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The Pearse Putsch and the Wexford Happening

Proclaiming The Republic, North Wexford and The 1919 Rising, By Fionntan O Suilleabhain and John O Neill ( Dublin, 2016 ) p 129 E 10

Rebellion in the School House, The 1916 Rising in Ferns, By Christopher Power, ( Ferns, 2016? ) E 10, both of which are available from Zozimus Bookshop in Gorey, see our links

The events of Easter 1916 are seared into the

memory of the Irish. It is a part of our story.  For some in the minority among which I was raised, the Rising was the crucial stone in the avalanche that swept away the British rule on which they relied. For others it has always been a matter of deep pride that a small number of Irish men and women took on the might of the British Empire, and held Dublin for a week. For yet others, perhaps now the majority, the whole episode is the subject of considerable ambivalence. On the one hand there is pride and relief that Ireland won its independence. On the other hand there are doubts about how Irish independence was brought about, doubts about the politicised theology of Patrick Pearse that underlay the rising, and doubts too about the democratic credentials of the attempted putsch. But despite these hesitations the Rising itself was one of those moments which by themselves are so powerful that they eclipse everything else that is going on at the time. Who now remembers that the rising coincided with the British humiliating defeat by the Turks at Kut in what is now Iraq, and the start of the great German offensive against the French at Verdun? The context of the event has been lost.

With the death of the last of the Tommies some years back the First World War has slipped from memory into history. Its impact is no longer understood.  The war destroyed not just empires, but ways of life. To be involved in that war was to experience change, horror, and dislocation. In August 1914 cavalry was still a major force on the battlefield; but by 1918, advancing British infantry was being supplied by parachute from aircraft controlled by radio. In 1914 observers in primitive aeroplanes were throwing bombs out of the cockpit by hand. In 1918 formations of bombers with four engines were raiding distant targets.

While technology advanced political change was remorseless. The Europe of 1914 was recognisably the same as that of 1815. But by1918 it was very different. The nineteenth century had seen the unification of Italy and of Germany, But the four brief years of the war saw developments which could never have been imagined by those cutting the harvest in 1914. Not only did the boys not come home by Christmas, but even those who did return often came back to a country different from the one they had left. Indeed the French Republic was the only major state playing a role in the struggle which remained even superficially unchanged. The war destroyed the Russian, Austro- Hungarian, German, and Turkish empires. It caused the ( albeit brief ) emergence of The United States on the world stage in a way which prefigured things to come, and it saw the truncation of the United Kingdom. The war enabled the creation of numerous new states of such as Poland, Finland, and, of course, Ireland.

Such change cannot be brought about without psychic dislocation. The geometry or frame within which life had been lived was changed forever. For much of the nineteenth century it had seemed that despite the technical changes  ( the railways, the telephone, and so forth ) life would continue as normal. There were, it is true, hints of things to come before August 1914. It may be no coincidence that Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was published in the same year ( 1899 ) as Sigmund Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” But certainly this process of change was accelerated and accentuated by the war. There was fighting on every continent. Science was applied to the process of mass destruction as never before.

The horrors of the Western Front cannot be exaggerated. Hundreds of thousands of men were engulfed in a nightmare of blood and mud. But this cannot be appreciated in the abstract. Let’s glance at a description from the German point of view of the British attacks at the battle of the Somme a few months after the rising in Dublin:

“A mass of shells…burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumpled under this hail of shells and bullets. All along the line, men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell hole for shelter…The extended lines though, badly shaken with many gaps, now came on all the faster…With all this were mingled the moans and groans of the wounded, the cries for help and the last screams of death.”

“The attacker” says Professor Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto “ became the representative of a world, the nineteenth-century world, which was demolished by this world.”  “Rats the size of cats” he continues a few pages later “were reported in the trenches, although they existed in even larger numbers around rest quarters. They were attracted by food left lying about and by decomposing corpses.” No wonder soldiers fought them with pickaxe handles and spades!

These horrors, fanned by propaganda on both sides, continued for years, and were as pervasive then as popular music and the internet are today. In the First World War horror went viral. What had been unthinkable became normal. “After several weeks of frontline experience” says Ekstein, “ there was little that could shock. Men became immunized rather rapidly to brutality and obscenity.”  He argues that the years 1916 and 1917 were a frontier experience  for Europe beyond which there was something quite new.

