12. The Irish Revolt
"It may be a good thing to forget and forgive; but it is
altogether too easy a trick to forget and be forgiven."
---- G. K. Chesterton in The Crimes of England, 1916.
When a rebellion has failed men say it was wicked or foolish. It is, on the contrary, wickedness and folly to judge in these terms. If men rise against authority the measure of their act cannot be loyalty or prudence. It is the character of the authority against which men revolt that must shape one's mind. No free man sets an ultimate value on his life. No free man sets an ultimate sanction on authority. Is it just authority, representative, tolerable? The only revolt that is wicked or foolish is the revolt against reasonable or tolerable authority. If authority is not livable, revolt is a thousand times justified.
The Irish rebellion was not prudent. Its imprudence did not weigh with the men who took to arms. Had hope inspired them, they would have been utterly insane. But hope did not inspire them. They longed for success; they risked and expected death. The only consequence to us, wrote Padraic Pearse before action, is that some of us may be launched into eternity. "But who are we, that we should hesitate to die for Ireland? Are not the claims of Ireland greater on us than any personal ones? Is it fear that deters us from such an enterprise? Away with such fears. Cowards die many times, the brave only die once." To strike a decisive blow was the aspiration of the Irish rebels. But decisive or not, they made up their minds to take action before the government succeeded in attaching all their arms.
In this rebellion there was no chance of material victory. Pearse, MacDonagh, Connolly, Clark, Plunkett, O'Rahilly, O'Hanrahan, Daly, Hobson, Casement, could only hope against hope. But their essential objective was not a soldiery. It was an idea, the idea of unprotested English authority in Ireland. It was to protest against the Irish nation's remaining a Crown Colony of the British Empire that these men raised their republican standard and under it shed their blood. In the first process of that revolt few of them were immediately sacrificed. Their fight was well planned. They made the most of their brief hour. But when they were captured the authority they had opposed fulfilled their expectations to the utmost. Before three army officers, without a legal defender, each of the leaders was condemned by court-martial. Their rebellion had been open. Their guilt was known and granted. They met, as they expected to meet, death.
The insurrection in Ireland is ended. A cold tribunal has finished by piecework the task that the soldiers began. The British Empire is still dominant in Dublin. But ruthless and remorseless behavior sharpens the issue between authority and rebellion. Even men who naturally condemn disorder feel impelled to scrutinize the authority which could deliberately dispense such doom. If that authority deserved respect in Ireland, if it stood for justice and the maintenance of right, its exaction of the pound of flesh cannot be questioned. It does not represent "frightfulness." It represents stern justice. Its hand should be universally upheld. But if, on the other hand, English authority did not deserve respect in Ireland, if it had forfeited its claims on these Irishmen, then there is something to be made known and said about the way in which this Empire can abuse its power.
Between the Irish people and English authority, as every one knows, there has been an interminable struggle. A tolerable solution of this contest has only recently seemed in sight. The military necessity of England has of itself precluded one solution, the complete independence of Ireland. The desire for self-government in Ireland has opposed another solution, complete acquiescence in the union. Between these two goals the struggle has raged bitterly. But human beings cannot live forever in profitless conflict. After many years the majority of the English people took up and ratified the Irish claims to self-government. In spite of the conservative element in England and the British element in Ireland, the modus vivendi of home rule was arranged. It is the fate of this modus vivendi, accepted by the majority of Irishmen as a reasonable commutation of their claims, that explains the recent insurrection. These men who are dead were once for the most part Home Rulers. Their rebellion came about as a sequel to the unjust and dishonest handling of home rule.
For thirty-five years home rule has been an issue in Great Britain. The majority of the British people supported Gladstone during many home rule sessions. The lower house of Parliament repeatedly passed the measure. The House of Lords, however, turned a face of stone to Ireland. It icily rejected Ireland's offer to compound her claims. This irreconcilable attitude proved in the end so monstrous that English Liberalism revolted. It threw its weight against the rigid body that denied it. It compelled the House of Lords to accept the Parliament act, its scheme for circumventing the peers' veto. Then, three times in succession, it passed the home rule bill.
Every one knows what happened. During the probation of the bill the forces that could no longer avoid it constitutionally made up their minds that they would defeat it unconstitutionally. Men left the House of Lords and the House of Commons to raise troops in eastern Ulster. These, not the Irish, were Germany's primary allies in the British Isles. Cannon, machine guns, and rifles were shipped to Ireland. Every possible descendant of the implanted settlers of Ireland was rallied. Large numbers were openly recruited and armed. The Ulster leaders pleaded they were loyal, but they insisted that the Liberals of England did not and could not speak for the Empire. The only English authority they recognized was an authority like-minded to themselves. Lord Northcliffe joined with Lord Londonderry and Lord Abercorn and Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Roberts and Sir Edward Carson and Bonar Law to advise and stimulate rebellion. Some of the best British generals in the army, to the delight of Germany, were definitely available as leaders. A provisional government, with Carson as its premier, was arranged for in 1911. The Unionist and Orange organizations pledged themselves that under no conditions would they acknowledge a home rule government or obey its decrees. In 1912 the Solemn Covenanters pledged themselves "to refuse to recognize its authority." During this period the government negotiated, but took no action. There were no Nationalists under arms.
