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Ambassador's lecture on 1916 - University of Oxford

Ambassador Mulhall delivered a lecture on 'Easter 1916: what happened, why and how did it change Ireland?', at the invitation of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, on 12th February. The lecture by the Ambassador is part of a wider collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and History Faculty to mark the centenary of 1916 in Oxford.

The Easter Rising, its causes and consequences, Oxford, 12 February 2016

Introduction: I am delighted to be at the Bodleian this afternoon to speak about the Easter Rising of 1916. Bodleian is one of the great names in the world of learning and, as a lover of books and libraries, it is with special pleasure that I speak to you this evening.

I have been invited to speak in conjunction with the Bodleian Library's display of documents connected with the Easter Rising, which is part of this year's centenary programme. I am also happy to launch a web archive project designed to capture all on-line material generated this year for the centenary of 1916.  I wish to commend the Bodleian Library, and their web archive project partners Trinity College Dublin and the British Library,  for undertaking these initiatives and I hope that this  will help to kindle or rekindle an interest among the British public in that formative period in Irish history.  

This year is an important milestone for Ireland as we reflect on the events of 1916 and their legacy in the form of a century of Irish independence. We have a comprehensive programme of commemorative events planned in Ireland and there will also be a significant international dimension to this commemoration which reflects the fact that the Rising had an important impact outside of Ireland. What happened in Dublin in 1916 was also part of British history and this makes it appropriate that we mark its centenary in this country also. This year's commemoration is, of course, of special interest to the substantial Irish community and those of Irish descent here.  

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. I hope that what I have to say about the events of 1916 and their impact will be of interest to today's audience.

I thought I would speak about the what, the why and the how of Easter 1916. 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, a group that came into being in 1913 as part of the struggle for Irish Home Rule, 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 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.  It was a curiously old-fashioned revolt, with no attempt to adopt mobile tactics, a move that might have evened up 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.

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 roots back to the Fenian movement that had been founded in 1858 and been responsible for the uprising of 1867. The Volunteers' leader, Eoin McNeill, when he discovered what was afoot, attempted to cancel exercises planned for Easter weekend.  This served to reduce the numbers involved, but failed to prevent the Rising.

Prominent participants in the Rising were court-martialled and many were sentenced to death. Fourteen executions were carried out in Dublin and one in Cork. Many other insurgents were imprisoned in Ireland or transferred to custody Britain.  Sir Roger Casement, who was captured following his return to Ireland from Germany (he had come back with the aim of dissuading those involved from proceeding with an insurrection) was tried in London and executed at Pentonville Prison in 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 unawares, although they were planning to move against the Volunteers on the back of the interception of an arms shipment from Germany a few days earlier.

Those who criticise the Rising and its instigators argue that it ought not to have happened, that Home Rule would have been introduced at the war's end and that Ireland would have avoided the nightmare of violence, destruction and civil war that was visited upon the country in the aftermath of 1916.  The alternative view is that Easter 1916 marked the birth of Irish independence and, to put it in Yeats’s words, Ireland was ‘changed utterly’ as a result. I will come back to this debate at the end of my talk.

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

The external environment: By external factors, I have in mind the impact of World War 1, a conflict in which 9 million lives were lost and a further 21 million suffered injuries. It would generally be agreed that the war marked a watershed in world history.  It was one of a handful of events that clearly reshaped modern Europe. It also seems 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, and 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 managed by a military duo, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, a 'silent dictatorship' as it has been called, with hardly any reference to the country's civilian government or even to 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 for the demise of the Tsarist regime and the consolidation of the Bolsheviks’ grip on power.

In faraway Australia, the long-serving Labour Government headed by Billy Hughes fell from power when the Party split on the subject of conscription for service outside of Australia. The country was convulsed by two divisive referendum campaigns on the conscription issue, both of which were lost, the votes of Irish-Australians, and the opposition to conscription of the Irish-born Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, being key to outcome.

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.  Besant had previously been a supporter of Irish Home Rule.   

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 had affected nationalist Ireland in the pre-war period, it is perhaps surprising that opposition to the war was not stronger and that it did not come earlier.  John Redmond's undiluted support for the British war effort had come as something of a surprise. The German Emperor had been observing with relish events in Ireland in the two years preceding the war, enthusing at the prospect of Britain being weakened by civil conflict in Ireland.

