by Mike McCormack, Ancient Order of Hibernians National Historian
Ireland had suffered occupation by invaders from England under a variety of names, from Normans to English to British for seven centuries. William Butler Yeats wrote, Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, but how long is too long? The century from 1816 to 1916 proved to be the most frustrating in Irish history and the Irish people were once more driven to assert their dream of independence. But the dream required inspiration. That inspiration was provided by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the patriots who dreamed the dream.
The dream began with the study of Ireland's ancient culture known as the Gaelic Revival. It was a national movement that not only revived a pride in their heritage, but reminded people that the derbfine was the most important element of a clan or family. It commanded respect for the elders and bound the family to be of one mind in terms of tradition and community relations. It consisted of four generations descended from a common great-grandfather. Given that a generation is 25 years, in the first decade of the 20th Century, there were many Irish who could relate their derbfine memories of the last 100 years. It was an inherited influence that came from fireside tales in the days before television when, in fact, few grew up without being influenced by their derbfine recollections of past attempts, peaceful and otherwise, at eliminating colonial oppression.
As a result, a proper understanding of the Easter Rising is impossible without understanding the frustration that came from the prior century. It was a century in which the political pendulum constantly swung back and forth from harmony to hostility and eventually, from reconciliation to rebellion. The memories of the derbfine defined the Irish existence in the past hundred years as frustrating in the least, if not outright infuriating.
The shared prosperity of the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1816 as post-war selfishness on the part of the British led to the Rockite rebellion of the 1820s. Daniel O'Connell's non-violent Catholic Association in 1823 renewed hopes of peaceful reconciliation until the Crown instigated a Tithe War in 1830. After that war, peaceful promise reigned again in the Repeal Association of 1840 until the mishandling of the Great Hunger of 1845 gave rise to the Young Ireland rising of 1848 and the birth of the Fenian movement in 1858. The violent suppression of the failed Fenian Rising of 1867 was followed by Charles Stewart Parnell and another attempt at peaceful accord in the 1880s until the violent Great Labor Lockout of 1913 demonstrated the true value of an Irishman in the eyes of the Crown's power brokers. Then there came another peaceful promise, with the Irish support of Home Rule which was eventually undermined by Orange defiance, the Curragh Mutiny and British duplicity.
By 1916, frustration finally led the Irish Volunteers, Citizen Army and Cumman na mBan (Women's Auxiliary) to challenge the Crown once more. This time the Irish people better understood the motivation of the patriots. But it was the brutality of Crown repression after the Easter Rising that convinced the people that the patriot's action was not only the best choice, but the only choice. The Easter Rising was guided by a handful of hopefuls who inspired a pilgrimage of patriots to the shrine of liberty. Their five-day fight in which 1500 patriots held off more than 25,000 regulars of the greatest army in Europe, in turn, provided the needed inspiration that brought the Irish people to the War of Independence and ultimately to the Republic of Ireland.
The most remarkable thing about the leaders was their dedication. Although the original plans for the Rising had been upset by Volunteer President MacNeill's cancellation order after learning of the capture of Roger Casement and the scuttling of an expected arms shipment, they decided to go ahead anyway. They saw that it was a now-or-never scenario. Had they postponed the Rising, it never would have happened since the British had discovered their intentions and were planning action against them. In a meeting on Easter Sunday, they decided to strike on the following day, hoping that when the word got out, the rest of the country would rise as well, even though they knew that they would not reach Dublin in time to save them. Tom Clarke said, we must strike the first blow. The next blow which Ireland will strike will win through. In this I die happy. Padraig Pearse said, "this is the death I should have asked for had God given me choice, a soldier's death for Ireland". When James Connolly was asked on the march to the GPO, what are the chances of success, he replied, "none whatever". All of the leaders who faced the firing squad and those with them: Sean MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, Con Colbert, Ned Daly, Sean Heuston, Willie Pearse, John MacBride, Michael Mallin and Micheal O'Hanrahan were firm in their resolve. British Captain E. Gerard noted that he had been told by the doctor who attended the executions, "they all died like lions!" Even Thomas Kent who was shot in Cork Barracks and Roger Casement who faced the hangman in Britain were convinced that their sacrifice would one day free Ireland...and it did.
Such dedication to freedom well deserves a memorial, so that all who cherish independence might also be inspired by the deeds of such men.