This year’s Easter is the historical centenary of Dublin’s 1916 Easter rebellion for an independent Island-of-Ireland Republic, which began on the Easter Bank Holiday of Monday 24 April, the day before our first Anzac Day commemoration.
And like our Anzac Day, it became a foundational myth of the Irish nation, and, equally, the myth is so important that it deserves to be dispassionately (but not disrespectfully, much less sneeringly) examined for accuracy and (continuing) relevance. Such an examination immediately gives a new perspective on the notion of ‘foundation’, because the 32-county Island-of-Ireland was well advanced toward the same ‘Dominion’ status which we had achieved on 9 July 1900.
By 4 August 1914, almost 30 years after PM Gladstone’s first Irish ‘Home Rule’ bill was defeated, the British Parliament’s Commons (including 70 Irish nationalist MPs) and Lords (who were persuaded by George V’s threat of creating enough peers to get a majority) passed such a Bill, and Ireland was on track to be the fourth ‘Dominion’ after Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but . . .
. . . there was to be a delay, an unforeseen delay, an unfortunate and immovable delay and its name was The Great War: implementation of the Act would resume after the war’s end, perhaps by Christmas.
Twenty months later, that prospect was destroyed when a “minority of a minority took it upon themselves, with little popular support or prospect of success to begin a revolution. The ‘terrible beauty’ of W B Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’ was created, not by their act of folly, but by the stupidity of the authorities in executing the leaders.
“Even so Yeats maintained a distance. ‘Was it needless death after all?’ he asked in the same poem. ‘For England may keep faith /For all that is done and said’.
“But the event passed into bloodstained myth, as some of its leaders wanted. Padraic Pearse, the schoolmaster who was in many ways the soul of the rising, had conceived a frankly religious notion of what Irish nationalism should be. ‘Like a divine religion,’ he had written, ‘national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession’. It was not to be questioned by later generations.”
The Irish Free State (enacted by the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, but which excluded six of the nine Ulster counties with Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist majorities) suffered a brutal civil war, the most significant casualty being the murder of Michael Collins by IRA gunmen; Collins was possibly the only man with the statesman-like qualities to lead the new nation into the new century, and he joined the long list of ‘children devoured by their revolutions’ (think of what Stalin did to the ‘Old Bolsheviks’).
In the longer term, the Free State became a priest-ridden (but not quite clerico-fascist) narrow-minded nation dominated by the Jansenist / Puritan Irish RC Church. But it never degenerated as far as such Latin American republics did - for example, despite the widespread belief that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, the Free State aided Great Britain’s war against Nazi Germany as far as the limits of neutrality would let it; nor were Irish citizens prevented from enlisting in Britain’s armed forces. Nor did Dublin governments support IRA terror campaigns in the North.
The day-to-day damage was that Ireland effectively did not progress from the sectarian 17th century into the secular 20th until the 1990s - that’s eight decades, Padraic, lost to your delusions ‘of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession’. But now it very enthusiastically has, and latest statistics show that weekly church attendance is now at the levels seen in other English-speaking countries. And, very surprisingly (and quite ironically), the percentage of citizens of the Republic for whom an Island-of-Ireland union is ‘very important’ is the lowest it has ever been and, even more surprisingly and ironically, that also applies to Northern Ireland’s Catholics / Nationalists. But - perhaps not at all ‘surprisingly’, given the general common sense and very healthy skepticism of the Irish people.