National Hero

by Maria on March 25, 2016

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.



Daragh 03.25.16 at 7:59 pm

Maria – A typically beautiful essay. Thanks for this. My own upbringing – childhood in Canada, adolescence in Dublin but at a protestant school – happily insulated me from some of the more pernicious nonsense that goes along with creating a national mythos.

That being said, if you can get the RTE player to work there was a great debate on the Rising and whether it was justified. Despite the participation of Kevin Myers it managed to be relatively good tempered and illuminating. More to the point – the fact that, as a nation, we are comfortable enough in our skins that we can critically engage with our history in this manner, particularly it’s most seminal moments, is something we should be extremely proud of. Try telling the average American that the Boston Tea Party was organised by smugglers and tax-dodgers, and that the taxed British tea was cheaper and higher quality and see how far you get!


Russell Arben Fox 03.25.16 at 8:11 pm

Maria, if I may make an obviously ironic–yet sincerely meant–comment: this is a heroic essay. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Peter K. 03.25.16 at 8:30 pm

“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.”

“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.”

You seem to blame everything on the young. The problem is the old who have become corrupted by their comforts which they obtained via mere luck even as they tell themselves they “earned” them and earned the right to lecture the young who haven’t been so lucky.


Peter K. 03.25.16 at 8:31 pm

“It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor.”

– Tyrion Lannister


Seanohal 03.25.16 at 8:31 pm

This was a good read until the bit about how the whole thing was not worth it because of the death of the bow legged kid in the tenement. Even if you ignore the fact that the 1916 revolutionaries were socialists fighting against a colonial state that allowed a million starve to death while food was exported in, what was at that time, living memory, ignore the fact that the reason the kids were bow legged and living in tenements was due to official policy, and also ignore the fact that in their proclamation they expressly stated that they wanted to cherish the children of the nation equally, it is hard not to see the whole thing as a bit of a red herring.

How many children died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many young American GIs lived because those bombs were dropped?


The Temporary Name 03.25.16 at 8:34 pm

That was great.


Matt Kelly 03.25.16 at 8:34 pm

Thanks for writing this. An interesting and affecting autobiographical perspective. MacNeill’s writing, I think, provides a good place to start thinking critically about the Rising from a separatist rather than a home rule perspective. Whether his political reasoning was right will never be known, but his acute awareness of the problem of the north should sober up any celebrant of 1916.

Here’s my tuppence worth on MacNeill and his memorandum (there are a number of points I’d now refine, but the basic gist might be of interest):


toby 03.25.16 at 8:36 pm

Just two little “nits”:

Lloyd George was not Prime Minister during the Rising, nor during the executions – it was still Herbert Asquith, who visited Dublin to confer with Maxwell and must have approved the death sentences, at least in principle. The Lloyd George episode must have taken place sometime between 1919 and 1921.

Sir John Maxwell’s previous posting was in Egypt, though he had served in France. As he was aware of British reverses in what is now Iraq, such as the surrender of Kut to the Turks, it may have steeled his spirit for “stern measures”.


steven johnson 03.25.16 at 8:52 pm

“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.” Except the real question is whether putting down the Easter Rising was worth the death of one bow-legged tenement child? Unlike the OP, I say, of course it wasn’t.

“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.”

How then should we measure? What is the value of a life in a nation free from colonial oppression versus a life as a second class inhabitant of your native land? And how shall they have the luxury of choice? Let me guess, a democratic plebiscite, held under the benevolent auspices of the English?

“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.”

The summer of 1915 didn’t trample them? The mud and blood of colonial wars, including mud and blood in Ireland in times past, should have done quite enough to have buried any nationalist myths, which the OP seems to think are some sort of cognitive errors in moral psychology. Men possessed of these ideological demons just ran amok one day. But I say that the mud and blood was business as usual, and the Great War was not a temper tantrum but the inevitable outcome of an international regime premised on ruthless exploitation and competition.

The notion that so long as men do not fight, all is well, is to surrender all notions of justice in the name of bare survival for the victims of the present order, and the undisturbed complacency of the better classes. I do not think this is wise, much less good, no matter how heartfelt.

Whether or not the Easter Rising was good tactics is a what if? beyond my. But whether it was a moral atrocity is not. My judgment, unlike the OP, is “Not Guilty!”


Dipper 03.25.16 at 8:52 pm

not sure if its available outside the UK, but Brendan O’Carroll took a break from Mrs Brown’s Boys to do a programme on his family’s part in the uprising.

which, from this Englishman’s view point, seemed a very even-handed programme.


toby 03.25.16 at 9:01 pm

I am old enough to remember the 1966 commemoration of the Rising, as I was in my early teens then. It is amazing how innocent and non-contentious it seemed.

A first cousin of my mother was condemned to death for his part in the Rising, but he got deported instead. Both my parents were from families that were both nationalist and strongly pro-Free State.

The rebels did learn some lessons – Michael Collins is supposed to save said “No more effing Greek tragedies”, and John McBride, who had fought with the Boers, told his comrades as they surrendered “Lads, never get caught behind the walls of a building again”. The next round was a guerilla war directed by Collins, though a lot was yet to happen to make conditions favourable (not just the executions, and the sea-change in public opinion, but also the Conscription Crisis of 1918 and the elections of that year).

But I do not believe in telling my ancestors how they should have behaved. We are just not in their shoes. Young blood and old was being shed by the cubic litre from Dublin to Baghdad. No one knew how long the war would last in mid-1916, it could have gone on another decade. Meanwhile, there was a conviction that Britain would never willingly concede Home Rule without a struggle – and subsequent events do tend to bear that out.

OTOH, I find Pearse’s blood & religious rhetoric repellent, though such rhetoric was actually quite common throughout Europe at the time. I do feel quite torn by the Rising – why should I not be proud of my distant relative who was a graduate of St Enda’s (the school Pearse ran) and a Lieutenant in the Volunteers?

As my mother often told us, he raised the Green Flag with the golden harp over the GPO while Willy Pearse ran up the Tricolour. Willy Pearse was shot by a firing squad (mostly for being Patrick’s brother). Was Lieutenant Eamonn Bulfin (for such was his name) so much different from millions of young men raising flags and dying all over Europe?


Gabriel 03.25.16 at 9:01 pm

It’s a lovely essay, but I find myself gently, sadly disagreeing with some of it.

“Only people who think about political violence in the abstract can cultivate any ethical equanimity about it.”

This is expressly not true. Plenty of people in the mud, and the blood, and the shit – or who have lost people in same – believe the process to have been necessary. We can attempt to disregard their feelings, but I’m not personally comfortably with that.

“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.”

This seems to be straw-manning a bit. Those who revolt may engage in the horrors for abstractions, but they often also do it to (hopefully) materially change lives for the better. Are we to say that the Haitian revolutionaries in 1789 were wrong in what they did, even if they fought partially for the abstract idea of freedom?

We can reject jingoism, militarism, and bad history without the above, I think.


Ronan(rf) 03.25.16 at 9:11 pm

I’ve a couple of questions on MacNeill,(for anyone really) who I don’t know a huge amount about.
My understanding (as the OP implies) is he wasn’t opposed to using violence (afaicr he actually favoured guerrilla war over 1916 style propaganda,of the deed). What were his positions on the use of violence? That it could only be waged in self defence? That it had to have a chance of Being successful to be legit? Or….
And What was his retrospective views of the legitimacy of the rising ?(it seems the rebels were more right than wrong over the practical uses of a “symbolic blood sacrifice”) Also what were his positions on the legitimacy of violence during the war of independence and civil war?
I think think the concentration on pearse (in general, not the OP) skews the perspective of the rising. As ferghal mcgharry shows in his books which look at what drove people (“from the bottom up”) to violence, they had multiple motives and levels of commitment. Pearses peculiar ideology and level of commitment was an exception more than the norm.


Maria 03.25.16 at 9:19 pm

Gabriel @ 12, thanks. My thoughts on this aspect aren’t as clear as I’d like and I read your comment with interest.

Toby @8, ah. I was writing from memory and meant to go and check who was actually PM at the time, but didn’t. Now that most likely apocryphal story sounds even shakier.

Thanks, everyone else for the comments and suggestions.

I’m going to be offline for the next few days and I suspect this may be a long thread so … good luck! And happy Easter / Passover etc.


otpup 03.25.16 at 10:15 pm

One of the things that confuses me about the history is the role of the executions on public opinion. Given common practice at the time of both the treatment of those convicted of treason and those (in the trenches) thought to be impeding the defense of the nation, how could anyone have reasonably believed that at least the leaders would not be executed. Is it just that the power of the martyr image so compelling?

(Also, in response, being a socialist doesn’t automatically make one an insurrectionist and the history of the Republic for most of the 20th C seems to suggest Ireland was not particularly ready for socialism of even fairly moderate forms.)


F. Foundling 03.25.16 at 10:27 pm

@Seanohal 03.25.16 at 8:31 pm
>How many children died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many young American GIs lived because those bombs were dropped?

I wonder if I’m correct in reading this as ‘*Of course* the Easter Rising was moral, because after all, as we all know, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was!’, or whether my misanthropy and anti-Americanism have got out of hand this time.


Ronan(rf) 03.25.16 at 10:29 pm

The leaders expected to be executed. The reaction was in part to what was perceived as the arbitrary, secret and illegal nature of the executions. It was seen as underhand, whereas the rebels (whstever you thought of them) had been chivalrous and brave and fought honourably. You’re right ‘re the martyrdom aspect afaik. Mcgharry mentions that their piety , and their willingness to die for their beliefs , resonated with a Catholic population (and of course the norms of the time, which saw nobility in such an act) and was easily translatable into , what he calls, “the nationalist perception of the execution as a latter day passion “


Kal 03.25.16 at 10:37 pm

“people before ideas” is a cliche that is:
1. An impossibility, taking as a premise either (a) that we could somehow avoid making any collective decisions which inflict suffering or death, or (b) that all collective decisions of significance could somehow be made non-politically, without ideas.
2. In practice, usually associated with a bias in favor of the status quo; the only way most of us can imagine that we are acting un-ideologically is by obeying the norms of our society unthinkingly.
3. An implicit valuation of people nearby/”like me” over people whose lives do not intertwine with mine; after all, the experiences of such distant people are necessarily abstract for me. I might support (by votes, taxes, employment, purchases…) a policy which involves starving them or blowing them up while remaining kind to each person who I meet as an individual. And many people do.


Ronan(rf) 03.25.16 at 10:37 pm

..just to add, I only saw Matt Kelly’s 7 now which pretty much answers my questions at 13 (I’m sure no one cares. But Just to note)


F. Foundling 03.25.16 at 11:19 pm

>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.

I see others have made more or less the same points, but posting anyway: whatever the merits of this specific uprising, one must bear in mind that people’s being unfree and not in control of their own destiny tends to lead to the misery and, ultimately, deaths of children, too (and examples from Irish history aren’t hard to find). In general, ‘ideas’ and principles stand for phenomena that affect humans in vital ways in the real world; they are not nothing, in spite of the fact that one can neither touch them nor love them in the same way as one can love the individual humans whose lives and happiness they are about. After all, even the idea and principle that you must care about the fate of other people’s children and loved ones is … exactly that, an idea and a principle (you can’t just trust your heart to care about everyone in the world who deserves it regardless of their personal connections to you). Whether specifically the benefits of the Easter Rising happened to outweigh its costs at that particular point in Irish history is a different matter – judging from the link at 7, MacNeill obviously had his reasons to think that a rebellion wasn’t the right decision at that moment, but it seems equally obvious that he wasn’t a Dostoyevsky-style ‘single tear of a child’ pacifist either.


harry b 03.25.16 at 11:19 pm

Maria. Bloody brilliant. Thanks.


Murc 03.26.16 at 12:00 am

In 1916, my great-grand father, Eoin MacNeill, was the head of a dissident army,

So you and Daragh are… some species of cousin? Second cousins?

(I vaguely recall Daragh mentioning over at LGM that he, also, was a great-grandchild of Eoin MacNeill.)


