Easter 1916: ‘a terrible beauty is born’

Transformed: British soldiers on Henry Street, after the uprising left much of Dublin in ruins.

This weekend marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, the defining event of modern Irish republicanism and the inspiration for one of the greatest poems ever written. But was Yeats right?

MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.

These are the last six lines of Easter, 1916, one of the most powerful political poems of the 20th century by one of its greatest poets, the 1923 Nobel prize winner, Dublin-born WB Yeats.

This weekend the centenary of the event will be marked with parades in his native city. It was on Easter Monday a hundred years ago that Irish rebels seized strategic locations in Dublin, including the post office, and that the rebel leader Patrick Pearse declared Ireland a republic.

The British declared martial law, suspecting correctly that the rebels were colluding with their First World War enemy Germany. Within a week, they had crushed the uprising; 450 people were dead, thousands were imprisoned and 15 leaders shot dead by firing squad.

Irish hostility to Britain dated back centuries but flourished after unification in 1801. Catholic Irish in particular objected to rule by a Protestant country. Three rebellions broke out in the 19th century.

By 1914 the British government looked set to grant home rule and a nationalist who later fought in the uprising said he felt in ‘a very small minority’ for wanting more. When insurrection broke out, only some 1,500 people joined in. The rebels were widely dismissed as ‘rainbow chasers’.

But their cause gained sympathy after the rising was brutally crushed. In 1918 there were mass demonstrations against a British attempt to introduce conscription and republican party Sinn Fein won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the general election.

Within six years of the rebellion, a free state was established in Ireland (excluding Northern Ireland) after a war of independence. But civil war (1922-23) followed between the free state and republicans. Half a century later, the 29-year conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ began as attempts to share power in Northern Ireland failed. There remain sectarian tensions today.

‘Was it needless death after all?’

It may be a stunning poem, say some, but the event meant little. Few people joined the rebellion, and it was all over in a week. Many Irish people were calling for more power before it happened. This was just one more uprising among many; the events that followed were the result of long-term religious, ethnic and political tensions.

‘We know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead,’ wrote Yeats. The rebels inspired Catholics in Ireland to seek their independence, and generated a reaction from Protestants. They set the stage for the next 100 years of Irish history, and continue to be defining figures today and for the future.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever seek to justify violent rebellion?
  2. Do you agree with the message of Yeats in ‘Easter, 1916’?

Activities

  1. Try to write a summary of what Yeats is saying in his poem.
  2. Create a timeline including every event mentioned in this article. Give each one a mark out of 10, to show how much you think it changed Irish history.

Some People Say...

“The world can change in a moment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not Irish. Did this event change my life?
This story is really about national identity — how strongly people see themselves as part of a nation. Consider how you would respond if some people in your country started trying to break away from the people in charge to set up their own state. Would an event like the Easter Rising change your view on the subject and if so, how?
Hasn’t Ireland’s recent history been bloody?
Around 3,600 people died during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Groups on both sides of the divide — Catholic republicans, who wanted Irish rule, and Protestant loyalists, who supported the union with the UK — engaged in shocking attacks and atrocities and on some occasions British soldiers killed civilians. Violence often spread to the Republic of Ireland and the UK mainland.

Word Watch

Colluding
Britain captured a shipment of German arms on April 21st which was intended for the rebels.
450 people
254 were civilians.
Thousands
More than 3,000 people suspected of supporting the rising were imprisoned; 1,800 were jailed without trial in England.
Centuries
Henry VIII, who gained full control of Ireland in 1541, and Oliver Cromwell, who massacred 2,000 people at Drogheda in 1649, were loathed.
Rebellions
In 1803, 1848 and 1867.
Home rule
Ireland would remain in the United Kingdom, but have its own parliament.
Rainbow chasers
Idealists who dream of the impossible.
Sinn Fein
From the Irish Gaelic phrase meaning ‘we ourselves’. The party has always refused to sit in the Westminster parliament.
Free state
Declared in 1922, within the British Empire. The Republic of Ireland, 26 Irish counties, was established in 1949.
Northern Ireland
Six counties preferred to remain in the union with Britain.
Troubles
Militants from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought loyalists and British soldiers sent to keep peace, until an agreement to share power was made on Good Friday 1998.

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