Great War Wednesday: The Easter Rising 1916


The Dublin General Post Office where the rebels headquartered.

The English and the Irish have hated each other for centuries. That hatred has ebbed and flowed from lows of simmering unrest to all out internecine warfare of the most foul and horrid kind over the long history of Anglo-Irish relations. One would have to search the annals long indeed before one could find a flare up of violence to quite match the bloodbath in the streets of Eire during the six days of Easter Week in 1916.

At the time of the rebellion, the rest of Great Britain, as we have noted for the last two years, was embroiled in desperate fighting on the continent in the midst of the Great War. Ireland at the time was under direct British rule, a fact which had chafed the proud Irish for as long back into the mists of time as Henry II. Though they had tried to throw off the English yoke several times before, never had they tried so hard, nor had England been so vulnerable as the massive Easter Rebellion.

The Rising began on Monday, April 24, 1916. Three Irish revolutionary armies — the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, and the Cumann na mBan — acted in accord and seized several British government buildings in Dublin and proclaimed Ireland to be a free and independent republic. Most notably, the rebels raised the Irish Republican flag over their de facto headquarters, the General Post Office in Dublin.

The British response was swift, harsh, and military. Many in England had started to soften towards the Irish over the decades since the last major rebellion in 1878 and the British Parliament had started working on several Home Rule Bills aimed at giving Ireland gradually more independence within the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, such goodwill evaporated in the face of what most saw as a rank stab in the back by the Irish nationalists when England was in the midst of dire straits.

The fighting centered on Dublin where British regular army troops by the thousands poured into the city and began nasty house to house fighting in a precursor to later 20th Century urban warfare. The further into the city center the solders got, however, the stiffer the resistance they encountered. Finally, the two sides formed a somewhat static front at one of the major city thoroughfares.

After the initial surprise of the Monday action, however, the rebels’ fate was sealed. The British Army, with two years experience on the Western Front, brought artillery to bear against the lightly armed revolutionaries. The provisional militias fought bravely and many of their actions are still sung today, but they had no way to counter the massive discrepancy in numbers or the artillery. As a result, by Friday, the Rising was over. The rebel leader nominally in charge of the coalition, schoolmaster Patrick Pearse, agreed to an unconditional surrender Thursday evening.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, over 3000 Dubliners — many who had nothing to do with the action — were rounded up and herded into internment or concentration camps to await trial . . . the use of concentration camps here and earlier during the Boer War enabled Adolf Hitler two decades on to blunt the English attempts to take the moral high ground near the outbreak of World War II by allowing the Germans in essence to say, “We got the idea from you!” The majority of the rebel leaders received swift courts-martial before being found guilty almost to a man, or woman, and were executed before the end of the year.

The political fallout of the Easter Rising proved enormous. For five decades the moderates in Ireland and England had been working towards a constitutional nationalism. That immediately gave way to martial law which stayed in effect long after the Rising ended. Many historians cite the Easter Rising as the opening round of the broader War of Irish Independence of 1919-1920 which would eventually lead to Britain giving in and granting Ireland, save for the Ulster counties, independence and the long sought Home Rule. Unfortunately, the situation in the Ulster counties would lead to a quasi-war between Britain and the Irish Republican Army which would last for decades and became known famously as “The Troubles.”

Probably the most famous non-political participant in the Easter Rising was famed Irish poet W.B. Yeats — incidentally one of my personal favorite poets. He wrote the following poem to commemorate the event.

Easter, 1916

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
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 winged 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,
Transformed utterly:
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.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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