On Easter Monday 1916 armed Irish republicans took control of Dublin’s General Post Office and various other locations, including a biscuit factory and a distillery, and declared Ireland an independent republic, free from the shackles of the British Empire. The rebellion was suppressed by the end of the week, however, and British rule survived until 1921, after a brutal conflict that continued in the form of a civil war. For some, then, the Easter Rising was an act of vanity that did more harm than good to the cause of independence. Former Irish Taoiseach (or prime minister) John Bruton argues that ‘the Easter Rising damaged the Irish psyche, led to years of violence, terrorism and justified the Provos - Provisional IRA’. Historically, however, some celebrated the leaders of the Rising, James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, as inspirational figures. Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky and British Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst wrote about the Rising in glowing terms, as a seminal event that delivered a devastating blow to imperialism politically if not militarily.
In the current ‘decade of centenaries’, some Irish politicians and academics call for the Rising to be remembered alongside the Battle of the Somme (also in 1916), in which thousands of Irishmen died for the British empire. They argue that in the spirit of reconciliation, we should use these anniversaries as an opportunity to build mutual understanding by giving equal recognition to both events. But does this imply a moral equivalence between those Irishmen who fought for the British Empire during the Great War – widely regarded now as a tragic waste of life – and those Irishmen who fought against British rule in Ireland during the Easter Rising? And does the contemporary language in Peace Process Ireland of ‘shared past, shared future, forgiveness and reconciliation’ actually prevent an honest assessment of that historic event, as the experts warn us to avoid interpretations that may be divisive and damaging to the Peace Process? Should we be less coy about describing the rebels of 1916 as either heroes or villains?
crossbench peer; professor of politics, Queen's University Belfast; formerly, historical adviser to Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday Tribunals
Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian and journalist; author, The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic (forthcoming)
writer and lecturer; co-author, Who’s Afraid of the Easter Rising?
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; blogger at Fans for Freedom; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
- Battle of Ideas