April 24


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

W.B. Yeats, "Easter 1916"

[1] This is only the first verse; you can read the whole poem here 

Of all the countries in the world that have ever been conquered by England, gathering them into what should be named the English Empire, though it is misleadingly called by the English "the British Empire", at least there is an argument that Wales and Scotland form part of the same area of land (not counting an occasional off-shore islet). But not so Ireland, or Eireland, or simply Eire, an independent country until the Normans invaded it in the 12th century, Prince John Lackland acquiring the disputation of his name by being appointed its official Lord, at the gift of his father Henry II, at the Council of Oxenford, in 1177.

Henry VIII later declared himself King of Ireland, which made Ireland officially a Protestant country. Given the impossibility of converting the Catholics to this heretical new form of their religion, Henry, and then Elizabeth, tried sending armies to insist on it, and when these too failed used the method that had already been tested and proven in the New World: colonisation, planting thousands of mainland Protestants across Eire, and finding legal loopholes, where sheer brutality proved insufficient, to transfer arable land from Catholic to Protestant (and Scottish Presbyterian) ownership. At the same time, a careful reorganisation of electoral boundaries ensured that, in the election of 1614, the 15% of Protestants won more seats in the Irish Parliament than the 85% who were "recusants" - the official term for those who refused to accept the new religious order.

Defeat in the wars of refusal that they waged between 1641 and 1652, and again between 1689 and 1691, followed by the imposition of the Penal Laws, completed the conquest. In 1801 the Irish Parliament was abolished as unnecessary, Ireland having the previous year become an official participant in the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Act of Union having been imposed on it by force, and force of numbers. Which is to say that the Catholics, who no longer had any legal rights, didn't want to accept; but the Protestants, who did, did. And yes, 'tis true, (please pronounce this in the accent of a stupid paddy, for this is the date at which the inferiorisation of the Irish also took place) the Fenians got some of their rights back under the Emancipation Act of 1829, and a few more under the Reform Act of 1832, but fully half a million of them had died or fled the country during the Little Ice Age of 1740, and then there was the Great Famine of 1845, An Gorta Mór as they weren't allowed to call it because the Irish language was now prohibited in the new National School system, as well as traditional and historic Irish names being removed, and replaced with an English non-equivalent, on every map. 8 million Irish when the Potato Famine started was down to just 4.4 million by the time of the 1911 census, and in Ulster the Protestants were now the majority.

This, in very brief - and from a perspective very different from the one that is acculturated according to the school curriculum of what is called English History, never British History - the historical preface to the Easter Uprising (in England it is called the Easter Rebellion, as the Nationalist Patriots would later be called "terrorists") of 1916.

The event itself was an outcome, and the lead-up to the outcome needs some detailing. 

Because there were two very different movements. One simply wanted the Protestant English out of Eire, so the Irish Catholics could have their land and their religion back, under their own sovereignty, in their own language. The second had rather come to accept that conquest was probably forever, so best fight the battles that were winnable, of which overturning the ownership of 90% of Irish land by absentee landlords in England was probably their best chance.

The first group failed several times: once led by Robert Emmet in 1803; a second time, calling themselves "The Young Irelanders" in 1848, led by Thomas Francis Meagher; a third time in 1867, now known as "The Irish Republican Brotherhood", the group that would gradually become the IRA. The parallel attempts at land reform, on the other hand, driven by Michael Davitt's "Land League", saw slow but gradual progress, laws being passed in their favour in 1870, in 1881, again in 1903, and finally in 1909, some transferring the ownership of property, others achieving fairer rents. By the time the Great War broke, the Irish Land Question was thought to be resolved.

But there is land, and there is Land. I may have the right to own the soil, the weeds, the turnips and potatoes and the apple trees and lettuces and the house I build and even the barns and the workers' cottages... but you still write the laws that determine everything else about it, you are still the one to whom I pay my taxes, who administers the police, the courts, the civil service. I, that is, own the land, but you still own the Land. Telling a prisoner that he now owns his own cell and can use it (within limits defined for him) as he pleases, is not the same as Liberty.

