Skip to main content

The Morality of the 1916 Rising

The Morality of the 1916 Rising          Gerry O'Shea                                                                   

When County Kerry Bishop David Moriarty condemned the Fenians after their abortive rebellion in 1867, his critique of the organization was in line with Catholic teaching at the time. The Church opposed the use of violence to achieve political ends and took a strong stand against membership in oath-bound societies like the Fenians. "Hell is not hot enough or eternity long enough for them" was Moriarty's harsh and intemperate condemnation of the men who led the Fenian Brotherhood. John Mangan, his episcopal successor in Killarney in 1916, was also dismissive of the Easter revolution in Dublin because he claimed that the leaders were "evil-minded men affected by Socialistic and Revolutionary doctrines".

 The rebellion in Dublin was led by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a rebadged version of the Fenians, which was also proscribed by the Catholic Church because it too was a secret oath-bound revolutionary organization. So, it is no surprise that, unlike the last major Irish revolt against the English government in 1798, there was no priest participating in the military planning or execution of the Easter Week rebellion.

 While some of the 1916 leaders like Patrick Pearse, Joe Plunkett and Eamonn Ceannt were devout Catholics, others like Clarke, McDermott and McDonagh took a more jaundiced view of their religion and its impact on the separatist nationalist agenda. And James Connolly, a committed socialist, found very few priests with a positive word to say about Karl Marx and his central tenet that the capitalist system kept workers in a permanently subservient situation. Tom Clarke famously showed the door to the priest who was hearing his confession the night before he was executed when he invited the rebel leader to seek absolution for the violence he caused by participating in the Insurrection.

Were Patrick Pearse and James Connolly morally justified in leading what is now known as the Irish Rebellion? In recent articles in The Irish Catholic, the most widely-read Catholic newspaper in Ireland, two distinct perspectives were presented on the morality of the Easter Week Rising in Dublin.

Fr. Seamus O Murchu, a Jesuit priest who is a professor in Loyola University in Chicago, argues that the revolution lacked democratic legitimacy because the Irish people at that time overwhelmingly supported Home Rule whose implementation was delayed only because of the war in Europe. He also points out that this rebellion by a small and secret group of people opened the door to other small groups who - right up to the present - believe that their violent military actions are justified by the 1916 philosophy. They claim that the nobility of their cause justifies a violent response to what they see as government oppression. The professor warns about an acceptance of "unelected gunmen taking over from elected representatives ... that wrought dreadful long-term damage to democracy" in Ireland.

O'Murchu also notes that the number of civilians, including children, who lost their lives during Easter Week was greater than the combined casualties among the combatants. How, he asks, does one morally justify such civilian deaths in the name of patriotic goals?

Finally, the professor dismisses the allegedly Christian notion propounded by Patrick Pearse that the shedding of blood would have a salvific and enobling effect on the whole community. He calls that a pagan idea contrary to mature Christian ethical teaching.

Fr. Joe McVeigh who ministers in a parish in the British-ruled Six Counties takes a  more traditional view of the Rising and believes that it meets all the standards set down in the Catholic "just war" theory. McVeigh who lived through years of discrimination against Catholics in the North has a different viewpoint to the man lecturing in Chicago.

He points to the extreme poverty, including terrible housing, that defined the lives of so many Irish people under British rule in the early part of the 20th century. The IRB men who led the rebellion had also witnessed the batoning by police of the strikers during the 1913 Lockout of Dublin workers, and they often pointed to British responsibility for the devastation of the famines of the late 1840s. From their perspective the abusive and dehumanizing actions by the English rulers fully justified a call to arms for revolutionary change.

For Fr. McVeigh the blood sacrifice that some of the leaders spoke about was designed "to move people from apathy about their own oppression" to a life where their culture and heritage were sources of pride not embarrassment. Pearse and company were really fighting for the soul and honor of their country. Their noble vision was of a just society that "cherished all the children of the nation equally" and certainly not in his words for "the narrow Catholic sectarian state that emerged" in the early 1920s.

The McVeigh perspective can be summed up by saying that the men and women who fought in the 1916 Rebellion were brave and honorable patriots motivated by a love of their country and driven by high ideals. From this viewpoint the Insurrection was  justified and is not open to unjustified moral censure by revisionists like OMurchu.

Clearly the two priests take a profoundly different view of the morality of the Rising. For one it breached the strict and well-established Catholic rules for engaging in warfare; for the other, it was a noble and justified reaction to oppression. This important debate will feature more and more as the commemoration ceremonies gain momentum coming up to Easter.



Popular posts from this blog

    Unionist Isolation in Northern Ireland              Gerry OShea Joe Brolly, known as a fine footballer and lively commentator on big Gaelic matches on Irish television, writes a regular column in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. Recently, he penned an uncharacteristically bitter essay about the celebrations in Belfast following the victory of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Football League. Joe had no problem with fans celebrating the win, their first in ten years, but the carry-on by Rangers supporters in the Shankill Road area left him in a foul mood. The old gutter anti-Catholic tropes were heard throughout the crowd. Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys   --- Up tae yer knees in Finian blood.   Surrender or ye’ll die. He noted that the following day the police superintendent responsible for the area, Nigel Henry, expressed his “disappointment” about a large crowd partying in clear breach of the Covid restrictions on gatherings in the city. A few weeks previously Mar


Neoliberalism                Gerry OShea The story is told that shortly after the great trade union leader Mike Quill arrived in New York, he inquired about what kind of government existed in America. After someone gave him a brief explanation, he replied “well we are against the government anyway.” Mike had just come from a family that fought the British in the Irish War of Independence and that was equally hostile to the Free State Government which took over in Dublin in 1922, four years before he left for the United states from his home in Kilgarvan, County Kerry. President Reagan’s oft-quoted statement that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I am here to help” always evokes   loud applause from conservative audiences. His words encapsulate the belief that the less state involvement in all aspects of life the better. They always make one exception for military spending, and so they endorse the present defense budget in the U

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil