Two personal incidents stand out in my mind when I think about the 1916 Rising, an event that is getting a lot of attention as we approach the centenary celebration of the Easter insurrection in Dublin.
First, I recall when I was about 11 years old in fifth class in Kenmare Boys' National School asking my teacher, Mr. O'Sullivan, why Patrick Pearse, the Irish leader of the Rebellion, hadn't been canonized by the Catholic Church. I argued that, like Christ and greatly influenced by him, Pearse had died for his people. "Greater love than this no man hath than to lay down his life for his friends."
I pointed out that his martyrdom because of his noble and altruistic ideals was further proof of his exceptional sanctity. It was hard for the teacher to challenge my emotional logic, and many of my classmates applauded the idea.
The second instance arose in my early years working as a teacher in New York. We are talking about the 1970s, the early years of the Troubles, and I was part of a panel discussion dealing with the situation in Northern Ireland in the school where I worked.
Two of the participants were members of the Provisional IRA. I questioned them on the legitimacy of their war, which they claimed was being fought on behalf of the Irish people.
They acknowledged that only a small minority on the island supported using violence to achieve a united Ireland, the goal shared by all Irish nationalists. However, they pointed to the 1916 Rebellion as a war that had miniscule popular support at the time but, in their opinion, was later legitimized by the Sinn Fein victory in the 1918 election.
The debate surrounding the 1916 Rebellion can be encapsulated as follows: On the one hand is the assertion that the country would have been better off to have continued on the Home Rule road, embracing a bill granting limited self government, which was already passed in Westminster. This, the argument goes, would inevitably have led over time to greater freedom for the country and eventually to full independence.
On the other hand, advocates for the Rising say that the events of Easter Week involved a legitimate revolt against a colonial power, and the obvious bravery of the rebels plus the British over-reaction to the insurrection caused a revived revolutionary spirit which led to the Irish War of Independence and the greater level of national freedom achieved in the Treaty of 1922.
THE two great revolutions in the late 18th century, the French and American, ushered in modern history by repudiating the legitimacy of the monarchical system in France and by affirming the possibilities of democracy after the expulsion of the colonial rulers in America.
Ireland was greatly affected by these political movements in Europe and America. The disastrous Act of Union of 1801, which ended the nascent All-Ireland Parliament in Dublin, was partly a response to the call by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen in 1798 to follow the American example by repudiating completely British rule in Ireland through a war of liberation.
Sadly, those years before 1801 were the last time that an Irish Parliament had any jurisdiction over the whole country.
The Penal Laws, which openly discriminated against Catholics in every facet of public life, became an embarrassment to the British establishment as new ideas about equality gained credence throughout Europe in the early years of the 19th century.
Indicative of this change was Westminster's support for the Catholic seminary in Maynooth in 1795, but Catholic Emancipation, giving broader rights to Catholics including the right to sit in Parliament, wasn't granted until Westminster yielded to the mass agitation led by Daniel O'Connell 34 years later.
O'Connell then turned his attention to the repeal of the Act of Union and the re-establishment of a Parliament in Dublin for the whole island. This parliamentary drive for Home Rule, which culminated in the passage of the 1914 Bill, was the focus of Irish nationalist leaders in Westminster for the remainder of the century.
LAND reform in Ireland was also a major priority for the Irish leaders in Westminster. Throughout the 19th century Irish tenant farmers suffered under the prevailing land rental system where they had no ownership rights and often had to pay excessive rent to absentee landlords.
Michael Davitt from Co. Mayo founded the Land League in the 1870s with the aim of ending the landlord system and gaining ownership rights for the farmers living on the land.
The land reform agitation was led in London by Charles Parnell, the leader of the Irish Party. The effort for change, which had strong popular support throughout Ireland, resulted in the passage of a number of land reform acts, culminating in the Wyndham Act of 1903, which basically conceded all the demands of the Land League.
Those who, like former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) John Bruton, argue that Irish interests would have been better served by staying with the constitutional nationalists and eschewing violence point to the fact that there was scarcely a shot fired against the British occupation during the whole 19th century and yet serious land reform was achieved and a Home Rule bill was passed in 1914.
