The Easter Rising: romance and regret but no barrier to reconciliation

in response to David McCann’s very personal and sincere post, I must say that the Rising is part of my history but not part of my cause. I approach it with fascination and regret. Regret for the delayed victory for physical force it represented. But how could it not inspire? The world was in turmoil; nothing would do but for the “Army of the Irish Republic” to start their own little war too. And of course the Jesus parallel and the martyrology still works.” Oh death where is thy sting, oh grave thy victory.. “the fools the fools they have left us our patriot dead..” and all that. Great stuff if you’re a believer, still terrific propaganda for the detached and the sceptic.

The Rising is safely far enough back in the past to appreciate the element of nobility while shaking one’s head at the quixotic. But don’t let’s overdo the nobility. What nobility was there to open the engagement by shooting the unsuspecting sentry at Dublin Castle in the head and bear main responsibility for almost 500 dead,  80% of them Dublin citizens?  I must admit I enjoy Kevin Myers’ fiercely detailed revisionism that must wind up even the mildest Irish patriot. Nevertheless I admire the many glimpses of humanity seen on all sides, such as the solder escorts of the surrendered of the GPO, held after a cold night in the open at the Rotunda, telling some of the younger ones to eff off home.

It’s the character of the leaders that’s most fascinating. I’m with Yeats in admiring Mac Diarmada and Mc Donagh who I think it was rejected the idea of seizing Trinity because its destruction would have been * a national catastrophe”. Pearse comes across to me as an Irish Rupert Brooke type and a gay hysteric. I wonder what the old toughie Connolly really thought of him. I’m tickled by the story that Dev had a nervous breakdown at Boland’s Mill and could hardly hold himself together – but that could be later Fine Gael propaganda.

It was Collins on the fringes in 1916 who learned the tough lessons of how daft it was to barricade themselves in buildings and wait to be shelled out of them. He must have thought Pearse was a total bollocks as a general, as was milady Markievicz  for trying to dig trenches in the Green rather than seize the commanding heights of the Shelbourne. Pearse the theatrical propagandist and sacrificial lamb and Collins the effective terrorist and pragmatic politician. That was the sequence that delivered success.

Collins impresses precisely because of his pragmatism. Ruthless but not romantic, he wrapped the whole thing up in four years, unlike our lot who think he’s their model . Perhaps there’s a social class point to make here ; Collins had no illusions and was rural working class. The executed leaders of 1916 were mainly middle class and romantic. Collins only became romantic after he was assassinated . I like to think it exasperated  his shade in purgatory to become one of sainted martyrs. He surely didn’t mean for that to happen.

Another impressive figure is largely forgotten because he lacked the gift of the gab. Richard Mulcahy was the only man of 1916 to win any sort of victory when he led an ambush of the RIC at Ashbourne and inflicted 18 dead at a cost of 2 volunteers. It was Mulcahy probably more than any other who steadied the ship of state after Collins’s assassination in August 1922. It was who gave the order as Irish Army chief of staff to carry out reprisals against Irregulars in the civil war, earning undying bitterness from what became  Fianna Fail. Strange how ruthlessness impresses and political romanticism irritates at this distance.

This 1971 RTE recording of veterans assessing Mulcahy’s career just after his death shows vividly how that generation of leaders aspired to be revolutionaries only temporarily. How lucky that generation was compared to ours. Listen carefully at how they glide over the reprisal executions, still so sensitive in 1971  (after the Arms Trial, remember) and  far more ruthless than what the  British inflicted.

l marvel that even in 1916, much British opinion led by the prime minister Asquith feared that the 15 executions by court martial were excessive and too hasty.  What other country would have been so lenient against rebels who also invoked “ gallant allies in Europe” in time of desperate war?

Then there is my counterfactual. If the militants had waited a bit and accepted the feeble Home Rule parliament, how could the British have  prevented it acquiring the same powers it had acquired by 1922 after almost three years of guerrilla war and over 3000 dead? But politics are only partly rational. Like so many others in emerging states, Irish militant nationalists had to have their fight. It’s pointless to begrudge nationalism its dramatic foundation myth. With respect to Kevin Myers, it’s no more nonsense than most and is no excuse against reconciliation today.

And yet … standing in those lovingly preserved terrible cells and the execution  courtyard of Kilmainham gaol , I lament the terrible waste of time and lives across most of the century which Easter 1916 inspired. But yes you’re right; it wasn’t all their fault. I haven’t started on the Brits and the northern unionists yet.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London