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The past, present and future of the Easter Rising 1916


The 1916 Irish Rising Commemorative Seminar, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1 May 2016.


I ask you to join me in acknowledging and celebrating the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and paying our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present.

Irish Rising Commemorative SeminarAcknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I concede the poignant relevance and stark contrast between Australian history in which there was never a negotiated settlement between Aborigines and the newcomers to this land, and Irish history marked by an uprising that rejected any British control of Irish lands and people. Talk of treaty and Aboriginal sovereignty may be surplus to the modern aspirations and daily needs of many Australians claiming an Aboriginal heritage and full non-discriminatory inclusion in our national life and culture, but the words of the 1916 Irish proclamation still have a resonance a century later and here on the other side of the earth for those Aboriginal Australians who rightly say that they are yet to be asked, let alone consent to the society and nation built on their ancestors' dispossession. Those Aboriginal Australians would draw heart from Patrick Pearse's proclamation on the steps of the Dublin GPO on Easter Monday morning 1916:

'We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.'

In December 2010, I was visiting Dublin with a fellow Jesuit from Australia, one Michael Hedley Kelly. On a very cold Saturday afternoon, we paid a visit to Kilmainham Gaol. Our guide was a young fellow in his early twenties, very well educated, well versed in the history of the jail and those who had passed through as prisoners on their way to execution. He recalled all those Irish heroes of 1916 who passed through the cells on their way to execution in the courtyard. We were very moved to stand in front of the makeshift wooden altar where Grace Gifford married Joseph Plunkett in the presence of Father Eugene McCarthy at 11.30pm on the night before Joseph was taken out and executed on 4 May 1916. We heard how at 2am they had been permitted ten minutes in Plunkett's cell together in the presence of a throng of British soldiers.

At the end of the tour Michael Kelly went up and introduced himself as an Australian Jesuit who had worked in Hong Kong with Fr Joseph Mallin SJ. By then, Joseph was the last surviving child of any of the 1916 rebels. His father, Michael Mallin, a leader of the rebels on St Stephens' Green in the 1916 rising, called his family to Kilmainham Gaol on the eve of his execution, and prayed that his little son Joseph would be a priest. The guide told Fr Kelly that Fr Mallin had made the same tour of the jail as we had just one year before. Our guide was in fact his guide. Fr Mallin had not identified himself until the end of the tour. He then came forward, introduced himself, thanked the guide, and explained, 'I just wanted to come and see where my father was killed. My mother always told me that I was brought here as a baby the night before my father died. My father told my mother not to wake me. She obeyed. I never saw my father again.' Kilmainham Gaol took on a whole new significance for us two visiting Australians.

Six weeks ago, Fr Joseph Mallin SJ at the age of 102 received the freedom of the city of Dublin. Fr Mallin did not travel to Dublin for the Rising commemorations, so the freedom of the city was awarded to him in a ceremony in Hong Kong. A special Nationwide documentary on the life of his father Commandant Michael Mallin, featuring Fr Joseph, was broadcast later that evening on RTE television. Dublin's Lord Mayor, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, said Mallin received the award not only for his status as a child of a Rising leader but also for his life-long work serving the people of Hong Kong and Macau through his ministry and teaching.

Though Joseph of course has no memory of his father's last goodbye, he heeded the plea in his father's last letter: 'Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can.' His brother Sean had preceded him into the Jesuits, and both brothers were assigned to the Hong Kong mission. Joseph's sister Úna — also urged by her father to go into religious life — entered the Loreto order in 1925. She was sent to a convent in Spain, where she spent the rest of her life. Many of those who were executed were pious Catholics in death, no matter what their differences with the church hierarchy about the morality or utility of armed insurrection.

Michael Mallin, one of the fifteen leaders to be executed at Kilmainham Gaol after the Rising, left home on Easter Monday 1916 to take command of the fighting on St Stephen's Green, and he never came home. In that letter written the day before his execution he tells his wife, 'Pulse of my heart', how much he will miss his children, ' ... and oh little Joseph my little man my little man Wife dear Wife I cannot keep the tears back when I think of him he will rest in my arms no more ... ' He also urged her 'to pray for all the souls who fell in this fight, Irish and English'.