So Home Rule for Eire replaced Land Reform in Ireland as the major target of the Reformers, led now by Charles Stuart Parnell, the founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party, until he was discredited for having an affair, and Gladstone's 1886 and 1893 attempts to pass the measure through the English Parliament fell short of sufficient votes. But in 1914 Parnell's successor, John Redmon, succeeded in bartering a deal with Liberal Prime Minister Asquith that not only ensured Home Rule (the House of Lords rejected it, but Lloyd George's 1909 People's Act guaranteed that it passed anyway, by the Commons giving it a second approval), but also ensured that its suspension now that war had broken out would be temporary, not permanent. Nationalist leaders as well as the IPP committed themselves to supporting the British in the war, in exchange for Home Rule once it was over.

Why then any need for an uprising, if Home Rule was agreed, the necessary laws passed, the House of Lords over-ruled, the House of Commons committed, and committed even if the Liberals should lose the next election?

To which the answer lies in the realm of political compromise. To gain the support of Westminster, the IPP had agreed both Irish support for England in the War, and then a Free Ireland without Ulster - let the Protestant majority there stay part of the United Kingdom and accommodate its Catholic minority, and we will be content to have the Catholic remainder for ourselves. As England would pull out of China, but keep Hong Kong; pull out of Cyprus, but keep Akrotiri and Dehkelia; pull out of Spain, but keep Gibraltar; pull out of the South Atlantic, but keep South Georgia and the Falklands; pull out of Africa, but keep Rhodesia and Bechuanaland...

The nationalists were nationalists for a reason; they wanted an entirely free Eire, the whole country, all of it, and if we need to compromise, it will be us working out with our Protestant minority how to accommodate them in a liberated, independent Catholic realm. But the IPP had the upper hand, precisely because it had the support of London. And the war couldn't possibly go on much longer - another year, maybe another two; if war ends and Home Rule is implemented, the Catholic Bishops, the IPP, everyone will accept this as the end of conquest, and we will have given up Ulster for all time. Home Rule is a white flag of surrender. We have no choice. An uprising to throw out the British, while they are bogged down in the trenches and don't have the reserves to spend on this. An uprising now, to make Home Rule total and forever. On April 24th 1916, an independent Irish Free State was proclaimed, and Yeats' "terrible beauty" was born.

The rising was originally a parade, planned by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but cancelled when its leader, Eóin MacNeill, professor of early Irish history at University College Dublin, learned that Sinn Fein intended to use the opportunity to stage an uprising.

Sinn Fein, incidentally, means "We Ourselves" in Irish. It grew out of the Gaelic League, which had been founded in 1893 for the very specific purpose of re-establishing both the Irish language and its culture - how many students of "British Literature" have even heard of their equivalent of King Arthur, Cú Chulainn, or read anything by their great bards like Sechan Torpeist ("Tain Bo Cuailnge" - "The Cattle Raid of Cooley", is the one that tells Cú Chulainn's story)?

By 1905 culture had become politics, and Sinn Fein was formed by Arthur Griffith. Its methods at this stage were entirely peaceful, and democratic: withdraw Irish members from the British Parliament and re-establish the Irish Parliament, whether the Brits liked it or not; then re-write the constitution to repeal the 1800 Act of Union. The
Hungarians had done the same to Italy in 1861 (the Catalunians would try and fail to do the same to Spain in 2017). And with this a boycott of the British army and navy and English goods, an Irish judiciary, a general program of non-cooperation with the English, was to be instituted. Passive resistance, Gandhi-style, but thirty years ahead of Gandhi.

