Irish writers and the Easter Rising, a talk delivered at Ushaw College, University of Durham
It is a genuine pleasure for me to be at Ushaw College this evening under the auspices of the Centre for Catholic Studies to speak about Irish writers and the Easter Rising of 1916. It is a special privilege to be here in this historic building towards the end of this centenary year when we have remembered those who fought and died - in Ireland and on the Somme - during that fateful year of war and revolution, 1916. I am conscious also of the connection between Ushaw and our great nationalist leader, Daniel O'Connell, the architect of Catholic Emancipation, who studied at this college during the late 18th century when it was located in Douai.
The Easter Rising is sometimes described as a poets' rebellion and it is easy to understand why. After all, three of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett were published poets. I will also be discussing two other Irish writers - WB Yeats and George Russell - who both wrote about the Rising.
I ought to begin by offering some explanations about the Easter Rising. The outbreak of hostilities in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 took almost everyone by surprise, especially as Irish Volunteers' exercises planned for Easter Sunday had been called off by the Volunteers' President, Eoin McNeill. This undoubtedly reduced the numbers involved when the exercises were rearranged for Easter Monday and some 1,500 Volunteers occupied a number of public buildings and held out for six days before surrendering.
Leading figures from the Rising were court-martialled and 15, including Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett, were executed in the period between 2 and 12 May. Many other participants were shipped out to Britain for imprisonment or internment. The public mood in Ireland, initially hostile to the Rising, quickly changed and, by the time the First World War came to an end, Home Rule was no longer sufficient to satisfy Irish aspirations and Sinn Fein, which had by then committed itself to an Irish republic, won an overwhelming electoral mandate from nationalist Ireland.
Why then did the Rising take place? Well there are many factors that help to explain it but I will highlight what I see as the two most important elements. The first was the failure to grant Home Rule. This had been a demand of the Irish Party since the 1870s and Gladstone had introduced the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, but 30 years later it had still not been implemented. The seeming immanence of Home Rule in 1912 provoked a full blown political crisis which gave rise to the establishment of two rival militias, the Ulster Volunteers, dedicated to opposing Home Rule and the Irish Volunteers set up to defend Home Rule. The Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914 provided the more radical nationalists with an opportunity to outflank the Irish Party, which they eventually did in 1916 and its aftermath.
The second factor was the outbreak of the First World War which sowed divisions within nationalist Ireland and divided the Irish Volunteers. This gave the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to which Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett ultimately belonged, an opportunity to use the remnant of the Irish Volunteers that opposed participation in the war, to organise an armed rebellion in 1916. But back to the story of our writers.
All three were originally cultural nationalists, having being drawn into public life by their interest in the revival of the Irish language. Most observers would now attribute the Rising primarily to the conspiratorial acumen of the committed separatists, Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada, who managed to gain control of the Irish Volunteers and bend it to their will after the organisation split in 1914, but the cultural nationalists gave the Rising its distinctive flavour. They also ensured that its key document, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued on Easter Monday 1916 was written with flair. That document was notably progressive for its time, for example in its commitment to 'religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens.' It has been an important focal point of this year's centenary commemorations.
The idealism that characterised that generation, and which the three poets exemplify, was not confined to Dublin during Easter week. It can be found also on the Somme, for example in the former Irish nationalist Westminster MP Tom Kettle's evocation 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.
Another feature of the Rising is the quality of the writing it inspired, notably WB Yeats's Easter 1916 and Sean O'Casey's play, The Plough and the Stars.
But let's consider the Rising's three poets, starting with Patrick Pearse.
He was born in 1879, the eldest son of an English-born monumental sculptor who moved to Ireland to avail of opportunities created by the expansion of church-building in the second half of the 19th century.
Pearse graduated with a degree in languages and qualified as a barrister, but it was the cause of the language revival that really inspired him. He joined the Gaelic League when he was just 17 and became editor of the League's journal, An Claidheamh Soluis, when he was still in his early 20s. Like many of his contemporaries in early 20th century Ireland, he was inclined to idealise Gaelic Ireland. The Gael, he insisted, was 'not like other men'. A destiny more glorious than Britain or Rome awaited him: 'to become the saviour of idealism in modern intellectual and social life.'
Declining to practise law, Pearse set up his own school in Rathfarnham and was a progressive educationalist, advocating a child-centred approach to teaching that was unusual in that era. Pearse was not a lifelong republican and indeed supported Home Rule until a late stage. It was the resistance to Home Rule, in Ulster and within the British Conservative Party, which led to the establishment of the Irish Volunteers, that catapulted Pearse into a leading position within the militant wing of Irish nationalism. He became convinced of the need for an armed rebellion to assert Ireland's right to freedom. Pearse was a powerful rhetorician, with a way with words akin to that of Rudyard Kipling.
