A Strike Against The Empire

Manning the barricades: Archive image of a barricade across Talbot Street, Dublin, manned by British soldiers in an effot to quell the insurrection of Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising of 1916. Credit - CAMERA PRESS/ILN.

By Jason Kelly, Contributor
February / March 2016

Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute has produced a documentary on the Easter Rising that promises to stir a global debate on the historic event that led to Ireland’s independence.

Historian Thomas Bartlett remembers how Ireland commemorated the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary, in a full-throated, pro-rebel fashion in 1966: “Not so much commemorated, as celebrated,” he recalls.

Bartlett, a visiting faculty fellow at Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, explains, “There was no probing questioning, no critical examination, no scrutiny of the revolution’s motives.”

The passage of time, the lasting impact of the Northern Ireland Troubles that scarred the end of Ireland’s 20th century, and the volume of new information that’s emerged since the ’60s, have prompted a more sober reflection about the Easter Rising 100 years on. Notre Dame plans to be at the forefront of this discussion, and, in an effort to bring all the relevant scholarship, documents and research to center stage, has created a documentary film that re-examines the political and cultural forces that shaped the defining moments of Ireland’s struggle to free itself from Great Britain.

Five years in the making, the documentary, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, produced by The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, will be a centerpiece in the Easter Rising commemoration and a catalyst for a global dialogue on the topic.

Among the many historical currents the film explores is the role of the United States – the inspiration of its own successful revolution to the rebels and the influences and financial support provided by the Irish diaspora. The film also captures the impact that the Irish revolt had globally: how Vladimir Lenin took notice as the revolutionary spirit stirred in Russia, and how reverberations from the Irish revolt resonated with anti-colonial movements in Africa, India, and Palestine.

“Though a rebellion in Dublin might seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things,” says Notre Dame professor of Irish Studies, Declan Kiberd, “it would actually be the pin piercing the heart of the imperial giant. It meant, for other anti-colonial groups, that the empire could be challenged.”

Challenging British rule was contentious among the Irish at the time. The unionists in Ulster had resisted Home Rule proposals. And many nationalists had doubted the viability of any effort but force to secure independence.

For the Irish committed to an armed overthrow of British rule, the 19th century had been a big disappointment – a hoped-for major campaign that would preoccupy the Empire and give the rebels room to act never came. Insurrection-minded Irish thought the Crimean War in the 1850s might divert Britain’s attention away from Ireland long enough for them to stage a revolution. Or that an interest in reclaiming its former North American colonies might have had Britain engaged in hostilities there during the U.S. Civil War.

But those hopes were dashed. Britain didn’t get sidetracked by enough major global campaigns to let nationalists fight for Irish independence without taking on the full weight of British might. In the wake of famine and mass emigration, the Young Ireland movement launched a revolt in 1848 that failed. Two decades later, the Fenian uprising of 1867 suffered a similar fate. For years afterward, Irish Home rule was pursued, contested, discarded.

When the Great War began in 1914, it presented a long-awaited opportunity for Irish nationalists since Britain had to divert its soldiers, artillery, and attention to the European front. But, in a surprising turn of events, Irishmen – unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, by the hundreds of thousands – put on British uniforms and joined the quagmire of trench warfare in France. For nationalists, the worry became that a revolution carried out at home might be seen as a treasonous stab in the back to those soldiers and would poison the local population against their cause.

The film, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, shows the scroll of Irish names at a World War I cemetery that stands as a poignant tribute to the sacrifice of the men who died in British uniforms. But, for much of the 20th century in Ireland, those soldiers were largely forgotten, as the ultimate triumph of the Easter Rising and the independence it led to overshadowed all other issues.

“Those 40,000 Irish casualties in Europe were erased from history,” says Christopher Fox, the director of Irish Studies at Notre Dame. “You couldn’t talk about them.”

