomprehensible to most Irish audiences. He viewed the rising as the first stage in a communist insurrection that would trigger a world-wide class war, in which both the economic system and the ruling classes would be destroyed. “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throw, and the last capitalist bond and debenture shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord.” On the morning of the insurrection, he “commissioned” his 14-year-old son into his own militia, the rather grandly named 150- strong “Irish Citizens’ Army,” and gave him a gun with which to shoot his fellow Irishmen. Connolly, like Pearse, knew that there were no British regiments garrisoned in Ireland, just Irish police and Irish regiments of the British Army.
In essence, then, long before Russia was to go one way, and Weimar Germany the other, the General Post Office in Dublin in 1916 contained in embryonic form, their own facsimile of the two great curses of 20th century Europe: tribal, blood-and-soil fascism and proto-Leninist communism. And so the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 had a precursor — Dublin in 1916.
Most Irish people were nationalists who wanted self-government but also supported the British in the Great War. Many such nationalists had actually joined the British Army, in solidarity with little Belgium, with which there was strong sense of identity amongst Irish Catholics. Ireland’s peoples had sharply divided in the period before the war, largely but not entirely on grounds of religion and identity: Catholics tended to seek independence from Britain, Protestants wanted to remain within the United Kingdom. Both camps had acquired arms to support their cause. Protestant unionists in the north had formed the Ulster Volunteer Force, while Catholic nationalists throughout had formed the Irish Volunteers. The nationalist movement then split, the overwhelming majority — now named the Irish National Volunteers — still sought separation from Britain but in the meantime were prepared to back Britain’s war-effort. A small minority retained the name the Irish Volunteers, and it was these who took part in the rebellion.
Moreover, far from having a mandate of any sort, the rebel leaders vehemently eschewed democracy. None of the rebel leaders had ever stood in an election, save James Connolly, who had unsuccessfully competed twice for local government in Dublin. Even more significant was the fact that the Irish Volunteers — a public body — were controlled by a small number of men at the very top, members of the secret, oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood. The ostensible leader of the Irish Volunteers, the academic Professor Eoin MacNeill, not merely did not know of the IRB penetration of his organisation, he was on principle against any insurrection. His opposition was based on the two meanings of the word “vain”: firstly, that it could only suit the conceit of those who sought a place in the history books, secondly, that it could not possibly succeed.
Because the British government did not at this critical point in history want to alienate Irish nationalist opinion, it continued to allow the Irish Volunteers to march, with guns, around Dublin, even though their hostility to the British war effort was unconcealed but not yet violent. It is hard to imagine any other belligerent country allowing such displays of armed dissent within a capital city at a time of war. The absurd frequency of these manoeuvres — even occurring outside the gates of the headquarters of the British administration, Dublin Castle — allowed the IRB leaders to plan for an insurrection on Easter Sunday using the Irish Volunteers. Remarkably, not merely did MacNeill remain in ignorance of these plans, but so too did most of the involuntary “Volunteers.”
On Easter Saturday, having discovered the IRB conspiracy within his organisation, MacNeill countermanded orders for manoeuvres for Easter Sunday. Nonetheless, the IRB cabal at the heart of the Irish Volunteers then agreed to re-mount the insurrection the following day, again without his knowledge. Even then, most of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army that Easter Monday did not realise that they were going into action, and on discovering what was intended, many slipped off home. In all, about 1,800 volunteers (including a handful of women) took a number of strategic positions around the centre of Dublin that morning. To put that into perspective, about 250,000 Irishmen were serving in the army, navy or the police.
The centre of operations was the General Post Office right in the heart of the capital. Just after 12 noon, April 24, 1916, Patrick Pearse, read out the rebels’ Proclamation of a Republic at the GPO. Amongst other things, it hailed the support “of gallant allies in Europe,” thereby putting the insurgents directly in the opposite camp to the many thousands of Irishmen in the British Army. The implications of this were soon made clear. So, though the Proclamation also guaranteed the lives and liberties of the people of Ireland, not far away, armed rebels were confiscating both. Within sight of Pearse, and perhaps even earshot, Private John Humphries, an unarmed young Irish soldier home on leave, was shot through the head as he was window-shopping. Constable James O’Brien, similarly unarmed — the Dublin police then, as now, did not carry guns — was shot dead moments later. Another policeman, Constable Michael Lahiffe (like O’Brien, an Irish Catholic of poor peasant stock) was gunned down in a city park by the aristocratic socialist and self-styled “countess” Constance Markievitz, who though not titled was neither remotely peasant nor poor: she had been born Constance Gore-Booth, in Buckingham Palace Road, London.
