O to be in Dublin, now that spring is there! I've been following the news from Ireland with more than my usual interest as the Irish came out in great numbers last weekend to mark the centennial of April 24, 1916. Now before anyone cracks some kind of joke about what kind of people would celebrate the centenary of April 16 on March 28, let me point out that the events being commemorated have gone down in history and have been etched in the Irish psyche as "the Easter Rising." Let us mark the actual date, yes, but far more symbolic to honour the event on the weekend associated with sacrifice, rebirth and regeneration.
The failed uprising is now cited as the birth of the Irish Republic. It was a spectacular fiasco full of dramatic twists and turns -- smuggled guns, botched instructions to stand down, and a declaration of independence read aloud at the entrance of the General Post Office in the heart of one of the great cities of the British Empire. Over the following week, the Empire struck back with such ferocity that city blocks were leveled by artillery fire. Nearly 500 people were killed -- over half of them civilians, including an infant in a baby carriage, hit by a sniper's bullet.
But of all the deaths from the uprising, there were seven, in particular, that changed Irish history. About 3500 men and women were taken prisoner by the British forces. About 90 were sentenced to death and of those, 15 prisoners were taking out individually, stood up against the wall of Kilmainham gaol and shot. These included the seven signatories of the Proclamation that declared the birth of the republic.
Up until these executions, public opinion in Ireland was set against the rebels. The secret nature of the courts martial and the brutal manner in which the executions were carried out (James Connolly too wounded to stand was carried into the courtyard in a stretcher and trussed up in a chair to face the firing squad) turned opinion against the British.
The uprising leaders were were teachers and union organizers, poets and playwrights. In the immediate aftermath of the destruction, they had been cursed for unleashing such trouble on the city with their wide-eyed idealism. But with their execution, they were transformed. The great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, found the words:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born.
Yes, a terrible beauty was born. In the following years, Ireland was wracked by a war for independence, followed by a civil war. Within my own time, there have been the bombings and the "troubles." In many ways it has taken a hundred years to still the fury that was unleashed when that terrible beauty was born.
As a Canadian, I often get into discussions about how it might have turned out differently. Was rebellion necessary? Could the Home Rule movement of the previous decades not have delivered some kind of political solution along the lines that Canada had achieved with Britain. Was not one of the founders of our Confederation an Irishman, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who had renounced Fenianism when he found there could be another way to create a new kind of relationship with the Empire? He was assassinated for his efforts.
Last week, Terry Glavin wrote an insightful piece that makes the connection between what had happened in Canada and what was thought could be achieved in Ireland. Canadians came to the British Isles to stand for Parliament and use their influence to provide a solution to Home Rule. McGee, we are here! But it was not to be. Intransigence and global realpolitik gutted stifled the baby before it had a chance to draw breath. Ireland and Canada would soon join "the Mother Country" in the war against Germany -- and, for my grandparents' generation, the fact that the Irish rebels were relying upon the support of the German enemy certainly helped to sour attitudes towards the uprising.
So what would have happened if the executions had not taken place, if the Proclamation was just another failed 1798 or 1803, and the terrible beauty was not born? Would there have been commemorations of such beauty and poignancy to mark the Easter Rising? I wouldn't think so. Maybe there would have been another rebellion down the road -- maybe a Michael Collins rather than a Patrick Pearse would have organized something that would have succeeded without the martyrdom of a group of rebels who, essentially, botched it. Who knows? Maybe Home Rule would have been given another chance after Germany had been defeated?
But as I continue my work on the Jake and Eli stories, the point that sticks in my mind as I read about events in Dublin this week is how marvelous that the Irish keep their history so vibrant. And how interesting it is to see the way in which the eventual victory of the republican ideal in Ireland has changed -- changed utterly -- the way we regard the signatories of the Proclamation. They are heroes now -- martyrs with streets named after them. The wall where they were stood up and shot is revered in hushed tones as the guides take us through Kilmainham. The common grave where their bodies were dumped and covered with quicklime is now the site of pilgrimage.
In Canada, we had our own republic movement in 1813-14. The men who fought, risked their property and liberty for the idea of a republic, and died in battle and on the scaffold are virtually forgotten today. No one knows where Joe Willcocks is buried, but some think it might be beneath what is now a parking lot in downtown Fort Erie. I know of at least one historian who, if he could identify Willcocks' final resting place, would make a point of going there and pissing on it.
I'm hoping to revive some interest in the Canadian republicans through the Jake and Eli stories and through this website, but I'm faced with 200 years of history written by the side that won. and they've done a very good job of erasing the memory.