What then were the characteristics of this new world that Europe discovered on the Western Front?  What lay beyond the frontier that had been crossed? For evidence of the shift in the European mind during the First World War one has only to look at an interesting and neglected lecture given in  October 1919 by the classical scholar and notable translator of Greek drama, Gilbert Murray. Murray, who was a liberal, a critic of imperialism, and no friend of British rule in Ireland, startlingly entitled his talk “Satanism and the World Order.” Murray an agnostic, carefully distinguishes the “Satanism” about which he was talking from any belief in an objective devil. “ We need pay no attention to the mere name of Satan or Lucifer; the name is a mythological accident. The essence of the belief is that the World Order is evil and a lie.” Murray believed that the war had created an extraordinary outbreak of such beliefs all across Europe. He frankly acknowledged that this “Satanism” was “directed more widely and intensely against Great Britain than against any other Power.”

For Murray this “Satanism” was not simply a proxy for anti- British sentiment (although it did, of course, include it): it was grounded in hatred. He  granted that “ opposition to the present order [ was]  at times right, provided that that the opposition really aim[ed]  at the attainment of a fuller or better order.” But he doubted whether in fact this was often the case: “The better order which the reformer wishes to substitute for the present order must be a fuller realization of the spirit of the existing order itself. This belief does not rule out changes…but it does mean that a change which violates the consciences of men, a change which aims at less justice and more violence, at more hatred and less friendliness, at more cruelty and less freedom, has the probabilities heavily against its ultimate success.”

Murray viewed the hatred and love of violence summoned up by the Satanist in contrast to the liberal tradition. On the one hand there was the bleak fanaticism which sought to incinerate everything in its path. On the other were beliefs grounded in divine order. Murray was no Christian- as his polemic against the eschatological strand in Christianity demonstrates- but he carefully distinguished the Christian tradition in its liberal form from Satanism. According to Murray human goodness expressed itself through the Republican virtues. These virtues reflected God’s activity in the world. “God’s  providence or foresight consists in providing [ for ]  the future Good of the Universe; and it is our business to be to the best of our powers…servants or ministers of the divine foresight. Thus goodness becomes identical with loyalty, or…with faithfulness.” At this point Murray begins to meditate how this faithfulness might find expression in our political lives. The gist of what he says ( although he doesn’t put it like this ) is to contrast the management of practical issues prompted by the liberal tradition with the actions insistently demanded by the hate filled rhetoric of “Satanism.”  “The war” he writes “ has suggested to susceptible minds its own primitive method of healing all wrongs by killing or hitting somebody.”

But what does all this have to do with Ireland? It is certainly true that the Irish nationalist tradition contains many strands. But unquestionably one of these strands is that which found its expression in the Dublin rising of Easter 1916, the centenary of which has recently been celebrated all over the country in numerous events. But who then speaks for 1916? The answer is not difficult. The figure of Patrick Pearse will always be linked with the events of that week, and to prove the point there is the remarkable photograph of Pearse in the very act of his surrendering to the British authorities. For Irish nationalism Pearse has never had the role attributed to Lenin in the Soviet Union. There was no state ideology of “Pearsism” as there was of Leninism. But in 1916 his was the hand on the plough. How then did Pearse see the First World War? Did he stand in the tradition of western liberalism? Or was he in Murray’s terms a Satanist?

Examining Pearce on these matters is made easier because he explained his position in an important essay entitled “Peace and the Gael” which he wrote in December 1915. He could hardly have been clearer. Pearse was am almost textbook example of what Murray called a Satanist.  Like Murray’s lecture, Pearse’s essay needs to be better known, as it locates the origins of the more extreme Irish nationalism that we have seen in recent years  as much in the horrors of the Western Front as in any authentically Irish experience or tradition.

At the core of Pearse’s essay is an enthusiastic  glorification of what was going on the Western Front. “The last sixteen months [ i.e. since the start of the war. ] have been the most glorious in the history of Europe  Heroism has come back to the earth…Each fights for the fatherland. It is policy which moves the governments; it is patriotism that stirs peoples. ..It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. War is a terrible thing, and this is the most terrible of wars. But this war is not more terrible than the evils which it will end or help to end. What if the war sets Poland and Ireland free? If the war does these things will not war have been worth while?… We must not faint at the sight of blood…”

This is horrifying, and even psychologically disturbed material; and the man who produced it does not deserve a place in Irish pantheon. It is indeed troubling that Pearce’s example has been held so high, and that his writings have played the role that they have in moulding and sustaining the Irish nationalist tradition for so long.