For the next few hours, British soldiers, armed or otherwise, were usually shot on sight — and most of these were Irishmen either home on leave or belonging to Irish regiments waiting to be despatched to the Western Front. There were no British regiments garrisoned in Dublin at that time. A well-known group of elderly unarmed ex-soldiers, the Georgius Rex, known to Dublin wags as the Gorgeous Wrecks, out on their annual Easter Monday parade, were ambushed and slaughtered at Mount Street Bridge. A 14-year-old girl named Eleanor Warbrooke who was shouting abuse at a group of insurgents as they took over a biscuit factory was deliberately shot through the head at point blank range by one of the rebels. She was one of nine children killed that day.
Indeed it was she and not the insurrectionaries who most genuinely represented the feelings of working class families in Dublin at that time — most of whom would have had sons, brothers, husbands and sweethearts serving at the Front. It was a poignant time for many. In late April 1915 on the Western Front, along with the Canadians, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Regiment had lost hundreds of men dead in the first German gas attacks of the war. During the same period, the landings in Gallipoli, involving thousands of Irish soldiers, caused hundreds more Irish casualties. So that April weekend, many bereaved from the impoverished tenements of Dublin’s city centre would have been commemorating the first anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths. Little wonder they looked on the rebellion with revulsion and horror.
ACROSS DUBLIN, groups of rebels had established strong points from which to ambush British soldiers (most of whom at this point were actually Irish) as they were deployed to attack the heart of the rebels’ insurrection, the GPO. One body of rebels took over the female infirmary in Dublin’s pour house that housed several thousand paupers, presumably because it overlooked one possible route for British soldiers heading towards the GPO. The militarization of a hospital is outlawed under the first provision of the Geneva Convention. Firing from the hospital windows, the insurgents killed seven and wounded six men of the Royal Irish Regiment. In return fire, one nurse and two women patients were killed. Even though the insurgents had violated the rules of war in this deliberate siting of a military strongpoint in a hospital, the killings of the nurse and patients, actually by Irish soldiers, have traditionally been used by Irish republican propagandists as proof of the heartlessness of the British.
The term “republican” was used then, and has been since, to describe the insurgents. A few were in the classical sense. But most French republicans would have been baffled by the conduct of the insurgents in the GPO, who during lulls in the fighting would piously intone decades of the rosary, often under the guidance of a Catholic priest. It was arguably in these prayer sessions rather than in any declarations of secular, republican principles, that we can see the germinating seed of the future. For Ireland was in the process of shifting from the governance of one secular and temporary empire into the embrace of a theological imperium that was altogether more powerful and enduring.
Militarily speaking, the insurrection in Dublin was effectively over on the first day, once it was clear that the people of Dublin would not rise in sympathy. This delusion had not survived the first encounters with ordinary civilians, many of whom were extraordinarily hostile. Some tried to disarm insurgents, and were promptly shot. Others jeered or looted shops, prompting indignant insurgents to open fire on them. Otherwise, through some key points were in rebel hands, Dublin port had not been taken, and it was rapidly seized and held by Irish soldiers of the British Army. Meanwhile, reinforcements were soon arriving by train from the Army HQ on the Curragh plain, twenty miles away. Other reinforcements arrived on Easter Tuesday from Britain, landing not in the safety of Dublin port, but at the terminal at Kingstown ten miles away, simply because that was where the ferry company usually docked.
Thus unfolded a huge tragedy, as the men of the Sherwood Foresters marched into the choke-point of the Mount Street Bridge where earlier the Georgius Rex had been slaughtered. They suffered over two hundred and thirty casualties for no appreciable purpose: their young officers had not been trained for street-fighting, and their instinct to push on regardless as if they were crossing no man’s land simply drove more men into the rebels’ death-trap. It was here that the local girl Louisa Nolan crawled among the dead and dying Sherwood Foresters, tending to their wounds. She was subsequently awarded the Military Medal, an almost unique award to a female civilian, though of course, her courage was airbrushed out of the subsequent Irish narrative of the rising, and is still largely forgotten.