For some in Ireland, the events surrounding the Easter Rising are still difficult to talk about. The Keough-Naughton documentary attempts to provide a platform sturdy enough to support the full spectrum of opinion, including those of scholars whose conflicting points of view might not put them on speaking terms with one another.

“What does a teaching and research institute do?” Fox asks. “It should be opening up conversations.”

Bombarded by British artillery, Dublin’s Bread Company building is brought to ruins.

Bombarded by British artillery, Dublin’s Bread Company building is brought to ruins.

Let The People Talk

Notre Dame’s part in the 1916 centenary began five years ago with a conversation between Fox and Briona Nic Dhiarmada, the O’Donnell Chair in Irish Language and Literature, who has written dozens of screenplays and documentaries. She proposed a project that would do for the Easter Rising what Ken Burns had done for the American Civil War.

Her plan was to present a polarizing flashpoint from the past, in all its complexity, to a wide audience in a format that educates as it entertains. To capture the prevailing forces of socialism, feminism, militarism, and nationalism – “all these –isms,” she says – that shaped events but, at the same time, tell the story at a human scale.

“They’re people,” Nic Dhiarmada says. “Flesh-and-blood people.”

Many firsthand accounts, from witnesses to the events that shaped the Irish revolution, accounts that were all but lost to history until now, are given a central role in Notre Dame’s 1916 narrative. These accounts became available to the film when researchers discovered hours upon hours of television interviews – conducted in the 1960s, but seldom if ever aired – in the vaults of Ireland’s national broadcasting service, RTÉ.

“Accounts from all over the place,” Fox says, “from British soldiers, from Irish bystanders, people who were around to see 1916 and experience it.”

Newly available documents, including witness statements from the Irish Bureau of Military History, provide the film with an insight into the motivations and experiences of the ordinary volunteers who joined the rebel cause. And stories, like the one from a British intelligence officer responsible for taking information from captured nationalist insurgents, reveal Ireland’s political divisions in intimate relief. The officer, Nic Dhiarmada says, instead of taking notes from his captives, was spotted chatting with a prisoner as if they were well acquainted.

“Do you know that fellow?” someone asked him.

“Yeah, I do. He’s my brother,” the British officer said.

Nic Dhiarmada also tells another story of a 47-year-old Belfast man the father of eight, who enlisted to fight for the British in Europe. He died before he was deployed, but was commended in a letter for serving “King and country.” A year later, one of his sons joined the Irish Republican Army.

The challenge for the production team was how it would tie all the threads into a compelling and illuminating story. Early in the process, the production crews, from both the United States and Ireland, gathered at Nic Dhiarmada’s 1790s mill house in rural Tipperary to begin to tackle the creative puzzle together, after months of working on aspects of it on their own.

“For me it was like an English professor’s dream,” Fox says, “to sit and listen to these highly creative and brilliant people break the story down and figure out how to tell it.”

The producers chose to limit their interviews to scholars to assure that the information presented – however divergent the academic interpretations – would be grounded in deep knowledge and research. They also decided that a constant, narrative voice would be needed to unify the storytelling, and they enlisted Irish actor Liam Neeson for the role.

The production team on the film included Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, whose Chicago-based production company has won five Emmy awards; composer Patrick Cassidy, whose credits include the score for the 2014 film Calvary; and graphic designer Annie Atkins, who won an Oscar for her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Being able to assemble such a talented team exceeded Fox and Nic Dhiarmada’s wildest expectations. And they were thrilled to see that good fortune seemed to infuse the production at every turn. One day, while visiting the New York recording studio where Neeson would voice his narration, Fox remembers browsing some posters from the studio’s previous productions, and coming across one for Ken Burns’ The Civil War. He says he grabbed Nic Dhiarmada. “You’ve got to see what was made here,” he said. “This is karma,” she replied. But the woman at the front desk at the studio upped the ante when she told them, “Ken’s in the next room, if you’d like to meet him.” Over the course of the following week then, as Fox and Nic Dhiarmada added Neeson’s voice to their dream project, they often broke for coffee and conversation with the man who had inspired them to make it.

