Written on: 22. 4. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

One Hundred and Five Years of Folly and Counting….

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This piece first appeared in ‘The Catholic Herald’ in 2016 and is being re-published here at the request of readers and to mark the 105th anniversary of the April insurrection of 1916. Additions to the original piece are in italics.

The Easter Rising in Dublin by the paramilitary Irish Volunteers, with the intention of overthrowing British rule in Ireland, failed every single test that would make any war moral. Firstly, no oppression existed that would have justified violence; indeed, the very vocally anti-British Irish Volunteers had repeatedly marched, underarms, through the capital. Moreover, another, non-violent method to achieve independence existed – namely a parliamentary campaign that had already managed to put limited self-government – ‘home rule’ – for Ireland on the statute-book. However, because of the outbreak of war, this had not yet been implemented.

Then there was the issue of proportionality. Any potential gains from the use of violence would be vastly outweighed by the human cost. The insurgents hoped for an insurrectionary war to follow the rising, which would certainly have led to a civil war in Ulster, where unionists had already armed themselves against the prospects of even moderate home rule. Moreover, the insurgents’ hailing of Germany as their ‘gallant allies’, would have obliged the British, in the midst of a war of national survival, to respond in full and terrible measure.

Some still argue that rebels’ proclamation was far-sighted, tolerant and egalitarian. Not so. It was a masterpiece of humbug. Even as its solemn undertakings to protect the rights and liberties of all Irishmen and Irishwomen were being pronounced outside Dublin’s General Post Office, two streets away, an unarmed policeman, Constable James O’Brien was being killed by gunmen. Nearby, an unarmed, off-duty duty soldier, John Humphries – an Irishman: only Irish infantry regiments remained in the city – was shot through the head while window-shopping. Then another unarmed Irish policeman, Michael Lahiff, was murdered in a city centre park by the preposterously self-styled countess and socialist, Constance Markievitz.

Nine children were killed in street violence in the hours after the proclamation, 16% of the day’s death- toll. Fifteen-year-old Eleanor Warbrook, a Dublin working-class Protestant girl, was remonstrating with some rebels, one of whom drew a gun and at point-blank range shot her dead. A fellow-insurgent later reported: “I just remember seeing her head and face disappear as she went down like a sack.”

Some rebels took over the women’s hospital of the poor house, the South Dublin Union. Nurses and patients were ordered to remain while the insurgents turned it into a strong point for ambushing ‘British’ reinforcements – in reality, men of the Royal Irish Regiment. This was a violation of the first paragraph of the Geneva Convention, which specifically outlaws the militarisation of hospitals. In the ensuing gunfight, eleven soldiers, two patients and a nurse were killed.

The rebellion was, however, smaller than intended. The commander of the Irish Volunteers, Professor Eoin MacNeill, did not realise that a pro-German republican cabal inside his organisation had secretly planned an insurrection, using his Volunteers. Moreover, most of these were unaware that they were to take part in a rebellion, believing that they were about to participate in armed manoeuvres through the city of the kind that they had performed before, with no attempt to stop or disarm them by the pusillanimous British authorities. Furthermore, the German navy had arranged to land 20,000 rifles to the insurrectionaries, meaning that they would outgun the 10,000-strong RIC. Meanwhile, the German fleet planned a major assault on Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth to coincide with the rebellion. A previous such attack on Scarborough had caused some seven hundred casualties. Thus would Britain be under simultaneous attack, east and west.

However, a last-minute countermanding order by Professor MacNeill meant that many Irish Volunteers didn’t turn out, and others crept home when they discovered what was afoot. Meanwhile, the weapons-shipment was intercepted by the Royal Navy. The attack on East Anglia went off half-cock, and killed only three people, though it damaged two hundred houses. Nonetheless, the real purpose of the rebellion was not just to secure an Irish Republic, but to bring about a German victory over Britain, Ireland’s only neighbour and trading partner. This was irrationality of truly epic proportions.

