Reflections on Poems of the Rising

By Mairéid Sullivan

A response to social justice issues raised by the poetry reading, A Terrible Beauty is Born – Poetry of the Easter Rising, a commemorative fundraiser for Bloomsday in Melbourne,  directed by Liam Gillespie, on the 15th April 2016, at the Celtic Club, Melbourne

james-connolly-starry-ploughThe readings of poems by those immediately caught up in the Rising attempted to penetrate the emotional dimensions around ‘what really happened’ that fateful Easter 1916 in Dublin. The feelings expressed by the poets of the time brought home the anguish that drove these young men.


All were at a pivotal point in their lives when they refused to ‘bow’ to a future under exploitative foreign domination – the heartless justification of land confiscation via habitat destruction, blatant genocide, and massive dislocation of their own people – a tragedy still unfolding around the world today. The presentation offered a ‘template’ for understanding and acknowledging the ‘good’ intentions of ‘freedom fighters’ throughout history and into the future! We all know we can’t go on fighting, and we know that the ‘root cause’ of the problem is still, land confiscation – and speculation.  What will happen when a growing number of 20 to 30-year-olds today cannot purchase a home? Who will they turn to when it is their turn to cry: ‘Our demands most moderate are – We only want the Earth!’

Be Moderate
Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our programme to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.

‘Be moderate,’ the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
‘You ask too much and people By
From you aghast in wonder.’
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth.

Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.

The ‘labour fakir’ full of guile,
Base doctrine ever preaches,
And whilst he bleeds the rank and file
Tame moderation teaches.
Yet, in despite, we’ll see the day
When, with sword in its girth,
Labour shall march in war array
To realize its own, the earth.

For labour long, with sighs and tears,
To its oppressors knelt.
But never yet, to aught save fears,
Did the heart of tyrant melt.
We need not kneel, our cause no dearth
Of loyal soldiers’ needs
And our victorious rallying cry
Shall be we want the earth!

James Connolly (1907)

James Connolly also wrote:

850It would be well to realize that the talk of ‘humane methods of warfare’, of the ‘rules of civilized warfare’, and all such homage to the finer sentiments of the race are hypocritical and unreal, and only intended for the consumption of stay-at-homes. There are no humane methods of warfare, there is no such thing as civilized warfare; all warfare is inhuman, all warfare is barbaric; the first blast of the bugles of war ever sounds for the time being the funeral knell of human progress… What lover of humanity can view with anything but horror the prospect of this ruthless destruction of human life. Yet this is war: war for which all the jingoes are howling, war to which all the hopes of the world are being sacrificed, war to which a mad ruling class would plunge a mad world.

Mairéid Sullivan is a Cork-born singer, film-maker and a student of history.

James Connolly

A reflection on what one member of the British Army firing squad that executed James Connolly in Kilmainham at dawn on May 12, 1916 may have felt about his actions –

The man was all shot through that came to-day,His-Name-Was-Connolly-the-Irish-Easter-Rising-300x295
Into the barrack square:
A soldier – I am not proud to say
We killed him there:
They brought him from the prison hospital,
To see him in that chair,
I thought his smile would far more quickly call,
A man to prayer.

Maybe we cannot understand this thing,
That makes these Rebels die:
And yet all things love freedom and the Spring
Clear in the sky.
I think I would not do this deed again,
For all that I hold by:
Gaze down my rifle at his breast-But then,
A soldier I.

They say that he was kindly – different, too,
Apart from all the rest,
A lover of the poor, and all shot through,
His wounds ill dressed,
He came before us, faced us like a man
Who knew a deeper pain
Than blows of bullets – ere the world began;
Died he in vain?

Ready! Present! And he just smiling – God,
I felt my rifle shake.
His wounds were opened, out and round that chair,
Was one red lake.
I swear his lips said ‘Fire’ when all was still,
Before my rifle spat
That cursed lead – And I was picked to kill
A man like that.

Author – Attributed to Liam MacGabhann, 1933

The authorship of this powerful dramatic poem seems to be uncertain. If the attribution is correct, he was a Kerry-born journalist.