Micheal Lunny 03.26.16 at 12:38 am

It’s a shame that the briefness of your essay only allowed you to mention Pearse and not any of the any figures in the rising, for example socialist firebrand James Connolly, or the unusually prominent and progressive role of women in the rising , or how Dublin, a wealthy city, had somehow ended up with what were reputedly the worst slums of any city in the UK.

Also when you recall that the main proponents of Home Rule were encouraging Irish men to enlist in the British Army (where thirty thousand died in the First World War) the calculus on lives lost seems a little more involved than just the civilians who were killed during the rising itself.

This is not to mention what kind of country home rule would have thrown up, Redmond’s pro home rule IPP were intensely conservative and anti-labour, the universal suffrage that the Irish Free State had in 1927 might not have come for decades.

Finally if I was writing an essay on the futility of revolutionary violence I might avoid using a single bow legged child as an example of how little the founding of an Irish republic was worth.


Layman 03.26.16 at 1:02 am

I’m out of my depth here. Just want to say that this brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully done. Thank you, Maria.


Donald A. Coffin 03.26.16 at 1:07 am

“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.”

Phil Ochs:
“For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh, I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marching anymore

“It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all”

In my lifetime, in my country, those who have led the way to the deaths of thousands, have been the old, the Johnsons and Nixons and Cheneys and Bushes, trying to prove that they are strong, resolute, tough. And while they have been abetted by many, they have been opposed by many as well. And a fair number of those opposed have been the young who saw nothing beautiful in death. (Honesty compels me to note that some, perhaps many, of the young, and here I include the Weather Underground, didn’t get it.)


Raven Onthill 03.26.16 at 1:35 am

“Nothing is as cruel as the righteousness of innocence / With automatic weapons and a gospel of the truth.” —


Moby Hick 03.26.16 at 1:40 am

The name and Fenianism remind me of my home town’s remembrances of its founder, John O’Neill. He wasn’t so scholarly, but he did invade Canada.


Raven Onthill 03.26.16 at 1:48 am

I think also, one of the lessons is that preparing a defense is that it can turn into an offense terribly easily. When Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were planning their movement, they rejected self-defense as policy for exactly this reason.


Brett Dunbar 03.26.16 at 2:29 am

The Irish had the same voting rights as anyone else in the UK the the Government of Ireland Act 1914 had passed; although the Suspensory Act 1914 delayed implementation until after the war. As Ireland was able to participate fully in democratic politics it’s difficult to justify resorting to murdering people.


Layman 03.26.16 at 2:35 am

@ Brett Dunbar, I suspect you are secretly awaiting your broken clock moment.


Brett Dunbar 03.26.16 at 2:58 am

The 1914 Act gave Ireland extensive self government excluding the six counties on Northern Ireland due to the strong political opposition to home rule in that area. Bluntly the Irish had basically won, the long standing political objectives had mostly been achieved even if there was a delay on implementation. The point of democracy is that you can make radical changes non-violently if you have popular support.


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 3:25 am

They hadn’t won an “extensive” form of home rule, certainly not when compared to what they got after the treaty. Violence won them the “extensive” part. Whatever the rights or wrongs of that fact .


Peter T 03.26.16 at 4:11 am

I’ve read too many memoirs of people (not all young) who acknowledged the blood and shit and waste and suffering, but were still proud of what they had done, proud of the people who died with them, proud of what they had collectively achieved, to take a position on this one way or another. Beautiful piece, Maria.


Matt Kelly 03.26.16 at 8:16 am

Here’s a chunk of a paper I gave recently, developed from this: My aim was to understand MacNeill’s position, rather than pass judgement (I don’t pay enough attention to his views on the North). It’s a bit preachy towards the end, but it gives you lots of MacNeill’s actual words. There’s a hyperlink to MacNeill’s memo on the blog.

MacNeill was a republican, he believed the Irish people had the right to bear arms, he was the Volunteer Chief of Staff – the highest ranked officer in the organization – and he considered the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 to be a sovereign act by the Irish people. He believed the Volunteers had the right to resist by force any attempt of the British government to disarm them. He was also, of course, responsible for the notorious countermand of Easter Saturday. Most of the arguments we hear against the rising tend to be from those who believe the Home Rule campaign still had potential. MacNeill was not a home ruler. As such, no serious-minded republican, however moved by the heroism of Easter Week, should casually dismiss his arguments.

The memorandum runs to eleven handwritten pages. The exact circumstances of its composition are not known, but it seems to have been written in March 1916 in response to heightened Volunteer activity and MacNeill’s growing fear that the organisation was increasingly out of his control. His fears proved well founded. The rebellion began with something approaching a palace coup and constituted a gross act of insubordination by his officers.

In the memorandum, MacNeill made a strongly consequentialist case against rebellion, arguing that a rebellion would be ‘morally wrong’ if its principal instigators knew it stood little chance of success: those responsible for the act would thus ‘incur the guilt not only of that action itself but of all its direct consequences.’ To kill anyone under such circumstances would be ‘murder’. This raises complex moral questions of causation and consequence. Approximately 450 people died during the rebellion, over half whom were civilians. But it is generally thought that the civilian dead were mostly killed by the British—they were the ‘collateral damage’ of the suppression of the rebellion.

Should we say that those deaths were caused by, or were a consequence of, the rebellion and thus, by MacNeill’s reckoning, murder, for which all parties were responsible to one degree or another? Or would it be more correct to say that the deaths were caused by the British suppression of the rebellion, acts quite distinct from the relatively limited violence that commenced the rebellion? To put it another way, if the first stage of the rebellion was the occupation of various buildings in Dublin and the reading of the proclamation, should the rebellion be considered to have entered a new stage and, as a such a new moral phase, when the rebels began to resist the British response?

To answer these questions, which flow directly from MacNeill’s memorandum, invites us to consider what philosophers call moral luck: moral luck, good or bad, is at play when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgement despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control. Given that it is probable that the rebels believed they couldn’t win and that people were likely to die as a consequence of Britain’s probable determination to suppress their rebellion, did they become morally culpable for the deaths caused by their prolongation of Britain’s effort to suppress the rebellion? The implication of MacNeill’s position seems to be that they were. Moreover, if the rebels had defeated the British and realised their republic, MacNeill’s position seems also to have been that if this were achieved against their reasonable expectations, the moral status of their acts would not have been changed. In other words, he rejected what is sometimes termed ‘resultant luck’, by which the morality of an action is partially assessed in terms of how things turn out. Instead, MacNeill lays the emphasis on intention or will—and it seems plausible to suppose that, in this respect, MacNeill was knowingly Kantian.

The implication of MacNeill’s argument is that had Pearse simply read the proclamation and then had the Volunteers march home – or surrender – their action would not only have been politically less significant but their moral burden concomitantly lighter. The argument is made more complex, however, by the fact that some of the rebels mounted the rebellion because they wanted the British to hit back hard because they believed this would mobilise the people around a more separatist or republican nationalism.

Now, MacNeill was not entirely out of sympathy with this logic. He did recognise that a rebellion might be both productive and morally justifiable if its purpose was ‘to produce an ultimate effect on the national mind’—it could be justified as epiphanic—but he set the bar very high, arguing that a rebellion would be legitimate under these circumstances only if the destruction of Irish nationality was imminent. And given that MacNeill didn’t believe Irish nationalism was in such jeopardy, blood sacrifice, and its attendant collateral damage could therefore not be legitimised.

This reminds us that although MacNeill was a republican and a separatist, he was also a political pragmatist who, in contrast to the rebel leadership, did not condemn home rule as fundamentally at odds with Irish nationalism. He did, however, think that home rule had effectively been defeated, but, as I will come to in a moment, how he thought Irish nationalists should respond to this differed fundamentally to the rebel leadership.
MacNeill also argued that the potential success of the rebellion, in other words that which might make it legitimate in is view, could only be calculated in terms of its likely actual and immediate consequences, rather than ‘some future moral or political advantage which may be hoped for as the result of non-success.’ MacNeill’s position is that there is no moral case for taking the life of another on the grounds that this might trigger a succession of events that would retrospectively justify the original act. As such, he dismisses justifications of rebellion that are predicated on what moral philosophers term ‘resultant luck’. Instead, a rebellion could be only justified when based on ‘actualities’ rather than ‘instinctive feeling or premonitions or on the adoption of a priori maxims’. Feeling or instinct, MacNeill insists, gave no ‘justification for any deliberate course of action involving moral responsibility.’ A man who cannot give a ‘reasonable account’ of a proposed action must be allowing ‘instinct’ to override ‘judgement’. It cannot be morally justified to issue orders arrived at through instinct.
MacNeill moves from this abstract reasoning to deconstruct three a priori maxims that seem to be propelling his comrades towards an immoral action. They are, first, ‘it is essential that Ireland take action during the present war’, second, ‘Ireland has always struck the blow too late’, and, third, ‘in military matters the advantage lies with the side that takes the initiative.’ The first two of these claims reflect fairly distinct Fenian arguments; MacNeill, of course, wasn’t a Fenian, but the Fenians he worked with in the Volunteers had long looked upon the old adage that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ as a kind of instruction. MacNeill bluntly stated that to act on these terms, according to this maxims, without taking account of ‘actualities’ would be ‘proof of mental incapacity’—we should remember that the memorandum was a private document.
Why then do some of his comrades in the volunteers appear intent on rebellion? MacNeill’s answered this question with some of the most psychologically penetrating words written during the revolution, words which Charles Townshend has wryly referred as ‘a dose of professorial wisdom’:

‘To my mind, those who feel impelled towards military action on any of the grounds that I have stated are really impelled by a sense of feebleness, satisfying their own emotions or escaping from a difficult & complex & trying situation.’

Here, then, is MacNeill the stoic, arguing that the putative rebels must not give way to their impulses; but if MacNeill’s stoic demand that the rebels suppress certain instinctive or weak aspects of their selves in order to retain their moral virtue – remember how central was his fear that the rebels would commit murder – this was strongly predicated on his sense of the common good of the nation.

‘It is our duty, if necessary, to trample on our personal feelings and to face every sort of difficulty and complexity, and to think only of our country’s good.’

MacNeill’s argument now took a more practical turn, seeking to find a logical explanation in current events. He asks why the British had allowed the Volunteers to grow until they were capable of mounting a rebellion. MacNeill argued that a premature rebellion would divide nationalists against each other and give unionists in the North an excuse to mobilise, thereby creating the opportunity for the British to intervene to prevent carnage, justifying for the first time a strengthening of the British state in Ireland. This probably allowed Dublin Castle too much percipience.

