The Humanism of 1916


A Feature by Desmond Fennelldublin7

I believe the best way to honour the men of 1916 is to recall periodically what they were about and to consider its continuing relevance to us. Those who were articulate—who wrote and spoke for all of them—were  by their own words humanists who directed their efforts to restoring the broken Irish people to proper humanity. They wanted the Irish to live humanly again, and took measures to bring that about. By living humanly they meant living as men and women who, freed from the psychological, material and political obstacles to being their proper human selves, use their freedom to be that.

Two French travellers in Ireland, writing seventy-five years apart, give us an idea of what the rebels found themselves up against.  Gustave de Beaumont, in 1835, had observed the Catholic Irishman as he moved out of the period of the Penal Laws. He noted in him ‘that laisser aller, that carelessness of his person, that total absence of self-respect and personality, which are the direct results of his former condition’. But again later, in 1908, when the Revolution was gathering force, Paul Dubois saw little change:

A fine talker, but devoid of the critical sense, vaunting and verbose…Full of physical courage, he is often deficient in moral courage: he lacks confidence in himself, initiative, and energy, and has lost the habit of  looking things in the face. He quails before responsibilities, and has forgotten how to will, for his soul is still a serf.

More profoundly than against the British state in Ireland, the 1916 Rebellion was against that inhuman condition of the Irish. In his poem ‘The Rebel’ Padraic Pearse has a political rebel who is ‘of the blood of serfs’ express his motivation with the line: ‘I that have a soul greater than the souls of my people’s masters.’ Thomas Mc Donagh wrote a poem ‘The Man Upright’ about a man who was distinguished by that characteristic from the others in his village.  Pearse interpreted Irish nationalism as fundamentally a humanism. He wrote:

One loves the freedom of men because one loves men. There is therefore a deep humanism in every true Nationalist. There was a deep humanism in Tone; and there was a deep humanism in Davis.

James Connolly wanted victory for the workers, not in the first place because it would mean higher pay or better housing, but rather, as he wrote because ‘every victory for labour helps to straighten the cramped soul of the Irish labourer’. Proudly he said of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union:

It found the workers of Ireland on their knees, and has striven to raise them to the erect position of manhood; it found them with all the vices of slavery in their souls and strove to eradicate those vices and replace them with some of the virtues of free men; it found them with no other weapons of defence than the arts of the liar, the lick-spittle and the toady…and it taught them to abhor these arts.

It was for the sake of this rehumanisation of the Irish that the rebels rose against the British state in Ireland in pursuit of a free and sovereign Irish state. Like everyone in Europe at the time, the insurgents regarded such a state as the necessary environment for human beings to realise themselves.

They were in accord with Terence Mac Swiney who wrote: ‘A man facing life is gifted with certain powers of soul and body… In a free State he is in the natural environment for full self-development.’  For Pearse, the political and human goals were one: ‘Independence’, he wrote, ‘one must understand to include spiritual and intellectual independence as well as political independence’.

The rebels, along with the rest of nationalist Ireland, assumed that in a free Irish state there would naturally emerge the material basis for ‘full self-development’: a prosperous Irish economy. All the free states of Europe had flourishing economies.

While most of the leading men of 1916 believed that the creation of a sovereign, prosperous republic would suffice to realise their rehumanising aim, a few of them saw the need for a prior act on the way to that. In subsequent years, what these men envisaged has been called, inaccurately and meaninglessly, ‘blood sacrifice’ – a term applied by the English to their soldiers killed in the Great War. For accuracy, at the very least ‘redemptive’ should precede that term. Redemption, rather than sacrifice was at the core of the rebels’ thinking. They envisaged a redemptive bloodletting in imitation of Christ’s death on the cross.

Pearse, like some others in Europe at the times, was eloquent about the redemptive efficacy, in a spiritually desiccated age, of the shedding of blood in battle. In his play, The Singer, he has his self-image, the freedom-fighter MacDara, say, ‘One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world’. In some of the mystical religious poetry of Joseph Mary Plunkett there lurks the hope, variously expressed, that the poet’s own blood would make ‘the dark rose  (An Róisín Dubh)… redden into bloom’.

Connolly made the most explicit statement. In March 1916 he wrote:

Deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of degradation wrought upon its people…so deep and humiliating that no agency less potent than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self -respect…Without the slightest trace of irreverence, but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of  us, as of  mankind  before Calvary, it may be truly said: ‘Without the shedding of  blood there is no redemption’.

That the republic they wanted to bring into being would not be an end in itself, but an instrument for the people’s sake, and that the economy they wanted to build would not be an end in itself but a means to that people’s human fulfillment, all the leading rebels were in accord.

Pearse wrote: ‘Man is not primarily a member of a State but a human individuality’. Liam Mellows, speaking in the Treaty Debate for the entire revolutionary struggle, said:

We would rather have this country poor and indigent, we would rather have the people of Ireland eking out a poor existence on the soil, as  long as they possessed their souls, their minds and their honour. This fight has been for something more than the fleshpots of empire.

Michael Collins spelt that out:

What we hope for in the new Ireland is to have such material welfare as will give the Irish spirit the freedom to reach out of the higher things in which it finds its satisfaction. The uses of wealth are to provide good health, comfort, moderate luxury, and to give the freedom which comes from the possession of these things. Our object in building up the country economically must not be lost sight of. That object is not to be able to boast of enormous wealth or of a great body of trade, for their own sake. It is not to see our country covered with smoking chimneys and factories. It is not to show a great national balance-sheet, not to point to a people producing wealth with the self-obliteration of a hive of bees. The real riches of the Irish nation will be the men and women of the Irish nation, the extent to which they are rich in body and mind and character.

Looking back in his famous radio address of 1943, Eamon de Valera, Commander of the Boland’s Mill garrison, concurred:

That Ireland we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued   material wealth only as the basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit.

All of that, broadly speaking, is what the men of 1916 were about. Their aim and their striving towards it are, insofar as we assent to them, their legacy to  us in the different circumstances of today.

Desmond Fennell

Belfast-born, Desmond Fennell was educated in Dublin at UCD and Trinity and did postgraduate study in Germany. He was awarded a D.Litt from the National University of Ireland in 1991. His journalism has focussed on rethinking nationalism in the light of the Northern problem, and he sought to contribute intellectually to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. He is the author of Ireland after the End of Western Civilisation (2009), About Behaving Normally in Abnormal Circumstances (2007), Uncertain Dawn: Hiroshima and the Beginning of Poatwestern Civilisation (1996),  Dreams of Oranges: An Eyewitness Account of the Fall of Communist East Germany (1996), among other works.