As Ireland prepares to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Heather Jones traces how this failed military insurrection against British rule – mounted by a small, unrepresentative minority of Irish republicans – has evolved as a source of pride, division and controversy across the island over the course of a tumultuous century.

History and politics, so common as a joint degree subject, make more awkward bedfellows in real life. Few politicians are keen on nuanced, messy and complex historical narratives, particularly when it comes to winning votes. In the Republic of Ireland, where the government has just launched an election campaign, historical commemoration is particularly high-stakes this year as the state marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter uprising against British rule, considered its spiritual foundation moment. Commemoration is a potential vote-winner if handled well. If botched, it risks reviving old antagonisms towards Britain, long blamed for its ruthless execution of the uprising leaders which shocked Irish public opinion at the time and since.

While an election will occur before the major commemmorations in March, the current coalition government in the Republic of Ireland is dominated by Fine Gael, for whom the need to prove its 1916 commemoration credentials is particularly important. Fine Gael, like almost all the major Irish political parties in the Republic, can trace a historical lineage back to the Easter Rising. However, as every Irish schoolchild learns, the Easter Rising of 1916 was a spectacular military failure. Its leaders were executed, rendering them romantic – and conveniently politically unaffiliated – republican ghosts.

In the Rising’s aftermath, in 1919, a war of independence broke out as successors to the rebels of 1916 sought to fulfil their dream of a 32-county Irish republic, and to violently bring about the complete secession of Ireland from the United Kingdom. When London compromised in 1921 and agreed an Anglo-Irish treaty that allowed 26 Irish counties to become an independent Free State dominion of the Empire, with the six counties of Northern Ireland, which had a unionist majority, remaining within the UK, civil war broke out in Ireland. On the one side stood those who accepted the Free State as a means to work politically towards a full republic – Fine Gael’s predecessors. On the other side ranged more radical die-hard republicans, encouraged by Éamon de Valera, who believed Britain’s treaty offering was inadequate and fell short of the 1916 dream of a 32-county republic for all of Ireland. The radicals lost, but the civil war was bitter. For much of the 20th century, politics in the Republic of Ireland remained frozen around the cleavage it created, punctuated by accusations that those who accepted the Anglo-Irish treaty back in the 1920s had sold-out on the purity of the 1916 rebels’ original republican vision. Such accusations continued even after the Irish Free State morphed into a self-declared republic in 1949 and left the Commonwealth.

A cautious kind of pride

All the more reason, then, that Fine Gael – descended from those prepared to compromise in 1921–23 – might be rather anxious about the success of its plans for commemorating the Easter Rising this year. Indeed, the idea of commemoration was initially so fraught that the first press conference in 2014, held to launch the state’s commemorative plans for the centenary, descended into farce. Playing safe, the glossy video the government issued to the press to celebrate the 1916 centenary contained no images of the 1916 rebel leaders, or any actual reference to the 1916 uprising being commemorated; it emphasised instead the delights of modern Ireland, and five themes: ‘remember, reconcile, imagine, present and celebrate’. With no historical content, it was roundly lambasted by historians.

The government and its historical advisory committee rapidly rushed back to the drawing board, and a range of more historically grounded commemorative plans were developed and unveiled in the past year, including Irish language projects and the restoration of 1916 rebellion commemorative sites. In 2015, Fine Gael’s leader and Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny also endorsed the reburial in a family plot of Thomas Kent, one of the 1916 rebels executed by the British authorities in the wake of the Rising and buried in a rough barracks grave. In a graveside oration, Kenny said, ‘Today Ireland comes to reflect on his courage, his dignity, his defiance, his sacrifice. We come to claim and acclaim and to thank Thomas Kent.’[1] The historical echoes to one of the most famous radical republican speeches in Irish history – made in 1915 by Patrick Pearse at the graveside of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – were deliberate. From initially being accused of too severely downplaying the politics of the Rising in their commemorative plans, the government moved to appeal to what it saw as the patriotic mainstream of Irish public opinion, which sees the aims of the Easter Rising as a source of pride, even if its violence remains far more controversial.