I approach today's centennial commemoration with profound reverence and respect for those of another country but with whom I share some blood ties. I remember just after our own High Court delivered the Mabo judgment acknowledging that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders had rights to their lands that pre-existed the assertion of sovereignty by the British Crown and that some of those rights had survived until the present time. I was invited to address the annual beachside retreat of the partners of one of Australia's largest law firms. The gentleman introducing me feigned some slight amusement and disinterest that I was to speak on Mabo. He said, 'I don't know that it actually changes anything very much.' I proffered two observations in my response: The work I had done in relation to Aboriginal land rights and self-determination prior to the Mabo case was viewed as politics; now it was classified as law. Secondly, I thought it unimaginable prior to the Mabo case that I, a Jesuit priest interested in such issues, would have been invited to disturb the annual retreat of some of Australia's leading lawyers. So I thought something had changed. At the end of my presentation, one of the senior partners of the law firm introduced himself with the surname 'Murphy' and opined: 'If we are to have special rights for the Aborigines, then why not special rights for the Irish?' My rejoinder was: I being a Brennan and my mother an O'Hara, I have some sympathy for the Irish, but I don't think the relevant comparison is between the Aborigines in Australia and the Irish in Australia, but between the Aborigines here and the Irish in Ireland. I said I was one of those of Irish descent who took comfort in the thought that there was somewhere on God's earth where the Irish could be as Irish as they will, as well or badly as they wish, as selfishly or selflessly as they choose, and that place was the Republic of Ireland (and some would include the north of Ireland where at least the majority living there are content to live as they do with Irish roots and happily as part of the United Kingdom). I knew there was only one place on earth where Aborigines could be as Aboriginal as they might choose, though subject to the constraints of living in a post-colonial society where they were a minority, and the relevant issue was to determine the right conditions for such an existence.

I approach this commemoration therefore with a profound deference to those Irish who still debate whether the patriots who stood with Pearse as he read his proclamation on Easter Monday on the steps of the Dublin GPO were acting rightly or wrongly, prudently or stupidly, with results which were ultimately benign or adverse, or with a strategy that was ultimately bound to deliver their objective or perhaps even defeat it forever. But I do know this, the Easter Rising is now the great caesura in the modern history of Ireland, marking the beginning of the end of domination by a big neighbour and the commencement of full self-determination by a people constituting themselves as a nation, marking the decline of the 'Home Rule' refrain and the ascendancy of the republican refrain. With a variant on the old Irish joke about the lost traveler seeking directions, I might well have been one of those Irishmen who would have opined to the lost stranger looking for freedom, 'If that's what you're looking for, I wouldn't be setting out from here.' I might have sought to travel further down the road to a republic via home rule, rather than taking what might not be a short cut across those treacherous gullies of a war of independence and then a civil war.

There is no doubt that many aspects of the Rising and its long term effects are still contested. And the last thing a Jesuit priest on the other side of the world could dare to imagine is that his words would affect one scintilla the resolution of that conflict in 21st century Ireland. I call to mind the opening sentence of my colleague Fr Oliver Rafferty SJ's reflection on the Rising. Oliver is Professor of Modern Irish and Ecclesiastical History at Boston College. He knows more than his prayers. He writes, 'It is often said that the Catholic Church will never support a revolution unless it is successful.' He later makes a wonderful self-deprecating remark about us clergy. When the Rising had commenced, Monsignor Michael Curran, the Archbishop's secretary went to the GPO to see what was going on and what was needed. Pearse told him that some of the boys would like to go to confession. The priests did not come until 9pm. On leaving the GPO, Curran had gone to the Gresham Hotel for his lunch. As Rafferty says, 'Not even a revolution will keep a clergyman from a good meal.'

