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A terrible beauty

April 24, 2011

At the end of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, the ruins of the GPO and Sackville Street, as it then was, were indistinct through the smoke of battle; 95 years later, it sometimes feels as if the men who took part in that Rising, and their motivation, are almost as dificult to see clearly.

We live now in an entirely different world, and our view of that week in Dublin is obscured by the smoke of many fires – the recent Troubles in the six counties, concerns about bigotry in Scotland, the state of modern Ireland. Many people seek to claim or to villify the heritage of 1916 for their own aims – but none of that should mask the reality of what happened in Dublin all those years ago.

I’m not seeking to make political points here, nor to justify or denounce the actions during that week of Insurrection – those are other discussions for other times. But, every Easter, I try to find some time to reflect on the 16 men who were executed, those who followed them into the fight, and their reasons for doing so.

They were a mixed bunch, to say the least: the poet and educationalist, the British diplomat, the University lecturer, the Boer War veteran, the union organiser, the railway man, the political activist and so on. In an effort to gain autonomy and preserve their country’s cultural traditions, they took on the might of the world’s greatest Empire. They did so in a haphazard and misplanned fashion, and have often been heavily criticised for this, though it is difficult to see how, with the resources at their disposal, their Rising could have had any other ending, no matter how well organised. But, of course, to criticise the effectiveness of their campaign is to miss the point. No-one who was ‘out’ in 1916 had any real hope of any kind of military victory – they were making a point in the only way they knew how.

Revisionists have a field day criticising the messianic nature of Pearse, the almost mystical dependence on a ‘blood sacrifice’, as illustrating the wastefulness of the Rising. However, you only need to look contemporaneously five or six hundred miles east to realise that, in British khaki, young men of much the same background were engaged in similar futlity, hurling themselves selflessly into a hail of machine gun fire, the lions led by donkeys, fuelled by a not so dissimilar belief system.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to enter their mindset at this distance. I’ve stood at the GPO and pondered; walked the sites of battle across the city and wondered; moved down the haunting corridors of Kilmainham Gaol, where they lay in cells awaiting execution and stood in its stonebreakers’ yard where they were shot at dawn. I’ve even met an old man who fought in the bloody battle at Mount Street Bridge – but I don’t feel any closer to undestanding in any meaningful way. The times were too different, their experiences too difficult to capture.

However, sometimes it does feel almost in reach. In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, in some of the most surprising quarters, there was a re-examination of the Republican Proclamation – the men’s own explanation of what they were fighting for, the feeling that they had to do something.

Of course, the language is arcane and it is clearly ‘of its time’, but it is also underwritten by a generosity of spirit, of width of concern for all citizens, a non-sectarian attitude and even an acknowledgement of the role of women in the new Republic – all of which was surprisingly progressive for its time. However, there is, over it all, a spirit of aspiration, of the general good, of the true, if idyllic, meaning of Republicanism. These were men who were not afraid to aim high for the good of their countrymen – and who were prepared to put their lives alongside their aspirations.

There is, though, one place, where the lives of sixteen men come into some kind of perspective, and where their actions in 1916 become comprehensible and admirable.

Arbour Hill was a British Military Prison in 1916. Some of the leaders were brought there for interrogation after the Rising and 14 were brought back here after their execution at Kilmainham and buried in what was then the Prison Yard. Obviously at the time, the authorities were looking for somewhere out of the way to dispose of the bodies, and, indeed, I doubt if this graveyard is on the tour list for many in Dublin today. It lies to the west of the city centre, in a small street behind the National Museum in what was formerly Collins Barracks. The prison now operates as a civilian institution, for about 150 prisoners, and there is a church and military graveyard, for British troops who died in Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. So it is in this ironic setting that you come across the final, understated, resting place.

A low grass mound, surrounded by slabs with the names of the men buried there, and backed with a granite wall on which is inscribed the Proclamation in Irish and English, with a flagpole for the national flag.

It is quiet, secluded and, depite the presence of the prison walls, a peaceful setting, in which, on nearly every occasion I have visited, the only company has been birdsong. Perhaps it’s then that you can also hear the voices of those men most clearly. And, when I do, I hear them in the words of their last letters to their loved ones.

They write of their concern for the upbringing of children left behind, out of regret at the cutting short of their love for wives and sweethearts; they use pet names and family jokes, send uniform buttons and rosary beads as keepsakes, try to give advice for the future, apologise for the selfishness of their selfless act, seek to focus the thoughts of those left behind on the good times, the happiness, the love they shared. They also write of their hopes that ultimately their dreams will be realised, their actions understood, their children be proud of them.

Those voices, in the calm of that churchyard, go some way to giving an understanding of why they did what they did and what sort of men they were. It brings a melancholic but not altogether desperate frame of mind. I’ve felt it before – in British War Cemeteries in Flanders, in Arlington Cemetery Virginia, in other places where young men are buried who died for others’ dreams.

At Easter, it’s good to focus on what we used to call the brotherhood of man, those noble things that link us altogether, regardless of nationality, politics or beliefs; that ability we have, at our finest, to put others first and promote the common good.

It’s an Easter message of hope, but, as Yeats put it so well, it’s born out of a terrible beauty.

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