The Rising and popular support
The following is a very good piece taken from The Cedar Lounge and was written by one of that blog’s moderators and writers, who goes by the moniker World By Storm:
Again, given the day that is in it, and the wall to wall coverage of the Budget, no harm to step away from that briefly for a moment. A comment under a Diarmuid Ferriter piece here in the IT on the need for a Republic Day got me thinking. It stated baldly that:
The 1916 rebellion had NO support from the majority of the Irish people.
A further comment down the page suggested consulting JJ Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society. I’m still a fan of Lee and that book in particular – despite a few oddities in the text and analysis. I think it offers a very clear-headed view of Irish history during that period laced with a necessary irony and scepticism about all those involved. it’s certainly a world away either from revisionism or adherence to previous nostrums.
Be that as it may Lee engages directly with that issue of support and suggests in quite a lengthy portion of the section on the Rising that simple assertions of no support may be wide of the mark (and also points subtly to a strong class bias in such interpretations). He suggests that information on what was actually happening filtered out with remarkable slowness, that while there was unquestionably a sense that the Rising was a foolhardy enterprise as it manifested itself there was a broader sense that it was, if not quite justifiable, certainly legitimate – a fine distinction, but not one without significance.
It’s always struck me as instructive that there were two particular dynamics in evidence. Firstly a very rapid shift in sympathy towards those executed – and so rapid in fact that it further legitimised the events of 1916 in the popular imagination. It’s difficult not to feel that a door that was already open was being pushed – sympathy, absolutely understandable, but that transmuting into support, less so unless such support was already extant in some albeit quiescent form.
Secondly a small illustration. There were very very few tricolours in evidence during the Rising. A horizontal one was on the front of the GPO and I think there was a vertical one flown at Boland’s Mills. Otherwise it was gold harp on a green field flags. So in a sense the representation of this event was one rooted in a more traditional historical approach (as well as which it was probably easier to get hold of green flags – practicality, a great driver of historical events). At the commemorations at Easter 1917 almost all the flags displayed were tricolour flags. Again that’s a massive shift, but one that is understandable – Home Rule had self-evidently failed, its devices were now superseded but the more muscular and overt Republicanism of the tricolour. And even though by any reasonable criteria the Rising itself was a failure it was one that allowed for a perception that there that more muscular republicanism was the only way forward. The military approach had failed but it opened up space for a more pointed political approach to be followed by yet further military action (though Lee as always points out that the ultimate form of the struggle for independence was one which would have been a surprise to many involved in the Rising who envisaged open military actions rather than guerrilla warfare).
To me that suggests that those like John Bruton who argue that the Home Rule path was both right, successful and inevitably bound to succeed may have long over-estimated the attachment of the Irish to Home Rule, an attachment that was arguably cosmetic and shallow-rooted and that once something more substantial was on offer was rapidly pushed aside.
Of course it does no service to replace one partial analysis with another. Clearly there were those who were opposed to the Rising and bitterly so in many instances. And the reasons for that, cultural, social and economic are obvious. Moreover they also – I would hazard – constituted a significant enough block. But whether they were the majority seems unlikely, not least given the overall support for advanced nationalism from that period on in political terms.