Saturday, 9 January 2016

Who fears to speak of Easter week?

Who fears to speak of Easter week?

English Poet Edmund Spenser was a product of his time. His attitude to the native Irish he encountered during his stay in the country in the late 16th century was typical of Elizabethan England. He stated that

 ‘The evils of the Irish people fall into three prominent categories: laws, customs, and religion. These three elements work together in creating this disruptive and degraded people.’

Today his views would be considered racist in the extreme but his comments would have passed as normal in the time and society he moved in. Spenser was also clear on how the Irish were to be cured of their ‘evils’ when he wrote…

‘England will bring the Irish so low that he shall have no heart, nor ability to endure his wretchedness. So pluck him on his knees that he will never be able to stand up again.’ 

Of course history taught us that the Irish were not the sort of people to stay on their knees for long. There have been around 20 major or minor armed insurrections in Ireland since Spenser’s time, with other related activities in Britain, USA, Canada and Australia.  In the 400 years since Spenser wrote the words above, the Irish have fought on through penal laws, man-made famine, military occupation and the colonial exploitation of their country to eventually claim the right to self-determination for most of their island. To do this in the face of the might of imperial Britain was an astonishing feat. For much of Irish history Britain was one of the most powerful countries in the world and had built an Empire which spanned the globe. Despite this she had never totally subdued the small nation on her doorstep which despite, or maybe because of, repression and the horrors of an Gorta Mor still harboured those who dreamt of being free from English domination.

This year marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the event will be marked with ceremonies in Ireland and elsewhere. There will be television dramas and documentaries as well as a host of books on the significance of the events of Easter week 1916. The Proclamation read by Padraig Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin in April 1916 remains a very interesting document. The seven men who signed it were of course all shot in the aftermath of the Rebellion and it’s interesting to speculate who had the most influence in drafting it. Connolly’s socialism may perhaps be discerned in the clause which states that there will be "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens" in the new Republic. Universal suffrage at a time when women were denied the vote was a progressive step for any nation. It has been suggested that Tom Clark’s long involvement in the nationalist cause gave him a natural authority as did Padraig Pearse’s role as ‘Commanding Chief of the forces of the Irish Republic.’ However the document, like the rising itself was a joint venture which called on the men and women of the Socialist leaning Citizen Army, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. It invoked the generations of the past who struggled for freedom and spoke of "cherishing all the children of the nation equally".

Britain’s reaction to the rising was hardly surprising given they were in the midst of a life and death struggle with imperial Germany in the trenches of Flanders. As the Rebels occupied strongpoints in Dublin many of their compatriots were preparing for that summer’s big offensive on the Somme. Three Irish Divisions (36th Ulster, 16th Irish & 10th Irish) were to fight in the bloodbath which raged from July to November 1916 and suffered appalling casualties. Many other Irishmen were enlisted in other Divisions and fought with distinction. The British saw the rising as something of a stab in the back and set up military tribunals to deal with the rebels. As the executions started and details of them emerged, initial anger at the rebels actions felt by many Irish people turned to sympathy. Connolly was shot in a chair as he was badly wounded and couldn’t stand. Plunkett was shot a couple of hours after marrying his sweetheart Grace Gifford. Sean McDermott was recorded as saying before his execution, "I feel happiness the like of which I have never experienced. I die that the Irish nation might live!”  Even in apparent defeat, the men and women of 1916 felt that they had kept faith with the past and had perhaps inspired others to continue their struggle.

Joseph Sweeney 1916 Revolutionary and former Major General in the Irish army recalls the order to lay down their arms after a week of intense fighting in Dublin. He recalled Sean McDermott addressing the men and saying ‘This is only the beginning of the fight, all our leaders will be executed but it’s up to you men to carry it on.’ As the captured Rebels laid down their arms a British officer walked along the line of prisoners noting each man’s name in a book. He stopped at a man near Sweeney and said nothing as he wrote his name in the book. When he had moved on Sweeney asked how the officer knew his name without needing to ask him. The volunteer replied, ‘because he’s my brother.’ In that incident the tangled nature of Anglo-Irish relations is exposed.

The British pretence of being democratic was exposed in the 1918 General Election which saw 75% of the Irish people vote for independence parties. They were of course ignored and the War of Independence continued and led to the eventual partition of the country, an act which hard line Republicans could never accept. The brutal and tragic civil war which followed in the new ‘Free State’ saw more Irishmen killed by other Irishmen than the British killed in the Independence struggle 1916-22. In the north a third of the citizens in the new ‘Northern Ireland’ province were left to an uncertain fate. There is much evidence of the prejudice the minority nationalist population in the north suffered after partition as the sectarian attitudes James Connolly had warned against reasserted themselves and sowed the seeds of future conflict.

My own Grandfather was a product of those days and at the time of the Easter Rising was fighting in the trenches of Flanders. His return to Ireland in 1918 found a country in turmoil. As the British used terror tactics to cow the people, the nationalists fought fire with fire and a bitter conflict ensued. His military experience was put to use training volunteers to fight the very army he had just left. For him there was no conflict of interest; Ireland came first and always would. As a child I recall him reciting an old poem which he knew off by heart:

‘Who fears to speak of Easter Week?
Who dares its fate deplore?
The red gold flame of Eire's name
Confronts the world once more!
Oh! Irishmen, remember then,
And raise your heads with pride,
For great men and straight men
Have fought for you and died.’

So it is now 100 years since the events which so shaped Irish history in the century since. Ireland has come through some difficult times as it struggles to reconcile the past with the present and the future. I like to hope that whatever the future holds for this proud and spirited people that it will be decided without any more bloodshed. Violence drives a wedge between people and creates division which can last for decades or even longer. The words carved on the memorial at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders put it better than I can when it states…

‘As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.’

The men and women of 1916 should be remembered as people who did what they thought was right for their country. They fought courageously against impossible odds to keep faith with the past and perhaps give hope for a better future for all the ‘children of the nation.’

Who fears to speak of Easter week? None of us should but in celebrating the past we should also remember our duty to the future.




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