The Irish Insurrection

By Sydney Brooks

[The North American Review, July 1916]

To bring the recent troubles in Ireland under a just focus one must go back a little distance. That, indeed, is the golden rule in all things Irish. There is hardly a problem of all the many problems that Ireland presents today, there is hardly a characteristic of her people, hardly anything can happen within her borders, which has not to be explained, which only, indeed, becomes intelligible, in the light of Anglo-Irish history. More than in any country I know of, the past in Ireland is the present and the present is the culmination of the unhappy legacy of the past. To elucidate what is, you must start with a working consciousness of what has been; and the philosophic historian would not, I imagine, have much difficulty in tracing back the origins of that convulsive week in April, 1916, to the first beginnings of Anglo-Irish relations.

But for my present purpose it will be enough if an attempt is made, very briefly, to review the decisive movements of Irish life and thought during the past decade and a half. For Ireland they have been years, first, of an unparalleled prosperity, secondly, of the development along many varied lines of a genuinely Irish, spirit, and, thirdly, until the Home Rule question became once more acute, of an almost uniform tranquility. It was not fanciful, still less was it fantastic, to speak of "the new Ireland" ten and even five years ago as a growing reality. The two measures that had done most to alter the social and political life of Ireland since the 'eighties were the Local Government Act and the Wyndham Land Purchase Act. The first tore from the upper classes, from the landlords and gentry, from the Ascendancy Party, their exclusive control of local administration. The second expropriated landlordism, brought within sight of a decisive and more or less harmonious finish, the poisonous struggle for the land and set Ireland on the high road to becoming a nation of peasant proprietors. For seven centuries the land question had gathered to itself the fiercest animosities and passions of social, religious, political and economic antagonism. Its settlement in 1902 meant not only that Ireland was emerging from the more acute stage of agrarian unrest, but also that the fight for the soil was destined to lose most of its old class contentiousness and would soon cease to provide the motive power for political agitation. There was thus engendered a peace and a stability such as Ireland had never known, the landlords no longer living at war with tenants, but on terms of friendship with neighbors; and the former tenants now the possessors of their holdings, no longer agitating for a reduction of rent or scheming to oust the owners of the soil, but turning their thoughts more and more steadily to the problems of practical agriculture.

But more remarkable even than this beneficent revolution was the manner in which it was brought about. It was brought about by landlords and tenants meeting at a roundtable conference. And this conference and its success in settling what was by far the oldest and most contentious of Irish problems were no more than a token of a new spirit of practicality and a new sense of unity, nationality and interdependence that had been steadily permeating Irish affairs since the dying down of the passions aroused by the Parnellite split. There were still, it was true, two Irelands, or twenty, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, industry and agriculture, had not yet come together as fully and freely as they should have done. The feeling that all Irishmen were members of one nation was still faint and elusive. The memories of old struggles had not yet been wholly obliterated. The spirit of caste still obtained. The essentials of a prosperous national existence were still to be completely recognized. None the less it was safe five years ago to assert that the two previous decades had witnessed the growth of more interest among Irishmen in the practical problems of life and more co-operation among them in the solution of those problems than any previous period of Irish history.

If I had been asked, say in 1912, to summarize in general terms the chief characteristics of the "new Ireland," I should have said, first, that the Irish mind had taken a novel and most hopeful turn towards the concrete and the constructively; secondly, that there was a greater realization that ever before that the regeneration of the country depended ultimately on the efforts of Irishmen in Ireland; thirdly, that there was never a time when more spheres of non-political and non-sectarian endeavor were open to Irishmen of all classes, creeds and parties; fourthly, that social, religious and political barriers were gradually breaking down, and Irishmen were working round to some conception of what nationality really is; and, fifthly, that the Irish people were slowly emancipating themselves from the tyranny of leagues and committees, and were beginning to think, speak and act for themselves in a new and salutary spirit of individualism—in other words, were developing a stronger character.