If free men have a right to rebel, how can any one gainsay Ulster? It was the Ulster contention that home rule would be unreasonable, intolerable, and unjust. This was a prophecy, perhaps a natural and credible prophecy. But it is not necessary to debate the Ulster rebellion. It was a hard heritage of England's crime against Ireland. It is enough to say that English authority refused to abandon the home rule measure and in April, 1914, Mr. Asquith promised to vindicate the law.
The British League for the support of Ulster had sent out "war calls." The Ulster Unionist Council had appropriated $5,000,000 for volunteer widows and orphans. Arms had been landed from America and, it was said, from Germany. Carson had refused to "negotiate" any further. His mobilization in 1914 became ominous. The government started in moving troops to Ulster. The King intervened. Mr. Balfour inveighed against the proposal to use troops. The army consulted with Carson. Generals French and Ewart resigned.
About this period, with Asquith and Birrell failing to put England's pledges to the proof, the National Volunteers at last were being organized. Mr. Asquith temporized further. At his behest John Redmond peremptorily assumed control of the Volunteers. Their selected leader was Professor MacNeill, a foremost spirit in the non-political Gaelic revival. There was formal harmony until the European war was declared, when Mr. Redmond sought to utilize the National Volunteers for recruiting. This move made definite the purely national dedication of the Irish Volunteers.
Four events occurred in rapid succession to destroy the Irish Volunteers' confidence in English authority. These were decisive events, and yet events over which the Irish Volunteers could have no control.
On July 10th, 1914, armed Ulster Volunteers marched through Belfast, and Sir Edward Carson held the first meeting of his provisional government.
On July 26th, 1914, the British troops killed three persons and wounded thirty-two persons because rowdies had thrown stones at them in Dublin, subsequent to their futile attempt to intercept Irish Volunteer arms.
On Sept. 19th, 1914, the home rule bill was signed, but its operation indefinitely suspended.
In May, 1915, Sir Edward Carson became a member of the British Cabinet.
These events were endured by John Redmond. He had early accepted a Fabian policy and put his trust in Englishmen who shirked paying the price of maintaining the law they decreed. The more radical men in Dublin were not so trusting. They had heard Asquith promise that no permanent division of Ireland would be permitted, and they learned he had bargained for it. They had heard him promise he would vindicate the law, and they saw him sanction the defiant military leader as commander-in-chief and the defiant civil leader as a minister of the crown. With the vivid memory of British troops killing Irish citizens on the streets of Dublin, they drew their conclusions as to English honor. They had no impulse to recruit for the defense on the Continent of an Empire thus honorable. They looked back on the evil history they had been ready to forget. They prepared to strike and to die.
Irishmen like myself who believed in home rule and disbelieved in revolution did not agree with this spirit. We thought southern Ireland might persuade Ulster. We thought English authority was possibly weak and shifty, but benign. We did not wish to see Ireland, in the words of Professor MacNeill, go fornicating with Germany. When our brothers went to the European war we took England's gratitude as heartfelt and her repentance as deep. Our history was one of forcible conquest, torture, rape, enforced subservience, ignorance, poverty, famine. But we listened to G. K. Chesterton about Englishmen in relation to magnanimous Ireland: "It was to doubt whether we were worthy to kiss the hem of her garment."
All the deeper, then, the shock we received from the execution of our men of finest mettle. They were guilty of rebellion in wartime, but so was De Wet in South Africa. There seems to have been a calculation based on the greater military strength of the Dutch. A government which had negotiated with rebels in the North, which had allowed the retention of arms in Ulster, which had put Carson in the Cabinet, could not mark an eternal bias in its judgment of brave men whose legitimate constitutional prospects it had raised high and then intolerably suspended. But this English government, often cringing and supine, was brave enough to slay one imprisoned rebel after another. It did so in the name of "justice," the judges in this rebellion being officers of an army that had refused to stand against rebellion in Ulster.
It is not in vain, however, that these poets and Gaelic scholars and Republicans have stood blindfolded to be shot by English soldiers. Their verdict on English authority was scarcely in fault. They estimated with just contemptuousness the temper of a ruling class whose yoke Ireland has long been compelled to endure. Until that yoke is gone from Ireland, by the fulfillment of England's bond, the memory of this rebellion must flourish. It testifies sadly but heroically that there are still Irishmen who cannot be sold over the counter, Irishmen who set no ultimate sanction on a dishonest authority, Irishmen who set no ultimate value on their merely mortal lives.