Ever after known as the Easter Rising, an armed insurrection aimed at establishing independent Irish rule took place during Easter Week, April 24-29, 1916. Led by the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army (mistakenly referred to in the US press as “Sinn Feiners”), the rebels occupied numerous locations in Dublin and proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic. British soldiers soon massed to quell the rebellion and by the end of the week, over 400 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured, the majority civilians.
Irish American involvement in the Rising was critical – in fact, without John Devoy’s influence, the Rising might never have happened.
The road to Easter Week began in earnest for the Irish American community in 1859, when John O’Mahony, an exiled veteran of the Young Ireland movement, started the Fenian Brotherhood. This organization was inspired by the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the secret organization that aimed to free Ireland by physical force – that James Stephens had help found in Ireland the previous year. Once the Brotherhood was established, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia became a hotbed of anti-British activity, and it would continue to be one through to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Prior to the 1916 Rising, America’s Irish communities had maintained some equilibrium between those who favored constitutional methods of Home Rule, and those for physical force and agitation. And within this spectrum were viewpoints about socialism and worker’s rights, women’s suffrage, Celtic mythology, and cultural revivals as antidotes for Ireland’s woes.
By the early 20th century, Clan na Gael was led by the Irish exile John Devoy who, despite becoming a naturalized American citizen, made independence for Ireland the focal point of his life’s work. To this end, Devoy established a weekly newspaper, the Gaelic American, which he would use to editorialize and gain support for the cause of Irish independence in America. When the First World War was launched the Irish republican leaders, including Devoy, realized that with the British entangled in a war with Germany the time was right to stage an uprising. Devoy had close contact with many of the movements leaders including Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Roger Casement. They visited the states various times, holding pro-Irish rallies, delivering speeches, and trying to galvanize as much support as possible. Their success was somewhat varied, as they did manage to gain some support and raise money, but not nearly as much as they had hoped.
On June 29th, 1915, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the old Fenian, died on Staten Island. Legend has it that Devoy wired Clarke in Dublin, “Rossa dead. What should I do?” Clarke replied: “Dig him up and send him home!” There, in what was to be one of the great shows of nationalistic theatre, Clarke paraded the body around Dublin, arranged for him to lie in state at City Hall, and gave him a funeral mass at the city’s Pro Cathedral. (Devoy said: “No matter how the Irish treat a leader when living – and the treatment is often very bad – they never fail to give him decent burial.”) Thousands followed Rossa’s coffin to Glasnevin Cemetery, where, on August 1, Pearse gave his famous graveside oration, “…the fools, the fools, the fools! – They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Rossa’s funeral was the unofficial launch to what would become the Easter Rising eight months later.
There are several monuments to Irish nationalism across the country. There are three identical statues of Robert Emmet in the U.S. Each dedicated in the years following the Rising in memory of the event, the original was crafted by Irishman Jerome Connor. A copy now stands in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in Emmetsburg, IA, and near the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. It’s a simple statement of Emmet’s importance to the ideals of 1916.
As well as the bust of him in Troy, a life-size statue of James Connolly stands in Union Park. The sculpture monument was commissioned by Frank O’ Lone, President of the Irish-American Labor Council of Chicago and was placed in 2008.
Of course, not everyone supported the Rising – it was not until the executions continued for several days that public opinion in Ireland itself changed in favor of the rebels, who were now martyrs. “Easter, 1916” captures Yeats’s reaction to the Rising, and was first published in 1920 in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1920). Even though he was a nationalist, Yeats usually rejected violence as a means to secure Irish independence, and as a result had strained relations with some of the figures who eventually planned and led the uprising.
The sudden and abrupt execution of the leaders of the revolutionaries, however, was as much a shock to Yeats as it was to ordinary Irish people at the time, who did not expect the events to take such a negative turn so soon. Yeats is working through his feelings about the revolutionary movement in this poem, and the insistent refrain that “a terrible beauty is born” turned out to be prescient, as the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising had the opposite effect to that intended. The killings led to a reinvigoration of the Irish Republican movement rather than its crumpling.
By William Butler Yeats
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a 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.
Read more about the history of Irish people in New York State here.
Photo of Irish Citizen Army, 1914.