Easter ’16, Once Again

DUBLIN—Here in Ireland, this weekend, Yeats’s terrible beauty becomes a centenarian. It might have had a letter from the Queen, were history different.

It is a pleasing sign of recent Irish social change that 1916 is not being commemorated as a good-and-evil struggle, one with Ireland on the side of the angels—and evil Britain receiving its due comeuppance and ouster. Call this the Wind That Shakes The Barley view of Irish historiography.

Consider halfway back, 1966, for something less nuanced and reflective. The conversion of Nelson’s Pillar into rubble—shortly after 1.32 am on 8th March, by a bomb placed by disaffected IRA man Liam Sutcliffe—lingers as the image of a 1916 turning 50. De Valera reportedly suggested the headline ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air’. David Norris calls it de Valera’s only recorded instance of humour.

A_half-demolished_Nelsons_Pillar_on_OConnell_Street,_DublinIn the south, the golden anniversary was, like Ireland, in the vise-grip of Fianna Fáil and Dublin’s Catholic Archbishop McQuaid. In the north, 1966 also was when the Rev. Ian Paisley came to the fore of Northern Irish politics, gathering 5,000 in Belfast to march in ‘thanksgiving’ for the defeat of the 1916 rebels. The 1916 anniversary would prove his path to ousting Terence O’Neill, who—Eton, Guards, a committed anti-sectarian—was an Ulsterman cut from a different cloth altogether.


But this Easter ’16 is a different terrible beauty. For one, the government-issued commemorative stamps include James O’Brien, first casualty of the fighting, a Catholic unarmed police constable with the misfortune to be on duty outside Dublin Castle. Another shows John Francis Foster, a two-year old shot in his pram in crossfire, the first of thirty children killed in the Rising. A third portrays two Dublin brothers, William and Michael Malone – one killed in the Rising, one at Ypres.


In 1966, students at Holy Faith Convent in Celbridge were being admonished that the 1916 Proclamation called for them to love their country—for example, through speaking Irish, purchasing Irish goods, or refraining from littering. For the generations then living to whom the Easter Proclamation had been addressed—‘Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom’—this must have sounded very weak tea indeed.

Come the day, and come a more open Irish society, and a swapped pair of state visits with Britain. Historical curiosity about forebears in the General Post Office—in my case, a great-grandfather and namesake—mingles with a view which is almost ‘1916: Not In My Name’.

This is the worry that deeming the Easter Rising the origin of independent Ireland neglects all the patient, political parliamentary work of Parnell and Redmond—work which had already led to Home Rule in 1914 (though suspended for the war).

H1 John Redmond

To find the way to home rule, Redmond had to rewrite the British Constitution for Irish ends. This he did by achieving the balance of power in the second 1910 election, and using it to abolish the Lords’ veto—which had blocked Gladstone’s home rule bill in 1894—in the Parliament Act 1911. When the Third Home Rule bill passed in 1912, Redmond stood in the Commons to say ‘I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day.’

1916, flashier, added nothing to this settlement, but just put the gun in Irish politics. This is worth repeating: the bloodshed of Pearse, Connolly, and the others, and the 5,000 falling in the War of Independence and Civil War, did not improve in any way on the deal on the table in 1914.

One thinks of Good Friday in 1998, 1973’s Sunningdale Agreement for slow learners.

But from 1916 momentum lay with the radicals, undercutting Redmond who, as late as January 1918, was within a whisker of securing Ulster Unionist acquiescence for all-Ireland home rule at the Irish Convention. Redmond died in March, telling the Jesuit who attended him, ‘Father, I am a broken hearted man.’

22/05/2015 NEWS ./Referendum Linda Cullen and Feargha Ni Bhroan with twins,Tess and Rosa CullenByrne after voting voting in Monkstown polling station in the referenedums, yesterday. .Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

The Proclamation reads poignantly in 2016. ‘Equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ took 99 years and a #MarRef to achieve. While ‘cherishing all of the children of the nation equally’, knowing what we now do about the clerical child abuse the 2009 Ryan Commission called ‘endemic’, is heartbreaking.
And none of this would have been heard in a very different country in 1966. We are all neo-Redmondites, now. And a much more reflective, modern, and mature Ireland for it.


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  • ted hagan

    Whatever the rights and wrongs, I think Northern Ireland has lost out on not throwing its lot in with the south. We’re a narrow-minded wee country, stunted in many ways.
    Destined to become more insular.

  • Anglo-Irish

    I agree, it makes NI Unionists look churlish, small minded and bitter.

    They are supposed to be loyal to the crown.

    If the queen can show some class and style in turning up and paying her respects to those who gave their lives for Ireland’s freedom then why can’t they?

    I was interested in the views of my family and friends in Clare regarding the queens visit and on my next trip asked them for their opinion.

    There was not one negative viewpoint expressed. Whilst all of them are republicans – small r – to a man and a woman they appreciated the gesture.

  • Msiegnaro

    Are you two on the level?

  • Anglo-Irish

    That comment may be something that means something to you, it means bugger all to me.

    Perhaps you could explain?

  • Nevin

    “Redmond who, as late as January 1918, was within a whisker of securing Ulster Unionist acquiescence for all-Ireland home rule at the Irish Convention.”

