The Easter Rising – another context?
Is it possible that Pearse and the leadership cohort of the 1916 Easter Rising were aware of, or even inspired by, members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which staged an attempted coup in Constantinople in May 1896? The coup involved twenty-eight armed members of the ARF who occupied the high profile Ottoman Bank in the city in an effort to raise awareness of, and provoke action by, European powers into the ongoing pogroms and persecution of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman government. The coup failed, of course, and relocation to France was negotiated for the leaders, but about 6000 Armenians in Constantinople died in its aftermath. Could this attempted coup be seen as the blueprint for the Easter Rising in Dublin some 20 years later?
The connection between the Constantinople and Dublin coups was just one of the alternative narratives of the Rising presented by Dr Guy Beiner in his lecture: ‘Terror at the GPO – The 1916 Easter Rising: Australasian Perspectives’, a public lecture hosted by Melbourne University as part of the Melbourne University/ ISAANZ Conference on the 1916 Easter Rising (which took place on the 7th/ 8th April.)
Dr Beiner’s efforts to startle, if not shock his audience, did not stop with his speculation about the influence of the Constantinople coup. Even if the Insurrectionists knew nothing about the ARF actions of 1896, is there an implication in the Proclamation of Independence that the leaders of the Rising fully expected civilians, including children, to die for the cause?
the Irish nation must by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called’.
The leaders of the Rising must have been fully aware of the possibility of its failure. Did Pearse and the Rebels go ahead anyway in the clear expectation that their efforts would lead to severe repercussions, even a massacre, by the British and so provoke an outraged response by the people of Ireland against British rule?
These are just two of the controversial implications of the Easter Rising with which Dr Beiner confronted his audience. He went on to imply that the Rising could be categorised, albeit belatedly, under the terrorism umbrella encapsulated in ‘The Golden Age of European terrorism’ from 1881 to 1914.
The Proclamation itself puts the Easter Rebellion firmly within the context of Ireland’s ongoing struggles with ‘a foreign people and government’, to be ‘sovereign and indefeasible’ –pointing out that ‘six times in in the past three hundred years they have asserted it (their freedom) in arms.’
Dr Beiner suggested that the template of revolution used by the Fenians and Young Irelander movements in the 19th century closely resembled those employed by 19th century terrorists/anarchists in Europe, quoting the violence of the Fenian-organised Phoenix Park murders in 1882 as an example and implied that in fact this was the template used by the Irish Volunteers and the IRB in 1916.
Dr Beiner then presented his audience with an erudite and comprehensive exposé of the inner workings of 19th century terrorism. There were, he claimed, two principles of terrorism ideology: a) the justification of harming individuals (for The Cause) and b) ‘the terrible beauty’ of the attractiveness of violence. Violence is ‘propaganda by deed’ and the most effective means of using propaganda. Built into this idea of ‘propaganda by deed’ is the acceptance of martyrdom as an efficient use of propaganda. Violence as propaganda also demands a ‘stage’.
Was this why the planners of the Revolution chose the GPO in the centre of Dublin rather than Dublin Castle, the centre of British administration? Dr Beiner asked. (The Abbey Theatre was itself providing ‘a stage’ for revolutionary propaganda – but was it as effective as the ‘real thing?’) There is little point to violence as propaganda if there is no audience!
There was no lack of evidence for Dr Beiner’s thesis. He pointed to the Irish-American Fenian ‘dynamite campaign’, a kind of guerrilla warfare waged by the Fenian movement in the UK, between 1881 and 1885 and masterminded by O’Donovan Rossa which certainly fitted the template of 19th century terrorism, and the ongoing influence of O’Donovan Rossa, John Devoy et al on both the leadership of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, most significantly on Tom Clarke and Pearse himself.
