Although Easter 1916 fell in late April, Ireland has opted to celebrate the centenary of its Easter Rising coincident with this year’s early season rather than wait for the strict calendar date. It’s easy to understand why.
In traditional Christianity, Easter is about blood sacrifice, redemption and resurrection. And the same mystically sacrificial quality has long been ascribed to 1916’s intensely nationalist insurrection, doomed as it inevitably was in the immediate term. Looked at this way, maintaining the tightest possible connection with Easter makes eminent good sense.
Understandably, the centenary will be marked as a celebration of Ireland’s established national narrative, one that describes a long, eventually successful, struggle for independence from Britain. Perhaps there’ll even be a degree of triumphalism. But while sophisticates and cynics may be tempted to scoff, such self-congratulation is more or less the way these things are done everywhere. For instance, think about America’s 1976 bicentenary, or Canada’s 1967 love-in with itself.
Historians, however, can be a dyspeptically disputatious bunch, sometimes poking, prodding and posing awkward questions. And there are questions that can reasonably be asked of the Easter Rising relating to issues like democratic legitimacy, timing, and results.
If legitimacy for armed insurrection requires some form of prior democratic mandate, then Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising failed the test. Not only did the rebels have no electoral blessing, they made no attempt to get any. And this failure wasn’t a function of such mechanisms being unavailable.
At the time, the 670 member UK Westminster parliament had 103 MPs elected from Ireland, none of whom were associated with the insurrection. Indeed, only one of the insurrection’s leaders had ever run for any elected office at all, and he had failed on both occasions. Rather than responding to the expressed will of the people, the rebellion was an attempt by a self-anointed group to seize power in the name of what it believed to be a noble, even holy, national cause.
The insurrection’s timing, too, was interesting. The long history of Ireland’s entanglement with its larger neighbour had more than its share of baleful episodes, but the decades preceding Easter 1916 had been quite benign.
Thanks to extensive land reform, a mass transfer of ownership from landlords to local farmers was well underway. Wages for both skilled and unskilled workers, particularly the latter, were on the rise. As historian Liam Kennedy summarises the period, “There were massive schemes of land reform, special assistance for the west of Ireland . . ., the formation of a Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction to promote rural development, and the introduction of pensions for older people.”
Then there’s the question of results.
On one level, 1916 was a significant success. Although the insurrection itself was initially unpopular and quickly suppressed, a combination of events and a broad underlying disposition towards nationalism turned that around within a few short years, culminating in the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
It can, of course, be argued that the continued partition of Ireland – the six north-eastern counties remaining in the UK – drains some of the meaning from that success. However, even if there’d never been an Easter Rising, partition was going to happen anyway as the fiercely Unionist population concentrated in the north-east had made it abundantly clear that it wanted nothing to do with anything that diluted or severed its relationship with the UK.
There is, though, a more ambiguous perspective.
For many decades after 1922, Ireland performed poorly in economic terms, thus demonstrating a chronic inability to provide anything resembling prosperity for many of its citizens. Having become, by contemporary western European standards, a modestly prosperous country in the years preceding 1922, it morphed into a relative basket case afterwards.
Emigration, which to a significant extent functions as a means of exporting unemployment, constitutes a dramatic example. Although Ireland experienced a substantial population outflow before independence, the mid-20th century witnessed a veritable flood, with literally hundreds of thousands taking the boat for England. To put it in context, historian Joseph Lee contends that a full 80 per cent of children born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 emigrated in the 1950s!
While very real, sovereignty isn’t necessarily a panacea. It can simply mean the ability to make your own mistakes.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.