The turbulent legacy of the Easter Rising

Easter is the time Christians choose to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ by the Roman occupiers of Judea. Most religious scholars agree that Jesus the man existed. Furthermore, some argue that he was a politically rebellious figure who deliberately challenged the Romans and the corrupt Jewish priesthood cooperating with the imperialist occupiers. But it is generally accepted that his methods were non-violent.

It is the centenary of the Easter Rising—an event replete with Christian symbolism—which marked the beginning of the end of several hundred years of foreign rule over Ireland. In 1916, factions of Irish society were vehemently opposed to British administration according to various strands of thinking: some opposition was based on religious differences, some founded on patriotic, nationalist principles, while other ideas were concerned with militant anti-imperialist/capitalist sentiments and the rights of workers. The common objective was to achieve self-determination or, at the very least, more autonomy for Ireland.

As might be expected, there were those who proposed non-violent methods to accomplish their goal, while others believed now was the opportune time for a “blood sacrifice”—Britain’s involvement in WW1 was considered the perfect opportunity to press home a rare advantage. It was decided that key positions, mainly in the capital, were to be taken by “physical force”—most notably, the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin from which the ring leaders would proclaim Ireland’s independence and the equal rights of its people regardless of gender and religious persuasion.

The armed insurrection, although not brilliantly executed and somewhat muddled, caught the British off guard and they made a hash of putting it down. In typical WWI fashion, the officers repeatedly ordered their men across a rebel-held bridge in Dublin despite taking severe casualties. Soldiers then blundered around shooting indiscriminately at civilians. They even took out their frustration where they could with summary executions of suspected sympathisers, including a prominent and respected pacifist, Sheehy Skeffington, who was unarmed. To top it off, the British resorted to wholesale blasting of the General Post Office (GPO) with artillery and machinegun fire, seemingly indifferent to anyone who wasn't in British khaki.

The rebel insurgents eventually surrendered, ostensibly due to the large numbers of civilian casualties. On the whole, the general population expressed open hostility to the rebellion at first but sympathy swung wildly in favour of it after 15 of the leaders were shot following the courts-martial, one person hanged for treason and hundreds placed in detention. In a rather strange concession, the British authorities permitted two of the ring leaders to marry just hours before their execution.

From the largely symbolic stand of the Easter Rising and the martyrdom of the leaders emerged a more solidly supported, pragmatic guerrilla insurgency led primarily by the legendary Michael Collins, who seemed to have fully grasped the old adage, "Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves." He proved to be a ruthlessly effective and highly intelligent military commander. Collins knew how to force Britain to the negotiating table, mainly by infiltrating and then destroying the means by which the Empire maintained its control.

At least as far back as Elizabeth I, an invasive spy ring was essential to furthering the interests of the Crown. Collins realised that previous attempts at forming a successful revolution were always thwarted by the British secret service with the aid of a network of reliable informants and therefore set about attacking this network—he pierced the very heart of the British intelligence community...

Collins used assassination squads to eliminate informers and recruited his own spies. Violence quickly escalated as the modus operandi of both sides became increasingly extreme. In the movie "Michael Collins" the assassins in the squad were portrayed as encouraging their intended victims, whenever they could, to say their prayers before shooting them dead. There was at least a cursory religious component involved in the killing. At one point, Collins opines that he hated the British most of all for making him adopt such cold-blooded methods against them. The general impression given is that Collin’s actions were coordinated, measured, clinical and that the targets were carefully chosen. The British on the other hand, losing at their own game, resorted to brutalising and terrorising the populace into abandoning support for Collins and his men. This actually had the opposite effect. Finally the British asked to negotiate a treaty.

The Easter Rising and the subsequent legacy of violence—a civil war over the terms of the treaty, Collin’s assassination and later on, the Troubles of Northern Ireland—incurred many painful decades of soul-searching for the Irish people over the cost of independence. Many women who were involved in the Rising felt that some of the core ideals were betrayed by the founders of the Republic: the Catholic Church had considerable influence over legislation, including abortion, and prescribed reactionary, theocratic values. Some of the Catholic institutions charged with looking after the poor and vulnerable in Ireland were hopelessly miserable places that were rife with abuse. Britain, although far from perfect, was more secular and actually far more progressive, especially post-war. Like most of the other Catholic European countries, bar Italy, Ireland didn’t participate in WWII, remaining conspicuously neutral, and remained lodged in a Victorian time warp for decades.

If the various rebellious factions were agonising in 1916 as to whether they should resort to armed insurrection, the British had no such qualms about using psychotic levels of violence in order to put it down. None whatsoever. The British authorities also utilised paramilitary units to take vicious counter-measures in response to the IRA killings—these goons were notoriously savage and more or less tasked with terrifying sympathisers into submission.

Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, has alluded to the point that the centenary of the Rising accompanied by all the old regrets, the human failings of the leaders, the bitter internecine fighting, the missed opportunities and the Troubles should not distract from who is primarily responsible—he calls for a re-examination of “Imperial triumphalism”. So far there has been no apology forthcoming from the British government, which would suggest there is very little introspection on their part regarding the appalling legacy of sociopathic violence that punctuated their long and painful involvement in Irish affairs.