I’m not known as a friend of revolutions. In general, it is safe to predict that what couldn’t be gained by negotiation is unlikely to be gained by bloodshed. What appears to promise a quick relief from oppression or any other situation considered untenable, causes too often the rise of a new level of pain, and tears, and sacrifice. Yet there is no rule without exception, as they say.
When I first heard of the “Easter Rising” (the last of quite a series of Irish rebellions against British rule; having commenced on Easter Monday of 1916 in Dublin, Ireland), the young boy I used to be was amazed beyond words.
Like many a young boy, I was intrigued by the idea that a “small number of valiant men”, had decided to stand up and take on the enemy in an effort to liberate their oppressed fellows. I had envisioned them as a host of “gun–slinging heroes with a shit–eating grin”, taking out British soldiers one by one as they happened to come across them.
Well, I was wrong, but owing to the limited access to relevant information a boy of my age and means had, I didn’t know better. Yet not once did it cross my mind that standing up for one’s fellows in times of distress could be considered unlawful by anyone, regardless of the means employed.
It wasn’t until years later that the complexity of this tragedy began to dawn on me, and I gradually developed a much deeper understanding of both the historical proportions of this relatively short incident and how much it influenced the modern Irish emotionally — even to this day.
In 2000, after having attended a guided tour of Kilmainham Gaol on Dublin’s Inchicore Road, I was left rather speechless. Some information I had gathered from other respectable sources up to that day suddenly seemed dubious, appeared in a different light, or had simply fallen out of place. I decided to begin a thorough research on the matter.
Little did I know that I would go on a journey to last nearly fifteen years — and end up with more old questions than new answers. To say I was frustrated, is putting it mildly.
It had taken me as far back as 1155 (Adrian IV’s Papal Bull) and in small steps back to present days. I had visited and interviewed various experts, all of them being recognised authorities in these fields (Irish history in general and the Easter Rising in particular), exchanged new findings and discussed questionable issues with some of them during a later visit and in letters, read dozens of books, spent twelve days in the National Archives of Ireland (An Chartlann Náisiúnta na hÉireann), reading witness statements and other files released until then — but every page I turned seemed to offer a different story. I had even called perfect strangers across the phone directory to possibly find living offspring, and visited surprised people who had no idea that their home once used to belong to a now famous person.
By the end of 2015, only months before the 100th anniversary, I eventually admitted defeat. I could still have written a book about those people who had grown so much closer to my heart, even though I seemed to know them less than ever before, but the wealth of information I had managed to discover did never quite support a plausible story.
I could have abridged the gaps with plausible fiction and taken some liberties with historical truth, as many of the people I had spoken to actually suggested, but that approach just didn’t feel right. I felt that, should I ever venture to write a book about these people, they had a right to their own rather than my story being told. Accomplishing less than this would be like dancing on their graves. After all, they had given their lives for a cause much greater than either of them was, while I had only spent fifteen years on a side–project, talking, and reading, and writing. And, let’s not talk falsely, a lot of publications on the Easter Rising and those involved have already contributed more than a fair share of “poetical freedom”.
Nevertheless, I do feel I have earned the right to utter my humble opinion on this entire matter. As has always been my habit in published writing, I will not release information I failed to verify by at least two independent sources. Thus, I have not really much to say that’s not already believed to be known about the people involved or the tragic events before, during, or after the Easter Rising.
It is not “patriotic disgust” that led me to publish these lines, for I am not even Irish and have never been a supporter of patriotism as it is commonly understood. Yet it is only fair to call a spade by its proper name.
Calling people who have mustered the courage to stand up to an oppressor — regardless of the circumstances that led to mentioned rising and the way it had been conducted — “terrorists”, or even implying as much, is nonsense. Anyone doing so is not merely wrong, he is ignorant.
If this person (or group of persons) believes to hold yet unheard of direct evidence regarding any historical event, they are certainly welcome to release their findings to authorities and recognised scholars in order for those to review them; otherwise — and I believe to speak for a great many individuals truly interested in history — they are most welcome to silently count to ten and then talk about matters they have a clue about.
As I implied earlier, a lot of facts regarding the Easter Rising and the people involved is still missing and will, I believe, remain unknown for all times, in parts owing to the lack of thorough documentation at the time, but also because the memories of those contemporaries who actually had been witnesses had obviously suffered considerably by the time they contributed their statements.
The legacy of the Easter Rising is in fair parts actual history and folklore. There cannot be two minds about the fact that not every detail of it is coherent. Yet everyone trying to raise doubts about the participants’ proper conduct will be hard pressed to produce evidence. Even their enemies voluntarily testified the rebels’ impeccable soldierly behaviour.
I know a thing or two about unbiased research, but I failed to find even one piece of evidence — direct or circumstantial — that would suggest activities (in either camp) before, during, or after the rising that could be considered “terroristic”.
The Easter Rising deserves its place in history for what it was: a minor, local conflict that was overshadowed by the much greater number of casualties and damages that resulted from battles fought in the major theatres of the Great War. And its participants deserve to be remembered for who they were: soldiers in the best Irish tradition. They were teachers, poets, workers, civil servants, gentry, politicians, and entrepreneurs. People, who had no obvious reason to leave behind their families and their relatively comfortable lives to make a stand that was doomed from its conception. They could have run from conscription or found other ways to avoid fighting under the Britsh flag in the Great War, but they haven’t. They chose the only path that seemed dignified to them.
While geopolitically rather irrelevant, for Anglo–Irish politics — and for following Irish generations also emotionally — it marked, without a doubt, the starting point for today’s Ireland. Without this “Triumph of Failure”, as Ruth Dudley Edwards put it so aptly (in her biography of Patrick Pearse), British rule in Ireland would probably have continued for decades, perhaps even to this day. The Irish Free State and her successor, the Republic of Ireland, may have never come into existence, and her inhabitants would still have to rely on the benevolence of British lords.
To put all this into a plausible context, it is important to remember that the signature of British rule in Ireland used to be political terrorism (I’m sorry, but there is no lesser term to properly describe the conduct of British rulers on Irish soil for centuries).
It may have started as “mere Apartheid” with the “Statutes of Kilkenny” in 1367, actually targeted at the English lords who were found to have assimilated Irish fashion and manners, but ventured well beyond segregation in the early 1700s, at the very latest. It is fair to state that Ireland had for centuries been the battleground to settle British domestic power struggles, robbed blind to afford British projects abroad (in colonies of the Empire other than Ireland), while her own people had been starving, and that a great number of Irish had been subjected to eviction, deportation, or death, for no better reason than being not British.
As far as the Irish were concerned, they owed the British nothing. Nevertheless, they had managed to almost arrive at the point of gaining home rule by means of political effort and nothing but — and were ultimately betrayed (again, there is no lesser term to properly describe the British failure to make good on the promise to grant Ireland self–government). So yes, if there ever was a justified revolution, it was the one of 1916.