1916 Easter Rebellion: Ireland was a laboratory for every manner of colonial repression

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Mar 23 14:15:32 GMT 2016


  - - - IMO its not nationalism but concentration 
of EU & US power that's the problem - - Tony G

Easter rising -> The Irish War - Tony Gerraghty

A Terrible Beauty: Remembering Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rebellion


Ireland was a laboratory for every manner of 
colonial repression by the British; 100 years 
after the Easter Rising, it is once again­this time by banks.

 MARCH 21, 2016


Irish prisoners were marched along a Dublin quay 
under British guard during the bloody Irish 
insurrection that began on Easter Monday, 1916. (AP Photo)

Standing on the front steps of Dublin’s general 
post office a century ago, the poet Padraig 
Pearse announced the Poblacht na hEireann­the “Irish republic.”

This article is a joint publication of 
TheNation.com and 
Policy In Focus.

He was reading from a proclamation, the ink 
barely dry, of a provisional Irish government 
declaring its independence from British rule. It 
was just after noon on March 24, 1916, the 
opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy 
and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.

It’s 100 years since some 750 men and women threw 
up barricades and seized key locations in 
downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe 
1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the 
post office in flames, the streets blackened by 
shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their 
way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.

And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would 
eventually become one of the most important 
events in Irish history­a “failure” that would 
reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial 
uprisings almost half a century later.


Anniversaries­particularly centennials­are equal 
parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from 
them is always a tricky business. Yet while 1916 
is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the 
story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.

Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The lamps, as 
the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, 
and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and 
steeped in almost inconceivable death and 
destruction. Shortly after the last Irish rebel 
was shot, the British launched the Battle of the 
Somme. More than 20,000 would die in its first 
hour. By the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.

Europe is still at war, in some ways retracing 
the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long 
gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in 
Afghanistan. Italian special forces are stalking 
Islamists in their former colony Libya. French 
warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds 
in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.

And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed 
wire is once again being unrolled, not to make 
killing zones out of the no man’s land between 
trenches but to block the floods of refugees 
generated by European­and American­armies and 
proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.

In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost.

The British and French between them 
sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion 
and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in.

Indeed, that was the whole idea: There would 
never be enough Frenchmen or Englishmen to rule 
the Levant, but with Shiites, Sunnis, and 
Christians busily trying to tear out one 
another’s throats, they wouldn’t notice the 
well-dressed bankers on the 
sidelines­“tut-tutting” the lack of civilized 
behavior and counting their money.

The Irish of 1916 understood that gambit­after 
all, they were its first victims.

Ireland was a colony long before the great powers 
divided up the rest of the world in the 18th and 
19th centuries, and the strategies that kept the 
island poor, backward, and profitable were 
transplanted elsewhere. Religious divisions kept 
India largely docile. Tribal and religious 
divisions made it possible to rule Nigeria. 
Ethnic conflict short-circuited resistance in 
Kenya and South Africa. Division by sect worked 
well in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Ireland was the great laboratory of colonialism 
where the English experimented with ways to keep 
a grip over the population. Culture, religion, 
language, and kinship were all grist for the 
mill. And when all else failed, Ireland was a 
short sail across the Irish Sea: Kill all the lab rats and start anew.


The fact that the English had been in Ireland for 
747 years by 1916 was relevant.

The Irish call the occupation “the long sorrow,” 
and it had made them a bit bonkers. Picking a 
fight in the middle of a war with one of the most 
powerful empires in human history doesn’t seem 
like a terribly rational thing to do­and in 
truth, there were many Irish who agreed it was a doomed endeavor.

The European left denounced the Easter Rising, 
mostly because they couldn’t make much sense of 
it. What was a disciplined Marxist intellectual 
and trade-union leader like James Connolly doing 
taking up arms with mystic nationalists like 
Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett? One of 
the few radicals to get it was V.I. Lenin, who 
called criticism of the rebellion “monstrously pedantic.”

What both Connolly and Lenin understood was that 
the uprising reflected a society profoundly 
distorted by colonialism. Unlike many other parts 
of Europe, in Ireland different classes and 
viewpoints could find common ground precisely 
because they had one similar experience: No 
matter what their education, no matter what their 
resources, in the end they were Irish, and 
treated in every way as inferior by their overlords.

Most of the European left was suspicious of 
nationalism in general because it blurred the 
lines between oppressed and oppressors and 
undermined their analysis that class was the 
great fault line. But as the world would discover 
half a century later, nationalism could also be 
an ideology that united the many against the few.

In the end, it would create its own problems and 
raise up its own monsters. But for the vast 
majority of the colonial world, nationalism was 
an essential ingredient of national liberation.


The Easter Rebellion wasn’t the first 
anticolonial uprising. The Americans threw off 
the English in 1783; the Greeks drove out the 
Turks in 1832. India’s great Sepoy rebellion 
almost succeeded in driving the British out of 
the subcontinent in 1857. There were others as well.

