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Speech by Ambassador Mulhall - 'We know their dream': Yeats and 1916.

'We know their dream': Yeats and 1916.

Talk delivered at the Tyneside Irish Festival,

Newcastle, 20 October 2014


I want to talk this evening about a person, an event, a poem, and the connection between them. The person is WB Yeats, the event the Easter Rising of 1916 and the poem is 'Easter 1916'. I see Yeats's poem as a good way of approaching the events of 1916, especially for non-Irish audiences, for it provides a complex, intriguing portrait of the Rising. It can be viewed as a kind of verse tutorial on the most significant event in Ireland's 20th century history. Yeats is a valuable witness to the events of 1916, because he was familiar with its leaders and fascinated by their deeds, but yet sufficiently removed from them to be able to 'cast a cold eye' on the significance and implications of what had happened. Let's start with the man behind the poem.

WB Yeats and Ireland:

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in June 1865 and went on to become probably our greatest Irish poet. He was one of the four Irishmen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature during the 20th century. He received his Nobel Prize in 1923, just one year after the emergence of the independent Irish Free State.

But Yeats's connection with Ireland was not just one of birth and Anglo-Irish lineage. For Yeats was involved in, or in some way connected with, practically everything that happened in Irish public life in the eventful decades between the late 1880s and 1939, when he died in the South of France at the age of 73.

Yeats became interested in Irish affairs in the mid-1880s under the influence of the old Fenian, John O'Leary. Instead of following the path taken by writers like Wilde and Shaw, and aiming his work at mainstream English audiences, Yeats made the bold decision to be an Irish writer and invested considerable energies in the development of a specifically Irish literature in the English language. This gave rise to what became known as the Irish literary revival which, Yeats believed, was part of what he called that 'stir of thought' that brought about the Irish revolution between 1916 and 1922.

During the 1890s, Yeats was involved in various literary/political bodies that sought to create a distinctive, separate identity for the late-Victorian Irish. He thought of himself as a poet who 'sang to sweeten Ireland's wrong', was probably sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, took a pro-Boer stance in the Anglo-Boer War and founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904. In 1902, he produced his most patriotic play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, which caused him to ask in later life 'did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?'

Towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, and notably after the negative public reaction to Synge's Playboy of the Western World, Yeats became deeply disenchanted with Irish affairs and, in 1913, proclaimed that 'Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave.' For Yeats, John O'Leary had epitomised all that he admired about Irish nationalism and those who came after him failed to match his standard.

The Easter Rising:

Before going on to look at Yeats's 'Easter 1916', we need first to examine the Rising itself.

In the years before the First World War, the bulk of Irish people aspired to the creation of a Home Rule parliament, a form of self-government akin to what exists in Scotland today. Resistance to Home Rule by Ulster unionists from 1912 onwards led to the formation of two rival paramilitary groups, the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers.

When war came in August 1914, the leaders of nationalist Ireland, John Redmond and his colleagues in the Irish party, committed themselves to the war effort and urged their supporters to enlist for service. In all, more than 200,000 Irishmen volunteered to fight and up to 50,000 lost their lives during the conflict.

The Easter Rising was engineered by a small minority within the Irish Volunteers who in 1914 had rejected John Redmond's call to arms and sought to avail of any wartime opportunity to challenge British rule in Ireland.

The Irish Volunteers, steered by members of the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, mobilised on Easter Monday 1916, captured prominent buildings including the GPO and declared an independent Irish Republic. Perhaps 1,500 individuals were involved in the Rising and around 450 people were killed during the fighting in Dublin. The insurgents held out for six days before surrendering in the face of the British army's vastly superior firepower.

Fifteen individuals seen as leaders of the Rising were executed in the first half of May. (Roger Casement suffered a similar fate in London later in the year.) Many other volunteers (including people with no involvement in the Rising) were sent to prison or were interned in Britain. The Rising completely changed the Irish political landscape and this resulted eventually in the eclipse of the Irish Party at Westminster, which had been politically dominant in Ireland for so long.

Yeats and the rising:

Yeats is an invaluable witness to this great moment in Irish history because he was fascinated by it without being in any sense a partisan. Like almost everyone else, Yeats was taken aback by the Rising. He was in Gloucestershire when he first heard about it. The dramatic events in Dublin strongly affected him.

