They say there’s one day a year when everyone’s Irish and that’s St. Patrick’s Day. Well, that’s what I’ve heard in America, where everyone insists they’re part Irish and celebrates March 17th like it was their personal 4th of July. On such matters, I defer to the late Frank McCourt who said “A well-placed bomb at the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade would wipe out the cream of Irish mediocrity”. (Thank heavens he said it before 2001; today, a remark like that would land a quipster on the no-fly list). Me, I wish my family was Irish but my mother’s people mainly came from England and Italy and my dad’s Celtic ancestors sailed to America after they were “unfriended” in Scotland and Ireland. In other words, they were Ulster Scots. But, like lots of people I know, I’m a big fan of the Auld Sod and I can give you a reason why. No one I know can break your heart the way Irish writers and Irish stories do. And given the time of year this is with the the tide of Easter rising, the Irish tale I go back to is Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916. Seldom does a group of armed rebels bring me so close to tears.
Now when I was little, the only Irish history I knew centered around “The Famine” (long ago) or “The Troubles” (still going on). Ireland was one country when it starved but at some point, it became two. Something happened in-between those events but I wasn’t really sure what so I had no idea about the first class tragedy described in this wonderful book. Without sounding the dreaded “Spoiler Alert” I can give you a thumbnail list of events.
In the early days of the first world war, a few extremely devout, not-that-organized Irish Nationalists wanted English Rule out of Ireland. From what they heard in the streets, most Irish people agreed, not as zealously as the Nationalists but enough to keep them encouraged. These lovers of Ireland agreed that the time was ripe for revolution although they couldn’t agree on much else since all of them had their own political ideas and every man thought he was in charge (with the exception of Constance Markievicz, all the rebels seem to be men). At any rate, two or three small groups of men conspired to start a rebellion in different parts of Ireland – a rising, if you will – on Easter morning and they thought the people would join them and throw out the British government. Well, they failed. Of all the “risings” that were supposed to occur, only the one in Dublin gained ground, where 1,250 Irish insurgents battled 16,000 British soldiers and another thousand Dublin police for five days before they fell. None of the local citizenry joined the cause and the only government office the insurgents took over (the post office) was surrendered five days after they grabbed it. The Easter rising sank like the Titanic.
But here’s where the tables turn. A British General named Maxwell was ordered to clean up Dublin and he entered Ireland as military governor on the 28th, the day before the Post Office was surrendered. Now, his assignment was a sizable task but public sentiment was, for once, with the British, so Maxwell had a chance to build a peace. Instead, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, first by arresting about 1,500 innocent civilians along with the 1,800 surviving rebels. Within the week, the accused were being tried by court-martial (though none of them were soldiers) without access to counsel, a jury or judicial review, although those were required by law. Maxwell confirmed the death sentences and started executing rebels before he’d been there a week. The first three went to the firing squad the day after their “trials”. The Irish civilians that were not in the jail thought this was moving too fast. Arrest the rebels, of course, and make sure that justice is done but if someone’s charged for treason as an English citizen, aren’t they entitled to an Englishman’s rights? People didn’t like the rush to judgement and now the stories of some British abuses were coming to light. (Of all the individuals in the book, my favorite is Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist and campaigner for equal rights who irritated everyone sooner or later. He was odd individual as well as brave, caring man and what happened to him during the Rising is a never-ending shame.) Even England became concerned about the haste but they got the news too late. Fourteen rebels are executed by firing squad before the 12th of May. The last of these, already dying from his wounds, was carried on a stretcher to the front of a firing squad and tied to a chair because he could not stand. This was more than Irish citizens could bear. The failed Easter rebellion became the prelude to the Ireland’s War for Independence.
So, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and smile at all the people wearing green but remember a bit about Irish history. It’s the history of people everywhere. There are good times and bad times and some heartbreaking times but there are dreams and people that never quit trying. Whoever they are, wherever they come from and no matter how long it takes, there will always be someone who cares for justice and someone willing to die to be free. When they fall, someone will remember the dead and someone else will pick up their flag. And in the end, if the cause is just, the dream will never die. And that thought could heal a broken heart.