During that memorable Easter week 75 years ago, Dublin “blossomed beneath burning blue April skies,” as Elizabeth Bowen recalled, and was burnished by a sun that in the words of a Sean O’Casey character “had the great golden dome of the Four Courts glinting like a golden rose in a great bronze bowl.”
Even today in Ireland, such balmy days in early spring are greeted with Liam O’Flaherty’s benediction: “Rebellion Weather.”
The 1916 Easter Rising against British rule that fired the imaginations of Ireland’s marvelous array of writers actually got off a day late because one rebel leader placed a paid advertisement in the Sunday Independent calling off the “drill with full arms, equipment and one day’s rations.”
So the fall-in bugle blared at Monday noon on April 24, just as Angelus bells echoed across the River Liffey. In James Joyce’s “dear, dirty Dublin” Easter Monday was a bank holiday. The more peaceful citizens were occupied with the Gaelic football matches in Phoenix Park, the running of the Irish Grand National at the nearby Fairy House racecourse, or attending the formal tea at the Shelbourne Hotel for what novelist Bowen called the “second showing of Easter bonnets.”
Armed with shotguns, pickaxes, hurling sticks, vintage 1870 Mauser rifles, the rebels quick-marched into central Dublin. Some arrived on bicycles, some by streetcar. One commandant dutifully paid 57 tram fares then ordered the motorman to proceed nonstop across O’Connell Bridge. Thinking it was just another rally by the radical Sinn Fein party, holiday strollers hardly noticed small groups entering Jameson’s distillery, Watkins brewery, Boland’s bakery and Jacob’s biscuit factory.
Beneath the Abbey Theater marquee, playwright-manager St. John Ervine watched poet Padraic Pearse, brandishing a sword, march his volunteers toward the General Post Office. He heard shots in the distance and thought about canceling the gala holiday matinee featuring his own “The Mixed Marriage” and a revival of that most poetic of all nationalist dramas, “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” by Abbey co-founder William Butler Yeats.
The show did not go on. One of his actors, John Connolly, was killed in the battle for Dublin Castle, headquarters of the British command. Another, Arthur Shields, the brother of Barry Fitzgerald, was with a rebel unit assigned to capture wireless equipment in a nearby telegraphy school.
Yeats was in Gloucester, England, visiting the painter Sir William Rothenstein, but his words echoed above the gunfire. Arrayed in a colonel’s uniform of the Citizen’s Army, the statuesque debutante Constance Gore-Booth, who figured in several of his impassioned poems, was up on St. Stephens Green, directing her contingent of 200 women and Boy Scouts to dig in against a machine gun firing from the Shelbourne roof.
Since entertaining Yeats at Lissadell, her stately home in his native Sligo, she had gone off to Paris and married a Polish count. But she was summoned back to the nationalist cause by “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” Yeats’ play about an old crone, symbolizing Ireland, who became young and walked like a queen because men would die for her.
Now, as the Countess Markiewicz, she ordered her rebel horde to gain courage by reading his poetry and showed how by shooting down constable Michael Lahiff as he entered the little park. She was sentenced to a firing squad for her part in the uprising but was given a reprieve at the last moment.
Heading out to a pub lunch from the Trinity College library, poet James Stephens inquired about puffs of smoke rising from St. Stephen’s Green. Near the park gates he saw a man shot down trying to reclaim a bedstead from a barricade. Suddenly, as would happen twice a day the rest of that week, firing ceased on both sides so a park keeper lugging two pails could feed the ducks on the pond.
At nightfall, Sean O’Casey hurried home through “a deserted city but for those who fought each other. The pubs had emptied, the trams had inched back to their sheds, the shops were shut.”
The 36-year-old playwright did not join the fighting. He had resigned from the Citizens Army when Countess Markiewicz was made a commander. His objections were Marxist, not male chauvinist. He wanted her expelled for “bourgeois tendencies” and sneered in his autobiography: “Madame having dressed herself in man’s attire for liberty, was in full green uniform and carried a big automatic pistol on her thin hip.”
Besides, he considered dying for Irish freedom irrelevant. “There’s only one war worth having,” avows a protagonist in “The Plough and the Stars,” O’Casey’s 1926 play about the uprising. “The war for the economic emancipation of the proletariat.”
In the affluent Protestant suburb of Foxrock, 10-year-old Samuel Beckett climbed to the top of a hill with his father to watch the fires consuming the heart of the city. Schools remained closed all that week, so Beckett did not have to ride the Dublin and Southeastern Railway, dubbed the Dublin slow and easy, to the private academy he attended. The future Nobel Prize (1969) playwright had one main ambition then: to play cricket for Ireland.
Was there ever such a literary cast of characters involved in or with a revolution?
Lord Dunsany, the popular Abbey Theater playwright, had his cheek grazed by a bullet when he attempted to drive over a bridge barricaded by the rebels.
