The 1916 Easter Rising marked a time of great tumult and change in Irish history. In addition to the immediate tragedies and the eventual victories, the Rising also resulted in a significant amount of literature, from poems penned prior to the Rising by those who would eventually lead it to reactions in the wake of the Rising, conveyed through poetry as they simply could not have been through prose.
A recent event hosted by Glucksman Ireland House at New York University assembled some of the greatest living Irish writers to read poems of 1916. Paul Muldoon, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Alice McDermott and Matthew Thomas, actress Geraldine Hughes, and singers Mary Deady and Cathy Maguire gathered at NYU’s Sheen Center to utter aloud some of the most famous verses about Ireland and the Rising, in addition to debuting a new poem by Muldoon, “1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations.”
Enjoy six of the most stirring poems from that evening, below, and let us know in the following poll which of them is your favorite. Have another poem about the 1916 Rising you’d like to point readers to? Share the title and author in the comment section.
“The Mother” by Padraic Pearse
A teacher, poet and rebel, Padraic Pearse was the “President” of the Irish Republic, the existence of which he declared on the steps of the General Post Office (GPO) on Easter Monday 1916. Under his command the occupying rebels held out for nearly a week before surrendering. Along with his brother William, he was executed on May 3, 1916 by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol. “The Mother” was one of the poems he wrote before his execution.
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho' I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow - And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.
“Requiem for the Croppies,” by Seamus Heaney
Though directly about the 1798 Irish Rebellion, “Requiem for the Croppies” was written by Heaney for the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1966. In a beautiful tribute following Heaney’s death, Sameer Rahim explained the significance of this poem coming from Heaney, a Catholic from Northern Ireland, at that time. “Remarkably enough, Heaney read this poem to a Protestant audience during the Sixties (something unthinkable during the later years of Republican and Loyalist violence). ‘To read ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything,’ he told me. ‘It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing.’ His audience listened in frosty silence. ‘You don’t have to love it,’ he said. ‘You just have to permit it.’
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley...
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp...
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching... on the hike...
We found new tactics happening each day:
We'd cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until... on Vinegar Hill... the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August... the barley grew up out of our grave.
“Easter 1916” by W.B. Yeats
This is possibly the best-known poem about the 1916 Easter Rising, in September, 1916, just months after the Rising. Yeats knew many of the executed 1916 leaders personally. The poem also contains one of the most frequently quotes Yeats lines: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
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.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
“Easter Week (In memory of Joseph Mary Plunkett)” by Joyce Kilmer
American journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer was one of the most prolific writers who responded to the 1916 Easter Rising on this side of the Atlantic. For the New York Times magazine, he wrote one of the most powerful interviews in the wake of the Rising, with Moira Regan, a young female rebel who fought in the GPO. Kilmer adopted an Irish heritage and identified as Irish American. He died in 1918, in WWI in France while serving with the 165th Infantry Regiment – better known as the 'Fighting 69th.'
(In memory of Joseph Mary Plunkett)
("Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.")
William Butler Yeats.
"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave."
Then, Yeats, what gave that Easter dawn
A hue so radiantly brave?
There was a rain of blood that day,
Red rain in gay blue April weather.
It blessed the earth till it gave birth
To valour thick as blooms of heather.
Romantic Ireland never dies!
O'Leary lies in fertile ground,
And songs and spears throughout the years
Rise up where patriot graves are found.
Immortal patriots newly dead
And ye that bled in bygone years,
What banners rise before your eyes?
What is the tune that greets your ears?
The young Republic's banners smile
For many a mile where troops convene.
O'Connell Street is loudly sweet
With strains of Wearing of the Green.
The soil of Ireland throbs and glows
With life that knows the hour is here
To strike again like Irishmen
For that which Irishmen hold dear.
Lord Edward leaves his resting place
And Sarsfield's face is glad and fierce.
See Emmet leap from troubled sleep
To grasp the hand of Padraic Pearse!
There is no rope can strangle song
And not for long death takes his toll.
