A Strike against the Empire

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Editor’s Note: Five years ago, the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies debuted its documentary 1916: The Irish Rebellion, marking 100 years since the Easter Rising. This Magazine Classic tells the story of the Rising and the making of its centennial retrospective.

Historian Thomas Bartlett remembers firsthand how Ireland commemorated the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary in 1966. “Not so much commemorated,” he says, “as celebrated.”

Lionized 50 years ago as martyred founding fathers, the 16 rebel leaders executed by the British were regarded as unambiguously heroic and essential to the eventual creation of the Republic of Ireland. Any inglorious consequences, like the loss of scores of innocent lives in the destruction of central Dublin, were ignored. “There was no probing questioning, no critical examination, no scrutiny of their motives,” says Bartlett, a visiting faculty fellow at Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.

Time, the Troubles that scarred the end of the 20th century, and troves of new historical information have prompted more sober reflection for the 100th anniversary — and Notre Dame will be at the forefront of it. The Keough-Naughton Institute has produced 1916: The Irish Rebellion, a documentary film that will be a centerpiece of Ireland’s Easter Rising centenary and a catalyst for a global dialogue throughout the anniversary year.

Notre Dame’s participation offers another essential element for a more complex study of 1916: distance, geographical and intellectual, the space necessary to discuss still-contentious history. Not to celebrate, or even to commemorate, but to illuminate.

Five years in the making, 1916: The Irish Rebellion examines the political and cultural forces that built toward and flowed from that brief eruption of violence. One week that ended in defeat became a defining moment in Ireland’s struggle for independence from Great Britain, which then controlled territory on six continents. Among many historical currents, the documentary chronicles the United States’ role in the Easter Rising — its revolutionary example to the rebels, the inspiration of the Irish diaspora seeking freedom there, and the material support from those who had found its soil financially fertile.

The film also captures the impression the Irish nationalists made far beyond their borders. Vladimir Lenin took notice as revolution stirred in Russia, and reverberations resonated in anti-colonial movements in Africa, India and Palestine.

“Even though a rebellion in Dublin might seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things,” says Declan Kiberd, Notre Dame professor of Irish Studies, “it would actually be the pin piercing the heart of the imperial giant.”

Despite being swiftly quashed, the Easter Rising succeeded in spreading hope among people seeking independence that the British grip on its territorial claims around the world might be weakening. “I think what it meant for other anti-colonial groups,” Bartlett says, “was that the empire could be challenged.”

Challenging British rule was contentious even among the Irish at the time. In the unionist northern Ulster counties, in particular, which favored maintaining an affiliation with England, resistance to home rule proposals stalled potential political solutions. And many nationalists for decades had doubted the viability of anything but force to secure independence. For those Irish committed to an armed overthrow, the 19th century had been a big disappointment; the hoped-for war to preoccupy the Empire never came. Insurrection-minded Irish thought the Crimean War in the 1850s could divert Britain’s attention away from its neighboring island enough to support a revolution. Or that an interest in reclaiming its former North American colonies might renew hostilities across the Atlantic during the U.S. Civil War. Nothing. Not enough, anyway, to allow a successful fight for Irish independence against the full weight of British might.

In the wake of famine and mass emigration, the Young Ireland movement launched a failed attempt in 1848. Two decades later, the Fenian uprising suffered a similar downfall, but the British execution of its leaders only increased popular support for the cause. For years afterward, Irish home rule was pursued, contested, discarded. When the Great War began in 1914, it presented the long-awaited opportunity for Irish nationalists, diverting British soldiers, artillery and attention to the European front. But Irishmen by the hundreds of thousands — unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics alike — were among those joining that quagmire, fighting and dying in British uniforms.

An uprising could be seen as a treasonous stab in the back to those soldiers. In Notre Dame’s documentary, a scroll of Irish names at a World War I cemetery stands as a poignant tribute to their sacrifice. For much of the 20th century in Ireland, those fallen soldiers were largely forgotten, the ultimate triumph of independence overshadowing all else. “Those 40,000 Irish casualties in Europe were erased from history,” says Christopher Fox, the director of Irish Studies at Notre Dame. “You couldn’t talk about them.”

For some in Ireland, the events surrounding the Easter Rising are still difficult to talk about. The Keough-Naughton documentary attempts to provide a platform sturdy enough to support the full spectrum of opinion, including scholars whose conflicting points of view might not put them on speaking terms with each other.

“What does a teaching and research institute do?” Fox asks. “It should be opening up conversations.”

Notre Dame’s part in the 1916 centenary began five years ago with a conversation between Fox and Briona Nic Dhiarmada, the O’Donnell chair in Irish Language and Literature who has written dozens of screenplays and documentaries. She proposed a project intended to do for the Easter Rising what Ken Burns had done for the Civil War. That is, she elaborates, to present a polarizing flashpoint from the past in all its complexity to a wide audience in a way that educates as it entertains. To capture the prevailing forces of socialism, feminism, militarism, nationalism — “all these –isms,” she says — that shaped events, but to tell the story at a human scale.