Nevertheless Pearse’s contribution to the technique of revolution in Ireland is of great interest.  Pearse was the Irish revolutionary “par excellence”-  he was of course executed for his role in the Rising. In him there meet two strands of political thought that were widespread in the nineteenth century, woven together into a piece of highly coloured Irish tweed. In some ways he was a typical late nineteenth century Jingo, convinced that his country, and above all those who acted in its name, could do no wrong. Another part of his intellect reflects what Murray’s Satanism. For Pearse was a good hater, and an especially good hater of established institutions, obsessed with the damage they could do, but blind to benefits that they brought. For him a fact only existed if it showed England in a bad light. To him a man’s Irish patriotism was measured by his hatred of England.  For Pearse the thought, even the possibility, that Ireland could suffer any ill which was not England’s fault was quite alien. Ireland was the heavenly city, unblemished by time or circumstance. Ireland had only to be free of England to be happy.

These general ideas were allied to two operational insights  which were to have a great importance in Irish history. Pearse’s thought was crude. But it was very definitely thought. He may have been wrongheaded, but he was no fool. He was a focussed and reflective man. He knew a distraction when he saw it. Since his only objective was to remove England from Ireland he realised that any discussion of how Ireland should be governed was likely to reinforce, if not the Union, then the case for some Home Rule solution, which as a separatist, he dreaded. Pearse did not “do” detail. ( It is worth recalling here that for Murray detail was the field upon which virtue expressed itself.)

Pearse’s  relative lack of interest in the mechanics of governing Ireland, ( except in so far as education was concerned where he had real expertise )  allowed him to concentrate his formidable intellect on how the link between Ireland might be broken. He had a shrewd grasp of both English and Irish psychology, and this led to his greatest and most profound operational insight, namely that in order to achieve Irish independence he had first to win over the Irish people, and to do this he had to manipulate the English authorities in Ireland into perpetrating an act or series of actions which justified his separatist analysis.

It was from this foundation that he derived his idea that a “rising” in Ireland should be used to provide a sacrificial death ( or deaths ) which would demonstrate to the Irish people that British rule in Ireland could not be reformed. This notion was behind everything he did, and it was to be the key to his success. It meant that the Rising he led was not to be a conventional military operation or even a coup. As a military operation the rising would certainly have failed even if the German arms had arrived and been distributed. But from Pearse’s perspective this failure was to be welcomed. For him the details of making a success of the Rising, whether the capture of the Dublin telephone exchange which was bungled, or the blocking of Kingstown Harbour which was apparently not even thought of, would have been distractions. His real political aim was not to win a battle, or even a war, but was to gain support for  separatism by immolating himself and others. And, of course, General Maxwell fell into the trap…

The Rising in Dublin was then predicated upon the shape of Pearse’s character and his conclusions about how his objective could be achieved. And he was to a considerable extent successful because he was right about the British response to his plans. And this is why his bravery, and that of his friends, his ability to inspire others, his eloquence ( if not always his veracity ) and his dignity in defeat are all now being celebrated by Irish nationalists one hundred years after his heroic, although ( I believe ) profoundly misguided  actions.

The Rising however was not limited to Dublin. There was fighting in North Dublin. There was some action in East Galway, and above all there was the concurrent rising which took place in North Wexford- the part of Ireland in which I am privileged to live. These last events are important because they show another face of Irish nationalism, a face less moulded by the ideals of Patrick Pearse than was the case in Dublin.

It is true that Pearse gave a long remembered speech in the old town hall in Gorey in which he almost certainly preached his gospel of sacrifice; as he did also in Enniscorthy. But the events south of Gorey suggest that in Co. Wexford, at least, Pearse was regarded more as a commander than as an ideologue. In military terms the events in question were simple.  The town of Enniscorthy, in central Wexford was occupied by rebel forces, as was a village a little further north called Ferns. The ostensible purpose of this manoeuvre was to cut the railway line between Wexford and Dublin, thus preventing the British garrison in Dublin being reinforced by way of the route between Wales and the south east tip of Ireland. Michael Collins may have given the order. But what can he have been thinking of? Anyone who looks at the map can see that the obvious route for such reinforcement went through Holyhead and Kingstown since the railway north from Kingstown, leads directly into the main field of military operations in Dublin.

