Reflections On The Significance Of Easter Week 1916 (Part One)

Reflections On The Significance Of  Easter Week 1916 (Part One)

By Richard A O’Brien – Former Irish Ambassador to Australia, 

It is entirely appropriate – that among the many commemorative events being organised across the City of Melbourne in this centenary year in which we honor and celebrate the enduring legacy of Easter Week 1916 – that we should indeed gather – in the shadow of St Patrick’s Day 2016 – at this historic Celtic Club – Australia’s oldest surviving Irish Club.

As many of you know this Club celtic-club-logowas first established in Melbourne on 26 September 1887 – well before the events of 1916 – and was originally named the ‘Celtic Home Rule Club’. It was a name that not only stated – in fact it proclaimed – the resolute political commitment of its entire membership to support the demands of the great majority of the Irish people for Parliamentary legislative independence in shaping the future of their Celtic homeland. Its emblem embodied that same commitment with the Southern Cross crowning the Shamrock and the Harp and with its motto proclaiming ‘Pro Patria et Pro Libertate‘ – ‘for Country and for Freedom’.

Hence this Club – almost uniquely across Australia at that time – evoked in its emblem and proclaimed in its founding Charter a clear vision of a transformed and legislatively independent Ireland which it combined with an equally clear commitment to cherish and to celebrate the rich cultural identity and widely esteemed heritage of its impressive and diverse membership.

It is I believe important and entirely relevant to recall – even at such a remote distance – that the new Celtic Club was indeed diverse in its membership. It was neither parochial nor partisan in its determination to reach out to all those of Irish birth and heritage and indeed to welcome into its fraternity all of the many friends of Ireland across this great City of Melbourne and State of Victoria.


Dr M U O’Sullivan

It was the Club’s founding father, the noted surgeon – Dr M U O’Sullivan – who insisted that its membership should be open to all irrespective of their local political or religious affiliations. This reality was reflected – and again proclaimed – in the Club’s foundation membership which embraced an entire range of important figures including John Gavan Duffy who was later to play an important role in finalising the Australian Federal Constitution at the Melbourne Convention. Born in Dublin, he served in Government and at the Bar and was the son of the former Premier Charles Gavan Duffy who had journeyed into exile following the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848. Unlike his close friend William Smith O’Brien who was transported in captivity to Port Arthur – Charles Gavan Duffy came in freedom and reached the very pinnacle of power in the State of Victoria. An achievement that would have been well beyond his reach in the then far distant United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – the firmly integrated realm of the resolute Queen Victoria.

Over the years the founding members were joined by other prominent personalities who supported and patronised the Club – including the great Australian Labor Party statesman and much honored citizen of Melbourne, Arthur Calwell. In more recent times there was the pre-eminent and compassionate Melbourne lawyer Frank Galbally who once described the four great passions of his life as ‘his family, the Criminal Law, Collingwood and the Celtic Club’. Again from within the political family there was the once Deputy Premier and Leader of the Victorian State National Party, Pat McNamara who was ever committed to his Clare heritage – and from the ‘top end of town’ there came the legendary businessman Peter Gillooly whose great generosity enabled the completion of the Memorial to the Irish who fell at the Eureka Stockade. ‘The Pikeman’s Dog’ today stands proudly within the historic grounds of the Eureka Stockade looking towards the entrance to the magnificent Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE). It is a memorial that was inspired by the eminent Professor Emeritus John Molony of ANU – the foremost historian of Eureka and a most distinguished son of Ballarat. Following John’s inspiration ‘The Pikeman’s Dog’ was conceived and crafted by the genius of two talented Irish born sculptors Joan and Charlie Smith who now live in the magnificent hills of Gidgegannup (‘the place where spears are made’) just outside Perth in Western Australia.


The Pikeman’s Dog

I mention Joan and Charlie Smith in particular because from the very outset of its establishment both the cultural spirit and the political character of the Celtic Club were embodied in the person of one of the Club’s foremost founding personalities – another great Irish born sculptor – the talented and remarkable Morgan Jaguers. Morgan Jaguers was born in Tullamore Co Offaly and came to Australia as a child with his parents who planned to begin a new life in the Darling Downs of Southern Queensland. However, at an early stage his family moved to Melbourne where he was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers – graduated from Melbourne’s College of Art – and eventually followed in his father’s footsteps as a highly talented sculptor as well as a much respected marble and stone mason. Morgan Jaguers brought to the inauguration of the Celtic Club the leadership and membership of a range of other Irish organisations in which he was deeply engaged. These included Melbourne’s Irish Land League Supporters Association, Melbourne’s Irish National League Association and Melbourne’s Irish Pipers Club. In 1892 Morgan married Bridget Bartley in St Patrick’s Cathedral – where he had served as an altar boy – and they both invited Michael Davitt, the widely celebrated Irish republican and founder of the Irish National Land League, to be the godfather of their firstborn son.