Still, to avoid this happening, MacNeill argued that the Volunteers must continue to organise themselves, strengthening the ranks and demonstrating their resolve, all the while recognising that their purpose—and this is crucial—was not to fight but to ‘secure Ireland’s rights and liberties’.
This was both a vital aspect of MacNeill’s case against rebellion and a vital aspect of his understanding of what the Volunteers were for. He believed the existence of the Volunteers had fundamentally undermined Britain’s capacity to govern Ireland through the normal channels of civil society. And he was consistent in this, having argued along these lines in 1913 that the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force had effectively ended the Union. If the police could no longer suppress the Volunteers, if the civil authorities had been denuded of their by these sovereign acts, and Britain could only assert its former authority through military means, then the Union had effectively ceased to exist. MacNeill believed this had created a stalemate, giving the Volunteers further scope to extend their organisation, furthering undermining the capacity of the British state to exert control over Ireland. Thus, MacNeill’s case against rebellion did not rest on his judgement that the Volunteers were not yet sufficiently strong to mount a successful rebellion, but that it was plausible to suppose that to continue to strengthen the organisation could see the object of a rebellion met without the need for a shot to be fired—or for a murder to be committed. This takes us into the realm of the historical counter-factual, it is impossible to say whether MacNeill was right or wrong, but his thinking chimed with popular ideas about how the Irish Volunteers of 1782 helped bring Grattan’s parliament into being. MacNeill thus represented those currents of radical Irish nationalism that had very little to do with the Rising and everything to do with the Volunteer movement as a manifestation of the national will and an embodiment of an active Irish citizenry.
MacNeill was a democrat who was convinced that Irish public opinion was coming around to the separatist point of view. This made it all the more important that the separatists should not act as though they had a monopoly on truth but should continue to work for the outcome they sought. To do so effectively, they must ‘remember that what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction, as some of us, perhaps all of us, in the exercise of our highly developed capacity for figurative thought, are sometimes apt to imagine … What we call our country is the Irish nation, which is a concrete and visible reality.’ This is the other most quoted passage in the memorandum. Historians have tended to focus on the references to ‘abstraction’ and ‘figurative thought’, suggesting this passage offers significant insight into the mentality of the rebels, but these lines also imply much about MacNeill’s thinking, and the strand of opinion he represented. In his view, the Irish nation already existed, it did not need to be brought into being, it was not dependent on the existence of an independent Irish nation-state, and, most of all, a rebellion was not needed to bring it into being. Professor MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League and a scholar of the Irish language, could be Irish in ways that most of his fellow volunteers found very difficult. It is not entirely inconceivable that he could overcome his own ‘sense of feebleness’ in the library and classroom…

Like many other historians, I have described the rebellion in print as a ‘gesture’ and I referred a little too casually to its ‘performative’ aspect; many have written about it as theatre, but MacNeill’s prompt to consider the actions of the rebels as morally assessable has made me question the dominance of this fashionable language of gesture and performance or the apparent theatricality of the rebellion. We need to be careful that our interpretative languages don’t obscure the degree to which men, predominantly, Irish and British, shouldered guns or manned artillery and shot at each other, often with the intention of killing. MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, would have been alert to how that nicely evasive phrase the ‘events of Easter Week’, pretty ubiquitous at the moment, can obscure the agency of the men and women on both sides who made themselves responsible for the fates of the several hundred civilians who died, martyred not for the cause but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.


bad Jim 03.26.16 at 9:19 am

A masterful essay. Brava! I want to quote it and quote it and quote it, but I’ll excerpt and emend just this:

“The notion of tactically risible but symbolically meaningful [blood] sacrifice is one that angry and stymied [young men] have always embraced”

History is drenched with the blood of young men, but risibly symbolic tactics are routinely embraced by those least at risk. Consider the popularity of Trump. His enthusiasts are aware that his presidency would be catastrophic; in fact, that’s his appeal.


John Quiggin 03.26.16 at 9:48 am

Wonderful as usual.

It’s important to understand this against the cataclysmic horror of the Great War. As the song has it “Twere better to die ‘neath an Irish sky, than at Suvla or Sud el Bar”. And while the notions of blood sacrifice were characteristic of the time, it’s worth pointing out that the conduct of the war on all sides was massively criminal by the standards of the 19th century, not just those of the 21st. In these circumstances, it’s scarcely surprising that the revolutions springing from the War were bloody and brutal.


Richard M 03.26.16 at 9:59 am

> The point of democracy is that you can make radical changes non-violently if you have popular support.

And the point of popular support is that you can make political changes violently too, if you prefer.


david 03.26.16 at 10:17 am

>And the point of popular support is that you can make political changes violently too, if you prefer.

which might give people reasonable cause to doubt any promises you might be making to protect the rights of, e.g., the ethnic now-minority that remains resident on the island you wish to unify. The latent promise of violence ensures violence.


Brett Dunbar 03.26.16 at 10:20 am

The home rule was pretty comprehensive, as it covered most domestic policy. It’s also relatively easy to further extend devolution once it has occurred. The Welsh Assembly started out by taking over the powers of the Welsh Office. It was from the start far more inclined to use them in a manner different to Westminster as it possessed an independent democratic mandate. It has been in a position to acquire many more powers from Westminster.


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 10:24 am

Well the latent threat of violence came from that minority initially, and their British allies. The free state largely did protect them, although the revolutionary period was to some degree sectarianised at the local level.


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 10:27 am

Brett, Ronan fanning makes a strong case that this isn’t true in his recent book (which seems to be pretty much the consensus afaik)


Peter T 03.26.16 at 10:58 am

John Quiggin @ 36

“the conduct of the war on all sides was massively criminal by the standards of the 19th century..”

Sorry, but you obviously don’t know much about the actual conduct of war in the 19th century.


engels 03.26.16 at 11:13 am

Thou shalt not kill; but need not strive
Officiously to keep alive

Happy Easter, liberals


Alex K--- 03.26.16 at 11:22 am

@ Brett Dunbar (31): It was from the Unionists that the Nationalists learned how amazingly effective the mere threat of violence could be. The Nationalists witnessed the rise of the Ulster Volunteers and the support the Unionist cause enjoyed in the British establishment and especially in the army. Ideally, the Unionists would like to kill off home rule altogether. They could not, but under the threat of civil war and mutiny in the army, the Liberal/IPP cabinet agreed to exempt the six counties than now make up Northern Ireland from home rule.

The third Home Rule Act came into being through a fortunate coincidence: the Liberals needed the Irish Party’s support to stay in power. It was obviously an unstable and transient configuration. On the other hand, the well-armed, disciplined, highly motivated Ulster Volunteers and their allies at all levels in Britain showed no sign of withering away. They were permanent. There could be no certainty that the Home Rule Act would not be repealed or further amended under pressure from these forces after the war.

With the benefit of hindsight, Ireland would have probably made greater progress as part of the Union – it would not have remained a clerical backwater for so long. But it was by no means obvious in 1916.


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 11:39 am

I don’t necessarily think ireland would have made meaningfully better progress in the union. I mean it’s plausible, but rarely laid out in detail why this would be. Ireland would still have been relatively unindustrislised compared to the mainland so would have the distributional and political problems of an agrarian society regardless. Westminster had shown itself to be more responsive to the interests of the mainland over ireland, and also willing to work through the Catholic church, so I don’t see how these deep issues of economic and political development get resolved easily. And ireland was remarkable in a lot of ways for its democratic stability over the past 100 years, particularly given the European context.
Which isn’t to underplay the clerical or backwater part of it, but let’s not get carried away either.


Soullite 03.26.16 at 11:51 am

You all get that history does not have an arch? You can’t be ‘on the wrong side of history’. You cannot ‘rube history against the grain’. These phrases might be valid for pep-rallies, but no academic should be using them. They should not inform academic thought.

It’s ideological nonsense. History is not unidirectional. You can not ‘revert’. History is about chronology, and chronology alone.


engels 03.26.16 at 12:42 pm

It’s a well-written post and the family history is interesting. I agree with the main point about the value of human life. I find the specific focus on young people as the constituency driving war a little odd, and the idea that the Easter Rising and the Brussels bombing can be assimilated to the category of radicalism, which can then be explained as “simply the age-old desire of the young to believe in purity; to believe in it so completely that it comes above human life,” seems to me unhelpful to the project of understanding other human beings and bringing about a more peaceful world. Imho.

(In other news)


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 12:54 pm

I guess my position would be that anyone who didn’t think the European political order was illegitimate between1914-23 wasn’t really paying attention. Whether or not that excuses violence, I don’t know, but the context is important to understand it. I’m not sure i buy the idea that the young were necessarily solely naive or purists. A lot were idealists and moralists, certainly, pearse probably at the extreme end, but a lot were also pragmatists . And they were right, afaict, that the status quo had failed. Not only(or primarily) on the specific question of irish self governance, but on the carnage in Europe (and, although perhaps not to overstate its political relevance in this case, the moral abomination that was European colonialism )


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 1:22 pm

Ie as Tom Garvin (not someone overly sympathetic to irish republicanism ) put it

“There is a common argument to the effect that the violent birth of modern Independent Ireland was in some way foolish and unnecessary, because the democratic politics of consensus , reasoning and bargaining would have achieved independence more easily and without bloodshed. Let me speculate briefly on what might have happened had the Rising not taken place. With the arrival home of the [First World War] veterans in 1919, and with the discredited Redmondites still holding on in Westminster, armed nationalism (which would have returned from the trenches with rather pronounced opinions about the British establishment and its right to rule anybody) would have been alienated fatally from constitutional nationalism. An incoherent but vicious sectarian war between North and South, with no new generation of political leaders in place, could easily have occurred . The Rising redefined the quarrel as one between two vaguely defined entities, England and Ireland rather than one between Catholics and Protestants.”

Which might arguably be wrong, but sets out the context


engels 03.26.16 at 1:42 pm

History is about chronology, and chronology alone.

That seems a bit like saying “maths is about arithmetic, and arithmetic alone” or “geography is about naming capital cities”


Ronan(rf) 03.26.16 at 2:05 pm

Matt Kelly @34, interesting. Did he reconsider his position later on in life? My impression from what you’ve written is that there isn’t any logical need to (ie it can be morally unjustified from his perspective while also having long term practical benefits) . But did the long term consequences change his perspective? Also Did the war of independence and civil war change his opinion in any meaningful way on when violence was and was not justified?


Micheal Lunny 03.26.16 at 2:40 pm

As mentioned above the likelihood of Ireland getting meaningful Home Rule or any Home Rule is now accepted as extremely unlikely, at the time even Eoin MacNeill himself did not think it could happen (see Matt Kelly’s linked piece). Either violence or the threat of violence was going to be involved in gaining independence.

In fact Ireland got off remarkably lightly with the loss of life we had gaining independence considering the general pattern of imperial disengagements. As for
Ireland prospering in the UK there is no need to speculate on how much better we might have done – we had been part of it since 1800 and Dublin, despite being a wealthy city, had some of the worst slums in Europe around 1910.

So basically everything RF said.

The most dificult part of Maria’s essay for me is that it suggests that her views on the legitimacy of 1916 are unusual. Everyone from Ireland’s currently governing right wing party Fine Gael, though academia and especially the print and broadcast media are with her. Historical revisionism has been in the ascendant in Ireland for more than forty years (Matt Kelly’s thesis supervisor Roy Foster being the most well known).

So this mixture of liberal paternalism and nervous rejection of any hint of “armed struggle” is not a radical retelling, it’s the establishment position, has been for literally decades.

In fact the establishment discomfort at commemorating the 1916 rising it’s elicited a great deal of public ridicule

A good article on Irish historical revisionism can be found here:


engels 03.26.16 at 2:48 pm

It feels like the fetishism of non-violence, while undoubtedly sincere, amounts, in the end, to little more than an enforcement of the currently existing forms of institutional violence.

Imo sometimes true but sometimes principled nonviolence can be a radical strategy. I don’t share too many of his political views but I think Jesus got more bang for his buck that way in terms of long-term impact.


Micheal Lunny 03.26.16 at 2:55 pm

Eyes burning.

In fact the establishment discomfort at commemorating the 1916 rising has elicited a great deal of public ridicule


Sumana Harihareswara 03.26.16 at 3:27 pm

I am totally out of my depth in understanding this particular part of history — but thank you for the essay. I’m grateful for your nuance.


steven johnson 03.26.16 at 3:32 pm


If you believe you know what any historical Jesus (if there was one at all,) wanted for his buck, you haven’t been thinking at all. Perhaps you’re thinking of some abstract actor “Christianity” instead of Christ, but I hope not, that would be worse than uninformed, but metaphysical, in the most pejorative sense of the word.

I can understand the desire of a CTer (at heart, if not formally,) to try to salvage the OP. But I don’t think it can be done. Not wise, not good (except as sentimental rhetoric.)


engels 03.26.16 at 4:03 pm

#57 Okay then. Obi-wan Kenobi?


geo 03.26.16 at 4:38 pm

Footnote to engels @53: sometimes principled nonviolence can be a radical strategy

More often than not, actually. See Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and How Nonviolent Struggle Works (


Placeholder 03.26.16 at 4:49 pm

@otpup @Ronan(rf)

That uniformed warriors of a public cause expect to be treated better than highway brigands should not be so surprising. In more concrete terms: Roger Casement, “hanged on a comma”.

“All English abominations have their origin in the Irish pale.” – Engels.


Kieran McCarthy 03.26.16 at 5:38 pm

Wonderful post, Maria.

My personal anecdote from those times: my great-grandfather was beaten to death by General Percival’s men in front of his family on Christmas Eve in 1921. Not because he was a part of any grand political movement, but because he was removing a mouse from a trap outside his gate past curfew. Or at least that’s the story I’ve been told.

