Irish Volunteers on the march in Dublin in the outset of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.
Last Friday, April 24 was 104th anniversary of the day when the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen’s Army, the 200 women members of Cumann na mBan, and a small force of Hibernian Rifles seized key buildings in Dublin, including the General Post Office and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It was, by no coincidence, Easter Monday.
In the five bloody days that followed the Royal Navy shelled the city and thousands of troops poured in eventually crushing the rebellion with heavy casualties. All seven signatories of the Proclamation including Padraig Pearce and the wounded socialist and radical labor unionist James Connolly and seven others, including men who were not even directly involved, were executed by firing squads.
Over 1,500 rebels were placed in virtual concentration camps where they met in secret and plotted revolution.
The Rebellion was crushed but despite epic British repression, the flame of Irish independence and liberty was never extinguished. Survivors of the insurrection and those inspired by the sacrifices the Irish martyrs met and organized in secret over the next years under the political leadership of the Sinn Féin party and the creation of the Irish Republican Army. The Declaration of Independence was a document adopted by Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic, at its first meeting in the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919.
A bloody and remorseless year a half guerilla war revolution followed. By mid-1920 revolutionary forces we in de facto control of most of the country except for the capital in Dublin and majority Protestant Ulster where a particularly savage civil war was contested. The British were exhausted by the monumental losses of the Great War of 1914-1918 public opinion was rising against continuing a war in Ireland.
In May 1921, Ireland was partitioned under British law by the Government of Ireland Act, which created Northern Ireland. Both sides agreed to a truce on July 11. The post-ceasefire talks led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6.1921. This ended British rule in most of Ireland and, after a ten-month transitional period overseen by a provisional government, the Irish Free State was created as a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire on December 6, 1922 while Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom.
But Republicans were bitterly divided over the exclusion of Ulster from the rest of the country. After the ceasefire, violence in Belfast and fighting in border areas of Northern Ireland continued, and the factions of the IRA launched a failed Northern offensive in May 1922. In June disagreement among republicans over the Anglo-Irish Treaty broke out into the eleven-month Irish Civil War. Eamon DeVallera rallied forces against the Provisional Government headed by Michael Collins, IRA commander during the revolution. Collins was assassinated August and many anti-treaty Republican leaders were also killed. Casualties probably greatly exceeded those lost during the Revolution. The Free State government finally prevailed.
But DeVallera and his hyper-Catholic nationalists made steady political gains over the next decade and a half while the anti-treaty or irregular IRA continued to operate on a low level in the North. Following a national plebiscite in July 1937 a new Constitution of Ireland replaced the Constitution of the Irish Free State and adopted Éire as the new name of the country. While Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution defined the national territory to be the whole island, they also confined the state’s jurisdiction to the area that had been the Irish Free State.
DeVallera’s Fianna Fáil party became the dominant force in the country and he became Taoiseach—prime minister serving three times.
The dream of uniting Ireland never went away and there were periodic campaigns by IRA elements in Ulster for years. The late 1960’s saw the beginning of The Troubles that continued for decades until 1998 when a shaky cease fire and a drawn-out peace process began. Finally the St Andrews Agreement between the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland's political parties in relation to the devolution of power in the region led to a final withdrawal of British troops in Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin finally agreeing to participate in Northern Ireland’s parliament.
The ride has not been all smooth since then, but general peace has prevailed. Brexit has threatened to erect a tariff wall between the Republic and the North since Éire remained staunchly attached to the European Union which could destroy the common economy of the island.
On the other hand the government in the South has finally shaken domination by the Catholic Church and adopted liberal reforms allowing for divorce and even abortion which makes the South less threatening to Protestants in the North. Even those Protestants, now on the verge of becoming a minority in Ulster, also rejected Brexit although they were dragged into it. It is not inconceivable the Northern Ireland like Scotland and perhaps Wales could seek to leave the United Kingdom to rejoin Europe which could finally lead to the reunification of Ireland.
That’s a lot of history and drama. Which makes William Butler Yeats’ powerful poem Easter 1916 seem more prophetic. Yeats, generally listed along with Anglo-American T.S. Eliot as one of the greatest English Language poets of the 20th Century, witnessed the Rising but did not participate. In fact at first he was ambivalent at first as were many surprised Dubliners. But he was moved by the executions of the leaders. Easter, 1916 became a Republican rallying cry. It is always read at annual commemorations of the Rising in Dublin.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
—William Butler Yeats