Three problems: First, history hasn’t ended

Why was the government so cautious? The 1916 commemorations raise some very awkward and potentially combustible historical issues. First, there is the problem that the rebels’ aspirations for a 32-county Irish republic have not been achieved. The Easter Rising was designed by its organisers – the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret society – as both a military insurrection in which key buildings in Dublin city centre would be seized, but also as a political manifesto. At the start of the Rising, the rebels, whose leaders were gifted writers, issued a lyrically written proclamation of Irish independence in which they declared a socially egalitarian Irish republic. The proclamation – pasted to Dublin’s walls and also read out at the rebels’ headquarters in Dublin’s general post office (GPO) by Patrick Pearse, the man chosen as president of this new republic – remains unfulfilled to this day, and is the Rising’s most potent legacy. As a result, the Easter Rising represents for Ireland both a historical event but also a live ongoing political agenda, complicating commemoration of it. The proclamation, with its call to cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally’, remains dear to much of the Irish public: it has been placed at the heart of this year’s commemorations, with the Irish army delivering a copy of it – together with the national tricolour flag, first flown by the rebels in 1916 as a symbol of their new Republic – to every school in the state.

If the Easter Rising is an unfinished political manifesto, this, of course, matters most with regard to Northern Ireland, which is still the subject of aspirational irredentist dreams on the part of radical republicans. One reason for the reticence of the initial commemoration plans is that there is still a widespread belief that the extreme nationalist tone of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 radicalised political attitudes, and helped pave the way for the outbreak of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ in 1969. The 1966 commemorations in the Irish Republic included a major nationalist pageant, named ‘Mise Éire’ (‘I am Ireland’) after a poem by Pearse, which was broadcast live from Croke Park; the television mini-series ‘Insurrection’; and, infamously, a military 21-gun salute from the roof of the GPO. It was credited with infusing a generation of young Irish teenagers with the belief that there was an imperative to use violence to free Ireland. Even if historians now believe the impact of the 1966 commemorations on the outbreak of the Troubles to have been overstated, the celebrations still terrified and alienated Northern unionists in equal measure. The extreme emphasis on the devout Catholicism of the Rising’s leaders’ (somewhat tendentiously in the case of the socialist James Connolly), and on Ireland as a Catholic nation, in the 1966 anniversary events left no space for Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority.

Although the political and social landscape of the Republic has changed radically since 1966, there are still very real fears that commemorations may again prove divisive. When, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s highly successful 2011 visit to the Republic, plans were mooted to invite a member of the British royal family to attend the main commemorative event of the Rising’s centenary – the military parade through Dublin on Easter Sunday – many of the families of those who carried out the Rising protested. The idea was also unpopular among the general public, in part because of the security issues it would raise, but also because, while many aspects of the historiography of the Rising have been revised and emerged as more complex in popular discourse in the past 10 years – particularly with the release of a wealth of new witness statements from those involved, and their pension applications – the perceived role of the British has remained largely unchanged. Britain’s part remains that of a ruthless and reactionary oppressor, its motivations still occluded in a historical narrative that focusses on the poignant details of the executions: James Connolly, dying and unable to stand, shot while strapped to a chair; Joseph Plunkett, marrying in prison just hours before he met the firing squad. The voices and experiences of those from Britain who were involved in the Rising, but on the other side, remain largely silent. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand may have held hands at Verdun, but it seems that the 2016 centenary of the Rising cannot choreograph a similar symbolic show of intimacy at its GPO battlefield site. The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, has refused her invitation to join the commemorations. Meanwhile, 1916 societies have mushroomed across Northern Ireland over the past two years, providing a rallying platform for republicanism.

It remains to be seen how the Northern Irish devolved government will handle the centenary. However, from the 1960s onwards, the memory and legacy of the Rising began to matter more in the north than in the south – something of a paradox, given that in 1916 the north of Ireland was not particularly involved in the Rising. Although some key IRB men involved in the planning of the insurgency came from the north, the main figure among them, Bulmer Hobson, opposed the action as he believed it had little chance of success. The Rising itself was almost entirely limited to Dublin. Moreover, in the 1918 general election, while the surviving rebels and their supporters swept to a landslide victory across much of Ireland under the banner of the Sinn Féin party – wiping out the moderate nationalist Home Rule party that had dominated the political landscape of Irish nationalism before the first world war – nationalist Belfast re-elected the Home Rule candidate Joe Devlin.

