Commemorating the Terrible Beauty

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features


‘All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.’
Easter 1916, W.B Yeats

Myth and memory are the foundation stones of the modern Irish state, with Irish national identity resting on the enduring power of past struggles. The political scientist Richard Rose was even moved to declare ‘Ireland is almost a land without a history, because the troubles of the past are relived as contemporary events’.

This year marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, perhaps the most formative myth of all in Irish history. On Easter Monday 1916, a band of Irish republicans launched an insurrection to end British colonial rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic. They seized key locations in Dublin, notably the General Post Office (GPO) and proclaimed an Irish Republic.

The supreme resonance of the uprising today is perhaps surprising given how few people were involved, its initial absence of public support and the fact it lasted a mere six days. But its repercussions would launch a new chapter of revolutionary violence in Irish history. Irish public opinion swerved from indifference to support for the rebels after a series of executions by the British army provoked outrage. Famously, James Connolly was shot while tied to a chair due to his inability to stand on his injured ankle. After a period of renewed armed struggle, the Irish Free State was founded six years later in 1922. The independence achieved was incomplete because the six largely Protestant counties of the North remained within the United Kingdom.

Exploring the potency of the Easter Rising and its significance for Irish politics today is Dieter Reinisch and Jennifer Todd. Todd is a Fernand Braudel Fellow at the EUI and a Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. Reinisch is a second year researcher in the EUI’s History and Civilisation Department and a co-organiser of an upcoming international conference at the EUI on Irish History, Society & Culture: 100 Years after 1916 which brings together academics with veteran civil rights activists to discuss the Rising’s legacy.

Professor Jennifer Todd

Professor Jennifer Todd

Speaking to EUI Times, Todd affirms that the Easter Rising has become a proxy for a number of other political questions in today’s Irish milieu. She argues that because the Rising is so central to the founding of the Irish state, the way in which it is commemorated speaks volumes about the nature of current political concerns. “This 100th anniversary comes at a period of constitutional uncertainty. There has been a delegitmation of politics in the Republic of Ireland for economic reasons, because of austerity and an ongoing political stalemate even in forming a government.  I would argue there has been a public questioning of many of the old certainties about politics. In that context remembering 1916 becomes a way of talking about where politics is going today.”

She observes tensions within the commemoration of Irish nationalism in North and South, because “the violence of 1916 and even more the war of independence, legitimated the foundation of the Irish state, and the parallels with the violence from 1969 through to 1994 seem clear. Therefore does one delegitimate both forms of violence? What does that do to the character of the state? How does the state legitimate its own foundation while distancing itself from the violence of the North? All of these are subtexts of the commemoration.”

Additionally, this year, renewed attention was devoted to the role played by women in the conflict. Significantly, the Proclamation read out on Easter Monday by the poet and rebel leader Pádraig Pearse was addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”.  As Reinisch points out, “Ireland is always seen as conservative, and the role of the women conservative but in the early 20th century you had strong and active participation in nationalist organisations. Many of these women joined the socialist militia and fought as members of the Irish Citizens Army, because they weren’t allowed to fight as Irish Volunteers.”

HEC Researcher Dieter Reinisch

HEC Researcher Dieter Reinisch

The Easter Rising was naturally highly contested both in its own time and now. The signatories of the proclamation of independence would not have identified with the state that emerged from the ashes of their struggle. Reinisch, who has attended every Easter Rising commemoration in Ireland for the past twelve years, explains “The Easter rising was very much an insurrection against Home Rule s in Ireland. What developed after the war of independence was not what the signatories would have wanted.”

Furthermore he adds, “You cannot look at the signatories as one homogenous bloc. You had various organisations from socialists, trade unionists, to more religious conservative groups. That’s a phenomenon you see in all the anti-colonial struggles, with all shades of political groups working against the colonial power.”

Moreover the Easter Rising may have taken place in Ireland, and primarily within Dublin, but its ramifications extended across the British Empire. Reinisch emphasises these international dimensions of the Rising, especially for the nascent nationalist movement in India which at that time also was under British colonial rule. “It became a very significant event internationally afterwards. It was basically the first uprising during the First World War against one of the imperial powers.”

He continues, “The leaders did not have this international aspect in mind, but it became a rallying point for other movements particularly in India where it had a huge impact. In the 1930s the Indian rebels called one of their rebellions the Indian Sinn Fein rebellion. You also have lengthy debates among the Bolsheviks in Russia. Interestingly enough, the best interpretation of the international significance comes from Carson, the Unionist leader who said that if Britain is not able to [protect] a few miles of their own coast, what will happen to its colonies? So the significance for other anti-colonial movements should not be under exaggerated.”

Both Todd and Reinisch are keen to point out that the Easter Rising was equally about challenging Irish political and economic elites as much as the British state. Reinisch asserts, “I would interpret it not as an uprising only against colonialism, but also against the political elites in Ireland.” But after the founding of the state, the more socio-economically radical currents of the nationalist movement were side-lined.

Todd and Reinisch see this class dimension as increasingly relevant in contemporary debates in Irish politics.  Todd explains further, “I think it is worth pointing out the class character and revolutionary element of the movement. That was, getting rid of the old aristocracy, partially by burning big houses, but also marginalising the landed aristocracy who were Protestant Anglo-Irish for the most part. But what took its place was a middle class led movement. The way it worked out, it was the conservative aspects of the middle class movement which formed a homogenising nationalism.”

She adds, “I think class is much more intertwined with the party political divisions today than in the past. It is very clear in the character of the smaller parties – from the Anti-Austerity Alliance to Sinn Fein – , and in the support base of Fine Gael.

So 100 years after the Easter Rising, it’s clear that in Ireland today, both North and South, furious political uncertainties persist.  The Easter Rising centenary this year serves as a reminder that for many Irish people, defining the Irish nation remains as unsettled as ever.