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Unexecuted Ideas of an Irish Republic

There is still no government in Ireland, more than nine weeks after the general election knocked down the ruling coalition that had imposed Troika-mandated austerity. This means that Enda Kenny, after losing the first vote that would have re-elected him Taoiseach (prime minister), was presiding over the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising as the head of a “caretaker” government, a diminished position, to say the least. It was somehow appropriate that the commemorations of the rebellion that introduced the idea of the Irish Republic were held in the midst of contemporary political battles; less appropriate that the party still in charge was the one most historically opposed to the ideas the rebels of 1916 fought for.

The Rising of 1916 was a failure, if you’re counting battles won and Republics founded. But when they marched out from Liberty Hall, the uniformed and armed members of the labor-affiliated Irish Citizen Army, the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the women of Cumann na mBan already knew they would probably fail. And yet the rebel army took the General Post Office (GPO) and Pádraic Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on its steps on Sackville Street to confused passersby who had no idea that a revolution was scheduled, and the rebels held buildings all around town for days of British gunfire and shelling (you can still put your finger in the bullet holes in the pillars in front of the GPO) for the idea of a Republic, free of British rule. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible,” the Proclamation read.

Eventually, Pearse and its other signatories surrendered unconditionally—the people of Dublin had not risen with them; the rest of the Irish Volunteers had listened to the order calling the Rising off. The Republic was not to be—yet. But the executions of the rebel leaders turned the people of Ireland against British rule for good, and participants in the Rising went on to fight a guerrilla struggle for freedom that led to the Ireland we know today.

“We’ve all been involved in campaigns for years, you experience defeat more readily than you do victory,” Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin, newly elected to the Dáil this February in a historic high for the Republican[1] party, told me. “But what you realize from 1916 is that sometimes those defeats transform at a later stage into broader victories that can give you a sense of energy and enthusiasm to keep going.” 1916 was a dream of a Republic; Pearse and James Connolly, Thomas Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, and the rest died before they could be involved in the compromises made by those who survived. But walking the streets of Dublin on Easter week showed just how much power their dream still holds.

Easter Sunday morning I was awakened by the sound of loudspeakers blaring outside our hotel window, which opened onto O’Connell Street, where the state commemoration had begun. I flicked on the television and watched the broadcast from a hotel bed. O’Connell Street (formerly Sackville Street, and renamed in 1924 for the Irish Catholic nationalist whose statue presides over it) was lined with massive stands and fenced off from the general public, as if the government feared another Rising.

Ó Broin was inside the barriers with members of government, invited guests (including the British ambassador), and the families of those who fought in the Rising. He pointed to the difference between the day’s ceremonies and those from the fiftieth anniversary in 1966, circulating across social media, when thousands thronged over O’Connell Street. “I took my place in the stand because the people who elected me had a right to at least be represented in some shape or form,” he said, an allusion to the very different politics of his supporters and those of Fine Gael. “I also think that the government and Fianna Fáil would have been delighted if we didn’t attend because our presence probably makes them a little bit less comfortable than they would otherwise be.”

“Your militarism is OK. Anybody else’s is terrible and scary and oh what about the children watching?”

Despite the respect and general positive feelings for Irish president Michael D. Higgins, who did the wreath-laying on Easter Sunday at Kilmainham Gaol and the GPO, the state commemoration was a bit unseemly. The Proclamation of an Ireland “for all Irishmen and Irishwomen” was read to a crowd of international elites; a celebration of a Republic was blocked off from those who couldn’t claim the correct wealth or power or blood relation to those who fought for freedom. I don’t know what the 1916 rebels would have thought of the tanks that rolled down the center of Dublin in the military parade on Sunday—but tanks rolling through Irish streets have rarely ended well for Irish people, or any people, for that matter, and after spending the last year reporting the aftermath of tanks (MRAPs, but the effect is the same) in Ferguson, the militarism of it all made me shiver.

