Skip to main content

Ambassador Mulhall’s lecture at Central Library, Edinburgh on the Easter Rising

The 'terrible beauty' that transformed Ireland: the Easter Rising of 1916, Central Library, Edinburgh, 2 May 2016

It is a pleasure to be back at Edinburgh's Central Library this evening to speak about the Easter Rising of 1916, whose centenary is being commemorated this year. I was here last year to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, WB Yeats.
There is an important link between last year's topic and this evening's, for I have taken inspiration from Yeats's work for the title of this talk, 'The 'terrible beauty' that transformed Ireland: the Easter Rising of 1916'. And Yeats was right. Ireland was 'transformed utterly' by the dramatic events of 1916 and their aftermath. Not only that; the politics of these islands were also reshaped during that fateful year. Furthermore, the Rising, and the struggle for independence that followed it, also had an impact on the wider world.

I would like to thank the Central Library for inviting me here this evening and I hope that what I have to say will help to kindle or rekindle an interest among the Scottish public in that formative period in the history of our part of the world, for what happened in Dublin in 1916 had a bearing on your story as well as on ours.

This year's commemoration is, of course, of special interest to the substantial Irish community and those of Irish descent here in Scotland. There is also a special Edinburgh dimension, stemming from the fact that one of the Rising's leaders, James Connolly, was born in this city.

I am not a professional historian, but a history graduate with a lifelong enthusiasm for Irish history and in particular the period whose centenary we are now marking. I have published on the subject on and off throughout my diplomatic career, including a recent collection of essays on some of the major figures from that transformative period, The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin 2016, edited in collaboration with Eugenio Biagini). I want to talk this evening about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of Yeats's 'terrible beauty' and to explain how it transformed Ireland. What happened, why did it happen and how did it impact on Ireland?

What happened?:

The first part - what happened - is relatively straightforward. The Rising began on Easter Monday 1916. The insurgents, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, took over a number of major buildings in Dublin, issued a Proclamation of Irish independence and fought for six days before surrendering in the face of the overwhelming military force ranged against them. In the end, it was a fairly reckless endeavour, undertaken without any prospect of success, at least when the shipment of guns from Germany was intercepted by the British navy during the week before the Rising.

The fact that the insurgents fought for six days made the Rising a considerable success compared with its predecessors in 1803, 1848 and 1867. One participant, the O'Rahilly, when he joined the Rising (having come back from a journey around Ireland carrying news that the manoeuvres planned for Easter Sunday had been cancelled), declared that 'it is madness .. but it is glorious madness.'

In all, around 1,500 insurgents took part in the Rising and there were some 450 deaths during the hostilities, many of them sadly among the civilian population of Dublin including some 40 children. It was a curiously old-fashioned revolt, with no attempt being made to engage in guerrilla warfare, a strategy that might have evened the contest somewhat. The Rising led to no immediate surge of popular support in Dublin where the initial reaction was one of incredulity and hostility. The fighting was largely confined to Dublin, Volunteer units in the rest of the country having failed to mobilise in response to events in Dublin.

While the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army provided the manpower for the Rising, the planning was done, behind the backs of the Volunteers' leadership, by a much smaller group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (and indeed by a secret Military Council within the IRB). The IRB was an oath-bound organisation that traced its origins to the Fenian movement founded in 1858 and had been responsible for the failed rebellion of 1867. The Volunteers' leader, Eoin McNeill, when he discovered what the IRB leadership was up to behind his back, announced the cancellation of exercises planned for Easter Sunday. This served to reduce the numbers involved, but failed to prevent the Rising because its leaders were determined to proceed.

Prominent participants in the Rising were court-martialled and many were sentenced to death although most of the death sentences were not commuted to terms of imprisonment. Fourteen executions were carried out in Dublin and one in Cork. Sir Roger Casement, who was captured following his return to Ireland from Germany (having lost faith in the Germans, he had come back with the aim of dissuading the Volunteers from proceeding with an insurrection) was tried in London and, despite many pleas for clemency, executed at Pentonville Prison on the 3rd of August 1916.

Why did this all happen?

The Rising came as a surprise to most people in Ireland including senior members of the British administration who were caught completely unawares. Those who criticise the Rising and its instigators argue that they acted needlessly and without a popular mandate. According to this view, Home Rule would have been introduced at the war's end and Ireland would have avoided the nightmare of violence, destruction and civil war visited upon the country in the aftermath of 1916.