Though the Battle of Mount Street Bridge on the one hand was to enter republican folklore as a glorious victory, and on the other was to bring enormous grief to the soldiers’ home county of Nottinghamshire, the slaughter had no real military effect. After all, elsewhere that very week, nearly two hundred and sixty Canadian soldiers and some two thousand British soldiers were killed. Some five hundred of the latter were Irishmen, killed in the gas attacks with which the Germans had celebrated the inauguration of this delightful weapon a year before: happy birthday dear Chlorine, happy birthday to you. So, in Dublin, by the time of the Mount Street ambush on the Foresters, the army’s noose had already tightened around the few rebel garrisons. An insane officer named Bowen-Colthurst — himself an Irishman — either personally murdered, or ordered to be shot, half a dozen captives. One of the victims, Sheehy-Skeffington, though a pacifist, sympathised with rebels’ aims, and therefore as a “republican” martyr, became a legend in Irish mythology. Two of Bowen-Colthurst’s victims were vehemently pro-British, and were accordingly forgotten — as were two uniformed British army officers who were arrested and summarily shot by some British soldiers, who bizarrely thought they were rebels.
THE TASK FACING the army was one for which its soldiers were without training or experience and, for the incoming soldiers from Britain, any knowledge of the terrain. So, in the tenements and slums of Dublin, the insurgents had a distinct advantage, especially since most of them were wearing civilian clothes, and once they had disposed of their weapons — and many did — could simply become indistinguishable from the civilian population around them. Soldiers, either in murderous rage or the stupidity of battle fatigue (perhaps a mixture of both) killed a dozen or so innocent men.
However, once the British were able to bring artillery to bear, and could bombard the buildings occupied by enemy snipers, it was merely a matter of time: six days, actually. On Saturday, April 29, the leader of the garrison in the GPO, Patrick Pearse, agreed to a ceasefire in order, as his statement declared, to “prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens.” It was perhaps a little late for such humane considerations: some 250 innocent civilians were dead, as well as 64 insurgents and 104 soldiers, 22 of them Irish, and 16 policeman, all Irish. Martial law had been declared, and the new army commander for Ireland, General Maxwell, ordered the court-martialling of the republican leaders (the term IRA had not yet come into common usage). Fourteen of them went to the firing squad. Others were sentenced to death but reprieved.
These executions radicalised much of the nationalist population of Ireland, even those who had been opposed to the rebellion. Quite simply, from the standpoint of Irish nationalists, independence had been deferred too long. Nonetheless, General Maxwell militarily had little choice, for these were hard times. In 1916 alone, the British Army shot 108 of their own soldiers, including nine Canadians. If an armed Irish insurrection in which some 500 people had been killed went seriously unpunished, how could Britain possibly impose the recently-introduced conscription on its own civilian population? Hundreds of thousands of teenage boys and married men were now being drafted into military service in Britain, with the certainty that many would die. It is not conceivable that the main organizers of an insurrection responsible for so many deaths could escape with their lives, especially since in all societies of that time, capital punishment was the usual price for capital crime. With the arrival of war, the bar was set even lower. In 1914, the insurgents’ “gallant allies,” the Germans, had executed some 8,000 Belgian and French civilians, while that same year, their gallant allies, the Austrians had summarily executed some 150 Serb civilians in Bosnia. And as for the conduct of their gallant allies, the Ottomans, towards the Armenians …
MOREOVER, THE substantive issue for the British was not one of mere insurrection, but high treason in time of war. The rebels’ larger intention, as planned by extremists in the US known as Clann-na-Gael, and a tiny group within the oath-bound secret society, namely the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was not just to have a limited insurrection, but to help bring about Britain’s defeat in the world war. This necessarily required assistance from Germany, where Irish republican emissaries had been given a warm welcome. Attempts to suborn the loyalties of hundreds of Irish prisoners of war in German camps with promises of improved conditions were generally unsuccessful, even though life in the camps was quite terrible, with nearly six hundred POW deaths by April 1916, forty-two of them Irish. Nonetheless, most Irish soldiers remained true to their regiments, their army and their king.