For the proofs to justify this diagnosis I should have pointed to the agricultural co-operative movement initiated and still directed by Sir Horace Plunkett—a movement that now embraces 100,000 farmers; to the recess Committee which was composed of Irishmen of all ranks and faiths and political affiliations—of men, that is to say, who previously had barely conceived the possibility of their having anything in common—and which formulated a remarkable programme of material betterment; to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, a department which the people feel to be their own creation, which, is popularly controlled, and which works with and through committees appointed by the County Councils; to the thoughts, care and money that have been lavished on the congested districts; to the many movements that were fostering an industrial revival; and above all, to the famous conference that settled the land question. I should have pointed also to much else—to the Gaelic League with its admirable propaganda for reviving the old Irish tongue, for promoting temperance, for educating the people in the broadest spirit nationality, for building up a self-contained, all-embracing Irish Ireland; to the Sinn Féin movement which, whatever one might have thought of its political programme, did at least war on all the divisions that had kept that Irishmen apart; to the stirrings of democracy in Ulster, the rise of a Labor party in Belfast, the revolt of the Young North against a barren sectarianism and against the aloofness of Protestantism from the main stream of Irish life; to the general attrition of interest in political agitation; to advance which many Unionists, under one name or another, had made towards understanding and sympathizing with the Nationalist position; to the facility with which Mr. Birrell passed his University Bill; to the many thousands of non-political meetings which were being held in connection with the co-operative movement and the Gaelic League; and to all the opportunities for mutual association afforded by the workings of the Department of Agriculture and, in a lesser degree, by the administration of the Local Government Act.

What it came to was that there was a slow but steady approximation of all Irishmen towards a common point. The best Irish thought was turning inwards. It was moving away from London and fastening upon Ireland herself. There was a shifting of the center of interest and energy. Men were coming to realize more and more that the upbuilding of the Irish nation depended less on the passing or the repeal of laws at Westminster or on external assistance of any kind than on work in Ireland; that it was not in the House of Commons but in Ireland that the true current of national life flowed; and that even in the absence of Home Rule, Irishmen might still accomplish something useful for their common country. I must dwell on this a little more because nobody will understand the recent outbreak in Dublin who does not clearly grasp that it was directed as much against the Nationalist Party as against Great Britain. It was one of the most marked characteristics of the "new Ireland" that it betrayed a very general disenchantment with the personnel and policy of the Nationalist Party. That was not due to any real waning of Nationalist sentiment. Nor was it due merely to the absence of a strong and commanding leader in the Party itself, or to the fact that the peasant, having satisfied his historic passion for ownership, believed that he had received from agitation all that it was capable of yielding. It was due above everything else to the folly and myopia that had insensibly separated the Party from the most vigorous thought of the country. My complaint as an Englishman and a Home Ruler against the Nationalists was not that they were Anti-British, but that they were not sufficiently pro-Irish, and had never risen above a purely political view of nationality. The new Ireland had come into existence in spite of them, without their collective assistance and often in the face of their collective hostility. Not one of the vital movements of regeneration I have touched upon owed anything to the Party as a Party. They were the product of a spirit and an atmosphere that the official exponents of Irish Nationalism had failed or had not tried to comprehend.

The new Ireland was beginning to think and inquire; the Party insisted on manufacturing its public opinion and did what it could by gasconading resolutions and systematic thimble-rigging to stifle private thought. The Party, again, always confounded nationality with politics, and dubbed as anti-national those who did not subscribe to its own political formulae and organization. The new Ireland relegated politics to a secondary place, worked for a union of all classes, creeds and parties, and welcomed everything from whatever source that contributed to Irish well-being. The Irish Party had long acted on the principle that the salvation of Ireland was to be wrought by speeches and manoeuvres in the House of Commons; it had neglected the intellectual, moral and in large part the economic progress of the country in order to devote its exclusive power to the constitutional panacea; it had denied that Ireland could be prosperous without Home Rule, and it had opposed and condemned nearly every effort to make her prosperous as an act of treason to the national cause. The new Ireland, on the other hand, relied for the upbringing of the country and its people upon the practical work of Irishmen in Ireland, scouted the notion that the Irish question was a question of politics merely, and insisted that the task of betterment should no longer be postponed until an Irish Parliament was able to take it in hand. There had thus been propagated a subtle but unmistakable opposition of aims and ideals between the most stalwart leaders of the people in Ireland and their Parliamentary representatives.

