Remembrance, Yeats, and the Irish Easter Rising

The following post is a guest post by Tom Bailey, an 18-year-old literary and political blogger. He writes on a variety of topics from music to politics on his own blog, where he also publishes his poems. His Twitter handle is @TomBaileyBlog

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On Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, Irish republicans rebelled against British rule in Ireland and attempted to establish an independent Irish Republic. Various republican groups, led by the likes of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, seized key locations in Dublin and proclaimed an end to British supremacy.

The rebellion was swiftly stifled, but sadly not before hundreds had been killed and thousands wounded. After Pearse and his followers agreed to a surrender on the 29th of April, republican leaders were rounded up and executed.

As the anniversary of the Easter Rising approaches, it is right that we should commemorate those who lost their lives during the rebellion. But, as we must always ask ourselves, how ought we remember them? How can we best do justice to those who did?

Easter Rising Tea Towel

A tea towel commemorating the Easter Rising, by The Radical Tea Towel Company

Well, perhaps we can find some guidance in the poetry of Irish Republican W.B. Yeats. In his poem “Easter, 1916” Yeats captures the conflict (mental and physical) of the Irish nation like no other writer ever has. The text is here:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute to minute they live;
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats was, undoubtedly, a republican: his verse is jam-packed with nationalism, patriotic fervour, and passion for Irish folklore. But as you may have noticed when reading his poem, Yeats was not entirely supportive of the Easter Rising, much to the dismay of many of those around him. In fact, the events of Easter 1916 left Yeats emotionally torn, to say the least.

It’s a relatively unknown fact that the rebellion itself did not enjoy wide support amongst the Irish populace. Many people, even republicans, did not necessarily see violence as the way forward. However, the unflinching brutality of the British response (some civilians entirely uninvolved in the rebellion were arrested and detained) left large swathes of Ireland feeling embittered, angry, and fueled with a renewed sense of nationalism: precisely what the British wanted to mollify. The 16 leaders who were executed by the British became heroes, martyrs, and eternal symbols of the republican movement.

This perspective is arguably mirrored in Yeats’s poem. In the first stanza he explains the extent of his acquaintance with those who led the rising: he often exchanged “polite meaningless words” with them and would sometimes even mock them at the club. The second stanza then elegizes the rebels: “that woman” refers to Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz; “this man” refers to Patrick Pearse; “his helper and friend” refers to the poet Thomas MacDonagh; and the “drunken, vainglorious lout” refers to John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s abusive former husband.

Unlike most commemorative poems, Yeats does not present the dead as great heroes, perhaps because he has serious political differences with many of them and because one of them “had done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart.” Indeed, he sees the dangers of their staunch political stance: “Hearts with one purpose alone… trouble the living stream,” he writes. Through the metaphor of the “stone” he implies that their stubborn political beliefs have left them at odds with a world that “Changes minute by minute.”

It’s difficult to tell what exactly he means by all this. His stance is ambivalent, to say the least. Perhaps he is implying that these rebel leaders were so impassioned and so attached to their dreams that they abandoned all other considerations: whether they would succeed; whether the loss of life was justified; or whether their aims could be achieved through peaceful means.

In the final stanza, Yeats makes his opinions clearer. The sacrifice, he argues, was too extreme, and it may never “suffice”. Indeed, their sacrifice may have been needless, he suggests, since Great Britain may well have been ready for diplomatic talks to solve the Republican conflict. Moreover, though it had suspended Ireland’s bill for Home Rule in 1914, they promised to restore it at a later date. Yeats seems to believe that the tremendous loss of life was too big a price to be paid, and as he says, “England may keep faith”.

And yet, despite this, he still recognizes that each “resigned his part / In the casual comedy” of everyday life in order to fight for what they believe in, an Irish republic. The final lines of the poem are, to an extent, a commemorative elegy. We must do “our part” and mourn those who died, “Macdonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse” among them. One can’t help noticing the hint of Irish patriotism in the words “Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn…”

So how should we commemorate the Easter Rising? I think that, to an extent, Yeats is right: we, as radicals, must oppose unnecessary violence, even if it is for a cause that we believe in. Nonetheless, we must commemorate those brave men and women who fought for Ireland and who were so passionate about their dreams. That, I suppose, is the “terrible beauty” about which Yeats is speaking: beautiful because they fought for their beliefs, but terrible because of the loss of life and the violence.

We must also remember that Yeats wrote this poem before the republic was founded in 1919, almost a direct result of the Easter Rising. For him, it seemed to be a waste, but we know now that the rebellion and the British response sparked a new revolution – one that would succeed. So, though we must mourn the loss of life, we must not see their deaths as a waste. Those who died must be remembered and commemorated, but, as Yeats implies, we must not glorify the use of violence as a means to an end.

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