Sunday, 20 March 2016

Easter Rising

I happened to be in Ireland last week, and, as every schoolchild probably knows by now, 2016 is the centenary of the Easter Rising.  The taxi driver with whom I discussed it was of the opinion that "people need to be careful when they stir up nationalist feeling".  His concern was that the hundredth anniversary of the event might have a similar long-term effect to the fiftieth anniversary in 1966, when Irish Republicans famously blew up Nelson's Pillar, a relic of colonial rule that stood in the middle of O'Connell Street, just across from the General Post Office which had been the rebels' HQ during the Easter Rising.

What many people do not realise is that repeated attempts had been made by the Irish government to remove the Pillar; they were thwarted by the terms of a trust that had existed since it was first erected in 1808.  Legal attempts to obtain permission to demolish it had failed.  To be fair, a few Irish people actually liked it; James Joyce and W B Yeats who wanted it to be preserved.  In general, though, it was an anachronism whose destruction was not greatly regretted.

Prior to the explosion, during the 1950s, the Irish government gave brief consideration to replacing the statue of Nelson with one of Patrick Pearse, the poet and schoolteacher who read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the GPO on the first day of the Easter Rising. The most articulate of the rebels, he gave them a voice, and this led inevitably to his execution in May 1916.  In death, he became the most famous and most missed of the leaders of the rising, his name being given to buildings, streets, parks, sports clubs and stations, while his face appeared on coins and stamps after Ireland's independence was finally achieved.  

Pearse's body was buried at Arbour Hill Military Cemetery in Dublin, after being transported from Kilmainham Gaol where he was shot by a firing squad, along with his younger brother Willie and other republican leaders.  The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, had been warned not to return the rebels' remains to their families for fear of their graves becoming martyrs' shrines.  Pearse's mother and sister went on to become members of the Irish Parliament, whilst he and his companions acquired martyr status without too much difficulty.

One of those shot in company with Pearse was Thomas MacDonagh, a poet and playwright from Tipperary who taught with him at St Enda's School, where efforts were being made to keep the Irish language  alive. Despite the association, MacDonagh was a late recruit to the elite group of educated men who masterminded the  Easter Rising.  Tragically, his widow would die in a drowning accident a year after his execution; their legacy was their son, Donagh MacDonagh, brought up by an aunt to become both an accomplished writer and, at 29, the youngest person ever appointed to the Irish judiciary.

While the Easter Rising was taking place, thousands of Irishmen, of various religious and political persuasions, were fighting with the British forces against Germany.  Three days after the rising in Dublin, German gas attacks at Hulluch began, resulting in over 400 deaths among the 16th (Irish) Division.  Meanwhile, the poet Francis Ledwidge, a nationalist from County Meath, was on leave after being injured on active service in Serbia.  The news of the rising and its aftermath were devastating; he overstayed his leave and was later charged with being drunk in uniform; Ledwidge began once again to question his position, having already searched his conscience carefully before making the decision to enlist.

Some of Patrick Pearse's poetry in support of the Irish republican cause could so easily have been written about the First World War.  After the Easter Rising, however, with Pearse no longer around, Ledwidge was one of those who briefly filled his place, producing a "Lament for the Poets".  A close friend of MacDonagh, Ledwidge also produced a "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh", which takes on a less militant and more personal note. A year later, Ledwidge himself would be dead, the victim of a random shell explosion as he stood in a ditch, near Ypres, with a mug of tea in his hand. He died on the same day as the Welsh-language poet Ellis Evans (better known by his bardic name of "Hedd Wyn"), who was fatally wounded in action and is buried just a hundred yards away from Ledwidge. Members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship visited both of their graves during our visit to Ypres in October 2010 and paid tribute to these much-lamented Celtic war poets.

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