Irish Citizen Army, 1914. Photo: Public Domain Irish Citizen Army, 1914. Photo: Public Domain

Lindsey German rounds up some of the writing, music and film inspired by the revolutionary Easter Rising of 1916

On Easter weekend, 1916, Irish nationalists and socialists launched an uprising which was the first blow against the mighty British empire. Promises of home rule for Ireland, a demand which had been voiced for decades, were put on hold once war broke out in 1914. Bitter resentment of the British increased and – despite a last-minute attempt to call it off – the Easter rising began in Dublin and continued for several days.

The rebels read the proclamation of the Irish republic in the magnificent Post Office building which they had taken over,

‘Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to our flag and strikes for her freedom’.

The rising was crushed by the British but not before it had sent a signal to the whole world. Its leaders, including the Irish revolutionary James Connolly, were brutally shot for their part in the rising. Just over two years later however, Sinn Fein won the majority of Irish seats in the post war election, refused to take them, and the War of Independence began. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin supported the Easter rising and saw its significance both in weakening imperialist war and the mighty empire itself.

The rising has inspired writing, music and reminiscences. Here are a few you might want to catch up on this Easter.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the poem Easter 1916 by WB Yeats. It is a quite remarkable piece of work. Yeats is in my view one of the greatest poets in the English language. He lived in Dublin, mixed in the same circles as some of the participants– ‘I have met them at close of day/Coming with vivid faces’ – and expresses in this poem his feelings about the event in a way which tells you about them and him. He shows a huge admiration for what they have done, but also his ambivalence about them and about the event itself.

Near the end of the poem he writes ‘Was it needless death after all?/For England may keep faith/for all that is done and said’. But England did not keep faith, and that meant

‘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.’

This is a very good rendition of the poem by the actor Liam Neeson which he did to commemorate the 100th anniversary:

There are many oral histories and accounts of the Rising. Two of the best are Ernie O’Malley’s On another man’s wound. O’Malley went on to be a leading IRA fighter in what he called the Tan war, and these are his stories and cameos from 1916 through the war which followed; and Curious Journey by Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O’Grady, which are oral histories from participants in these years, including those who fought in Dublin, and including a number of women who played a part in the Rising. They are both great reads.

One of the characters in the Ken Loach film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, is based on O’Malley. Griffith made a film also called Curious Journey which was never shown on British television. The first is widely available and you can find the other on YouTube. Both are well worth seeing as is Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars, named after the flag of Connolly’s Citizens’ Army, set in working class Dublin in Easter 1916.

There are many Irish songs written about 1916. Perhaps one of the best known is The Foggy Dew, written by a priest several years later. It has many versions, including some good ones from Sinead O’Connor and the Chieftains. Quite a moving one is Grace, the story of Grace Gifford who married rebel Joseph Plunkett in his condemned cell at Kilmainham Jail the night before he was shot. Written in the 1980s by Frank and Sean O’ Meara, surprisingly one version of this is by Rod Stewart, who heard the song sung by fans at a Celtic match.

Very surprising also is Iris Murdoch’s novel The Red and the Green set in Dublin in Easter week and involving some of those who fought. It’s an odd book – I’ve not read much of Murdoch, so I don’t know if it’s typical – with quite a lot of politics but also with one farcical and contrived bedroom scene. But I suspect it is a good description of a layer of what were called the Anglo-Irish, a group that Murdoch was born into just after the Rising, and their conflicted attitudes towards nationalism and religion. Then there’s A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle, about a young man growing up in the Dublin slums who joins the Irish Citizens’ Army, the organisation formed by Connolly. 

Finally, what might be called a prequel: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City is a big novel about the Dublin lockout of 1913, where the workers fought bitterly against the employers. An ideal lockdown read.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.