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Easter, 1916 and 2016

Monday, 28 March, 2016

Five years after the poet William Butler Yeats had immortalized the Irish rebellion of 1916 with the phrase “A terrible beauty is born,” the brothers-in-arms of the Easter uprising were at each other’s throats in a merciless, ruinous Civil War. And every decade since, the island of Ireland has been traumatized by eruptions of a terror that robs and murders in the name of the 1916 rebels. Beauty fades, looks change, idealism decays.

How did the idealism of 1916 turn into barbarism and then into dogmatic nationalism of the most dreary, backward kind? In the London Review of Books, Irish writer Colm Tóibín explores the history of Easter 1916 in “After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting.” At the core of Tóibín’s article is the conundrum of the rebellion. Did the rebels intend to take power in Ireland by force of arms, or was the entire exercise a form of sacrifice in which a small group of idealists offered themselves up to inspire a larger number? “What happened on Easter Monday in Dublin is open to interpretation,” writes Tóibín. “As a military event, it makes almost no sense. Taking St Stephen’s Green, rather than Dublin Castle, suggests poor planning and lack of strategic thinking.” Indeed. Instead of capturing the city’s arsenal or barracks, the rebels occupied a post office, a bakery and a public park. This was revolution as performance art.

The historic blood donation of 1916 led to partial independence, but it legitimized the notion of Irish republican “martyrdom” and this malign concept has left a trail of death, division and distrust in its wake. The poet Yeats saw beauty in the idealism of Easter 1916, but he also noted the terrible nature of the fanatic heart. The subsequent ten decades of intermittent violence on the island of Ireland have proved him right, sadly.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)


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