Sidebar: Easter, 1916-2016


The man was all shot through that came today
Into the barrack square;
A soldier I – I am not proud to say
We killed him there;
They brought him from the prison hospital;
To see him in that chair
I thought his smile would far more quickly call
A man to prayer.
Maybe we cannot understand this thing
That makes these rebels die;
And yet all things love freedom – and the Spring
Clear in the sky;
I think I would not do this deed again
For all that I hold by;
Gaze down my rifle at his breast – but then
A soldier I.
They say that he was kindly – different too,
Apart from all the rest;
A lover of the poor; and all shot through,
His wounds ill drest,
He came before us, faced us like a man,
He knew a deeper pain
Than blows or bullets – ere the world began;
Died he in vain?
Ready – present; And he just smiling – God!
I felt my rifle shake
His wounds were opened out and round that chair
Was one red lake;
I swear his lips said ‘Fire!’ when all was still
Before my rifle spat
That cursed lead – and I was picked to kill
A man like that!

Connolly, by Liam MacGabhann

This isn’t a political blog.  It’s a book blog, relating to the world of Donald E. Westlake, who far as I know, never wrote about the 1916 Easter Rising, and may never even have visited Ireland, where most of his ancestors hailed from.  His knowledge of their history may have been sketchy, derived from things he heard from family members, things he heard in bars, things he read in passing.  He may have learned more as he got older.  I simply don’t know.

I do know he was interested in the Irish throughout his career, wrote about them constantly, imputed certain traits of loyalty, impulsiveness, courage, stubbornness, wit, cunning, compassion, bigotry, genius, and occasional thickheadedness to them.  He saw them–and himself–as a mix of good and bad traits, as is the case with any identifiable group of human beings.  But he did see them as an identifiable group of human beings, unlike any other, united by things that can’t be explained simply by having been born in a certain place, or having a certain racial heritage.  He wasn’t wrong.

Above you see James Connolly–born of Catholic Irish parents in the slums of Edinburgh, who first saw Ireland as a boy serving in the British army, then became a labor leader and socialist writer in Britain, America, and Ireland–and finally a nationalist rebel when he saw all other avenues of social change closed by WWI.  Countess Constance Markievicz (maiden name Gore-Booth), of Anglo-Irish descent, her beauty admired by W.B. Yeats when she was young, who rejected the colonial heritage of her ancestry, and the privileges of her class, and fought for the rights of all Irish people, of all classes–and for her rights as a woman to fight as hard as any man for what she believed in.  Patrick Pearse, Irish-born son of an English craftsman, who learned the then-dying Irish language, became a poet in it, a devout Catholic and nationalist, all the while trying desperately to suppress his not-terribly-latent gayness, which came out all the same in his poetry, much to the embarrassment of later generations of conservative Irishmen who turned him into a plaster saint.

Three more different people with more different backgrounds you could not possibly imagine.  All of them Irish to the core.  As were the others who fought and died beside them.

Two were shot for their role in the rebellion–Markievicz merely imprisoned for a spell, and left to grieve for her compatriots, perhaps the cruellest fate of all.  She also grieved for Francis Sheehy Skeffington, militant pacifist, socialist, and advocate for women’s suffrage, who played no part in the 1916 rebellion, but was still ordered shot by a demented Anglo-Irish officer, for reasons no sane person could ever explain.  ‘Skeffy’ probably shouldn’t have spoken up when he saw the officer (driven half-mad by the war in Europe) murdering innocent people in a shop, nor should he have expressed sympathy for the goals of the rebels while rejecting their methods–but of course, being who he was, Skeffy could not do otherwise.  The officer was put on trial for war crimes, given a light wrist-slap, and ended up leading a prosperous post-military life in Canada, with no apparent sense of remorse.  There really are times when you wish there was a hell.