That’s not to say that the uprising was worth it or not. Perhaps the uprising created the climate of tensions that led to his death. Maybe a movement of civil disobedience would have been more effective. Either way, things were not easy or pleasant then.

The only argument that I would would wish to make is that we are in no position to judge the feelings and actions of those who lived through those times. And that we should be thankful we’re alive today instead.


Robert Sullivan 03.26.16 at 6:14 pm

@F. Foundling

How many children died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many young American GIs lived because those bombs were dropped?

You are reciting the myth that the bomb ended the war. That is just as incorrect as suggesting the fire bombing of Dresden, more horrific than Japan, caused the Nazi surrender. Nothing of the sort. Will Belgium or France surrender to Isis? Those were innocents. Wow, you have a extraordinary moral compass, or lack there of,right out there with an Isis terrorist.

As far as the OP, i find it oh so Irish to be ashamed of being ashamed. Interesting article.


Brett Dunbar 03.26.16 at 6:48 pm

Some people allege that home rule was unlikely, however the relationship of Britain with the dominions does tend to indicate that it is unlikely that power transfers would be reversed.

The Act had actually passed and attempting to either not bring it into force or attempting to abolish the Irish Parliament without its consent would run into the issue of that would provide a strong moral case for militant resistance.

The position I hold is that until the democratic and constitutional process had actually failed then the resort to violence was immoral.


Sasha Clarkson 03.26.16 at 7:06 pm

You may be interested in Martin Rowson’s cartoon on the rising, published 20 years ago.


makedoanmend 03.26.16 at 7:47 pm

This type of article has become a normal meme of neoliberal historical analysis. Direct violence by revolutionaries kills innocent people – bad, bad & evil. If only they would wait, good things will trickle down. Eventually. Maybe. That many lives, especially children’s, were lost through poverty and attendant illness is just the norm of life while people waited for rights to trickle down from above. That tens of thousands of Irish died (and many European children) in an utterly futile war so that the “good” could play global chess with countries and economies for personal benefit is a footnote. That returning soldiers knew first hand the futility of that “great” war and began to see things in a different way from those who would grant certain limited rights also played an important role in the 1916 rising is entirely written out of all histories.

However, some comments are also revealing. If only the Irish would have waited for some foreign power to grant them some rights, things would have been honkey dory. Oh, ta very much, we would have been so grateful.

This “trickle-down” meme still plays today in the Tory-run UK and is a major theme used by the major modern Irish political parties. We are told that we individuals must assume personal responsibility for whatever happens to us. If we not motivated to amass wealth, or worse, if we should fall into poverty, we will suffer defined social and economic consequences.

There is an assumption by the Good (economic winners via bank balances) that somehow the non-rich individuals haven’t already taken responsibility for their actions. No, we have to be told to do so, but the Good get to set the terms and conditions upon this responsibility is evaluated and measured. And we had better measure up because if we don’t then we can expect the terms and conditions to change for the worse.

It is at this level that the revisionist historians wish to rewrite history. The Irish 1916 rising was a definitive statement that some Irish women and men were not going to wait for scraps to fall from the Table of the Good. Whether for good or ill, they did not ask for permission. They did not wait to be told to take personal responsibility, they took it. They altered the course of Irish history. They were not asking for rights, they we taking back the rights of self determination.

But they, of course, did not change crooked timber of human nature. Whilst, the Great and Good could not stop the post 1916 idea that Irish people did not need to ask permission to govern themselves, they could at least try and maintain the common meme that our economic lives must be granted by others or by the mythos of markets.

The rebellion in 1916 may have achieved a modicum of self determination, but it was only a rebellion. The idea that democratic peoples need to accept or have right granted to them in any sphere of life is still thwarted. The legacy of 1916 Uprising is that it only achieved very limited results. The uprising is still on-going and will ever be so. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood this dynamic when setting the foundation of their particular politic. They were rebellious Republicans also. I wonder if we’ll be treated to how their actions lead to tens of thousands of deaths. How the US rebellion was one big mistake. Could they have not waited for future to fix all things?

Personally, I prefer voting and politics. Democracy. However, when we lose sight of the very reasons why people fight for rights, we allow those who would call themselves our betters to promote some very unsavoury and very undemocratic ideas and often use war as a useful took for their own selfish ends.


Stephen 03.26.16 at 9:05 pm

A beautifully written, very moving, sensitive piece making clear the dreadful dilemma faced by Eoin MacNeil.

Only one thing I would query: Maria says the Unionists in the North were “determined to fight against independence”. I can well understand why she might see it like that; but would not it be better to say they were determined to fight for independence, that is, for the independence of parts of the Province of Ulster from a nationalist and Catholic South?

If you look at it that way, it appears that the Irish Question – what to do about the wishes of the majority in Ireland – had been replaced at the time of the Home Rule Act by the Ulster Question – what to do about the wishes of the majority in (parts of) Ulster. To accept one and ignore the other was not obviously possible.

That is an example of a recurrent problem. As seen by those wanting some form of independence, We should have independence from Them, because that’s what most of Our people want, but then it turns out that there are regions of our new or prospective free state where evil and treacherous people want independence from Us, which is obviously unthinkable.

There are of course non-Irish examples of this, for example in America where there were attempts to liberate Canada from the Canadians, and later to deny independence to the Confederacy. The latter can easily be justified, of course, on the grounds that the Confederacy were not fit for self-government: I would rather agree, but I do realise this is the top of a slippery slope. That the conquered are not fit for self-government is a defence for all sorts of conquest.


Stephen 03.26.16 at 9:07 pm

One more thing: on the executions after the Rising, which with hindsight were a complete mistake. But in the words of Patrick Pearse, “We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people, but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.” His words, not General Maxwell’s.


Michael 03.26.16 at 11:15 pm

I’ve read your piece today, Maria, with deep appreciation and edification. It so happened that 3 Quarks Daily (re)published, right beside a piece about the Rising, a review of Christopher Logue’s War Music, that great recreation of The Iliad for us now. The review ended with a quotation from the poem, an address appended to the image of a single spear planted in the sand during a moment of peace before Troy:

Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.
Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:
And so insidious is this liberty
That those surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.

Thank you so much for your thoughts.


Michael 03.26.16 at 11:16 pm

I’ve read your piece today, Maria, with deep appreciation and edification. It so happened that 3 Quarks Daily (re)published, right beside a piece about the Rising, a review of Christopher Logue’s War Music, that great recreation of The Iliad for us now. The review ended with a quotation from the poem, an address appended to the image of a single spear planted in the sand during a moment of peace before Troy:

Moments like these absolve the needs dividing men.
Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Is lost: and for a while they join a terrible equality,
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free:
And so insidious is this liberty
That those surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.

Thank you so much, Maria.


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 12:25 am


“Our country is closed in. The two black Symplegades
close it in. When we go down
to the harbours on Sunday to breathe freely
we see, lit in the sunset,
the broken planks from voyages that never ended,
bodies that no longer know how to love.”


John Quiggin 03.27.16 at 12:29 am

Peter T @43. Despite your smug and condescending tone, I’ve never learned an interesting or important fact from you or found anything of value in your arguments. It’s clear that the converse is true for you. So I’d prefer not to interact with you in future.


bruce wilder 03.27.16 at 4:10 am

I enjoyed the elegant essay of the OP and the many thoughtful comments. Thanks to Matt Kelley for drawing attention to Eoin MacNeill’s March 1916 Memorandum.

Did Eoin MacNeill, as a son of Antrim, have any special insight into Protestant Ulster? It does seem curious in retrospect that so little consideration was given among the nationalists to the Ulster Problem. The Irish Volunteers were a response to initiatives of Ulster Unionism clearly, but why?


Anderson 03.27.16 at 4:29 am

“You are reciting the myth that the bomb ended the war.”

I’m not competent to discuss the Easter Rising, though I appreciate Maria’s post.

The end of the Pacific war is however something I’ve read up on, and calling that a “myth” is a bit much. Whether Hirohito was genuinely shocked by the attacks, used them as an excuse to override the militarists in the cabinet, or a little of both, the A-bombings (which were blatant war crimes if there is any such thing as a war crime) certainly precipitated the Japanese surrender. One can speculate that Japan would have folded as quickly after the Soviets attacked, but that is indeed speculation.


Alex K--- 03.27.16 at 9:19 am

@ Brett Dunbar (64): “Some people allege that home rule was unlikely, however the relationship of Britain with the dominions does tend to indicate that it is unlikely that power transfers would be reversed.”

All the dominions had been settler colonies by the time they were granted self-government. (In the case of Canada and especially South Africa, not all the settlers were British but all were European; the Boers were Protestant and the mostly Catholic French-Canadians were limited to one and a half provinces.) The settlement, or “plantation,” of Ireland by Anglo-Scottish colonists only created Protestant settler majorities in Northern Ireland. Most of the island was still populated by Anglicized natives.


Peter T 03.27.16 at 9:41 am

John @ 73

It’s a side issue to Maria’s lovely post. But my response was not condescending but written in irritation at a facile remark. Which 19th century wars did you have in mind? The Franco-Prussian, where Paris was starved and villagers shot to deter franc-tireur activity? Any of the Balkan wars, where atrocity coupled with ethnic cleansing was commonplace? The Ashanti War with the destruction of Kumasi or the Boxer rebellion with the burning of the Summer Palace? Any of the innumerable wars of imperial policing or expansion? The Boer War with its concentration camps? And this without considering the very elastic nature of the laws of war. 19th century European wars were, on the whole, smaller but not therefore less vicious or easier on civilians.


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 10:43 am

“Did Eoin MacNeill, as a son of Antrim, have any special insight into Protestant Ulster? “

From the short chapter on macneill in “Portrait and lives”

“MacNeill was profoundly influenced by his upbringing in the Glens of Antrim, a catholic enclave which still retained some Irish-language traditions and was to become a major focus for Ulster-based Gaelic revivalists (especially in the period before the Great War). The fact that local protestants shared with catholics a veneration for St Patrick based on his association with Slemish, the existence of a few Irish-speaking presbyterians in the Glens, and the strength of the presbyterian liberal tenant-right tradition in Co. Antrim, led MacNeill to see Ulster unionism as a superficial product of elite manipulation; this perception might have seemed less convincing in the embattled borderlands of South Ulster”


Brett Dunbar 03.27.16 at 3:26 pm

The comparison isn’t exact. The dominions for example didn’t have direct representation at Westminster, while Ireland would have retained a reduced representation. The differences generally put Ireland in a stronger position.

At the time the Act seemed to be a more or less workable compromise and in the situation in 1916 I don’t think resorting to violence was justified. It heightened and legitimized unionist fears about nationalist intentions.


Peter Erwin 03.27.16 at 5:10 pm

engels @53: sometimes principled nonviolence can be a radical strategy

Further to geo’s comment @ 60, there’s the research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, which finds that nonviolent movements over the past century have been about twice as likely to succeed in gaining independence or overthrowing repressive regimes as violent movements were.

They also found that nonviolent movements that succeed are more likely to end up producing non-repressive regimes. (“Victorious violent insurgencies often feel compelled to reestablish the monopoly on the use of force and therefore seek to purge any remaining elements of the state… Because the insurgents used violent methods to succeed in gaining power, there will be fewer inhibitions against the use of violent methods to maintain power. Indeed, the capacity to do so may only increase.”)


Igor Belanov 03.27.16 at 6:29 pm


“Victorious violent insurgencies often feel compelled to reestablish the monopoly on the use of force and therefore seek to purge any remaining elements of the state… “

If they didn’t manage to establish a monopoly on the use of force then they wouldn’t have created a state.

We might all say that we’d prefer political movements to be non-violent and political regimes to be non-repressive. The research above, however, is devoid of context. In some situations it was practically inconceivable that non-violence would be successful and foreign intervention before or after regime change often made the establishment of a ‘peaceful’ government impossible.