The Rising in Wexford was not then launched for any military reasons. Rather it was, I suspect, more a tribute to the Wexford Rising of 1798. No one should underestimate the importance of continuity in Ireland. This is particularly true in the countryside where memories are long, and oral traditions lovingly maintained.  There were no angst driven fanatics in Wexford. Those who rose in Wexford in 1916 certainly made use of the language supplied to them by Pearse and his colleagues. There can be no doubt about that. But other factors were also in play. An important clue that something else may have been happening was the way in which, alongside the fire arms, large numbers of pikes were manufactured, by a blacksmith in Enniscorthy evidently for the use by the rebels.

But can this have been serious? Did anyone seriously propose that the boys of Wexford armed  with pikes should have taken on the British army which was potentially equipped with armoured cars ( not yet tanks ) machine guns, and field artillery firing eighteen pound rounds of shrapnel? Frankly this seems unlikely. The far more likely, and flattering, explanation is that the events in Wexford were never really intended to become violent. It is true that there was some sniping at the police in Enniscorthy, and there was an engagement on the railway line in which a policeman was shot through the cap. But the only rebel in Ferns who fired on the forces of the crown was court martialled by his own side. Undoubtedly the rebels in Wexford would have given as good account of themselves as they could had they been forced to do so. But they showed little desire to initiate violence. Their dispositions were defensive, and their real motive was probably to provide moral support to the rebels in Dublin. In this reading of the events in Wexford the pikes were symbols, not weapons. Their real purpose was to express continuity with the legacy of 1798, when pikes had been used in battle.

This is not, of course, to suggest that what happened in Wexford was not serious. To argue thus is to make the error of thinking what is not violent is not serious. Those who rose in Wexford were serious, but theirs was a seriousness which was not influenced either by the Satanism described by Murray or by the impulse to self sacrifice articulated by Pearse. These two little books, both written from within the Nationalist tradition, are therefore of great significance because they make clear that the Irish nationalist tradition is something far wider than either its exponents or its founders ever really appreciated. Loyalty to Ireland is a complicated thing. It may take many divergent forms that cannot easily be reconciled. Above all it does not always reflect the darker hatreds, the self-destructive impulses, and the politics of manipulation which were supreme in Dublin at Easter 1916.


When I blithely announced that I was going to add this section later I didn’t realise that it was going to make the site curiously incomplete as I made the additions. So this will be as brief as possible, partly so that I can move on to other things. The point about “The Heart of Darkness” and “The interpretation of Dreams” being published in the same year ( 1899 ) is a steal from my old Prof Harold T. Parker, who emphasised that in Europe at least there were indications of the changes to come before the end of the nineteenth century. I am going to put the exact references to Ekstein’s book in the caption to the illustration. The description of the fighting on the Somme- a little later than the Rising it is true come from Winston Churchill’s “World Crisis 1911- 1918 ” ( London, abridged edition, 1960 ) p. 740- incidentally a book praised by Herman Kahn. Gilbert Murray’s lecture can be found in his “Essays and Addresses” ( London, 1921,)  p 202 ff. The material from Pearse comes from the “Collected Works of Padraic H. Pearse, Politcal Writings and Speeches” ( Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, 1924 ). The long citation comes from p.216, however the last sentence I have quoted comes from p 218.

Interesting in this connection is John Garth,  “Tolkien and the Great War The Threshold of Middle Earth” ( London, 2003 ) Pearse was not alone in finding heroism in the Great War. But what was remarkable about his reaction was its lack of ETHICAL reflection, and doubt. He would never have understood Nurse Edith Cavell’s remark about Patriotism not being enough. For Pearce the only value, and indeed the only source of values was the nation. Plainly though he was not the only one to talk about the value of self sacrifice. Pearse saw the war solely as a political opportunity.

Those interested in exploring how and how not to organise a coup should look at Edward Luttwak,”Coup D’etat, a Practical Handbook,” ( London, 1968 ). For those who want to look at the pre-history of the events in Enniscorthy and Ferns, there can be nothing better that Daniel Gahan “The People’s Rising, Wexford, 1798”  ( Dublin, 1995 ), a great book, made even better by excellent maps! Curiously in 1798 Ferns was largely inhabited by loyalists, see p. 45.