Imposing Independence: Questioning the moral authority of the Easter Rising

Perhaps the most famous event in Irish history was the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish republicans and socialists against British rule. The British subsequently executed 16 of the leaders, generating sympathy for them. The Rising played a significant role in southern Ireland’s gaining independence in 1922, and its implications resonate to this day. In 2016, the Irish government is spending €50 million ($58 million) to commemorate the Rising’s centenary.

From the beginning, the Rising was controversial. A minority believed it was unjustified, arguing that the Rising’s leaders were unelected, that Ireland was represented in the British Parliament and that devolved government for Ireland was on the way. The Catholic Church was similarly unhappy with it, in part because of the glorification of violence that the cult of the Rising produced. The Rising is also controversial since the Irish Republican Army has cited its authority in an effort to legitimize its attempts to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic. Given the nature of the rebellion it might seem natural to analyze it through the prism of just war theory, yet there are many lessons to be gained by considering this historic event from the perspective of Catholic social thought. On sociopolitical issues, Catholic social thought has much to say about the issues surrounding the Rising, including: goods or values of representative government, solidarity, common goods, acceptance of diversity, the rule of law and participation, and subsidiarity. But first, some history.

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Before the Rising

In 1791, the French Revolution inspired the foundation of the United Irishmen, who sought to unite Protestants and Catholics in pursuit of representative government. By 1795, the United Irishmen planned an insurrection to achieve an independent republic, and the stage was set for an uprising in 1798. After its failure, Irish republicanism disappeared. In 1858 it reappeared in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians, a secret, oath-bound society aimed at insurrection. Their 1867 uprising was a non-event, with few people involved and few killed. Thereafter, the I.R.B. could commit only isolated terrorist acts. By 1900 it had declined into obscurity.

Although cautiously open to a reform program in 1791, the church could not tolerate, let alone support, the Irish ally of the anti-Christian French revolutionary government notorious for its reign of terror and at war with most of its neighbors. The bloody futility of the 1798 uprising confirmed the wisdom of that stance. Nor would the church give any leeway to a semi-terrorist secret society that lacked popular support. From the 1860s onwards, the Irish bishops consistently condemned the I.R.B. and splinter groups like the Invincibles, who committed the Phoenix Park murders of 1882.

In 1912, Britain and Ireland were moving toward devolved home-rule government in Dublin. In response to the emergence of a unionist militia (the Ulster Volunteers), which opposed home rule, a nationalist militia (the Irish Volunteers) was set up in 1913 to enforce the authority of the anticipated home-rule government.

In September 1914, a small faction of the I.R.B. (including Tom Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada) decided to take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with World War I to launch an uprising. Excluding other I.R.B. leaders, they brought “cultural nationalists” Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett onto their secret planning committee.

Uprisings require an army, and the people would not support an uprising by the I.R.B. But the Irish Volunteers were a readymade army, so Clarke’s people infiltrated key positions within it. Early in 1916, they persuaded James Connolly, a revolutionary socialist desperate to start an uprising with his tiny Irish Citizen Army, to wait and join them at Easter. On Easter Monday 1916 they called out the Volunteers, seized Dublin’s inner city and held out against the British army until Saturday. Militarily a failure, the Rising had momentous political consequences.

The Good of the People?

When viewed through Catholic social thought, the consequences of the Rising can be seen from three angles:

1. Disempowerment of the Irish people

The leaders of the Rising proclaimed an independent Irish republic and themselves as its provisional government. This could be viewed as an attack on Irish democracy and the values of Catholic social thought.

First, none of the leaders had ever been an elected representative. This was at a time when Ireland was represented in the British Parliament, with local government democratized since 1898. The outcome of the 1910 general election enabled the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party to hold the balance of power between the Liberal and Conservative parties. In alliance with the Liberals, the I.P.P. in 1912 passed legislation giving Ireland devolved home rule. Overall, the democratic politics of the I.P.P. from 1886 to 1914 had been effective in transferring Irish land from the great landowners to the tenant farmers, persuading the British public and legislators of the merits of home rule and reforming local government.

Second, the Rising’s leaders did not believe in political participation and excluded anybody who might disagree with them. Ultimately, they represented nobody but themselves: not the voters who supported the I.P.P., nor Sinn Féin, the small, semi-pacifist party that had sometimes stood against the I.P.P. in elections, nor the I.R.B. in full, nor the Volunteer leaders whom they had deceived. Many of the rank and file who fought bravely in the Rising had no idea of their leaders’ full agenda, why they were fighting or even that they were going to fight that day. Thus, the Rising was in conflict with the Catholic social values of subsidiarity and political participation.

