This weekend we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the rebellion that gave the Republic of Ireland its foundation myth. As an origin story, Easter 1916 can be hard to live with. Its egalitarian and revolutionary ideals were quickly brushed aside by a deeply conservative political class intent on pushing anyone feminist or left-wing out of Irish politics. And the bumps and inconsistencies in how the leaders of the rising behaved were ironed out till the whole thing looks like one of those over-embroidered altar cloths with starched creases in all the wrong places. The whole enterprise fell victim, for many decades, to a pietistic impulse to canonise the leaders of armed rebellion, making them seem weirdly inhuman. But they were never distantly inhuman to me, despite what I learnt in school. When I first came across Benjamin’s now over-used expression, ‘rubbing history against the grain’, I knew exactly what he meant.
In 1916, my great-grand father, Eoin MacNeill, was the head of a dissident army, the Irish Volunteers. At its height, before many left and volunteered to fight in World War I, the Irish Volunteers numbered about eighty thousand men. (To put it in context, that’s within a few thousand of the British Army’s post-austerity total, today.) Eoin MacNeill was one of the most unlikely rebel leaders you can imagine. He was a scholarship boy from a small town in Antrim. He devoured Latin, history and Ancient Greek, and as a scholar opened up new areas of research in Irish language and laws. With Douglas Hyde, he co-founded the Gaelic League, a countrywide movement that was part of Europe’s late nineteenth century surge in cultural nationalism and also a great way to meet young people of the opposite sex. In pictures, MacNeill looks pale and fine-boned. He wears the fastidious little glasses everyone did who spent most nights reading in poor light. He is as far from a soldier as anyone can be.
After the 1911 Parliament Act was passed, some form of Home Rule for Ireland was inevitable. The House of Lords, whose aristocratic members were genetically opposed to Irish independence, lost their ability to block it. They could only delay the inevitable. Unionists in the north of Ireland began to organise and arm their own militias, with arms shipments nodded through customs more often than not. They were determined to fight against independence or, more honestly, the independents down south.
In this torrid atmosphere, MacNeill wrote an article in An Claidheamh Soluis, a nationalist publication, called ‘The North Began’. As in, ‘the North has begun arming itself, and so should we’. So it was with a speech act that this scholar triggered the founding of a dissident army. MacNeill was a couple of decades older than many of the men he commanded. Some of them were ‘constitutional nationalists’ who believed in edging forward through legal and parliamentary means. Over time, the leadership came to be dominated by men from a different tradition, the Irish Republican Brotherhood; Fenians who believed political violence was both justified and necessary to make Ireland finally free.
By 1916, two years into a world war, the army’s young bloods were getting bored of practicing their Irish and doing drill with hurleys and agricultural tools. The war had put the already slow progress towards an attenuated independence, Home Rule, on hold, and many fellow rebels had gone to fight – with real rifles – for ‘poor little Catholic Belgium’. ‘England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity’; the time for an armed independence struggle had never been better. But MacNeill was adamant. The Volunteers would only fight in self-defence, if they were under direct and proven threat.
The events that precisely triggered the Easter Rising are a little murky. They involve the capture of Roger Casement’s arms shipment, and feature the great hero of the Rising, Padraig Pearse, lying to MacNeill, forging documents and kidnapping and holding his socialist rivals until they acquiesced. Whether the leaders were about to be rounded up and imprisoned is unclear. MacNeill believed it, until he didn’t, but by then it was too late.
These aren’t the bits of the story we dwelt on in primary school, where the emphasis was on the bravery and heroism of the rebels in the face of unstoppable British military might. Nor did we ask, later on in secondary school, about the ethics of launching a doomed rebellion that killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children from central Dublin’s overcrowded and unsanitary tenement buildings.
On the Saturday of Easter weekend, MacNeill sent the countermanding order all over the country and by every coded means possible. One of his sons drove a motorbike to rural Tipperary to near where I grew up, warning the local organiser to leave the guns at home. (I made a short film of my youngest sister’s primary school class learning about this episode twenty years ago. It’s inadvertently revealing of the pre-revisionist version of Irish history.) Not everyone got the message or agreed with it. Some rose up and others didn’t. The confusion, delay and lack of numbers meant the whole enterprise was doomed. But thanks to the countermanding order, the rising was even more of a half-arsed shambles than it needed to be.
We all know the rest of the story. The rising was destructive and massively unpopular in Dublin, and was snuffed out the moment the English sailed a gunboat up the Liffey. (British artillery were the cause of most civilian casualties.) But the courts martial and execution of the leaders in twos and threes, some of them too injured to stand or even understand, turned popular opinion once again, making legends and heroes of our glorious failures. Anyone who had not been involved had committed political suicide.
During the rising, Eoin MacNeill, in another instance of honour over political nous, wrote to the man putting down the rising, offering to broker peace and limit the loss of life. General Maxwell, fresh from the mass battle graves of Europe, had no patience for this. He accepted, and had MacNeill arrested the moment he arrived at Dublin Castle. As one of the later leaders to be tried, MacNeill avoided execution and was shipped off to a prison camp in Wales, with everyone else.