On the 11th of May while the executions of the leaders were still going on, he wrote to Lady Gregory of his ‘great sorrow and anxiety’. 'I had no idea', he wrote, 'that any public event could so deeply move me.' He thought that the Rising could have been avoided had the British Conservative Party committed itself not to rescind the Home Rule act of 1914. He fretted that ‘all the work of years’ had been overturned, ‘all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of literature and criticism from politics.’

Looking back at the Rising, Yeats was saddened by the loss of ‘the ablest and most fine-natured of our young men’ and wondered if he could have done anything ‘to turn those young men in some other direction’. Spotting the significance of the Rising in its immediate aftermath, he remarked that ‘one knows nothing of the future except that it must be very unlike the past.’

'Easter 1916':

'Easter 1916' was completed just a few months after the Rising and published privately for distribution to family and friends. It was not circulated more widely until 1920. It is, in my opinion, the first great poem of Yeats’s full literary maturity. It is a complex, evocative piece of writing.

It begins in a conversational tone - 'I have met them at close of day/Coming with vivid faces/From counter of desk among grey/Eighteenth-century houses.' This reflects the fact that Yeats had known many of those who participated in the Rising and even felt a certain responsibility for what had happened. In the years before the Rising, he had not rated them, thought they were posturing, playing at being revolutionaries.

'Easter 1916' proceeds to describe four of the more prominent insurgents: - Constance Markievicz ('What voice more sweet than hers/When, young and beautiful,/She rode to harriers.'); Patrick Pearse ('This man kept a school'); Thomas MacDonagh ('He might have own fame in the end,/So sensitive his nature seemed,/So daring and sweet his thought); and John MacBride ('A drunken vainglorious lout').

This illustrates the intimate nature of the Rising. Where else would a prominent poet have known personally so many members of a revolutionary group? Yeats concludes that his subjects, even the otherwise unappealing MacBride, had been 'transformed utterly'.

Yeats had known Pearse, who had been critical of his work. 'The Twilight People will pass with the Anglo-Irish Twilight', Pearse had once written, dismissing the pretensions of the so-called Celtic Twilight with which Yeats had been associated. (Sean Farrell Moran, Patrick Pearse, p. 117). Pearse later came to regret his youthful intemperance. Yeats thought James Connolly 'an able man' and regarded the poet and critic, Thomas MacDonagh, as 'both able and cultivated' although Pearse had, he thought, been made dangerous 'by the Vertigo of Self-Sacrifice.' (Foster, Vol. 2, p. 46). Boer war veteran, Major John MacBride, Yeats had known as Maud Gonne's unsuitable husband with whom she had broken acrimoniously shortly after her ill-judged marriage and turned to Yeats for comfort and support.

If Yeats had stopped there, this would have been an interesting poem with a memorable, ringing refrain - 'A terrible beauty is born.' But he did not do so. Instead, he embarks on an extended meditation about 'hearts with one purpose alone/Through summer and winter seem/Enchanted to a stone/To trouble the living stream'. This change of gear turns 'Easter 1916' into a major poem, a meditation on the nature of personal and political change.

Then comes the sentiment that lies at the heart of the poem. 'Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.' He wonders if a willingness to sacrifice oneself for political goals is ultimately a destructive urge as he believed it had been in the cases of Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz?

In this verse, Yeats also touches on something that would decades later become a kernel of revisionist history.

            Was it needless death after all?

            For England may keep faith

            For all that is done and said.

This is something we are still debating today. Would Home Rule have been granted as promised after World War 1 and would that have resolved Ireland's problems and softened the division between North and South?

After all the ambivalence that runs through the poem, Yeats concludes with a resounding chorus, although this does not imply that Yeats was an enthusiast for the Rising or the aspirations behind it.

            MacDonagh and MacBride

            And Connolly and Pearse’

            Now and in time to be,

            Wherever green is worn,

            Are changed, changed utterly:

            A terrible beauty is born.

It is as if Yeats, within months of the Rising, was trying to write an agenda for the future perceptions of the events of 1916.

Yeats did not leave the Rising behind after the composition of Easter 1916, but continued to reflect on it.  In ‘Sixteen Dead Men’, written in December 1916 he recognises the capacity of the executed leaders ‘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

            McDonagh’s bony thumb?