Third, the Rising was an attempt to exclude the people from two major choices. While its proclamation promised that the people would eventually be allowed to elect a government, it removed the choices of republic and independence from the voters. The Rising’s leaders deemed the people too corrupted by parliamentary politics, social reform and prosperity to be able to make the right choice. In a politically innocent way, like benevolent dictators, this attitude showed contempt for the people they hoped to represent.

Catholic social thought views political participation as a good, like shelter or health care, that is not conditional upon people’s desires. But national independence is a good only if the people desire and choose it. By imposing independence on the Irish without their permission, the Rising’s leaders attacked the good of political participation. In fact, they actually held the belief that anyone who did not support independence was not really Irish and so had no right to an opinion on the point. (This stance also thereby rejected the value of tolerance by rejecting diversity in ways of being Irish.)

Fourth, although proclaiming themselves the government, they had no interest in law or actual governing. For instance, they gave no thought to the relative merits of French-style parliamentary and U.S.-style presidential republics. They spoke and behaved as if the millennium would dawn when the British were evicted and a republic declared, so practical governance would then be irrelevant. Sadly, to be an Irish republican in 1916 meant that one hated the British and wanted to drive them out by force. Catholic social thought, on the other hand, holds the rule of law to be a non-negotiable good and sees practical governance as far more important than state boundaries.

2. An attack on Irish unity, reconciliation and solidarity

In 1912, Britain agreed to home rule. Thereafter, the problem was less with the British than with the division between (Protestant) unionists and (Catholic) nationalists. Unionists feared home rule as the thin edge of the wedge that nationalists would push to full independence, leading to their dominating the unionist minority. Nationalists were horrified, some of them incredulous, that unionists existed. They were utterly opposed to Ireland being partitioned into nationalist and unionist zones. With each side acquiring an armed militia in 1912-13, civil war loomed.

The inability of nationalists and unionists to agree delayed home rule. John Redmond’s I.P.P. began to move slowly (fearing backlash from their own voters) toward allowing temporary opt-out of home rule for unionist-majority counties. The backlash came in the Rising. In his essay “Ghosts” (December 1915), Pearse damns Redmond as a compromising traitor to Ireland. The Rising is a vehement denial of the political reality of unionism. While the Rising’s military target was Britain, its political target was the I.P.P. The I.P.P. and others recognized this immediately and tried in vain to prevent the post-Rising executions. Execution of the Rising’s leaders made martyrs of them, cutting the ground from under the I.P.P. and dooming them politically.

The Rising also helped to cement hardline unionism. Since the Rising’s proclamation refers to imperial Germany and Austria (with whom Britain was at war) as their “gallant allies,” it strengthened unionist influence on the British government and confirmed the belief in not compromising with the nationalists. The violence unleashed by the Rising continued in an unnecessary war of independence (1919-21) against Britain, enabling the well-armed unionists to secure six northern counties.

Overall, the Rising greatly intensified intercommunal hatred and mistrust. There was to be no more nationalist-unionist dialogue for the next 50 years. It took the 1970-98 conflict in Northern Ireland, with over 3,000 killed, to get nationalists in the north and south to abandon the 1916 intransigence and accept that the unionist tradition was Irish, and get that unionists to share power with nationalists. In terms of Catholic social thought, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 reflects conversion to the idea that there are common goods that transcend nationalism and unionism, and represents a commitment to reconciliation and acceptance of diversity.

Catholic social thought emphasizes the common good or goods that apply at local, national, regional and global levels. But the nationalist separatism of the Rising’s leaders would brook no talk of Britain and Ireland sharing common goods. How ironic that in 2016 one of the Irish government’s greatest concerns is British separatism, which may lead to Britain voting this summer to leave the European Union, thereby seriously damaging common British-Irish goods.

3. The cult of romantic nationalist violence

Patrick Pearse’s writings endorse the warrior cult of national blood sacrifice. About the slaughter of World War I, he wrote: “It is good...that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield…. When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would the Angel of God” (“Peace and the Gael,” 1915). Pearse and the others brought war to Ireland, with most of the Rising’s 485 casualties being civilians. About insurrection, he said, “We may make mistakes and shoot the wrong people, but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.” Taking him at his word, the insurgents shot civilians who obstructed them, as well as unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police constables.

