With the fastest-growing economy in Europe, and a young, well-educated population fit for its expanding tech industry, the Irish hope for a flourishing future as they observe the 100th centenary year of Dublin’s Easter Rising of 1916. From the Docklands down the length of the Liffey River, past Guinness Brewery on one bank and Jameson’s Distillery on the other, to the Kilmainham Gaol where the Rising’s leaders were executed by the British, Dublin shimmers with prosperity and building.
Much of the streetscape is torn up to expand public transportation, but Dubliners seem to take that in stride as a necessary step. As my cabbie commented on the drive in from the airport, “It was a terrible thing, the Rising, as Yeats said. But without it we’d still be living in degraded destitution and savagery. Instead, we’re wealthy and free.” Many of the other nations that resisted the British Empire in the early 20th century are neither wealthy nor free, leaving Ireland to stand as a thought-provoking model.
But it was a quixotic rebellion—an urban skirmish in a tiny, impoverished country against an imperial power, lasting only five days and ending in military disaster and brutal executions, all the while commanding world attention. The New York Times alone ran over fifty articles, writes Liam Stack, keeping the story on its front page for over two weeks.
Nearly all historians today agree that the Rising was initially unpopular and opaque to the Irish people. It would likely have ended in demeaning obscurity had the British authorities not chosen to impose harsh martial law, which they then used to quickly executive 16 leaders, most of them young, conferring heroic status. Romanticized further by several of the world’s greatest writers who happened to be Irish, the leaders morphed into giants. They had resigned their part, wrote William Butler Yeats, in the “casual comedy” of everyday life. Instead, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born,” and Ireland was set on an entirely new course. The Brits had pretty much succeeded in converting a botched rebellion to a triumphant one.
As journalist Conn Hallinan, himself the descendant of Irish revolutionaries, summarized, “And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history—a ‘failure’ that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost half a century later.”
This centenary year, Dublin is celebrating the past and the future with excellent events and exhibitions focused on the strategic points the rebels had hoped to hold. Here are a few.
There’s something oddly appropriate about a General Post Office, center of communications in the old economy, being the headquarters for a rebellion that actually did lead after many decades to a new economy. Opened in 1818, GPO quickly became a symbol of British imperialism, but one which the Rising leaders thought would not be shelled by the British. They miscalculated.