Padraic Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic from the steps of the post office and spent the rest of the week, amid bursting shells that set fire to the roof, perched on a clerk’s tall stool writing more proclamations on stationery bearing the royal coat of arms. On the eve of his execution a few days later, he penned a final poem that began:
The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass.
Joseph Plunkett, whose poem “I See His Blood Upon the Rose” is still memorized by Irish schoolchildren, had postponed his Easter wedding to the artist Grace Gifford to join Pearse as chief of staff. Handcuffed and with a British soldier holding a candle, surrounded by 20 others with fixed bayonets, he married her in Kilmainham jail a few hours before his dawn date with a firing squad.
Down in Cork city, 12-year-old Michael O’Donovan, later known by his pen name Frank O’Connor, was confused by newspaper photos of Dublin in smoldering ruins. Like 200,000 other Irishmen, his father and uncle were with the British army on the Western front, facing German forces, but only 1,500 rebels, half of them in Dublin, had joined the uprising. Every evening he helped his mother trace the battle of Verdun, now in its 10th week, on a wall map in the kitchen.
“At first my reaction was horror that Irishmen could commit such a crime against England,” he wrote in his biography. “Then the English shot the first batch of Irish leaders and this was a worse shock, for the newspapers said that some of them had been poets and I was in favor of poets.”
“A revolution had begun in Ireland, but it was nothing to the revolution that had begun in me,” O’Connor later wrote, recalling the youthful resolve that led to his eventual arrest and a year in prison as an Irish Republican Army gunman in the 1922 civil war.
When news of the fighting reached London, Dubliner George Bernard Shaw, a pacifist who advised “all patriots to go to bed and stay there until the Irish question is settled,” fired off a letter to the New Statesman: “He who fights for the independence of his country may be an ignorant and disastrous fool, but he is not a traitor. . . . All the slain men and women of the Sinn Fein volunteers fought and died for their country as sincerely as any soldier in Flanders.”
When the 14 leaders of the insurrection went before firing squads, Shaw warned in a letter to the Daily News of London that “it is impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero, even though the day before he may have been only a minor poet. . . . The British government must have known they were canonizing their prisoners.”
How right he was. Militarily, the uprising had been a fiasco. The countryside had not risen up. The Germans had not come to Ireland’s rescue, except for sending a ship loaded with arms that had to be scuttled in Tralee Bay when no rebels showed up to unload her. Dublin was a disaster area: 1,351 people killed or wounded, 179 buildings destroyed, nearly 100,000--a third of the population--on relief.
When Pearse’s tiny garrison surrendered the General Post Office, even the old Shawlies who had enjoyed the fighting, especially the looting, pelted them with rotten vegetables and demanded that they be hung.
Then the British made the colossal blunder of executing the ringleaders. Their end became Ireland’s deliverance. In 10 days the firing squads in the stone breakers yard of Kilmainham jail managed to reverse 700 years of Irish defeats. There was worldwide indignation at His Majesty’s swift, secret justice, especially the execution of the poets and the badly wounded labor leader James Connolly, who had to be propped in a chair to be shot down.
James Joyce had recently moved to Zurich from Trieste and read about the murderous doings in his native Dublin in the German language newspapers. He was more upset by the senseless shooting by the British of Frank Skeffington, a classmate at University College, than by the execution of Pearse, his old Gaelic teacher whose proclamation of the Irish Republic he ridiculed in “Ulysses.”
Like Shaw, Joyce denounced the uprising as useless bloodshed: “I say let Ireland die for me.” More than a decade before, he had turned his back on Dublin, “that center of paralysis,” although the actual names of its streets and pubs and shops reverberated in his writing like a remembered litany of love.
A friend asked if he looked forward to an independent Ireland. Joyce replied, “Yes, that I might declare myself its first enemy.”
More passionately than the others, Yeats caught the shock and horror of the executions in Kilmainham jail. He too had grown disillusioned with Ireland, “the grayness, the meanness, the prudish piety,” and had become lukewarm about the commitment to Irish independence he had made to John O’Leary, the old Fenian lover of freedom and literature who spent five years in jail and 15 in exile. At O’Leary’s death in 1912, Yeats lamented:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
When the executions began, Yeats hurried to Normandy to be with actress and political activist Maud Gonne, the unattainable love of his life who created the role of Cathleen ni Houlihan. Among those marched before a firing squad was her estranged husband, Maj. John MacBride, who years earlier had recruited an Irish brigade to fight on the side of the Boers against the British and commanded a rebel unit in the uprising. He declined a blindfold, saying he often had looked the enemy in the eye. Ironically, their son, Sean MacBride, was to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1969.
A day before the final firing squad took aim, Yeats mailed off to Lady Gregory in Galway the first draft of a poem that starkly anticipated history’s verdict of the uprising:
I write it out in 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.