By Guy Beiner
Twenty years before the Easter Rising, a group of revolutionaries took over a public building in a central city of an imperial power and presented political demands on behalf of the nation that they claimed to represent. The results were catastrophic. The event was the seizure of the Ottoman bank in Constantinople by members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation on 28 August 1896. Over the fourteen-hour-long occupation of the building, several soldiers and revolutionaries were killed before a ceasefire was negotiated. The surviving revolutionaries were granted amnesty and shipped out of the country upon a private yacht. The retaliation for this act was horrendous. With the sanction of the Sultan, over 6,000 Armenian civilians were massacred. The resort to terrorism had not paid off.
The takeover of the GPO in Dublin in 1916 was supposed to be a very different affair. It was not a hare-brained publicity stunt, aimed at attracting international attention to the plight of a neglected national cause, but an attempt to kick-start an open revolution in the republican tradition of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, or rather the attack on the mail coaches that signalled the opening of the rebellion of 1798. Irish manhood, so it was proclaimed, had been organised and trained through secret revolutionary organisation, as well as through open military organisations, and had resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself. Acting in the name of God and of the dead generations, the revolutionaries were determined to display valour and discipline. At the same time, by not only pledging their own lives, but also claiming the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman, they demanded the readiness of the nation’s children to sacrifice themselves for the common good.
There is a jarring dissonance between the noble ideals of revolution and the blood that is spilled on the streets. Behind the lofty rhetoric of sacrifice lurks a cold-blooded arithmetic, which makes allowances for the inevitability of the government responding in full force to the revolutionary threat and discounts the toll. In effect, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary doctrines share a common dogma in their uncompromising conviction that the ends justify the means. The flowery proclamations mask the stark truth that it is not eggs that are being cracked to make omelettes, but human lives that must pay the price for the promise of a better future, or for the preservation of law and order. More than half of the fatalities (and probably an even greater proportion of the wounded) in the Easter Rising were civilians.
Was it needless death after all? In comparative terms, the number of casualties over Easter 1916 was relatively low. Altogether, far fewer innocent bystanders died in Dublin than in the briefer Armenian precedent, for example. The recently enumerated necrology of 485 amounts to a drop in the bloodbath that has been named the Great War. The relatively low scale of death, however, does not imply insignificance. This was no battle in a cabbage patch. The Easter Rising stands out for its sheer audacity. In retrospect, 1916 has become to be seen as the opening shot of the Irish Revolution, even if those who wished to achieve independence would have to wait for their day to come.
In the months that followed the debacle, there was a silent, and far more significant, revolution, which became evident in the transformation of popular political consciousness. Ironically, the main agent of change was the British government in Ireland, which, in its efforts to root out the revolutionary movement, antagonised the general nationalist public and effectively stimulated widespread sympathy for the separatist cause. By promulgating, through the press, the myth of a ‘Sinn Féin Rising’, the path was paved towards the Conscription Crisis of April 1918 and the landslide triumph of Sinn Féin in the general election of December 1918. These in turn led to the formation of Dáil Éireann and the outbreak of the War of Independence. The ultimate success of the Irish Revolution, if it can be called a success, was in its ability to turn the defeat of 1916 into a victory of sorts. To what extent can the leaders of the rising be credited for instigating this development, which occurred after their deaths?
The revolutionary clique that planned the rising faced a tactical dilemma. The Fenian dictum that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity proved to be a hollow mantra. It was inconceivable that the government in Whitehall, which had mobilised a massive army and was equipped with emergency powers by the Defence of the Realm Act, would concede a defeat so close to home when waging a world war. The limited fire-power, which the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood mustered through its hundreds of supporters in the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan, was insufficient to take on the might of the British Empire. However, the main weakness of the revolutionaries was not in their lack of guns but in their incapability of rallying multitudes to their cause. Although the members of the IRB had sworn an oath to establish an independent democratic republic, they did not have a popular mandate. Their most formidable challenge was to win over the support of the vast majority of the nationalist public from their main rival—the Irish Parliamentary Party – but they lacked the necessary patience required for re-educating the people of Ireland by peaceful means. In these circumstances, they resorted to an ideology of terrorism.