The Revolution Would be Staged

Cultural influences were among the most potent motivations for the poets and playwrights who were leaders of the Irish independence movement. Some traced their militant stance directly to the 1902 play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a nationalist call to arms by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. Yeats later wrote in his poem, “The Man and the Echo,” “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”

The organization of the Easter Rising itself drew on artistic inspiration. “It was staged to some degree as street theater,” Irish studies professor Kiberd says.

And the revolt’s symbolism would become central to its historical importance since, the distraction of the Great War did not make Britain and its mighty military especially vulnerable to the rebels, and their failure on the streets was inevitable. But, determined to seize their moment in history and forge an independent future for Ireland, the rebels proceeded with little heed for what they lacked in manpower and munitions. This, finally, was their time.

They negotiated with the Germans – the enemy of their enemy – for munitions to support an uprising, but the British intercepted their cables, and stayed appraised of their plans. Sir Roger Casement, a Dublin-born, retired British consular official that supported independence, secured a commitment from the Germans to release Irish prisoners of war to join the fight. It didn’t have any impact. The insurgents also believed German soldiers might supplement the rebel ranks, but this too proved to be an unfounded hope.

Without such reinforcements, the rebels were not an imposing force, and Britain took little notice of them. By early 1916, exercises for an insurgency had become commonplace, held under the noses of the British government in Dublin Castle. And English leaders seemed to have made a strategic decision not to obstruct the rebel drills. On March 17, for instance, Irish volunteers practiced setting up roadblocks and checkpoints around the city, provocative exercises that attracted no obvious official notice.

When a German ship, running arms to the rebels, was trapped and scuttled off the Kerry coast a month later, during Holy Week, any imminent threat of a successful revolt seemed likewise lost at sea. The British, to paraphrase historian Bartlett, shrugged and decided to go to the races on Easter Monday.

The rebel plan to take Dublin, meanwhile, was being developed in absolute secrecy, the truth known only to the smallest inner sanctum, within a larger clandestine circle, within the open group of regular volunteers. That structure created a helpful fog of obfuscation that threw off the British, but it also confused the volunteer rank-and-file throughout Ireland.

When the revolt began, chaos prevailed in the ranks, and many from Cork, Galway, and other isolated parts of the country were unaware that Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, was to be the first day of fighting. The fewer than 2,000 rebels stationed in Dublin, Bartlett says, took up the fight, “against the backdrop of order, counter-order, the Rising’s on, the Rising’s called off, the Rising’s on, it’s off.” Some of them even thought the orders they received to mobilize were for them to stage another exercise and drill.

But some events took place as planned. The rebel leaders issued a proclamation declaring an independent Irish republic, and took control of key locations in Dublin. At the rebel headquarters in the city center’s General Post Office, rebel leaders, such as Pádraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Desmond Fitzgerald, discussed the preservation of Irish identity as a core principle of the Rising. To do nothing, they believed, risked the loss of the national character once and for all – a recurring concern for nationalists over the decades and one that had been revived when so many of their countrymen went to fight in France under the Union Jack.

The leaders also discussed the theological validation of their actions. While they knew the Catholic just-war doctrine calls for a genuine hope of success in any act of aggression, most realized that any such hope would be severely tested given their situation and battle strength. Some of the leaders were blunt about their chances; James Connolly, for one, believed they would be slaughtered.

“He said that to a comrade,” Kiberd explains. “He didn’t want to lie to anyone that was taking the risk with him.”

But, while most would die, the leaders believed their slaughter would not necessarily be a defeat. Connolly believed that to strike was to win – it was a symbolic gesture that would inspire his Irish countrymen, as well as oppressed peoples all over the world.

Poster for the  documentary, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, produced by The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame.

Poster for the documentary, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, produced by The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame.

