By Timothy G. McMahon
On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, nearly 1,500 men and women in Dublin launched what came to be known as the Easter Rising, the prelude to the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21. Over the ensuing days, several hundred more in counties Galway, Louth, Meath, and Wexford joined in this effort to create an independent republic. Plans had called for even more to participate, but a series of events—including the failed landing of an anticipated arms shipment from Germany and a countermanding order from the chief of staff of the paramilitary group being used surreptitiously by the rebel leaders to carry out their design—thwarted that larger enterprise. Nonetheless, the rebels held out for six days before surrendering.
Among the factors that led to greater retrospective sympathy for them, three stood out. The first was the harsh response from the United Kingdom leadership, which was understandably shaken and angered by such an event on the home front while the country was embroiled in the Great War: Rebel leaders faced courts martial and execution, while nearly 3,500 others—many of whom had had nothing to do with the Rising—faced arrest and periods of imprisonment that lasted from a few weeks to nearly 15 months. The second was the recasting of the executed leaders as martyrs, aided in part by the glossing over of their often radical (if not fully anti-clerical) pasts by a new generation of leaders
who appealed to the Catholic strain that had motivated many Irish nationalists of the pre-Rising period. And the third was the breadth of their political idealism, expressed in their Proclamation of the Irish Republic, drafted by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly and read outside of the rebel headquarters in the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin at the start of the Rising. Its call to “Irishmen and Irishwomen” and its promise to cherish “all the children of the nation equally” seemed a far cry from the traditional politics of the island. What is beyond question is that the move to a more independent Irish state than had been on offer prior to the Great War began in earnest that April Monday.
Little wonder, then, that the Republic of Ireland determined to mark this year’s Easter weekend (27-28 March) with a spectacular series of public events in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. I had the great good fortune to attend as an invited speaker at two venues on Easter Monday and as an interested spectator for the rest of the weekend—because these events conveniently coincided with Marquette’s long spring break this year. Falling in the middle of what Irish people are calling the Decade of Commemorations (or Decade of Centenaries), these events featured everything from solemn wreath-laying ceremonies at sites redolent with echoes from the Rising (such as the prison exercise yard where the leaders faced the firing squad) to the opening of new museum exhibits, and from the holding of public concerts to the presentation of more than 100 panels that explored aspects of the Rising from various academic perspectives. (Depending on the venue and time, panels included historians, literary scholars, sociologists, or political scientists.)
The central public action was a parade that wound through the center of Dublin and past a reviewing stand of dignitaries that included the elected President (Michael D. Higgins) and Acting Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Enda Kenny. Along the route, giant viewing screens enabled the assembled crowds—estimated at well over half a million people—to watch a live feed of the parade broadcast on the national television network, RTÉ. In the middle of the parade, the marchers paused so that a member of the Irish Defense Forces, wearing the uniform of the Irish Volunteers (the paramilitaries at the time of the Rising), came to the front of the GPO to read the proclamation. A band struck up the national anthem (“The Soldier’s Song,” in Irish “Amhrán na bhFiann”), which the assembled crowds along the parade route joined in singing. What made that moment particularly poignant for me, as a historian of the Irish-language revival, was that the 40-50,000 or so gathered on College Green where I stood sang the Irish lyrics to the song spontaneously. At what was a particularly solemn moment of commemoration, they chose to use the first national language, a language that all had been taught as a school subject but that a relatively small percentage use on a regular basis, yet it was that language which—for whatever reason—expressed their collective sensibility at that moment.
In addition to witnessing the parade (albeit with an obstructed view, thus my own reliance on one of the aforementioned big screens), I will relish four particular memories. First, visiting the newly opened “Proclaiming a Republic” exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland’s Collins Barracks location. This superb and extensive collection of items from the revolutionary period includes an original copy of the Easter Proclamation (owned by one of the women prominent in the revolution, Dr. Kathleen Lynd), as well as the flags flown by the Volunteers atop the General Post Office and that of the Irish Citizen Army, which these labor activists raised above the Imperial Hotel as a particular act of defiance against the hotel’s owner, William Martin Murphy, whose conflict with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union led to the creation of the ICA.