The political party that most clearly reflected this opposition was the Sinn Féin Party. There is no need to discuss its policy of withdrawing the Irish members from Westminster, of boycotting the agencies of British rule, and of erecting out of hand an Irish government in Dublin. The important thing about the Sinn Féiners was the spirit that animated them and the arguments thy relied upon in advocating their programme. Parliamentarianism, the said, acted upon the national energies like a soporific. The people quickly came to think they had done all that could be expected of them when they had elected a certain number of Home Rulers to act for them at Westminster. No tangible sacrifice of any kind was asked of them; all sense of personal responsibility and initiative was destroyed; and the political contribution of "the people" to the cause of Home Rule took the form of shouting and passing unbridled resolutions and waiting for results which, they did next to nothing towards producing. As against this, the Sinn Féiners appealed directly to the individual citizen. Their aim was a bilingual, self-sufficing, wholly Irish Ireland, created and supported by the sacrifices, the individual exertions, and the ordered unity of the people themselves. This, too, was the aim of the Gaelic League. Indeed all the movements I have mentioned worked, consciously or otherwise, towards one comprehensive end—an Irish Ireland. Whether their immediate aim was that of strengthening the national will or awakening the national soul or of stiffening the national backbone, all proceeded upon the formula that the salvation of Ireland must be sought and achieved by Irishmen on Irish soil. All in their different ways set forth an ideal of nationality that overrode parties, creeds and sections. All inculcated self-reliance as the primal need. All discouraged that fatal Irish habit, of all the fruits of misgovernment the most poisonous and paralyzing, of throwing upon anybody and everybody but themselves the responsibility for their moral or material shortcomings.

To encourage and find or force an outlet for the native instincts and genius of the people, to save them from Anglicization, and to lead them back to the well-head of the old Irish language, arts and recreations, were the objects of the Gaelic League. To make the Irish politically virile, united and constructive was the essence of Sinn Féinism. To promote Irish industries and equip the peasant for the realities of a competitive agricultural existence were the more prosaic aims of the industrial revival and of the co-operative movement. At first sight, they might not seem to have had much in common; in reality, they had everything. They all made for initiative and self-dependence, and intensified the sense of an upbuilding nationality. And they proceeded side by side with an interesting and even brilliant outburst of Irish letters, drama and art and with a rapid advance of prosperity among the newly-made peasant proprietors.

It was on this Ireland, so full of life and hope and promise, that the British Government in 1912 exploded the third Home Rule Bill. In an instant the old enmities between North and South flared up again. It was an ingenious and complicated measure that was accepted by the Nationalists both in Parliament and in Ireland as a sufficient satisfaction of their demands, but that Ulster from the beginning would have none of it. The Sinn Féiners and the Gaelic Leaguers were almost equally opposed to it because of the manifold limitations it imposed on the freedom of the Irish Parliament. Their able pens pretty well tore it to pieces as a sham and an insult; and I personally should be the last to pretend that the Government rose to the full height of their opportunity or that they drafted a Constitution for Ireland, in the same lofty and spacious spirit of statesmanship that they had displayed a few years earlier in their dealings with South Africa. Still, with all its shortcomings, the Bill did set up an Irish Parliament with an executive responsible to it; and as such the Irish masses and the Irish Party acquiesced in it as an adequate settlement of their historic claim.

