1916: Origins and Legacies

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13

For the past eleven years Gorey, Co. Wexford, has been hosting the Byrne Perry Summer School. Miles Byrne and Anthony Perry were leaders of the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford. This year’s school took place on 24–26 June, with Wexford County Council as chief sponsor and in association with History Ireland and Keough Notre Dame Centre, Dublin. The organising committee was chaired by the Very Revd Walter Forde, with Dr Matthew Stout as director and Dr Seán Mythen as secretary.
The main theme of the School was ‘1916: Origins and Legacies’, but a standard feature of the event, the Gordon Wilson Memorial Lecture, supplied a subordinate and interlocking theme. Given this year by Professor Paul Bew of Queen’s University, Belfast, on the personality and career of John Redmond, it connected thematically with a bus excursion that visited Redmond’s tomb in Wexford town and his home at Ballytrent.
The discussions of the Easter Rising took place in four sessions under the headings ‘Was 1916 a crime?’, ‘Would Independence have been achieved without 1916?’, ‘Did 1916 advance the position of women in Ireland?’ and (the ‘History Ireland Debate’ chaired by the editor) ‘Was 1916 necessary?’. The danger, obvious from three of those headings, that a certain repetitiveness might affect the discussions was circumvented by the ingenious variety of approaches adopted by the panels of speakers.
Over the three days, a number of clarifications and insights emerged. While the Easter Rising may have included some isolated rebel actions that contravened the rules of war, the Rising as such was a ‘crime’ only in the banal sense that, like any rebellion, it broke the prevailing law of the land. Women were much less prominent in the Free State than they had been in 1916 and earlier, mainly because a large majority of the revolutionary women had opposed the Treaty and were therefore in political disfavour. Given the ideology of the IRB and the militarising of Europe in 1914–18, an attempted rising in Ireland was inevitable in those years. Independence would not have been obtained without some violent catalyst occurring in Irish–British relations. That catalyst could well have been supplied in 1918 in the form of widespread violent resistance to conscription, if the Rising and its aftermath had not had a restraining effect on the British attempt to implement this. There has been a tendency to over-represent Pearse as embodying the ideology of the Rising, to the neglect of other leaders such as MacDonagh and Heuston. The intention of ‘blood sacrifice’ is commonly ascribed to the Rising, but none of its leaders ever used that expression or an equivalent one.
Most of the cadres and rank and file of the Parliamentary Party were robustly nationalist and anti-English, and shared with members of Sinn Féin and the IRB in the cultural nationalism of the Gaelic League and the literary revival. John Redmond, whose usefulness to the party was mainly in the parliamentary sphere, remained isolated, even when in Ireland, from this popular sentiment. The party’s honouring of ’98, ’48, and ’67 as positive events in the nationalist calendar weakened the logic of its opposition to armed insurrection. The fact that it formed a common front with Sinn Féin and the IRB in the opposition to conscription reinforces the role of 1918 as the launch year of the Revolution.

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