“They’re people,” Nic Dhiarmada says. “Flesh-and-blood people.”

Many of their firsthand accounts, all but lost to history until now, have a place in Notre Dame’s 1916 narrative. Researchers discovered hours upon hours of television interviews conducted in the 1960s, but seldom if ever aired, in the vault of the RTE, Ireland’s national broadcast service. “Accounts from all over the place,” Fox says, “from British soldiers, from Irish bystanders, people who were around to see 1916 and experience it.”

Newly available documents, like witness statements from the Irish Bureau of Military History, offer a glimpse into the motivations and experiences of ordinary volunteers who joined the rebel cause. And stories like that of a British intelligence officer, responsible for taking information from captured nationalist insurgents, reveal Ireland’s political divisions in intimate relief. The officer, Nic Dhiarmada says, was spotted not taking notes, just chatting with a prisoner like they were acquainted. “Do you know that fellow?” someone asked. “Yeah, I do. He’s my brother.”

And Nic Dhiarmada tells another story of a Belfast man, age 47, father of eight, who enlisted to fight for the British in Europe. He died before he was deployed but was commended in a letter for serving “King and country.” A year later, one of his sons joined the Irish Republican Army.

How to tie all these threads into a compelling and enlightening story was a creative puzzle. Early in the process the production crew from both the United States and Ireland gathered at Nic Dhiarmada’s 1790s mill house in rural Tipperary to put faces on their long-distance collaborations. “For me it was like an English professor’s dream,” Fox says, “to sit and listen to these highly creative and brilliant people break the story down and figure out how to tell it.”

The producers chose to limit their interviews to scholars to assure that the information presented, however divergent the academic interpretations, would be grounded in deep knowledge. They also decided on a “voice of God” narration, securing the services of actor Liam Neeson and his deific tenor for the part. The crew included Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, whose Chicago-based production company has won five Emmy awards. Patrick Cassidy, with credits including the score for the 2014 film Calvary, wrote the score. Annie Atkins, who won an Oscar for her work on Grand Budapest Hotel, handled the graphic design.

Assembling such talent exceeded Fox and Nic Dhiarmada’s wildest expectations. The good fortune infusing the production overflowed at the recording studio in New York. On site to record Neeson’s narration, Fox browsed the posters on the wall from the studio’s previous productions. Among them: Ken Burns’ The Civil War. He grabbed Nic Dhiarmada.

“You’ve got to see what was made here.”

“This is karma,” she said.

The woman at the front desk did them one better: “Ken’s in the next room if you’d like to meet him.”

So over the course of a week, as Fox and Nic Dhiarmada added the voice of God to their dream project, they broke for coffee and conversation with the man who inspired it.

Liam Neeson 1916
Liam Neeson, the voice of God. Photo by Barbara Johnston

The revolution would be staged.

Cultural influences were among the most potent motivations for the poets and playwrights who were leaders of the Irish independence movement. Some traced their militant stance directly to the 1902 play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a nationalist call to arms by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. Yeats later wrote in his poem “The Man and the Echo”: Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?

The organization of the Easter Rising itself drew on artistic inspiration. “It was staged to some degree,” Irish Studies professor Kiberd says, “as street theater.”

And the battle’s symbolism would become central to its historical importance, because even the distraction of the Great War did not make Great Britain and its mighty military especially vulnerable to the rebels. Determined to seize their moment in history and forge an independent future for Ireland, the rebels proceeded with little heed for what they lacked. This, finally, was their time.

They negotiated with the Germans — the enemy of their enemy — for munitions to support an uprising, but intercepted cables kept the British appraised. Sir Roger Casement, a Dublin-born retired British consular official who supported independence, secured a commitment from the Germans to release Irish prisoners of war to join the fight. The insurgents even believed German soldiers might supplement the rebel ranks, which proved an unfounded hope. Without such reinforcements, the rebels were not an imposing force.

By early 1916, exercises for an insurgency had become commonplace, held under the tolerant noses of the British government in Dublin Castle. English leaders seemed to have made a strategic decision not to obstruct the rebel drills. On March 17, Irish volunteers practiced setting up roadblocks and checkpoints around the city, provocative exercises that stirred no official notice.

When a German ship delivering arms was trapped and scuttled off the Kerry coast a month later during Holy Week, any imminent threat of a genuine revolt seemed likewise lost at sea. The British, to paraphrase historian Bartlett, shrugged and decided to go to the races on Easter Monday.