In some situations the success of a non-violent movement was dependent on the use of violence or the threat of force on the previous regime. Many peaceful ‘revolutions’ and changes of regime have come about after defeat in war, while the collapse of the Soviet Bloc took place against a background of loss of confidence caused by the Soviet Union’s refusal to commit vast resources to the pursuit of the Cold War and the defence of its sphere of influence.


Bartholomew 03.27.16 at 7:02 pm

From the OP: ‘MacNeill avoided execution and was shipped off to a prison camp in Wales’.
I think he was sent to Dartmoor, and later to Lewes in Sussex.

‘Worth the death of one bow-legged tenement child’
This might be more convincing if Dublin at the time didn’t have one of the worst infant and child mortality rates in Europe. The circumstances that made her/him bow-legged might also have had something to do with provoking a rebellion. The independent state by contrast had a reasonably good record on slum clearance and housing provision, particularly after 1930.


Stephen 03.27.16 at 7:12 pm

Ronan@78: I know a man from Ballycastle who told me (I have no more scholarly source to quote) that the Glens of Antrim are unusual in that a fair proportion of the people are indeed Catholics, but Scottish Catholics who came over in the 16th century or thereabouts and have little sympathy for Irish nationalism.
Further: that Ballycastle is one of the few towns in NI that have a Protestant majority but pre-recent Troubles elected a Catholic mayor; that early 19th-century sources describe the people of Ballycastle as speaking a mixture of English, Irish and Scots Gaelic, with remarkably bad grammar in all three; and that most of the local representatives of the Glens are independents, elected on the basis of promises to do their best locally and to ignore both Unionist and Nationalist parties, who care very little for the Glens.


Bartholomew 03.27.16 at 7:51 pm

Stephen @ 83: In fact, in the 16th century, Antrim and western Scotland were part of a single kingdom or lordship and indeed Eoin Mac Neill’s ancestors probably came from Scotland around this time (from Barra, in the outer Hebrides).

The ‘early 19th-century sources’ missed the fact that Antrim Irish and Scottish Gaelic are therefore pretty much the same language (Antrim speakers used the Scottish ‘Cha’ for a negative assertion instead of ‘Ní’, as in other dialects of Irish, for example). Antrim and Down can often more usefully be thought of as parts of Scotland rather than Ireland.

From the OP: ‘I still can’t see a deep red rose and not think of him [Pearse]’
Actually that’s Joseph Plunkett, another 1916 rebel, not Pearse.

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

Channelled by Al Bowlly and Ray Noble in the crooning 30s:

I see your face in every flower
Your eyes in stars above
It’s just the thought of you
The very thought of you, my love


John Quiggin 03.27.16 at 7:53 pm

@Peter T I irritate you, you irritate me, and our discussions have been unproductive. So, let’s leave it there.


bruce wilder 03.27.16 at 7:55 pm

Brett Dunbar @ 64, 79

Using the Dominions as precedent is a bit anachronistic, since the independent equality of the Dominions was only established later on with the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the 1931 Statute of Westminster. These developments reflect the British experience with Ireland (as well as the unhappy experience of the Dominions under British leadership in WWI); that the British learned from their mistakes in Ireland should not be used as evidence that they didn’t make them, or that the Irish should have overlooked the offence of actual British policy and instead acted on a prescience about later British policy.

Ireland was the first instance of a constituent part of the United Kingdom offered devolution. There was no precedent. And, it is an arithmetical error to imagine that the prospective reduction in representation at Westminster, that the Ulster Protestants pressed for, could be anticipated to have any effect other than political castration, aimed at cutting off the potential for further concessions from British governments dependent on Irish support.

The Dominions were British protectorates in 1916, fully subject to legislation by the British Parliament in all matters including especially their constitutions. Their emergence as independent states only happened during and after WWI, when Canada suffered a conscription crisis centered on Quebec (much as Ireland did) and insisted on sending a delegation to Versailles and putting its own signature to the peace treaty. Canada established full diplomatic relations with the U.S., its neighbor for 150 years, only in 1926, two years after the U.S. recognized the Irish Free State.

It is also tendentious to talk about heightening and legitimizing Unionist fears about Nationalist intentions while refusing to acknowledging that the Unionists had already declared their intention to violently resist Home Rule and made their intentions good with preparations for a provisional government and armed forces. That there were Irish Volunteers at all was due to manifest Unionist threats.

Northern Unionists were sufficiently powerful politically that Home Rule would not be implemented as enacted. The Curragh Incident made it very clear that the British military would mutiny rather than suppress Ulster’s violent resistance to Home Rule and the Liberals would back down in the face of mutinous intimidation. The Unionist paramilitary was almost certainly better armed, as British customs was more lax with regard to their smuggling than with the Irish Volunteers.

Even Home Rule’s champion, Redmond, made very clear that he thought there would be a fight after the War before Home Rule was implemented, and advocated Irish participation in WWI in support of the Empire as good behavior that could buy favorable consideration. Any competent observer could see that the Conservatives were likely to gain power, if not take control of the government, during the course of the War and the Conservatives remained adamantly opposed to Home Rule.

Edward Carson, leader of the northern Unionists, entered the War cabinet for a time under Asquith and again later, while Redmond’s Irish party was the only major grouping not in the war-time coalition.


Matt Kelly 03.27.16 at 8:27 pm

There’s hundred things here to respond to, so here’s a question. Quite a lot of contributors to this discussion seem to be working on the assumption that Ireland should be a single independent state. Why do they think this?


Anderson 03.27.16 at 8:28 pm

Peter T does have a point that it’s not like barbarism in war was invented from scratch in 1914.


Brett Dunbar 03.27.16 at 8:38 pm

Partition would buy off most of the Irish protestant opposition to home rule by excluding the six protestant majority counties from the area affected. While not in the act partition had been proposed in an amending act by the Asquith government.

The 1916 rising tended to stoke the anxieties of the protestants, making them less likely to agree to a home rule parliament that included them.

The thing is while dominions were far short of independence the transfer of powers to the local elected authorities tended not to get reversed. Similarly the Crown Dependencies were basically left to run themselves. Once home rule was actually in place it would be likely to be left to itself.


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 8:43 pm

My reasons for Irish independence(if not unity) (1)the union is politically unsustainable and constitutionally moribund (2) we live in democracies and large parts of the Irish population has shown itself to be meaningfully nationalist . The national question would have deformed politics without being satisfied (3) the Irish electorate gives a legitimacy to the Irish state that didn’t exist towards the union (4) I still believe Economic development can best be attained through responsive , domestic politics .


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 8:44 pm

Stephen , thanks for the insight . Interesting


Stephen 03.27.16 at 8:47 pm

Matt Kelly@87: also, can people who believe that the Island of Ireland should necessarily be a single state explain whether they also believe that the Island of Britain should also necessarily be a single state? And if they do, would they like to go into passionately nationalist areas of Scotland to declare their beliefs?


Matt Kelly 03.27.16 at 9:06 pm

Ronan @90 I agree, but as you recognise it’s the assumption of unity I’m querying, that the island necessarily constitutes the legitimate democratic unit. Stephen @92 for sure, though Scottish divisions also suggest that historic territory shouldn’t be thought immutable either. The North Atlantic Archipelago is a complicated beast…


bruce wilder 03.27.16 at 9:21 pm

the assumption that Ireland should be a single independent state

Is that properly termed “an assumption”?

An independent republic with sovereign jurisdiction over the whole island was clearly the goal of some important, historical figures. And, achievement of that goal was opposed by others.

Nothing inherently wrong with having goals, taking sides or adopting a point of view, as long as you know what that view is and what defense of that side entails. In a discussion, it is a problem, if you imagine it entitles you to your own bespoke facts. In an active dispute, respect for an opponent with whom you must cooperate, however the dispute is settled, imposes certain practical constraints and suggests the value of nurturing certain norms of conduct.

The view from nowhere, which presumes that a judicious parsing of the past, or the tracing of a trail of grievance will lead to a superior moral truth, unencumbered by crass sentiments or attachments — that seems more problematic to me.


Micheal Lunny 03.27.16 at 9:22 pm

Matt Kelly@87

Given that 400 years of effort at Anglicization failed (Ulster plantation aside), the shared and distinct language and culture, the regular attempts at gaining independence (would you say on average every fifty years?) and the fact that once the rising occurred the vast majority of the population turned out not to identify with the UK at all I think that’s a rather odd question.


Trout 03.27.16 at 9:28 pm

Stephen @83 I’m a wee bit sceptical about the accuracy of your Ballycastle man’s reports – although perhaps at one time they were sound: the make-up of the local council now reflects plenty of support for both nationalist and unionist representatives, with only a handful of independents. Ballycastle’s main claim to fame in this context of this weekend’s events is that was Roger Casement’s home (the Casement family still live in Magherintemple house). Apparently, one recently deceased relative could only bring herself to refer to him as ‘that man’, the family having taken his revolutionary activities badly, given that his cousins were at that time fighting in France…


Matt Kelly 03.27.16 at 9:52 pm

Bruce @94 I agree, we’re all entitled to have and defend positions. On this thread, there is a notable absence of openness to thinking about Ulster Unionism as a legitimate political identity whose adherents, particularly when territorially concentrated, might also have a right to self-determination. Are you saying I’m drawing on ‘bespoke facts’, which sounds a bit like you’re suggesting I’m making things up? I’m not sure what you’re getting at in your last paragraph. @95 Michael, it’s an entirely sincere question. I guess our differences probably have quite a lot to do with how we think about unionism rather than British rule, for which I am no apologist.


djr 03.27.16 at 10:08 pm

Some points regarding Dominions, taking the example of Australia:

There wasn’t a major parliamentary opposition in Westminister to Australian federation.
There wasn’t a significant, heavily armed minority in Australia strongly opposed to federation.
Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote on the same basis as the white population in 1916.


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 10:51 pm

But why should there be a meaningful acknowledgement of the unionist position ? The unionist position is pretty much implicitly recognised in most discussions on the revolutionary period these days. The main post was explicitly laying out (afaict ) a moral case against political violence from seperatists, there were a number of posts questioning the economic performance of the new state without contextualising the alternatives , and then an implication above thst unionist grievance was somehow tied in to nationalist use of force (although causally , in this case, that’s backwards , and normatively unionists have commitments and obligations beyond how seperatists behaved)
I think the analytical problem is the other way around. That most discussions of Ireland ignore the rest of the union. That irish political violence is either assumed as pathological , irrational or illegitimate and that’s all there is to it .


Ronan(rf) 03.27.16 at 10:55 pm

(Also, Matt Kelly, I don’t mean that confrontationally just conversationally. )


Keith 03.27.16 at 11:09 pm

There really is no point trying to re- litigate historical events like Easter 1916 or American Independence re 1776. It may be fun to run history backwards and say “what if” or try to find a grand theory about how people ought to act but it is mere day dreaming.

Mistrust and misunderstanding characterise real political actors everywhere. The future is unknown to the people acting in the historical situation. The actions of 1916 changed the future so assumptions made before it cannot be judged in hindsight. You could easily say American Independence was premature. If only those impatient Yankees had waited a few generations they would have avoided being run by Nixon or face a President trump to come. Slavery could have been abolished, civil war avoided, by a enlightened Imperial Parliament freeing the Slaves. Now the US would have a Parliamentary system, free health care and a PM like Justin Trudeau keen to advance feminism. Silly Americans.

The English Tory Party has got a surprising free ride on this thread! They are the ones who opposed Gladstone and resisted Home Rule for Ireland when it could have been speedily applied by all party agreement. They encouraged Unionist and English nationalism as an electoral ploy to hold power. They delayed so it was perfectly reasonable to conclude Home Rule would never be granted so an uprising was the only hope in a realistic time frame. It is not surprising that certain Irish activists had enough by 1916 of delay on delay and political game playing by English politicians only interested in office and Imperial spoils.

And off course from the socialist point of view you could find lots of bow legged urchins in London in 1900 or 1914 living in poverty in the heart of the British Empire. Which is what Clem Attlee found in Lime house when he got there. No shoes on their feet half starved in the Capital of the greatest Empire ever built by human greed. No use to them was it this Empire? Or to the Scottish slum dwellers in Glasgow. And then as now the Tory Party are not on the side of the victim but the oppressor.


bruce wilder 03.27.16 at 11:16 pm

Brett Dunbar @ 89

Again, I think you are stepping on the sequence of events rather hard to make a basically tendentious argument.

