Sinn Féin and the Rising of Easter Week, 1916 (2)

Eleanor Hull
Sinn Féin and the Rising of Easter Week, 1916 | start of chapter

As a political organization Sinn Féin did not come into being till 1905. Its way was prepared and its spirit was infused into the movement chiefly by the work of two men, Arthur Griffith and P. H. Pearse (Pádraic Mac Piarais). Though one in their ends, the methods they used were different.

In his weekly paper, the United Irishman, first established in 1899, Arthur Griffith, while preaching the doctrine of absolute independence, discussed in a series of admirable articles the revival of Irish industries, the condition and prospects of agriculture, and the development of industrial ideals.

Material prosperity he set before his readers as a thing to be aimed at, and the methods by which it might be attained were worthy of the most serious consideration.

He preached the renewal of a fraternal spirit between Irishmen of all classes and mutual co-operation for the benefit of the country. He boldly declared war on the Parliamentary party, and proposed to substitute for it a policy formed on that of the Hungarian Franz Déak, a main point in which was abstention from the Austrian Parliament.

The constitutional work of Redmond and his party he declared to be “useless, demoralizing, and degrading,” and he endeavoured to turn the eyes of his readers from the Parliament at Westminster, and to bring about independence by the promotion of the country’s interests from within.

Griffith’s book, The Resurrection of Hungary, had a wide sale, but it led to exaggerated views, not found in the book, such as that the language of Hungary, which threatened to become extinct, had been revived by the efforts of a few persons gathered in a drawingroom, and that the same result might be expected in the case of Irish. But this was true only of the upper classes, who had ceased to speak Hungarian; the language had never died out among the people at large.

Sinn Féin took its stand on the dictum that “The Constitution of 1782 is still the Constitution of Ireland;” it announced non-recognition of British authority. Griffith stood for educational methods in preference to physical force; but he demanded “a sovereign independence” which was not in the programme of the Parliamentary party, and he dropped that party as being a party of compromise.

Though Sinn Féin grew in time into a formidable opposition which set itself to undermine Redmond’s power and to send its own candidates to the polls, the country at the moment saw no advantage in returning men to Parliament who were pledged not to sit; and long afterward, when Irish soldiers returning invalided from the battlefields of France found the faces of their own relatives turned from them, it was to wonder “what those fellows in Ireland were up to now?” So little real progress did Sinn Féin make in its early days.

Arthur Griffith

Arthur Griffith
From the painting by Lily Williams in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin.

If it was Arthur Griffith who formulated the policy of Sinn Féin on the side on which it touched the practical patriotic work of Sir Horace Plunkett and George Russell (“A. E.”), it was P. H. Pearse who supplied the spiritual impetus which lay behind it.

The attitude of Pearse and his words remind us of the speeches of Robert Emmet, though he was a man of more practical power than Emmet had been. Pearse took as his models the “physical force men” of Fenian days.

In his oration over the grave of the Fenian, O’Donovan “Rossa,” Pearse declared that the new generation had been “rebaptised in the Fenian faith” and had “accepted the responsibility of carrying out the Fenian programme.”

He adds:

“We, the Irish Volunteers, know only one definition of freedom. It is Tone’s definition; it is Mitchel’s definition; it is Rossa’s definition.”[8]

Again he writes:—

“Irish Nationality is an ancient spiritual tradition, one of the oldest and most august traditions in the world. Politically, Ireland’s claim has been for freedom in order to attain to the full and perpetual life of that tradition. The generations of Ireland have gone into battle for no other thing. To the Irish mind for more than a thousand years freedom has had but one definition. It has meant not a limited freedom … a freedom compatible with the suzerain authority of a foreign Parliament, but absolute freedom, the sovereign control of Irish destinies.”[9]

And again:

“Freedom is so splendid a thing that one cannot worthily state it in the terms of a definition; one has to write it in some flaming symbol or sing it in music riotous with the uproar of heaven.”[10]

These words, written just before the rising of 1916, are characteristic of the attitude of Pearse. But though he wrote like a rhapsodist, he was a quiet but determined man. He was strongly imbued with the idea, not uncommon among the young men of his day, that Ireland needed a blood-sacrifice, which he and they could make on her behalf; and at his boys’ school at St. Enda’s he set himself to train up a generation of youths in the Gaelic tradition and to imbue them with the ideas that possessed his own soul. In the Easter week rebellion he and his comrades ungrudgingly made the sacrifice he preached; but it was dangerous doctrine, and, directly or indirectly, it led hundreds of young men to death, and the whole country into anarchy.

Sinn Féin took outward form in the Volunteer movement. They recognised among the determined Ulstermen a real “Sinn Féin” movement under another name, protesting also against Parliamentary methods, decrying the right of England to determine their action, and preaching reliance on “themselves alone.” The arming of Ulster pleased them.