A senior German staff officer had been put full-time on the Irish case. His plan for the German involvement was essentially two-fold. A German fishing vessel, disguised as a Norwegian smack, the Aud, would deliver 20,000 rifles and some machine guns Irish rebels on the west coast of Ireland. If successful, this operation would have radically altered the military balance in Ireland. Rural districts were policed by the ten thousand-strong Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), which, unlike the Dublin Metropolitan Police, was armed. However, this status was more hypothetical than real. RIC men were not equipped with handguns but with cumbersome carbines that were generally left in police armouries, as the constables — most of them Irish Catholics — preferred to go about their business unarmed. Anyway, they had received little firearms-drill in initial training, and virtually no weapons-practice thereafter.
The Aud was to land its guns to the rebels of the “Irish Volunteers,” and any interference by the police would met with by the machine-gun fire. Twenty thousand rifles, plus machine-guns, of which the RIC had none, would therefore have constituted a major threat to the status quo. Conceivably, even relatively small numbers of well-armed rebels could have seized and held large parts of southern and western Ireland. Any British response would have suited Germany strategic needs admirably, for it would have required a deployment of massive numbers of soldiers, using counter-insurgency methods for which they had not been trained and which really do not bear thinking about. In essence, the rebels’ intention was to extend widespread war over a hitherto peaceful Ireland. This was a quite depraved ambition, which could only have resulted in sectarian civil war in Ulster, where the majority of the population was not merely Protestant, but had access to firearms.
The second part to the German plan involved a naval offensive on the east coast of England to coincide with the Irish operations. A task-force, to be led by the battleship SMS Seidlitz, was to bombard the East Anglian towns of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. This, like the operations in Ireland, had larger objectives than actually transpired. The intention was to inflict as much damage as possible — a previous such attack on the north east of England in 1914 had killed or injured six hundred civilians — and possibly then to draw the Royal Navy into a major fleet-action with the German Navy. Britain would thus be under assault east and west. In other words, the scale of German ambitions went far beyond assisting Irish revolutionaries to destroying the British home-fleet and even knocking Britain out of the war. So German assistance was not peripheral to Irish republican ambitions but central, and the larger intention was not just to create an Irish Republic while Britain remained at war with Germany, but to assist in the military defeat of Britain (and by extension, of Canada).
However, Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breaking unit, led by an Irishman, William Montgomery, knew of the intended arms shipment and the Aud was intercepted by the Royal Navy and scuttled. By an amazing stoke of good luck, the Seidlitz hit a mine on its way to attack East Anglia, and had to return to its base at Wilhelmshaven. The remains of the task-force then half-heartedly bombarded their targets of Lowestoft and Yarmouth, and though destroying some two hundred houses, killed only three people.
CERTAINLY THE rebellion failed every single test that would make a war moral. Violence was most certainly not the last resort, as demanded by all Christian teaching. Another, non-violent method to achieve independence existed: as we have seen, a parliamentary campaign had already managed to put the limited self-government of home rule for Ireland on the statute-book. The rebellion was not in reply to oppression: Ireland had been uniquely spared conscription. There was no possibility of victory that included an all-Ireland republic: Protestant Ulster not merely remained loyal but had already effectively seceded from the rest of nationalist Ireland.
As for the test of proportionality, any potential gains from the use of violence would be vastly outweighed by the human cost. The insurgents hoped for an insurrectionary war to follow the rising, which would certainly lead to a sectarian civil war in Ulster. Moreover, the British could not possibly have allowed a pro-German Ireland on its western flank, dominating its sea-routes to its most important ally, Canada.
The intrinsic moral absurdity of the rebels’ ambition had been exposed by the very methods by which the Germans practised war, from the larger atrocities in 1914, to the gas attacks in 1915, and the manner in which the Germans annually celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday. For example, on January 25, 1915, the Germans launched a particularly savage bombardment on the Western Front, killing 390 soldiers including four men of the Eastern Ontario Regiment. (The average daily death toll throughout this period was around forty). The figures, as usual, were announced in a British army communiqué the next day, in time to make it to the morning issues of German newspapers on the 27th, his birthday. Hundreds of men were thus killed simply as human sacrifices to keep the Kaiser happy, like candles on his cake: gallant allies indeed.