Appreciating the tensions in that conflict, we can all profitably join in the commemoration. I recently jested with the Irish Ambassador Noel White that it was very Irish that there was still no new government installed in Dublin three months after this most recent election so that there was no prospect of an official government view on the Rising whether that be a Fine Gael pro-Treaty perspective or a Fianna Fail anti-Treaty perspective honouring the founder of the party, Éamon de Valera. Noel with that customary mix of learned pride and diffident humility which we expect of an Irish diplomat, opined to me: 'The fact that the events of our history are contested is no reason not to revisit them. It makes the task more challenging, but it strengthens the case for doing so. A mature nation, confident in itself, has no fear of visiting its past.' His Excellency reminded a Melbourne audience recently:

'In Ireland we had been preparing for the commemoration of the Rising for some time. We gave it much thought. Some might say that this preparation was attended by a certain anxiety. If that was the case, it merely reflected both the importance we attached to approaching this chapter of our history with the sensitivity it merited, and our determination to ensure that our approach would be measured, balanced and correct.'

Pat Mulhall has asked me to reflect on the lead up to insurrection; the rising; and post executions. That to me sounds like an invitation to reflect on the past, the present and the future of the Rising.


A word about the past — the lead up to 1916.

When the third Home Rule Bill passed the House of Commons in Westminster in 1912 with the House of Lords being precluded from blocking it, the unionists in the north decided to take the law and politics into their own hands organising and arming themselves with arms imported from Germany. The Ulster Volunteers thought it preferable to be ruled by the Kaiser than by Roman Catholics. John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party had worked the corridors of Westminster very well convincing the Asquith government to pass the Home Rule Bill. The Conservative Party in opposition cultivated the dissident voices of the Ulster volunteers. As the Ulster Volunteers grew in force, Asquith's government saw that the only prospect of bringing in Home Rule would be the exclusion of the northern counties. But there was no way that the Irish Parliamentary Party could endorse that compromise.

On 21 August 1913, about 200 men and boys who worked in the parcels office of the Tramway Company in Dublin received a notice from their employer William Martin Murphy. It read:

'As the directors understand that you are a member of the Irish Transport Union, whose methods are disorganising the trade and business of the city, they do not further require your services. The parcels traffic will be temporarily suspended. If you are not a member of the union when traffic is resumed your application for re-employment will be favourably considered.'

The key union organisers of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU), Jim Larkin and James Connolly were not impressed. At 10am five days later, at the commencement of the annual Horse Show Week, the tram drivers pinned on their union badges, stopped their trams mid-street and walked off the job demanding that the parcel workers be reinstated and that they themselves be paid the same wage as the better paid tram drivers in Belfast. Within a month, over 20,000 workers had been stood down. The Lockout lasted almost five months. The present Irish President, Michael D. Higgins a longtime scholar in political science and sociology, has been so bold as to declare that the lockout was 'the most significant event in Irish social history of the early 20th Century'. Ultimately the workers had to back down. In the great stand-off between capital and labour, the church hierarchy was seen to be clearly aligned with capital. At this time the poor of Dublin lived in the most destitute of circumstances. 26,000 families in Dublin were living in just one room per family. Almost half the children were dying. For example, the 1911 Census showed 'ten families lived at 24 Gloucester Street in 1911, most families occupying one room. At that address, 47-year-old Annie Doran had given birth to eight children; only three survived. Her neighbour in the same house, 44-year-old Katherine Cavanagh, had lost four of ten children, and another neighbour in the house, Catherine Taylor, had lost two of five.' (Michael Higgins, 2013 Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture)

At the end of the lockout, James Connolly later one of the key leaders of the 1916 Rising, wrote: 'And so, we Irish workers must go down into hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal.'

Whatever the accomplishments of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party in winning concessions at Westminster, they had achieved little in addressing the impoverishment of the ordinary people of Dublin and the oppression of the workers. The field was dry, ready for any spark to fire the aspirations of nationalism. The Irish Volunteers had been building strength in response to the unionists. Connolly's Citizen Army was mobilised. Many of them regarded themselves as revolutionary socialists rather than romantic nationalists. They were to prove more ruthless than the Volunteers when it came to shooting policemen. Fergal McGarry says, 'The acrimonious legacy of the Lockout may have played some role in this. Advising his men how to deal with policemen, Connolly — one ICA officer recalled — "left that question to our discretion with the words: 'Remember how they treated you in 1913'."' And all the time, despite strong opposition from the Catholic hierarchy, the Irish Republican Brotherhood committed to a free, independent Ireland was conducting its secret activities waiting for the moment when they might strike violently in the name of a free, independent Ireland.