In Catholic social thought, human rights and the rule of law are important goods; the Rising’s glorification of nationalist or tribal violence directly attacks both. This is one of the worst legacies of the Rising. I estimate that in the period 1816 to 1916, a few dozen people died in the struggle for Irish independence. In the period 1916 to 2016, at least 5,000 died, mostly killed by imitators of the Rising’s example.

There is also this blindingly obvious fact about the Rising: It inculcates hatred of Britain and the British. Channeling archetypes of heroic last stands and semi-pagan blood sacrifice, linking Ireland’s “rising” to Christ’s resurrection, the Rising is spiritually powerful in feeding that hatred. In that, the Rising is anti-Christian at a deep level. It is a pity, then, that the Irish government has celebrated the centenary of an anti-British and anti-unionist, violent and unrepresentative event as the event that defines who we are as a people. No similar celebration has ever been proposed for those, like Daniel O’Connell and Michael Davitt, who organized popular mass movements for peaceful change in Ireland.

The Rising’s contemporary significance has little to do with Irish independence and everything to do with contemporary Irish political culture. Sinn Féin/Provisional IRA has never repented its “Thirty Years War” (1970-98). Today its spokespersons and fellow travelers in academia are massaging the history of that war, both to downplay I.R.A. violence and to claim legitimacy for that campaign by linking it to the Rising’s moral authority.

In the struggle for Ireland’s soul, the debate over what kind of political community Ireland should be, the Irish must not look to the moral authority of the Rising, for it offers none. The Catholic Church must offer its guidance and friendship where it can. For however glorious or glamorous the current celebrations in Ireland might make it seem, from the perspective of Catholic social thought, the Rising is a poor model for Irish political life. While levels of violence are currently low in Northern Ireland, in many towns and hearts the division between the Catholics and Protestants, the republicans and unionists, remains deep and bitter. Reconciliation will take longer to achieve.

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Patrick Murtha
1 year 6 months ago
Your critique of the Easter Rising based on "Catholic" social thought appears to be based more on mere democratic thought. It would be far more principled and reasonable to look at the Rising in the light of St. Thomas Aquinas's principles for a just or unjust revolution.
Monica Doyle
1 year 6 months ago
Thank you for this. I mentioned in another post my soon to be 88 year old mother has always told the story about why her Irish Catholic family in Derry was non violent. Her father ( born in 1876 ) used to say ' God First, Country Second'. The Irish have a way with words.
James Addison
1 year 6 months ago
A very good article -- thank you Fr. Murphy for the perspectives you shared. To build on this understanding, I would now like to know how the Church actually behaved from 1900 onward. To what extent did the actions of the church's bishops and priests in Ireland comport with Catholic social thought as outlined above? I confess a general ignorance of Irish history of the 19th and 20th centuries. What provokes my question is my greater familiarity with the history of the Church in Spain and especially in the years leading to and during the Spanish Civil War. Would that the Church's behavior then and there more closely reflected the niceties of her social thought.
James McGinty
1 year 6 months ago
Apparently the Archbishop of Dublin disagrees with your viewpoint. He made a statement today praising the courage of those who took part in the Easter Rising. Even though the rebellion did not have a majority of public support, within a few years it had transformed Irish society and the nation overwhelmingly voted in 1918 to support independence. Blaming the Easter Rebellion for the situation in Northern Ireland is beyond belief. The State of Northern Ireland had 50 years to build a just and fair society. The Unionists deliberately built an apartheid system that deprived Catholics of jobs, housing, voting rights and fair treatment in the courts. It is truly sad that an Irish Jesuit would perpetuate the revisionist view of Irish history that gives so little respect to the men and women who gave their lives that our freedom and culture might endure.
James Phillips
1 year 6 months ago
This analysis and perspective seems fairly accurate given the times and parties from the past. I would hope we wouldn't forget the common sacrifice between the Irish and the British. Better yet not confuse the conflict based on religious affiliation: Both Ireland and England have become better political and economic partners.
P Casey
1 year 5 months ago
The use of child soldiers by the revolutionaries in the conflicts of 1916-1921 appears to have gone unnoticed, or at least not commented upon by the author. The historical data, and its interaction with Catholic social teaching is interesting and informative. I would like to know, was this the Catholic social teaching in general acceptance at the time, or that which has developed since 1921.
David Cruz-Uribe
1 year 4 months ago
A very interesting article, but I think it is weakened by its failure to address the long history of British colonial oppression in Ireland. Irish Nationalism did not arise ex nihilo: if nothing else, any analysis of the events of 1916 must look to the impact of the Potato famine on Irish identity and politics, let alone anti-British sentiment.

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