Within eighteen months of the rebellion, most of the insurgents who had been captured and interned were released. Seldom has clemency been so ill-rewarded. Sinn Fein, meaning “ourselves alone,” was now the political wing of the new united paramilitary force, the Irish Republican Army. Though winning just 47% of the vote in the 1918 general election, Sinn Fein netted the vast majority of parliamentary seats outside Ulster. The new Sinn Fein MPs called themselves TDs — Teachta Daila, that is, member of the Irish parliament — and met in Dublin to establish a separatist government. The very same day, the newly formed IRA began a terrorist insurgency against the police force, the RIC, which still consisted almost entirely of Irish Catholics and was led by an Irish Catholic, ambushing and killing two constables. The IRA deliberately did not at this point engage the Army, which would be drawn into the conflict only later.
Thousands were to die in the violence that followed, with many killed in cold-blood. In some parts of southern Ireland, Protestants were singled out for hostility and even murder. In the new Northern Ireland state that emerged in 1920, composed of six of the nine counties of the ancient province of Ulster, there was serious sectarian violence, in which the majority of the dead and the burnt-out were Catholics. The seeds were being sown for another and far longer war, deep into the future.
However, in the shorter-term, in 1921 a truce by followed peace-talks ended with what was, effectively, a British victory. In return for Irish self-government over the southern part of the island, the Royal Navy retained control of the vital Irish ports of Queenstown and Lough Swilly, members of the Irish Parliament would swear an oath of allegiance to the King, Irish ambassadors abroad would simply be ‘envoys’ and would be appointed by the King, and Northern Ireland (with its appalled population of unwilling Catholics, to whose fate the Dublin insurgents of 1916 appear never to have given any thought) would remain as a self-governing entity within the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish people would have to pay for the war, with financial compensation to property owners for the vast amount of damage done by the IRA, and to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in the war and, most cruelly of all, to pay the pensions for many of the British security forces. Who foots the bill is generally the best decider as to who lost the war.
Even then the violence didn’t end, as civil war broke out between Irish republicans, one faction accepting the terms of the treaty with the British, the other not merely rejecting those terms but embarking on a fratricidal war with those who had accepted them. The new government ended the war by executing some 80 captive prisoners, a more draconian step than anything contemplated by the British. Ireland then duly proceeded into direst poverty. All state employees had their incomes cut by 10% as the first step of the new government; shortly thereafter, the already miserly old age pension was similarly slashed.
THE PRICE IRELAND paid for this preference for war over negotiation, and for the isolationist policies which resulted from the political triumph of Sinn Fein, was enormous. For fifty years, southern Ireland was an impoverished, insular entity in the Irish Sea — on the surface, at least, a kind of extension of the Holy See. Politically and economically, the country was proof of how enduringly toxic bad ideas can be, even though visibly and measurably ruinous.
State enforcement of policies motivated by Catholic social teaching made for a bizarre experiment. Irish governments in the 1920s not merely banned divorce and all forms of contraception, but made it illegal even to mention those terms in public, plus menstruation, which it was not able to ban. The Irish state proudly implemented the strictest censorship of any democracy. In the first seventeen years of independence, the Irish censor banned 1,905 films, all of which had already been shown in Canada, Britain and the USA. Censorship of the written word caused 1,600 books to be banned in fourteen years, all of them for sale elsewhere throughout the English-speaking world.
The works of most southern Irish writers such Frank O’Connor, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Liam O’Flaherty, Austin Clark and Kate O’Brien, though they were available in Britain and Northern Ireland, were banned in their homeland of independent southern Ireland, as were John Steinbeck, Robert Graves, Marcel Proust, Guy de Maupassant, and many many others. As Europe emerged from the horrors of the Second World War into what most welcomed as a world of sunlight and cultural discovery, in Ireland the long shadow of 1916 and exclusion grew darker. In 1953, the two censorship boards combined to ban the British publication, The Picture Post and the Pathé Cinema News because of their enthusiastic coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. On average, around eighty books a month were banned, but in September 1953, one hundred and fifty books were banned, and in October 1954, one hundred and eighty-three. That year, the list of forbidden books stood at 6,000.