I need do no more than remind my readers how the grim and stubborn men of Ulster organized themselves against it under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson; how they made without the least attempt at concealment, every preparation for resisting it; how they drew up a scheme of a provisional government to be established in Ulster the moment a Dublin Parliament became a reality; how they imported arms in open defiance of law and authority; and how when the Government made a move as though to restrain them it was frustrated by something that came near to being a distinct refusal of the Army to obey the civil power. That crucial moment, when the Carsonites smuggled in their rifles and cartridges and when the Government flinched from the task of suppressing them and allowed an armed force to be raised and drilled and equipped with impunity, was a turning point in latter-day Irish history. The Nationalists were not slow to follow the Ulster lead and to trade on the weakness and timidity of the executive. They, too, began to arm; and in a very few months there were probably in Ireland not less than 250,000 men marching, manoeuvring, learning the elements 'of the military trade with weapons in their hands. It is very well worth recalling that on the Nationalist side the movement sprang up without the prompting, and indeed in opposition to the wishes of the Irish Party, and that it was only by stretching his authority to the utmost that Mr. Redmond was able to secure control of the National Volunteers, and that his success, such as it was, led almost at once to the secession of the bolder spirits and their reorganization under another name. Blood meanwhile had been shed in an attempt by the police to interfere with a Nationalist gun-running plot; Dublin was convulsed by a strike that lasted for many months, involved many riots, and cost many lives; step by step, to a gathering tumult on both sides of the Irish Channel, the Home Rule Bill drew nearer to the Statute Book and Ireland drew nearer to civil war; the last effort to reach a peaceable agreement by a round-table conference at Buckingham Palace had broken down; and all men were preparing to see one more tragic page written in red on the book of Irish history when—the great war broke out.

That measureless catastrophe shocked and sobered Ireland into an immediate truce. More than that, it gave Mr. Redmond an opportunity for rallying Nationalist Ireland to the Imperial cause. He did not hesitate a moment in saying that this was Ireland's war as much as and as well as England's and that the change in British sentiment and policy towards Ireland had thrown upon Irishmen "a great duty towards the British Empire." Undeterred by the execrations of the Nationalist extremists and by the doubts of the Ulster Unionists, who were firmly convinced that all Nationalists were "disloyal," Mr. Redmond organized a great recruiting campaign in Ireland itself. It was a bold and statesmanlike step and it would have met with better results had the British War Office given him a free hand. But the officials in Whitehall were quite sure they knew more about Ireland than Mr. Redmond. They missed accordingly nearly every opening he gave them, and implored them to grasp, for appealing to Irish sentiment. They went their own way, muddling, interfering, disregarding his advice, committing almost all the imbecilities one would expect from English officialdom in its dealings with Ireland, and committing them, of course, with the best of intentions, in a spirit of genuine gratitude for Ireland's and Mr. Redmond's attitude, and with nothing in their foolish minds except the desire to help them. If I were ever in need of any further arguments to support Home Rule or to strengthen my conviction that the English are temperamentally inhibited from doing in Ireland the right thing in the right way and at the right moment, I should point simply to the record of the War Office in the matter of Irish recruiting during the first year of the war. But Mr. Redmond had other difficulties besides, those superfluously piled in his path by British officialdom.

He was in the extraordinary position of explaining to his countrymen that England's danger was not, as they had always and instinctively thought it, Ireland's opportunity, and, that it was the duty of Irishmen to rush into a world conflict that seemed absolutely remote from all Irish interests and to rush into it on the same side as and in the warmest sympathy with—England! Many Nationalists must indeed have thought that the world had turned upside down when they listened to such an appeal from their chosen leader. But Mr. Redmond was able to carry the great bulk of his people with him. He could point triumphantly to the fact that Home Rule was at length on the statute book. He could rehearse the many and sincere efforts which British statesmen in the past thirty years, under the prompting and often under the compulsion of the Nationalist Party, have made to repair the ravages of centuries. He could appeal to the old fighting spirit of the Irish people. He could make, and he did make, effective use of the object-lesson furnished to small and Catholic Ireland by small and Catholic Belgium. The right of little nations to live their own life is an issue to which Irishmen can never be indifferent; and they responded to Mr. Redmond's call I will not say enthusiastically, but certainly with a far greater readiness and' self-sacrifice than any Englishmen who knew anything of Irish history could have expected. Between North and South all antagonisms were merged in a friendly rivalry to see which could do the most for that common cause. Between the English and the Irish enmity had long been dead, and in its place, on the English side at any rate, there developed a genuine warmth of affection as the valor of the new Irish regiments reburnished an ancient scroll of heroism, and when Mr. Redmond, speaking in the House of Commons, pledged anew his country's loyalty to the Allies, declared that a premature and inconclusive peace would be regarded by his people "as a gross and criminal betrayal of the living and the dead," and affirmed that, however long the war might last and whatever sacrifices it might entail, the Allies and the British Empire could count upon Ireland to the end.