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.

The Rising’s domestic roots: 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 hitherto all-powerful Irish Party.

It has to be said that the history of 19th century Ireland is largely a history of parliamentary as opposed to revolutionary nationalism. The 1916 Proclamation admits as much when it states that Ireland's right to sovereignty had been asserted by force of arms 'six times in 300 years.’ 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 ruffle the reality of British rule in 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 armed resistance, especially during the Land War of the 1870s and 1880s when parliamentarians and clandestine Fenian elements sometimes worked together in an informal alliance.

Irish Home Rule first became a live possibility in the 1880s when the charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell and his party persuaded Gladstone to endorse the concept. 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 that would only become a reality at the end of the war. Ultimately, the delayed arrival of Home Rule fatally damaged the Irish Party and gave hitherto understated separatist forces an opportunity to pursue more radical agendas.

Why did those vivid faces’ rebel?:  My third factor is the personal one. While there were good systemic and domestic political reasons behind the Rising, it would not have taken place had a small group of its leaders not decided to make it happen.

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.

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.

So what was it that drove these 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. 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, The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916, p. 23)

But, the Irish Ireland sentiment that was growing in the early years of the century, and the Sinn Féin party that brought together various groups of advanced nationalists under the leadership of Arthur Griffith, would not in themselves have seeded a rebellion - and indeed Griffith took no part in the Rising. 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 unionist and nationalist groups imported 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 our perspective, 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, Bonar Law, p. 99)

Redmond's unreserved support for the war split the Irish Volunteers and, even though those who differed with Redmond were only a small majority of the Volunteers, the end result was that there were some 10,000 Irishmen who opposed Irish participation in the war 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 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 it change Ireland?: Yeats was very perceptive when he wrote that Ireland had been 'changed utterly' by the events of Easter week. That's how it turned out, but 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 was appealing from the start that there should be no executions.  The other leading Irish parliamentarian, John Dillon, also spoke passionately, and 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 1918 connected with the alleged German plot. The last straw was the conscription crisis of 1918 which created a united front between Sinn Féin and the Irish Party in opposition to conscription, 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.

The British Government did the Irish Party no favours. 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 brought about by their involvement in an unprecedented conflict. 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?

Even today, there are those in Ireland who question the necessity, the wisdom and the morality of the rebellion. I am not much given to passing moral judgement on the past as I doubt that it is possible to recreate the mental landscape within which such fateful decisions were made. It’s not a profitable exercise to try to second guess decisions made a century ago, however attractive virtual history may be as an intellectual endeavour.  

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 unfair and unreasonable. In every generation, individuals are responsible for their own actions and claims to justification from history are fundamentally unsound.  

When I look at the legacy of 1916, what I see is its undeniable impact 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.  They showed their mettle in steering Ireland stably through some troubled times.    

As someone who has personally practiced diplomacy and served successive Irish Governments since 1978, I am opposed to violence as a matter of principle and temperamentally would surely have been a Home Ruler in 1912. It would clearly have been preferable had Ireland secured self-determination peacefully without recourse to insurrection, but the leaders of the Rising did not see such a path as viable. 

What is extremely difficult to judge at this distance is the impact of the turbulent zeitgeist of the second decade of the 20th century. 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, The Sleepwalkers, pp. 237 & 359). 

Looking back at that period, I do admire the idealism of that generation, even if it now seems exotic to our tastes. The aspirations enshrined in the Proclamation, which were advanced for their time, for example the commitment to ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens’, are being looked at afresh by today’s Ireland as part of the centenary commemoration. Such idealism is not to be found just in Dublin during Easter week. It can also be found on the Somme with Tom Kettle's evocation of his willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of 'the Secret Scripture of the poor', 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 detailed lessons from the past, but I do think we should continue to learn about it and to be aware of the fateful missteps made by previous generations, albeit in different settings and circumstances.   This year will be an important learning exercise for Ireland as a vital slice of our past comes under the microscope at home and abroad. I am encouraged by the interest I detect in this country in knowing more about the events of 1916 and am satisfied that this year's commemoration will be an altogether positive experience for those who take the time to look and learn.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.  He is co-editor (with Eugenio Biagini) of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin 2016).