Within twenty-four hours, the British Army was in command of most of Dublin, and only a few rebel strongholds remained. However, reinforcements arriving from Britain were slaughtered in an ambush. Some civilians, including a prominent nationalist named Sheehy-Skeffington, were murdered by an insane army officer, Bowen-Colthurst, himself an Irishman. Other civilians (all pro-British unionists) and two Army officers in the Guinness brewery were murdered by some panic-stricken Dublin Fusiliers. But of course, the only killing of this group that is remembered today is of Sheehy-Skeffington. Some civilians were also shot and bayonetted by men of the Staffordshire Regiment in the last day or so, before the insurgent leaders surrendered.

Fourteen of these were subsequently shot. By contrast, in 1916 alone, the British Army shot one hundred and eight of their own soldiers. So if an armed Irish insurrection in which some five hundred people were killed went seriously unpunished,   how could Britain possibly impose the recently-introduced conscription on its own civilian population? Moreover, in 1914, the insurgents’ ‘gallant allies’, the Germans, had executed some eight thousand Belgian and French civilians, while their gallant allies, the Austrians had executed some one hundred and fifty Serb civilians in Bosnia. These figures are dwarfed by the deeds of the last of the gallant allies, the Ottoman empire, which the previous year had murdered hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

Within eighteen months of the rebellion, most of the insurgents who had been captured and interned were released. Seldom has clemency been so ill-rewarded. Republicans ran a ruthless campaign of personation and intimidation for the general election of 1918, winning a clear majority of seats in southern Ireland, but with only 47% of the total vote. The votes of many tens of thousands of Irish soldiers went missing. The IRA then began an insurgency against the police force, the RIC, which consisted almost entirely of Irish Catholics, and was led by an Irish Catholic from County Derry, Brigadier General James Aloysius Byrne (the last Catholic from what was to become Northern Ireland to achieve general rank in the British army). The army itself was only later drawn into the conflict, in which it had a minor role. Figures for Army casualties are imprecise, but about 177 were killed by enemy action before the truce, with another sixteen being killed in truce-violations afterwards. Some 76 soldiers were killed off-duty or as captives. It was that kind of war. Of the roughly 500 policemen killed, 168 were killed off-duty, fourteen of them entering or leaving church.

Peace talks ended with what was effectively a British victory. The British retained control of the vital Atlantic ports of Queenstown and Lough Swilly, members of the Irish Parliament would swear an oath of allegiance to the King, and a unionist-governed Northern Ireland (with its appalled population of unwilling Catholics, to whose fate the Dublin insurgents had never given a second thought) would remain within the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish people would have to pay both for the vast amount of infrastructural damage done to their country by the IRA and, most cruelly of all, their share of the British war debt and pensions for many of the British security forces.

Ireland thereafter lived for fifty years in self-imposed Catholic isolation and poverty as proof of how enduring toxic ideas can be, even when visibly ruinous. Irish governments banned divorce and all forms of contraception and proudly implemented the most draconian censorship any democracy has ever known: in 1956, a government minister actually boasted that over five thousand books were currently banned. Meanwhile, emigration was a norm: by 1968, a majority of people born in the 26 Counties of independent Ireland were living abroad. Meanwhile, the Catholics of Northern Ireland remained locked in a state which openly despised and marginalised them, but nonetheless, their population continued to rise both absolutely and proportionately. But in 1970, just as civil rights laws were undoing their second-class citizenship, inspired by the militarist absolutism of 1916, the IRA started another war, with thousands more dying before the 1997 ceasefire.

The 1916 insurrection was actually not ‘republican’ in the French sense but intensely Catholic in the Irish sense. Whenever possible the insurgents recited the rosary with an almost hysterical fervour, for ‘the rising’ (as it was deliberately called) was – at leadership level anyway – a suicide cult intended to parallel Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Since His last words in Gethsemane were, ‘he that lives by the sword will die by the sword’, to mount a murderous insurrection to coincide with Easter was profoundly blasphemous. Nonetheless, the Irish Catholic Church – these days a broken, spiritless, fawning creature, like the lowest chimpanzee in a Jane Goodall horror-show – has acquiesced in the Irish government’s decision to commemorate the rebellion not on April 24th, its chronological anniversary, but on Easter Monday, its ecclesiastical one. However, there is a certain grim merit in this: that the hierarchy today is not objecting to such sacrilegious exploitation of the torment, torture, murder and resurrection of the Redeemer of Mankind, accurately reflects the theological vapidity of Irish Catholicism down the ages.

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