Pious establishment figures, of course, busily condemned the “violence” of the Rising, but cheered a pageant of guns and tanks and fighter planes, a reminder that it is not violence they dislike, but its use against institutions of power. (Wendy Lyon, a U.S.-born Irish solicitor and feminist organizer, noted that the same people would criticize Sinn Féin marches for militarism. “Your militarism is OK. Anybody else’s is terrible and scary and oh what about the children watching?”)

There was a lot of “did the heroes of 1916 die for this” going around on all sides over the centenary, the most ridiculous being the hand-wringing about a Luas tram strike. For the record, if one can ever presume to tell what dead radicals would do today, it’s almost certain that militant Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) secretary and socialist theorist James Connolly would have supported the right of workers to strike. Invoking national heroes to complain about a mild transportation inconvenience, complaining about a strike at all during the commemoration of a Rising that wrecked downtown Dublin without hope of victory—both seemed more than a little absurd, but it’s not news that we like our radicals safely buried, preferably martyred, where we can lay a wreath and sanctimoniously evoke their names to scold those who continue to struggle. And struggle was everywhere you cared to look on Easter Week, from the political tensions just under the surface of the polite state events to the posters for protests against water charges and for repealing the 8th amendment that keeps abortion illegal. 

The streets were clogged with 1916 tours, walking tours, bus tours, and even a tour in a vintage military truck (“non political and non biased”). Pubs had hung or painted pictures of the executed leaders in their windows, and a fancy department store prompted some giggles by displaying socialist Connolly in its display. Posters and banners hung everywhere, though some of those also misfired—Lorcan Collins, biographer of Connolly, host of a 1916 tour for twenty years, and editor of a series of books on 1916 leaders, wrote a letter to the Times concerning one such, hanging over the old Parliament building on College Green, featuring three men who were dead by the time of the Rising and one who staunchly opposed it. Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond certainly played important roles in Irish nationalist history, but leaders of the Rising they certainly were not. “Some ideas,” he commented, “like the men pictured, should remain unexecuted.”

On Good Friday, my partner and I began our day at Glasnevin Cemetery, where our tour guide indulged us with a performance of part of Pádraic Pearse’s oration over the grave of O’Donovan Rossa and Easter lilies decorated the graves of Republican dead. Glasnevin is the final resting place of so many heroes of Irish history, political, revolutionary, literary and otherwise, from Daniel O’Connell to dramatist, wit, and IRA member Brendan Behan, to Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who carried the surrender order from the final Army Council of the Rising to the British army. Women like O’Farrell, Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn, and Margaret Skinnider fought alongside the men of the Citizen Army thanks to James Connolly’s feminist beliefs, tended to the rebel army wounded, and ultimately carried the surrender—but then lived to fight on through the war of independence and the Irish Civil War. The graveyard also houses at least one major villain—William Martin Murphy, “businessman and politician” according to his tombstone, mastermind of the 1913 Dublin workers’ lockout, when businessmen collaborated to crush the ITGWU.

“Some ideas, like the men pictured, should remain unexecuted.”

From there, we made our way back toward town, stopping on Wolfe Tone Quay (named for yet another revolutionary hero) where Sinn Féin and its supporters marched from Kilmainham Gaol, the prison where the Republicans were held and the fourteen Easter Rising leaders shot—Connolly, wounded and battling gangrene, carried in on a stretcher and strapped to a chair to meet his death; Clarke, who refused the attentions of a priest who wanted him to show remorse; Plunkett, who had married his sweetheart just the night before and got a full ten minutes of a wedding night, to say goodbye to his new wife under the eyes of prison guards (these are the stories that turned the country in favor of the rebels)—to their graves at Arbour Hill, another prison that, unlike Kilmainham, still houses prisoners.

