“Sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to.” Mitch Albom.
At the centenary of the Easter Rising and the second year of the Great War, we can perhaps ask ourselves how true is the above quote? Is sacrifice always desirable and should it never be regretted? The year 1916 was a year of sacrifice, as across Europe and the World a futile conflict saw the shameful waste of the flower of youth. From numerous countries young men and women became involved in a conflagration of then unprecedented proportions, the first truly global conflict, the First World War.
Ireland had been unsettled for decades if not centuries, civil disobedience, violence and open rebellion were a symptom of the disquiet. The wish for independence, even if not universally supported, was never far from the surface of Irish society. It is perhaps a cliché to describe Ireland in 1916 as a powder keg awaiting ignition but it is an apt description which captures the mood of the times.
The Rising began on Easter Monday the 24th of April 1916 and lasted for six days. Patrick Pearse led the Irish Volunteers, they were joined by the Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly and approximately 200 members of Cumann na mBan. Together they seized key locations in Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic, making the General Post Office of Dublin their headquarters.
The military commander of the rising was James Connolly and the four other members of the Military Council were Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Seán Mac Dermott and Joseph Plunkett. It was Patrick Pearse who standing on the steps of the General Post Office and surrounded by his comrades, read the proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish republic to the People of Ireland:
“Irishman and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
Having organized and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organizations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State. And we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish woman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority in the past.
Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provision Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.
We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called. Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government”
The proclamation itself was signed by Thomas J. Clarke, Sean Mac Diermada, Thomas Macdonagh, P.H.Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett. The document was dated Easter Monday, April 24th 1916.
The rebels seized a variety of key points within Dublin but failed in securing others due partly to lack of numbers and partly, due to some disorganisation. Outside of the Dublin the Rising was small, uncoordinated and bar one or two notable exceptions (such as the Ashbourne Rising of County Neath), failed to cause the British establishment any major discomfort. This left Dublin as centre stage for a tragedy that has affected Anglo-Irish relations ever since.
The first day was typified by only sporadic fighting, as the British were left unprepared, taken by surprise, they at first responded to the emergency with investigatory patrols. The death toll therefore remained relatively small on that first day but the tally would inevitably grow. The first civilian causality is believed to have been a uniformed nurse by the name of Margaret Keogh. She was shot accidently by British troops during an engagement near the South Dublin Union Workhouse.
By Tuesday evening the British response became a more coordinated and determined operation, martial law was declared and command handed over to Brigadier-General Lowe. Lowe was unsure of the numbers involved in the uprising and his response was slow, careful but planned. Identified Rebel strongpoints were over the course of the next few days bombarded and frontal attacks became better coordinated. The Rebels were no less lacking in their determination and the death toll including that of civilians, climbed alarmingly.
During the course of the week British troops arrived from England to join reinforcements transferred from outside Dublin. This would eventually bring Lowe’s force to 16,000 men, the Rebel numbers are unlikely to have exceeded 1,500. Selected Rebel positions were bombarded by the patrol vessel ‘Helga’ on the River Liffey and as the weekend approached, the position of the Rebels had become untenable. The surrender which came on Saturday the 29th of April 1916 was perhaps inevitable.
The Easter Rebellion was by those within the British establishment regarded as a betrayal. An act of treason when the Empire itself was threatened, locked in a life and death struggle with other Imperial powers. The alternative perspective was to regard the war on the Western Front and elsewhere, as a waste of human life in a conflict devoid of meaning.
Sixteen surviving members of the Rising were tried and executed over the course of the coming weeks. This included all seven signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the younger brother of Patrick Pearse. Willie Pearse played only a minor role in the Rising and his execution has often been described as an act of British revenge.
This failure to recognise those involved in the Rising as prisoners of war, together with alleged British war crimes that included the shooting of non-combatants, such as the pacifist politician Francis Sheehy-Skeffington; did serious harm to the British position at home and abroad. Public opinion in Ireland itself, which originally was not universally supportive of the Rising, changed perceivably in the coming weeks.
This perceived heavy handling of the aftermath of the Rising by the British authorities, resulted in a swing towards support for an independent Ireland and a radicalisation of Irish youth. These and other factors that brought about an ever increasing anti-British feeling, would eventually lead to the Irish War of Independence.
The Easter Rising was a declaration of the right to self-determination by a nation and its people. Today when we see the discussion of International Trade Agreements and the future of the European Union, that principle is as relevant today as it was in 1916.
Prior to the Easter Rising, the Irish people had made numerous sacrifices for their nation. The Rising, the following War of Independence and the resulting Civil War, would see many, many more. The Emerald Ireland had been awash in blood for centuries and would be for years to come.
The sacrifice of those who fought in the Rising, were executed later and those that would die in the future wars, is a tangible part of Irish culture today. To understand Irish spirituality, one need only look at how the people of Ireland view their past. It is in folklore, myth and legend, that the Irish Gods and Saints are remembered, venerated and celebrated.
Yet equally an intrinsic part of Irish culture, is an awareness of the ‘Ancestors’ in blood and in spirit. From the ancient monuments of Ireland’s Iron Age past to the wars of the twentieth century, the people of today remember the people of the past. The Seven who signed the Declaration of Independence, those nine others that were executed with them and those that died in the Rising, have joined the ‘Ancestors’ and today hold a place of special veneration for the modern Irish Nation. There are many nations that could learn from Ireland, how to stand with pride with one eye on the past and another on the future.