is a professor emeritus of history who taught Irish history for more than 40 years at La Salle University
April 24 marks the centennial of the Easter Rising, the key turning point in modern Irish history.
For five days, primarily in Dublin but also in other parts of Ireland, Irish rebels attempted to seize power and drive the English rulers from their country. The leaders of the rebellion were an amalgam of various radical Irish factions: the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Sinn Fein, the Irish Volunteers, even a handful of Irish socialists and feminists.
These men and women did not believe that they had a realistic chance of prevailing against the English. Instead they sought "a blood sacrifice" that would forever change Ireland. The rebellion failed, but that shedding of blood laid down a marker that would haunt Irish history.
By proclaiming a republic, a concept then alien in English constitutional law, the rebels of 1916 began the eventual separation of Ireland from England. Ireland had been moving gradually toward some form of autonomous government within the British Empire, either through home rule or dominion status. But the "blood sacrifice" of 1916 changed that. The republic became the ideal of all Irish nationalists, moderate or radical.
The Easter Rising also was the first of the nationalist uprisings spawned by the world war that changed Europe. The Czechs, Poles, Finns, Baltic peoples, and even the Turks would follow Ireland's lead in revolting against foreign rule. The actions of the Irish rebels from 1916 to 1921 were copied by other revolutionary movements - the emphasis on cultural uniqueness, violent nationalist rhetoric, hit-and-run raids instead of open battles, intelligence operations to undermine the authorities. For example, the Zionists were particularly impressed by the Irish tactics, successfully adopting them in their campaign in Palestine against the English after World War II.
Easter 1916 was also sui generis. It was not modeled after any of the great revolts of the past: the English, American, or French revolutions. Rather, the Irish revolt derived from the seven-century struggle of the native Irish to drive the English out of their country.
The rebels of 1916 were not only rejecting English rule; they also turned their back on the traditional national leadership of their parents' generation. The six-day Easter Rising was also a revolt of the young. Their chief, Patrick Pearse, was 29; most the rest of the leadership, which made Dublin's Grand Post Office its headquarters for the Rising, were in their mid-30s. Only one, Thomas Clarke, was over 50.
The English authorities contributed to the ultimate success of the Easter Rising, committing a series of blunders that enshrined 1916 in the minds of those Irish who had not embraced the Republican ideal.
Instead of arresting and imprisoning the leaders of the rebellion as they had done in the past, the English government, in an orgy of bloody-mindedness, shot 15 of the leaders, including everyone who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Among those executed were Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was dying of tuberculosis, and James Connolly, who was so weakened from his wounds in the Rising that he had to be strapped to a chair to be shot. The English also hanged one of their own, a knighted Irish sympathizer, Sir Roger Casement, who was returning to Ireland to call off the Rising. To further blacken his reputation, the English released his diary, which showed a long life of homosexual activity.
The result of these missteps created martyrs and raised the concept of the Republic to new levels of respect. Any realistic chance of a political solution to the Irish problem ended with those executions.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats immortalized the executed in his poem "Easter 1916," portraying them not as failed rebels but as founders of a nation:
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That "terrible beauty" led inexorably to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21, a conflict that brought out the worst in both sides. The English resorted to brutal paramilitaries such as the infamous Black and Tans to terrorize the Irish people, and the Irish rebels responded with their own forms of atrocities, including the shooting of the mostly Catholic members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
In the midst of this violence, the radicalism of the rebel generation of 1916 gradually gave way. In its place the traditional values of the Irish people reasserted themselves. Conservative forces led by the Catholic Church, the middle-class business community, and the farming class gradually gained the upper hand. While the ideal of the Republic remained a powerful lure, some of the leaders of the Anglo-Irish War began to emphasize it as a preference rather than an absolute end.
A tenuous peace treaty, signed in December 1919, granted Ireland dominion status within the British Empire. This was seen as a betrayal of the Republic, and a bloody civil war followed in 1922, a conflict more brutal than the war with England. In one instance, the forces that supported the peace treaty executed 77 Republicans. Michael Collins, a leader of the independence struggle, a member of the delegation during the Anglo-Irish peace talks, and chairman of the provisional government, was shot and killed by some of the very men he had once led against England.
Irish history for the next 80 years witnessed a rejection of many of the finer qualities that the rebels of 1916 represented, and instead was plagued by sporadic violence - assassinations, bombings, and even horrible hunger strikes. The uneasy peace signed in the Good Friday Accord of 1998 has survived so far. Perhaps the gun is finally out of Irish life.