In my last blog, I wrote about the wide extent to which Ireland was ‘free’ in 1916, emphasising that the House of Common had, after tumultuous constitutional changes to the House of Lords, put the third Home Rule Bill on the statute books in September 1914. This gave a clear signal that the government of the Empire had at last accepted the principle of devolved government for Ireland within the British Empire. Once the World War I was over, Ireland would enjoy a significant degree of autonomy, excluding defence and finance. Through an amendment, the six counties of Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule for a limited period of six years, allowing time for each county to vote to opt in or out. Redmond had insisted he would not push Protestants in the six counties into a Home Rule united Ireland without their consent. He did not get it, nor indeed the consent of the Irish Convention in 1918 when Bishop Patrick O’Donnell of Raphoe, Donegal, insisted on the Home Rule settlement included fiscal autonomy, something unionists opposed.
So why 1916?
We know that a minority within a minority secretly decided to take up arms in an attempt to achieve separation, whereas the unionists in Ulster showed a strong determination to remain in the UK. We also know that the anticipated German arms had been scuttled off the south coast of Ireland by the German ship Aude when discovered by British intelligence, that Casement called on the rebels to call off the planned military action and that Eoin MacNeill, head of the Irish Volunteers, did likewise. However, the IRB leaders and James Connolly ignored these calls for an end to military action and went ahead with disastrous results. Thomas Bartlett in his recently published Ireland: a history informs us about 450 people died during Easter 1916 week, of which about 250 were civilians and almost 3,000 ‘were injured, mostly civilians’. He tells us that Connolly and MacDermott ‘may have expected the rising to ignite a nationwide insurrection’ but ‘months of planning appear to have produced possibly the most chaotic insurrection in Irish history’. Strong condemnation, atypical of Irish historians in general.
So what swung popular opinion, at first appalled by the rebellion, to eventually support the violent separatists? Historians seem agreed it was the ‘stern military repression’ of the British, in the words of Thomas Bartlett. Fifteen men were shot by firing squad, thus being accorded the status of soldiers (hanging was the alternative, as in the case of Roger Casement, treated as a traitor and criminal). Over 400 insurgents were interred in Britain. Yet Bartlett tells us that ‘stern military repression had to be expected’ as ‘the planned rising would take place during a war, one in which things were going badly for Britain and its allies’. Furthermore:
“It was not as if Ireland at Easter 1916 was groaning under an intolerable tyranny…the war had brought measurable benefits to the Irish economy, there was no conscription and wartime restrictions on free speech were irksome rather than oppressive.”
As for the Volunteer rebels, they ‘had been allowed to parade, drill and conduct their manoeuvres during the preceding years, and surely this was proof that a liberal (and probably unwise) indulgence had been extended to them’.
The Protestant Redmondite, Stephen Gwynne, thought otherwise:
“Everyone of the men who were in that rising, Mr Cosgrave not least of them, admits that if the rank and file – many of whom has no idea for what purpose they had been mobilised on Easter Sunday – had been dismissed contemptuously to their homes and the leaders treated as lunatics, the whole thing would have been over.”
In other words, Redmond would have remained the leader of nationalist Ireland, ‘the lunatics’ would have been ridiculed and a Home Rule settlement would have triumphed post WWI. Thousands of deaths would have been avoided in the guerrilla and civil wars that followed from 1919 to 1923. Clearly we will never know if this outcome would have been realised, but we do know that Redmond and his Parliamentary party were victims of the Great War. Bartlett writes:
“In the end it had been the interminable war, with its martial rhetoric and mass slaughter…that brought the party’s demise…it could not function, let alone flourish, in an era of total war.”
What sort of brave new Ireland did the insurgents kill and die to achieve? Tom Garvin thinks hatred was a strong motivation:
“Many (of the old IRA) were pre-political and had only a vague idea of the polity for which they were putatively struggling. On the other hand, that had a clearer idea of what they hated: the traditional Anglo-Irish and British ascendancy…Land and communal hatreds led to sectarian and agrarian murder.”
There were no guiding intellectuals, no plans for a new, socialist, even communist Ireland. James Connolly may have aspired to lead Ireland down the Russian road, following Lenin, but the Proclamation was no socialist document. A Catholic, conservative, small farmer , petit bourgeois Ireland emerged from the chaos and violence in a separated Ireland for the Irish race, a special people, ‘a nation held against its will and exploited for centuries’ the eminent historian Joost Augusteijn tell us in The Irish Revolution.
Augusteijn also wrote:
“This lack of a positive self-image and simplistic analysis of Ireland’s problems can at least be held responsible for the shape of Irish society after independence. …the Irish language and Catholicism became the two defining issues which received increasing emphasis in a desperate attempt by them to distinguish themselves from their former rulers and appeal to the Irish electorate.”
The new rulers were not interested in changing existing British institutions but on seizing power, based on a negative image of the British. What united Irishmen ‘was their opposition to English rule, not any thought out notion of what Ireland should be like’, wrote Augusteijn. But this was not to last long: in time, new Irish governments decided what ‘Ireland should be like’ and imposed Catholic teachings on divorce, contraception, censorship on the people. Arguably, the fears of northern unionists were fulfilled as ‘sacral nationalism’ * became the order of business in Kildare street. Certainly the fears of the tiny Protestant minority in the Free State were to be realised. The historian FSL Lyons wrote in Culture and Anarchy in Ireland:
“…in the south the minority only amounted to about five per cent and was, or seemed to be, enervated by the almost repressive tolerance shown to it by the majority.”
There was a major exodus of Protestants from 1919 – 23 in the twenty-six counties, excluding the British forces, perhaps as many as 35,000 unwilling emigrants who did not fit into the new definition of Irishness, being neither Catholic nor descendants of a mythical Gaelic people. Their departure was arguably not regretted by the new Free State nationalist establishment. Those who stayed on were expected to be part of the Irish nation yet were excluded in an Ireland where Irish identity:
“…will inevitably often seem…sectarian, self-righteous, exclusive, encoded with all sorts of political, cultural and racial assumptions that must be acceded to without demur.” (Professor Terrence Brown of Trinity College, Dublin in Culture on Ireland, 1991, Queen’s University Belfast).
*Conor Cruise O’Brien.