The rebel plan to take Dublin, meanwhile, was developing in absolute secrecy, the truth known only to the smallest inner sanctum within a larger clandestine circle within the open group of regular volunteers. That structure created a helpful fog of obfuscation that threw off the British, but it also confused the volunteer rank-and-file throughout Ireland. Chaos prevailed in the ranks to the extent that many from Cork, Galway and elsewhere in the country were unaware that Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, was to be the true day of reckoning.

The fewer than 2,000 who were in Dublin, Bartlett says, took up the fight “against the backdrop of order, counter-order, the rising’s called on, the rising’s called off, the rising’s on, it’s off.” Some of them thought this was just another exercise. But the leaders issued a proclamation declaring an independent Irish republic and took control of key locations in Dublin.

At the rebel headquarters in the city center’s General Post Office, men such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Desmond Fitzgerald discussed the preservation of Irish identity as a core principle of the rising. To do nothing, they believed, risked the loss of the national character once and for all, a recurring concern over the decades that had been revived with so many countrymen fighting under the Union Jack.

They also spoke of theological validation. Catholic just-war doctrine calls for a genuine hope of success in any act of aggression, a dubious claim in their situation. Another leader, James Connolly, believed they would be slaughtered. “He said that to a comrade,” Kiberd says. “He didn’t want to lie to anyone that was taking the risk with him.”

For the cause of independence, though, a rebel slaughter did not necessarily equal defeat. Connolly believed in equal measure that to strike was to win, a gesture of symbolic inspiration to the Irish and other oppressed people.

When the insurgency began, catching the British unaware, it seemed for a fleeting instant like the rebels could win outright. “If you look at the panicked reactions of the British,” Kiberd adds, “it does seem like they were at least momentarily made to wobble.”

The Brits sent reinforcements, who believed they were en route to France, to quell the rebellion. But a number of them were so green they had never fired a gun. As the soldiers disembarked at Kingstown, what’s now Dun Laoghaire, a sergeant ordered them to shoot into the sea for practice. More than a hundred of those men were dead within three hours, gunned down as they crossed a bridge into Dublin.

Once the element of surprise passed, however, the rebels could not match the waves of British artillery and manpower coming across the Irish Sea. Within two days, Christine Kinealy writes in A New History of Ireland, “the troops outnumbered the insurgents by twenty to one.” The rebel leaders surrendered in less than a week.

Some among the Irish people respected the effort and were proud that the country’s few freedom fighters could withstand the counterattack for as long as they did. But many were also ambivalent — about the cause, the timing, the tactics — and hostile toward the rebels. Deaths of innocent bystanders fueled the hostility. Civilians made up the largest number of fatalities — 230, compared to 64 rebels and 132 British troops. Many more people who were caught in Dublin’s chaotic crossfire had lost relatives on European battlefields. They felt no patriotic affinity with Irish freedom fighters. “A lot of these guys were spat upon afterwards,” Fox says. “Who was spitting on them? Widows and mothers of Irish kids, guys who had been killed in the trenches.”

Irish public opinion coalesced around the British executions of 16 leaders. To the imperial government, the men were traitors. To the Irish, the death sentences became perhaps a greater rallying point than the Easter Rising itself. George Bernard Shaw wrote in a London newspaper that the surrendered rebels should have been treated as prisoners of war, like any enemy soliders. In conducting secret courts martial, as if the men had turned against their own country in wartime and not stood up for their own, the British miscalculated the disposition of the Irish people toward the Empire. The executions only increased the revolutionary temperature in Ireland.

“I think the authorities utterly misinterpreted the importance of the moment,” Kiberd says, “because they were distracted by what they would call the main theater of actions in Europe.”

The political context of the executions and their local and global ramifications give the cause of Irish independence its historical bone structure, but the intimacy of individual stories adds flesh and blood to the documentary. Like footage of an aging Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly, describing the family being summoned for a final meeting with him. She recalls being escorted by the British along still-smoldering O’Connell Street to see her condemned father for the last time, smelling smoke and cordite in the air and hearing her mother cry out in grief.

Or the recollection of a British soldier who survived the initial ambush, recounting the experience in an interview decades later with what Fox calls “gut-wrenching” detail. “These guys hadn’t been in action,” Fox says, “and all of a sudden they’re walking down a Dublin street and they’re getting mowed down. . . . What would it be like?”

One objective of 1916: The Irish Rebellion is to blend scholarly perspectives, evocative music, and archival footage and imagery to give viewers a vivid answer to that question for participants on all sides.

A photograph of Dublin in ruins serves as a defining illustration of the documentary. The fighting is over, and the rebuilding of personal and national life has yet to begin. Two children in the foreground face away from the camera, looking toward the rubble. More bloodshed and eventual independence will be their conflicted inheritance, the story of their lives and of the Ireland that the Easter Rising helped create.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.