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Ambassador Mulhall’s speech on Yeats and 1916 at University of Glasgow, 3 May 2016

'We know their dream': Yeats and 1916. Talk delivered at the University of Glasgow, 3 May 2016


It is a pleasure to be here this evening at Glasgow University, a place I came to know well during my time as Ireland's first Consul General in Scotland from 1998 to 2001.

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, for it provides a brief but insightful pen picture 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 many of its leaders and fascinated by what they had done in 1916, but yet he was 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 returned Fenian exile, John O'Leary, whom Yeats admired for his wide reading, integrity and strength of character.

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 the 'stir of thought' that brought about the Irish revolution between 1916 and 1922. He thus saw himself and his literary allies in the Irish revival as history makers as well as witnesses to history.

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, publicly opposed the visit to Ireland of Queen Victoria in 1900 and founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Yeats's professed Irish nationalism was not without its risks for a writer also trying to make his way in London's literary world. In 1902, with the assistance of Lady Augusta Gregory, he produced his most patriotic play, Kathleen ni Houlihan, which caused him to ask in later life

Did a 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 in his view those who came after him failed to match his standard. In particular, Yeats had been alienated by those within the world of Irish nationalism who rejected the very idea of an Irish literature written in English.

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. At their peak, these rival militias had some 250,000 members between them. In 1914, both groups imported arms into Ireland and by the summer of that year Ireland seemed set for a civil war between nationalists demanding Home Rule and Ulster unionists opposing it.

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. During the next four years, 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 rejected John Redmond's call to arms and resolved to remain in Ireland, ready to fight for Ireland when the need or opportunity arose.

The Irish Volunteers, secretly steered by members of the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, ignoring the orders of the Volunteers' titular leader, Eoin McNeill, 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 including many civilians. 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 the elections in December 1918, thus abruptly ending the party's longstanding dominance in Irish politics.

Yeats and the rising:

Yeats is an acute witness to this transformative 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 deeply 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.

The poems 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' goes on 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' by the events of Easter week.

Patrick Pearse had been critical of Yeats's work. 'The Twilight People will pass with the Anglo-Irish Twilight', Pearse had once written, dismissing the pretensions of the so-called Celtic Twilight in which Yeats had been the central figure. (Sean Farrell Moran, Patrick Pearse, p. 117) Pearse later regretted his youthful intemperance and came to value Yeats's work, inviting him to speak at the school he ran, St. Enda's in Rathfarnham. Yeats thought James Connolly 'an able man' and regarded the poet and critic, Thomas MacDonagh, as 'both able and cultivated'.

Pearse had, Yeats 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 she 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 MacMurrough (12th century King of Leinster infamous in Ireland for having invited Normans into the country) 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. In the years before the Rising, he had come to believe that the romantic Ireland of his dreams had been betrayed. 1916 renewed his belief in Ireland's heroic potential.

The aftermath:

With the Easter Rising, Yeats began the final stage of his Irish journey. The Rising had a major impact on Yeats's life. He felt a need to return to Ireland, to live there and 'to begin building again.' He married, 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:

This year we have been marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising. This commemoration is 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 1916 centenary has formed the centrepiece of our decade of commemorations because the Easter Rising was the seminal event on Ireland's road to independence. We now also recognise the importance of Ireland's involvement in World War 1 and the Irish Government has participated fully in its centenary commemorations. I have laid a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday this past two years. There is no longer any awkwardness about the fact that our history is multi-stranded, running through the battlefields of the Western Front and Gallipoli as well as through Dublin's GPO.

It is now recognised in Ireland that the Rising took place against a backdrop of an unprecedented European conflict in which Ireland played an important part. Without the war, there would almost certainly have been no Easter Rising.

It is not just events of political significance that deserve to be commemorated. There are also important literary anniversaries during this decade of centenaries. This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and a Young Man. 1922, the year in which the Irish Free State came into being, was also the date of the publication of Joyce's Ulysses. Between them, Joyce's two great novels give an unrivalled insight into the Ireland out of which the Easter Rising emerged.


'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 important 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 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.

Perceptions of the Easter Rising have evolved over time. Fifty years ago, it was the personalities its leaders and the beauty of their selfless sacrifice that 'stilled' the 'childish play' of my generation. The destructive impact of the Rising, its 'terrible' elements, were played down or ignored entirely. Later, the Rising tended to be overshadowed as people in Ireland shied away from it for fear of giving any comfort to those involved in perpetrating violence in Northern Ireland.

This year has seen much mature reflection on the pros and cons of the event of Easter week. Irish people have, I think, taken a fresh look at that turbulent era, admiring the idealism of the men and women who fought for Irish freedom, but without being in any way starry-eyed about what happened in 1916. Much attention has been focused on the, for its time, progressive idealism of the Proclamation, but there has also been considerable focus on the number of civilian casualties including some 40 children.

There has been much debate about the justification for the Rising, with a range of conflicting views being aired without rancour. In a sense we are at last in a position to see Yeats's words from Easter 1916 in the round - not a terrible tragedy nor a terrific beauty, but 'a terrible beauty'.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.