Jude Collins

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Easter Week 1916: myth and grim reality

Thomas MacDonagh in a letter to his wife Muriel, 
written a few hours before his execution:

 “I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it”. 

Eamonn Ceannt in a letter to his wife Áine, 
written an hour before his execution:

 “I am here without hope of this world, and without fear, calmly awaiting the end”.

One of the things we’ve been taught to believe about the Easter Rising is that the people of Dublin rejected the rebels, spat at them and shouted abuse as they were led away. It was only when the execution of the leaders occurred that public sympathy turned. I’ve always found that hard to believe. Maybe, as a prominent republican suggested to me recently, maybe a reporter in one Dublin street saw open hostility and assumed it applied in all streets. And indeed some people had reasons to react against the Rising: if you were a unionist, if you’d lost property or family in the battle, if you were a Redmondite, if your husband or brother or father was off fighting with the British Army in Europe.

But there were contrary reports that suggested a different public mood, even before the execution of the leaders. A Canadian journalist, Frederick Arthur McKenzie, noted that particularly in poorer areas, there was “a vast amount of sympathy with the rebels, especially after the rebels were defeated”. Thomas Johnson, a Labour leader, saw “no sign of sympathy for the rebels but general admiration for their courage and strategy”.   It figures. The Irish people, like most people, don’t like trouble or destruction or bloodshed. But equally, like most people, they admire those who are dedicated to their country’s future and they instinctively side with the underdog. Pearse and his followers were classic cases of both. The Easter Rising was like a leap over a cliff-edge,  done in the belief that miraculously, good things would come of it.  The leaders accepted that their lives would end but they believed the sacrifice  would awaken the Irish people.

Contemporary commentators in the south, who live in a state which has successfully removed British rule, are quick to pull up the ladder after them.  Talk of a reunited Ireland is nineteenth-century nonsense. Jobs and mortgages and banks are what must receive our attention now. And whatever you do,  don’t suggest this is to insult the Irish people,  by assuming they can deal with only one thing at a time.   Don’t suggest that striving for the ideals of those who died in 1916 and saving the Irish taxpayer from decades-long penury can both be goals of the Irish people. Sure they wouldn’t be up to it.

The men of 1916 were brave. You have to be when you initiate actions you know will result in your death. They were also far-sighted men who believed that by taking on the British Empire they could wound it mortally and start Ireland on the road to freedom.

The Empire is dead ; Ireland’s journey to freedom continues.  

Joseph Plunkett  in a letter to his fiancée Grace, 
written on the day of surrender:

“This is just a little note to say I love you and to tell you that I did everything I could to arrange for us to meet and get married but that it was impossible. Except for that I have no regrets”. 
[In fact they were married the night before his execution.]

Padraig Pearse in a letter to his mother
 on the eve of his execution:

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations”.

[This blog appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News earlier this week.]


  1. Fionnuala McTaggart27 April 2011 at 18:00

    What an interesting read Jude - especially the first hand snippets from the men themselves. I was having a discussion with a very concerned 5th Year last week about his feeling of 'the end of Ireland as it once was'. He couldn't, and neither could I assist, put a finger on what he fears is disappearing, except perhaps the willing and supported bloodshed. But surely that is something to rejoice in, or is it as you say - that Irish people abhor the violence, but praise and support the patriotic fighter? I don't think you'd appreciate my personal opinion on the matter!

  2. Dear Fionnuala - how LOVELY to hear your sweet voice on my humble blog! (And you know how sparing I am of exclamation marks!) I'm not sure of your argument here but if you're suggesting you're a pacifist, then I am full of admiration for you. It's also a Christian stance, of course. What irritates me are those who would claim to be Christian but have nothing to say about bloodshed in some circumstances but will work themselves into fits of outrage at bloodshed in carefully-selected circumstances. Consistency, I oddly believe, is a virtue.

  3. Most Dubliners who were "active" during the Putsch were active only in the sense that they were fetching things out of Woolworths windows.

  4. Good to see that your journalistic talents are appreciated by one newspaper at least.

  5. Jude a classic example of those who are selective in their tolerance of violence is the Irish Times (the paper of record) In a recent article entitled "The fighting Irish" Mark Hennessy, their London correspondent,acted as a recruiting sargent for the British Army in encouraging young Irishmen to participate in the Afghan War. This is the very same paper which was so anti the conflict in the north of this country