The northern Unionists, led by the formidable Edward Carson, had adopted a radical stance that opposed Home Rule in principle and threatened credibly to fight a civil war in opposition to implementation of Home Rule as already enacted in the Third Home Rule bill. It was their radical belligerence, the emerging alliance of Unionists with the Conservative Party and the mutinous dissent of highly placed scions of the Protestant Ascendancy in the British military, which undermined all confidence that Home Rule, though enacted, would be implemented in good faith as enacted.

You speak of the anxieties of the protestants, and their willingness to accept the Home Rule parliament of the Third Home Rule bill. But, they were not willing and that was made emphatically clear by 1912 with the Ulster Covenant. The Easter Rising could do nothing to affect the willingness of Protestants in Ulster to accept a Dublin Parliament; the door had been slammed shut on that one, four years earlier, and nailed shut in 1914 with advanced arming and training of the Ulster Volunteers.

And, let’s not confuse “Home Rule” with Dominion status. “Home Rule” would have left Ireland, a constituent part of the U.K., subject to Westminster in all things (and as of 1916 the active proposal involved significantly reduced representation in London). The Fourth Home Rule bill imposed Home Rule on the six counties. It wasn’t what the Unionists wanted — they wanted to remain an integral part of the U.K. But, English and Welsh politicians had flirted briefly with Home Rule All Round immediately after WWI, proposing to give Home Rule to Wales and Scotland, too. Northern Ireland was the only “nation” to get it until far more recently, though it wasn’t clear they wanted it and it ended in 1972, so I guess reversion can happen despite your insistence otherwise. (Newfoundland, bankrupted by the Great Depression, is the only Dominion to give up responsible government to become a crown colony, as far as I know.)

Because they fought a war for independence, the Irish in the rest of Ireland were able to get Dominion status, with an initially somewhat ambiguous understanding that Dominion status meant an open door to a gradual evolution on its own mere motion toward full independence and an end to monarchy, a path de Valera took.


bruce wilder 03.27.16 at 11:35 pm

Micheal Lunny: . . . once the rising occurred the vast majority of the population turned out not to identify with the UK at all

Just as telling in its way, the British mostly didn’t identify the UK citizens in Ireland as being British in common with themselves. Or, the English didn’t identify them as English. This mutual lack of identification was always a problem for British governance. It became particularly acute when the shooting started, as British troops committed atrocities as a result of being unwilling to distinguish or trust.

I think it was a bit of a rude shock when Westminster handed Ulster a Home Rule it never wanted, confirming in effect that they were as much an alien nation as their brethren to the south. Edward Carson their leader thru the travail apologized for the result, and blamed the Tories for leading him astray, . . . and then moved to Kent.


Peter T 03.27.16 at 11:40 pm

Fun fact; the Emperor Septimus Severus, whose rule ended a prolonged bout of Roman civil wars, was Punic by birth, probably spoke Phoenician as his first language and had Hannibal’s grave restored. Yet there is no suggestion that he was not (also) thoroughly Roman. A few centuries had not only turned the conquered into citizens but also so redefined what it meant to be a citizen that it could comfortably include an admirer of the erstwhile greatest enemy.

This is a choice on both sides – the one to admit, the other to join. Arguments over colonialism/imperialism focus on the quarters of the quadrant where exclusion dominates, not the ones where other choices submerge the issue. In the English/Irish case both parties largely and persistently took the negative positions – the one to exclude, the other to stay apart. By the time an admirer of Cromwell can be Irish PM, the post may well be obsolete.


Keith 03.27.16 at 11:40 pm

bruce wilder @101. very good points. But I would not call Carson formidable. I would call him a nasty piece of reactionary work helping to bring down Oscar Wilde. For political and Career reasons. Not a nice way to treat a fellow graduate of your Alma mater. They still have his type in Ulster. Gay marriage is I suppose a new reason for Irish Unity, time for the south to bring modernity to the backwarter of the north.


Keith 03.27.16 at 11:57 pm

Peter T at 103

Considering what the Romans did to Carthage in violation of their promise and religion this is a strange contribution. After you murder your defeated enemy on mass and destroy their city and plow it into the ground sowing it with salt to make it barren and sell the Females and children into slavery, the fact a long time later a Roman Emperor erects a statue to your now long dead nation and leader is not much compensation. Are we supposed to praise him? Surely we should note that it is easy to praise the leader of an exterminated enemy after your country killed them all and they no longer exist as historical reality. Obviously if you wait long enough all human conflict becomes lost in history and has no contemporary resonance. If Hitler had erected statues to the Rabbis he had murdered he could have said they were fine people in many ways and I learnt Hebrew to give my speech, but you know they had to die, and as they are dead anti Semitism is no longer a problem as the Jews are all safely dead and gone. The final solution worked!


Micheal Lunny 03.28.16 at 12:21 am


I can understand arguing the democratic legitimacy of a separate state for Northern Unionists in 1921 (aside from the small matter of the UVF making it a necessity) but we have the benefit of hindsight and the fifty years between partition and the closing of Stormont showed that Unionism’s sectarian instincts were too strong for that state to maintain legitimacy.

Northern Ireland is a historical mess we will be a long time cleaning up.


Peter T 03.28.16 at 12:37 am


Septimius was from Leptis Magna in what is now Libya. Punic (on his father’s side) but not Carthaginian. He obviously felt an affinity with Hannibal as a Punic hero but was still Roman. The Holocaust is a poor parallel – maybe Lloyd George is closer.


Keith 03.28.16 at 12:53 am

Peter T @107. Well if you are Roman and Emperor you are the beneficiary of the Punic war and genocide. He presumably failed to pull down the statues in Rome to the past Emperors or expunge the republican politicians and generals from Roman history. Erecting a statue to Hannibal does not bring him back or his nation.

History is what does not matter to us now. It is what we are forced to learn in School and bores us like Trigonometry. When it is happening it is real and a different matter completely. When the war is over we can say how bad it was and peace is much better. But until then it is bombs over Coventry or Dresden.

In fact it is, you bomb Coventry, so mate, we are burning Germany down round your ears. To show you how it is done.

Making sure the future is better than the past is the best memorial and apology for history. “Let us face the future” as the Labour Manifesto of 1945 put it so well.


bruce wilder 03.28.16 at 12:59 am

Matt Kelly @ 96: On this thread, there is a notable absence of openness to thinking about Ulster Unionism as a legitimate political identity whose adherents, particularly when territorially concentrated, might also have a right to self-determination.

Small “L” political liberalism has some unresolved issues with the tensions between nationalism and racism or nationalism and sectarianism, that arise when conflict emerges between the solidarity required for cooperation in national self-determination and liberal insistence on respect for universal rights and basic fairness.

There’s something atavistic about the culture of the Orange Order, which cannot easily be separated from Ulster Unionism, a more than sneaking desire to dominate and intimidate the Catholics as a despised and less privileged underclass.

The Home Rule movement in Ireland and its predecessors had labored patiently to overcome the ugly legacy of a cruel and merciless conquest. They had pressed land reform measures that had bought back the land and established representative local government. In these endeavors, they appealed alternately to Liberal principles and Conservative paternalism in London, and to boycotts and mob intimidation in the countryside, but, though instances of lethal violence occurred, the leadership always steered away from endorsing riot or introducing the gun into politics.

These reforms were mostly not necessary in Ulster, where the Ulster Custom precluded the rack rents and other tenure practices that oppressed tenant farmers elsewhere. The political solidarity necessary for boycotts and to resist eviction was of a different character from the fraternity of the Orange Order. It wasn’t always pretty in the south — there were notorious instances anti-semitism manifesting and occasional assassinations. But, it was a different experience of politics, coming from a different place and headed in another direction.

When Carson took the leadership of Ulster in opposition to Home Rule, he took radical and uncompromising positions, wrecking the cause of Home Rule, and he introduced the gun into Irish politics with the organization of the Ulster Volunteers, arming them from Germany. If the theatricality of the Irish Volunteers is a subject for moral criticism, even more so is the grim and methodical seriousness of the Ulster Volunteers.


Lowhim 03.28.16 at 1:02 am

I’m just going to say that I really like this essay and the discussion. Like like it. Shut down the internets, it wins, like it.

I would also say that sometimes, when discussing things like the righteousness of a revolution, or attempt at revolution, it is better to discuss things farther from home. Usually makes for more nuance and less blaming (though it still happens)


Keith 03.28.16 at 1:11 am

Peter T 108,

Also Lloyd George had a bad trajectory. From anti war liberal to leader of a Tory Cabinet during the Irish civil war. A man who was very clever but got a deserved reputation as untrustworthy, alienating all his former allies on the left. Septimus Severus had no part in the history of the Carthaginian war and so had no direct guilt unlike Lloyd George who connived at state terrorism as Her majesty’s’ first minister and tried hard to deceive Parliament about the Crowns actions. So not a good analogy. His ambition spoiled his reputation as a reformer, as a Liberal before 1914. His actions in Ireland contrast starkly with his opposition to the Boer War. Imperialism is fine so long as I am in charge of it seems to be his real position. Well that is not an attractive position. As became clear in 1922 when his Tory friends gave him the boot.


Peter T 03.28.16 at 3:57 am


The analogy was more about personal trajectory (member of previous enemy nation makes good). I was never bored with history in school (or since), but I’m more interested in figuring out how these people thought than in judging them. Human collectivities are made from the mis-remembered (or just made up) past. The real past, insofar as we can know it, is a kind of corrective. But the stories in their heads were real too. Even the stories about a better future are bricolages cobbled together from what we imagine were the better bits of the past.


Raven Onthill 03.28.16 at 5:19 am

engels@55: I seem to recall non-violence working fairly well for someone named Gandhi. And wasn’t there a Reverend King, as well? How did those leaders and their movements get left out of the discussion?


Keith 03.28.16 at 7:02 am

Peter T @113. I am not sure H G Wells would agree about our dreams of the future being mere remnants of the past. Rather Modernism involves a belief in future achievements being better based for example on scientific discovery. We have means to improve human life the Romans or people in the Middle ages did not have. As for understanding historic characters that always involves speculation to some degree as sources are limited and political figures may be deceptive about their true motivations. Projecting our ideas back to earlier times is a mistake and I agree with you. But this kind of event, as Easter 1916, or other events from history always elicit counter-factual speculation and authors taking sides ex post for one group or another. As for the desirability of revolutions or wars or such like Aristotle merely says such things happen and we need to accept that and not gripe about it. In a given situation given people believe say starting a world war is a good idea e.g. 1914. And off we go. I am sceptical History can tell us what to do in a similar situation today. Vietnam and the Somme did not stop Blair supporting the Iraq imbroglio. Indeed he churned out the words of mass deception (WMD) to strt it off with a big dose of deceit and arrogance.


Matt Kelly 03.28.16 at 7:16 am

OK, for me, some last responses.

Bruce @110 re. liberalism. For sure. Re. Unionism/Loyalism – atavism has become a bogey word when talking about Irish nationalism, so interesting to see you use with respect to U/L. I would argue that U/L is more straightforwardly sectarian than nationalism and that recent attempts (eg. by John Bew) to emphasize its liberalism have to be pretty selective (yep, Michael, @107, NI record of sectarianism bloody awful, though it is liberal principles which are starting to make it better). Have you read Bew’s chapter in the Princeton History of Ireland? Ciara Boylan’s excellent chapter on the Famine helps balance things out. Carsonism is a response to end of the House of Lord’s veto, doesn’t just spring from nowhere, though Orange Order traditions certainly make for a stronger force in the UVF than the IV (Dublin Castle pay the UVF more attention than the IV, for they recognise its greater threat – DC being asleep at the wheel is one of the reasons the rebellion happens). As for the Land War and later agrarian campaigns, I would argue that the HR leadership created a permissive environment for violence and intimidation but then shuddered at the result come 1882 – should Parnell have shut things down in 1882 is a good debating topic for the left – Davitt, the LLL etc.. Also, don’t forget the ‘Dynamitards’ – you probably know Niall Whelehan’s work on this – lobbying for their release gave separatists new impetus (Amnesty Assoc.), and the Redmondites in 1890s got on board- I’ve written about the Redmondite-Fenian nexus elsewhere. Anyway, this is all pretty off topic.

