Easter 1916

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  • Topic: Ireland, Easter Rising, Michael Collins
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  • Published : April 11, 2005
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"Easter 1916"

The 1916 Easter Rebellion spoke to the heart of Irish nationalism and emerged to dominate nationalist accounts of the origin and evolution of the Irish State. The decision by a hand- full of Irish patriots to strike a blow for Irish independence mesmerized the Irish people in its violent intensity and splendor.

According to Richard Kearney, author of Myth and Terror, suddenly everything was dated 'Before or after Easter Week'. The subsequent executions of the sixteen rebel leaders by the British authorities marked an incredible transformation from Irish patriots to their martyrdom, which came to represent the high-water mark of redemptive violence, a glorious beginning and a bloody ending. The initial reaction in Ireland to the Rising was shock and anger.

Following the executions, the nationalist community closed ranks against the British government. The most famous reaction to the Rising is the poem "Easter 1916" by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. In one respect, the poem is a product of its time and reflects the emotional impact of Easter Week. But, the power of Yeats's language and imagery transcends the event, and asks the question of all generations, "O when may it suffice?"

In 1916, the political climate in Ireland was dangerously volatile, but few Irish citizens realized they were at the edge of an abyss. Most nationalists, William Butler Yeats included, were content with a promise by the British government to grant Ireland moderate independence, in the form of Home Rule, at the close of World War I.

The Unionist population vowed to resist Home Rule and began organizing a heavily armed private militia. The Irish Diaspora and many Irish nationalists had little faith in the British government's willingness to install Home Rule and stand up to the unionists.

Preoccupied by the Great War and desperate for able bodies, the British government made its' fatal decision to enforce conscription in Ireland. Outcries by Irish republicans that Britain bore no right to 'Irish fodder' for their war canons, helped pave the way for an uprising. Rebel leaders from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Nationalist Volunteer Army, and James Connolly's Citizens Army decided the time was ripe for a rebellion and adopted a familiar concept in Irish history, 'England's trouble is Ireland's opportunity.'

Like their predecessors in the rebellions of 1848 and 1867, the sixteen rebel leaders in the 1916 Rising emerged from the intellectual and literary community, including promising writers and poets. Men like Pearse and MacDonagh were products of the Irish Literary Revival, spearheaded by Yeats, during the " Golden Age" in Ireland. They exemplified the Irish mythological tradition to sacrifice in the name of dead generations, and to pick up where the Young Irelanders left off.

Pearse and many of his comrades never entertained any hope of surviving the Rising, or of defeating the British. The 1916 rebel leaders operated on the assumption that sacrifice obeys the laws of myth not politics. An Irish victory could only spring from defeat, and demanded the death of Irish heroes. According to Pearse and his comrades, they would lose the victory in life, but "they would win it in death".

Kearney points out that in "The Coming Revolution" Pearse wrote: "we may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood." According to Kearney, the rebel leaders realized that an eternal victory could be ensured only by a Rising that "reached back to the roots of the Gaelic national spirit," and was energized by the memories of 1803, 1848, and 1867.

The poem, "Easter 1916", expresses Yeats's grief and horror at the events of Easter Week. Yeats began writing the poem within weeks of the executions in May 1916, and completed it two months later. The author initially withheld broad...
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