Monday, February 14, 2005

152. The Runup to Easter 1916

Dubliners survey the damage of the Easter Rising

The relationship between Ireland and England has always been a difficult one - described by the novelist Elizabeth Bowen as 'a mixture of showing off and suspicion, worse than sex' .

The first 'English' invasion of Ireland took place under the Normans in the 1170s, but it was a patchwork affair of individual campaigns with hardly any central authority, once Dublin had been taken. By the early 1500s most of Ireland, except for a small area around Dublin known as The Pale, was under the control either of native Irish chieftains or powerful Irish-speaking Norman lords ('magnates') such as the Fitzgeralds of Kildare and Desmond, and the Butlers of Ormond.

The new royal government in England, the Tudors, set out to re-conquer Ireland in order to prevent the country from joining forces with England's Catholic enemies on the continent, Spain and France. The fighting began under Henry VIII and continued under his daughter Elizabeth I, for a period of nearly 70 years. Finally, in 1603, the last of the great Irish chieftains, Hugh O'Neill, was defeated, and in 1609 the English began to move Protestant English and Scottish settlers to take over Irish lands in the northern province of Ulster. This is the background to the problems in Northern Ireland today.

Hugh O'Neill (1550?-1621) Posted by Hello

Lands were also seized throughout the rest of the country, but the Catholic population still remained in the majority. A rebellion took place in the 1640s which was suppressed with great brutality by Oliver Cromwell. Another rebellion took place from 1689-91, when William III took over the English crown from James II at the request of Parliament -- the so-called 'Glorious Revolution'. The Irish supporting the Catholic James II were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, in whose aftermath the English set up a system of anti-Catholic laws called the Penal Laws which lasted until 1829. Under these laws Catholic priests and churches were forbidden; Catholics couldn't vote or stand for parliament; Catholics couldn't take jobs as lawyers, teachers or army officers; Catholic children couldn't go to Catholic schools.

In 1798 there was another great rebellion, inspired by the American War of Independence (1775-83) and the Revolution in France (1789). The rebellion of the United Irishmen was defeated and more than 30,000 detainees were executed or shipped as convicts to Australia. The British dissolved the separate Irish (Protestant)parliament and forced Ireland to become part of the United Kingdom in the Act of Union (1801).

Throughout the 19th century the Irish were struggling to get out of the
Union with Britain and establish a measure of self-government. Their first great leader was Daniel O'Connell, who became the first Irish Catholic to get elected to the British parliament for nearly 150 years. Irish hopes for freedom took a terrible blow in the 1840s when the Potato Famine destroyed Irish society, causing more than a million deaths and forcing another 2 million men and women to emigrate overseas, mainly to America. This explains why there are so many Irish-Americans today (about 40 million), especially in big cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. The population of Ireland before the Famine was 8 million; the population today is still only 5 million.

During the Famine (charcoal sketch by Bernie Prendergast) Posted by Hello

Several things started to happen after the Famine. In Ireland, the Catholic Church became very powerful because the survivors of the famine were frightened and subdued. The Irish language began to disappear because parents wanted their children to learn English in order to get safe (non-farming) jobs. Political action for Irish self-government didn't get started again until the 1870s. Overseas, and especially in America, Irish emigrants dreamed of getting the British out of Ireland by violent means, if necessary, and formed a secret organization called the Fenian Brotherhood. These two approaches -- peaceful political action and planning for armed rebellion -- continued for the rest of the 19th century.

In 1886 and again in 1893, the British Parliament rejected Irish demands for Home Rule (self-government in Ireland under the British King) but in 1912, the Irish Nationalist Party was so strong that the British finally accepted a Home Rule Bill. This caused a new problem because the Protestants in Northern Ireland (remember them? -- they had taken over Irish lands in 1609)refused to accept Home Rule and threatened to fight Britain for the right to remain British. The British didn't know what to do and in the summer of 1914 it looked as though there would be a civil war in Ireland.

Instead, Germany attacked France and Britain got involved in World War One. Immediately, the 'Irish Problem' was put on the shelf until after the war. A lot of Irishmen from both North and South joined the British Army and went off to fight in France.

There was one group that didn't go, however. These were the Irish Volunteers who supported Home Rule, but who also had secret ties with the Fenians. This group stayed in Ireland and made plans for a new rebellion, in the belief that 'England's misfortune (i.e. the War in Europe) was Ireland's opportunity'.

A rebel barricade in the city Posted by Hello

The rebellion came on Easter Monday, 1916. It began in Dublin when a detachment of Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army (a workingman's militia) marched to the General Post Office in O'Connell Street. Their leader, Patrick Pearse, proclaimed the 'Irish Republic' and the rebels occupied the post office and several other key buildings around the city. The rebellion lasted for six days during which most of central Dublin was completely destroyed by British artillery. Finally, the rebels surrendered and were marched away to captivity in England. All of the leaders, however, were executed.

Most people in Ireland did not support the Easter Rising (as it was called) because it came as a big surprise to nearly everyone. However, public opinion turned against the British when they executed the leaders. Patrick Pearse and his executed companions became national heroes overnight, and from that moment the Irish people decided they would have to get rid of the British once and for all.

Naturally, it happened as the result of more fighting because the British were not about to leave Ireland peacefully. After World War One ended in 1918 there was an election in which the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein ('We Ourselves') won 75% of the Irish vote. They refused to go to the British Parliament in London and set up their own Irish Parliament ('Dail Eireann') in Dublin instead. The British declared the new parliament illegal and sent in troops. The Irish fought back using the newly-formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and from 1919-21 there was fighting throughout Ireland. A Treaty was signed in December 1921 which recognized a new Irish Free State in 26 counties of Southern Ireland -- this is the modern Republic of Ireland --while the remaining 6 counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

The Easter Rebellion is important in Irish history because it is the foundation myth of the modern state. The rebels were defeated, but from the ashes of this defeat came the final determination of the Irish people to break the connection with England and form their own independent country. The symbolism of Easter is also very important, especially in a Catholic country like Ireland. According to the Christian religion, Christ died for our sins and then rose again at Easter. The rebels of 1916 died for Ireland, and a free country rose again.