    Pádraig, can you produce any evidence for this highly unlikely claim? AFAIK, there was an agreement between John Redmond and Lord Midleton, a Southern Unionist, which went beyond what was passed in 1914. However, both gentlemen found themselves in no-man’s-land: Redmond resigned and Midleton was rejected by his Southern Unionist colleagues. Ulster Unionists participated in the Convention even though they knew it was a waste of time; Sinn Féin didn’t participate.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Interesting to see you using Lord Cushendun’s account Nevin. “Ulster’s Stand for Union” was published in 1922, almost on top of the events it describes, but still, even with a distinctly Unionist angle, is a fine account of rather complex events. Ronald McNeill, Lord Cushendun, was of course the brother of Ita McNeill, that doyen of Irish Ireland in the Glynnes. Her house stands just behind Glenmona House, designed for her brother when the little village of Cushendun was remodelled by the architect of Portmerrion ( where “The Prisoner” was filmed) by Clough Williams Ellis.

    It is a great pity that the unfortunate recourse to force from 1912, and its eventual eruption in 1916, robbed our community of the opportunity for the kind of honest compromise that Redmond and St John Brodrick were attempting to broker! Brodrick (Midleton) was of course the architect of the Unionist Anti-Partitionist League, which attracted the support of Lords Kenmare, Iveagh and Donoughmore, and much of the southern Unionist leadership. The split between the UA-PL and the Irish Unionist Alliance ensured that the northern counties effectively threw the Southern Unionists out of the sinking balloon to ensure another century (perhaps) of their own buoyant survival.

  • Jollyraj

    ‘I agree, it makes NI Unionists look churlish, small minded and bitter.”

    One could certainly make that comment about Republicans refusal to accept reality.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Republicans have accepted reality, the majority of them voted for the GFA.

    Reunification will come, there is an accepted process whereby it can now be achieved by political means, it will take time but it will be achieved.

    The dissidents are renegades who have gone against the clearly expressed wishes of the democratic majority, you know, like the Unionists did after Sinn Fein won an overwhelming majority in the 1918 Irish general election.

    I know that you and your pals like to claim that the dissidents represent all republicans, but they don’t.

    If they did we would have a full scale shooting war back, we haven’t and we wont because they are a small minority that lack sufficient support to carry out anything more than sporadic attacks.

  • Nevin

    Ronald’s book, “Ulster’s Stand for Union”, just happened to be free on Kindle and that’s where I first noticed it. I’m just a dabbler in genealogy, history and politics and the late A T Q/Tony Stewart is my favoured historian. Tony points out that Ronald threw the book at Winston Churchill – literally – following Winston’s taunting of the Unionists.

    Tony,in “The Ulster Crisis”, also suggests that the Ulster Unionist leadership sought to keep their supporters focussed on opposition to Home Rule and away from traditional forms of inter-communal stone-clodding. Catholic workers had been terrorised out of the shipyard following an attack in Castledawson on a children’s sunday school outing from near Belfast by AOH folk; there was a ‘collision’ of processions.

    The proposed formation of a Provisional Government of Ulster, the Ulster Covenant and the formation of the UVF were designed to bring a measure of discipline to Unionism as well as to signal to London an indication of the strength of Unionist opposition to side-deals involving Nationalists and Liberal governments.

  • pablito

    The whole of Ireland should have thrown in its lot with Redmond who had historically secured Home Rule. If fact if it had thrown in its lot with Wolfe Tone’s non-sectarian United Irishmen, perhaps even better. Although Redmond never contemplated a republic, the later collapse of the British Empire would have made it easy to achieve later on. Who knows how many lives could have been saved.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Because of O’Connell, Parnell, Redmond and the IPP and the patient negotiations that foreshadowed the Rising, the movement for independence was already gathering momentum. Would an independent Ireland with the inclusion of Ulster Unionists still have been achieved if the Rising’s leaders hadn’t acted so impetuously and a non-violent political path have been pursued just as relentlessly?
    Independent Ireland certainly got its seminal moment: one that eclipsed the efforts of those mentioned above while Unionist Ulster saw a further reason to feel estranged from all Ireland politics and betrayed by an increasingly alien agenda. Partition in the mind prefigured 1916 but Westminster guaranteed it by the Govt of Ireland Act, 1920. I see nothing in the Govt of Ireland Act, 1914 provisioning for partition and Redmond is more of a champion of realistic, long term stability than the dogmatic and delusionally messianic Pearse. Blood sacrifice, mo thóin!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m a great fan of Niall Ferguson since my wife, knowing of my endless interest in developing possibilities in history, bought m this “Virtual History” when first it came out. I’m well aware of the series of events that precipitated the descent into the maelstrom and the attempts to keep this under some form of discipline. I simply greave that wiser heads had not directed this away form the kind of armed confrontation the belligerent Empire Jingoists in the Conservative party were all to willing to encourage, and that some sensible compromise could not have been reached. I’ve identified a few times this might have worked in my own researches, but “if wishes were horses”, and all that! We are where we are, and all history can do is to guide us in not re-running our mistakes.

    I never met Tony Stewart but my edition of “The Narrow Ground” is my uncles, bought in 1977 when it first appeared. He posted it to me after he’d finished it. While I’m not uncritical (A T Q S could certainly have done with learning Irish!) I have all his work (other than the odd essays) in hardcover. A good and sensible Unionist historian, and a decent man, as I’ve been told.

  • pablito

    Padraig Belton writes “1916, flashier, added nothing to this settlement, but just put the gun in Irish politics. This is worth repeating: the bloodshed of Pearse, Connolly, and the others, and the 5,000 falling in the War of Independence and Civil War, did not improve in any way on the deal on the table in 1914.”

    This has been my view for many years. When Redmond managed finally to secure Home Rule, democracy could and should have taken its course. The implementation of Home Rule was put on the back burner as part of the war effort with the consent of Ireland’s elected representatives. The only achievement of 1916 was to put the gun, and with it much bloodshed, into Irish politics.