An Irish politician said recently that Irish people would have got freedom sooner – and better – if the 1916 Rising had not happened.
That’s a bit like saying there was no need for Einstein because somebody would have thought up the Theory of Relativity anyway; or Father Lemaitre need not have discovered the Big Bang because somebody would have thought of it without him; and why bother about Karl Marx, didn’t Willy Thompson the landlord from Cork have all his ideas already before Karl was heard of? Just wait around and things will happen.
Empires might have broken up anyway without the First World War, Christianity might just have happened if people in Nazareth had stayed in the carpenter’s shop. The politician who said we would all be freer without the 1916 Rising knows something about peaceful evolution – he is a Knight of The Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St George, a grand affair organised in honour of The Royal House of the Two Sicilies. Not just one Sicily but two. Expert on revolutions probably.
Strangely, there is a great deal of praise at the moment for people who kept the Great War going, and much less praise for, say, James Connolly who tried to stop it. James thought if Ireland’s poor workers rose up the poor workers of Europe would rise up too, because they objected to thousands of them being killed in an afternoon for a cause from which they got and would get small benefit. The poor workers went on fighting in the Great War, James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse could not stop it, but at least they helped their fellow citizens to understand they had enough dignity to make their own decisions about it.
That word Rising is a suitable one for what happened in Dublin 1916 – better then Rebellion. A rebellion may be just an attack on a government whose general principles you agree with; a revolution is a rising of people against not just a government but the principles the government stands for. Pearse was a revolutionary about education, Connolly a revolutionary about economic and social dignity. So in that case Revolution or Rising is a more suitable term than rebellion. But saying the revolution in 1916 need not have happened, that is not what many people said during, say, the Hungarian revolution in the mid-nineteen fifties – they called it a fine revolution because it was not just against a government but against what that government stood for; and although that Hungarian uprising had not a chance of succeeding it was praised a lot in Ireland because it was said to be, as it were, a rising against the right people. Twenty years earlier, a rebellious revolution, or a revolutionary rebellion, in Spain also got a lot of praise for going in what turned out later to be the wrong direction. So, would Relativity really have been stated without Einstein, Das Kapital written without Karl Marx, the Big Bang suddenly revealed during afternoon tea in Bewley’s? Naïve question. There are moments in history which define so much, change so many attitudes, alter ideas, so many awakenings of courage when defeat seems bound to happen, that we cannot do without them.
As the cliché has it, such things make us what we are. There are times in history when even a small revolution may do more for people's souls than a great war. Whatever the Knight may say.