His poems are of limited literary value, but he is not without ability as a writer. In my opinion, his best poem is ‘The Wayfarer’, which he wrote in his prison cell on the eve of his execution.
The beauty of the world hath me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady bird on a stalk
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun.
But his poem, I am Ireland, is more characteristic of his outlook.
I am Ireland
I am older than the Old woman of Beare
Great my glory:
I that bore Cuchulainn the valiant.
Towards the end of his life, Pearse came to identify with Cuchulainn. For his part, WB Yeats saw the spirit of Cuchulainn running through the dramatic events of Easter 1916. In the decades after the Rising, Pearse came to epitomise Ireland's national struggle. His first biographer, Louis le Roux, wrote of him in religious terms. 'Pearse was more than a patriot. ..He possessed all the qualities which go to the makings of a saint... it would not be astonishing if Pearse were canonised some day ..'.
Pearse's image has evolved over the years and we now recognise a more complex personality. His entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Joe Lee focuses on his role as an educationist, suggesting that 'in the longer run his cultural legacy will prove at least as significance as his political.'
Of the three poets of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh was probably the most dedicated writer. By 1916, he had published extensively and, in Yeats's view, was 'coming into his force', but his potential was probably more as a perceptive literary critic than as a poet.
MacDonagh was born in 1878 into a middle-class family in County Tipperary and went to the prestigious Rockwell College where he began to prepare for the priesthood with the Holy Ghost order before suffering a crisis of belief. He went on to become a teacher at two leading Catholic schools in Kilkenny and Fermoy.
MacDonagh, who once described himself as the 'best west Britisher in Ireland', became a member of the Gaelic League in the early years of the 20th century and this changed the course of his life. He later described the League as a 'baptism in nationalism.' Nevertheless, he continued to write and teach in the language he professed to want to supplant as the first language of Ireland. By the time of his death, he had become a lecturer in English at University College Dublin.
It is intriguing to wonder what drove MacDonagh, a married man with a young family and good career prospects, to risk everything in what he must have known was a struggle against impossible odds. A key to his steady radicalisation was his association with Pearse as deputy headmaster at St. Enda’s and his quest for a cause to which he could commit himself. The key moment in MacDonagh's life came in 1913 with his involvement in the Irish Volunteers which led him to the GPO and his execution in Kilmainham Gaol. He found his cause in Ireland’s freedom for which he was willing to sacrifice himself.
His poetry has an aching late-romantic tone:
‘Mid an isle I stand,
Under its only tree:
The ocean around –
Around life eternity:
‘Mid my life I stand,
Under the boughs of thee.
Like Pearse, but also Yeats and George Russell (AE), MacDonagh had a high opinion of Ireland's pre-Christian Gaelic world.
In other days within this isle,
As in a temple, men knew peace;
And won the world to peace awhile
Till rose the Pride of Rome and Greece.
In a poem written for his daughter, Barbara, MacDonagh urged her to 'be one with the Gael' and predicted that, even when the cities of Europe fade,
In Ireland still the mystic rose
Will shine as it of old has shone.
In Literature in Ireland: studies Irish and Anglo-Irish, his posthumously-published work of literary criticism, he was ahead of his time in identifying what he termed the 'Irish mode' in literature, shaped by Gaelic and English influences.
Joseph Plunkett, was the youngest of the three poet/rebels and had little time to develop his literary gifts. He was born into a leading Dublin family who owned a large property portfolio. Plunkett's father was a Papal Count and Director of Ireland's National Museum. Plagued by ill health, he took part in the Easter Rising having come directly from his sickbed where he had been recuperating from surgery.
Plunkett became involved in nationalist politics when he needed to learn Irish in order to gain entry into university. He engaged MacDonagh as his tutor and this was the start of an intensive friendship that drew him deeper and deeper into separatist politics. MacDonagh and Plunkett both took part in an initiative aimed at brokering a deal between Dublin's workers and employers during the industrial Lock-out of 1913.
Plunkett joined the Irish Volunteers when they were formed and became a prominent member of that organisation. In 1914, he sided with those who opposed participation in World War and made his way to Germany to secure support from Berlin for Ireland's struggle. He seems to have been involved in doctoring a leaked Government document which pointed to a looming British crackdown on the Volunteers, and provided part of the justification for the insurrection.
During the Rising he appears to have functioned calmly and efficiently, demonstrating genuine leadership abilities. He is perhaps best-known in Ireland for his eve of execution marriage to Grace Gifford, MacDonagh's sister-in-law.
His best known poem reveals that he had a genuine literary touch.
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
Plunkett spent two years at Stonyhurst College and his poem remains is included in the college's prayer book.