But it got nowhere, and when James Connolly revived the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the months before the Great War, it was because it had become clear that passive resistance would be defeated by compromise, and that therefore the armed struggle was the only option. Around noon that Easter Monday, Patrick Pearse and the Volunteers on the one hand, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army on the other, began the occupation of key buildings in central Dublin, including the General Post Office, the Four Courts, Jacob's Factory, Boland's Bakery, the South Dublin Union, St. Stephen's Green and later the College of Surgeons. So unprepared were the Brits - they had barely four hundred troops available in the city - they took them without resistance and established their defence, with the Post Office as both their headquarters and the seat of provisional government. Pearse, Clarke, Connolly, MacDermott and Plunkett formed the first Cabinet, right there.

Unprepared, however, is a temporary condition. By that night their information-gathering network was so well in place that a German ship, disguised as SMS Libau, and carrying arms and ammunition as well as the patriot leader Sir Roger Casement, was easily intercepted off the Irish coast. Casement was taken to London (see my page for September 1), tried, and hanged. Dublin Castle, which had initially been virtually undefended, was secured with four and a half thousand troops and significant artillery. The Brits now had a base too. By Friday there were eighteen thousand soldiers in the city, and only sixteen hundred "rebels", made up from six groups, The National Volunteers, The Citizens' Army, The Hibernian Rifles, Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan and The Foresters.

Yeats needed until September 25th to complete the poem, somewhat longer than the five days the British needed to end the "rebellion". They lost two hundred and thirty men, dead or wounded, in achieving it, while just five "rebels" died in the skirmishes. But there were other "casualties" (don't you just love the language of propaganda!); the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, for example, who would be arrested in Dublin on April 25th, taken to Portobello Barracks, and shot by firing squad next morning, without a trial. Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke and thirteen other men "identified as leaders" had already been taken to Kilmainham Jail by the end of Easter week, and executed. Of all the significant figures in nationalist politics of the time, only Éamon De Valera survived, and he because he was an American citizen through his mother, and the British were nervous about upsetting the Americans.

Sinn Fein (that's Gerry Adams, its about-to-retire leader, on the right) was a small and almost inconsequential party at the time, not yet the political wing of the IRA. Five years later (December 6th 1921) the Irish Free State was born, and simultaneously the loyalist colony in the six northern provinces of Ulster, or Northern Ireland. And the rest, more terrible than beautiful, is history.

There is one piece of true beauty in all of this however, and I feel impelled to add it, for it was a very tragic beauty, though it is now again in disarray. On April 10th 1998, the 82nd anniversary of the Uprising, the British and Irish governments, and the various political parties inside Northern Ireland, reached what came to be known as the Good Friday agreements, the compromise for democracy that had been thought impossible during the "troubles" of the previous decades. History gives Prime Minister Tony Blair most of the credit, but the truth is that he was pushed into doing it by the sheer bloody-Sunday-mindedness of an extraordinary woman, Marjorie Mowlam, known to her friends as Mo. And most of the participants were likewise pushed into it by the same determination, which included taking off the wig she was wearing to hide her post-cancer-treatment baldness, and telling them she wanted signatures before she died, because she was with Dante (the Italian, not the one in James Joyce's great novel), who wrote (Canto 26) that "if you haven’t done something for the world to remember you by, then you've used up your life for nothing".
 They made it too, but only just; she died on August 19th 2005, aged just 56.

I want to pay tribute to her with a photo, but all I can find on the Internet are mug-shots of hairless Mo, bloated Mo, post-surgery Mo, tumorous Mo, and she was a very beautiful beauty once, and not just of appearance, a beauty of the parts that really matter, which are heart and mind and soul. But these are truly, cruelly terrible. Where are the pictures of young, thin, crazy, dynamic Mo, the way she deserves to be remembered? No, I shall not use any of these pictures. 

And why is there no one from the current government sitting at a table with the leaders of once-again closed Stormont, and telling them, as she did, to bloody well sort out your differences now and get Stormont functioning? Why not? You don't really need me to tell you why Westminster is happy to take back powers - do you?

No, wait, I’ve found one.


There is still hope

And separate from all this, but still speaking of great ladies, Bridget Riley, illusioniste extraordinaire, was born today in 1931

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