The alternative view is that the Rising marked the birth of Irish independence, which would not have been achieved by peaceful means, especially after the political complexion of the British Government had changed so radically in 1916, with determined opponents of Home Rule now holding the reins of power in London. It seems to me very likely that Ireland would have been granted Home Rule at the war's end, but this would almost certainly have excluded the six Ulster counties. I also acknowledge that this would have evolved into some form of independence. But the end product would have been a very different entity from the one we know today - a self-governing Ireland embedded within the British Empire as the Irish Party desired.

I want to try to explain the Rising under three headings: external, internal and personal.

By external factors, I have in mind the impact of World War 1, a conflict in which 8 million lives were lost and a further 21 million suffered injuries. It is generally agreed that the war was a watershed in world history. It was one of a handful of events that clearly reshaped modern Europe. It is very clear that, without the war, there would have been no Rising in Ireland.

It is hardly surprising that the war shook up the Irish political world, undermining the parliamentarians and giving more advanced nationalists opportunities to assert themselves.

For purposes of comparison, let's look at what the war did elsewhere. It caused the demise of four Empires and gave birth to a plethora of republics. In 1914, there were just three European republics. By 1918, there were 13.

In Britain, the pressures of war brought about the downfall of the Asquith-led Government, which had been in office since 1906. Indeed, the change of government in 1916 was a milestone in the demise of the Gladstonian Liberal Party, 'The Strange Death of Liberal England' as one historian memorably described it.

In Germany, by the end of 1916, the conflict was being run by a military duo, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, a 'silent dictatorship' as it has been called, with only limited reference to the country's civilian government or even the Emperor. At the war's end, the country was thrown into the throes of revolution and counter-revolution from which it scarcely recovered until 1945.

In Russia, the tribulations of war created the conditions that allowed the Bolsheviks to stage a successful revolution and to consolidate their grip on power.

In Australia, the long-serving Labour Government fell when the Party split on the subject of conscription for service outside of Australia, which was the subject of two divisive referendum campaigns, both lost by the Australian Government.

In India, the first serious stirrings of nationalism were felt in 1916 when Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant launched the All-India Home Rule League.

The British-inspired Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 stirred up the Middle East and left a long-lasting, divisive legacy.

It can hardly be surprising then that Ireland experienced wartime upheaval. Indeed, considering Ireland's fractured history and the political disappointments and upheavals that affected nationalist Ireland in the immediate pre-war period, it is perhaps surprising that opposition to the war was not stronger and that it did not come earlier.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the external environment was an important factor in bringing about the Rising, but it was certainly not the only one.

We need to look also at the domestic roots of the Rising. Essentially, this comes down to the delay in granting Home Rule for Ireland, which weakened the once-unchallengeable Irish Party. The history of 19th century Ireland is largely a story of parliamentary nationalism rather than revolutionary separatism.

In the century after the Act of Union, Ireland had witnessed just three unsuccessful uprisings in 1803, 1848 and 1867. None of these had done much to disturb Britain's grip on Ireland. For the most part, nationalist political interests and ambitions had been pursued through the agency of successive generations of parliamentarians representing Irish constituencies at Westminster from Daniel O'Connell in the 1830s and 1840s, to Isaac Butt in the 1860s and 1870s, Parnell in the 1880s, right up to John Redmond and John Dillon in the opening decades of the 20th century.

It is true that there was always an undercurrent of resistance, especially during the Land War of the 1870s and 1880s when parliamentarians and clandestine Fenian elements worked together in an informal alliance. Indeed, John Redmond worked tenaciously during the 1890s to secure the release of Fenian prisoners including 1916 leader, Tom Clarke, who, though a staunch critic of the Irish Party's moderation, later confessed that Redmond was someone 'whose kindness .. I can never forget.' Clarke's fellow Fenian prisoner, John Daly, rose to be Mayor of Limerick following his release from custody.

Irish Home Rule first became a live possibility in the 1880s when the charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell and his party won the support of Gladstone. The tragedy for Irish parliamentary nationalism was that 30 years later, when war broke out, Home Rule, although it had come tantalisingly close, remained an unrealised ambition. Ultimately, the delay in delivering Home Rule fatally damaged the Irish Party and gave scope to hitherto marginalised separatist forces.

My third factor is the personal one. While there were good systemic and domestic political reasons to explain the Rising, it would not have taken place had a small group of individuals not brought it about. It was their determination that prevailed, enabling a credible uprising to take place against all the odds.

