A Terrible Beauty?

Easter has come a little early this year. One hundred years ago the Easter weekend culminated on Monday 24 April 1916. In Dublin on the steps of the GPO building, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation of the Irish Republic and the end of British rule in Ireland, heralding what we now know as the Easter Rising. It lasted a week until the rebels surrendered to overwhelming British military force assisted by a battleship in the Liffey. Hundreds were subjected to Field General Courts Martial, most were jailed, the leaders were executed, while some supporters and civilian sympathisers in the streets around were despatched under a ‘shoot to kill’ order.

At the same time, the men of 11 DLI were stationed near Oodezeele on the Ypres Front in Belgium. There had been church parades the day before but on Monday it was back to work, mostly behind the lines on roads and constructing new billets. The added attraction was a visit from top brass from 20th Divisional HQ come to inspect the Pioneers at their work. Otherwise the week that followed was a period of general rest and recuperation, interspersed with training and sports activities. 

So what is the connection between these two coterminous sets of events? It has to do with the reasons for fighting. The men of 11 DLI, along with the rest of the Army including several battalions of Irish volunteers, were ostensibly on the Western Front in defence of smaller nations such as ‘plucky little Belgium’ against imperialist German militarism. The personal reasons for the men involved could have been very complex, though this might well have been a part of their motivation.

The rebels of Sinn Fein were also asserting the rights of smaller nations in the face of (British) imperialism and military might. They were a little clearer as individuals, as they were following the clearly stated aims of the Proclamation: that the Republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens” and it would resolve “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the national equally”.

In terms of the wider context of the Great War, all parts of the British armed forces, wherever they were stationed (at sea, in western Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India, in Africa) including Ireland, they were in practice defending and maintaining the integrity of the British Empire and that would become even more clear three years later at Versailles. That was as true of the Irish divisions as 20th Light Division.

In the end the ordinary men did not, in either case, get what they might have thought was their due. When it came, Home Rule in Ireland fell a long way short of the ideals of the Proclamation. The miners and labourers of 11 DLI who survived what was to follow went home to face years of continued exploitation and, indeed, military repression when they struck to stop wage reductions.

Meanwhile, just two months on from Easter 1916, tens of thousands on all sides of the front met their deaths in the slaughter of the Somme.  While the poet WB Yeats could classify the Easter Rising as ‘a terrible beauty’, no such description has ever been applied to that.