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 publication, only sharing the poem with a close circle of friends until 1920.
At first reading, the poem is bewildering. Readers are not sure if the author is celebrating or condemning the rebel leaders and their insurrection. We know that Yeats is acquainted with the rebel leaders, but only in passing. Yeats’ reference to ‘motley’ clothing indicates that some of the leaders were affiliated with the Abbey Theatre, the world of actors and clowns, a group rarely consumed by serious issues in Irish society: “Being certain that they and I/But lived where motley is worn:”
Yeats acknowledges early in the first stanza that despite their hum-drum middle-class identities, (a frequent target for Yeats’ scorn) the rebels’ “vivid faces” betray a vibrant idealism and youthful enthusiasm, their eyes fixed on a changing future. Yeats cannot help but notice how the men stand out starkly against the background of an age gone by, the aristocratic and orderly world of Yeats:
“I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Kearney asserts that Yeats’s use of “is” rather than “was” at the end of stanza one, forewarns of the tragic conflict to come. According to Kearney, Yeats emphasizes a central theme to the poem, that “beauty is the offspring of terror.” Horrific beauty is the offspring of terror, “born” not once, but something to be perpetually ‘reborn’ now and in times to come:
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
In the second stanza Yeats publicly apologizes and expresses his new-found respect for the middle-class. The author is compelled to revise his earlier ideas expressed in ” September 1913.” Yeats pays humble tribute to the executed leaders as he one by one establishes their place in history. Of Pearse, a poet, writer and the head of St. Edna’s, and MacDonagh, denied an opportunity to earn his own role as an Irish writer, by his untimely death, Yeats writes:
“This man had kept a school
and rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend,
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.”
Although Yeats cannot forget MacBride’s shortcomings and brutal treatment of Maude Gonne, he begrudgingly admits that the heroic sacrifice redeems any clown that has “resigned his part” in the “casual comedy” of Irish life:
“This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;”
Yeats withholds any kind words for Constance Markiewicz, who by her exalted origin, escaped the executioner’s hand. The author chooses rather to look fondly on her earlier aristocratic days before she lost her innocent sweetness to the political cause and took up with the middle-class mob:
“That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?”
In the third stanza Yeats uses imagery to establish two opposing concepts, one of life, full of dynamic and constant change, and its counterpart, a lifeless embedded rock. Here Yeats begins to disclose the downside of the heroics and blood sacrifice of Easter Week. Yeats compares their single-minded devotion for the cause of Irish freedom, to a stone unaffected by the sights, sounds and beauty of ever-changing nature. ” Hearts with one purpose alone” become the eternal antagonist “To trouble the living stream.” All is meaningless to hearts that reject all of life’s little pleasures, but possess one reason only to beat onward:
“Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.”
David Lloyd’s essay, The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State helps to explain the paradox of the poem that begins to reveal itself in the second and third stanzas. The transformation of middle-class citizens into martyrs, and the political gains achieved through their heroic deaths, results in a troubled tension.
The “living stream” of pragmatism faces an endless conflict with the symbolic “stone” of single- minded devotion to Irish nationalism. Yeats leaves no doubt that the “stone” has permanently altered the course of Irish history.
The “stone” remains implanted “in the midst of all.” Paradoxically, the ideology that gave birth to the Irish Free State, also anchored Irish nationalists to one rigid and unyielding political objective, a free and independent United Ireland.
Consequently, the “stone” in the “living stream” represents a double status obliged to subsequent questioning of the rebellion’s role in Irish history.
In the closing stanza of the poem, Yeats begins to inject sceptism, and possibly criticism into his commemorative poem.
“Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.”
Using Pearse’s own phrase “Excess of love” Yeats asks:
“And what if excess of love
bewildered them till they died?”
Yeats implies, as most revisionists do, that England may have come through with Home Rule at the close of World War I, and wonders:
“Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.”
Yet, Yeats’s admiration for the rebels’ deed seems untainted by any sense of an unnecessary loss of life. In his tribute to the rebel leaders, Yeats omits the name of Lady Markiewicz. He adds instead, James Connolly, second-in-command of the rebellion and later executed. Yeats extends to them an eternal place in Irish history:
“I write it out in a verse –
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.”
Yeats’s final opinion of the rebellion remains a subject for debate even today. In an essay titled, “What Stalked through the Post Office?” Augustine Martin writes that Yeats’s position on Irish nationalism vacilitated for most of his life, he had no ” single idea of revolution.”
What began as a simple but romantic vision of an Ireland redeemed by blood sacrifice in Cathleen ni Houlihan, at the turn of the century, moves on to break with the Young Ireland movement in his tortured but commemorative testament, “Easter 1916.” Later, Yeats shifts to celebrate the physical force tradition in “The Rose Tree” then ultimately gives a direct tribute to the rebel leaders in “Sixteen Men Dead.”
John Unterecker, author of A Reader’s Guide To William Butler Yeats, believes that “Yeats never abandoned his notion of the heroic sacrifice of that Easter Rising” . However, Unterecker adds that Yeats believed the movement itself had ” fallen into disorder; the mob, greedy opportunists, corrrupted the men and women who fought for them.”
“Easter 1916” and the uprising it commemorates transcend any single idea, event or purpose. Yeats asks “O when may it suffice?” – seeking an end to the need for any death in pursuit of political gains. Long after the Rising, the cultic sacrifice of Pearse and his comrades retains the power to light the torch of revolutionary republicanism. The rifle and rebel displaced the poet and poet’s pen, following the events of Easter Week.
The combined contemporary political forces of 1916 including the conservative nationalism of John Redmond, the Home Rule Party and Yeats himself, failed to stem the tide of the rebellion’s political and cultural aftermath. The British executions delivered death to the Irish rebels, and simultaneously gave life to a new group of Irish martyrs. Events that spanned just a couple of weeks in 1916, ultimately drove a stake through the heart of constitutionalism nationalism, and Yeats’s idea of a romantic, aristocratic Anglo- Irish Ireland.
Kearney informs us that shortly after Yeats wrote “Easter 1916,” posters emerged around Dublin, paying tribute to the fallen martyrs. One poster depicted Patrick Pearse in a pieta position, supported by a tricolour-waving Mother Erin. The poster’s caption read ‘All Is Changed’. The Irish people wasted little time fulfilling Pearse’s prediction in his surrender statement to the British authorities, that though the Irish lost their victory in life, “they would win it in death”.
Irish history after 1916 confirms Yeats’ fear of a cultic immortalization of the leaders’ blood sacrifice. The middle- class rebels whom Yeats held in such contempt, were responsible for all that was “utterly changed” and the “terrible beauty” that was born.
Twelve months before his death, Pearse spoke at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa. Three-quarters of a century later, his immortalised words represent the heart of Irish republicanism: “life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living waters…The fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
The executed patriots did indeed leave behind a legacy. The memory of their sacrifice continues to rise from their graves and inspire future generations to the cult of martyrdom.
“Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
Allison, Johathan, ed. Yeats’s Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide To William Butler Yeats. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974.