In ‘The Rose Tree,’ written in April 1917, Yeats has Patrick Pearse and James Connolly discuss the watering of a plant with ‘our own red blood.’ Thus, within a year of the Easter Rising, Yeats had rolled out those themes that I recall being central to the commemorations of the Rising’s 50th anniversary in 1966 and in the years that followed - lionisation of the Rising’s leaders, the impact of their sacrifice, and historical revisionism.

In his play, ‘The Dreaming of the Bones’, which is set in 1916, Yeats imagines an encounter between a ghostly Diarmuid and Dervorgilla, ‘for seven hundred years our lips have not met’, and a young man ‘who was in the Post Office’, and, if captured, would be ‘put up against a wall and shot.’ The couple seeks forgiveness for the fact that Diarmuid ‘being blind and bitter and bitterly in love’ brought ‘a foreign army from across the sea.’ The young veteran of the Easter Rising insists that: ‘never, never shall Diarmuid and Dervorgilla be forgiven.’ At the time Yeats considered this strange little play one of his ‘best things’, but accepted that its link to 1916 meant that it might be thought ‘dangerous’.

Why such an impressive outpouring in response to the Rising when we know from his letters that he was in two minds about it? Throughout his life, he was torn in different directions when it came to Irish affairs. He was at different times a Parnellite, an advanced nationalist, a social conservative and, latterly, a staunch defender of the Anglo-Irish tradition. At heart, however, he was a romantic nationalist who convinced himself as a young man that there was something special about Ireland and its Celtic traditions. 1916 renewed this belief.

The aftermath:

With the Easter Rising, Yeats began the final stage of his Irish journey which had taken him from youthful idealism to disenchantment. The Rising triggered a rebirth for him of the heroic possibilities of the Ireland of his time.

The Easter Rising changed Yeats's life. He felt a need to return to Ireland, to live there and 'to begin building again.' He acquired the tower at Ballylee in County Galway, which became a place of inspiration for him, and a house in Merrion Square and later at Rathfarnham. The first independent Irish Government appointed him to the Senate and he was excited to play a part in shaping the new State.

For the rest of his life, the Rising continued to fascinate him. In the late 1930s, he asked:

'When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,/What stalked through the Post Office?'

I would say that the Easter Rising had a positive effect on Yeats. It brought from him a poem that set a pattern for his later work, a great meditative work inspired by an Irish event.

Commemorating the Easter Rising:

In less than two years time, we will be marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

The 1916 commemoration will be part of a decade of Irish centenaries stretching from 2012 (the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill) to 2022 (100 years on from the establishment of the Irish Free State and the outbreak of the Irish Civil War).

The centenary of 1916 will form the centrepiece of our decade of commemorations because the Easter Rising was the formative event on Ireland's road to independence. The Rising took place against a backdrop of an unprecedented European conflict in which Ireland played an important part, and I can now see no reason for any awkwardness about the coincidence of these two events. This year we have been remembering the strand of our history that runs through the battlefields of the First World War, for example, with the dedication in July of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin.

1916 will be a unique year of commemoration, with two momentous events to be commemorated - the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. Given its significance in the creation of the independent Ireland we know today, the Easter Rising deserves pride of place in our remembrance of that eventful decade in Irish history.

We should also be ready to recognise literary anniversaries. This year is the centenary of James Joyce's Dubliners, next year will be the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth, and 2016 is the centenary of that great poem we are reflecting on here this evening.


'Easter 1916' is an exceptional poem which throws light on an extraordinary event in Irish history. Yeats's meditations on the Rising do not, and could not, tell the full story of 1916, but they represent one avenue of approach. For me, the Rising and Yeats's poem go well together and benefit from being looked at in tandem.

I would say that the Easter Rising had a positive effect on WB Yeats and his work. In the years before the Rising, he had fallen into an embittered mood and his poems reflected this. Although he could never be viewed as a supporter, or an unambiguous admirer of the Rising, it nonetheless drew from him a poem that set a pattern for his later work, complex, eloquent, and meditative.

In the 1970s, I read a book about the literary inspiration behind the Easter Rising - The Imagination of an Insurrection. In Yeats's case, there was in 1916, I would say, a resurrection of an imagination.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.