by W.B. Yeats*
O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?
You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?
When 1,600 brave or foolhardy Irish nationalists seized the center of Dublin on the morrow of Easter in 1916, it should by every right have been a death knell for their movement.
Their rude barricades would only withstand London’s pressure for a few days; the famous headquarters in Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO) was battered to rubble by British ordnance. By the end of the apparent debacle, the cream of Irish Republicanism — including every single man who set his name to a ferocious Robert Emmet-inspired Proclamation of the Irish Republic — had been laid in the earth.
“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible,” that document read in part. “The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.”
In the first days of May, as the leaders of the self-styled “Irish Republic” were fusilladed in Kilmainham Gaol, the words rang downright laughable. An insurrection of poets — comprising, in the words of Joyce Kilmer, “men of literary tastes and training, who went into battle, as one of the dispatches from Dublin phrased it, ‘with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.'”**
Yet somehow, impossibly, with weapons that wouldn’t rate a slingshot against the globe’s paramount Goliath — an empire that had lately made short and brutal work of the Boers, and was wasting cannon meat by the divisionfold on the western front — these dreamers’ doomed revolution touched off the chain reaction that would eject Ireland from the empire. One of them was destined to go from a British condemned cell to the the presidency of his country. It’s all just too providential to believe.†
As the eponymous John Dolan notes in Radio War Nerd episode 23,
At the time, when the survivors were being led away to their executions through the smoking ruins of Dublin, people cursed their names … but as they were executed, very roughly and very clumsily because it was a wartime administration and all the good British troops were in Europe … those badly handled executions created a martyrdom, and that martyrdom is something that taps very deeply into Irish culture. It’s a very Shia culture in that way. So the total military failure of the Easter Rising became an effective long-term success.
British troops left the country, or at least most of the country, five years later. And that seems kind of ordinary to us now because British troops began leaving all kinds of countries, without violence sometimes, a half-century later. But you have to remember, in 1916, no one had managed to fight their way out of the British Empire in a century.
There’s a great lecture series on the Irish Revolution (including but not limited to the Easter Rising) here.
Irish nationalists still commemorate the Easter Rising — on the moveable Easter Monday date, rather than the April 24-29 span of street fighting — and still cherish the 16 martyrs made by British guns day after day that May.
May 3, 1916: Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Thomas Clarke
May 4, 1916: Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, and Joseph Plunkett
May 5, 1916: John MacBride
May 6, 1916: Constance Markievicz’s sentence commuted
May 8, 1916: Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, and Sean Heuston
May 9, 1916: Thomas Kent
Previously covered (and not chronologically contiguous)
April 26, 2018: Francis Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre, and Thomas Dickson (extrajudicially)
May 12, 1916: James Connolly
August 3, 1916: Roger Casement
* Yeats was an Irish nationalist for whom this political event was intensely personal: Yeats’s marriage proposals to fellow-radical Maud Gonne had been rebuffed repeatedly, until she finally married John MacBride … one of the Easter Rising leaders who would be shot that bloody May.
Yeats has a longer meditation on events in another poem, “Easter, 1916”.
** Foreshadowing 1980s Irish Republicans’ policy: “a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other”.
† The reader may judge of the Great Man theory, but it certainly did not hurt the Irish cause that future guerrilla genius Michael Collins, arrested when the rebels surrendered the GPO, was not at that time a significant enough figure to be worth the British executioners’ while.