Today is a day of celebration in Ireland. A hundred years ago today, Irish rebels rose up against British rule and declared an Irish Republic (Although technically they did this in Easter 1916, which fell at the end of April). This is a little unusual because in Ireland we don’t really do patriotism like other countries, we don’t even an Independence Day. It is also unusual because the rebellion failed and the proclaimed Irish Republic was crushed within a week. But Irish history isn’t like other histories, it’s not a collection of successes and victories. Instead our heroes are noble failures, almost always defeated, but in a brave and proud way.
The traditional view of 1916 is quite straight forward. The rebels bravely fought against overwhelming odds before being crushed. They knew they would fail, so like Christ, they died for the rest of us (it wasn’t a coincidence that Easter was chosen as the date of rebellion). In doing so, they lit the torch of freedom and inspired others to fight and die for Ireland. Their sacrifice lead to another round of fighting known as the War of Independence and finally freedom in 1922. The rebels of 1916 were obviously heroes who liberated us from the evil British.
But history is never that straight forward. What is usually left out of the discussions of the heroic Easter Rising is that most people killed were neither British soldiers nor Irish rebels, the majority were civilians. They didn’t ask to die for Ireland, they didn’t want to be martyrs. They were just ordinary people trying to live their lives. You can’t say that a Republic improved their lives. There are no statues to them, no one asks what they died for, there are no songs or speeches about the grief of their loved ones. It is easy to speak of the glorious dead when other people are dying.
Each one of the 260 civilians killed had a name, a story, people they loved and people who wept because they would never speak again. 40 of them were children. What did they die for? Before you get too caught up in the flag waving and patriotism, stop and take a moment to think of them. War isn’t about the bravery of heroes or the speeches of leaders, but the dying of innocents. Irish freedom was bought with innocent blood, but did the rebels have the right to pay it?
What right did the rebels have to occupy buildings and force their views on the rest of the country? What right did they have to proclaim that every Irish person had a duty to their Republic? What right did they have to seize a city at the point of a gun? Nowadays it is unacceptable to use violence to achieve a political aim, so why was it acceptable in 1916? What about the people who wanted to remain part of Britain? Killing people doesn’t solve problems, it only makes more of them.
But what other option did they have? Would Ireland have received independence without violence? It’s impossible to know. Historians argue over whether it was the 1916 Rising or the 1918 election that was a larger spark for independence. Maybe Home Rule would have led to independence or at least enough self-governance. Or maybe we would have remained trapped under the heel of British oppression. Maybe the South would have followed the North into decades of sectarianism and violence.
If the rebels were justified to seize buildings in Dublin in 1916, what about the rebels who did the same in 1922? In some cases it was the same buildings (such as the Four Courts) and same people. They certainly saw no difference between themselves and 1916. The anti-Treatyites too believed that they were acting on behalf of the Irish nation. Yet the people of Ireland had voted otherwise, they had voted to accept the Treaty. A core principle of a real Republic is that the voice of the people is more powerful than any number of guns. No Republic can be built without this foundation. The Anti-Treatyites didn’t care about this, they believed they knew what was best for Ireland regardless of what the actual people thought, for this reason the Free State had to defeat them.
If there had been a vote in 1916, would the rebels have won? Were the people behind them or were the rebels seizing power both from the British government and the Irish people? This is a question we can never answer. However, even if a majority was against them, I suspect that the rebels would still have gone ahead. Pearse had a romantic poet’s view of war, writing that “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing” and described the senseless mass slaughter of World War One as “the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefield.” In reality, war is not glorious or romantic, it is horror. War is hell.
The Troubles complicate matters. Like the 1916 rebels, they claim to be fighting for Ireland against the evil Sasanach. But many Irish people are horrified that the murders of innocent people are done in their name. Many are disgusted at the notion that shooting men in the back or planting bombs in pubs promotes the cause of Ireland. In songs and stories the rebels are brave and heroic and the British are deceitful and oppressive, but in real life they are both just people doing what they think is right. The songs don’t tell of the reality of war, of the pain and suffering it causes. People don’t die nobly, they die scared and in agony.
The question of their legacy hangs over us today. The phrase “Did the men of 1916 die for this?” has become a common catchphrase useable in all situations. It can be used to describe the economy, emigration, the price of a pint, the state of the Irish language, the state of the roads, the government and pretty much anything else. It is especially flexible because no one is quite sure what exactly it was that the men of 1916 died for. That doesn’t stop commentators from claiming, though it usually turns out that they died for the opinions that the commentator happens to have.
While we certainly didn’t get the Socialist Republic James Connolly died for, to an extent we got the Catholic Gaelic Republic that Padraig Pearse died for. DeValera’s Ireland is pretty close to what Pearse imagined. An Irish speaking nation that produced itself all the goods it needed and whose people were pious Catholics not concerned with material goods.
Now you could say we didn’t live up to that legacy (most notably in our failure to speak Irish) or maybe the legacy wasn’t worth living up to. It proved impossible to make Ireland a self-sufficient island and attempting to cut herself off from the rest of the world made Ireland a stagnant and stifling place. Rejecting material goods sounds nice in theory so long as you are not living in a slum and wearing rags. Catholic spirituality is nice so long as you don’t commit one of the many sins, like being gay, having contraceptives or an abortion, divorcing an abusive husband, disagreeing with the priest, being a woman who doesn’t want to merely stay at home or just not being a Catholic.
Yes, 1916 (eventually) led to independence, but where did independence get us? Irish poverty had been blamed on British indifference if not active malice, yet independence did little to improve the situation. The slums that were a disgrace under British rule were still a disgrace under independence. Independence is a fine word and Republic is too, but neither put money in your pocket or food on the table. If people were just as poor in an Irish Free State as they were in the British Empire, can we really say their lives were better off?
Perhaps the strongest condemnation of independent Ireland came from the fact that tens of thousands of people emigrated every year. If an Irish Republic was so great then why did so many people flee its shores? Many of them went to Britain showing that perhaps while a free Republic makes for great poetry, a solid job is more important.
What would Irish life have looked like had we remained as part of Britain? Would there have continually been fighting, troubles and shootings? Or would we have eventually learned to live together? Perhaps British prosperity would have crossed the Irish Sea and maybe the British welfare state with it. The British yoke of oppression isn’t so bad if it comes with universal healthcare. Perhaps there would have been a strong counter balancing force to the Catholic Church that would have stopped it from abusing its power so obscenely. Or maybe Ireland would continue to be a poor neglected colony whose people lacked national pride.
If you are expecting some sort of argument or words of wisdom, then I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. This is probably the most uncertain blog I’ve ever written. But life and death are rarely clear cut with good guys on one side and the baddies on the other. Instead we have to face questions, however uncomfortable they might be.