On a visit to Dublin this past Thanksgiving (traveler’s tip—it’s cheap to fly on Thanksgiving…as long as you’re leaving the country), I had the chance to visit the major sites of the Easter Rising of 1916, a failed attempt by Irish nationalists to throw off centuries of English rule and establish an Irish Republic. In the aftermath of the rising, the ringleaders of the rebellion were brought to Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, a classic example of a panopticon-style prison, where guards could see into every cell and hear even whispered conversations. In a walled and windowless courtyard, the ringleaders were executed against a wall by firing squad, except for Constance Markiewicz (the English considered themselves far too civilized to execute a woman) and James Connolly, who was near death and too wounded to stand. Undeterred, the English commandant simply ordered him brought from the hospital by stretcher and tied upright to a chair, where he was executed in turn.
The Easter Rising was a turning point in Irish history, memorialized in countless plays, songs and poems, including William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” with its iconic lines: “All changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born.” What is less known is that until the executions of Connolly and his companions, their cause enjoyed little support among the residents of Dublin. Much of the populace resented them for bringing ruin upon Dublin’s city center, which the English shelled mercilessly while the rebels were holed up in the General Post Office, and many saw the rebellion as a lost cause from the beginning.
All that changed utterly once the news of the executions spread; the executed prisoners (court-martialed over a matter of hours without legal representation) became a symbol of Irish resistance to English rule and the inspiration for a whole new generation of patriots. Today, memorials to the leaders of the Easter Rising are everywhere, not just in Ireland but in the United States and everywhere else the many descendants of the Irish diaspora live. Many an Irish romantic (I am one) has a copy of their “Proclamation of the Republic” framed on the wall.
And yet, the sober-minded historian must ask the question: Why these men and women? Why that moment in history? Why did this somewhat bungled attempt at revolution inspire within three years a full-scale rebellion against British rule?
Part of the answer lies in the casual way British soldiers regarded the leaders of the rising as simply a pestilence to be eliminated; another can be found in a picture one of my brothers has on his wall: an early 20th-century shop sign reading “No Dogs or Irish.” The sign is from Boston, but speaks to a common perception in England (and to a lesser degree in the United States) that the Irish were somehow subhuman. English magazines from the 19th century were rife with depictions of the Irish as apes, many of these caricatures published even as the Great Hunger of 1847–49 was starving the Irish (more than 1.5 million died) while English ships were carrying off grain from Irish ports. One thing the Irish knew from history (particularly the Irish poor) was that equality would never be given to them by the English. All that was needed was an incident or a movement that could galvanize that realization, that could convert resignation to resistance. Patrick Pearse, another executed leader of the rising, wrote as much: “And I say to my people’s masters, Beware/ Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people/ Who shall take what ye would not give.”
Soon after Easter 1916, this sense of the Irish as expendable pawns became even more explicit: the British Army attempted to institute an Irish draft for service in World War I. In the aftermath of Kilmainham Gaol, a new question was raised: Why fight for a nation that is simultaneously killing your countrymen? Here is Yeats again, in the voice of an Irish pilot serving in the British air force: “Those that I fight I do not hate/ Those that I guard I do not love.”
Those nuisance rebels of 1916 and later sought, along with a nation, the equality and dignity denied them for centuries. The same story has played out across the globe, where the sacrifice and courage of a few gives voice to the desire of millions, from South Africa to Latin America to our own American South to other present-day milieus, where economic and cultural oppression still hold against other rising peoples.
Click here for photos from my trip that tell the story of the Easter Rising.