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Remembering Easter Monday 1916

Irish Volunteers barricade Townsend Street, Dublin, to slow down the advance of troops, during the Easter Rising. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Remembering Easter Monday 1916

The 1916 Rising is a historic event which still resonates with Irish people today, and perhaps now with the entirety of the island in lockdown, we can draw some parallels with other times in history when people have faced adversity. The Taoiseach in his recent addresses to the nation has been using Ireland’s past to inspire resilience in this difficult time.

However, oftentimes when reading about History there is a tendency to look at things in a cold, analytical way, and in some respects the lessons we as people can take from an everyday, human account can be lost. Writer James Stephen’s chronicle of the Easter Rising is particularly riveting mainly because it was written before the more balanced lens of History could process it.

In this short account we get a day by day experience of what it was like to live through  one of Irish Histories black swan events.  A black swan is an event which is unforseen and unpredictable; extreme situations with potentially life altering consequences. They are characterised by their rarity, the severity of their impact, and the tendencey to rationalise them in hindsight, often insisting that their emergence was inevitable. Examples include things like pandemics, financial collapses or the outbreak of war.

In this case, the onset of the 20th century was a time of great struggle, that changed the course of Irish history. During World War 1, the powers of the established order were breaking down, and with the outbreak of insurrection in Dublin, led by Padraig Pearse and others, the Irish people where having to very quickly adapt to a new situation, much like ourselves.

British Regulars sniping from behind a barricade of empty beer casks near the quays in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From the outset, in his account, James Stephens talks about the great confusion that comes with living through a historical event. Like 1916. Even today with the advantages of the internet and a 24 hour new cycle, it is still difficult to get a perspective on what exactly is going on as governments struggle to cope with a developing pandemic. In 1916, with the outbreak of insurrection in Dublin, the Irish people struggled to keep track of an ever developing narrative that changed day by day. Even after the rebellion was over, there was still great confusion about what exactly had happened. Stephens explains:

“I knew nothing about the rising. I do not know anything about it now, and it may be years before exact information on the subject is available. What I have written is no more than a statement of what happened in one quarter of our city, and a gathering together of the rumor and tension which for nearly two weeks had to serve Dublin in lieu of news. It had to serve many Dublin people in place of bread.”

That last sentence in particular is telling. In the absence of order one thing people seek is news. News that will allow them to plan effectively. News of what is happening, why it is happening, when it started and perhaps most crucially, when it will all be over.

On Easter Monday, April, 1916, the first day of the insurrection, the first sign that anything was amiss at all was rifle fire. It was surmised by some that it was simply the drilling of the Irish volunteers. The idea that it could have been anything more was inconceivable to many Irish citizens. And yet afterwards, the whole affair has an air of inevitability about it:

“Today our city is no longer peaceful; guns are sounding or rolling and cracking from different directions, and although rarely, the rattle of machine guns can be heard also.”

Stephens was a writer, and even during extreme times his wit is on full display as he paints a picture of Dubliners which may not always seem the most flattering. Underneath the wit however, he also notes the change in people’s attitudes.

“On the way home I noticed that many silent people were standing in their doorways -an unusual thing in Dublin outside the back streets. The glance if a Dublin man or woman conveys generally a criticism of one’s personal appearance, and is a little hostile to the passer. The look of each person as I passed was steadfast, and contained an enquiry instead of a criticism.”

On Monday, the first day of the Rising, there was still relatively free movement about the city. Many of the citizenry went about their daily business, perhaps a little anxious for their employers to ring the gong for them to go home. They scrambled for information, but at this point they were still unafraid to leave their homes.

Later, Historians would criticise the British governments classification of the 1916 Rising as the “Sinn Féin Rising”. Yet it’s important to note that’s how ordinary people would have characterised it at the time.

“A sleepy, rough looking man. He addressed me , he looked at me as at a person from a different country. “
“Don’t you know?” said he, “The Shinners have seized the city this morning”.

