What does the ‘terrible beauty’ mean?

Ireland is debating the significance of the centenary of the Easter Rising
Rowan Light | Apr 14 2016 | comment  



Walter Paget, Birth of the Irish Republic     

What was so significant about the Easter Rising? The question might seem impertinent to many, when Ireland has just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. On April 24, 1916, Republicans raised the flag of independence over Dublin’s General Post Office and declared an end to the 700-year-old yoke of British oppression. Thousands were killed or injured during the six-day insurrection. Fifteen rebel leaders were subsequently executed by firing squad at Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol: the founding fathers, and the founding myth, of the modern Irish state.

According to President Michael Higgins, those who fought in the Rising were "advanced thinkers, selfless women and men, who took all the risks to ensure that the children of Ireland would, in the future, live in freedom and access their fair share of Ireland's prosperity". The Proclamation, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, “like the Gettysburg address of just 53 years earlier” laid out a set of political and social objectives that continue to define the Irish state. Chiming with the theme of reconciliation Kenny invited Higgins to lay a wreath “on behalf of the people of Ireland in honour of all those who died” – meaning everyone who fell during the fighting: rebels, Dublin’s residents and even British soldiers. The message of unity clearly resonated beyond politicians and bureaucrats: more than a quarter of a million people lined the streets for a massive parade through Dublin city centre – the largest public celebration in the history of the state.

Yet modern commemoration – be it Bastille Day, Anzac Day, or the Fourth of July – has little to do with what actually happened in the past. The Rising was staged by a minority group of extremists, made up of nationalist Irish Volunteers and the smaller socialist Irish Citizen Army; planned by the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood.  Most Irish men and women supported the government over the rebels; their sons fighting in the British Army for freedom and civilisation on the Western Front.

Besides, the British had already granted Home Rule in 1914, devolving powers akin to the independence enjoyed by the Dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Few militants believed that an armed rebellion was legitimate without public support. Mostly constrained to the Dublin area, the Rising was a military catastrophe. A strange genesis story for a modern democracy.

Underlying the centenary celebrations is therefore significant ambivalence towards the legacy of the Rising and its place as the foundation of Irish democracy. Historians of University College Dublin have artfully avoided giving singular prominence to 1916 by commemorating “ a decade of centenaries” , situating the rebellion in a continuum of democratic and social change. The military remembrance of Easter 1916 is now nestled alongside new-found interest in Ireland’s contributions to two world wars.

Others have called for an outright rejection of the Rising as a foundational moment.  “ The Proclamation, which our schoolchildren are now being asked to regard as the founding stone of our democracy, left no room at all for democratic negotiation” , argues former Taoiseach John Burton. “ Therein lay the seeds of Civil War because, in politics as in life, compromise and negotiation are essential to a civilized life.”

Indeed, the Proclamation – supported with Irish-American cash and weapons imported from imperial Germany – sits oddly beside the present Irish policy of inflexible military neutrality, one that requires a UN Security Council resolution, for Ireland to even defend another EU country.

As commentator Fintan O’Toole notes, the myth of the Rising has always been haunted by an anxious question; “ is it over yet?”  It was the rebels’ mystical claims to popular sovereignty, the pronouncement that the Irish Republic was “ indefeasible”  before “ God and the dead generations” , which triggered the War of Independence and lead to another, more vicious conflict: the Irish Civil War, between those who supported the treaty establishing the Free State and those who saw negotiation with the British as a betrayal of the principles of 1916. As Patrick O’Hegarty, a Sinn Fein historian and participant in the Rising, aptly described:

“We turned the whole thoughts and passions of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas. We derided the Moral Law and said there was no law but the law of force....Every devilish thing we did against the British went its full circle and then boomeranged and smote us tenfold”

Indeed, the echoes of 1916 were heard across Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which even today continue to smoulder. Concerns about this ideological legacy were exacerbated by the New IRA, a splinter paramilitary group, claiming that “a century on and the IRA armed actions against Britain and her agents are [as] legitimate as they were in 1916”. The Rising defined not only the Republic of Ireland, but also the lives of individuals and communities north of its borders: two cultures, two traditions in one small island.