Second, my family’s tour of the present headquarters of the Gaelic League, the organization at the heart of my work on the language revival, with its present archivist Cuan Ó Seireadáin. I had visited there years ago doing research, but what made this two hours completely enthralling was that the building at No. 6 Harcourt Street was, during the revolutionary decade, the headquarters of the Sinn Féin party and the republican women’s organization Cumann na mBan. Cuan pulled out all the stops, including having my children read from witness statements from Ireland’s Bureau of Military History about raids on the room we were
standing in—which just happened to have been Michael Collins’s office. Third, having the chance to speak at events on Easter Monday, including a talk in the Royal Irish Academy sponsored by the Digital Repository of Ireland and the Inspiring Ireland digitization project. That talk highlighted the part played by Bulmer Hobson in reinvigorating the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood. It also underlined the irony that his opposition to the Rising led to his being held over Easter weekend in 1916 by his former comrades. In the audience that day were descendants of Mortimer O’Connell, one of the IRB men who kept Hobson at bay. Meeting them at that moment was extraordinary. And fourth, attending a roundtable on the historical legacies of the Rising that featured an address by President Higgins and talks by leading scholars in my field, including Mary E. Daly and Diarmaid Ferriter of University College, Dublin, and Kevin Whelan and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada of the University of Notre Dame.
Needless to say, I had much to share with graduate students in my seminar on Memory, Commemoration and Material Culture when I returned to the USA, but the experience also enhanced what was already shaping up as an amazing experience with my undergraduate students in Irish history. They were participating in a special interdisciplinary program that I had planned out with my colleague Dr. Leah Flack from the Department of English.
Knowing that people would be commemorating the Rising and reflecting on its impact over time, we hoped to ask questions such as “What creates revolutions? How do people process what is happening around them? How do they reflect back on those experiences as they build a new state and society?” With Leah scheduled to teach her course on Irish literature during the same term I would run my course on Modern Irish History, we proposed to do things: first, we would link our courses to focus on the period surrounding the foundation of the modern Irish Republic (me) and on the poetry, short stories, novels, and plays that interrogated the revolution’s impact throughout the twentieth century (Leah); and second, we would host a series of public lectures and in-class discussions featuring major scholars in the field whose works would be among the readings we used in our classes. We, therefore, applied for a Mellon Grant from the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to fund this interdisciplinary look at the Irish Revolution that we called “Reconsidering the Rising.”
We launched our “reconsideration” in January with the College’s endorsement. I led off the lecture series in early February with a look at the role of land agitation from the 1870s through the early 1920s. Professor Mary Trotter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert on Irish theater and literature, visited in early March, discussing the important role of women as cultural and political revolutionaries. Professor Brian Ó Conchubhair of the University of Notre Dame, who publishes widely in Irish- and English-language publications on the Gaelic revival in language and sport, came in early April. Later that month, Professor R. F. Foster of Hertford College, Oxford, addressed questions about the expectations and hopes of the revolutionary generation, as well as their disappointment with aspects of the independence achieved in the 1920s. And Leah concluded the series with a wide-ranging discussion of literature from James Joyce through Seamus Heaney to Colum McCann.
Individually, each talk addressed a different aspect of the revolutionary era; collectively, they raised numerous issues for our students to consider, especially about the importance of taking interdisciplinary approaches to questions as profound as what leads to revolution. Of course, every answer raised further questions, including what constitutes a revolution and whether or not what occurred in Ireland between 1916 and 1922 constituted a revolution. (I am of the opinion that a revolution did occur, albeit not the one that the planners of the Easter Rising anticipated, but I recognize that such questions remain fiercely debated.) Bringing them up with our students—alongside scholars noted for their innovative readings of the period under review—was truly exciting. Watching Marquette students asking our visitors about their evidence, about their methodology, and about the stumbling blocks they had to overcome in the research process was one of the highlights of my fifteen years on campus. So too was reading their final papers and examinations, which provided ample evidence that they had incorporated insights from our visitors into some of the most sophisticated reading of sources and argumentation that I have seen from undergraduates.
Since coming to Marquette in 2001, I have tried to remain cognizant of the strong tradition of Irish scholarship here, and I have sought to extend that line in my work, always with the support of colleagues in the department, the College, and the Graduate School. This spring carried that support to a new level, such that those few days in Ireland in March, coupled with the “Reconsidering the Rising” program, made Spring 2016 one of the most intense, challenging, and delightful terms of my career.
Tim McMahon is associate professor of history at Marquette, the author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse, 2008), and editor of the memoir Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork, 2000). He is currently writing a monograph tentatively entitled Éire Imperator: Ireland’s Imperial Ambivalence .