Let's look at the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. What can their stories tell us about the Rising? The first thing about them is that they were comparatively young men. Pearse was 36 years of age, MacDonagh 38, Plunkett 28, Ceannt 35 and MacDermott 32. Only Clarke (59) and Connolly (47) were over 40. Some of the other executed leaders were even younger: Sean Heuston was just 25; Edward Daly was 24; Con Colbert was 27.

The leaders were not poor, disadvantaged individuals without prospects. Pearse was a school headmaster, MacDonagh a university lecturer, Ceannt was an employee of Dublin Corporation and Plunkett was a member of a wealthy Dublin family who had been educated at the prestigious Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, which I visited last week to speak about the Rising and mark its centenary.

Three of the signatories were published poets, highlighting the fact that early 20th century Irish nationalism was deeply appealing to romantic, idealistic minds. The leaders became convinced that the Rising was a necessity, one for which they were willing to sacrifice themselves.

Of the seven, only Clarke and MacDermott were dedicated, lifelong republican separatists. Connolly was a socialist thinker and organiser who was converted to republicanism in the years immediately preceding the Rising. Most of the others were originally supporters of Home Rule. Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1868 of Irish parents, served for a time in the British Army, and spent some years in America before returning to Ireland in 1910 after which he became increasingly convinced of the need for an insurrection during the course of the war. After the Rising, Connolly was criticised by Sean O'Casey for having abandoned his socialist creed in favour of the 'crowded highway of Irish Nationalism.' On the other hand, Joe Lee, who taught me history at UCC, has described him as 'probably the most remarkable thinker produced in twentieth century Ireland.' Connolly, with his experience of soldiering in the British army, was the most effective military leader during the Rising.

So what was it that drove these mainly young men to organise a rebellion with such a limited prospect of success? Many of them were drawn into the national movement through their membership of the Gaelic League. Founded in 1893 with the aim of de-anglicising Ireland by reviving the Irish language, the League grew rapidly and drew in people who might never otherwise have taken an interest in national affairs. Thomas MacDonagh, for example, confessed that until he joined the Gaelic League he had been one of the best West-Britishers in Ireland such was his enthusiasm for English literature. He described the League as a 'baptism in nationalism.'

The League was part of a wider trend of renewed interest in Irish identity. The Gaelic Athletic Association was also on the rise in the years preceding the Easter Rising. In 1908, there were 800 GAA clubs and 670 Gaelic League branches in Ireland. (McGarry, p. 23)

But, the Irish Ireland sentiment that was growing in the early years of the century would not in itself have seeded a rebellion. The game changer for Ireland was the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914.

The determined resistance to Home Rule in Ulster and the Conservative Party's backing for those who opposed it resulted in the creation by 1914 of three armed militias, the anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteers, the nationalist Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. Both groups brought German arms into Ireland and the country seemed set for a violent showdown. Only the outbreak of World War I brought temporary peace to Ireland. Seen from the perspective today, the lengths to which Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, was prepared to go to resist Home Rule seems very surprising - 'there will be no shrinking from any action which we think necessary to defeat one of the most ignoble conspiracies which has ever been formed against the liberties of free-born men.' (Adams, p. 99)

Redmond's decision to urge his supporters to enlist for service in World War 1 split the Irish Volunteers and, even though those who parted with Redmond were only a small majority of the Volunteers, the end result was that some 10,000 Irishmen remained in Ireland and spent the period between August 1914 and April 1916 training and conducting military exercises in preparation for future action in Ireland's cause. It would have been unthinkable during the 19th century for the British Government to have permitted such groupings to operate openly and largely unmolested. But this was a new world with new rules of the game.

This is where the determined insurrectionists of the IRB, Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott (who, incidentally, spent some years living in Glasgow) came into their own, gaining control of the Volunteers and inducting the other signatories of the Proclamation into their organisation in preparation for the Rising.

How did the Rising change Ireland?:

While it is true that Ireland was 'changed utterly' by the events of Easter week, this was no foregone conclusion. The Irish Party was no pushover and yet within 30 months it had been completely vanquished. How did this watershed moment come about?

The executions of the Rising's leaders certainly made a difference and the Irish Party knew it would which is why Redmond appealed to Asquith from the start that there should be no executions (Connolly's execution had a particular impact as he was very seriously wounded and faced the firing squad slumped in a chair). John Dillon spoke passionately, and as it turned out accurately, in the House of Commons about the likely impact of the executions on nationalist sentiment.