No prison bars can dim the stars
Nor quicklime eat the living soul.
Romantic Ireland is not old.
For years untold her youth will shine.
Her heart is fed on Heavenly bread,
The blood of martyrs is her wine.
“The Spring in Ireland, 1916” by James Stephens
An Irish author and poet, Stephens was raised in an Irish Protestant orphanage in Meath. In Dublin, he became friends with Thomas McDonagh and taught in the school where Padraic Pearse was headmaster. Friends with the rebels, he later wrote a book on the Easter Rising, titled “Insurrection in Dublin.”
The Spring in Ireland: 1916
Do not forget my charge I beg of you ;
That of what flow'rs you find of fairest hue
And sweetest odor you do gather those
Are best of all the best — a fragrant rose,
A tall calm lily from the waterside,
A half-blown poppy leaning at the side
Its graceful head to dream among the corn,
Forget-me-nots that seem as though the morn
Had tumbled down and grew into the clay,
And hawthorn buds that swing along the way
Easing the hearts of those who pass them by
Until they find contentment. — Do not cry,
But gather buds, and with them greenery
Of slender branches taken from a tree
Well bannered by the spring that saw them fall:
Then you, for you are cleverest of all
Who have slim fingers and are pitiful,
Brimming your lap with bloom that you may cull,
Will sit apart, and weave for every head
A garland of the flow'rs you gathered.
Be green upon their graves, O happy Spring,
For they were young and eager who are dead;
Of all things that are young and quivering
With eager life be they remembered :
They move not here, they have gone to the clay,
They cannot die again for liberty;
Be they remembered of their land for aye;
Green be their graves and green their memory.
Fragrance and beauty come in with the green,
The ragged bushes put on sweet attire,
The birds forget how chill these airs have been,
The clouds bloom out again and move in fire;
Blue is the dawn of day, calm is the lake,
And merry sounds are fitful in the morn;
In covert deep the young blackbirds awake,
They shake their wings and sing upon the morn.
At springtime of the year you came and swung
Green flags above the newly-greening earth;
Scarce were the leaves unfolded, they were young,
Nor had outgrown the wrinkles of their birth:
Comrades they thought you of their pleasant hour,
They had but glimpsed the sun when they saw you;
They heard your songs e'er birds had singing power,
And drank your blood e'er that they drank the dew.
Then you went down, and then, and as in pain,
The Spring affrighted fled her leafy ways,
The clouds came to the earth in gusty rain,
And no sun shone again for many days:
And day by day they told that one was dead,
And day by day the season mourned for you,
Until that count of woe was finished,
And Spring remembered all was yet to do.
She came with mirth of wind and eager leaf,
With scampering feet and reaching out of wings,
She laughed among the boughs and banished grief,
And cared again for all her baby things;
Leading along the joy that has to be,
Bidding her timid buds think on the May,
And told that Summer comes with victory,
And told the hope that is all creatures' stay.
Go, Winter, now unto your own abode,
Your time is done, and Spring is conqueror
Lift up with all your gear and take your road,
For she is here and brings the sun with her:
Now are we resurrected, now are we,
Who lay so long beneath an icy hand,
New-risen into life and liberty,
Because the Spring is come into our land.
In other lands they may,
With public joy or dole along the way,
With pomp and pageantry and loud lament
Of drums and trumpets, and with merriment
Of grateful hearts, lead into rest and sted
The nation's dead.
If we had drums and trumpets, if we had
Aught of heroic pitch or accent glad
To honor you as bids tradition old,
With banners flung or draped in mournful fold,
And pacing cortege; these would we not bring
For your last journeying.
We have no drums or trumpets ; naught have we
But some green branches taken from a tree,
And flowers that grow at large in mead and vale;
Nothing of choice have we, or of avail
To do you honor as our honor deems,
And as your worth beseems.
Sleep, drums and trumpets, yet a little time;
All ends and all begins, and there is chime
At last where discord was, and joy at last
Where woe wept out her eyes: be not downcast,
Here is prosperity and goodly cheer,
For life does follow death, and death is here.