100th Anniversary of Ireland's March to Independence

Sunday, April 24, is the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the start of revolutionary activity that finally secured independence for Ireland. New York City commemoration includes a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 23 followed by a piped procession to the office of the Irish Consul General on Park Avenue and 52nd Street where the original proclamation of independence will be read. A formal dinner will be held at the American Irish Historical Society on Sunday the 24th. The historical society, located on the New York University campus in Greenwich Village, also opens a four-month long exhibit, Her Exiled Children, based on its 1916 archives, on April 19th.

On Easter Sunday 1916 nationalist leader Pádraig Pearse, a local teacher, read a Proclamation, Poblacht na h-Eireann, on the steps of the Dublin General Post Office declaring Irish independence from Great Britain. The declaration opened "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom." Pearse and the rebels demanded, "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible" and pledged "our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations."

After six days of fighting on Dublin streets and hundreds of civilian casualties, the rebellion was crushed by British troops and local police. Sixteen rebel leaders who survived the battle were charged with treason during World War I and summarily executed by the British military. But instead of ending the independence movement, the defeat of the Easter Rising stimulated a much broader campaign. In 1918, the Irish Sinn Fein political party which demanded an independent Ireland, won a majority of the Irish seats in the British Parliament and the next year the Irish Republican Army launched a guerilla war against the British government. A 1921 treaty established the Irish Free State as a self-governing nation within the British Commonwealth and the Free State eventually became the fully independent Republic of Ireland. For some, however, the nationalist struggle never ended because six Northern Irish counties remain part of Great Britain's United Kingdom.

In Ireland the British Empire experimented with imperialist exploitation. The Irish people suffered through eight hundred years of occupation, oppression, displacement, discrimination, famine, and cultural genocide. The Easter Rising not only led to Irish independence but it helped launch a waive of anti-imperialism that led to movements to end European colonialism around the world and a break-out of Great Britain's global empire.

The British, in their imperialist arrogance, made a serious mistake in responding to the Easter Rising. The Rising had very few participants and only limited popular support. But the way the British quashed the rebellion and executed rebel leaders infuriated the Irish and definitely turned public opinion toward a fight for independence. I compare the Easter Rising to the Boston Massacre in the United States and the murder of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, an Irish labor leader, Roger Casement, a British diplomat, and other Easter Rising leaders to the rush to judgment and execution of John Brown after Harpers Ferry and the way it led up to the American Civil War.

The British army executed the leaders of the rebellion without a public trial, but their execution would have been unfair even if the trial was held in public. We are looking at state oppression and officially sanctioned murder. Connolly was so badly injured that he had to be tied up to be shot. In Casement's case, the British government threatened to embarrass the Roman Catholic Church if they pressed for saving his life because he was homosexual.

New York City has always had close ties to the Irish nationalist movement. On August 20, 1916, the New York Times Magazine published an interview with Moira Regan, a young woman who participated in the Easter Rising. She was in New York raising support and funds for the rebel cause.

This is from her account of events. "At 6 o'clock on the evening of Easter Monday I went down O'Connell Street to the Post Office' . . . I belonged to an organization called Cumann na Mban -- the Council of Women. We had been mobilized at noon on Monday . . . being told that we'd be needed for bandaging and other Red Cross work . . . When I got to the Post Office that evening I found that the windows were barricaded with bags of sand, and at each of them were two men with rifles . . . The British soldiers brought with them all their equipment as if they were prepared for a long war . . . The Post Office burned all day Friday, and late in the afternoon it was decided that it must be abandoned . . . The rebels succeeded in reaching a house on Moor Lane in back of the Post Office. There they stayed all night. They had only a little food and the ammunition was almost exhausted. So on Saturday they saw that further resistance was useless, and that they ought to surrender, in order to prevent further slaughter."

"But British officials did not accept the legitimacy of either the rebellion or the surrender. "The prisoners were shot in the yard of Kilmainham Jail. Then the bodies were taken in their clothes, outside Dublin to Arbor Hill Barracks and thrown into quicklime in one large trench. In every case the bodies were refused to the relatives of the dead men."

Regan concluded, "the greatest result of the rising, the thing that will justify it even if it were the only good result, is the complete and amazing revival of Irish nationality. We have been asleep -- we have been ready to acquiesce in things as they were, to take jobs under the Castle Government and to acquiesce in the unnatural state of affairs. But now we have been awakened to the knowledge that there is a great difference between Ireland and England, that we are really a separate nation. Even the people that were not in sympathy with the rebels feel this now . . . This feeling has spread all over Ireland; it has remained and it is growing stronger. We were a province, and now we are a nation; we were British subjects, and now we are Irish. This is what the rising of Easter week has done for Ireland."

The people who joined the Easter Rising were destined for martyrdom. They over-estimated the level of support for their actions and were doomed to fail, at least in immediate terms. But you cannot know this in advance. Fidel Castro succeeded against similar odds in Cuba, as did Lenin and the Bolsheviks when they seized state power in Russia. And remember, their rebellion and deaths became the spark that led to a successful revolution that finally achieved independence for Ireland, so in a very real sense they were victorious and their actions demand celebration.