So today is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which seems a strange thing to say, because it began on April 24th of that year.  Which was Easter Monday, but Easter is a moveable feast, you see.  And somehow their ‘blood sacrifice’ (Pearse’s term) got wrapped up in both Christian and Irish pagan symbolism, and ever since the rising has been commemorated on Easter Monday, whenever that happens to fall in the church calendar.  In Ireland, and ‘wherever green is worn’, as Yeats put it.  Those who gave their lives for an ideal they never lived to see become reality (and it remains to be seen if it ever will) were ‘changed, changed utterly–a terrible beauty is born.’

And ever since, the Irish intelligentsia (such as it is) has argued about whether they were right or wrong, whether it was better to just let the war in Europe burn itself out (over a million people, including many Irishmen, died in the Battle of the Somme alone–many more than have died for Irish independence in the last several centuries–that’s not making anything right, just putting things in proportion).

What followed the romantic gesture of the Rising was a tide of anger over the way the English, under great stress from the Great War, and never much inclined to respect the Irish at any time, had reacted to what amounted to a few hundred earnest patriots seizing a few buildings in Dublin (to be fair, the rebels had sought aid from Germany, and the Irish aren’t the only ones who can get over-emotional in wartime–it’s a human thing).

Few people in Dublin supported the rebellion when it was happening, many were angry at the rebels, but it was particularly revolting to them the way the leaders were executed–Connolly, badly wounded in the leg, perhaps dying, tied to a chair and shot, while showing no sign of fear–somehow invoking the image of Cúchulainn, Ireland’s mythic hero.  The Rising had not been militarily successful, but it was symbolically successful.

My grandparents came from farms outside small towns; Glenamaddy, Ballinasloe, Woodford, Abbeyfeale.   None of them played any role in the rebellion–or in the much more violent and bitter conflicts that followed it.  They had to leave–there was no place for them in Ireland, no work, no land, no future–that was one of the things the rebellion was about really, but you’d have to say things haven’t changed much since then.   Connolly said independence alone wouldn’t fix the problems, and he was dead right about that.

But in any event, my grandparents didn’t forget where they came from, the people they’d left behind, or the cause of Irish freedom, and when I see nativist scum here (some of them Irish), talking about how these new immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere aren’t ‘real’ Americans, that they still maintain ties to the old country, still take pride in their heritage, their language; still want to remember where they came from, still take an interest in the politics of their old homeland–it makes me want to spit.  Do we never learn?  Do we have to make the same mistakes, over and over again?  Don’t people understand how complex human loyalties can be?  How hard it can be to know who you are, when your identity is split so many different ways down the middle?   True for all of us, not just for immigrants, but immigrants (and often their children) have a particularly hard time of it.

‘Was it needless death after all?’, Yeats wondered, and many have wondered since.  I don’t think it’s a question that can ever be answered.   There’s no telling what would have happened if the Rising had somehow been suppressed, if these people had lived to fight another day, perhaps another way–we know they wouldn’t have abandoned their beliefs, their principles.  We know the anger would have simmered just as fiercely below the surface, as thousands of Irish soldiers came back from Europe, wounded and crippled, and just as badly off as they were before, and the obduracy of the Northern Unionists, who had also bled and died for Britain, would have probably blocked most attempts at serious reform.   I think those who say it could all have been resolved peaceably somehow–while the greatest mass butchery in human history to date was going on (so many new toys to play with)–are fooling themselves.  But we can’t know.

We can know that this was the first real blow struck against British colonialism around the world in the 20th century, and all over that world, people who had barely heard of Ireland, of all races and religions, all living under the Union Jack, were cheering the Irish on, feeling a comradeship with them, and perceiving that the British Lion was no longer as powerful as before–because a confident Britain would never have overreacted so badly, making martyrs and heroes of a handful of poets and activists, shelling one of its own capitals to put down a few hundred men and women occupying a few buildings.

WWI was, as Connolly had written, really a fight between Britain and the now more industrially powerful Germany over who would control vital overseas markets, and you might as well ask how the world might be different if Germany had won that war–its defeat, after all, led to the rise of the Nazis.  It’s not only or even primarily the patriotism of small nations that can have enduring bloody consequences.