A word about the present — the Uprising

With the outbreak of the Great War, Home Rule was to be delayed until the war was over. On Easter Monday 1916, about 1600 answered the call and took their stand for Irish independence. They occupied many sites around Dublin, while often leaving the most strategic buildings well alone. The British troops did not regain control of the streets until the Saturday by which time there had been over 500 casualties and much of the city's infrastructure was destroyed.

Fearghal McGarry in the Introduction of his definitive book The Rising — Ireland: Easter 1916 (OUP, 2010) writes:

'At ten minutes past midday on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, thirty members of James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army approached Dublin Castle, the imposing complex of buildings that housed the Irish executive and functioned as the administrative heart of British rule in Ireland. Despite their assortment of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, some onlookers did not regard them as much of a threat, mocking their military pretensions by shouting 'pop guns' as they passed. Nor apparently did Constable James O'Brien, a veteran of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in his mid-40s, who stood alone, unarmed, as he manned the public entrance to the Castle.

'As the uniformed rebels made to push their way through the main gate, he stretched out his arm, blocking their entrance. From a ground floor window, close by the gate, Constable Peter Folan watched in disbelief as Seán Connolly, a well-known amateur actor who was normally to be found working as a clerk in the nearby City Hall, raised his rifle, shooting O'Brien in the head at point blank range. The first victim of the Easter Rising remained on his feet for several seconds, before falling quietly to the ground. The raiding party hesitated, perhaps shocked, before rushing through the gate towards the Upper Castle yard. A soldier caught in the open fled for cover as the advancing rebels fired their shotguns towards the window of a nearby guardroom where six sentries had gathered around a pot of stew.'

About 1600 rebels fortified various buildings and parks around Dublin, awaiting the arrival of British troops many of whom themselves were Irish. About 500 people on both sides of the conflict died. Peace was restored to the streets by Saturday. McGarry poses many questions, some of which remain unanswered a century on. He says, 'Much controversy has centred on the military strategy of the rebels.' He asks, 'Why were buildings of obvious strategic or symbolic value — such as Trinity College and Dublin Castle — not occupied? Why were positions of negligible military value, such as St Stephen's Green, seized? Underlying these questions is a debate not so much about the tactics of the rebels as their fundamental motives. Was the Rising an attempted coup d'état or an irrational blood sacrifice?'

The Irish Jesuit philosopher Seamus Murphy from Loyola University Chicago has recently published an article on the Easter Rising entitled 'Dark Liturgy, Bloody Praxis'. He claims: 'The Rising represented nobody but its leaders: not the IPP or its voters, not Sinn Fein, not the Volunteer leadership, not all the IRB, and not even all who marched out on that Easter Monday in 1916. That many nationalists view the Rising's leaders as heroes is implicit recognition that we ordinary people are not on the same plane as they. The lack of democratic legitimacy is no mere legal technicality: it is precisely why the Rising can never be fully part of us.' Murphy is following in the tradition of his Jesuit predecessor Frank Shaw whose 1966 essay 'The canon of Irish history — a challenge', was withheld from publication at the time of the fifty-year anniversary of the Uprising. The essay was not published until six years later, after Shaw's death. Shaw's great mentor was Eoin MacNeill who had issued the order for rebels not to turn out on the Easter Monday as he judged the timing of the proposed uprising inappropriate. In February 1916, MacNeill had said, 'If we are right nationally, it is our duty to get our country on side, and not to be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong.' MacNeill knew that the leaders of the uprising had not done the work to get the country on side. Doubtless the leaders thought that the time would never come when the country was onside, and that now was the Kairos for the country to be led through the violent severance from the large colonial neighbour. No doubt, the prompt and callous executions without due process, the sweeping up of 3500 people, over 2500 of whom were interned in Britain, and the attempt to impose conscription during the Great War served to bring many of the country onside with the patriots, though posthumously.