Other groups lay claim to the “ unfinished revolution”  of 1916, stating that the rebels were motivated by a desire for social equality as much as political power.  “ If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle” , said socialist rebel leader James Connolly, “ unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain” . Leftist commentators Ronan Burtenshaw and Seán Byers, argue that the rebels, with their strong working-class and internationalist connections, were reacting to the political economy of British colonial rule which entwined nationalism with issues such as poverty and housing. Dublin’s slums were recognised as some of the worst in the world. James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a classic of modern Irish literature, depicts the volatile conditions of pre-1916 Ireland: more than 20,000 people living in single-room tenements, often located in the grand Georgian houses of the departed aristocracy; a perverse irony of colonial rule.

In this sense, the centenary speaks to a central theme of Irish history: Irish identity defined in relation to, and against, the United Kingdom. The distorted ideology of redemptive violence, articulated by men such as Patrick Pearse, the schoolmaster-poet leader of the Rising, was in part a whacky mix of revolutionary pastiche and Catholic theology (hence the symbolism of Easter) but also drew on the cult of imperial chauvinism that had plunged Europe into catastrophic war. John Redmond, the darling of the Irish constitutional movement, had argued for a defence of the Empire by Irish sons:

“No people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it, until they have demonstrated their military prowess; and though Irish blood has reddened the earth of every continent, never until now have we as a people set a national army in the field.”

It was language such as this that President Higgins condemned in his centenary address as the "supremacist and militarist imperialism" of Britain, calling for it to be reviewed by "the same fault-finding edge" as the militant republicanism of 1916 – a discordant note in the message of unity and reconciliation of the centenary. The rebels saw themselves as participants in a long tradition of violent revolution and a pantheon of Irish patriots with the likes of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett.

The Easter Rising was thus a struggle born of violence which left its mark on a violent world. Like the French Revolution, rising to the heights of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and plunging into the depths of the Terror, we must take the good with the bad in the Rising – neither hagiography or iconoclasm. Against the tendency by states and historians to compact the tumult of history into neat and tidy narratives of nations and founding moments, we need the messy and complicated, the alienation and uncertainty, if we are to understand the experiences of the past and the possibilities of the future.

Indeed, it is significant that the most famous lines about the Rising are W. B. Yeats’s, from ” Easter 1916” : All changed, changed utterly / A Terrible beauty is bornThe “ terrible beauty”  of 1916 is its raw imaginative power, a tabula rasa which provides for the myriad interpretations as presented during the centenary.

There’s no better way to understand the history and people of Ireland, or rather of many “ Irelands” :  the duality of republicanism and constitutional nationalism; the rebels of Easter 1916 and the soldiers of the Somme; victims of British colonialism and willing partners in the building of empire; the traditions of the north and south; and so forth. The Easter Rising was as much a conflict between these many Irelands – a foreshadowing of the civil war – then it was a rejection of British rule.

It was therefore appropriate that the centenary commemorations were inaugurated by a rendition of “ Danny Boy” , symbolising both reconciliation – a song written by an Englishman beloved by nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants alike – and the shattering of modern life; the haunting lyrics of tragedy and doomed love – ‘tis you must go and I must bide – speaking eloquently of a fragmented people, long riven by violence, diaspora, and history itself.

This is also symbolic of Ireland today: politically and morally fragmented. The country’s main political parties originate from the two sides of the civil war, and remain too bitter to negotiate a stable government in the national interest. Taoiseach Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, a party of conservative, Mass-going Catholics, pursues an agenda of gay marriage and abortion liberalisation (One parliamentarian admitted that the rebel leaders “ would have probably been perplexed”  by the marriage referendum). Notions of republican sovereignty strain under the increasingly tenuous economic and political union of Europe.

What then is the significance of the Easter Rising? Clearly, it’s complicated. The centenary tells us a lot about the crisis of modern life as much as the uncertain foundations of Irish nationhood. When people are less and less able to agree on common values, they look for salvation in founding fathers and their Proclamations, Declarations and Constitutions. Modern commemoration is an attempt to claim that space, created by the state but given its imaginative power by the people, for a new conversation, a retrieval, of what it means to be human; to be connected to community and the world around us. If the centenary of 1916 has taught us anything, it is this: what that world will be is up for debate.

Rowan Light is a post-graduate student in history at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand. 



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