The Proclamation of 1916 was a powerful document. In recalling the momentous events of a hundred years ago, it is important not just to honour those who took part in the Rising, but- even more so- to see what we can learn in order to best shape our future...
Now and then, we do things the right way. This was one of those occasions. The events held over the Easter weekend, to commemorate the 1916 Rising, went off without a hitch. The tone of the ceremonials organised by the State was finely pitched and appropriate to the moment. All over the country, people had the opportunity to get involved and they did so, for the most part with admirable good humour.
As the weekend unfolded, it was neither self-congratulatory nor absurd to feel honoured to be one of the inhabitants of this small but beautiful island on the edge of Europe. We have given great things to the world. Our functioning, civilised and increasingly liberal democracy – represented with great wisdom, inclusiveness and sensitivity over the weekend by President Michael D. Higgins – is just one of them.
A hundred thousand or more gathered in the centre of Dublin city to witness what was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. People had travelled from all over the world, as well as the furthest points on the map of Ireland, to be there, and the mood was at once celebratory and dignified. I’ve never been a fan of military parades, but there was nothing triumphalist or tribal in the script. Instead, as a result of painstaking thought, effort and planning, all of those who lived through the rising and who died in it were, in their different ways, remembered – and respected – over the course of 48 hours. Thankfully, the time for recrimination on either side is long gone.
Since the start of the year in particular, the rights and wrongs of the decision to take up arms in 1916 have been widely discussed and debated, as of course they have been for many years in academic circles. That is as it should be. The point of grappling with our history, however, is not to second guess those who lived in that other, very different world, the past, but to reach a deeper understanding of where we have come from, and what we have been through – hopefully to enable us to find ways of making things better for the future. You have to be honest – or at least to try to be honest – about what took place, before you can begin the process of shaping our destiny, and that of our children, afresh, in a genuinely informed and educated way.
One thing is for sure: we have been through a very strange and often difficult journey in the intervening 100 years. At the time of the 50th Anniversary of the Rising, in 1966, the righteousness of what happened on Easter Monday 1916 was scarcely open to question. Everyone had been taught that the Irish State owed its very existence to the men and women who fought and died for Irish freedom in that failed, but ultimately momentous, rebellion. And that was true, almost to the extent of tautology.
Then came the Civil Rights marches in Northern Ireland. Attempting to enforce the notion of a Protestant state for a Protestant people, Loyalist mobs set out to crush the Civil Rights movement and intimidate those who were marching for equality. The ensuing violence sparked a bloody guerrilla war in the Six Counties, fuelled by the Provisional IRA’s hardening intent to drive the ‘Brits' out of Northern Ireland. They wanted to bring the united, 32 county Republic of Ireland which the leaders of the rebellion in 1916 had envisaged to fruition – and thousands of Irish lives were lost in the grisly struggle waged in pursuit of that political goal.
The Provos claimed a lineage that goes back, through the first Dáil of 1919, ultimately to the Proclamation of 1916, which is in effect the founding document of the Irish Republic. In doing so, however, they forced Irish people in general to think again, longer and harder and often more critically, about the legacy bequeathed to us by the leaders of the Rebellion. What kind of society had followed, in the long run, from the actions of those who decided to take up arms – and who went on, first, to sign a Treaty with the United Kingdom, which would partition this country, and then to fight a civil war here on Irish soil?
Had the seven signatories of the proclamation really wanted to establish a bigoted, authoritarian, sectarian regime, in which the Roman Catholic bishops influenced every aspect of legislation? In which women were thrown out of civil service jobs immediately they got married? In which a cult of censorship ruled, which meant that Irish artists were treated like dirt by their own country? In which unmarried mothers were fired at the first realisation that they were pregnant? In which so called illegitimate children were slung into gulags or sold off to the highest bidder in the USA as orphans? In which bribery and corruption seemed to be endemic? I could go on – but the answer is: I sincerely doubt it.
My grandfather John Stokes was among those who set out on that Easter Monday morning with the objective of ending British rule in Ireland. Did he really believe that the insurrection would work, and that the Republic declared so trenchantly, and in such compelling terms, in the Proclamation would truly be coaxed into being? I have no idea. Looking at the letters, messages and other missives from those involved in shaping the Rising, the leaders at least seem to have been well aware that, most likely, they were signing their own individual death warrants. But they stepped into the breach nonetheless, going about their crazy mission with gusto – and they duly and irrevocably changed the course of history, not just here but throughout the modern world.
John Joseph Stokes joined the Irish Volunteers (D Coy, 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade) and, during Easter week, was in the Distillery in Ringsend and in Boland’s Mills, under the command of Sean Cullen and Eamon de Valera. He was, the documents suggest, put in charge of four volunteers to take over the Gasworks. I have wondered often what scrambled thoughts went through the head of the seed and blood of my father’s family and my own, during the course of the rebellion.
Did he carry out his military duties fiercely and to the letter? Or might he have suddenly become horribly aware of the sheer, personal madness of what he and his fellow rebels were doing? Did he, as I suspect I might have, sense the possible imminence of death and feel the cold draught of fear in his gut? And how did he react to everything that was unfolding around him? It is impossible for us to track the innermost thoughts and feelings of those that risked their lives, as he and the rest of the volunteers did. Many of them were extraordinarily brave. Most of them, you might argue, were desperately foolhardy. Collectively, they were essentially idealistic in what they set out to do.