Although people didn’t realise it at the time, the volunteers had actually been counter signaled, with false starts for their operation, and they were not led by Sinn Féin, but by poet Padraig Pearse, who would be the first president of Ireland and the drafter of the 1916 proclamation. He was joined by James Larkin and members of the workers party. Events had been orchestrated by a secretive council known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood completely unbenownst to personalities like Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. There was  tendency to immediately politicise events in incredibly broad strokes. Supporters could have been considered anyone who had ever expressed nationalist sentiment, even though many of those seeking home rule counter-signaled the Rising.

All this is to say that as usual, the situation was more complicated and could not be put down to the actions of one political party. Never the less, it was easy enough for the media of that time to use Sinn Féin Rising as a kind of short hand. This would only benifit that organisation in subsequent years after the Rising.

Significantly, many of those involved in the events of Easter week were young men who would not have been very political at all. Stephens describes one of them vividly:

“I spoke to the man with the revolver. He was no more than a boy. This young man did not appear to me to be acting from his reason. He was doing his work from a determination implanted previously, days, weeks perhaps, on his imagination. His mind was-where? It was not with his body.”

The fear inspired by events even on that first day had put everyone on edge. Mixtures of curiosity, fear and it has to be said excitement heightened people’s emotions. Stephens himself is not too far removed from the young volunteer’s mindset he describes when he gets home that day:

“I had barely reached the chair when I stood up again and be began to pace my room, to and fro, to and fro, amazed, expectant, inquiet; turning my ear to the shots, and my mind to speculations that began in the middle, and where chased away by others before they had taken one thought forward. But then I took myself resolutely and sat me down, and I penciled out exercises above the musical stave, and under the stave: and discovered suddenly that I was again marching the floor, to and fro, to and fro, with thoughts bursting about my heads as though they were being fired on me from concealed batteries.”

It’s interesting to see how Stephen’s is trying to find something to settle his mind during the crisis. When our lives are thrown into upheaval its the small things people become obsessed with, whether its household chores, or learning a musical instrument or continuing to write a journal. Ironically these things seem to matter more, because every human instinct of panic is trying to alert you that they no longer matter. That you need to get away from the situation and flee. It’s a fight or flight response. In the ensuing days, it became clear that flight was not really an option. Even information was restricted from freely travelling in and out of the city; in the absence of news, people like Stephens had to rely on their immediate senses to get an impression of what exactly was transpiring:

“I remained awake until four O clock in the morning.Every five minutes a rifle cracked somewhere, but about a quarter to twelve sharp volleying came from the direction of Portabello bridge, and died away after some time. The windows of my flat listen obliquely towards Sackville Street. In another quater of an hour there were volleys from Stephen’s Green direction, and this continued with intensity for about twenty-five minutes. Then it fell into a sputter of fire and ceased. I went to bed about four O clock convinced that the Green had been rushed by the military  and captured, and that the rising was at an end.”

Again, whats quite clear is the speculation that it will all be over soon and real life can resume as normal. But although the events of easter week did end in a sense, in that the Rising itself was eventually quashed, the spirit of rebellion was to reverberate and change the landscape of Irish life for years to come. It could be argued that Black Swan event which broke out on Easter Week, April 1916, never truly ceased to reverberate or come to a definite end. Looking at footage of Dublin streets completely empty, with busnisses stopped and people unable to leave their homes except for essential reasons, it’s difficult to think of any other time since the Easter Rising where the city of Dublin has been effectively brought to a stand still.

For Stephens, on that long night of uncertainty, he found that sleep eventually came, the sun eventually rose and life went on, but he had little knowledge of just how much the situation would develope over the course of that week. The insurrection was far from over. When people again were able to move throughout Dublin freely, they found that things would not be the same since they had been through a historical event they would remember for years to come.

Those who would like to read more can find the full account in The Inssurection of Dublin by James Stephens.

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