Colm Toibin paints the diverse perspectives of the uprising in a wonderful new essay in the London Review of Books. He notes that Clarke and Pearse 'had stabbed the country in the back during a time of war, causing immense destruction to life and property. They had made clear their willingness to treat openly with the enemy against whom so many Irishmen had volunteered to fight and in a war in which so many were still dying. (In the week of the rebellion, to take just one example, 570 men from the 16th Irish Division were killed at Tulloch on the Western Front.)'


A word about the future — the contemporary reading and relevance of the Uprising

The 50th anniversary of the Uprising in 1966 was a fairly unnuanced affair, espousing the courage of the rebels with little scrutiny of the justification for the use of violence and its political results. It is credible to argue that the so-called Troubles were partly fueled by these simplistic celebrations of 1966. Then Gerry Adams at the time of the 75th anniversary in 1991 said, 'If you in any way try to justify 1916, then you can't say it was okay in Dublin seventy-five years ago, it was okay for your grandad but it's not okay in Belfast or Derry or South Armagh today. If you say today that the IRA is wrong, then they were wrong then as well.'

What then are we to make of it all in the light of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which entrenches the north-south divide unless and until those in the northern counties voluntarily opt to bridge the gap and form a united Ireland? All parties have pledged to 'recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.' They have also acknowledged 'the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people.'

Gerry Adams, now Sinn Fein president, when speaking at an Easter Rising centenary commemoration at Milltown cemetery in Belfast recently said, 'The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement marked a historic shift in politics on this island. For the first time, the roots of conflict were addressed and a democratic route to Irish unity opened up. But there is much yet to be done. Hurts must be healed. Divisions ended. The scourge of sectarianism must be tackled and ended. The effects of Partition on the South must also be addressed.' Gone are the days when the woes of the South can be sheeted home to the partition of the North. Gone are the days when the South can plead that British influence in the North precludes free, self-determining action in the South. There is still periodic political violence as occurred with the assassination of Constable Ronan Kerr of the Police Service of Northern Island by republican dissidents setting a booby trap car bomb in Omagh on 2 April 20l1. Bruce Bradley SJ the present Editor of Studies which published the original Frank Shaw article, asks, 'How can we criticise the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr of the PSNI by republican dissidents in Omagh 2011, if we do not also condemn that of Constable James O'Brien of the DMP by the rebels in Dublin in 1916?'

When speaking recently in Melbourne, Ambassador White said: 'At the heart of the jRising lies an aspiration to the sovereignty and self-determination of a people, the Irish people. As such, the historical fact of the Rising is not available for, or at the disposal of, those who would seek to legitimise violence or any actions that are entirely abhorrent and unacceptable in a democratic society. Any such claims are spurious and are rejected.'

In this commemoration, we gather to thank the Irish for all they continue to contribute to human well-being in our world. I know from my time as director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the newly emerging nation of Timor Leste at the turn of this century that there are no finer ambassadors for development and peace in the wake of colonial oppression than the Irish. I suspect this Irish brilliance and capacity derives from generations of reflecting on how a small nation with the good and bad fortune to be adjacent to a hub of empire is able to exploit the human capacity of its citizens to keep in touch with the ordinary and to know that touch as the link to deep history and profound culture. Concluding his 1966 essay, Frank Shaw quoted what he regarded as the finest definition of Irish nationalism that he had ever read. It comes from the musings of Michael Collins:

'I stand for an Irish civilization based on the people and embodying and maintaining the things, their habits, ways of thought, customs, that make them different-the sort of life I was brought up in .. . Once, years ago, a crowd of us were going along the Shepherd's Bush Road when out of a lane came a chap with a donkey — just the sort of donkey and just the sort of cart that they have at home. He came out quite suddenly and abruptly, and we all stood and cheered him. Nobody who has not been an exile will understand me, but I stand for that.'

Long may that man with his donkey live in peace whether he lives in the north or the south, whether he praises or laments the actions of Pearse and his companions. That man with his donkey could be another James O'Brien or his cousin, another Ronan Kerr or his brother. Long may the Irish stand for religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all, and declare their resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of all persons, cherishing all of their children equally.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

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Existing comments

What a fine piece to read. Thank you.

Ivan Head | 03 May 2016  

I am so moved by article I am in tears! God Bless and keep well

Máire O'Donoghue | 03 May 2016  

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