But there was one group that listened to Mr. Redmond's protestations only to deride them and that thwarted to the utmost of its ability his efforts to raise recruits. The Sinn Féiners wavered not one jot in their feed idea that England was the enemy and that for Irishmen the only policy was to hamper her in the prosecution of the war by every means in their power. They were supported in this attitude by whatever was left of the old Fenian, element, and in Dublin they received a very considerable backing from the Syndicalist leaders of the working men who had conducted the great strike of 1913, had been worsted in it, and were for reprisals. Time and again in Irish History a European war has been the signal for an Irish rising; and to the young and ardent generation of "Irish Irelanders" the signal was not flown in vain. Perhaps there never was a time when Ireland was fuller of keen-witted, idealistic men who were more conscious of a distinctively Irish nationality, in whom racial egotism had been more developed, or who had so thoroughly soaked their minds and beings in the tangled and mournful tale of Irish history. These were the men who had been the backbone of the Sinn Féin movement, of the Gaelic League, of the National Volunteers who were formed in reply to Sir Edward Carson's "Army," and of that section of them who broke away when Mr. Redmond insisted on their organization being brought under his official control; and they were now finding in the industrial preachers of "direct action," a new and violent ally. That these various elements meditated an outbreak from the first days of the war is unlikely, but they lost no time in showing that they were determined, if they could, to prevent Ireland from contributing to the British cause. By meetings and through their own journals, by pamphlet, leaflet and poster, by personal canvassing and parades, they carried on an incessant propaganda against recruiting. Some of their papers were suppressed, one or two of the most active and seditions agitators were arrested, but on the whole the authorities did nothing to stop their campaign. Soon the drillings and marchings were publicly resumed and still officialdom looked on. What else could it do? It had declined the challenge flung in its face by Sir Edward Carson; it had been equally supine before the menace of the National Volunteers. By what possible code of logic could it now interfere and attempt to disarm the new revolutionaries? It held its hand, hoping that the storm would never burst, and fearful of provoking an outbreak that might set all Nationalist Ireland ablaze and undo Mr. Redmond's healing work. Mr. Redmond himself never thought the agitation dangerous and his advice had naturally the greatest weight with the Government.

But events played into the hands of the Sinn Féiners. Home Rule was on the Statute Book, but doubts began rapidly to accumulate as to whether it would ever be enforced. Those doubts were enormously strengthened when the Coalition Government was formed and Sir Edward Carson was included in it. The prolongation of the war, the tremendous exhibition of strength which Germany was displaying, the many blunders and miscalculations of British strategy, helped, too, to create uncertainty in the Irish mind as to the ultimate outcome. Besides this the hotly pressed demand for compulsory military service in Great Britain raised a fear that it would be applied to rural Ireland. Moreover the seed sown by the Carsonites and watered by the Government had brought forth its inevitable fruit. Authority and the spirit of authority had been so weakened that almost any excess seemed feasible. When armed bands could parade the streets of the Irish capital without molestation it seemed a fair inference that the executive was too nerveless to resist or punish any insult. Ireland, too, while not the scene of hostilities, had been preyed upon by many rumors of German landings, of German submarine bases, of mysterious boats and hidden petrol stores. The influence of the more vehement Irish-Americans would undoubtedly be on the side of striking a blow, and there seems little reason to question that German intrigue and German money likewise played their part. The plan apparently was for a rising to take place while German arms were being landed on the west coast of Ireland and German battle cruisers were raiding the east coast of England and German Zeppelins were still further distracting British attention. We know that the programme was attempted, that it was partly carried out and that it failed chiefly because of the vigilance of the Navy in capturing Sir Roger Casement. It never had any real chance of success, but in a time of excitement and to a mind bent on a revolutionary coup no odds are hopeless.