The march was filled with everyday people, some in period dress, some in uniforms that evoked those worn by the fighters of the Rising. Marching bands from the U.S., complete with bagpipes, and labor unions who had likewise traveled across the ocean joined the Irish in celebrating. We fell in with it as it walked up the final blocks to Arbour Hill, and aside from admonishment from a marshal to stay in three single-file lines, no one questioned our right to be there.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’s deep voice, once banned from television in Ireland and England, rang out across the Arbour Hill cemetery, evoking the spirit of 1916 as a message from the past to shape the Republic of the future. Adams, unlike the current “caretaker government,” was calling for change, evoking the Proclamation to measure how far the current Irish state falls short: “A genuine republic would not allow homelessness to reach emergency proportions, would not tolerate the scandal and indignities in our hospital A&E wards and would not facilitate the huge levels of disadvantage and inequality which exist in this society.”

The Rising is not, it turns out, entirely dead. The past, to paraphrase a much-evoked sentiment from William Faulkner, is not even past.

Moore Street. / Sarah Jaffe

By Easter Monday, the stands had come down and the streets instead were filled with people, as a street fair spread across the city’s parks. But Moore Street was still fenced off, as another wreath-laying was planned outside the building where the final order to surrender was given, as the leaders who had fled the burning GPO met for the final time. Outside the fences, a group of protesters stood behind a banner reading “Save Moore Street From Demolition,” chanting, “Whose history? Our history!” Niamh McDonald of the Save Moore Street campaign, dressed in purple tweed period attire, explained to me, “Up to last week we’ve been fighting to preserve the buildings of Moore Street through direct action and last week the high court ruled that the whole of Moore Street is a battle site monument. But the contradiction today is that the Minister for Heritage, Heather Humphreys, who wanted to tear all the buildings besides four down, fought against us in the high court and now today on the anniversary of the rising, she’s on Moore Street laying a wreath. So we see the blatant hypocrisy of the state and we decided today that we would organize a protest against her.”

The protesters have repeatedly put their bodies on the line to save the historic building from demolition, from a five-day occupation in January to a “citizen’s injunction” where they blocked the front and rear entrances to the buildings for thirty-eight days. But beyond saving their history—the campaign included family members of James Connolly and The O’Rahilly, who died around the corner from Moore Street—the campaigners considered their fight a bigger one, against the forces of gentrification in the country. “Moore Street represents what Dublin is,” McDonald said. “It’s always been a place of diversity, it represents an older type of Dublin, a Dublin where there was trading, before we were covered in chain stores and fast food outlets. This is one of the first places that migrants will come to in Dublin because as you can see there is Indian, African, everything here.” 

For McDonald (and others), immigrants were part of what made Dublin great; her type of nationalism is opposed to colonization, not to migrants searching for a better life, and she made the connection between the British Empire’s occupation of the past and the multinationals who continue to exploit Ireland today.

“There’s a certain irony in hearing austerity government ministers reading the sections of the Proclamation which talk about cherishing the children of the nation equally.”

Humphreys was not just a representative of the battle for Moore Street, but a representative of the hated austerity government. “Our homeless crisis is phenomenal at the moment and there’s so many empty buildings, rents are rising high. This is the big global corporations coming in, taking up our land, raising up prices, so the ordinary everyday people don’t have access to the city, they don’t have a right to the city. So we should be fighting, this is one big enemy.” She compared Dublin to New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and other gentrifying cities across the globe, and Eoin Ó Broin noted that the street traders in Moore Street had been arrested for resisting the government’s attempt to drive them off the street, years before, in a previous attempt to replace market stalls with malls. “There’s a certain irony in hearing government ministers reading the sections of the Proclamation which talk about cherishing the children of the nation equally or the wealth of the nation belonging to the whole nation,” he pointed out, “but at the same time those phrases have real significance and resonance.” For the protesters in Moore Street, certainly, they were words that held power.