Our present understanding of terrorism is too often clouded by sensationalist media commentators and so-called security experts, who purport to explain its motivations by alluding to the seemingly self-explanatory jargon that equates terror with Islamic fundamentalism. Closer to home, reference to the Provisional IRA and associated paramilitary organisations can be equally confounding, as there is little room for detached analyses in trying to come to terms with the painful legacy of the recent Troubles. A deeper perspective can be gained by considering the history of terrorism, which was developed as a revolutionary tactic in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and was adopted by various anarchist and nationalist revolutionaries in an open challenge to the monopoly of violence claimed by the modern state. The assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia, which triggered the First World War, was the culmination of over three decades of intensive terrorist violence that included numerous attacks on world leaders. Seen in this light, the Phoenix Park murders of the Chief Secretary and his Permanent Undersecretary in 1882 was an Irish manifestation of an international trend, which was sensationally launched the previous year by members of Narodnaya Volya [People’s Will], with the assassination of Czar Alexander II (following several unsuccessful attempts on his life over the previous fifteen years).
In its etymology, terror derives from the Latin for causing fear [terrere]. However, terrorism aspires to go beyond mindless spreading of fear. It is possible to discern two general guiding principles in the semi-clandestine literature that articulated an ideology of terrorism in the nineteenth century. The first fundamental is the justification for harming innocent individuals. It was outlined, for example, by the German Forty-Eighter Karl Heinzen in his chilling essay ‘Der Mord’ [Murder], in which he discussed the ‘desperate measures the party of freedom has been driven [to] by the mass party of the barbarians’ [i.e. the governments of autocratic states] and argued that ‘even if we have to blow up half a continent or spill a sea of blood, in order to finish off the barbarian party, we should have no scruples about doing it.’ In its most extreme form, this concept evolved into an argument that denied the very existence of neutral parties in a revolutionary struggle, as epitomised in the infamous exclamation of the French anarchist Émile Henry at his trial for detonating a bomb in Café Terminus in Paris in 1894: ‘Il n’y a pas de bourgeois innocents’.
The second basic principle of terrorism is the use of violence as propaganda by deed, a term which was apparently coined in 1877, more or less simultaneously, by the Italian socialist Andrea Costa and the French anarchist Paul Brousse. It was subsequently advocated by the German-American anarchist Johann Most, who advised prospective terrorists in his journal Freiheit of the advantages of ‘action as propaganda’. The logic of propaganda by deed, which is rarely spelt out, captures the umbilical connection between the political use of violence by terrorists and by the modern state. Extremist revolutionaries, frustrated by their inability to reach out to the masses, came up with a strategy for publicising their cause by undertaking highly-symbolic attacks. Crucially, the propaganda value was not confined to the publicity that such acts would gain, but also factored in the outcome of the official response. The attacks were devised to be so shocking that the authorities would be drawn into responding with disproportionate aggression. It was expected that the brutality of the government clampdown would radicalise an aggrieved public into supporting the cause espoused by the terrorists. In other words, the war on terror is part and parcel of terror. In its essence, terrorism was conceived as a method for manipulating the power of the state into awakening the people from their apathy in order to further the cause of revolutionary struggle. Innocent people would in all likelihood be hurt—both in the act of terror and in the government retaliation—but the ends were seen to justify the means.
The Irish-American bombing campaign, waged by Fenian dynamitards in British cities between 1881 to 1885, included some twenty-five major attacks on such targets as railway lines and prominent public buildings. The fear of ‘Fenian fever’ was widespread, but causalities were low and the authorities were careful not to overreact. Even though the attacks failed to produce tangible results, they put militant republicanism back in the headlines at a time when it seemed increasingly irrelevant. Terrorism was denounced by the mainstream Fenian leadership but still acquired an aura of reverence among the firebrands of the next generation. The revolutionaries of 1916 found a living link with the Fenian terrorists in Thomas Clarke, who had served fifteen years of particularly harsh imprisonment for possession of explosives. For Patrick Pearse, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the ideologue of terrorist ‘skirmishing’, was ‘not the greatest man of the Fenian generation, but he was its most typical man’. Much has been made of Pearse’s cult of political martyrdom, evident in his adoration of such figures as Robert Emmet, and famously articulated, less than nine months before the Easter Rising, in his graveside oration for O’Donovan Rossa. The implicit association between martyrdom and terrorism has been less noticed. The wilful seeking out of martyrdom is a quintessential act of propaganda by deed, designed to expose the brutality of the Defenders of this Realm and to fully exploit the cultural capital that can be derived from the graves of patriot men and women.