Second, Sinn Féin then and now

This raises the second problem that commemorating the Rising poses: how to deal with Sinn Féin, the most irredentist of Irish nationalist republican parties and the only party to campaign in elections both north and south of the border. In the Republic, its recent growth means it may even become the leading opposition party. In commemorating the Rising, Sinn Féin is able to benefit from an accident of history: unsure of who was behind the 1916 insurrection, the British authorities, the press and contemporary eyewitnesses labelled it ‘the Sinn Féin rebellion’. This error stemmed from the fact that some of the 1916 IRB leaders were also part of the Sinn Féin movement, which had been founded in 1905 as a nationalist political group that promoted various forms of moderate Irish separatism from Britain. Sinn Féin itself did not plan or participate in the rebellion at the time: rather, it became the political party of choice for surviving rebels in its aftermath. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin has opted to run its own programme of commemorative events parallel to the official state ones in the Irish Republic – the only one among the multiple parties that lay claim to the mantle of the successors of 1916 that has decided to do so. It seems, for the general public and particularly for younger voters, to have reinvented itself. However, its close association with the modern IRA’s armed campaign – which sought to fulfil the 1916 rebels’ aims through violence, and which aimed to not only destroy the Northern Irish regime but also to overthrow the government of the Republic of Ireland in order to achieve a 32-county republic – means that it remains a pariah party in political circles, and so has little hope of forming part of any coalition government. How to commemorate the Rising without bolstering Sinn Féin north and south is, therefore, a conundrum for the Irish government.

Third, democracy and violence at home and abroad

The third clear problem involved in commemorating the Rising is the rather thorny fact that the militants who seized Dublin in 1916 had no democratic mandate. The last election before the Rising saw the vast majority of nationalist constituencies elect Home Rule candidates, in support of the campaign of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster for devolved government for Ireland within the United Kingdom. The majority of the nationalist population was satisfied with the passing of the home rule bill in 1912; it was due for implementation pending the end of the first world war. Even within the ranks of republicanism, the Rising was carried out by a small minority. The IRB military council that organised it represented a handful of secret conspirators: the bulk of the Rising’s combatants were from a small rump group of radical militants within the Irish Volunteers – a pro-Home Rule militia, most of whose other members were then fighting for the British army in France – and the Citizen Army, a tiny socialist militia. Many leading nationalists, such as Eoin MacNeill, opposed a Rising in the belief that it could not succeed militarily; MacNeill famously countermanded the orders to rise up, forcing the IRB to postpone its Rising from the highly symbolic resurrection day, Easter Sunday, to Easter Monday. The message overall – one that the IRA subsequently emphasised during the Troubles – was that a democratic mandate was unnecessary for a minority when it came to fighting to create an all-island Republic.

Ultimately, it is the fact that the 1916 Rising represents an endorsement of violence that is deeply problematic for modern Irish sensibilities, and which has been the subject of a great deal of debate in the press. Despite intelligence monitoring, the rebels’ separatist violence came out of the blue. It was also extreme: they shot unarmed Catholic Irish policemen without warning. The public discourse around the centenary has increasingly emphasised the fact that the Rising caused considerable civilian casualties: 40 children died in the Easter Rising, a statistic long forgotten until the recent publication of a history by the broadcaster Joe Duffy.[2] In fact, civilians, many of them caught in the crossfire, made up the majority of the 450 rebellion dead, along with 132 soldiers and police and 62 rebels.