(We have a family story that must be myth, of Lloyd George’s grand-daughter coming to visit, years later, and telling of playing in the garden of No. 10 when her grandfather appeared, holding a letter and frowning. Why do you look so sad, she asked. Because I have been asked to order the execution of some men, he said. Do those men have little girls like me, she asked. They did, in the form of my grandmother and great aunts, so he decided against. It seems too cute to be real. Maybe something like that happened some time, but I don’t think it happened to us.)
In a small town, it can be good to have some odd little kind of fame. Once, when we hadn’t long lived in Cashel, I was sent up to the secondary school where I was stood at the front and shown to a history class as the girl whose great grandfather had ordered the Rising. They probably thought I looked like any other girl. I thought they were all enormous.
But while my teachers were proud and pleased to have a little scion of our nation’s history in the classroom, I always felt a bit ashamed. (And now I feel ashamed that I felt ashamed. It really is an endless gift.) It was clear from our textbooks that the real heroes of 1916 were the men who were executed for the hopeless revolution. Being related to the clever, bookish man who ordered it, but then took it back, was obviously better than being one of the great unwashed who never rose up at all. No one wanted to be related to anyone who had merely fumbled in a greasy till. But being descended from the crumple-suited and scrupulous fish-out-of-water intellectual wasn’t as good as being related to Pearse, who died young and handsome and whose blood-flecked poetry we all memorised. I still can’t see a deep red rose and not think of him. Any child who had made their First Confession could make the link – symbolic, of course – between Christ’s Easter Passion and Resurrection and Pearse’s self-sacrifice which formed the covenant on which we had built our nation.
I always felt slightly ashamed that ‘my guy’ was the one in glasses, the one who tried to make everyone act responsibly and stay at home. The one who wanted to avoid unnecessary casualties and who thought making the first strike was immoral. It never once occurred to me to think my ancestor was wrong. I wasn’t that sort of child. I would like to say that having a family history that parted company with official history made me distrustful of the latter. But I wasn’t even that kind of teenager. It just made me envious and defensive in a way I couldn’t admit, like someone whose football club are perennial losers but who could never imagine changing teams.
I don’t know when that feeling went away. It wasn’t reading the hagiography of my great-grandfather written by a relative in the 1980s. It wasn’t even studying history at a university where the revisionists – those who questioned and sometimes demolished the De Valera hold-overs of heroic nationalist myth – were in the ascendant. Perhaps it’s just being a factor of alive long enough; your sensibilities expand sufficiently to embrace ambivalence. You know there are no absolutes and you learn to distrust people who claim there are.
Only people who think about political violence in the abstract can cultivate any ethical equanimity about it. Take a long look at your child or partner or beloved friend, and ask yourself if an idea exists that matters more than they do. Of course it doesn’t.
The question isn’t whether the Easter Rising accelerated Ireland’s independence or made it happen at all; it’s whether it was worth the death of one bow-legged tenement child. Of course it wasn’t.
Like everyone else, I bumble along thinking in only the haziest terms about the historical bargain I have benefited from every day of my life. I love my country and I am glad it is where I am from. But I didn’t earn it. I gave up nothing to get our independence, and neither did most of the people who will celebrate this weekend. We simply have no right to assert from the distant comfort of 2016 that anyone’s life was worth the harp on the front of our passports. And the 1916 heroes who gave up their lives for Ireland’s independence? Perhaps we should measure their sacrifice against the lives they took of others who had no such luxury of choice.
Pearse didn’t see out the world war or even the summer of 1916. He was already gloriously dead when Europe’s nationalist myths of bloody but noble death were trampled into the blood and mud of the Somme. His poet’s soul would not have survived contact with real war any more than most of ours’ would. I sometimes imagine him and the shell-shocked Septimus Smith from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting on the grass of a London park, listening out for the birds or the trees to whisper their godly truths of how things really work. I think they would have understood each other.
Violent deaths are not beautiful, or glorious. Bullets pierce eyes and buttocks and slice off little fingers. Bombs mean nails and screws and assorted shipyard confetti shredding through human flesh and embedding infection and debris deep in the bodies of survivors. There is nothing glorious about any of it. People don’t die gloriously for their beliefs. They die instantly or silently or crying out in pain.
The notion of tactically risible but symbolically meaningful blood sacrifice is one that angry and stymied young men have always embraced, not least this week in Brussels. There is nothing new about disenfranchised twenty-somethings appropriating the images and ideas of whatever religion they happen to grow up around to tart up the essentially adolescent idea that blood cleanses, especially the blood of others.
What we now call radicalisation is simply the age-old desire of the young to believe in purity; to believe in it so completely that it comes above human life. But purity does not exist. Humanity isn’t good enough at any single thing to make it more important than the irreplaceable consciousness of just one of us.
I am proud of my great grandfather because he put imperfect, venal, smelly, crumpled, day-to-day humanity ahead of inhuman ideals of blood sacrifice and the mere possibility of political and cultural perfection. The space in between those absolutes is where we flourish. It is where most of us live our imperfect but unique lives. MacNeill might have been a cannier politician that weekend. If he had, Ireland’s history would have been very different. But it is hard to see how he could have been a better man.