Another, perhaps less-expected, source of inspiration for a terrorist mind-set in 1916 can be found in the radical political drama scene that flourished on the fringes of the Irish Revival. Roy Foster has called attention to the many ‘veterans of agit-prop drama’, such as Constance Markievicz in her feathered hat and uniform, who played a role in the Rising. There was a distinctly theatrical quality to the Easter Rising, which was particularly evident at the GPO, all the way through to Pearse handing over his sword to General Lowe, with the genuinely honourable intention of preventing further slaughter. The pioneering historian of terrorism Walter Laqueur aptly described terrorists as the ‘superentertainers of our time’. While causing great suffering, terror is a spellbinding form of theatre. It is shocking and horrific, and yet presents so compelling a sight that it is guaranteed full media coverage and peak viewer ratings.
The fighting at the GPO was, of course, not the full story of the Easter Rising. On the ground, in the various sites of confrontations, the insurrection was closer to urban guerrilla warfare, as envisioned by Louis-Auguste Blanqui in his Instruction pour une prise d’armes [Instruction for a Taking Up of Arms] than to terrorism, though the two forms of revolutionary violence are not entirely unrelated. In terms of insurrectionary tactics, choosing such a vulnerable location as the GPO for the rebel headquarters may have been a military error. However, the occupation of a prominent building, which significantly was a centre of communications, right in the heart of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, created a spectacle that stole the show and instantly became the iconic main stage of the rising.
Although the takeover of the GPO was intended as an act of open insurrection, rather than of terrorism, for all intents and purposes, it functioned as a spectacular display of propaganda by deed. In fact, the British response to the Easter Rising could have been scripted as a text-book of the dynamics of propaganda by deed. In declaring martial law and shelling Dublin, the government bit the bait. The unnecessary extension of martial law across the entire country, contrary to the sober warnings of Augustine Birrell and John Dillon, served to radicalise the population. The arrests of thousands, the courts martial, the internments, and, above all, the executions converted en masse constitutional nationalists into republican separatists.
Political analysts generally assume a moralistic tone in insisting that terrorism is ultimately futile. More often than not, their perspective is short-sighted. In the immediate aftermath, instigators of acts of terror are pursued with determination so that it can be shown that they paid a heavy price for their deeds. Nevertheless, in the medium term, as evident in the case of 1916, propaganda by deed can yield bountiful dividends, which can even overturn the results of the initial rout. In the long term, the reputation of terror hinges on how it will be remembered by posterity. A few of the conspirators, typically those whose names are affixed to revolutionary proclamations, can expect, whether on the scaffold high or the battlefield they die, to achieve eternal fame and to be memorialised. Those unwittingly caught in the crossfire are, by and large, doomed to oblivion.
Commemoration establishes a hierarchy of remembrance. Set apart from the executed sixteen, some of whom are more familiar than others, scarce individual attention is given to the other sixty-two rebels who died during the Rising. The 145 dead of the Crown forces receive even less notice. Whereas the hapless combatants on both sides had some measure of choice in their fate, the true victims of terror, the sacrificed pawns of propaganda by deed, remain obscure. No terrible beauty was born of the 262 civilians who happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of the bodies were left unclaimed in the City Hall and their deaths remained unrecorded in published accounts. It took a hundred years for their number to be authoritatively established. 230 of them were buried in a mass burial plot in Glasnevin cemetery and a monument in their memory has yet to be erected. They are not remembered at the going down of the sun or in the morning. Poets have not called upon us to murmur their name upon name. Indeed, too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
Guy Beiner teaches at the Department of General History in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His book Rites of Oblivion (Oxford University Press), a study of social forgetting in Ulster, is forthcoming.