W.B. Yeats` description of the Easter Rising, “A Terrible Beauty is born”, has become a widespread perception. “Terrible”? – certainly, as thousands of the surviving relatives of its victims on both sides of the Irish Sea over the past century can testify. But where, exactly, is the “Beauty”? Asks Henry Falconer
Patrick Pearse and James Connolly planned, through blood sacrifice, to bring into being a united, Gaelic speaking, socialist, independent Ireland. One hundred years on, none of their objectives has been achieved. Ireland is divided. The Republic which was eventually created in 1949 is English speaking, socially conservative and was until very recently dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. It survived economically only through mass emigration and a de facto currency union with the U.K. for much of the period. Pearse and Connolly were failures on their own terms. In the short term their actions brought about Civil Wars in Ireland which lasted almost as long (1919-23) as the American Civil War, although fortunately with far fewer casualties. Much worse, knowing full well that the Easter Rising would fail, they established a tradition which is still with us. They were the jihadists of their day.
And yet, and yet…….at least they were prepared to die, or at the very least risk death, for their beliefs – unlike their cowardly successors (with the honourable exceptions of the 1981 Hunger Strikers) who although taking the men of 1916 as their inspiration, so often targeted and murdered civilians, as in Birmingham, Omagh and Enniskillen, at little or no risk to themselves. And I very much doubt whether Pearse and Connolly would have agreed with the plots of their I.R.A. successors, Sean Russell and Seamus O`Donovan, to aid and abet a Nazi invasion of Northern Ireland in 1940 – surely a step too far even for committed Republicans?
It must also be said in defence of Pearse and Connolly that an independent, united Ireland was unlikely to be achieved at that time without violence of some sort. Optimists believe that because Home Rule for the whole of Ireland (or devolution, as we now call it) had become law at the outbreak of war in 1914 but suspended until the war was over, it would have come into being without the Easter Rising and the subsequent election victory of Sinn Fein in 1918 which all but eliminated the moderate Home Rulers. This is surely wishful thinking because of the intransigent opposition of Protestant Unionists in Ulster, who had already demonstrated their willingness to oppose Home Rule by force by importing arms from Germany in the spring of 1914. All attempts at compromise had failed. The Buckingham Palace Conference in late July 1914 had broken up without agreement. Moderate Home Rulers would agree only to the temporary exclusion of four counties from the jurisdiction of a Dublin Parliament; Ulster Unionists insisted on the permanent exclusion of six. Neither side had changed its position by 1918. The Home Rule Bill could only have been imposed on Ulster by force, and would even then have fallen well short of a fully independent, united Ireland.
The government in London also bears a heavy responsibility for the consequences of the Easter Rising. That the execution of 17 of its leaders created widespread sympathy in Ireland (hitherto lacking) for the Rebels is well documented. Even worse, the London government allowed the prospect of armed insurrection in Ulster to subvert the constitutional role of the Westminster Parliament, which had passed the Home Rule Bill in 1914, by refusing to implement it – yet it sent in the Black and Tans to defeat its opponents elsewhere in Ireland. And once Partition had come about by the division not only of Ireland but of Ulster itself, the London government did nothing for 50 years to prevent widespread discrimination against the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.
Might the outcome have been worse? The Algerian War of Independence ended not with partition but the re-settlement of the bulk of the French minority (pieds noirs) in metropolitan France. Would the re-settlement of Ulster Unionists in mainland Britain have been preferable to the status quo? Maybe, but such ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, for example, doesn`t seem a particularly good model. We cannot know for certain.
The Easter Rising encouraged others to follow its example by attempting to impose the views of a small minority on a majority by force. Its glorification by successive Dublin governments until our own time, albeit with apparently increasing reluctance, has re-enforced this. It probably did more to postpone than to hasten its goal of a united Ireland, but in any case a united Ireland is most unlikely to have come about without violence. A united Ireland is by no means impossible in the future, but it would be far removed from the vision of Pearse and Connolly. Where does that leave the men of the Easter Rising? Neither heroes nor villains, perhaps, but misguided idealists? The reader must judge.