In 1916, Easter was about as late as it can be. The Easter Rising in Dublin, which was celebrated in Ireland last weekend and is being commemorated at the State Library of Victoria, took place on Monday, April 24, a century ago.
The Easter Rising was an undemocratic act in a nation that was part of the UK and enjoyed the constitutional freedoms Westminster then provided.
Moreover, in 1914 the Irish had been guaranteed home rule — an event that was postponed because of the outbreak of World War I consequent on Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium and attack on Britain’s ally, France.
As Ruth Dudley Edwards points out in her new book The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic (Oneworld Publications), only one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising had stood for election for public office: Marxist trade union leader James Connolly.
This was not so for the rest of the leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which later morphed into the Irish Republicanpublican Army, including Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse.
The death toll for the Easter Rising was close to 500, most of whom were civilians. The British Army suppressed the rebellion in less than a week.
It was soon followed by the War of Independence of 1919-21 (fought between the Irish and the British) and the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 (fought between the Irish who opposed and those who supported the 1921 treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish War).
About 1500 people were killed in the War of Independence and about 1000 in the brutal civil war as essentially Catholic Irish fought essentially Catholic Irish in the 26 counties of the island of Ireland that formed the Irish Free State after the treaty.
During the past century, the Irish have had an ambivalent relationship to the Easter Uprising and to the two biggest names in Irish 20th-century history.
Michael Collins (1890-1922) supported the treaty and Eamon De Valera (1882-1975) opposed it. In contemporary Ireland, the Fine Gael is broadly in the tradition of Collins while Fianna Fail is broadly in the De Valera tradition.
In the commemorations in Ireland last weekend, the strongest dissenting voice to be heard was that of John Bruton, the Fine Gael taoiseach (prime minister) from December 1994 to June 1997.
Bruton expressed concern that contemporary Ireland was celebrating a tradition of violence instead of a tradition of democratic reform, which was in existence before 1916 and became manifest following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
In 1922, the Irish Free State had a similar constitutional status to Britain as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, while Northern Ireland remained part of the UK.
In The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (Penguin, 2013), Charles Townshend supported the argument that the deal that most of Irish in the south of the island of Ireland settled for in 1922 was available before the violence of April 1916. Because of the Irish diaspora in North America and Australasia, the Easter Rising had a significant impact outside of Ireland. Initially there was scant interest in this event when the Australian Imperial Force had recently evacuated the Dardanelles and was about to engage the German army on the Western Front.
However, all this changed in Australia and elsewhere when the British chose to execute all the leaders of the Easter Uprising except De Valera, who had been born in the US. This outraged many Australians, most notably Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix, who arrived in Melbourne from Ireland in 1913.
For about a decade from 1916, Mannix became one of the most outspoken critics in the world of British policy in Ireland. He was also one of the few members of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, North America or Australasia to support De Valera’s anti-government side in the Irish Civil War.
As Ronan Fanning documents in Eamon De Valera: A Will to Power (Faber, 2015), from the Easter Rising of 1916 until the late 1920s-early 30s, De Valera was no democrat. In 1922, for example, he declared “the people had no right to do wrong”. Enough said.
The dilemma of the time was depicted in the poem Sixteen Dead Men by Protestant Irishman WB Yeats, who wrote: “You say that we should still the land / till Germany’s overcome / but who is there to argue that / now Pearse is deaf and dumb? / and is their logic to outweigh MacDonagh’s bony thumb?”
After the executions of May 1916, Mannix no longer was content to await Irish home rule until after the guns ceased firing on the Western Front.
It so happened the archbishop’s rage against Britain coincided with the conscription plebiscites in Australia. Mannix, along with others, opposed the proposal by William Hughes, then prime minister, that the AIF should be reinforced by compulsory enlistment. Mannix did not play a key role in the October 1916 plebiscite on conscription but the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne was prominent when a second (also unsuccessful) plebiscite was held in December 1917.
The evidence suggests that, in his later life, Mannix came to regret some of the strident language that he had used about Britain and conscription. But he influenced Melbourne Catholics such as Arthur Calwell, who came to lead the Labor Party to defeats in the early 60s.
During World War II, when Australia’s security was perceived to be at stake, Calwell used the anti-conscription rhetoric of 1916-17 against Labor prime minister John Curtin. Calwell vehemently opposed Curtin’s modest plan to introduce conscription for military service in a limited part of the South Pacific. Calwell failed but his behaviour at the time was dangerous and reprehensible.
By the early 40s, Mannix’s anger at Britain and conscription had subsided. However, his position in the public debate in the previous quarter of a century demonstrates that the Easter Rising had an impact well beyond Dublin — and especially in Melbourne. The Easter Rising deserves remembrance but not celebration.