Yup, final irony, the Unionists get home rule. But another irony: Sinn Fein not taking their seats breaks the political deadlock, allowing the British to impose partition and create two home rule states – that, clearly, was an exercise in imperial power. Poor old MacNeill ends up on the Boundary Commission, punishment enough, you might think. Incidentally, Churchill hated partition and hoped for Irish unity as a dominion. Nationalist aggression over the border helped Unionist case that Britain should strengthen NI security forces and accept annual renewal of Special Powers, putting paid by the mid-late 20s to the principle that NI should be self-sustaining.

Roman @99 re. the pathological violence of Irish nationalism. Yes, I know the argument, and I broadly agree with you.

Good to exchange ideas.


Alex K--- 03.28.16 at 8:25 am

@ Bruce Wilder (110): “I think it was a bit of a rude shock when Westminster handed Ulster a Home Rule it never wanted, confirming in effect that they were as much an alien nation as their brethren to the south.”

Rather, the ease with which the North got their Home Rule spelled out their status as a brotherly nation – a nation of Protestant settlers, naturally entitled to self-government according to the Tory worldview. Carson wanted the Union to be preserved in full, and failed; Craig went for the second-best option, Home Rule for the six counties, and succeeded. The abysmal difference that existed in the Tory mind between the case of majority-Protestant dominions and that of Ireland is evident in this 1913 letter to The Spectator from Alexander Leeper, the principal of Trinity College Melbourne, the son of a Dublin-based Anglican clergyman, and a diehard Unionist.


John Quiggin 03.28.16 at 8:26 am

Anderson @88 Why am I not surprised? As with Peter T, I don’t think there’s any scope for useful discussion with you, at least on this topic.


Brett Dunbar 03.28.16 at 11:37 am

The 1914 act had passed and absent a deliberate action on the part of Westminster would come into force. I do not believe the mere suspicion that the act would not be brought into force was sufficient grounds to justify that level of violence. Which also seems to have been the view of the populace at the time.

The strength of Unionist opposition to Home Rule had become apparent rather late, so a second act partitioning off the six majority protestant counties was introduced. It had become clear that the unionists were not going to accept a home rule proposal that placed them in a region politically dominated by Catholics. They did use the threat of violence as a political tool, as did the nationalists. However until 1916 neither had resorted to actually using large scale violence.


Ronan(rf) 03.28.16 at 11:53 am

Matt Kelly, I know you’ve said that’s your last post so no need to respond (anyone else feel free). I’ve not read your book yet (only because I can’t convince my library to stock it) but I’ve seen it referenced before and (perhaps vaguely) think I know the argument . Is it that it is more difficult to divide out separatist violence and constitutional politics than has traditionally been thought ? That they are both deeply entwined , that constitutionalists often used the implicit threat of Separatist violence (both in the land war and over home rule)to bargain politically ? (1) what does your argument say to questions over whether the catholic pop was generally home rulers or separatists (ie were they home rulers only because it was the only meaningful game in town (2) what does it imply for the practical use and moral justification for violence in Irish politics ?
You mentioned niall whelans book. My reading of his argument was that one of his claims is that 1916 was an aberration in an evolution towards a more practical and progressive use of violence (ie skirmishing to guerrilla war) by seperatists. Do you agree with that?
Final question. *if* loyalism /unionism is more sectarian driven than nationalism (and I personally don’t think loyalism/ unionism is atavistic, or that nationalist violence was necessarily morally justifiable)then why is that?


bruce wilder 03.28.16 at 4:29 pm

Brett Dunbar @ 119: The 1914 act had passed and absent a deliberate action on the part of Westminster would come into force.

No. Your insistence on this counterfactual has become tiresome.
Home Rule would require detailed implementation. It wasn’t going to go off like an automatic timer. Home Rule had been suspended precisely because implementation against violent opposition would be difficult, and the government could not spare the attention and necessary force in wartime. It was clear to all contemporaries that there would be deliberate action at Westminster to modify Home Rule as the Liberals had back down in the face of Ulster Unionist intimidation and the Party complexion of Parliament was changing from the peculiar balance that had enabled the Irish Party to win their point. Partition and a large reduction in representation for Ireland in London were already in the works.

The only party to introduce “large-scale violence” during the Easter Rising was the British government. The rebels were a small force engaged largely in theatrics, as the OP points out. It was the British response that scaled-up violence from assault, trespass and murder to war. You can argue that the Easter Rising was intended to provoke such a response, but the responders have moral responsibilities of their own.


Brett Dunbar 03.28.16 at 5:46 pm

You are the one introducing a counter factual. The implementation had been delayed due to the war. Not implementing the Government of Ireland Act when the suspensory act expired would require deliberate effort. Even with 73 Irish Sinn Fein MPs abstaining the Government of Ireland Act 1920 passed, bringing in a somewhat modified form of home rule without the rising and the subsequent collapse of the IPP there would be another 73 pro home rule MPs in the Commons. Repeal or amendment of the Act would require the consent of the Commons. This was unlikely to be achieved. Basically the 1918 parliament was less favourable to home rule than it would have been without the collapse of the IPP.

The reduction from 103 to 42 MPs was in the 1914 Act. The 1886 bill had entirely removed Irish representation while the 1893 bill reduced representation to 80.


Layman 03.28.16 at 6:37 pm

“Home Rule had been suspended precisely because implementation against violent opposition would be difficult, and the government could not spare the attention and necessary force in wartime.”

Not to mention that there was considerable political sympathy for that opposition. “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”, &tc.


bruce wilder 03.28.16 at 7:18 pm

Matt Kelly @ 116: atavism has become a bogey word when talking about Irish nationalism, so interesting to see you use with respect to U/L.

My personal acquaintance with Northern Ireland dates from the 1970s and hasn’t been updated. Ian Paisley made a vivid impression back in the day. You have to see him spit out “papist” with the full freight of 17th century vintage venom.

MK: Carsonism is a response to end of the House of Lord’s veto, doesn’t just spring from nowhere,

Carson isn’t from Ulster, is an Anglican not a Presbyterian as far as I know and isn’t attached personally to anywhere in Ulster. Carson was a representative of the Protestant Ascendancy, a class that had seen its dominance of Ireland eroded steadily by the progress of Liberal reforms dating back at least to Catholic emancipation in 1829. The Protestant Ascendancy was fully integrated into the landed ruling class of England and Scotland, its second and third sons supplying many Army officers and Anglican vicars, with Ireland financing their lives. Uprooting the Protestant Ascendancy is a gradual process. Before there were land wars there had been tithe wars and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church. During the Long Depression, which depressed agricultural prices and land rents and exacerbated the social effects of crowding the Irish peasants onto small plots while large estates were turned to grazing, a series of Land Acts allowed the Ascendancy to sell out. Electoral reforms allowed the part of the landed gentry with strong local identification to take over leadership in the Commons and Parnell formed a disciplined Irish Party, arguably the first fully disciplined Party in Parliament. Eventually, the Ascendancy lost its grip on local government at the end of the 19th century and the Wyndham Act accelerated sales by having the government pay the difference between bid and ask.

The Protestant Ascendancy wasn’t yet completely gone in 1910. There were still families scattered about the countryside, they were still prominent in Dublin, still amply represented in the highest ranks of the British Army. Southern Unionist was not yet an extinct species. But, they had no foundation, no where to stand politically, no hand-hold on privilege, no natural allies outside the Presbyterians in Ulster. Carson went to Ulster in desperation and he acted with radical, uncompromising determination to stop Home Rule entirely. I don’t think you can understand Carson correctly unless you can see that he is not a natural representative of Ulster Unionism, but rather of the shade of the Protestant Ascendancy. He’s not a local boy representing a local interest or subculture. He takes a radical stance for other reasons. And, the shock that sets him off is broader and deeper in its implications for his personal life and identify than the end of Lords’ veto.

Home Rule for those who did not want it is only half the irony of Carson’s Irish politics. The other is that he can’t go home. Ulster is not his home. He left Protestants in southern Ireland, including himself, without a country.

MK: I would argue that the HR leadership created a permissive environment for violence and intimidation but then shuddered at the result come 1882 – should Parnell have shut things down in 1882 is a good debating topic for the left . . .

Parnell was walking a familiar line for 19th century liberals negotiating with law-and-order conservatives: using the threat of supporting or releasing violent revolution as a point of leverage in demanding ameliorating reform and legitimate channels of political participation for disenfranchised classes. I don’t think Parnell himself shuddered; I think he genuinely liked the Fenians and probably thought them more or less justified in the circumstances. His political genius was to find ways around the futility of their tactics to a strategy that gained power at Westminster and incremental change in the countryside. The status quo ante circa 1880 rested on a continuing threat of violence against people who were pretty thoroughly disabled economically and politically. It is a misplaced moralism that worries only about the slave striking the master and overlooks the system in which the master strikes the slave as a matter of course.

MK: Sinn Féin not taking their seats breaks the political deadlock, allowing the British to impose partition and create two home rule states – that, clearly, was an exercise in imperial power.

An exercise in imperial power too feeble to actually give effect to the creation of a Home Rule “Southern Ireland”. Which was kind of the point of absentionism.

Would they really not have the votes with Sinn Féin in the chamber? I can’t see how that analysis can work. Sinn Féin would have been conceding, just by showing up. Nothing they could get inside the chamber would match what they could get at a negotiating table, because the very existence of a negotiating table was a form of capitulation by the British government.


Ronan(rf) 03.28.16 at 7:46 pm

Worth bearing in mind fergus Campbell’s latest research on “the Irish establishment” aswell , which shows that the “greening” of the Irish establishment (ie Catholics being integrated into the elite)wasn’t nearly as extensive as has been claimed, and that the top was still disproportionately Protestant , and in some ways colonial (his conclusion being that ethnic discrimination and inequality was much more prevalent in the period and fed justifiable grievances among the upwardly mobile Catholic classes, even as late as 1914 )


Matt Kelly 03.28.16 at 11:43 pm

Hi Ronan @120. Thanks for the interest, appreciated. So, the book is the book of the thesis and I would probably express aspects of it slightly differently now (and it certainly needs an edit!) but broadly speaking yes, though the thesis is not quite as instrumental about threat of violence as you suggest. I argue that the boundaries between constitutional and non-constitutional nationalism were much more porous, both discursively and organisationally, than the literature often suggests, with the commitment to home rule politics rhetorically provisional, which not only kept space open for the separatists, but was actually necessary to the success of home rule (I suggest HR was often projected as Fenianism by other means). (Approach reflected how Home Rule dominated the literature when I started the research in the late 1990s and you can see in the book someone trying to figure out the territory and not always entirely successfully
hardly anyone was looking at is stuff then – I got a bit too obsessed with police reports…) Redmond’s trajectory was quite important to my argument, for I suggest that in the 1900s he abandons Parnellite ambiguity for a more rigid imperial home rule, which served my broader argument about the emergence of Sinn Fein – Redmondism helped create space for a new radical nationalism. I might refine that argument now making it less schematic, though one of the questions myself, James McConnel and Mike Wheatley were all asking around the same time concerned how Redmondite the home rule party actually was after 1900 (ans.: not very). James would argue, I think, that Redmond’s trips to Australia etc. had a profound effect on how he perceived the British Empire.

