The Easter Rising is a profoundly important moment in the struggle for liberation of the Irish people. The General Post Office of Ireland lies at the heart of this consequential event that helped to shape the Irish national identity. After many centuries of foreign occupation, the Easter Rising was pivotal in raising the Irish Tricolor to independence. A new exhibit commemorates 100 years since these events that were so crucial to building Ireland as it exists today.
We toured the General Post Office, more commonly known as the GPO, where the exhibit is housed. With an afternoon group, our tour guide left no evidence if she ever had to stop and wonder, “Wait a minute, did I already say that? Did I remember to tell them . . . ? Maybe that was the morning group?” Her words flowed with dense information in an articulate and engaging cadence. Her presentation was remarkably candid and balanced.
In brief, after several failed peaceful political campaigns for home rule, a small group of patriots seized an opportunity to strike the colonizing power. The convergence of the War to End All Wars, rampant hunger and poor housing conditions, a core group willing to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their compatriots, and a holiday weekend created a window of time with few troops on the ground, and the prospect of swift mobilization of the oppressed. As the center for communications and government services in Ireland, the rebels took the GPO as their headquarters. There were a number of glitches and events did not unfold as planned. After just six days of vicious warfare the resisting Irish Republicans surrendered. Four-hundred eighty-eight Irish and British perished during just one week of armed conflict.
Our guide did not have much opportunity to examine the Rising during her formal schooling. Only recently have these brutal events become an important part of the curriculum. She described the social, economic, and political contexts that set the scene for insurgency, including a rapid fall into poverty, labor unrest, and nation building tied to a cultural revival movement that would consolidate an Irish national identity. Since independence, many of Dublin’s streets and landmarks have been renamed for leaders of the Rising, suggesting its events have been sewn into the national culture for at least three generations. The discrepancy between the influence of the Rising and the time devoted to structured reflection and analysis in schools undoubtedly has multiple sources.
“The British could see something was happening, but unfortunately, they did not act quickly enough to take steps that could have prevented it.” Our guide’s tone was nonjudgemental, bordering on sympathetic towards a crass occupying force that had devastated many thousands of families. She repeated, “unfortunately, the British did not respond quickly enough . . .” each time she described the many lost opportunities to snuff the revolution before the first spark. Each time I heard “unfortunately,” I thought, “Is it really that unfortunate? Are you British?” Yes, people died, but far fewer than might have starved to death.
Militarily, the Easter Rising was a failure. But I find myself wondering, would there be an independent Irish Republic today had the Rising failed to ignite at all? As an ardent pacifist I am disturbed by my own thinking. Forty children died during the conflict, including a few still in prams. Is that ever justifiable?
Like so many wars, the immediate product of shots fired was urban chaos among a population who lived under conditions of extreme uncertainty. People who barely had enough resources to survive suddenly had even less. Raging artillery made the parks and sidewalks perilous. Many Irish men supported their families as soldiers in the British army and were deployed overseas. With the GPO closed, their families were no longer able to collect separation pay, though it is unclear if they would even have been eligible. Clashes within families roared with loyalties divided between continued employment as soldiers now ordered to quell the Rising, and fighting for freedom at the expense of their loved ones who suffered from hunger. Starving families looted shops for basic necessities. Strategically located, the flour mill and biscuit factory became outposts for the Republicans. The violent upheaval made poor and oppressive living conditions terrifying and out of control.
Rallying mass armed resistance came more slowly than anticipated due to a number of critical roadblocks created by those skeptical of the potential for success. The leaders pressed on, and support among the frenzied populace came too little too late. It did come as the British rulers commenced mass executions almost immediately, based on farce military tribunals. After the absurd execution of an Irish Republican who had sustained a fatally infected gunshot wound during battle, ravaged communities quickly committed their loyalty to the freedom movement, and the British oppressors saw the error of their ways. The firing squad was put to rest prematurely.
Ultimately, the hasty surrender and just 16 executed meant the final body count was much lower than it would have been had the vitriolic struggle ensued much longer. Without such overt and bloody injustice could there have been a catalytic event to enable the leaders of the Rising to organize mass resistance? Was the six-day savage war the ‘happy medium’ that (1) highlighted to the Irish communities just how shamelessly brutal the colonizers were; (2) signaled to the oppressors that the the Irish were no longer willing to compromise; and (3) still extinguished the movement before an all-out blood bath?
I am an unyielding pacifist. Violence is never justifiable. I am sickened by my own reflections.
What was the alternative? The crumbs of home rule offered by the ruling British government were scarcely an improvement over the status quo, and were withdrawn altogether under the guise of war in Europe. Certainly, freeing the people would have eliminated access to the Irish volunteer soldiers who were dependent the British for their survival. The volunteer soldiers would have died in the trenches anyway.
How is nonviolent resistance organized effectively under conditions of war? . . . when war is the excuse for justice delayed? . . . when the justice that is deferred is not really justice, but just another smokescreen to shuffle the actors without changing conditions or the source of power? . . . when the people are so hungry the war is the best opportunity for the most meager of livelihoods, inadequate as it may be?
War is never justifiable. Armed conflict is never justifiable. Self-defense, of course, is justifiable. Where is the line between armed conflict and immediate self-defense?
The nearly 500 casualties of the Easter Rising included military, leadership, and civilians alike, though it is difficult to differentiate civilians from rebels in any independence movement. Urban warfare leaves almost no distinction. Some of the forty children were active, if untrained, combatants. Many were just children caught in the crossfire. A hundred years later, one youth buried in a mass grave has yet to be identified by name. Therein lies the misfortune.
What are the long term consequences of armed versus nonviolent resistance?
A peace treaty between the British government and Irish Republicans was finally granted in 1922, an agreement much more favorable to Irish self-determination than any of the prior, watery home rule lip service. Though of course, a peace agreement did not end the conflict. Ireland achieved its own constitution in 1937. Finally the shackles of the colonizers were released entirely in 1949, two years after India’s successful nonviolent struggle for national independence, during which many Indians sacrificed their lives for their progeny. All the while has armed conflict of the Troubles persisted, largely in the Ulster region not included in the 1922 agreement. How quickly could the progression of self-determination and freedom and have occurred if the Rising did not? How many people would have died in a recurring chain of minor skirmishes along the way? What would a consolidated national Irish identity and culture embody today?
Nonviolent resistance is only effective when the oppressor is willing to respond with violence. Protests against oppressive leaders who simply allow resisters to express themselves do not change hearts or minds. Often resisters just annoy the neutral and innocent who are not directly affected. Disruption of the status quo forces a response, but the disruption must be felt most by the decision makers who hold the power. Like an abusive relationship, even when people are affected en masse, as they were in Ireland, often getting by is enough of a daily challenge that putting up with the strain of injustice is preferable to the uncertainty that results from demanding a change. The unfamiliar devil of escape, most assuredly, invites even more precarious daily threats. Nonviolence does not mean no one dies.
At the beginning of our tour through the GPO our guide clarified the exhibit is a commemoration, not a celebration. Time and reflection, undoubtedly influenced the tone of the exhibit and messages communicated today about the Rising. In its immediate aftermath the open wounds bled for some time. A discourse built on raw hurt and anger is more difficult to change than constructing a new curriculum built on the compassion of peeling scabs.
The barbarity of injustice cannot be dismantled by the trigger of a gun, the slice of a sword, or the blow of a fist or a billy club. To do so simply perpetuates the norms of injustice and positions the oppressed to become the oppressor if power ever changes hands. Indeed, this phenomenon has been a byproduct of the war for independence in the United States.
Violence is never justifiable.