He could also write in a more secular vein:
I have no way to make you hear,
No song will echo in your heart;
Now I must with the fading year
Fade. Without meeting we must part –
No song nor silence you will hear.
There is enough evidence in Plunkett's work to suggest that he had a lyrical flair that might have developed further over time. But, Plunkett was a man in a hurry as, even without the Rising, Plunkett's life was likely to have been cut short by his chronic ill health.
Yeats’s Easter 1916:
WB Yeats's ‘Easter 1916, is a magnificent elegy, from a writer at the height of his powers. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, he spotted that Ireland had been 'changed utterly' by the events of Easter week. His description of the Rising as 'a terrible beauty' summed up his ambivalent attitude as did his question:
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
This is a reference to the promise of Home Rule for Ireland at the end of the war. Yeats wonders if the 1916 leaders had sacrificed themselves needlessly. At the end of the poem, Yeats names some of the Rising's leaders and predicts that:
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
they would be 'changed utterly'.
The fact that Yeats personally knew so many of the Rising's leaders says something about the intimacy of Irish affairs. Since the early 1890s, he had also been heavily involved in Irish affairs. Rightly or wrongly, he saw himself and the literary revival he pioneered, as part of the 'stir of thought' that gripped Ireland after the death of Parnell in 1891 and, in Yeats's view, helped create the conditions for Ireland's political transformation.
George Russell (AE):
Another writer who was inspired by the Rising was George William Russell, with whom Yeats formed a lifelong, if sometimes strained, friendship. Russell, who in his early years was a somewhat unworldly, mystical dreamer, wrote under the pen name AE. His life changed in 1897 when he agreed to join Sir Horace Plunkett in the emerging agricultural cooperation movement as an organiser and later as editor of the organisation's journal, The Irish Homestead.
Unlike Yeats, AE did not normally produce poems on public themes, but tended to write in a broadly mystical vein not dissimilar to Joseph Plunkett. AE was a strict pacifist and could not share the attitudes of those who fought in 1916. His poem is distinctive in the fact that it devotes three verses to Irishmen who fought in World War 1, Tom Kettle, Willie Redmond and Alan Anderson, four verses to those who fought in the Rising.
Here's to you, Pearse, your dream not mine,
But yet the thought for this you fell
Turns all life's waters into wine.
His approach is similar to Yeats's, being dubious about Rising but impressed by the valour of its leaders. His poem also recognised the role Irish women played at that time.
Here's to the women of our race
Stood by them in the fiery hour.
In taking this stance, AE parted company with Yeats who in ‘Easter 1916’ derided the political activism of Constance Markievicz, accusing her of spending her days 'in ignorant goodwill' and contrasting the shrillness of her mature years with her Sligo youth, 'when young and beautiful she rode to harriers.'
Like Yeats, AE, for all the doubts he harboured about their actions, could not help admiring the bravery and determination of those who died. He was close to Connolly and tended to see him as the Rising's chief architect:
This hope unto a flame to fan
Men have put life by with a smile.
Here's to you, Connolly, my man
Who cast the last torch on the pile.
AE brings his 1916 elegy to a close by recalling the complexities of that fateful year, 'the confluence of dreams'
That clashed together in our night,
One River born of many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.
It says something of the character of the Ireland of 100 years ago that three such literary idealists as Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett should have been drawn into revolutionary politics and participated in an insurrection that led to their deaths by firing squad in 1916.
All entered the republican fold through the avenue of cultural nationalism. All were relatively late converts to outright separatism. None of the three was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood before 1913 and MacDonagh was only sworn in to that oath-bound society in the weeks before the Rising. All three were swept up in the turbulence of the times in which they lived and committed themselves to the struggle for independence in 1916, which they must have known would amount to a death sentence once they became signatories of the Proclamation. The formation of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 brought the three poets into leadership positions in an organisation that, together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was instrumental in bringing about the transformative events of 1916.
As we mark the centenary of 1916, every effort has been made to ensure an inclusive commemoration and there has been a focus on the idealism of the Proclamation and the commitment of its leaders, but also the fact that many of its victims were Dublin’s civilians including many children. With the benefit of a century of hindsight, we can now see the Rising in a more rounded manner. The Rising continues to attract conflicting reactions and there are those who view it as an undemocratic, illegal, unethical and immoral act. I understand those arguments and it would undoubtedly have been preferable had Ireland achieved its independence by peaceful means. I also recognise that the context in which the Rising took place, in the midst unprecedented violence and destruction on Western Front. It is difficult not to be moved by the idealism of that generation, so far removed from current attitudes.
1916 is indeed aptly described by Yeats and AE as both 'a terrible beauty' and a 'confluence of dreams.'
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London