[Another template of 19th century terrorism defined by James Fraser in Alexander Spencer’s essay, Questioning the Concept of ‘New Terrorism‘ in Peace Conflict and Development, Issue 8, January 2006 would seem to describe very aptly the structure and organisation of the IRB:
Finally, it is stressed that ‘old terrorism’ has a clear hierarchical organisation with fairly well-defined command and control structures. Although it is impossible to clearly demarcate the different layers, James Fraser argues that ‘old terrorism’ is organised like a pyramid, with the leadership, who decide on the overall policy and plans, at the top. This is followed by a larger layer of active terrorists who carry out the attacks and are often specialised in certain activities such as bomb-making, assassination, or surveillance. On the next level there are the active supporters who supply intelligence, weapons, supplies, communications, transportation and safe houses. At the bottom you have the passive supporters who agree with the goals of the terrorist organisation and spread their ideas and express their emotional support.]
The real revolution was the ‘silent revolution’ of 1916 -1918, Dr Beiner suggested, which happened when public opinion, at first indifferent to the Rising itself was galvanised into action by the execution of its leaders leading inexorably to the War of Independence, (1918 -1920), the Civil War (1921 – 22) and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Dr Beiner kept his audience spellbound as he argued for a very different context for the narrative of the 1916 Rising to the one presented in the Proclamation and subsequently in the Irish history curriculum, taught for generations in Irish schools. It was certainly a very different point of view and even among the plethora of criticisms of the Rising and its leaders, a devastating critique of the motives and actions of Ireland’s heroes!
In the end however was Dr Beiner’s alternative narrative based on implication and speculation. Even while enthralled by his presentation (aided by an excellent use of slides and a logical, coherent argument for each point), I found myself refuting his implication that the Rising could best be understood as an offshoot of 19th/early 20th century terrorism. Dr Beiner offered no evidence that the Irish rebels had based their revolution on the Ottoman Bank incident. However fashionable it was, and maybe still is, to see Pearse and the leaders as driven by ‘blood lust’, there is counter evidence that Pearse was essentially a committed educationalist, a beloved teacher, who carried a pistol around with him for the week of the Rising but never fired it. And indeed many of the leaders were similarly family-oriented.
Implying that the Rising could be put into the context of, and explained by, 19th and 20th century terrorism is a challenging interpretation. Did those who fought in what was a fractured (because of the Eoin MacNeil’s countermand) but nevertheless serious and committed military campaign see themselves as terrorists or soldiers of a sovereign state? Frances Devlin-Glass has pointed out (unpublished email)that:
the Rising insurrectionists acted very differently from modern-day terrorists in that they went to war as an army, and played by the rules of war in a very gentlemanly way. What complicated that scenario is that armies represent states and the British Army could not concede that they really constituted a state army without their having become a state (in which case there would have been no need for a Rising/Insurrection).
But there seemed to be no lack of seriousness on the part of the British Army in bringing out the big guns, reducing a major imperial city to rubble and court-martialling and shooting the leaders of the incident if the Easter Rising was only a foray by a group of terrorists, ratbags or even boy scouts!
Perhaps Dr Beiner is right and the whole event was an exercise in violence as propaganda and an intoxication with the ‘terrible beauty’ of blood sacrifice encapsulated in the terrorist scenario. But perhaps the narrative of the Irish school curriculum of my youth is closer to the truth – that the Rising was about a disciplined, focused group – and maybe some of them were idealistic dreamers! – who influenced by both ancient and more recent Irish history, were committed and dedicated to the belief that Ireland should and could be an ‘Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State’. Of course this vision in its entirety has still to be realised.
In spite of the initial massive failure of the Rising, all was not lost. One hundred years on, Ireland is a republic and a sovereign state, its people enjoying freedom and dignity and a great pride in being Irish. The small republic at the edge of Europe punches way above its weight on the international stage. There can be no doubt however Pearse and all those who fought and died in the Easter Rising of 1916 would be proud of at least some of the achievements of their fledgling nation and a century later can claim to be an ‘exaltation among the nations’.
Liz is a member of the Tinteán Editorial team