“Personally,” said Pearse, “I think the Orangeman with a rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle; and the Orangeman who can fire a gun will certainly count for more in the end than the Nationalist who can do nothing cleverer than make a pun.”[11] He says he wrote “with the deliberate intention … of goading those who shared my political views to commit themselves definitely to an armed movement.”[12]

The armed movement was that of the Irish Volunteers. “Ulster,” wrote Irish Freedom, “has done one thing which commands the respect of all genuine Nationalists—she has stood up for what she believes to be right and will be cajoled neither by English threats nor English bayonets … We are willing to fight Ulster or to negotiate with her; … but we will not fight her because she tells England to go to Hell.”[13]

At the end of October 1913 Professor Eoin MacNeill published an article calling on Nationalist Ireland to drill and arm. A huge meeting held at the Rotunda ended in the enrolment of 4,000 men. By December there were 10,000. Pearse, speaking at Limerick, said that by the Volunteers they were going to give Redmond a weapon to enforce the demand for Home Rule.

Redmond at first took little heed of the movement, which he thought negligible. But when a pause in the slow business of the House of Commons was brought about by Sir Edward Carson’s acceptance of exclusion “until a federal scheme had been considered, when the whole matter would be reviewed in the light of the action of the Irish Parliament and how they got on” he threw himself into the movement.

On July 15 there were 80,000 Volunteers in the South as against 84,000 in the Ulster force, but they were increasing at the rate of 15,000 a week. Very soon they were reckoned at 132,000, besides a reserve force. Redmond determined to capture the whole body for the Parliamentary party, but this led to the resignation of Pearse and some other of the more extreme men. Later the Volunteer army was to split into two on the question of the War; and besides all this a third “Citizen Army” began to grow up in Dublin to carry out the designs of the Labour party.

Into the midst of a discussion in the House of Commons of the occurrences during the gunrunning at Howth a graver question obtruded itself. On August 4 the tocsin of war sounded through the world. The Amending Bill from the Lords which was to have been taken in the Home Rule debate in the Commons on July 28 was postponed by Asquith till Thursday, to ensure a calmer atmosphere; but when Thursday came the imminence of war caused it to be postponed indefinitely.

At the climax of a struggle which in some form or other had occupied the entire lifetime of John Redmond the cup of fulfilment was dashed from his lips. But the Leader of the Opposition laid it down that this postponement should not “in any way prejudice the interests of any of the parties to the controversy.” He spoke not only for the Unionist party, but for Ulster.[14]

On the following Tuesday the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, made his fateful speech announcing the outbreak of war and the outrage committed on Belgian neutrality. At the close of a great speech, which carried with it the main body of the members and brought “Willie” Redmond, the brother of the Irish leader, to his feet, the Foreign Secretary, with a sudden lift of his voice, said:

“One thing I would say: the one bright spot in the very dreadful situation is Ireland. The position of Ireland, and this I should like to be clearly understood abroad—is not a consideration among the things we have to take into account now.”

Redmond’s reply was one of the noblest that stand upon the records of the House. Brief as it was, it was, as Mr. Stephen Gwynn, who was present, says, “less a speech than a supreme action. It was the utterance of a man who has a vision and who, acting in the light of it, seeks to embody the vision in a living reality.”[15]

In a few simple words Redmond reminded the House that at the end of the disastrous American War in 1778 a hundred thousand Irish Volunteers sprang into existence for the purpose of defending Irish shores. Again to-day two large bodies of Volunteers existed in Ireland.

“I say to the Government,” he exclaimed, “that they may to-morrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. Ireland will be defended by her armed sons from invasion, and for that purpose the armed Catholics in the South will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen. Is it too much to hope that out of this situation a result may spring which will be good, not merely for the Empire, but for the future welfare and integrity of the Irish nation?”

The proposal was an act of faith, for Redmond had not consulted his party or the Volunteers, but he was justified by the event. On the basis of the freedom pledged to her by the Home Rule Bill Ireland was willing to give, at that moment of danger, a loyal friendship to England. To all who heard him it was clear that the acceptance of Redmond’s offer meant the acceptance of the principle of Home Rule, and with it of the sealing of amity between the two countries. Sir Edward Carson did not respond, but his position as the champion of Ulster against Home Rule made acquiescence almost impossible. Ulster was not ready for unity with the South.

It is true that all difficulties had not been surmounted. The Amendment Bill, which had received considerable alteration in the House of Lords, referred to the area in Ulster which was to be excluded from the Government of Ireland Bill, as the Home Rule Bill was called. Were Tyrone and Fermanagh to be among the excluded counties, and for what length of time was exclusion to last?

