1916: Fight for Irish identity key to struggle for independence

Literature, Gaelic games, and Irish classes were all activities in the early 1900s of the young nationalists who would later rally around the Rebellion, writes John Gibney.

1916: Fight for Irish identity key to struggle for independence

IT is stretching things too far to assume the Easter Rising was just a rebellion of poets and playwrights.

Many of those who fought were members of multiple organisations, and some of those who planned it dabbled in literature.

One of them was Thomas MacDonagh, who was executed in Kilmainham Gaol on May 3, 1916, for his role in the Rising, but whose literary ventures preceded his political activities.

In 1904, he had submitted a play to the Abbey Theatre, entitled When the Dawn is Come. Set 50 years in the future, during a ‘time of insurrection’ led by a council of seven ‘captains of the Irish insurgent army’, it tells the story of how one of the generals, Thurlough MacKieran, is falsely accused of being a spy.

With the support of the soldiers under his command, he is redeemed by victory on the battlefield, though is mortally wounded. MacDonagh described it as “the story of a young man who has had most to do in getting up the Rising”.

WB Yeats was intrigued by the play and felt that MacDonagh had literary potential, but it met with lukewarm reviews.

It was the only play MacDonagh produced at the Abbey and it was never performed again, though he continued to revise it.

The subject matter, with its seven ‘generals’, has an echo of the Rising, in which MacDonagh was involved eight years later.

John Gibney’s ‘A History of the Easter Rising in 50 Objects’.
John Gibney’s ‘A History of the Easter Rising in 50 Objects’.

It is too much to suggest that the play constitutes a prediction, even if it is eerily prescient. But it highlights a potent trend in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Ireland: the myriad attempts to regenerate Irish cultural, economic and social life, in the face of an era of national decline.

These attempts took many forms: in sport, language, politics, and, of course, literature, most famously in the form of the Abbey Theatre. However, the Abbey was not the only theatre of its kind; the late Victorian cultural revival also threw up a multiplicity of smaller, less well-known theatrical ventures.

For many younger nationalists, it was natural to be involved in cultural activities that had a nationalist complexion: amateur dramatic productions, with their scope for getting things done in collaboration with like-minded people, were among them. Many younger, ‘advanced’ nationalists saw artistic expression as vitally important, but this radical underground could be surprisingly small and those involved in it could have fingers in many pies. This cultural nationalism took many forms.

In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) had been founded by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin to provide a distinctively Irish alternative to British games, such as soccer, rugby, cricket.

These were seen as either impractical for Irish conditions or ideologically suspect, due to their origins (though Cusack himself was an aficionado of cricket).

Within a decade of the GAA being founded, Douglas Hyde led his call for the ‘de-Anglicisation’ of Ireland, arguing that the precipitous decline of the Irish language (only 15% of the population spoke it in 1891) and the loss of the vernacular culture that it expressed were a national crisis that needed a remedy. Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was the result, and established formalised classes for those who wanted to learn Irish.

A younger generation of nationalists took to these ventures with enthusiasm. They could be involved in amateur drama, in Gaelic sports, and might seek to learn Irish.

But they might also be members of more militant groupings. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was discreetly revived in the early 20th century, by figures such as Thomas Clarke, and it sought to exert an influence by infiltrating many of these organisations, with an eye to fostering support for ending British rule and asserting independence.

Cultural nationalism was popular with many nationalists and manifested itself in many ways: the ‘Irish Ireland’ movement exemplified by the journalist, DP Moran; the economic nationalism of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin; and even the co-operative movement of Horace Plunkett.

These initiatives were arguably responses to contemporary fears that Ireland was rapidly being relegated to a second-rate, provincial status.

Cultural nationalism was never a homogenous movement and the motivations of the various individuals and organisations differed, and could lead to clashes that could be personal as much as ideological.

But if such groups were asserting that Ireland was culturally distinct from Britain, surely it was only a short step towards asserting that Ireland should be politically separate?

Certainly, the IRB saw it that way and sought to exploit that potential.

The career of Patrick Pearse, himself a member of the IRB, is a case in point: had he not been executed after the Easter Rising, he would be remembered as an educator and an activist for the revival of Irish. But, for Pearse, his struggle against British rule and his struggle for Irish culture were two sides of the same coin.

John Gibney is Glasnevin Trust assistant professor of public history and cultural heritage at Trinity College Dublin for 2015-16, and author of A History of the Easter Rising in 50 Objects (Mercier Press).

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