But there was a special drama to the idea of a 
revolution in the heart of an empire, and it was 
that drama more than the act itself that drew the 
world’s attention. 
of London blamed the Easter Rising for the 1919 
unrest in India, where the British army massacred 
380 Sikh civilians at Amritsar. How the Irish 
were responsible for this, the Times never bothered to explain.

But the Irish saw the connection, if somewhat 
differently. Roger Casement, a leader of the 1916 
rebellion who was executed for treason in August 
of that year, said that the cause of Ireland was 
also the cause of India, because the Easter 
rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilizations of the earth.”

As an uprising it was a failure, in part because 
the entire affair was carried out in secret. 
Probably no more than a dozen or so people knew 
that it was going to happen. When the Irish 
Volunteer Force and the Irish Citizens Army 
marched up to the post office, most of the 
passersby­including the English ones­thought it 
was just the “boys” out having a little fun by provoking the authorities again.

But secrets don’t make for successful 
revolutions. The plotters imagined that their 
example would fire the whole of Ireland, but by 
the time most of the Irish had found out about it, it was over.

Compared with other uprisings, it wasn’t even an 
overly bloody affair. There were about 3,000 
casualties and 485 deaths, many of them 
civilians. Of the combatants, the British lost 
151 and the rebels 83­including the 16 executed 
in the coming weeks. It devastated a square mile 
of downtown Dublin, and when British troops 
marched the rebels through the streets after 
their surrender, crowds spit on the rebels.

But as the firing squads did their work day after 
day, the sentiment began to shift.

Connolly was so badly wounded he could not stand, 
so they tied him to a chair and shot him. The 
authorities also refused to release the executed 
leaders to their families, burying them in 
quicklime instead. Some 3,439 men and 79 women 
were arrested and imprisoned. Almost 2,000 were 
sent to internment camps, and 98 were given death 
sentences. Another 100 received long prison sentences.

None of this went done well with the public, and 
the authorities were forced to call off more 
executions. And the idea of an “Irish republic” 
wasn’t going to go away, no matter how many 
people were shot, hanged, or imprisoned.


The Easter Rising was certainly an awkward 
affair. Pearse called it a “blood sacrifice,” 
which sounded uncomfortably close to the Catholic 
proverb, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

And yet, that is the nature of things like the 
Easter Rising. The year 1916 churned up all of 
the ideologies, divisions, and prejudices that 
colonialism had crafted over hundreds of years, 
making for some very odd bedfellows. Those who 
dreamed of reconstituting the ancient kingdom of 
Meath manned barricades with students of Karl 
Marx. Illiterate tenant farmers took up arms with 
Countess Markievicz, who counseled women to 
“leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”


Many of those 

There will be at least two celebrations of the 
Easter Rising. The establishment parties­Fine 
Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Labor Party­have 
organized events leading up to the main 
commemoration March 27. 
Fein, representing the bulk of the Irish left, 
will have its own celebration. Several small 
splinter groups will present their own particular story of the Easter rising.

And if you want to be part of it, you can go on 
the Internet and buy a “genuine” Easter Rebellion 
T-shirt from 
Apparent.” Everything is for sale, even revolution.

In some ways, 1916 was about Ireland and its 
long, strange history. But 1916 is also about the 
willingness of human beings to resist, sometimes 
against almost hopeless odds. There is nothing 
special or uniquely Irish about that.

In the short run, the Easter Rebellion led to the 
executions of people who might have prevented the 
1922–23 civil war between republicans and 
nationalists that followed the establishment of 
the Irish Free State in 1921. The Free State was 
independent and self-governing, but still part of 
the empire, while the British had lopped off 
Northern Ireland to keep as their own. Ireland 
didn’t become truly independent until 1937.

In the long run, however, the Easter rising made 
continued British rule in Ireland impossible. In 
that sense, Pearse was right: The blood sacrifice had worked.


Does the centennial mean anything for today’s Europe? It may.

Like the Europe of 1916, the Europe of 2016 is 
dominated by a few at the expense of the many. 
The colonialism of empires has been replaced by 
the colonialism of banks and finance.

The British occupation impoverished the Irish, 
but they weren’t so very different from today’s 
Greeks, Spanish, and Portuguese­and yes, 
Irish­who’ve seen 
living standards degraded and their young 
exported, all to “repay” banks from which they 
never borrowed anything. Do most Europeans really 
control their lives today any more than the Irish did in 1916?

How different is today’s “troika”­the European 
Central Bank, the European Commission, and the 
International Monetary Fund­from Whitehall in 
1916? The latter came uninvited into Ireland; the 
former dominates the economic and political life of the European Union.

In his poem, “Easter Week 1916,” William Butler 
Yeats called the rising the birth of “a terrible beauty.” And so it was.

But Pearse’s oration at the graveside of the old 
Fenian warrior Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa may be 
more relevant: “I say to the masters of my 
people, beware. Beware of the thing that is 
coming. Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”
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