As Lorcan Collins led a group of American union leaders through the streets to the shadow of Liberty Hall where massive multi-story banners hung, and down Moore Street to the corner where The O’Rahilly died, he told me that the state’s relationship with 1916 had, if anything, improved since he launched the first tour twenty years ago. He had been living in England in the 1990s and, on coming back to Ireland with friends, ridden an open-top bus tour of Dublin. He had been excited to reach the GPO to tell the story of the Rising: “when we get there your man goes ‘there’s the GPO, you can buy your stamps there,’ and I was going ‘Jesus, there’s much more of a story there,’” he said. When Collins asked the tour guide why he didn’t mention the Rising, he said he was told it was for fear of offending English visitors. 

“When we get there your man goes ‘there’s the GPO, you can buy your stamps there,’ and I was going ‘Jesus, there’s much more of a story there.’”

When Collins began his 1916 Rebellion tour, the tourism authority wouldn’t let him become a member. “The state’s feeling on ’16 was that this would be a perpetuation of violence, which is rubbish,” he said. Instead, people are interested in 1916 because it was the beginning of the concept of the Republic, the desire for a united and free Ireland. “We’ve got this hand-wringing hat-doffing revisionism that’s been going around for fifty years here, this fear that the British are going to be offended by us wanting to talk about our revolution.”

He traced some of that to the counter-revolution that came after the battle for independence, where those who took power in the Irish free state, as he sees it, turned away from the values of the Republican leaders and maintained an unequal nation: “Those concepts of equal rights and equal opportunity were completely obliterated, even to the extent in de Valera’s constitution that women take a second place in society. We have a line in our constitution, the state shall endeavor to ensure that the mother does not have to leave home in order to procure work.” While Catholicism was not made the official state religion, he noted, the constitution for a long time recognized the “special position” of the Catholic church, which continues to control nearly all of state-funded primary schools.  

The women of the Rising, meanwhile, were featured more prominently this year, thanks to a push by Irish feminists, who have been rebelling for years against the social conservatism of the existing state. One tweet, responding to an article on the failure to live up to the promises the Proclamation made to Irish women, noted archly that the British executed Connolly and let de Valera live. De Valera, infamously, was the only leader of the Rising who refused to allow women to serve under him; his life was spared by the British because he was a U.S. citizen. Constance Markievicz, who protested when she too was spared from the firing squad because of her gender, became the first woman elected to Parliament—but her presence alone wasn’t enough to make up for the influence of the Church.

For today’s feminists, socialists, Republicans, its victims of austerity, and the homeless who now crowd Dublin’s streets, the promise of 1916 remains unfulfilled, but the celebration showed cracks through which the ideas of the Proclamation can still be glimpsed. “Not only remembering the ideas but asking yourself what’s the relevance of these ideas today, to critiquing the society we live in and to doing what the men and women of 1916 tried to do, which is create a better society,” Eoin Ó Broin said. “I think in some of the state events that bit of it clearly wasn’t there, and that can’t be an accident.”

On Easter Saturday, a group of young leftists gathered at a punk space in Dublin to toast the Rising and the launch of Jacobin magazine’s “Between the Risings” issue with readings, performances, and dancing. One young woman spoke of her work with survivors of symphysiotomy, an operation performed on Irish women, by doctors with the encouragement of the Church, during childbirth that “effectively unhinges the pelvis,” while another performed an excerpt from a play she had written about a new Rising, of youth against the current state.

“If you look around this weekend, it shows you the depth of the reservoir of organizational and discursive power that’s in that Republican tradition,” Ó Broin told me later. “That revolutionary generation from 1890 to 1920 was a very disparate group of people, from suffragettes to trade unionists to socialists to Fenian Democrats to Gaelic League activists to cooperative initiators but the one thing that bound them up, despite their differences in strategy and tactics, is they believed they have the power to take control of this world and remake it in a radically different kind of way. It’s that broader idea that we can change history, that we have that power.”


[1] In the Irish sense, which couldn’t be more different than the U.S. sense—believers in the Republic proclaimed on Easter 1916, an Irish self-governed independent state free of English rule.