The context of the time is often cited by way of mitigation: the British Empire had a history of extreme coercion in Ireland. Even if British rule had become far gentler by 1916, it was unlikely that it would have accepted greater independence for the country through constitutional campaigning alone – after all, achieving home rule had taken some 30 years of parliamentary effort by the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was also not a democracy – in Ireland as in Britain, many working class men and all women lacked the vote. The Rising also took place during the extreme violence of the first world war, when blood sacrifice was de rigueur in political and cultural discourse – and with the young men of the United Kingdom dying in droves on the western front, rebels who shot their peers on the streets of Dublin were never going to be treated with clemency. With Britain executing its own soldiers by court-martial in France and Belgium for military misdemeanours, as well as executing spies at home, the Rising was always going to result in repression. It was the scale of it that shocked: curfews, mass arrests, arbitrary shootings of innocent civilians (perhaps most infamously at North King Street), house-to-house searches, the shelling of central Dublin to burn out the rebels and force their surrender, and the closed court-martials that led to the executions. Ironically, many of the troops used to suppress the rebels were also Irish, diverted from going to the western front.

The Rising, in truth, marked the start of a long Irish political civil war, as radical republicans used the blood sacrifice of the Rising leaders to discredit the Home Rule tradition, accusing it of national treachery because of its moderation. Likewise unionism, long a feature of Ireland’s political landscape and implacably and militantly opposed to home rule, was glossed over. For the Rising’s leaders, the unionist–republican divide was a division sown by England; the fact that much of Protestant Ireland was deeply attached to a hybrid British-Irish culture – and would prefer partition to accepting even home rule – was inadequately understood. The Rising’s violence against British rule shocked unionism, destroying any chance of compromise and ensuring partition of the island. Ultimately, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act effectively introduced a home-rule parliament for the six Ulster counties that decided to remain within the United Kingdom. The one part of Ireland that had been prepared to resist the introduction of home rule with violence before 1914 became the only region of the island that actually got it, as by 1920 the remainder of the island demanded full secession.

All of this demonstrates why reconciling what remains an island of divided cultures, with separate historical narratives, remains an ongoing difficulty.

Two inseparable centenaries

This year unionists will solemnly commemorate the battle of the Somme – for unionism, the Easter 1916 Rising was a stab-in-the-back for the 210,000 Irishmen who fought in the British army in the first world war, who came from both nationalist and unionist backgrounds. The 1916 rebels viewed ‘England’s difficultly as Ireland’s opportunity’, and even wrangled a pledge of support from Germany, though the material support promised – weapons – never arrived. For decades, the Irish who fought in the 1914–1918 global conflict were written out of history and public memory in the Republic, with veterans and their families unable to speak of their actions – or of the Irish war dead.

Yet without the first world war as part of the story, any account of the Rising lacks its full context. It was the fact that Ireland, north and south, rallied so completely in support of the United Kingdom’s war effort, and of poor little Catholic Belgium, in 1914 that alarmed republicans. They found this show of loyalty deeply unsettling, and some, at least, believed that a Rising would re-awake the nation’s separatist true soul. It was the mass loss of Irish troops at Gallipoli, in appalling conditions and including many from Dublin’s intelligentsia middle-class elites, that shocked Irish public opinion, creating a war-weariness upon which republicanism could draw. It was the threatened introduction of conscription from 1917 onwards, as much as it was the rebel leaders’ executions, that helped swing Irish public opinion towards republican separatism (when conscription was introduced in the rest of the UK in 1916, Ireland was exempted for political reasons). Furthermore, the fact that the Rising executions took place so rapidly was a reflection of the existing climate across the UK in which the Defence of the Realm Act had loosened the usual legal qualms about due process.

In sum, the Easter Rising was a war within a war, and at last, a wealth of new historiography, as well as public debate, has begun to acknowledge this. The Republic of Ireland also now fully acknowledges it too: it held its first official commemoration of the Irish at the battle of the Somme in 2006, showing that the role played by Irishmen in the British army between 1914 and 1918 is no longer too politically uncomfortable a fact to be publicly recognised. This summer it will solemnly commemorate all those Irish – unionist and nationalist – who fought and perished in the Somme conflagration. Ironically, commemorating the Irish who died trying to kill Germans may prove easier and more reconciliatory than commemorating the foundational battles of the state that occurred on the streets of Dublin.

Heather Jones is an associate professor in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her most recent book is Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany, 1914–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

This article appears in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.

[2] Duffy J (2015) Children of the Rising: The untold story of the young lives lost during Easter 1916, Hachette Books Ireland.