This much we do know. What happened over the Easter weekend was the starting point, from which Britain’s hold on the island of Ireland began to unravel. Perhaps, as some argue, Irish independence might have been achieved, within a reasonable time-scale, by peaceful means. Then again it might not. And either way, the edifice of the British Empire had been built on the violent oppression of people all over the world, including in Ireland. And the claim of the monarchy that sat atop that edifice to pre-eminence in every respect, contained not the slightest smidgeon of validity or merit. Indeed, to any sensible man or woman it was a risible institution and no more.
And so, we have to ask: should those who believed that the only just basis for the organisation of society is that every citizen shares an equal right to aspire to the highest office in the land, and that the universal franchise is essential to making that aspiration possible, have simply soldiered on, as subjects of a regime that did not even remotely deserve their or our allegiance? All that we can say now for sure is that they couldn’t and they didn’t; and that, however flawed this Republic may be, or have been, the actions of those who crossed their front porches and set out on that Monday morning to take on the might of the British Empire played a pivotal role in shaping our collective destiny, and in creating the sovereign State of Ireland that stands equal in international affairs to all of the other independent States across the world – and way ahead of many in terms of cultural and political prestige and influence.
John, originally from Drumderry in Co. Wexford, was among the fortunate ones who survived. He was interned after the Rising in Wakefield and in Frongoch, in Wales, where the officer in charge was Terence McSwiney – who fought on the Republican side in the War of Independence and died in Brixton Prison after 74 days on hunger strike, in 1920. I remember my father, Maurice Stokes, confiding that, after the Rising, John refused to take up arms against his fellow Irish men. He didn’t participate in the civil war, but is said to have provided a safe house for anti-treaty forces. His is one of the 1,358 names, including 1,104 survivors, listed in the 1916 Roll of Honour, drawn up by Eamon de Valera, when he was Taoiseach in 1936.
I think it is fair to say that the dramatic events of the years between 1916 and 1922 affected him very badly. He was married to Catherine Finnegan, originally of Slane in Co. Meath, and they had six children. Sean, Tom, Vera and Padraig Pearse O'Rahilly Stokes, better known as Pearse Stokes, were followed by my father Maurice, born in 1920, who was followed in turn by, Anna, adopted towards the end of the 1920s. But the family’s home life was fragmented and difficult throughout that period. Maurice always felt that John had suffered not only because of his involvement in the rising, but also because he had stayed out of the civil war. Whatever the cause, money was scarce and things were tough.
From this distance, and in the absence of any persuasive historical documents, we can only speculate as to what really went wrong. With this tangled family background in mind, however, as the commemorations proceeded, it was moving to hear the stories of other relatives of the men and women, who had participated in the rising. Listening to them reinforced a sense of our collective humanity, and a feeling that, even at our very best, we are all vulnerable creatures, striving optimistically to make a better place of the broken world into which we are born.
For the most part, the media has played its role well too in recent weeks. I was particularly fascinated by the newspaper accounts of the time, which were brought together in special editions, notably by the Irish Times and the Sunday Independent. It was obvious, of course, where the newspapers stood politically at the time. To a large extent, as it happens, they were reflecting the popular reaction to the Rising in its immediate aftermath. But they also had a vested interest in pushing a virulent pro-establishment line, which is precisely what they did.
I was also struck by the RTÉ Radio One Liveline special, on Easter Monday, in which imaginary members of the public talked to Joe, giving their reaction to what was happening on the streets of the capital city as the rising took hold. It was a powerful, contemporary way of conveying the brutal reality of what the Rising – at first – meant to the majority of ordinary people. Of course, then the executions started, and the British inadvertently turned public opinion around, in favour of independence.
And what would you have felt if you had read the text of the Proclamation and what it espoused on Easter Monday 1916? That question is, of course, impossible to answer. Our responses now are conditioned by everything that has happened in between. And yet, and yet...
"The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens,” the Proclamation said, "and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
Under any circumstances, and in any era, that is magnificent, powerful stuff. The document, read by Padraig Pearse outside the GPO, went on to promise the election of a national government "representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.” Make no mistake, in a world in which women were still so widely denied the vote, it was a truly radical document which set out the aspirations of the authors of the Irish republic in fine and convincing style.
I like to think that John Joseph Stokes would have been horrified at the extent to which this country lost its way and facilitated the most appalling maltreatment of women and children in particular over the following sixty or seventy years and more. As a teenager gradually falling out of love with the Ireland in which I had grown up, I always imagined him as having flown the flag – or carried a rifle – for a country in which everyone would be treated as equal, irrespective of gender, class, colour, nationality or religion. That after all, is what the Proclamation had promised.
I see his ghost now, hovering in the slanting light of the morning sun, as it begins to brighten up the room, in this house not far from where he lived – and died tragically in 1940 – on the south side of Dublin. I think there is the faintest hint of smile on his face. At least I hope there is. We may have fallen desperately short of what those who took on the mantle of pioneers believed a republic could and should be. But we are getting there.
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