It was thus, as near as I can make out, that the Dublin insurrection of April 24 occurred. It was a bloody and brutal business of house-to-house fighting. Policemen and sentries on duty at Dublin Castle were shot dead without a word of warning. Wounded Irish soldiers from the front were killed without mercy. Loyal volunteers returning front manoeuvres, unarmed officers and men of famous Irish regiments—everybody, in fact, in khaki, whether Irish, English or Scotch—were-murdered in cold blood. It took nearly a week to smoke the rebels out and by that time 180 civilians had been killed and over 600 wounded; 124 soldiers were dead and nearly 400 injured; the finest street in Dublin was in ashes; 20 great business houses, 3 banks and dozens of offices and shops had been destroyed; and damage had been done to the extent of at least $20,000,000. In suppressing the revolt Irish regiments and Irish Volunteers played an extremely active and eager part, and their efforts were warmly seconded and applauded by the Irish citizens of Dublin. "There is no Irish rebellion," exclaimed Mr. Birrell on May 3; while Mr. Redmond spoke of the "feeling of detestation and horror" with which the Nationalist Party, and he believed, "the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland M had heard-of the outbreak. The population of Dublin, said Mr. Dillon, were "the friends and loyal allies of the Government against the insurrection." All these statements were true. In the country generally there was but a feeble response to the lead of the capital. At Drogheda, one of the most Roman Catholic and Nationalist towns in Ireland, the National Volunteers turned out to stamp down the disturbance. There were small and isolated risings here and there but they were all quickly got under. Of insurrection on a national scale there was not the slightest trace; and the chief victims in Dublin, it is worth, remembering, were Irish civilians, Irish soldiers and Irish property-holders. The rebellion was the work of a faction. It enlisted hardly any sympathy at all among the mass of the people. The most foolish and least justifiable of all Irish risings was also the weakest and the least supported.

Had it occurred at a time of peace I do not suppose that the Government would have thought it worth while to inflict the death penalty on its authors and instigators. But it occurred in a time of war, when the whole Empire is fighting with its back to the wall and when an Irish rebellion might make so heavy a draft on the military energies of the nation as to prejudice very seriously the chances of success in the main theatre. Therefore the authorities were right in crushing it with an unsparing hand. Can it be maintained that the execution of those who actually signed the proclamation of the Irish Republic and who actually commanded the rebels and were caught red-handed in their work of murder was not, in such an emergency and with such tremendous stakes at issue, an act of just retribution? Its justice seems to me to be beyond question. Over three hundred deaths lay at the door of those who planned the outbreak, and the fact that some of them were poets and dreamers, and youths of noble natures and shining promise does not alter the essential character of what they did. But the wisdom and the expediency of the measures taken by the Government after the arising was quelled, are more open to question. The better course would have been to have shown a magnanimous clemency, to have spared life rather than to have taken it, and to have cut down the arrests and deportations to a minimum. That course was not adopted and the danger is great that Irish sentiment, which at first was dead against the rebellion, may come round to making martyrs of the rebels.

But this amount of good at least has accrued—all parties both in England and in Ireland have been shocked by what has happened into seeking earnestly for ways to prevent its ever happening again. The Irish Government for the time being has ceased to exist; the Dublin Castle system has collapsed of its own accord; and, as I write, Mr. Lloyd George is busily negotiating with the Irish leaders for a lasting accommodation. The difficulties in his way are very great and not the least of them is that both Sir Edward Carson and Mr. Redmond are impotent beyond a certain point to bind their followers. Each is a greater power at "Westminster than in Ireland and an arrangement satisfactory to them might easily be anything but satisfactory to their supporters. Ireland, indeed, is sick of politics and politicians and suspicious of any gift they bring. To set up a Home Rule Parliament at once, with Ulster excluded, is to vivisect that national sentiment of which all Irishmen are conscious. A provisional, makeshift Council, for the duration of the war would be less "spectacular, less appealing, but might, if it were wholly Irish and largely non-political, better square with the needs of the moment. The main thing is that the insurrection in Dublin has underscored once more the plainest of all the many lessons to be learned from Irish history--that Ireland will never be at peace and content until she controls her own government and her own destinies.


© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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