I also emphasise the civic republicanism of the Irish Volunteers – right to bear arms of the adult male citizen – but also how the shift in Redmondism gave the rejuvenated IRB a nice hook: Irish Freedom, the IRB newspaper 1910-14, placed a lot of explicit emphasis on how Irish nationalism, properly understood, was opposed to British imperialism (though at one point it editorialised on how the separatists would have to organise as a separate political party in a home rule Ireland). It’s striking how rare the language of imperialism was in earlier polemic and it seemed to me that for O’Hegarty, Hobson and co. anti-imperial thinking was ideologically empowering, allowed them to express very clearly what made them distinct from the IPP (though I have a piece in Past & Present that looks at this with respect to the 1850s & 60s). Obviously all this is open to debate…


Andrew Norris 03.29.16 at 1:14 am

Classes under the Christian Brothers in Oatlands, Stillorgan, in the 1960s included first-person stories in history class from Brothers who had been or knew participants in the 1921-23 internecine struggle, aka the Irish civil war. The bombing of the Four Courts by one side or the other was the main topic for one brother. It was great stuff in a way, but very one sided (Fianna Fail when we learned what was what). 1916 was always a little beyond us, Kilmainham and Dev were only hear say.

Living through the later “troubles” and seeing what the consequent militarism – the Bullet not the ballot- really meant, e.g. Omagh, and the death of how many other “innocents”; one I remember vividly is a 19 year old conscript to HM Army snipered to death in Glen of the Downs in the middle of the madness, convinced me of the futility of the 1916 slogans.

As an Irish Citizen, I do not rejoice in the commemoration of the birth of the terrible beauty.


Meredith 03.29.16 at 6:13 am

Thank you, Maria. I don’t have anything to add to the discussion except to press a concern for the bow-legged child. (All babies start with bow legs, those little bow-legs and flexed feet attached to hungry abdomens and large heads.)


makedoanmend 03.29.16 at 6:21 am

Below is a link to Gene Kerrigan’s Irish Independent Newspaper article about the rising; giving historical depth, reasons for it occurrence and why certain groups and individuals went ahead with it against all odds.

Kerrigan would have been thought of as a mainstream centrist, slightly liberal/left, journalist pre-Tiger/Ireland Inc. – i.e. about 20 years ago in Ireland.

Which brings to mind 2 convergent thoughts about this entire article. Maria is perfectly entitled to view her ancestor’s role in Irish history in whatever light she so chooses.

However, I wonder how much of the current ideology of neo-liberalism, added with the non-stop terrorist narrative served up almost daily in the MSM, influences current perceptions. Nothing worse then projecting today’s issues onto historical events where the dynamic was necessarily different and mostly forgotten.

Second, a main premise of this article is basically: ‘think of the innocent children’. Somehow Irish people occupying Irish property in an Irish city with small arms is somehow illegitimate – leading to unnecessary death of the innocents. A mixed bag of UK soldiers, hurriedly brought from the “mainland” to address the rebellion and who used a gunboat and artillery which killed far more innocents than the rebels, isn’t much of a consideration. Legitimate versus illegitimate. Who gets to decide? Everyone? No one?


Ronan(rf) 03.29.16 at 2:33 pm

Matt, thanks for the response . Very interesting. The book is high on my to read list , so hopefully I’ll get to it soon.


Suzanne 03.29.16 at 7:05 pm

“There’s something atavistic about the culture of the Orange Order, which cannot easily be separated from Ulster Unionism, a more than sneaking desire to dominate and intimidate the Catholics as a despised and less privileged underclass.”

@ 110: Not to mention the whole, well, raving religious bigot aspect. I remember some years ago that there was some fuss when Peter Robinson allowed as how yes, he had entered a Catholic church, but not for a service, no sir, although he had lots of Roman Catholic friends, etc., and some of his ministerial colleagues had never gone so far as to enter such a disreputable establishment, presumably lest they get Papist cooties, or something. Made for very strange reading.

@11: Collins also expressed impatience with the making of fine speeches. He was a disciple of Clarke and especially MacDiarmada, not Pearse.

I think that many a man with a “poet’s soul” has confronted war bravely, and object respectfully to the apparent bit of snark intended, as if Pearse was too soft a creature for the real thing. Sorry if I am misreading that part of the OP.


Puss Wallgreen 03.29.16 at 7:46 pm

The raving religious bigot aspect is not confined to one side though, is it? When I was growing up it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to even enter a Protestant church, let alone participate in a religious service. When Douglas Hyde was buried the entire Irish cabinet apart from Noel Browne waited outside in the rain during the funeral service. So it isn’t so strange at all.


Suzanne 03.29.16 at 8:12 pm

No, indeed, it’s not strange for mid-century Ireland. It did ring an odd note for me in 2011, I think it was, but it could be me. I have the impression that there’s a peculiar acidity to the Orange brand of bias, but that, too, could be me.

I recall that some Catholic supporters of Parnell in his time of trial defended him by saying that yes, he was an adulterer now wedded to a divorced woman and his partner in sin, but as a Protestant he could hardly be expected to know any better and was thus excused. Always liked that.


Puss Wallgreen 03.29.16 at 8:59 pm

Most of my relatives still wouldn’t enter a Protestant church. My mother wouldn’t have, and she certainly had no prejudice against Protestants as such. Inasmuch as Protestantism, which is not identical with Orangeism, is a critique of Catholicism I would expect it to carry an extra acidity. The vast majority of Irish Catholics are utterly unaware of what Protestants believe and don’t really care – whilst Irish Protestants do have an, albeit very distorted, picture of what Catholics believe and a thoroughgoing critique of it.


Bartholomew 03.29.16 at 10:08 pm

133: ‘as a Protestant he could hardly be expected to know any better and was thus excused’


Suzanne 03.29.16 at 10:08 pm

I did specify “Orange brand of bias.” In this instance, indifference still sounds preferable to the “thoroughgoing critique,” but opinions will differ. I thank you for the information from your experience.


Puss Wallgreen 03.29.16 at 10:36 pm

Yes and Peter Robinson isn’t a member of the Orange Order or any loyal order so your specification is not relevant to this case. Given the historical context of the DUP, his willingness to attend a Catholic service as a mark of respect for Catholic friends was a significant step – nobody is obliged to attend a service they regard as heretical or blasphemous, although obviously for the secularised diaspora outside Ireland this will all seem very quaint. If you can’t give credit to somebody who is genuinely making an effort there is no way out of this maelstrom for any of us.


Mark 03.30.16 at 1:12 pm

Just wanted to add a minor anecdote. I grew up on the edge of the Glens and went, in the early 90s, to a Protestant grammar school in Ballymena (one of the main market towns for North Antrim). But while I remember very clearly learning in history classes on the background to the Rising about the Adair family’s (local gentry) role in the UVF’s gunrunning, I don’t think it was ever mentioned that the head of the Irish Volunteers was also local. Even in the context of a history syllabus which felt carefully even-handed, I guess different memories persisted.


barry johnston 03.30.16 at 5:14 pm

Interesting and thought provoking essay. Thank you for this. One thing I did not agree with is your view that radicalism is something that pertains to youthful inexperience, and that it usually leads to violence. This is just not true, we have seen much radicalism in ireland over the last few years (the water protests for example) that were by and large very peaceful. On the other hand, we only have to look around the world to see that conservative state sponsored violence is rampant. I acknowledge that there are zealots, but they exist all across the political spectrum


Stephen 03.30.16 at 6:32 pm

Puss Walgreen: I remember going to look at a late-mediaeval church in England, very elegant, with a friend from a Catholic Irish family (second-generation settled in England). She remarked that it had been originally Catholic. I said, yes but it’s been Anglican for several centuries. Doesn’t matter, she said, we’ll get them all back.

She also said, about NI, when I said that a main part of the problem was that most people in NI didn’t actually want to be part of the Republic: But they ought to want to.

She is a sensitive, very likeable woman, a good friend, with a good degree from a very good (English) university.

I try not to despair.


Ronan(rf) 03.31.16 at 12:00 am

This is true, but I wonder if we read the history backwards too often and see everything through the confessional divisions. Which isn’t to say they weren’t/aren’t Obviously important , but there were a number of cleavages in Irish society, and questions of “identity” were often quite fluid and contested. Even within the diaspora, where at times you had more Irish born and their children and grand children living in major urban areas in America, uk or Australia , why weren’t the cultural institutions and identities developed there as legitimate as those developed on the island itself ? And how did they affect identities and institutions in the island ? That’s my impression anyway. A lot of the talk that goes on these days about the “new Ireland” with its transformed identities and multicultural aspects strikes me as, perhaps, overwrought. That the transformations weren’t as unique as we like to claim. (Having said that I did come of age in the 90s,so that could be a creation of my imagination)


John Quiggin 03.31.16 at 5:10 am

By chance, I picked up a book written just after the Great War which so exactly confirmed my point @36 above, I couldn’t resist quoting

The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. …

Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a larger scale. No truce mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. …

Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.

Of course, you might want to argue that the author was a notable pacifist, and that his claims (like those of most who wrote in the 1920s) should be discounted in the light of later scholarship.


Niall McAuley 03.31.16 at 1:45 pm

There are two cathedrals in Dublin, Christchurch and St. Patricks. Both are Church of Ireland.

To this day, there is no Catholic cathedral, just a Pro-Cathedral, as the RC church still regards Christchurch as the “real” cathedral.


Ronan(rf) 03.31.16 at 3:58 pm

Ie further to 141 (from Kirby Miller “ireland and irish america”)

“In Ireland, historically and currently, questions of ethno-religious or ‘national’ identities invariably have political connotations. Unfortunately, the prevailing revisionist model of Irish ethnic identities and relationships — the ‘two traditions’ paradigm — is deficient, even dysfunctional. The term suggests the paramount and permanent existence of only two Irish groups whose adherents have totally distinct historical experiences, antagonistic political cultures, and conflicting material interests. One group is characterized as Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist, and ‘Irish’; the other as English/Scottish, Protestant, unionist, and ‘British’. ….
As suggested in this volume, especially in Part II, the two traditions model does not promote a full understanding of the Irish past. By merely substituting a two traditions model for the old unitary nationalist one, revisionists have declined to grasp the complexity they normally celebrate. Ironically, in the guise of ‘pluralism’ the two traditions paradigm simply reifies what scholar Frank Wright calls the Ulster Protestants’ ‘settler ideology’ as well as the ‘natives’’ Manichaean analogue.5 Consequently, the binary model ignores or de-emphasizes similarities, common interests, and instances of co-operation between Protestants and Catholics. Also, it un-historically homogenizes both traditions, slighting the diversity, the complexity, and the socio-cultural and (among Protestants) denominational conflicts within each group. Although the two traditions paradigm purportedly illuminates cultural distinctions, its concept of culture is limited: culture is conceived as an independent variable, divorced from socio-economic and other contexts; thus, culture and cultural conflicts are ‘naturalized’ as virtually primordial and eternal. In fact, of course, ethnic cultures and identities are impermanent, situational, contingent on ever-changing historical and environmental factors. “


Joe Farry 03.31.16 at 4:50 pm

Maria thank you for sharing your personal perspective on the morally complexities of the Irish War for Independence. Your reflections are an antidote to most Americans’ naïve faith that history is a morality tale in which the good and wise (us!) emerge victorious (and wealthy).
The Irish have learned—perhaps too well—that history is far too often more tragic than redemptive.
The guerrilla war following 1916 resulted in a partial fulfillment of Eoin MacNeill’s dream of an independent Ireland. However he made the prudential judgment that despite the defects in treaty, he would become a Minister in the Provisional Government. In 1922, however, a large number of his fellow citizens rejected the “compromised “Treaty” and a bloody civil war ensued
The divisions of the Civil War continue to echo in Irish life and politics. Many families were bitterly divided including the McNeill family. One of Eoin’s sons followed his father’s lead and joined army of the Free State; a second son, Brian, joined the “anti-treaty” forces and was killed by Free State soldiers in Sligo.
The events of Easter 1916 continue to be interpreted through the lens of 1922. “Only if” –the two most overused words in Irish historical writing—McNeill had succeeded in derailing “the uprising” then the Civil War have been avoided.
But it is not possible to erase the reality of tragedy in history by counter-narratives and hindsight’s wistful wisdom.


Maria 03.31.16 at 10:41 pm

Thanks everyone, for an informative and thought-provoking thread.

(With the exception of a particularly uncivil comment from ‘EWI’ whose comment I have deleted and whom I will thank not to comment on my future threads until he/she learns how to disagree without being nasty and insulting to both the living and the dead.)

Here’s a BBC NI documentary for anyone interested and able to access it:

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