By Gerry O’Shea
Speaking in his native Wexford in 1914, John Redmond was loudly cheered when he pointed to the successes of the Irish Parliamentary Party which he led in Westminster. "Let us remember," he said, "that we are a free people. We have emancipated the farmers; we have housed the agricultural laborers; we have won religious liberty; we have won free education . . . we have laid broad and deep the foundations for national prosperity, and finally we have won an Irish parliament".
The 1912 Home Rule Bill, which was the basis for Redmond's enthusiasm, was indeed a major success for constitutional progress. The Bill promised a parliament in Dublin with two chambers that would be responsible for legislating in limited but important areas for the whole island. It would, however, be subject to the imperial parliament in Westminster in foreign policy and in most areas of taxation. London would also maintain control of the Royal Irish Constabulary for six years. Even advanced nationalists like Patrick Pearse and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa welcomed it as real progress, but Pearse warned that if the British Government failed to deliver its promises—as they had in their response to previous Home Rule Bills—they would face baleful consequences.
Unionists in the north east of the country vehemently rejected any kind of rule from Dublin. They had no doubt that Home Rule would be Rome Rule. Almost half a million signed a Covenant, a solemn pledge to "use all means that may be necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland". The Covenanters formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an illegal militia whose sole purpose was to resist militarily the implementation of the Home Rule Bill. The British authorities turned a blind eye when large quantities of arms were imported from Germany to ensure that the UVF was ready to resist by force.
In response to the Ulster threats against Home Rule, the Irish Volunteers were started in Dublin to insist on the implementation of the Westminster Act. It is highly ironic that Irish Nationalists were organized to support the enactment of a law passed in London while their counterparts in Ulster, all professedly Loyalist, were ready to use force to prevent it. There was a further noteworthy twist in developments in Ulster when a clear majority of British army officers, stationed in the Curragh outside of Dublin, declared in an unprecedentedly mutinous statement that they would resign rather than go north to confront the rebellious UVF and enforce a Home Rule Bill that had passed all stages in parliament and had the Royal Assent.
While the plans and strategies of John Redmond's constitutional nationalists were center stage in Dublin, there was an increasing number of young Irish men and women who adhered to the Fenian tradition and belief that the only just and lasting peace must involve the full political separation of the two islands. They espoused a philosophy and tradition advocated by Theobald Wolfe Tone, who in 1798 fought for a free and self-governing country that in his words "substituted the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter". The belief of these young Fenians in British malfeasance and untrustworthiness was strengthened when the original Home Rule Bill was changed to include a parliament in Belfast as well as Dublin and implementation of even these arrangements was delayed until the Great War in Europe ended.
In addition to their political dominance of Ireland, the British, like all colonial powers, believed that their culture - their music, their language, their games and their literature - was superior to the native language, beliefs and traditions. This assertion of cultural superiority by the powerful elites, the ruling English and mostly Protestant Establishment, with the consequent disrespect for all facets of Irish nationalist culture, was a major irritant in relations between the people of the two islands. Joseph Lee, Professor of Irish History in New York University, pointed out trenchantly that "Irish Catholics conformed in Protestant minds to the classic stereotype of the native which settler races find it psychologically necessary to nurture", a sense of "inalienable superiority" that permeated all of their dealings with Catholics, who in their eyes were "lazy, dirty, improvident, irresolute, feckless and made menacing only by their numbers".
Yet, two powerful organizations were started in Ireland towards the end of the nineteenth century to show how wrong the British assumptions were and to enhance the confidence of the Irish in their own culture and heritage. These organizations are widely spoken of as the principal components of the Celtic Dawn and seen as the main expressions of Irish pride in a powerful movement of cultural nationalism. The Gaelic League, founded in 1893 by a Protestant academic, Douglas Hyde, focused on the revival of the Irish language, and the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884,rejected the garrison games of rugby and cricket in favor of native pastimes, Gaelic football and hurling. Six of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were members of the Gaelic League, and five of the sixteen who were executed were avid supporters of the GAA.
In 1913 Tom Clarke, a prominent Fenian who spent many years in America but who returned to Ireland in 1907 to help lead a separatist revolution, wrote jubilantly about the emergence of the Celtic Dawn to his friend Joe McGarrity, the Clan na Gael leader in Philadelphia, that "It is worth living in Ireland in these times. There is an awakening - things are in full swing on the upgrade. We are breathing air that compels one to fling up his head and stand more erect."In the same letter, Clarke, who was in his mid-fifties, refers to himself humorously as "the old chap" by comparison with the young idealists who were committed to plotting a Fenian-style revolution. The likes of Padraic Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt and especially Sean MacDermott looked up to Clarke as a hero and mentor, a man who served long years in English prisons but who still remained true to the old Fenian belief in revolutionary struggle to achieve an independent Irish republic. Some historians argue that Clarke's return to Ireland with his family may have been partly due to the encouragement of the leadership in America who believed that the movement at home needed the revolutionary skills and exceptional determination of a man who gave unqualified allegiance to the core Fenian principle of achieving freedom through physical force.
As well as Joe McGarrity, also part of that older leadership in America were John Devoy and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. They shared Tom Clarke's belief that England at war in Europe was vulnerable in Ireland, and they supported the plan for an insurrection that they hoped would shatter the Empire in its own back yard. It was John Devoy who arranged for the body of O'Donovan Rossa to be transferred from New York for burial in Dublin in August 1915, and it was Tom Clarke who called on Patrick Pearse to give a graveside oration that focused on the burgeoning revolutionary agenda: "Ireland unfree will never be at peace."
Any successful revolution in Ireland depended on the moral and financial support from America. The emigrants who left Ireland during the Great Famine and afterwards were scarred by the terrible suffering that they had seen and heard about, and they passed on a deep hatred of England and its laissez-faire policies that caused such death and destruction throughout the country. These men and women and their descendants responded generously to fundraising by Clan na Gael and similar organizations. The Rising in 1916 might never have happened without the tens of thousands of dollars that came from the United States and especially from the big cities in the north eastern part of the country.
In this book we explore some of the connections between the two countries a century ago, during a historic week in spring, when in William Butler Yeats' powerful words "a terrible beauty was born".
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