While James Connolly regarded the Great War, as it was called then, as barbaric, and would have wished the labour movement across Europe to have refused to participate, he also took the view that the war having started he wished the British Empire to be beaten, and that, if forced to choose between the two, the German Empire was ‘a homogeneous Empire of self-governing peoples’ (Poland, German South-West Africa?) and contained ‘in germ more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation’.
The reality is that the leaders of 1916 were neither neutral nor anti-imperialist. They were anti-British imperialism. The Proclamation referred to ‘our gallant allies in Europe’, which were principally Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which incidentally was Arthur Griffith’s and the early Sinn Féin’s model for Irish independence. Undoubtedly, German support for Irish revolution turned out to be a mirage, apart from the guns landed at Howth and Kilcoole in the summer of 1914, which were a fraction of those landed at Larne for the unionists, but it was enough to facilitate the rising. Even after that, as Michael Collins told the American journalist Hayden Talbot in 1922, in his estimation, the Rising and the subsequent national revival ‘were all inseparable from the thought and hope of a German victory’, on which they were counting to gain a place at the peace table.
Certainly, one can be sceptical about the notion that the First World War was started for the sake of small nations, such as Serbia and Belgium, but the fate of Catholic Belgium was the issue that had greatest impact on recruitment in Ireland in the early months of the war. In terms of war outcomes, four defeated empires collapsed, others were weakened, and about a third of the countries that now make up the European Union directly or indirectly gained their freedom, including Ireland. France, which would have lost the war but for the British Expeditionary Force which included thousands of Irishmen, regained Alsace-Lorraine, taken from them in 1871. The principle of national self-determination enunciated in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson, however imperfect and difficult to apply, has led in the longer run to close to 200 members of the United Nations.
One can certainly argue that Ireland’s freedom came about not just because of the Rising and the struggle for independence, but also because it fitted into the new international order created by the Allied victory. Most people, and all main political parties, now accept that it is right to commemorate Irishmen who gave their lives in World War I, but perhaps we could accept that their sacrifice also contributed to the freedom we enjoy today, acknowledging that people can serve their country honourably in different ways.
Perhaps, post the Good Friday Agreement, we should welcome the fact that we have been able to move beyond any desire to rekindle conflict on this island or between these islands, and adapt Pearse’s eloquent ideal to read: ‘Ireland at peace shall never be unfree’.