Bruton also points out that the introduction of the gun with all its attendant suffering and violence led not only to the inevitable excesses of the War of Independence but to the disastrous Irish Civil War.
The 1916 Rising involved a minority of Irish Volunteers who, against the orders of their leader, Eoin McNeill, engaged in armed revolt. Various IRA leaders since, including in the present day, have drawn on the example of the men of 1916 to legitimize their wars.
Serious questions about the morality of the Rebellion have also been raised. Nearly all of the leaders of the Easter Rising were devout and educated Catholics, and one of the central criteria expounded in the Catholic Just War Theory requires that all other options must have been exhausted before going to war. Bruton and his fellow revisionists say that the 1916 insurrection does not pass that Just War test.
The revisionists also ask how one can square the noble and high-minded statements in the Proclamation with the deaths of approximately 250 civilians who were killed on the streets of Dublin during Easter Week. What words of explanation could be uttered to the families of these victims?
ON the other hand, the early 20th century was a time of a growing sense of nationalism throughout Europe. In Ireland the Gaelic Revival focused on highlighting the differences between British and Irish cultures.
For example, the Gaelic League promoted the beauty and importance of speaking Irish, and the Gaelic Athletic Association was very successful in developing hurling and Gaelic football as expressions of distinctively Irish sports.
The men and women who fought in 1916 felt that they needed to make a strong political and cultural statement against the imperialist belief that English ideas and culture were superior to the customs and beliefs of the Irish people that they mostly viewed as uncouth and inferior.
They knew that they could not defeat the British Empire in open warfare, but the leaders believed that their blood sacrifice would help to revive the Irish spirit and motivate other men and women to continue the noble drive for complete Irish freedom. They were ready, in Pearse's words, "to break their strength and die in bloody protest for a glorious thing."
They were committed to achieving the republican ideal of full political and cultural liberation in the tradition of the Fenians and Tone's United Irishmen.
The 1916 leaders and indeed many in the wider nationalist community were suspicious of British intentions regarding the half-way measure of independence represented by Home Rule.
Irish Home Rule Bills had been passed by Gladstone but later rejected by the House of Lords, and by the time of the Rising the 1914 Bill had already been amended to placate the Orangemen in the North by granting them their own Parliament in Belfast.
Home Rule at best would have involved the partition of the country with a Dublin Parliament that would still be subject in important areas to Westminster -- a solution that from a republican perspective still left Ireland as a subservient appendage of the British Empire.
These leaders, many of them members of the militant Fenian group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, considered Britain's war in Europe an opportunity to strike for the freedom of their own country. They laughed at the irony of a British recruitment drive in their country for soldiers to fight for "the freedom of small nations" in Europe while Ireland was forcibly compelled to obey laws passed in London.
The poet William Butler Yeats, a central figure in the Gaelic Revival, was very ambivalent about the Rising and worried whether words he wrote lauding the heroes of Celtic mythology had motivated young men to take up arms against the might of the British Empire.
He then highlighted the two dimensions of this present debate in memorable and prescient words about the effects of the Rising -- “Transformed utterly, a terrible beauty is born” -- noble and idealistic patriots moving their country away from the compromises and half measures of constitutional politics to a world of revolutionary war, of death and suffering, to achieve a purer and more complete freedom for their country. A terrible beauty indeed!
We can't, of course, re-write history, but the questions about the path taken by Pearse and company in 1916 will certainly continue to be discussed.
Would Northern Catholics who had to deal with resurgent bigoted Orange-ism during the War of Independence and afterwards have done better or worse with a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin? Would the violence have erupted anyway - irrespective of the Easter Rising -- when people realized the serious limitations of two Home Rule Parliaments in Ireland?
We can expect a heated debate about these and other related questions over the next 18 months as we move towards Easter 2016.
(Gerry O’Shea, a retired New York City schoolteacher, lives in Yonkers and is a founder of the HOPe charity. He is also actively involved in the Kerrymen’s Association.)