These were important details, and by the King’s command a special conference had been called at Buckingham Palace in July to consider them, but no conclusion had been reached. But the main principle of Home Rule for all Ireland except Ulster had been accepted and passed by the House, and all future relations between the two countries ought to have been conducted in the spirit of that agreement.

Redmond kept his part of the bargain, and Nationalist Ireland endorsed his action. The Volunteers of the South were willing to carry out Redmond’s original proposal to defend their own country against attack from Germany; and out of 170,000 Southern Volunteers only 12,000 followed Professor Eoin MacNeill’s secession when, later on, they were asked to serve overseas.

By the end of the year 16,500 had joined the Army. The best spirit prevailed. The Regulars were cheered as they embarked for the Front, and committees were formed in which men and women of both creeds worked heartily together to push on recruiting, to work banners for the troops, to aid in hospital preparations, and to assist the Belgian refugees.

“The wonderful spectacle was seen of a willing Ireland leagued together to aid Great Britain in her necessity.”

Redmond assured the House that from every part of Ireland he had received assurances from the Irish Volunteers that they would fulfil their part; and the tidings that began to come through from the Front of the charge of the Irish Guards with the words “God save Ireland” on their lips, aroused in both countries a new enthusiasm. On September 18 the Home Rule Bill received the Royal Assent.

On the lines of its newly gained Parliamentary independence Ireland was ready to respond to Asquith’s appeal “to give the free-will offering of a free people.”[16] But his announcement that “as soon as possible arrangements by which this offer can be made use of to the fullest possible extent” failed to materialize.

On the contrary, every sort of discouragement was placed in the way of individual Irish action of any kind. The Volunteer corps as a body was neither recognized nor armed. The regimental colours worked by the ladies’ association under Lady Fingall were refused. The suggestion, warmly supported by Lord Meath, of an Irish corps bearing the old inspiring title of the “Irish Brigade” and consisting entirely of Irish officers and men, was ignored.

The National University was not allowed an O.T.C., and it proved difficult for Catholics to get commissions in the army. Everything possible seemed to be done to damp down the ardour of the Irish people, who were responding to the promised gift of Home Rule in a spirit of gratitude and new friendship. They were made to feel that, in practice, no change in their status was recognized and that they in no way differed from the Englishman except that they had not his advantages.

On the other hand they saw a quite different treatment being meted out to Ulster, whose leaders were still repeating to its Volunteers the old cry “We are not going to abate one jot or title of our opposition to Home Rule, and when you (Ulstermen) come back from serving your country you will be just as determined as you will find us at home.”[17]

Every effort was made to applaud the deeds of the Ulster Division in the field, while those of the Southern Irish leaked out as though by accident, and the advice of Redmond was consistently ignored. Birrell, writing after Redmond’s death, said that the Irish leader “felt to the very end bitterly and intensely the stupidity of the War Office,” and Mr. Lloyd George, looking back on those months, spoke of “the stupidities which sometimes look almost like malignancy, perpetrated at the beginning of recruiting in Ireland” as almost past belief.[18]

There is no doubt that Lord Kitchener deeply distrusted the Volunteers as such, and preferred to have the Irish directly under the War Office, drafted into different regiments and treated as ordinary recruits rather than as a distinctive corps. Any appeal to nationality and patriotism was deprecated by him and others of his staff; and he preferred the Ulster Division, which considered itself politically English, to a Southern Division, which would hold itself to be freely offering its services as from one free state to an allied state.

Though some remedies were afterwards applied, the process of awakening friction between two peoples only newly brought into political sympathy had a disastrous effect; and though on the field of battle Irishmen met and fought together as brothers from whatever quarter or class in the home-land they were drawn, a fresh gap of sentiment was created between Ulster and the South, and a marked difference of opinion began to appear in Ireland as to the duty of Irishmen toward the War.

A section of the Volunteers now declared the War “a foreign quarrel” and disclaimed the right of Redmond to “offer up the lives and blood of Irishmen … while no National Government which could speak and act for the people of Ireland is allowed to exist.”[19]

A split was made in the ranks, and Redmond and his policy were disowned, his nominees being expelled from the committee. Recruiting went down, and Sinn Féin doctrines were assiduously instilled by a thousand channels among the people. But in April 1915, recruits were still coming in at the rate of fifteen hundred a week. Then came the formation of a Coalition Government. Redmond was offered a seat, but not for an Irish office. He refused, knowing that it would be said that he had been rewarded for sending young Irishmen to their death; but Sir Edward Carson became Attorney-General.

The effect of the coalition was that Irishmen believed that Home Rule was to be shelved, and recruiting dropped from six thousand to three thousand in the two following months; and though a new recruiting campaign gave it fresh impetus, the ardour of the first months was gone.