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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.

 

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