Britain Made to Wobble

When the insurgency began, it caught the British off-guard, and it seemed, for a fleeting instant, that the rebels could win.

“If you look at the panicked reactions of the British,” Kiberd says, “it does seem like they were, at least momentarily, made to wobble.”

The British Government sent reinforcements to Dublin to quell the rebellion. Interestingly, as they boarded ship for Ireland, many of these believed they were en route to France, and the majority of them were so green and untrained that they had never fired a gun. As the soldiers disembarked at Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire, a sergeant ordered them to shoot into the sea for practice. More than a hundred of these soldiers were dead within three hours, gunned down as they crossed a bridge into Dublin.

Once the element of surprise passed, however, the rebels could not match the waves of British artillery and manpower coming across the Irish Sea. Within two days, Christine Kinealy writes in A New History of Ireland, “the troops outnumbered the insurgents by twenty to one.” The rebel leaders surrendered in less than a week.

Some among the Irish public respected the rebel’s effort, and were proud that the country’s few freedom fighters could withstand the counterattack for as long as they did. But many were also ambivalent – about the cause, the timing, the tactics – and were hostile toward the rebels.

Reports of the large number of innocent bystanders who died also fueled anti-rebel feeling. Civilians made up the largest number of fatalities during the revolt – 230, compared to 64 rebels and 132 British troops. Many of those who had been caught in Dublin’s chaotic crossfire had also lost relatives on European battlefields. They felt no patriotic affinity with Irish freedom fighters.

“A lot of these guys were spat upon afterwards,” Fox says. “Who was spitting on them? Widows and mothers of Irish kids, guys who had been killed in the trenches.”

Irish public opinion changed, however, when the British executed 16 rebel leaders. To the imperial government, the men were traitors. But for the Irish, the death sentences became a rallying point greater than the Easter Rising itself.

George Bernard Shaw wrote in a London newspaper that the surrendered rebels should have been treated as prisoners of war, like any enemy soldiers. In conducting secret courts martial, as if the men had turned traitor against their own country in wartime, and not stood up for their own people, the British miscalculated the disposition of the Irish toward the Empire. In the end, and despite the initial hostility toward the rebels, the executions increased the revolutionary temperature in Ireland.

“I think the authorities utterly misinterpreted the importance of the moment,” Kiberd says, “because they were distracted by what they would call the main theater of actions in Europe.”

Seeing The Big Picture

The political context of the executions, and their local and global ramifications, give the cause of Irish independence its historical bone structure. But, in the Notre Dame film, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, the intimacy of individual stories adds flesh and blood to this history. It lets the viewers see, for instance, an aging Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, describing the family being summoned for a final meeting with him. She recalls, in a filmed interview, being escorted by British soldiers along a still-smoldering O’Connell Street, smelling smoke and cordite in the air, and hearing her grieving mother cry out when she saw her condemned husband for the last time.

Adding to the variety of eyewitness accounts, there’s also the recollection of a British soldier who survived an initial ambush in Dublin, and who recounts his experience in an interview, in what Fox calls “gut-wrenching” detail. “These guys hadn’t been in action,” Fox says, “and all of a sudden they’re walking down a Dublin street and they’re getting mowed down . . . and then they tell us what that’s like.”

The main objective of the 1916: The Irish Rebellion project, is to blend scholarly perspectives, evocative music, and archival footage and imagery – a combination unique to the medium – to give viewers a vivid insight into the hopes and fears, the thoughts and attitudes of the participants on all sides.

A photograph of Dublin in ruins serves as a defining illustration for this documentary. The fighting is over, but the rebuilding of personal and national life has yet to begin.

Two children in the foreground face away from the camera and look toward the rubble. More bloodshed, but eventually independence, will be their conflicted inheritance. This film is the story of their lives, and the story of the Ireland that the Easter Rising helped create. ♦


This article was originally printed in Notre Dame magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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