Michael Davitt


Charles Stuart Parnell

Michael Davitt was among a number of the heroic personalities with whom Morgan Jaguers remained in close contact across Ireland’s complex political landscape during the tempestuous years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as he pursued his efforts within Melbourne and across Australia to advocate the cause of Irish self-determination. His friends in Ireland and in the United States were vital in advising him as he sought – indeed occasionally as he struggled – with his closest friends to help navigate the Celtic Club through the turbulent political waters of its early years. It was a period when the Irish both at home and abroad had to deal initially with the traumatic impact of the fall of Charles Stuart Parnell – the Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster – and the person who in that era had most embodied Ireland’s hopes for Home Rule and legislative independence.

Parnell’s demand that ‘no man could have the right to fix a boundary to the onward march of a nation’ resonated strongly within Ireland and echoed across Irish communities gathered around the world. Morgan Jaguers’ contacts with Parnell were largely mediated through Michael Davitt – since in 1879 Parnell had been elected President of Davitt’s ‘Irish National Land League’ – the organisation that contributed to the introduction a new word into the English lexicon: for the word ‘boycott’ in essence described the campaign by Parnell, Davitt and William O’Brien to force the British Government into undertaking serious land reforms. Those reforms were eventually achieved through the Irish Land Acts the first of which was introduced at Parnell’s insistence by the Gladstone Ministry in 1882. In one respect the Act of 1882 represented the first coherent legislative strategy to deal with the structural issues – including tenants rights and land ownership regulations – that had most tragically contributed almost a half a century earlier to that devastating human catastrophe we call the Great Irish Famine.


The Village of Mienies during the Famine

The Great Famine had dramatically depopulated the entire countryside. A million Irish people died and some two million emigrated – a traditional way of life was shattered – a culture was undermined – and a native language was all but extinguished.

By 1900 Irish was spoken by an ever shrinking minority – the lived experience of more that two thousand years was all but ended. In reaction – and in many respects in parallel to the political process which demanded self-determination – the quest to restore Gaelic civilisation began to take shape towards the end of the 19th century. Social and sporting organisations including the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association made vital contributions to a renewed sense of pride in Ireland’s ancient culture and rich heritage although there was frankly less success in restoring the everyday use of the Irish language. An entire range of Irish writers, poets and play-writes including Douglas Hyde – who was to become the first President of Ireland – Peadar Ua Laoghaire and Padraic O Conaire – Alice Furlong, Ethna Carberry and Sinead Flanagan (who was to marry Eamon de Valera) – George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats – and on to John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey – they all and many others brought the great saga of Celtic Ireland back to the mainstream of the nation’s then contemporary consciousness.

Although the politics of nationalism and the revival of cultural awareness dominated overseas perceptions of Ireland’s domestic discourse as the country approached the early decades of the 20th century, nonetheless economic and labor issues were constantly high on the domestic agenda.

imagesBy the turn of the century Dublin was a deeply divided City – both economicallyimages-3 and socially. There was a visible and veritable chasm between the very wealthy and the severely disadvantaged. While indeed Dublin had some of the finest mansions it also had some of the worst housing found anywhere across the then British Empire. James Larkin and James Connolly began to campaign for a better future for those across the country who had been pushed to the outer margins of economic survival. They launched the Irish Trade Union movement.


Jim Larkin addressing a strike meeting

In 1907 some 10,000 dock workers – organised by Jim Larkin – went on strike in the City of Belfast. The harsh reaction of the City administration in putting down the strike caused even the police force to mutiny – which some continue to regard as a rare but inspiring instance of non-sectarian solidarity in Northern Ireland. In Dublin the wealthy merchant class united to confront and to destroy the emerging Trade Unionists and in 1913 they imposed a lockout on all who had joined Jim Larkin’s Union.

In the event over 20,000 were locked-out – rioting erupted – a number of workers were killed and many more were injured. James Connolly established The Irish Citizen Army to defend the protestors from ongoing police attacks. The volunteers of The Irish Citizen Army would go on – with The Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Eireann – to take their place at the forefront of the events of Easter Week 1916.

Back in Melbourne the news of those tumultuous times impacted both within and beyond the Celtic Club.


Home Rule Debate

There were various and complex reactions to the fall of Parnell – to the ongoing disappointments and emerging disillusionment with the efforts to secure Home Rule – to the Papal intervention in censuring socialism while insisting on the rights of private ownership – to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Belfast – and very especially to the reported discussions at the Cabinet meeting in Number 10 Downing Street in early October 1913 that marked the irreversible move in British political thinking towards the partition of Ireland – and indeed to the emerging dominance of David Lloyd George in the formulation of British policy on Ireland, a dominance that endured throughout the following decade and beyond. Then there came the horrors of the First World War – seen at least initially in Ireland and elsewhere as the outcome of the entirely predictable Royal rift between one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons-in-law and one of her European grandchildren – the Czar and the Kaiser. It was a conflict that was to plunge Australia into its own conscription debate – one which mirrored many aspects of the conscription debate in Ireland. And all of those developments were analysed and debated – sometimes with restraint but (as one commentator remarked) only occasionally with calm – within the Celtic Club and elsewhere across the new Australian Federation.

