“MacDonough and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearce
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born”
“Easter 1916”, by W.B. Yeats
Alphen, Netherlands. 28 March. One of the many things my English teacher gave me was a love of the work of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Yeats’s grand poem “Easter 1916” does not simply tell the story of the the Rising against British rule. It speaks for Yeats about the unwanted, often unintended, ambiguous place of violence in politics and history. It also speaks of how love and hatred so quickly wrap themselves around and within the sinews of history to create myth. The pain Yeats suffered as an Irish nationalist who rejected violence also taught a young English historian at an ordinary state comprehensive school in 1970s England a lesson. It was a lesson at least as powerful as his later formal Oxford education; history has many sides, many faces, and many contradictions. Indeed, Yeats taught me to try to see myself in the other, even if the other seems at times beyond understanding.
“For England may keep faith; For all that is done and said, We know their dream; enough To know they dreamed and are dead”. The facts of the Rising and which peers through Yeats’s grand poem are indeed dramatic, although not epic. On Easter Monday 1916, on the eve of the great World War One naval battle of Jutland and the bloody Somme offensive, as tens of thousands of Irishmen rallied to the call of the King-Emperor and duly paid with their lives, a simple Morse code message emitted from Dublin. It stated that the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army had seized several sites across Dublin and the rest of Ireland, most famously Dublin’s post office, the GPO building.
The British Government reacted with fury. For London the rising was an armed insurrection, not a struggle of freedom fighters for independence; a stab in the back in the midst of an existential war of survival. The Rising lasted some six days in Dublin. However, it was not until 29 April, five days after the Proclamation of the Republic was issued that Patrick Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender of Republican forces to the British. Some 3500 were taken prisoner, with some 500 people killed on both sides, and up to 3000 wounded. Tragically and ironically more Irishmen died over the period of the insurrection fighting for the British in France and Flanders. Sixteen leaders of the Rising were quickly tried by court martial and executed by firing squad.
A century on what does the rising say of Ireland today? Critically, it was the manner by which the leaders of the insurrection were executed that turned a Republican defeat into an eventual victory. However, the Rising also set the tone of division on the island of Ireland that continues to this day. Yes, it led to Irish independence in 1922, but it also cemented armed struggle at the heart of Irish politics. Worse, the triumphalist 50th anniversary of the rising in 1966 led some Unionist leaders in the North of Ireland to conclude that the leaders of the Republic remained committed to armed struggle.
“Too long a sacrifice, Can make a stone of the heart”. Fifty years later a further 3000 lie dead. Read Yeats and it is precisely what transpired that he feared. ‘The troubles’ which tore Northern Ireland apart between 1969 and 1998 owed much of the brutality of both sides to the very nature of the 1916 insurrection and its crushing. As the armed struggle became stalemated it turned into a dirty war with splits within the Republicans and Nationalists being matched by splits within the Loyalist and Unionist. Over time the armed struggle came to look less like a fight for freedom and more like criminal terrorism.
The ‘war’ ended with a grand truce that is just about holding. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement which was then further solidified with the creation of the Power Sharing Executive in the north, and has been further cemented by good Anglo-Irish relations, evident in the sensitivity with which the Republic has approached the centenary of Easter 1916. However, the hatreds that fuelled the Rising and those who rejected it are never far from the surface on the island of Ireland.
“All changed, changed utterly”. A century on how does the rising speak to me? With the tragedy of Syria and the massacres in Paris and Brussels black roses upon roods of time it speaks not only of struggle, of vanguards, but in time of reconciliation, and the never-ending work needed to balance security, legitimacy and respect. However, the Rising still speaks to me of Yeats’s ambivalence, of (to coin the phrase of another poet) roads not taken and, sadly, of wrong roads wrongly taken.
However, this weekend and the manner in which Easter 1916 was celebrated by the Republic also speaks to me of hope. That those whose hearts are not cast in stone can still desire something others fear without the one descending into hatred of the other... Above all, it shows me that with respect over time even the most hateful of hatreds can be replaced by understanding and tolerance…but only if legitimate power stands firm and only over time.
“I have met them at close of day, Coming with vivid faces, From counter or desk among grey Eighteenth century houses”. The Rising also offers three insights into today’s terrorist threat. First, Easter 1916 was an armed insurrection, not terrorism. However, it also shows that violence over time can destroy the most noble of movements. Second, whilst the insurrectionists were Irish, not all Irishmen and Irishwomen were insurrectionists, even if many had sympathy with the aims of the Rising. Today’s terrorists maybe Muslim, but not all or even many Muslims are terrorists. Third, whatever the nature of struggle when ideas descend into carnage any claimed moral equivalency between terror and legitimate power is lost, whatever romantic poets may later write.
“This man had kept a school, And rode our winged horse”. Irish President Michael D. Higgins asked that all traditions affected by Easter 1916 commemorate/celebrate the Rising “with generosity”. Peace is not yet assured on the island of Ireland…but a century of from the Rising peace is at least a “shadow of cloud on the stream”. Yeats helped me to my ‘generosity’, by helping a young Briton to try and see himself in an Irish other, even when my country and by extension me were somehow painted as the font of all Irish troubles. Will I ever be able to see myself in the madness of an Islamist other? No, but I will continue to honour Islam and my Muslim friends, and the society of the decent to which we all belong; Irish, Muslim, Briton et al.
2016: from terror a beauty must be re-born.