When people say it was a mistake, they should have waited, they’re forgetting that people are not machines, that we are creatures of emotion, and that most of what’s best in us, as well as what’s worst, lies in those emotional responses, and the ways in which we channel them.  We are not rational beings most of the time, and the least rational of all are those who pretend not to be driven by emotion at all.  So the question to ask is–what emotions were the ’16 rebels fighting for?  And I’d argue the primary emotion they fought for was love.  Not hate.  Not bigotry.  Not ignorance, or intolerance.  Love.  They saw tens of thousands of Irishmen coming home from the war, in coffins or on crutches, for a cause that meant absolutely nothing to Ireland, and they couldn’t stand it any longer.

Connolly in particular, was in a state of utter despair, as the working classes of Europe shot each other to pieces.  Other socialists of the First International felt the same exact way, but most of them could find no practical outlet for their rage, and were simply swept along by events, having no allies outside their movement.  He, being Irish, had other alternatives.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, seen up top, is a testament to that love the rebels felt.  Pearse’s handiwork, with heavy input from Connolly and others, it proclaims that Ireland belongs to all the Irish, and that all people living in Ireland, native-born and immigrant, people of any religion or none, are the Irish.  All children of the nation, to be cherished equally.   Ireland’s increasingly multi-ethnic nature is putting that ideal to the test as I type this.  They aren’t the only ones having this problem.

To be sure, the poetic romanticism of the Rising gave way to grim reality; a brutally effective guerilla war of independence, followed by an even more horrific civil war between rival factions–that my paternal great uncle, who fought on the Pro-Treaty side, reportedly committed war crimes in.  Once the djinn was out of the bottle, there was no controlling it.  Those who wish to emulate these and other rebels need to understand that the aftershocks can stretch on for generations.   Not all rebellions are good, not all sacrifices are worthwhile.  Sometimes incremental reform, boring though it be, is preferable to revolution.  Sometimes it isn’t.   You decide for yourself, case by case.

But I still say that these Irish men and women, immigrants and natives, Protestants and Catholics, straights and gays, were fighting out of shared love and idealism, not hate.  It was simply that in the times they were living through, the only acceptable proof they could give of that love was to die for it–as even that ardent pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington died.  If we wish it to be otherwise, we should make a world where love of that nature can be proven through less sanguinary means.   Won’t make itself, will it now?

I’ve tortured myself over what song to end this with (and I’d better end it, getting maudlin already, it’s the Irish in me).  So many songs about the Rising, and so many fine recordings of each (and so many bad ones to boot).

James Connolly was my hero a long time before I read a word of Westlake.  For me, he embodies E.M.Forster’s ideal of The Natural Aristocracy as well as any man who ever lived (leaving aside the irony that Forster wrote that essay in rejection of patriotism, embracing a more personal ethic, but I think he’d have understood what I mean, and so would Connolly).

Connolly, to me, represents the human struggle to reconcile all the disparate loyalties that make up human identity–our attempt to make a coherent whole out of the many threads of individual identity.  He was an internationalist socialist all his life, a supporter of women’s rights, a fierce and canny fighter for working class empowerment, a passionate believer in the gospel ideal without really believing in the supernatural at all–and yet he was also a patriot–loving a country he hadn’t been born in all the more for having chosen to give it his loyalty; willing to die for it–not an abstract idea, but a living one, embodied by the poor people who made up the great majority of its citizens.

He could not honor one loyalty without violating another–trapped in a web of conflicting geasa (google it), like the Irish mythical hero whose death was so eerily mirrored by his own.  He could only hope he was doing the right thing, and that future generations of Irish men and Irish women could make sense of it, and make a country worthy of the sacrifice being offered up that day.  “We are going out to be slaughtered,” he told a friend, as the Citizen’s Army marched out of Liberty Hall that one last time.  And yet he went.

And this is the best song ever written about him.  And this is the greatest singer ever to record it.  The late Liam Weldon, of North Dublin.  And he never heard of you either.

Anyway, I’ll try to get back to the Nunsense later this week.  Happy Easter.  Erin go bragh.  Up the rebels.  All of them, everywhere–as long as they know what they’re rebelling against.


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