And yet there was ever (sometimes lurking in the background – but more often in the very foreground) the enduring resonance of those remarkable words spoken some 2,430 years ago by the Greek statesman and warrior Alcibiades in his celebrated address to the Spartans when he said: ‘Democracy is the name given to any force that opposes absolute power.’ Ultimately, there was an inherent sympathy felt by the great majority across the membership of this Club for the tragic plight of those who had demanded the right to democratic self government for the Irish People on the steps of the Dublin Post Office on the morning of Easter Monday 1916. It was in some respects similar to the sympathy felt 60 years earlier and captured in the angry response by Peter Lalor to the condemnation by the editorial writer in the Age newspaper of those who had paid the ultimate price for demanding democracy at the Eureka Stockade. In his commentary on Lalor’s harsh words, Professor John Molony remarked that ‘all the long sustained bitterness of Ireland welled up in him’. John also reminds us in his History of Eureka that the same forcefulness was again evident when – in his address seeking election to the Victorian State Parliament where he would go on to serve as Speaker of the House – Peter Lalor would dramatically point to the fact that even King John had granted the Magna Carta to his Barons ‘with their arms held aloft, and not to his people with their petitions held aloft’.


Eureka Stockade

Indeed, I suggest that the struggle within the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat on the morning of 3 December 1854 and the reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 have at least one additional and profoundly important similarity – both were events of enormous emotional power that were – in both our countries and over somewhat different time spans – to lead to fundamental political transformations.

In the case of Ireland the Easter Rising was conceived by both women and men who were compelled by a vision of an independent nation – strong in its own identity and true to its own values. It was a vision that seemed increasingly at risk as the world entered the harrowing early years of a great European conflict with the lives of some 206,000 young Irishmen made vulnerable by a confrontation that was seen not to have been of Ireland’s making – nor indeed by many to eventuate in any likely outcome that might be in Ireland’s interest. This was a view of which they were entirely persuaded despite the assurances and assertions of others – and perhaps that alternative view was most poignantly reflected in the tantalising lines of Yeats’ great poem Easter 1916 when he asked:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.

And then he hurriedly added of the heroes of the Easter Rising:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and McBride
And Connolly and Pearse,
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly,
A terrible beauty is born.


Padraig Pearse

Yes – ‘a terrible beauty’ was born – and it was a terrible beauty because of the fundamental transformation of the legend of Ireland and her people which it initiated and the transition to a new Ireland which it inaugurated – for Ireland was indeed to be ‘changed, changed utterly’. And yes the terrible beauty was born and was entirely evident even just 30 years later across the Ireland into which I was born! And at the heart of that change was the vision – the searing idealism – the profound sense of mission we find in the writings – even in the questions – of one entirely remarkable man – Padraic Pearse.

As the renowned Celtic scholar Dr Regina Ui Chollatain remarked in a recent article – Pearse is almost impossible to define – he was Irish and also had an English heritage; he was Victorian and modernist; mystical and existential; respectable and revolutionary; a talented linguist and a gifted orator; a son, a brother, a scholar, a pamphleteer, a poet, a barrister, an educationalist, a political activist and his father – like Martin Jaguers – had been a gifted sculptor and talented stonemason.

It was Padraic Pearse who read the Proclamation –  (read so eloquently for us at this gathering this evening by Eugene O’Rourke) – on the steps of the General Post Office on Easter Monday Morning 100 years ago.

It was there and then that he pledged his own life – and the lives of ‘all his comrades in arms’ – to the cause of Ireland’s freedom – ‘to its welfare and to its exaltation among the nations of the world’.


O’Donovan Rossa’s Graveside

It was Padraic Pearse who had challenged his generation a year earlier in his veritable masterpiece of patriotic prose at the graveside of the noble Fenian leader – Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – when he said that however wise and strong the opponents of Irish freedom may be they cannot:

‘undo the miracles of God who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. For life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations ….. and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’.

And it was Padraic Pearse who posed the then unfathomable – perhaps entirely rhetorical – and certainly deeply mystical question:

O wise men riddle me this; what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought.

And yes for the rest of the 20th Century and into the early decades of the 21st Century millions have been born into the house that he had shaped in his heart – into an independent Ireland – into an Irish Republic – a country that would from the outset – and in the sentiments he proudly proclaimed on Easter Monday morning 1916 – take its place among the nations of the world.

(Note: This is a slightly edited version of the speech given by Ambassador O’Brien at the ‘Commemorative Dinner’ held at the Celtic Club, Melbourne on the 19th March 2016. Part Two will be published in the May edition of Tinteán)