Easter 1916 to the Troubles
Europe’s former colonies struggled often violently for political sovereignty as nation-states. Ireland, Britain’s oldest former colony, was one of the first to fight for its independence in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to the creation of a new government, Ireland’s struggle for independence entailed creating new ideas about Irish national identity through literature and the arts. This Norton Online Topic explores how twentieth-century Irish writers attempted to re-imagine Ireland, particularly during two periods of crisis: in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the later outbreaks of sectarian violence from 1969 (known as the Troubles) in Northern Ireland.
The 1916 Easter Rising grew out of Irish political and cultural nationalism and the desire for political sovereignty in Ireland. The growing resentment over the British control of Ireland led a secret revolutionary group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) to plan to take over Dublin on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916.
On the day after Easter, Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish leaders (including Thomas Clarke, Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and James Connolly) and about 1,600 Irish rebels, both men and women, took over several buildings and streets in the center of Dublin. On the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, Pearse issued a Proclamation of Ireland’s independence from British rule, announcing the birth of the Republic of Ireland and the institution of a provisional government. Five days later, with much of Dublin’s city-center in ruins and aflame, the leaders were forced to surrender to a much larger British military force. In the ensuing weeks, fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. At the time of the Easter Rising many Irish people were skeptical of the rebels’ efforts to force the British Empire from Ireland. But after the swift execution and mass imprisonment of the Irish rebels, the public became more fervently nationalist, opposing the British presence in Ireland. As a result, the leaders of the Rising became martyrs within the public imagination.
The Easter Rising challenged modern Irish writers to re-imagine the Irish nation and national identity. Irish writers criticized the tyranny of British colonialism and shared the hope for an independent Ireland. Yet they also depicted the dangers of Irish nationalism, including its connections with armed violence, with cultural exclusion and racism, and, especially, with the ethic of blood sacrifice. In different ways, both W. B. Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916” and Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars ask skeptical questions about a violent Irish nationalism, even as they imagine an Ireland free from colonial rule.
Many Irish writers have figured the Irish nation as a woman to be fought for, as in the Easter 1916 Proclamation: “Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” Since the rise of feminism in the 1960s, contemporary Irish women writers such as Eavan Boland (NAEL) have attempted to revise this image of Ireland as woman—both to bear witness to real Irish women’s oppression and to criticize how the long history of British colonialism has limited Irish conceptions of gender and nationality.
Though Ireland gained national independence in 1922, the island of Ireland is not politically united. The twenty-six counties that comprise most of the island form the Republic of Ireland; the largely Catholic Republic (called only “Ireland”) is fully independent from British rule. The six counties forming Northern Ireland are still under British control, and they constitute a separate political entity. Northern Ireland is also religiously divided between a Roman Catholic minority and an Ulster Protestant majority, and Ulster Protestants have historically had more political and economic power than Northern Irish Catholics. The combination of political and economic inequality and religious differences between these two groups has contributed to the waves of political and sectarian violence, or Troubles, since the late 1960s.
The Troubles began when civil rights marches by Northern Irish Catholics for equal housing, voting, and economic rights were forcibly broken up by the Northern Irish police, or Royal Ulster Constabulary. On Sunday, January 30, 1972, during a demonstration against the unlawful imprisonment of Catholics, British soldiers fatally shot thirteen unarmed demonstrators and wounded another fourteen. “Bloody Sunday” inflamed Northern Irish Catholics and led in the 1970s and ‘80s to increased armed conflict between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, frequent bombings, the deployment of more British troops and tanks to the streets of Northern Ireland, and the illegal internment of Catholics suspected of paramilitary ties. By the 1990s, however, political leaders from both sides (including Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) began a series of talks to end the conflict in Northern Ireland. With the help of other Northern Irish leaders, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. President Bill Clinton, these talks culminated in the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. This document effectively gives Northern Irish people the power to implement and run their own government apart from Westminster, London. The following month, the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly passed by referendum the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the passing of the Agreement and the IRA announcement of a ceasefire in 1994, the political climate in Northern Ireland remains tense.
Like earlier modern Irish writers, contemporary Northern Irish writers have also felt compelled to respond to the Troubles in order to re-imagine Northern Ireland. The frequency and intensity of the Troubles have placed new pressures and raised new questions for Northern Irish writers. How, for instance, can a Northern Irish writer illustrate the disturbing nature of political violence without sensationalizing it? Can literature effectively offer consolation in the face of such atrocities? How can national unity and inclusiveness be imagined amidst ongoing cultural, political, and religious divisions? In works that range from elegy to farce, these are among the questions grappled with by writers of different political and religious communities, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Fiona Barr, and a London-born writer of Irish parentage, Martin McDonagh.
The bloody events of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, both historical outgrowths of British colonialism, have had a lasting impact on how Irish and Northern Irish writers imagine the nation. Irish writers such as Yeats, James Joyce, and O’Casey were among the century’s earliest postcolonial subjects to forge, question, and critique the meaning of the Irish nation and national identity. Yeats and Joyce have influenced postcolonial writers from countries that gained independence later in the century, such as Salman Rushdie (India), Derek Walcott (St. Lucia), and Chinua Achebe (Nigeria). Contemporary Irish, Northern Irish, and Irish diaspora writers such as Heaney, Longley, Muldoon, Boland, Barr, and McDonagh continue to make sense of the still-present history of British colonialism, the fact and meaning of sectarian and political violence, and they sometimes even glimpse hope for peace and reconciliation.