Insurrectionary Hopes

Matthew Kelly

  • Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend
    Allen Lane, 442 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9690 0

Few Irish nationalist commentators or politicians doubt that the insurrection of Easter 1916 was the most important event in 20th-century Irish history, marking the moment when Ireland emerged symbolically from English domination. Sinn Fein’s extraordinary tally of seats at the 1918 general election, the guerrilla war against the British forces that followed, the establishment of the Free State in 1921, and de Valera’s unilateral declaration of an Irish republic in 1948 are regarded as fulfilling the prescription issued in 1916.

Such thinking reflects the old romantic notion that in 1916 the Irish republic was ‘virtually established’ as a reality that lacked only formal structures. Ireland was literally God-given and only through independence could God’s intentions be fulfilled. Following the 1918 election, the Dail declared a republic, which gave the uprising its retrospective approval. The greatest prize was the unity of Ireland and, to borrow Wolfe Tone’s famous phrase, the substitution of ‘the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’. The Proclamation read from the steps of the General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) by Patrick Pearse gave full expression to these sentiments, adumbrating a series of principles that blended romantic nationalism with the political ideals of the Enlightenment. The Proclamation is one of the finest documents of its kind. ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen,’ it opens, ‘in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.’ It later insists that ‘the Irish republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ The republic would reward its citizens by ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.

The reality was much more complicated. The Military Council did not act in the name of all the Irish. Dublin’s Catholic bourgeoisie saw the whole thing as deranged, believing that a small number of respectable citizens – schoolteachers and shopkeepers – had led impressionable acolytes to behave utterly recklessly. ‘They should all be shot,’ was the most common response. Scanty evidence suggests that those further down the social scale were more likely to sympathise with the rebels; others were steadily more impressed – if not approving – as the rebels held out over the course of the week. The majority’s loyalties remained with the Home Rule party and its leader, John Redmond. Ever since Parnell had been hailed ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’ in the 1880s, the majority of nationalists had supported the parliamentary campaign for Home Rule, hoping that Westminster could be persuaded or cajoled into devolving government. Though Gladstone’s bills of 1886 and 1893 had failed – the first provoked a split in the Liberal Party, the second was thrown out by the Lords – the Irish kept faith, buoyed up by a succession of agrarian and religious reforms that pleasingly undermined the authority of Protestant Ireland. If Home Rule remained out of reach, constitutional nationalism nevertheless seemed to be delivering on behalf of Ireland’s most crucial constituency, the Catholic farmers. In the shadows, ever ready to pour scorn on the ‘transactions’ of the Home Rule party, were the Fenians, or the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the self-appointed guardians of the separatist, republican tradition. Very much in a minority, Fenianism was nevertheless a crucial presence in Irish nationalism, representing ideals that few constitutional politicians could afford openly to ignore. Irish MPs paid homage to Fenianism’s insurrectionary hopes, tending to frame their advocacy of parliamentary action in pragmatic terms, as Fenianism by other means. Providing the British responded justly to their grievances, the Irish would stick to constitutional methods.

Defiance was an essential part of nationalist rhetoric, satisfying the emotions while keeping immediate interests firmly to the fore. Indeed, convinced Home Rulers feared that Gladstone and the constructive Unionists were right in thinking that the expeditious address of grievances would diminish nationalist passions. The same fears animated some of the rebels in 1916. They calculated that the British reaction would be sufficiently severe to make it clear that government from London was a form of imperial occupation, brought about and sustained by force.

Under Redmond the Home Rule party became dominated by a clique of imperialists who, at their most far-sighted, regarded a reconfiguration of the Union – sometimes promoted as ‘Home Rule all round’ – as presaging a wider rethinking of the empire. They hoped that the Irish and other nationalities could be reconciled to an empire reconceived as a union of interdependent nations, no longer as the possessions of a single great power. Such ruminations seemed pretty obscure to most nationalists, however, and were easily sidelined when the Lords lost their veto over legislation passed by the Commons. By weakening Home Rule’s greatest source of opposition and Unionism’s greatest source of security, the Parliament Act had transformed the political landscape.

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[*] Land and Revolution: Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland 1891-1921 (Oxford, 376 pp., £55, February, 0 19 927324 3).