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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Image of an ornately designed page with Proclamation signatories

The signatories page from the book of the Resurrection featuring the names of the seven men who signed the Proclamation ©

The members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council which planned the Rising were each at least partially influenced by the idea of a ‘blood sacrifice’. All shared the view that the success of an insurrection could not be gauged solely in military terms: its suppression, and their own deaths would not mean that the enterprise had failed or had not been justified.

The Council’s members were convinced that Ireland’s national spirit – its sense of itself as a distinct nation with a right to independence – was fading. They feared that if Britain granted Ireland limited self- government, its people would come to accept permanently their inclusion in the United Kingdom and the English Crown as head of state. They considered that this future could be avoided through a rising, even one that was repressed. In these circumstances, they believed that through their own death and martyrdom, militant Irish nationalism would be revived; this would enable their successors to wage ultimately a successful war against British rule and achieve full national independence. The rebel leaders also hoped to ‘prove’, through their willingness to die, Ireland’s right to freedom. The Proclamation they issued when the Rising began stated: ‘In this supreme hour, the Irish people must … by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves … prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called’.

For Pearse, the idea of a blood sacrifice had additional appeal. Even as a child, he had unusual fantasies of self-sacrifice for his country, derived from Celtic myths and religious writings. He later fused together his nationalism and his Catholic faith. His Christian devotion had always centred on Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion, and he gradually developed a consuming yearning for martyrdom, in conscious emulation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He wrote: ‘One man can free a people, as one man redeemed the world’.

Pearse was also influenced by a mystical belief in the assumed benefit to mankind of blood spilt in violent conflict. He wrote in 1913: ‘Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing’, and two years later, ‘the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefield’. Such ideas were then widespread in Europe with roots in contemporary philosophy, science and economics. The dominant artistic group in Italy glorified war, describing it as ‘the world’s only hygiene’. The German Chancellor, at the outbreak of World War I, stated that the war was at first regarded as appropriate and regenerative. Its outbreak was celebrated with popular rallies and demonstrations across Europe.

Image of Fr. Aloysious, O.F.M. Capuchin

Fr. Aloysious, O.F.M. Capuchin who gave the last rites of the Catholic Church to Patrick Pearse ©

But the influence of blood sacrifice ideas on the leaders of the Rising can easily be overstated. Pearse was not the driving force behind it, but rather Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDermott. Both were traditional republicans – hardheaded, practical, ruthless, committed to the use of force to gain Irish independence, and convinced that war had provided them with a unique opportunity to achieve this goal. The plans which the Military Council prepared in 1915 indicate the scale of the operations which it was anticipating and the extent of its ambitions. With substantial German help, the outcome it sought and prepared for was that British military units in Ireland would be crushed and the episode culminate, not in their martyrdom, but in a rebel victory march.

Events did not develop as they had hoped. At the end of the Rising, when the leaders faced certain defeat, the terms that they sought to negotiate with Britain were that they themselves would be executed and their followers allowed to go free. In practice, their blood sacrifice was not therefore a strategy calculated long in advance, but a tactic hastily improvised. It was designed, not to redeem Ireland, but to perform the practical task of saving the lives of their men.

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Image of Professor Declan Kiberd Declan Kiberd, Professor Anglo-Irish Literature, University College, Dublin
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Image of Dr. Michael Laffan Dr. Michael Laffan, Modern Irish History, University College, Dublin
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Image of Professor Liam Kennedy Liam Kennedy, Professor of Economic and Social History, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Dr. Eamon Phoenix Dr. Eamon Phoenix, Political Historian, Stranmillis University College, Belfast
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