Meanwhile, in a closed society with a declining economy, cronyism and corruption were endemic. The same year as the book censorship board began its noble work, the Irish Hospital Sweeps were started by two former IRA assassins, Joe McGrath and Charlie Dalton. The officially-authorized but wholly unregulated sweeps enabled their organizers to use the desperate tubercular plight of Ireland’s sick to raise and embezzle vast fortunes from ticket sales in Canada and the U.S., where gullible Irish exiles (and others) thought they were helping Ireland’s sick.
Emigration became a norm within an isolated and utterly dead economy: by 1968, a majority of people born in the 26 counties of independent Ireland were living abroad. Between 1920 and 2000, every single western European country had increased its population by 40%. Ireland’s population — despite official disapproval of contraception and despite non-participation in the Second World War, had increased by just 20% (and most of that growth occurred from 1980 to 2000).
However, Ireland had already woken up to some of its follies. In 1966, the Irish government signed a free-trade agreement with the British government, so reversing the Sinn Fein economic policies which had symbolically begun in 1916. Other legacies remained. Condoms remained illegal for unmarried couples until 1992, ten years after AIDS had arrived in Ireland, and in the 1980s the Catholic Church successfully campaigned to prevent the legalization of divorce, as it also managed to put a ban on abortion into the Irish constitution.
Meanwhile, from 1920 onwards, the Catholics of Northern Ireland — a self-governing, and consciously anti-republican state within the UK that had in large part been formed in reaction to the 1916 rebellion — remained locked within a political entity that openly despised and marginalized them. And then in 1970, just as civil rights laws were undoing their second-class citizenship, and inspired by the deranged militarist-absolutism of 1916, the IRA started another futile war, with thousands more dying before the 1996 ceasefire.
MOST IRISH PEOPLE still regard the rebellion with pride, and the Catholic Church has actively assented to the requisition of the feast of Easter in a celebration of the deeds of 1916. Protestants have been told to close some of their main churches in the centre of Dublin on the day of the main celebration for security reasons, a decision reached unilaterally by the Irish state without consultation. Sullenly, perhaps, the Protestants, whose numbers in southern Ireland have fallen from 10% of the population to under 3% in just over a century, have assented.
At a recent commemoration in Dublin Castle, formerly the home of the British administration in Ireland, the names of all the insurgents killed in the rebellion were read out, but not that of Constable James O’Brien, its first victim — though he was murdered as he stood yards away, just outside the Castle gates. Perhaps this shameless, shameful neglect nonetheless achieves a certain commemorative congruence. Fifty years ago, a bust was unveiled to Constance Markievitz in the centre of the very city centre park where she murdered O’Brien’s police colleague, poor young unarmed Michael Lahiffe. But for her victim, there is neither bust nor plaque nor any public memory, as Irish nationalism continues to select and to discard from Ireland’s history according to current need.
Considering the deplorable history that followed the 1916 insurrection, it’s hard not to echo the words of the Italian supporter of the Bolshevik revolution after he’d toured the USSR for the first time, and was visibly aghast at all the poverty and destruction he’d witnessed.
“You can’t make an omelette without break eggs,” his Soviet guide declared airily.
“Yes, I see the eggshells all right. But where, pray, is the omelette?”
Kevin Myers spent four decades as a columnist and war correspondent with the Irish Independent, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, RTÉ broadcasting, and Irish Times. Two collections of “An Irishman’s Diary” (the title of his column for The Irish Times) have been published, together with Watching the Door: A Memoir, 1971-1978 (Lilliput, 2006). He wrote “Bloody Sunday Revisited” for The Dorchester Review (Spring/Summer 2012) and “End of the Line” (Autumn/Winter 2020). His latest book is Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict, 1979-2020, from Merrion Press.
Taken from THE DORCHESTER REVIEW archive. Originally published in The Dorchester Review, Spring-Summer 2016, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 23-31.