The arrest and temporary imprisonment of many who were not involved in the Rising also helped to galvanise nationalist Ireland as did the arrests in 1917 connected with the alleged German plot. The last straw was the conscription crisis of 1918 which created a united front in opposition to conscription between Sinn Féin and the Irish Party but to the advantage of the former.

The speed with which the heirs to Easter week supplanted the Irish Party, and the comprehensive nature of their triumph, suggests to me that the Irish Party's platform did not fully meet the aspirations of nationalist Ireland. For as long as Home Rule was the only show in town, the Irish Party commanded the political field, but when alternative futures presented themselves the public mood shifted decisively.

Considering Redmond's staunch support for the war effort, he might have expected to have his advice heeded by Government, but, of course, the British Government was subject to other, competing pressures. Probably, the only thing that could have saved the Irish Party would have been the immediate introduction of Home Rule in 1916. This was tried but the effort failed.

The legacy of 1916:

The Easter Rising has been a subject of contention in Ireland almost from the start. In Easter 1916, WB Yeats asked the crucial question that has reverberated ever since.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.

Today, there are still those in Ireland who question the necessity, the wisdom and the morality of the rebellion and there has been a lively debate on the subject in the Irish media in the past few months.

Much of the criticism that has been directed at the Rising and its leaders stems from the view that they bear some posthumous responsibility for the IRA's campaign of violence between the 1970s and the 1990s. That seems to me to be unsound and unreasonable.

In every generation, individuals are responsible for their own actions and claims to justification from history are fundamentally unsound. Just think of how ludicrous it would be for someone in 2016 to try to blame the then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, for the current turmoil in the Middle East, even if it is possible to trace a line between the deliberations at the Conference of Versailles in 1919 and today's world.

When I look at the legacy of 1916, what I see is the undeniable impact it had on the emergence of our independent Irish State that has now been in existence for almost a century.

Of course, 1916 was not the sole progenitor of Irish independence. There was also the General Election of 1918 and the establishment of the First Dáil; the war of independence 1919-1921 and the treaty negotiations of 1921. Moreover, the Irish State also carries legacies from the Irish Parliamentary tradition of the 19th century.

Without 1916, however, it is unlikely that subsequent developments would have taken the shape they did. When we try to assess the Rising, we should not ignore the subsequent contributions of a number of its participants - WT Cosgrave, Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, our country's first, second and fourth heads of government with a combined term of office of 38 years. Sean T. O'Kelly went on to become the State's second President. The Easter Rising and its aftermath ushered in a new generation of political figures whose work shaped Ireland for decades after independence.

When we judge the actions of the 1916 leaders, we need to take account of the context of the times. The backdrop to the Rising was a century of discontentment and two decades of cultural nationalism which had bred a new form of idealism attractive to the rising generation from which the men and women of 1916 were drawn. Christopher Clark in his brilliant analysis of the prelude to the outbreak of war, The Sleepwalkers, notes the 'sacrificial ideology' that flourished a century ago spurred by positive depictions of military conflict and what he calls an ubiquitous 'fin de siècle manliness' and a preference for the masculinity of the 'outdoorsman'. (Clark, 237 & 359). These ideas, strange as they may be to us, flourished in that exotic country called the past.

Such exuberant idealism is not, of course, to be found solely in Dublin during Easter week. It also flourished on the battlefields of Western Front as exemplified by the a Irish nationalist, Tom Kettle's evocation of 'the secret scripture of the poor' days before his death at Ginchy in September 1916, or in Rupert Brooke's thoughts of lying in 'some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England.' All were men of their times. We should remember them with curiosity and sympathy.

Our efforts to understand that tragic generation - so many of whom had their lives ended violently - is not likely to ever be completely successful. The past always retains an element of mystery for there is much in human experience that never gets faithfully recorded. That's what makes history so endlessly fascinating, the eternal quest to understand humanity's back catalogue. I am not sure about the validity of learning from the past, but I do think we should continue to learn about it.

This year has been an important learning exercise for Ireland as a vital slice of our past has come under the microscope. It has been an encouraging experience and the Irish people have shown great interest in the Rising and its legacy. The contemporary Irish assessment of the Rising has been, I would say, generally positive even though critical voices have also been heard. Considerable respect has been shown for the Rising’s leaders and the sacrifice they made, but without any trace of triumphalism. We have taken the opportunity to look at the Rising in the round, reflecting on its idealism, but not ignoring its violent, destructive side. We have engaged with the 'terrible beauty' in its entirety and appreciated its transformative impact on the Ireland of 100 years ago, part of whose legacy is the Ireland we know today.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London